Three-Minute Memior

June 23, 2014

Rock Fish, Rob Roy’s and Miss Annie

By Jim Sizemore

(Click images for larger versions.)

33Annie

Mt. Vernon Restaurant, 904 North Charles Street

Baltimore, Maryland, 1970s.

220px-Rob_Roy_CocktailAnnie was my favorite waitress. I never learned her last name, but once or twice every-other week during the decade or more that I dined at the Mt. Vernon—usually alone— she took very good care of me. Almost every time, I ordered a whole baked rock fish (aka: striped bass, head and tail removed), with mashed potatoes and gravy, and either a small house salad or green beans. Or, in season, perhaps I’d have corn on the cob. And to top it off, I’d have a sweet Rob Roy (scotch and vermouth garnished with a brilliant red maraschino cherry), served in a fancy cocktail glass. The Rob Roy made me feel sort of sophisticated. At the end of each meal, without fail, Annie would look at my plate, smile and shake her head. Then she’d say with mock horror, “You didn’t finish your potatoes!?”

I’m now at the age when I can’t always trust my memory, but because of the good times I spent there I have a pretty clear recall for the Mt. Vernon interior. In fact, I recently found a yellow-ish clipping in my files from the Baltimore Sun Magazine dated February 11, 1973, against which I can test my braincell retention.

Dorsey:Sun-2:11:73The Dining With John Dorsey column provides this description of the Mt. Vernon interior: “One long, high ceilinged room that probably hasn’t been changed since the Thirties, with a bar in front, booths down both sides and tables in the middle. Nobody sits at the tables unless the booths are full. The lighting is uncompromisingly bright, but at least not fluorescent. There is wooden paneling about half-way up the walls, and there is a mirror on the wall in each booth; I don’t know why. What this does, though, is give you odd perspectives. For instance, by looking in the mirror across the room and one booth up, you can see what the people two booths away on your side are eating—or if you’re a lip reader you can take in their conversation. I’ve always thought this presented good spy story possibilities.”

That’s how I remember the room, too, and I especially like Dorsey’s bit about the odd booth-to-booth visuals provided by the small mirrors, something I was taken with and pondered myself; I would only add that they were diamond-shaped. I never wrote a spy story, but did pen a bad boy-girl “breakup” short story, complete with Hemingway-esque dialogue, set in a restaurant much like the Mt. Vernon. I used John Dorsey’s descriptions to what I imagined was good effect. In my story, though, I also observed that there were coat hooks attached to each of the wooden booths; in cold weather the hooks were laden with thick winter coats, scarfs, and piled-on hats, giving the room an even more crowded and homey feel.

Here are a few John Dorsey quotes about the quality of the food at the non-fictional Mt. Vernon: “The house specialty is a lamb shish kebab, served with rice and Greek salad. The lamb is sometimes tough, but usually well marinated and one can be thankful that it isn’t beef; the rice is thoroughly forgettable . . . . The shrimp cocktail, accompanied by the hottest sauce I have ever encountered in a restaurant (be warned), were delectable. But I must say I think shrimp are getting to be a luxury few people can afford anymore. Four medium-large ones for $1.75 is pretty stiff . . . . the vegetables you might as well forget . . . . the string beans I will pass over, and you would be wise to do the same. The salads, though, are always fresh and crisp.” 

Of course Mr. Dorsey ends with a description of dessert, one which happened to be my favorite: “We looked forward to our rice pudding . . . and were disappointed. It had little character and no raisins. The coffee was as always only pretty good, but they never seem to mind filling up your cup again. The bill for our dinner, with a drink apiece before, was something less than $13 before tip. Not really cheap, but not bad.”

And he finishes with a short, damning-with-faint-praise, editorial comment: “I like the Mount Vernon, but it’s hard to say just why. It’s even harder to recommend it. Let’s just say if you don’t mind it when the waitress calls you “dear” as long as she’s cheerful, you might give it a try.”

Ah, yes, I have fond memories of those prices! And the food, by my non-professional standards, was wonderful. But of course my fondest memories are of Annie. She was a warm, clever woman; a great talker, too—and I would now say sort of motherly. As for the comment about my uneaten mashed potatoes—always delivered as an exclamation and a question—that was her little running joke. Hearing her repeat it as if on cue each time I ate at the Mt. Vernon had a soothing effect; it made me feel—well—right at home. And which I now realize, or at least suspect, was Annie’s generous idea all the time.

Postscript: The pictures below depict exterior and interior views of Marie Louise Bistro, which is the current incarnation of 904 North Charles Street, in all its rehabbed glory. It’s a very nice place these days and I’ve eaten there with friends several times. But as good as the food is, as pretty as the setting is—and this should be no surprise after reading my short essay—it’s just not the same.

slide0Doodlemeister is looking for short first-person observations up to 1,500 words, on any subject, in any style, for this series. If need be, we’ll help you to edit and/or cut your piece. If you’d like to submit a story about something interesting you saw, experienced—or simply thought about—please contact us by e-mail at jimscartoons@aol.com

Copyright © 2014, Jim Sizemore

Tom Stoppard On Playwriting II

July 20, 2011

Adapted from: The Real Tom Stoppard

By Mel Gussow, The New York Times Magazine, May 1, 1981

I’m not really a very exploratory writer. I don’t pick up a pen and see how things will go. By the time I pick up a pen, I’ve gone through so much work. Once I have the vague idea of a structure, landmark moments occur which fit into the structure. I have an idea of how a scene will end, but I don’t know how to get there. In “The Real Thing,” one of the stimuli has to do with the situation being repeated three times. That gave me two landmarks to head for. One of the comforting things about being a playwright is that a full-length play is not many words. If you run them all together and take out the stage directions, it’s 90 pages at the outside. That’s a short story.

I don’t know if (“The Real Thing”) is autobiographical, but a lot of it is auto-something.

The more you like another writer the more you shy away from using him as a model — because it’s a fatal attraction. I was passionate about Hemingway when I started writing, and the first short stories I wrote were bad Hemingway stories. I think he’s still my favorite American writer. He got his effects by simple statements. The egregious word in Hemingway is very rare. “Egregious” is a word he wouldn’t have used in his life.

“Happiness is equilibrium. Shift your weight.” (A line from “The Real Thing.”) Shift your weight. That’s quite sound. Equilibrium is pragmatic. You have to get everything into proportion. You compensate, re-balance yourself so that you maintain your angle to your world. When the world shifts, you shift.

This is one in a series that will post  on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people like Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing and directing plays, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.


Peter De Vries On Humorous Writing

June 8, 2011

I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.

I cannot honestly recall or retrace the conception or development of a single comedic idea I ever had or developed. They vanish from memory after they are written out. Don’t ask a cow how to analyze milk. One sits in a corner and secretes the stuff. One— But you see how right Kafka is? You have lured me into using the word “comedic,” which makes me sick.

You can make a sordid thing sound like a brilliant drawing-room comedy. Probably a fear we have of facing up to the real issues. Could you say we were guilty of Noel Cowardice?

The satirist shoots to kill while the humorist brings his prey back alive and eventually releases him again for another chance.

Comedy deals with the portion of our suffering that is exempt from tragedy.

Words fashioned with somewhat over precise diction are like shapes turned out by a cookie cutter.

Nonsense is such a difficult art!

I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork.



Klaatu Barada Nikto!

August 7, 2009

Final Part

Mike and me watched Blind John alone at his table across the cafeteria. He somehow found the ketchup bottle by feel — the square shape, Mike said — and checked the edge of his plate with the first finger of his other hand, then slid the finger in towards the middle until it touched his hamburger. He undid the lid and poured some ketchup on his burger. He only spilled a little. “You know, Andy, Blind John likes you,” Mike said.

“We’re sort of friends, yeah.”

“No, I mean he really really likes you.”

“Sort of buddies, sure.”

“Blind John is a fairy nice guy,” Mike said, and laughed.

“Was that supposed to be a joke?” I said.

“Ha!” Mike said. “He’s a flat-out fag.”

“Don’t be stupid, being blind is all that’s wrong with him!”

“Watch his walk,” she said. “It’s girl steps. Listen how he talks.”

After school Blind John was on the corner with a crowd of kids who could see — he didn’t spend time with blind kids if he could help it. I went by and bumped him just for meanness’ sake. “Hello, Andy,” he said.

In a different voice I said, “’Scuse me,” still trying to fool him.

He touched my face and smiled. “Nice to see you, Andy.”

How did he know? My footsteps? What else? How I smelled? I stuck my nose in my armpit and got the answer.

Wilson said I had to see that movie so that’s why, when Blind John asked me to go with him, I went. Wilson claimed that The Day the Earth Stood Still was another bombshell movie to hit Baltimore. He said after I saw it I’d understand why we had to duck-and-cover under our school desks once a month for atomic bomb practice. “Also, Billy Gray is your twin brother,” he said, “right down to the freckles and messy red hair.”

In the picture a flying saucer from space lands in Washington across from the Capitol Building. It comes down with crazy music and gets surrounded by Army guys with guns. I put my mouth close to Blind John’s ear and whispered, “It’s night. Beautiful shadows. The flying saucer is silver and — ” Blind John cut me off with a little grunt. Next thing in the movie is when a nervous soldier shoots the alien guy in the shoulder, and his robot, Gort, disintegrates all their rifles. The tall alien tells a government man, “We have come to visit you in peace and with goodwill.” His name is “Klaatu” and he sounds like a radio news guy from England. “I merely tell you the future of your planet is at stake.” He also says, kind of snotty, “I’m impatient with stupidity. My people have learned to live without it.”

Later, Klaatu escapes from the hospital and goes to live in a rooming house with Patricia Neal and Billy Gray so he can learn humans better. Klaatu tells her his name is Mr. Carpenter and for some reason she believes him. I whispered to Blind John, “You can tell she likes him.”

“It’s that background music,” Blind John said, “plus the music in his voice — she lets him seduce her with his accent.”

Seduce her?”

“She’s unhappy — a widow — she’s lonely.”

“But he’s an alien from outer space!”

“So what?”

Pretty soon Klaatu — Mr. Carpenter — he stops the electricity in the whole world for thirty minutes to teach us a lesson. The crazy music comes back. I told Blind John how the pictures showed everything on the planet screeched to a halt, but he just sighed. “Patricia Neal looks worried,” I whispered. Blind John squirmed in his seat. We both stayed quiet until the part where Klaatu gets shot again. “Patricia Neal looks sad,” I said. Right then, all of a sudden out of nowhere, Blind John threw a handful of popcorn in my face — popcorn I had paid for out of my newspaper money. “Hey,” I yelled, “why’d you do that?

“I ain’t deaf! I can tell from her voice and the music how she looks.”

Klaatu tells Patricia Neal to run to the spaceship and say to the robot, “Gort, Klaatu barada nikto!” She asks Mr. Carpenter what it means but he says to just never mind and dies. Later, Gort brings Mr. Carpenter back to life on the spaceship. At the end of the movie Klaatu makes a big speech to warn us to be good before it’s too late. That movie had real good shadows but didn’t make much sense. If we were about to blow ourselves up with atomic bombs, why would Klaatu want to burn us up to save us? But when it was all over Blind John was on the edge of his seat, had a tight grip on my arm, and a fist jammed in his mouth. “Beautiful!” he said. “Patricia Neal was transformed!”

“Big deal,” I said. “Her guy gets back on his spaceship and leaves.”

“Yeah, but now she feels loved.

I shrugged. “Didn’t get that part.”

Wilson claimed there were five white boys in South Baltimore named Andy, all of them weird, and all but two were either ugly or stupid or both. He didn’t say where I fit in, but he did say I wouldn’t know a good movie if it hit me in the back of my head. Which kind of turned out to be sort of funny in a strange sort of way. I never did see that truck that came down Charles Street when I ran between parked cars, rushing to get Daddy out of Lombardi’s bar before he spent his pay. When I woke up in the hospital Miss Flower, the night nurse, was holding my hand. She was big-boned but not fat, with coal-black hair, pale skin, and she wore huge rings and laughed real big. From my eyebrows up was mostly bandages, and under that were scalp stitches front and back. I tried to picture how the doctors worked the needle and thread, like Momma sewing on a sock hole. I was “in traction,” Miss Flower said — my legs tied in ropes with counterweights to keep them up. She claimed I was lucky, that I only had a concussion and some cuts, but no cracked skull. “But you’ll live,” Miss Flower said, “mean as you are.”

People came and went. Momma came to visit on a Sunday — but no Daddy, Daddy never did come, being off drunk someplace. Kids from school did. Blind John did, found his way to the hospital by himself somehow. Mike came a bunch of times but never stayed long. She acted funny though, more like a girl. I noticed she was starting to get titties and it seemed like the little bumps made her nervous. “When you get better,” she said, “we’ll go to the movies,” and she batted her eyes like Kathryn Grayson in a musical. All I did was nod. When you get hit by a truck, people take notice. You are an automatic hero.

Wilson came to see me once and stayed just long enough to mystify me. Claimed he didn’t like how the nurses looked at him. No surprise there, he had a chip on his shoulder for white people in general. Told me he wouldn’t trust most of them farther than he could throw one over Cross Street Market. At first Wilson stayed on his side of the room and stared at me. There was a chair over there but he leaned on the wall, casual-like. Then, after a while, he said, “My blood commanded I come, Andy.”

“Huh?”

“My blood talks to me, tells me what to do.”

“Yeah, right.

“Tells me right from wrong. I hear the voices and know what the African gods expect from me.” He smiled. “This time they wanted me to visit a banged-up white boy.” I kept quiet. “When Africa speaks,” Wilson said, “I listen.” I started to laugh but caught myself because I wasn’t sure it was a joke. Then Wilson laughed big and said, “Don’t you get it, white boy?”

“’Fraid not.”

“Think about it,” Wilson said. I just shrugged. “Africa Speaks? The movie?” Wilson moved closer to my bed, his eyes shifting from my face to my head bandages. He reached out his hand and smoothed down what messy hair there was sticking out.

“What do you say, Billy Gray?” he said.

“What?” I said.

Wilson rubbed my head softly, and said, “Klaatu barada nikto?”

I said it back. “Klaatu barada nikto.” Then we said it together three times — “Klaatu barada nikto, Klaatu barada nikto, Klaatu barada nikto!” — and banged fists.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.


Klaatu Barada Nikto!

August 5, 2009

Part Two

At nighttime Wilson had it easy. After the evening editions came in, all he did was sit on his stacks of newspapers under the restaurant awning and customers came to him. Shipyard workers like Daddy came. So did bookies, businessmen, politicians, judges and lawyers — strippers from the burlesque clubs up on Baltimore Street. They all came for the late papers and the big deli sandwiches and kosher pickles, or the prime rib dinner for $3.25. Wilson was on another big-time movie rant. It was my fault because I said Africa Screams was the best Abbott and Costello movie ever made. Wilson came right back at me with, “That’s just a jerky takeoff on a 1930 documentary called Africa Speaks.”

“So?”

“Since they got popular, Abbott and Costello mix in old stuff with new stuff. It’s a trick to confuse the American movie public. Tell me I’m wrong.”

My ears got hot and my brain went mushy — that lasted five seconds, then I got mad. Who did he think he was to dispute my word?

“Nobody with five brain cells would call it a comedy,” Wilson said, and smiled like he knew he had it all over some hillbilly kid up from Virginia. “It’s just delayed reaction and overreaction — predictable, predictable and predictable.” Right then some guy he knew came by and Wilson got more big in his moves, talked different. “How you doin’, Slick!”

“Ain’t nothin’ to it!” the other guy went. “You makin’ it?”

“Hey, man, gettin’ there!” Wilson slapped his leg. “Gettin’ there!”

The other guy said, “Down on it!”

“Yeah,” Wilson laughed. “Down on the end of it!”

They jabbered in African for what seemed like five minutes, until the other guy went off. Then Wilson turned back at me, but before he could say a word I got in my two cents’ worth. “Paper says Africa Screams is number one box office. Why, the fat guy does—”

Wilson interrupted with, “Just stupid Abbott and Costello delayed reaction gags. For instance, in the lion cage it takes Costello —”

“Costello is the fat one, right?”

Wilson did a slow-motion double take at me. “Hey, if you can’t even tell them apart —”

“I know one’s fat and one’s thin, it’s only the names mix me up. Anyways, people laugh so hard they pee their pants!”

“Yeah, fans eat that shit up.” Wilson yawned again, then glanced around. “Look, Andy, check out The Boy With Green Hair, it’s playing at the Garden. That’s a movie!”

“Boy with what?

“Green hair.” Wilson smiled. “It’s a symbol.” Wilson took a big pause. “The Boy With Green Hair has an important message for American citizens—it’s a bombshell that’s hit Baltimore City — a total bombshell!” I kept my peace and he kept on. “See, it’s a fable — which is sort of like a fairy tale. See, this kid’s a social outcast because he’s different — green hair, but it could be anything.” Wilson cut his eyes at me, sort of squinted to see if I followed what he said. “Like wrong color skin for instance?” Another dumb pause, then nicer. “No bad jokes and half-naked savages, like in Abbott and Costello. Take my word, Andy, The Boy With Green Hair is an A-Number-One bombshell that has hit this town.”

The number six bus pulled over at our corner. Mike, this girl who dressed like a boy so the state law would let her sell newspapers, she was across the way with an armful and must have figured it was her turn, her bus. While she waited for the light to change, I quick grabbed my stack of papers and jumped up for the bus and yelled back over my shoulder. “How about when Abbott and Costello join the French Foreign Legion? In the desert they see a mirage, a kid selling newspapers. They ask how come he’s there and the kid says, ‘Can I help it if they gave me a bad corner?’” Wilson didn’t laugh, and I told that joke good. I jumped on the bus and flipped newspapers out to sell. Out the back window I saw Mike run across Light Street after the bus, yelling, mad as hell.

After school me and Mike watched Blind John tap, tap, tap, across the street, trip on the curb and go splat on his face. Mike laughed. At first I didn’t, then I did. But not as much as she did. Blind John got up but didn’t know which way he was. He turned left and left and left again. He paused, spun right, and paused again, then he went off toward his house on Barney Street.

“Now how did he know which way?” I said.

Mike said, “Blind people got radar we don’t, Andy.”

That night I went everywhere in our house with my eyes closed, upstairs and down, even in the dark basement, which didn’t make a difference because I was being blind. Nobody home but me. I felt everything. It took forever but I didn’t care. I put my hands on every stick of furniture and everything else, even food in the icebox — and Momma’s underwear, which was thin and slippery and snagged on my fingernail. It was all too beautiful, too beautiful. I loved being blind. I felt everything.

The next day on the corner I asked Wilson had he seen the movie Where the Sidewalk Ends? Wilson being Wilson, he said, “Yes, but the real question is, Was it any good?” He took a pause, smiled. “And should I apologize if I didn’t like it?” He didn’t know a thing about that movie and proved it when he went into a fake know-it-all speech about not-important details, using fancy show-off words like “directorial intent,” for God’s sake — which I bet he didn’t know what it was any more than me. But he left out how they’d made the city look at night, wet streets, lampposts, three kinds of beautiful shadows — light, dark, and darker. Four if you count pitch-black.

Wilson must have seen my smirky face, so he changed off the subject and stuck his fist straight at my head. He hollered, “Klaatu barada nikto!” I froze, couldn’t figure him out.

“Say it, Andy,” he said. “Say ‘Klaatu barada nikto!’” Wilson jumped on his stacks of papers, one foot on the News Post pile and the other on the Sun. He was off-kilter because the stacks were uneven, but he did a bunch of bounce-squats like Cheetah anyway. “Say it, Andy! Say it!”

“Tell me what it means.”

“Trust me, white boy.” Wilson’s fist was still in my face. “Say ‘Klaatu barada nikto!,’ then we bang fists. It’s a greeting.”

“From Africa?”

“From outer space.”

“What?”

“Just do it, goddammit!”

I did like he said, we banged fists and yelled it together, “Klaatu barada nikto!” Wilson laughed and fell on his newspapers, sprawled flat out, his eyes all wet, tears down his cheeks from laughter. My knees went soft and I slunk to the sidewalk next to him. We laughed for five minutes with no idea why, like hyenas in a Tarzan movie.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.

The third and final part of Klaatu Brada Nikto! will post Friday.


My Wife Thinks You’re Dead

July 31, 2008

Short Fiction/Final Part

Betty’s grave site in Cedar Hill Cemetery is on a lovely maple-shaded slope of perfect grass. It is early autumn in the mountains, the leaves bright red and yellow, the sky Kodachrome blue with small white clouds hugging the horizon. As the mourners dismount from the line of cars parked along the paved path winding through the hilly graveyard, a soft breeze stirs the leaves. It seems only fair that Betty’s final home is a resting place so serene, so quiet, so pure—especially considering that her short life had been a constant whirl and blur of frantic drug induced action. Betty’s service is attended by local friends and family, plus several strangers, mostly men, but also a few thin party girls like herself—all of them from small towns within a fifty mile radius. They were Betty’s good-timing friends and they can’t believe that such a powerful life force has so suddenly been removed from their mist.

To Bernie’s surprise Helen encourages him to attend Betty’s funeral. She volunteers to come herself. She even brings the kids. Helen reassures Bernie there are, in her words, “No hard feelings considering how the situation has turned out and all.” If Bernie is suspicious of Helen’s behavior he doesn’t let on, realizing that it’s best not to go into too much detail about her sudden interest in seeing the woman she calls his “old friend” off to the hereafter “for the last time.” Either he completely misses Helen’s subtle sarcastic tone, or just assumes that his perfect wife is being her usual forgiving self. Chuck is at the funeral, too, of course, crying full-out like he does when anyone dies—even people he only knows from reading their newspaper obits. Chuck, for all his wastrel ways, is, as Fred likes to say, “a sensitive dude.” Fred, Bernie’s high school buddy and town sheriff, looking sheepish and naked without his sidearm, is also in attendance.

The newspaper account of the circumstances surrounding Betty’s death had speculated that it was open and shut, “a drug bust gone bad,” simple as that. This, despite the fact that rumors circulating around town suggested Fred may have used unnecessary deadly force in the exercise of his duties. The mere sight of Fred, the lawman responsible for the demise of their childhood playmate, inflamed several of Betty’s male cousins and there was a brief scuffle. The boys were escorted off the cemetery grounds by three of Fred’s uniformed and well-armed police officers.

Fred’s version of what happened during the raid at Chuck’s place is simple, at least on the face of it. At the inquest he testified that the drug dealer had reached for what he—Fred—thought had to be a gun. (It was later determined the only “weapon” the dealer had on him was an Italian sausage he was bringing home to his wife in a brown paper sack.) Fred claimed that, fearing for his life, he had fired in haste, and was most apologetic about poor Betty being so unfortunate to have been standing where she was. The police department impounded Fred’s .38 and assigned him desk duty for the duration of the internal investigation. At the time of Betty’s interment they had not found any holes in Fred’s story—no smoking gun, so to speak—so the consensus in town was that he would be restored to full duty in a week or two, or as soon as passions cooled somewhat, whichever came first.

After the last prayer is recited over Betty’s grave, and the last ritual handful of dirt dropped onto the casket lid, the funeral party and guests head to their cars so the professional grave diggers can close up. Going up the shaded path, Bernie holds the hand of his son, the boy holds his younger sister’s hand, and Helen has the little girl’s other hand in hers. Fred passes the family on the way to his unmarked patrol car, and for a brief instant Bernie thinks he sees his old friend wink at Helen. He does see Fred smile at her, and Helen smiles back. Bernie says nothing. In the car on the way home, Helen says, “Bernard, sweetheart, I don’t feel the least bit like cookin’ tonight. Swear I don’t. What say you take your little family to Carvelli’s for pizza and then to see a picture show at the Visulite?”

END

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.


My Wife Thinks You’re Dead

July 30, 2008

Short Fiction/Part Three

The next morning Bernie showed up at the police station and Fred laid out his plan. Fred, eight months Bernie’s senior, tall and handsome, had taken the younger boy in tow in their freshman year of high school. Now, as adults, Fred the mentor with Bernie as supplicant were roles they continued to play. Fred explained that his drug enforcement department had been given a federal grant to conduct an investigation which he hoped would nail the town’s lone drug dealer, but he needed insider help. Fred also knew that Betty was fresh out of Goochland, knew of Bernie’s history with her, and Helen had updated him on Bernie’s positive progress to becoming a model husband and citizen. In Fred’s view, all this made Bernie the natural candidate for undercover police work. Betty would be the bait to set up the sting. Fred was sure Bernie would go along with the program as pay back for the many times he, Fred, had kept Bernie out of the can. So he was surprised big-time when Bernie flat-out refused to get involved. “Trouble’s not what I’m looking for,” Bernie said, sounding for all the world like a country song lyric, “trouble’s where I’ve been.”

Fred just smiled and continued laying out the plan, waiting for the right moment to play his ace in the hole. He told Bernie that his assignment, should he agree to assist the authorities in their quest to rid the community of the illegal substance operation being fronted out of Rexton’s convenience store, his task would be to lure Betty to Chuck’s apartment, then have her call Rexton’s and instruct the owner to deliver some fine white party powder. Once the viper showed up with the goods and they had the transaction on videotape, his squad of highly trained cops would take it from there.

“Things are different now,” Bernie said. “It’s not like the old days. I don’t have nothing to do with that woman.” He was getting more and more upset. “When Betty went to jail I expected it would be the last I seen her. Honest. Especially when the rumor got around she was stabbed dead in a lesbo love triangle in her cell. That’s exactly what I told Helen, and she believed it. Shit, I believed it, too. And that’s how I want to leave it.”

Bernie was almost like a brother to him, but over time Fred had developed a commitment to law enforcement stronger than blood—at this point in his career he would have nabbed his mother for dealing, too, if she didn’t have a really good excuse—so without a pang of conscience he smiled and played his trump card. In his soothingly official voice Fred informed Bernie that Chuck was already in on the sting, had even been deputized, and Fred described the tiny surveillance camera they had planted in Chuck’s VCR. When Bernie heard that news he went as pale as an Allman Brother and sat down. Fred asked if he would like to see a playback of the threesome action the camera had recorded the night before. Bernie barely had the strength to shake his head. When Fred inquired if Bernie had changed his mind about cooperating with the investigation, all the defeated man could do was nod.

A week later, as the trio of Bernie, Betty and Chuck await the drug drop-off, Betty’s last words on earth are recorded by the camera in Chuck’s VCR. Later, they will be presented as evidence at the inquest into the killings. In the grainy, slightly out of focus image, we see Bernie and Betty on Chuck’s davenport. Chuck is off to one side, only half in frame, sitting on the arm of the sofa. Bernie says to Betty, “O. K., girl—it’s true—we’ve seen a lot of miles together, and it’s still fun, but after this, that’s it.”

Betty smiles. “Whatever you say, Bern.”

Leaning into the frame, overacting for the camera, Chuck points at Bernie and says to Betty, “He might be my buddy but he don’t speak for me.”

Bernie ignores Chuck and continues to Betty. “Even good times have to end, baby—from here on out you’ll just have to find another ex-sweetheart to party with instead.”

“Right you are,” Betty says. “After today we will go our separate ways.”

At this point in the surveillance tape there is a knock on the door.

The final part of My Wife Thinks You’re Dead will post tomorrow.

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.


My Wife Thinks You’re Dead

July 29, 2008

Short Fiction/Part Two

When Bernie walked through the door, Helen straightaway asked him what he was doing home in the middle of the afternoon. He hemmed and hawed and came up with a nervous story about needing to retrieve some work stuff. Bernie’s jiggly behavior, plus a telephone call Helen had received only minutes before, put her on a Mean-Green Betty alert. She didn’t let on, though, just allowed him to think he had lied his way out of the situation. Bernie didn’t know it, of course, but he was pre-sunk—that phone call had alerted Helen to the younger woman’s resurrection. “Your buddy Fred called,” Helen said, telling part of the truth. “Wants you to drop by the police station tomorrow first thing. Some kind of special project.”

Fred, the town sheriff, was Bernie’s best friend from high school. At one time Fred had also been belly-bumping close to Helen, but she had kept that fact from Bernie, it being a bit of deception she allowed herself out of concern for his feelings—or so she liked to think. Without another word, Helen went back to work on a complicated tuna fish concoction she was whipping up for supper, her mayonnaise-covered hands deep in a big yellow mixing bowl. Bernie picked up some papers and walked out the door. Helen was whistling as she worked, but she had murder on her mind. She had confessed as much to Fred earlier when he called. Helen told him straight out that either Bernie or Betty had to die, and she was at the point where it didn’t matter which one. Fred laughed, of course, but he also felt a tad uneasy—not being sure if Helen was joking or what.

Monday was Helen’s bowling league and her mom kept the kids, so Bernie was free to do as he pleased—within reason, of course. He went out for a ride and stopped at Jigg’s Drive-In for a few beers, and it wasn’t long before he got to thinking about old times. The Jigg’s crowd provoked it, all them being real young these days—too young—and Bernie realized he didn’t really know anyone enough except to nod and say “Hi” to. On an impulse, feeling a tad lonely, he decided to cut out and visit his old friend Chuck. That turned out to be a first rank bad idea. He and Chuck were a duo that went back to the days of running with the booze-pill-and-sex bunch that featured Betty as the main attraction. The three of them were—well, let’s just say they got to be very close. Chuck is your basic small burg bachelor, a big rumpled guy with a small neat apartment over the pet shop on Main Street, and he has a small neat brain to match. He’s the sort of fellow who gets along by going along, satisfied to spend his days working part-time in an auto body shop, picking up the occasional house painting job and selling a bit of weed or a handful of pills to take up any financial slack. Chuck would never intentionally harm a living soul but he’s not above providing the means for folks to screw themselves over.

That evening found Chuck and Bernie in Chuck’s living room, shirts off, drinking beer, toking on a fat spliff they passed back and forth, and yelling at a two week old football game Chuck had recorded on his VCR. Three minutes into the fourth quarter there came a knock on the door. Chuck opened it and Betty glided in a foot off the floor, on what appeared to be air currents. Whatever it was that she had ingested also produced an aura of sensuality that glowed off her like yellow-green neon. Bernie and Chuck could tell she was there for one purpose only, to play big-time party tag and those two hapless dolts were “It.”

It being hot, the first thing Betty did was take off her blouse and bra and head for the fridge to, as she said, “cool her tits” and get a beer. Bernie somehow came to the conclusion that he was capable of resisting her charms and followed her into the kitchen. Betty was stationed in front of the open freezer door fanning cold air onto her chest with one hand and sipping from a Coors can with the other. As in times past, Bernie felt himself instantly attracted to the incredible muscle definition in her back. “Goddamn it, Betty,” he said, “one of us is gonna have to leave this town.”

She turned around, smiling, with one perfect breast cupped in her free hand. “Really, Bern? You mean that?”

“It’s good to see you, baby—been a long, long while—but I can’t afford to play them games no more.”

“Your choice, hon.” Betty slid past him and headed for the living room where the amiable Chuck waited in ecstatic anticipation.

Bernie stayed in the kitchen for a beat, feeling what resistance he may have had ebb from his body like brackish water from a swamp. By the time he got to the living room Betty was completely naked, astride Chuck in the classic lap dance position, him smiling over her bare shoulder like it was Christmas and he was more than willing to share this gift. Bernie watched those two go at it awhile, then shrugged. “What the hell,” he thought, moving toward them, “Helen thinks she’s dead.”

By evening’s end the threesome had done everything to each other they could think of, short of man-on-man, which Chuck and Bernie would have no part of even to please Betty. They were convinced, however, that they had invented several trio combinations heretofore undocumented in Chuck’s extensive porn collection. Bernie had never had so much fun or felt so low at the same time—especially later, on his way home, drained dry like a corn husk left in some farmer’s field during a ten year drought.

Part three of My Wife Thinks You’re Dead will post tomorrow.

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.


My Wife Thinks You’re Dead

July 28, 2008

My Wife Thinks You’re Dead was inspired by a clever county song of the same title, written and performed by Junior Brown. When I heard Mr. Brown’s lyrics (he was on Curb Records then, these days he’s with Telarc—click the “Junior Brown” sidebar link to hear samples), it occurred to me that the best country songs tell a condensed tale which, with a bit of imagination, can be spun out into a short story, a play, or perhaps even a novel. I’m working on several other stories which use country songs as a starting point, but so far this is the only one I’ve been able to complete. My Wife Thinks You’re Dead will post in four parts, today through Thursday.

Short Fiction/Part One

When Betty got back in town the first thing she did after she stepped off the bus was corner Bernie, which would have been fine had his wife not found out. Betty, a petite stringy-haired blond with a firm body—parts of which were decorated with tattoos you could fully appreciate only when she danced naked to hillbilly music in your living room—had just been released from Goochland Correctional Center, a state institution for women who do stupid things. She was the sort who spent her tragically short life involved with drugs, the wrong kind of sex with both sexes, and serial breaking and entering escapades to raise money for pharmaceuticals. Betty could not resist a fun evening, never mind the consequences.

On this particular day Betty planned to “accidentally” run into her old pal Bernie on his way to the post office, a trip she knew he made like clockwork. She had his schedule timed to the split second, so when Bernie turned off Main onto Market Street they collided before he had a chance to avoid his fate. Betty also knew that once they made physical contact, Bernie would be hooked like a mountain trout, a fish that exists with only one purpose—to be pan-fried for supper. “Damn,” Bernie said, and stepped back and looked Betty up and down three times.

She batted her eyes in fake surprise and played him out. “How you doing, Bern?” Of course Betty knew damn well how he was doing—she knew that the second Bernie saw her he most likely got a boner on. “Not bad for a failure,” Bernie said.

Betty laughed. “Whatcha doing this evening, son?”

“Now, girl, you know I’m happy married. When you disappeared off the radar, I up and told my wife I heard you was dead.”

“O.K.,” Betty said, “if that’s how you want it,” and she flounced off down the sidewalk with that sway-sway walk that Bernie loved to witness.

As Bernie stared after Betty, the one thought in his brain was that with her on the loose he needed the strong reminder of his family to help him resist temptation, so he went straight home. Bernie appears old for his age, not all that much to look at, chubby-soft, balding in the worst way—front to back—and he has mild prostate trouble, which points him to the bathroom a bunch of times each day. His wife loves Bernie more for his kind nature than anything physical. Just picture it, here’s this forty-seven year old manager of an auto parts store who lucks out and lands a beautiful young wife, Helen, to share his bed and keep the house spotless. They have two little kids—boy and girl—just the cutest things. Each Sunday morning he drops his perfect family off at the Holiness church and waits in the car, reading the sports pages. Bernie considers himself reformed from his wild days, but not yet ready for religious instruction. And he thinks of Helen as an angel, soulful and so pure he feels extra guilty about the level of lust he still has for Betty.

Back in the old days, Betty saw Bernie as a cocksman pure and simple, one big hot-to-trot party penis with plenty of money to spread around. Yeah, that was his special appeal when they were burning up the highway, hitting one roadhouse after the other, always winding up as a big ball of naked flesh in some borrowed bedroom or the back seat of a car in the darkest corner of the Wal-Mart parking lot. Betty was looking forward to more of that.

Part two of My Wife Thinks You’re Dead will post tomorrow.

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.


The Last Dog

June 26, 2008

Short Fiction/Part Four

Ted used heavy string to tie a little hangman’s noose around the rotten chicken neck, then he dropped the bait off the pier into the harbor. “Crabs are so dumb,” he said. “Once ol’ Mr. Crustacean grabs onto his smelly treat he forgets how to let loose, and that’s his undoing.” In no time flat a crab took the bait and Ted pulled it to the surface slow, hand over hand. I scooped it up in the net Alice made for us out of cheesecloth and an old broomstick. When I dropped the crab in the basket, Ted said, “Big one. That’ll eat good.” Alice did her crabs in a huge pot with water and beer and secret spices. The trick of cooking crabs, Ted claimed, was to let the liquid come to a boil and drop them in fast and slap the lid on. They never knew what hit them, he said. They went in blue and lively and came out red and dead—steamed to death.

Daddy had promised to take me crabbing but never showed up. Didn’t call, nothing, so Ted volunteered. Me and him and Ronnie went to Wagner’s Point. We got up at five and left the house at six. Alice was invited, but she said no. She claimed anyone who got up that early and didn’t have to was a damn fool. Ted picked a pretty spot on a falling-down pier by a refinery, close enough to smell the oil. We watched the dark outline of the city across the harbor get lighter in the warming air. The sky was clear except for a smear of orange smoke from Sparrows Point steel mill. A blue heron flew over with a fish all a-squirm in its beak. Ted knew it was a heron by the general shape, the long crooked neck, and how its legs hung out behind in the air. Judging the direction, Ted figured the bird was headed to the marsh grass in behind Fort McHenry. We crabbed and crabbed and the sun got hotter and hotter. Pretty soon me and Ronnie got bored and went to explore the rubble of an old pier shack. We climbed inside—at least it was shady cool in there—and scrambled over piles of boards and tar paper and other trash. At first I didn’t feel the plank piece stuck to my foot, and then I did. It hugged the the bottom of my sneaker like an extra sole, held there with a rusty ten-penny nail in my foot. After five minutes it got to hurt pretty bad but I didn’t cry. Ted left the wood where it was until we got back to the house, then he yanked it off and cleaned the nail hole with peroxide, like when he used to be a medic in the Army. Ted put a bandage on to stop the blood and took me to the hospital for a tetanus shot, cussing Daddy all the way there and back.

That evening Ted hollered at the radio in the living room, “Stupid, stupid, STUPID!” From where I was in the hall I could hear him but I couldn’t see him. He hated it if our team made a mistake. When our shortstop missed an easy grounder, Ted yelled, “JERK!” Meanwhile, I was watching Alice framed in the kitchen doorway, her back to me, how she took a bottle from behind the cleaning stuff under the sink and poured some in a glass and gulped it. Ted kept on at the radio, but I turned him off. The silent movie of Alice in the warm light from the bare kitchen bulb kept me mesmerized, how she emptied the glass and poured and poured. She gulped a last one, then rinsed and set the glass in the sink. Then Alice leaned on the counter top with both hands, shoulders pushed up so her neck disappeared. That caught my attention. I was focused on the round shape of her shoulders, the sad way they shook.

Most nights after supper Alice would sit with Ted on the sofa. Other times she wouldn’t, but when she didn’t he made it a point to sit with her. Ted would go at her all in a good mood and cuddle her. Other times she went at him, but when Alice went at Ted it could be a good mood or bad mood, either one. He never knew what to expect. There were days when Alice started at Ted in a bad mood but it ended with her happy and laughing a little, at least for awhile. But soon enough Ted would get tired of how hard it was most times to even get her to smile. Alice, though, once she got going, she kept at him. When it was her at him like that, after a while he would move her off him, off to one side—but gentle—and he would go on about his business. So even if they were at it only a minute ago—she at him or him at her—they were not anymore because he had decided not to play anymore. Ted would just go off somewhere and Alice was left to think about what next—dinner, maybe, or bedtime—something else altogether.

The next day Ted took me and Ronnie for a walk at Fort McHenry and I could tell it was because Alice had been at him that morning in a bad way and drove him crazy. But Ronnie didn’t let on like there was anything wrong between his parents. Anyway, who knows for sure what Ronnie ever thought? When it came to his folks, Ronnie’s mouth mostly stayed zipped. That time Alice was on Ted’s case because of the back yard, the mess his old dog made back there. When she went at Ted like that it usually rubbed off on Ronnie, too, so he had to know that something was up between them. The yard was Alice’s pride. Ted kept his old animal chained to a dog house back there that looked like a seaside cottage in some movie. The dog walked the ground smooth as far as the chain would let him, back and forth, just short of Alice’s flower bed. Alice claimed Ted never picked up the dog turds. The big problem, though, was when the dog dug a trench under the shade tree and flopped in it to stay cool. When he was in it, with his chin on the edge, all you saw was his wet nose, his brown eyes that followed you back and forth, and long ears twitching off flies. It was early fall, still real warm out, and Ted hadn’t filled in the trench like he promised Alice.

Meanwhile, at Fort McHenry, people were clumped together on the big lawn that went from the cannon walls down to the seawall. One family had a humongous picnic spread out on a tablecloth. Some teenage boys played football catch. A fat guy napped on the grass with a bath towel over his eyes. There were five kites high in the breeze over the harbor. The barn swallows that worked the grass were long gone, but some neighborhood chimney swifts still swooped low for what bugs there were left. Before long, Ted claimed, the bugs would disappear and the swifts would fly off to South America. In the harbor tugboats moved huge steamers into the main channel, or helped them dock at piers across the way. Sailboats went by. We walked the path that ran next to the seawall and Ronnie held tight to Ted’s hand, used his other hand to grip his daddy’s forearm like he was afraid he’d lose him. Ronnie was acting real pussy for a guy almost thirteen. Ted put up with Ronnie’s arm lock but when he had something to say he said it to me. He pointed at the sidewalk. “Duck shit looks like cat shit, Andy—small perfect turds in a pile. And gull shit, that whitish-greenish splatter? That looks like it could be from a fat man who just cleared his throat and spit.”

Ronnie didn’t laugh at that but I did. Most likely, Ronnie didn’t even know it was supposed to be funny. Alice hated when Ted used such words, but what he said about the different kinds of shit was true. I never would have thought of gull poop that way—how it looked and all—if he hadn’t said it. It got on toward sunset and me and Ted sat on the seawall to watch the light change and change while Ronnie went off to intimidate ducks. In no time flat the light on the pier buildings went from red-purple to the best gold I ever saw. I guess it reminded Ted of something, because that’s when he told me a pretty lie. “Andy,” he said, “this time of day if you climb up to our roof real quick—really, really fast—you get to see the sun set twice.”

The fifth and final part of The Last Dog will post tomorrow.