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.”


“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.”


“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.

Rue Mouffetard: A Romance

October 15, 2008

What I Did On My Summer Vacation—In 1973

Urban street markets seem much the same the world over. There’s a festive feeling naturally generated by such familiar activity, which explains why I felt at home the instant I stepped onto the cobbled Rue Mouffetard pavement in Paris. Emotionally, I might just as well have been in Cross Street Market in 1950s Baltimore, a boy of eleven or twelve, enthralled by the block party atmosphere of people going about their daily routine of buying, selling, socializing and just hanging out.

Rue Mouffetard is a remnant of an old Roman road. Some buildings there date from the 12th century, and in a sense the street represents the history of the city. Crowds of shoppers fill its lower half every morning, and its vitality is reminiscent of a scene from the Middle Ages. On my first morning in Paris, in August, 1973, my new girlfriend and I were still getting re-acquainted after my flight from Baltimore the previous afternoon. She had been living for a month with her sister and her sister’s boyfriend in a one room apartment. I had known her only two months when she left to begin her annual summer teaching break tour of Europe, so we were still passionate strangers. She had found a private space for us in a small, inexpensive “mom and pop” hotel near the market. Our shy reunion, at first a bit awkward, had gone pretty well—but now we were both happy to be out and about, beginning our mutual Paris experience.

And the first order of business was lunch. In the early 1970s few Americans knew much about France, and fewer still knew anything about French food. Growing up, my midday meals had been pallid sandwiches of ham and American cheese, slathered with mayo and stuck between slices of soft white bread. Part of my new girlfriend’s plan, she later told me, was to introduce more sophisticated foods into my diet. My first lesson came that morning as we shopped in Rue Mouffetard. My girlfriend, using her ragged high school French, bought bottled water, a round of soft cheese, and a loaf of naked bread (no wrapper, no bag). She selected fruit for dessert from her favorite stand, which was manned by a handsome young Frenchman. We ate while seated on a bench in a nearby park, a spot which became our personal picnic area on most of the twelve days we toured Paris. The following excerpt from a “Hemingway-esque” short story I later wrote sums up the routine during our stay in the city.

“They took a room in a small hotel in Rue Pascal and settled in to stay until fall. Mornings, they strolled the Latin Quarter, bought food at the market in Rue Moufftard, and lunched on a bench or under a tree in the Jardin des Plants. Afternoons were reserved for making love and a nap in their tiny room. Evenings, they dined with friends near the Sorbonne; then, most nights, they would take the Metro to the Champs-Elysées and either walk the boulevard, people-watch from a sidewalk cafe, or attend an American movie. Or perhaps all three. It was wonderfully romantic, they thought, as if they were living in a Hemingway novel.”

The guy in my unpublished short story is a moody character, not unlike me at that stage of my life. But the present day me, older and somewhat wiser, will always remember those Paris experiences—even the negative parts—fondly. After all, that is where I had my first crunchy bite of crusty French bread, fresh from the bakery and topped with delightfully pungent cheese. It was love at first bite—a life changing episode—and in that instant I realized I could never again be satisfied with tasteless yellow cheese on Wonder Bread.

The relationship between me and my new girlfriend did not always go well—either in Paris or later, when we returned home. In fact, the affair was completely over after only a few years. Without going into the sad details, I can say that the problems we had were mostly my fault. In those days I was neurotic, still depressed about the failure of my marriage, feeling great guilt about leaving my young family, personally insecure, and extremely jealous of my beautiful new girlfriend. (The fact that she was twelve years younger and eager—at the prodding of her mother—to start a family, didn’t help.) Two examples of my jealousy will suffice. I was convinced that she was attracted to that handsome and bearded blond produce clerk in Rue Mouffetard, and that she shopped with him each morning not just because his goods were fresher and more reasonably priced. I never saw them exchange a smile or a nod (I watched closely, pretending to be interested only in my photography), but they appeared to ignore each other completely, which somehow make me even more suspicious. (Obsessive jealousy requires no proof.) And there was another young man at a sidewalk café who lit her cigarette. All very innocent in retrospect, I know, but at the time I berated her for allowing him to do so. (Jealousy makes no rational sense.) Meanwhile, I was photographing every beautiful woman I saw, and secretly falling in love with each one. But in my warped view at the time that was perfectly okay. (Jealousy isn’t fair.) For instance, I justified the images of the young woman pictured here sniffing melons in Rue Mouffetard as a “visual narrative;” and that by moving closer with each click of the camera I was only following a “golden rule” of photography which goes: “If your images are not good, you’re not close enough.”

Here’s another excerpt from my short story, which I think captures my own rueful mood soon after we finally broke up. The scene is in a bar where the two fictional characters have met for a drink, the man still harboring a small hope that they might reunite.

“‘I haven’t forgotten,’ the man said. The woman was very tan, she had been beautifully pale in Paris. ‘A dry Rob Roy, correct?’ She nodded and he ordered. ‘It’s funny,’ he went on, ‘I thought now—after all this time—seeing you would be different, but it’s not. When you walked in that door I felt a tingle like the old days. That sort of thing must die hard.’

‘Maybe it never dies,’ she said.

‘Three years ago, in Paris,’ he said. ‘I never want to forget how that felt.’ She smiled, her eyes downcast, saying nothing. She remembered how happy she had been with him in France—despite their troubles—how well-matched they seemed to be, how much in love she thought they were. The man continued. ‘But when I think about those days I get a little sad, a little afraid. The fear comes when I realize that it may never happen again for me.’

Oh, it will,’ the woman said. ‘It just takes time.’ She was looking at him now. ‘Anyway, you’re forgetting the bad stuff—all the arguments we had driving to and from Lyon.’

‘You must mean, Ms. Navigator, the times you got us lost,’ he said, and forced a smile.

‘You blamed me for it, yes.’

‘Well, you do have a lousy sense of direction—right?’

Again the woman did not reply. She had come to realize that the miscues between them in France amounted to an early warning system, one that she had willfully ignored. He had been unfair, blaming her for all that went wrong—on the road, at hotels and restaurants—and at the time she had begun to hate him for it. But even so, she had convinced herself that it was normal for two people in the early stages of a love affair to experience problems that could be worked out over time. For his part, the man remembered the anger he felt then, the frustrations about where to eat, which way to turn at a crossroads, where to stop for the night; how he had to depend on her to read menus and tell him where the bathrooms were. Being in love and in a foreign country was overwhelming. He felt helpless and—fair or not—he had resented her for it.”

Well, that’s the end of this story, or at least all of it I can manage to tell in a short essay. The relationship ended badly, as I said—but I have no regrets. I’ll always have Paris, and Rue Mouffetard, where I fell in love with love over and over again; and—for the first time in my life—I also fell in love with soft cheese and fresh-baked baguettes.

“Rue Mouffetard: A Romance” is the second in a series of travel-photo essays which will post on this blog from time-to-time. (Click images for larger views.) Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.

Shameless Self Promotion

August 4, 2008

Today’s Media Flash

“Klaatu Barada Nikto,” my short story, appears in the August, 2008 issue of Urbanite, a slick, full-color monthly magazine available FREE at hundreds of commercial locations (restaurants, bars, coffee shops, etc.), in the Baltimore metro area. If you don’t live around here you can still read “Klaatu Barada Nikto,” online, by clicking the Urbanite Magazine link in the sidebar blogroll. (I could explain the title but if I did it would ruin the story, so I won’t.)

There are lots of good reasons to check out the 50th issue of “The Urb.” Take the August cover for starters, it just looks great. The delightful faux 40s pulp fiction-style illustration by Deanna Staffo serves as a visually ironic setup for Editor-in-Chief David Dudley’s serious Q&A interview with Patsy Sims about the current “truthiness” flap—is it fiction or nonfiction?—a hot topic in literary circles. Inside, too, aside from the fine articles, I’ve noticed a big improvement in overall graphic design—especially in art and photography selection, and page layouts.

I also want to take this opportunity to thank Ms. Susan McCallum-Simth, the Urbanite literary editor, for her sensitive help in getting my bloated 8,000 word manuscript down to a svelte 3,500 words; and for her insightful essay introducing the five featured stories. As I’ve told Susan (and I’m only slightly kidding), when it comes to my writing I like to hide behind the “emotional truth” shield and claim to be an “Impressionist,” painting my version of the world with words, whether fiction or nonfiction. After giving it a moment or two of thought, I estimate that “Klaatu Barada Nikto” comes in at 98.9 percent true fiction. 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.