My Wine Post, Part II

Last week I finally got around to writing a post about wine. I touched on pairings and varietals, and I was getting ready to delve into the best wine region, but I thought I’d hold off. Because I’ve got quite a few things to say about the wine-producing regions of California. And what should, and should not, be considered “wine country.” And this needs a post of its own.

My curling club is called “Wine Country Curling Club.” We were founded in Vacaville, about 30 miles southeast of Napa. But in 2011, the club moved to a suburb of Sacramento. This has occasionally led to some debate. Sacramento, the argument goes, is nowhere near wine country. Sure, there are a few wineries that dot the landscape in and around Sacramento. You can wine taste for an afternoon in Clarksburg, and maybe the better part of the day in Lodi. Midtown Sacramento has a few tasting rooms but no grapes, and  Placer County, where our curling club is actually located, finally threw in the towel and renamed their wine trail a “Wine and Ale Trail,” which includes a microbrew every other block, just like every other city in America these days. It’s great for curlers, who tend more toward beer than wine, anyway.

Some people think we should change our name to avoid confusion or disappointment. And while we’ve unofficially gone with a generic “Curl Sacramento” route, the name that has been floated the most often is “Gold Country Curling Club.” Because gold was discovered in the foothills near here and Sacramento was the main destination for most of the 49ers heading west. The area around highway 49 (named for the gold rushers) from Auburn (about thirty miles northeast of Sacramento) to Placerville (forty miles east of Sacramento) calls itself gold country, and Coloma, where gold was first found, is smack dab in the middle.

But here’s where they lose the argument, and here’s where I get riled up. Because Placerville, old Hangtown, is pretty much the capital of Gold Country. And if we’re naming ourselves after Placerville, then we need to call ourselves Wine Country. Because Placerville is at the north end of what is, in my estimation, one of the best wine regions around. And more than the best wine region, it’s, hands down, the best winery region.

Some people say Amador County is what Napa County was in the eighties. And what Sonoma County was in the nineties. A nice, bucolic masterpiece of rolling hills with wineries who are happy to see you visit and employees who can talk to you about the wine they are pouring beyond the tasting notes that were printed by some conglomerate. Heck, the person pouring your tasting on any particular day might be the winemaker himself.

Last September, we found an out-of-the-way winery near Plymouth, California. Which is a pretty impressive feat, considering that Plymouth itself is already about as out of the way as something can get. You have to go through twelve different dead spots in cell coverage to get there. The town has one restaurant. And, as I found out at my last anniversary, if the one bed and breakfast owner in the town has had a cold in the past month, you’re pretty much sleeping under a tree or hoofing it back to Sacramento for the night.

But this particular winery is even out of the way for Plymouth. It’s not on either of the two or three main winery loops in Amador County. The only reason we found it at all was that we were looking for a back way into Fiddletown. And no, that’s not a euphemism. There’s a town called Fiddletown. Okay, “town” is being generous. There’s a place called Fiddletown. There are only two ways to get there. You can take Fiddletown Road or you can take the back road. And on the back road, way at the top of a hill, hidden from view of just about every human being in existence, is a winery called Distant Cellars. Get it? Distant! As in “no cell service.”

Anyway, when we stopped by this particular winery on a September midday, we were greeted by a spectacle of an employee. Or maybe he was a drifter. Dude was dirty and sweaty, wearing a beat up t-shirt. Wife and I pass a little bit of a look between us. I mean, I don’t need my sommelier to be wearing a tuxedo or anything, especially at a winery that only one customer stumbles upon per day. But Jesus, dude, would it kill you to bathe a little bit before you come into work? We’ve all had those hungover mornings, but you gotta fake it till you make it.

Except this wasn’t a rando employee suffering from too much Friday night. And it wasn’t a hobo, either. This was the owner. Sort of. He was the caretaker, the guy who ran the winery. His sons are firefighters and they bought the winery land as a retirement plan. Only they’re not retired yet, so it’s up to pops to run things in the meantime.

And of course, the reason he was dirty and sweaty and wearing a beater was because it was September, and September is harvest time. He had been up since 5:00 that morning picking two tons of grapes. And now he was preparing for a six-hour stint in the tasting room.

That’s more or less what you can expect from Amador County. Allegedly Napa was this way in the seventies and eighties. I’m not old enough to remember that, but nowadays, the winemaker at a Napa winery is probably housed in some secret bunker behind five layers of computerized and DNA-based security, his child being held at gunpoint until he can verify the proper tannin level of the cabernet-syrah blend.

Oh, and did I mention you don’t pay to taste in Amador? You used to not have to pay in Napa or Sonoma either. I’m old enough to remember that practice, but barely. It started to go by the wayside in the mid-nineties. First it was just a few wineries charging a nominal fee that would be refunded with a purchase. Kinda makes sense. They’d rather have you buy a bottle, but if not, you don’t get something for nothing.

And of course, if you were friendly enough with the pourer, you might not get charged for the tasting fee, anyway. The tasting fee was basically just there to dissuade the people who are only looking to go from winery to winery trying to get a cheap buzz with no interest whatsoever in actually making a purchase. But if you talk to the pourer about wine, or about their lives, or about current events, or pretty much treat them in any way other than, “Hey, fuckface, give me free booze,” then they’d probably “forget” to charge you. Or maybe they’d think you’re purchasing from the other guy. Or maybe they’d legitimately forget, because maybe they’re now splitting their time between you and a group of assholes that have no interest in purchasing.

Regardless, the initial tasting fees were primarily there to discourage douchebags, not a legitimate money-making device. Of course, back then the pourers were usually connoisseurs themselves. They moved to Napa or commuted to the valley for the day, because they wanted to be able to take a sip from time to time and be able to talk to like-minded individuals about oakiness and complexity. Kinda like Amador.

By the turn of the century, a few of the wineries in Napa were starting to charge for tasting whether you purchased any wine or not. I initially assumed they would lose a lot in their wine sales. One of the stories in the original “Freakonomics” book was about a daycare center that started charging people if they picked their kids up late, then were astounded when the number of late pick-ups increased. Because charging took away the guilt of showing up late. Now a parent could justify coming in late. Similarly, I’ve been to plenty of wineries where I thought the wine was mediocre, but bought it anyway out of a general obligation for the hospitality of their few sample pours.

But clearly, bottle sales didn’t drop enough to stop the practice, because by 2005 or so, you couldn’t go anywhere in the Napa Valley without paying for tasting. And they aren’t five dollars anymore. It’s twenty bucks now, and that twenty bucks doesn’t get you closer to purchasing. Not even the fancy cheese they’re all running out of their deli. Sorry, charcuterie. Deli’s aren’t nearly hip enough for Napa.

Now they charge you up front, before they’ve even gotten a glass out for you. Some places, like the Castle, you’re charged by somebody up front before you’ve even met your pourer. And the pourers, in kind, are not interested in making a sale or talking to you about wine or really anything other than pouring the properly-allotted volume of predetermined liquid. Ask them what their favorite is, or how that unopened bottle tastes, and they’ll shrug and tell you it’s not in the script.

In Amador, if you ask how that wine in that bottle back there is, the owner will probably open it right then and there and take a sip of it first before pouring some for you.

And look, I’m not taking anything away from Napa. I mean, if you can charge someone for something or offer it for free and not have your sales impacted enough to matter, then more power to you. And I guess I never realized how many people went wine tasting without purchasing or ever intending to purchase. In my opinion, anyone that gets free tastes with no intention to buy is a piece of shit. If you don’t like their wine, fine. But if you like it, but only want to take it for free, then you’re the one who ruined it for the rest of us.

And Napa absolutely had to do something, because they were becoming a destination for cheap buzzes. Party busses, party limos, party trains. They all descend upon a winery, pushing the rest of the customers off to the side or, more likely, to another winery. Then they spend a half-hour being obnoxious, not engaging the staff nor purchasing any product, then they’re back into the bus or limo or train and on to shill the next winery out of its hard-earned product. Even the Amador wineries have taken to charging these groups, because they are clearly only there for the “experience.” And usually they cost a winery in lost customers. Any time I see a limo out front, I drive to the next winery.

But when a winery charges you to taste, regardless of whether you buy or not, then they’re in the same business as the limo tours. It’s all about the tourists and day trippers, not the wine drinkers. As a result, Napa now markets itself more as an Adult Disneyland experience than a wine region. And the quality of their wine has suffered now that they cater to customers who are there for the experience.

I mentioned the Castello de Amarosa earlier. They are the most egregious and most epitomal example of what Napa has become. It’s a castle. Like, a legitimate castle. Not a replica. The owners purchased a run-down medieval castle from some defunct principality in Germany and paid to move it, brick by brick, to the Napa Valley. It’s… well, I was going to say beautiful, but only fake castles are beautiful. (See above: Disneyland) The real castles were more concerned with “workable for purposes of defense” than beautiful. But the Castello de Amarosa is majestic, if not beautiful.

They charge you to get in. There are a variety of tickets available. One just allows you entrance to see the grounds to peruse on your own.  Another ticket will grant you a guided tour, but still no wine. If you want to actually taste the wine, you have to buy a separate ticket and find your own way to the dungeon tasting room. And no, I’m not being facetious. They literally have the wine tasting in the bowels of the castle, with a ceiling that a six-foot tall person would have to duck under. There’s no ventilation and a lot of people being jostled about as an automaton fills their glasses with all the regularity and grace of an assembly line worker. The Model T only comes in black and the castle only pours four tastings.

How was the wine? Well, as wine tasting goes… they have a very nice castle.

I suppose they’ve done a very wise thing to accentuate the winery itself, and not the wine. Because the wine was quite unpleasant. It was very young. They were serving a red wine with a harvest date two years earlier. And I don’t think they were the only Napa wines I saw that were eighteen months past harvest. Four years used to be the minimum, but now it’s all about turn-and-burn, baby.

Then again, I highly doubt the castle wine was going to cellar well. I’ve tasted some young wines, and done some barrel tasting, that age well. They are usually very smooth, probably even more accessible to a random non-wine drinker. The grape is the dominant flavor early on. The complexity comes with age. The Castle wine, on the other hand, tasted a little bit sour. Like maybe it’s best future would be mixed into a sangria. Or like its average customer has partaken in some of the two hundred wineries that lie closer to the Napa Valley entrance than it. And really, nobody’s here for the wine, anyway. Taste the good stuff first, then come look at our snazzy castle.

But hey, at least I got a good idea for a key scene in my novel, which is great, cause I sure as shit didn’t buy any wine. Nice to know the entry fee wasn’t a complete waste.

And that’s why I’ll also put the Amador wine up against most of what’s coming out of Napa these days. It isn’t just the experience and the hospitality that are better. These days, Napa is catering to Bay Area new-money newbies or travelers from afar, neither of which really want good wine. They might want expensive wine, but they want it to be consumed like craft beer. Chug, motherfucker, chug.

The typical winery in Amador County will have more varietals available for tasting and purchase. Napa’s pretty much doubled down on Cabernet and Chardonnay. Go to an Amador winery and you’ll see Barbera and Zinfandel and Primitivo and Syrah and Petit Syrah and Mouverdre and Grenache and Tempranillo. And there are white wines, too.

Their varietals have variety, too. Last September, we went to a Barbera Festival, where over fifty wineries were literally pouring only one varietal. But it didn’t get tiring, because the babera grape can go in a lot of different directions, especially with all of the micro-climates that occur in volcanic foothills. Far from the Napa Valley (and to a lesser extent, the Pinot-rich central coast), where they try to mimic the agreed-upon flavor as much as possible and the only variance is spectacular, good, mediocre, or castle.

So there you have it. My wine post, parts one and two. Now you can all dismiss my well-informed enlightenment and go back to your tannic cabernet and try to pretend it doesn’t feel like someone just scratched your mouth with a brillo pad. Or your buttery chard with its aftertaste of aftertaste. And hey, I didn’t mention it before, but a lot of pinots taste like Band-aids.

And when you’re done doing all that, check out an Alicante Bouchet from the foothills.

My Wine Post, Part I

I’ve been promising a wine post for a long while. Well, not really promising one, but it seems like every time I write about coffee or beer, I throw in a “Maybe I should write about wine someday. So I suppose that day is today.

And sorry, this is as far as I go. Weed may be legal in my state, but I’m hardly a connoisseur. I’ve heard there are different types of marijuana. Okay, if you say so. Is it the taste? Or the high you get? Or whether you crave Cheeto’s or Tollhouse afterwards? Someone probably knows, but not me. I hit the wacky tabbacky once every three of four years, so it’s hard to judge consistency or differences. And if I do more than one hit, I’m pretty much down for the count.

So wine, it is. What would you like to talk about?

Food pairings? Fuck that. If you want wine with your fucking food, then drink wine with your fucking food. And don’t get me started on the restaurants that are now suggesting beer tastings with food. Oh, you think this salmon pairs with a hefeweizen? Well, hefeweizen tastes like it’s been strained through soiled underwear, so that doesn’t pique my interest in how you prepare your salmon. If I order it with an IPA, are you going to look down your nose at me and clap for your sommelier to come arrest me and put me in posh jail? Wait a second, do sommeliers even make up the bogus beer tastings or did you just ask Fred, the resident lush at the bar? Because I think I’d trust Fred first.

Best varietal? Again, it’s up to you. I personally go for zinfandels when I get to choose, especially a zin from the California foothills. Zinfandels used to have one primary taste profile, but a decade or so ago, I started to see more variety. You can get a jammy zinfandel or a peppery zinfandel. Peppery used to be the norm in the foothills because of all of the volcanic rock up there. But then they started planting more zin vines in the north-facing valleys that get less sun because that’s what was sells better. I don’t mind the jammy, and just like with the IPA craze, I know when I’m bucking the trend in the market. I also like stick shifts  and time travel TV shows, but that ain’t what sells. So I’ve learned to just sit there, drinking my hoppy IPA and my jammy zinfandel while watching the series finale of Timeless, and shut the fuck up.

But man, when I encounter a place that still holds one of their zinfandels back for a bit o’ spiciness, it’s a little slice of heaven.

I know. I know. Who in the world would want to sully their grape juice with a nuance of cracked black pepper, right? You’re not alone. Pepper is for steak, not for alcohol. But, I ask you, what are you drinking WITH your steak. And you don’t have to have steak with your zin. Just think about steak while you’re drinking it, like a vegan who eats tofacon while dreaming of the real thing. If you imagine it hard enough, you can conjure the flavor. If I were a vegan, I’d stick to the booze to remind me of what meat was like. And I’d be one of the weepiest drunks in existence.

If I can’t have or don’t want a zin, though, I’ll probably turn to a syrah. Not a petit syrah, mind you. Syrah and petit syrah are entirely different grapes. You would think the latter would just be a smaller version of the former, but no. That would be too logical, and not intimidating enough for noobs. So a syrah’s got nothing to do with a petit syrah. A syrah is, however, the same thing as a shiraz. Sommeliers gotta sommelier, right?

Petit syrahs are probably the prettiest red wine. A good one is inky, almost violet. And they’re dense. My wife’s a big petit syrah fan. She’ll drink it by itself. I’m usually pretty good with them, but only paired with a steak or a meaty pasta. And yeah, ignore what I just said about no generic food pairings. You should only drink petit syrah with red meat.

My white flavor profile switches around a bit. Depending on the food or the weather or the time of day or my mood, I might want a fume blanc, a roussanne, a vermentino, a suavignon blanc (which, unlike the syrahs, is the same grape as a cabernet sauvignon). If it’s dry enough, I’ll take a Viognier, but most of those are way too sweet. And by dry, I mean the wine, not the weather. Dry is the opposite of sweet. Well, really they never use the word “sweet.” They say off-dry, just to be snooty dicks. Then again, some wineries call their off-dry wines dry because they tend to sell better.

This trend is going on with roses, as well. Roses are pink wines, which used to only be white zinfandels. But over the past few years, a number of the wineries we like have started to make dry roses which are quite refreshing. They’re like red wines that you can drink cold.  Then again, many places just recycled their old white zinfandel recipes and slapped a rose label on it. When we were in Denver last year, Wife ordered two different roses at two different locations, one of which called itself a wine bar. The server listened toWife’s complaint about the residual sugar in the first one she had tried, then brought one out with pretty much the same damn taste.

You’ll note there were two varietals I didn’t reference: those creamy chardonnays and robust cabernets. I don’t mind the latter, if it’s paired right, but any food that tastes good with a cab probably tastes better with a petit.

But that famous white varietal? Pass the chardonnay, please! Seriously. Please pass it right the fuck past me.

And yes, I know all about oak aging and stainless steel and malolactic fermentation and the magic egg that leaves the liquid in constant motion. I’ve tasted the creamiest of chards and the tangiest. And while there are a scant few that I can tolerate, as a general rule, I’ll just skip past that varietal and go right on to the pinot grigio, thank you very much. Unless I’m in Napa and chardonnays are the only whites on the tasting menu and I just paid twenty bucks and only get to taste four.

One time we went wine tasting with a friend and her husband. Wife’s wine tasted with the friend often, but we were a bit skeptical about his wine acumen. He’s a sales guy, so I’m never a hundred percent sure if he has any real reactions to anything. His answer to most question seems to have been play-tested for audiences of strangers who you are trying to build a rapport with. When we asked him what kind of wines he liked, he paused for a second, looked up the answer in his mental rolodex and said, “I really like full cabernets and buttery chardonnays.” Wow, is that what Madison Avenue thinks of California wines? Well, unfortunately for this dude, we weren’t going to Napa Valley that day, so he was shit out of luck on rich cabernets or buttery chards. Hopefully the tasting notes you cross-referenced and committed to memory last night know what to say about a barbera.

You know what? That’s what I should be talking about. Wine regions. Forget pairings and varietals and proper storage techniques.

Wait, did I talk about proper storage techniques? Bottle down. Not straight down, but at a slant. Most wine racks are built for the proper angle, but most people put their wine slanting upwards. Cause it makes the label prettier, I suppose. But the cork needs to stay hydrated, you see. Dry corks crack, and can break when you open them. Even worse, dry corks contract, which lets oxygen in to the bottle long before you try to open it. And once you’ve got oxygen in there, you’re no longer aging wine, you’re making vinegar.

So I guess it’s time to focus on the wine regions. I’ve been to most of the ones in California, and a few more besides. Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, Paso Robles, Lodi. I’ve sampled some near Walla Walla, Washington and Willamette Valley in Oregon. Each has their own positives and negatives. I don’t think there’s one that can properly be called the “best” region.

That being said, I do have a clear favorite. If you want good wine in a laid-back atmosphere where the winemakers and wine pourers like your company and your business, there’s really only one option. It’s a county in Northern California with acres and acres of vineyards planted on rolling hills. But the county ain’t named Napa, and it ain’t named Sonoma.

Hold on, I’ve got a lot to say on this. Check out Part II if you want to know about the hidden gem that should be considered the “real” wine country.

Keep Moving

One more flash fiction and then I’ll be back to my normal musings. I might have other flash fictions, but they’re mostly crap. I know it might be surprising that I have quality control and that these are actually the good mediocre ones, but it’s true.

I think the prompt for this one was a picture of mountainous terrain. It was only a practice rounds, so let’s just assume this would have won and was the best work of fiction that any of the judges had ever seen. Yeah, let’s just assume that.

 

Keep Moving

Breathe in. Breathe out. Move on.

That sounds like a song lyric. Maybe Jimmy Buffett or one of those other wash-ups who middle-aged dudes listen to when they’re going through a mid-life crisis. Regardless, it’s some good advice right now. Focus on what’s in front of you. One step in front of the other. Deep breath. Always forward, never looking back.

Don’t look back.

The top of the mountain is within sight. I mean, not directly in sight. That’s the thing about mountains. There’s always another peak beyond the next one. Your perspective changes. And then, when you finally make it to the top, it’s a kind of plateau. You wouldn’t even know you’re at the tip-top without some sort of sign. The next step is lower than the last one? Okay, if you say so, GPS.

Not that I’ve made it to the top of the mountain yet. But I think that’s what’s there.

So why do you climb a mountain, anyway? Because it’s there? No. Fuck that. That’s somebody else’s answer. My answer’s got to be better. Shit, a river is there. A hole in the ground is there. Why would I want to do something just because it’s there? The losers back on flat land come up with asinine reasons like it’s there. 

Kaitlyn’s back on flat land.

I’m not climbing this mountain because it’s here. I’m climbing it because I’m accomplishing something. I’m not sitting in front of a television on a Sunday afternoon, checking my fantasy football team and thinking I’m king shit because some random football player that I’ve never met is footballing harder than some other random football player that my co-worker’s never met and, whoa-hoa-hoa, how great is that going when we spend the first two hours of work tomorrow rehashing these exploits around the office coffee urn? Fucking losers.

But they’re in the past. Kaitlyn’s in the past. No looking back. Always look forward. Breathe in, breathe out.

It really is a beautiful vista. Little sage brushes dot the landscape. I’m well beyond the tree line. I left that thousands of feet below. It looks like I’m almost past the sagebrush line. Is that a thing? Is there a point where even the smallest plants cease to survive? When the air gets too thin? I mean, there’s a point where humans can’t exist, right? That’s why there’s all those frozen corp-sicles up on Mount Everest. If humans can’t exist without breathing masks, can plants survive? And if there aren’t any plants, what’s up there? Nothing but rocks and snow, I assume.

Only one way to find out. Get past these little bushes and see if there’s another copse ahead. See if there are more plants in another half-mile. Always onward. Always upward. Never look back.

At least those dead bodies up on Everest were accomplishing something. Not like those numbnuts who get stuck on Mount Rainier every April, because twenty feet of snow sounds like an excellent setting for a whimsical day hike. There’s ambition and then there’s impulsive stupidity. There’s trained hikers being led by sherpas and there’s bored twenty-somethings tempting fate after one too many hits on the bong. They aren’t moving forward. They’re just taking a very fucking stupid detour in life.

Maybe I should try Everest someday. Not there yet. This little sojourn will start my training.

Still, those Everest hikers made a vital mistake, too. They didn’t keep moving. They slowed down. They stopped. Life ends when you stop moving. Sometimes it’s not as literal as it is up on Everest, but it’s still true in Seattle or Singapore or Spain. Pretty much anywhere on Earth. I won’t make that mistake when I do Everest. I won’t slow down.

Kaitlyn slowed down. Kaitlyn stopped. She doesn’t think of it that way, but she’s wrong. She’s not on this mountain with me, and there’s your proof. The plan was to pick a new feat to conquer each year. What new feat is she accomplishing right now? Head buried in case files, preparing her seventeenth slam-dunk DUI case in a row, the bane of every first year prosecutor. Can you walk us through hat we see in this field sobriety test? What does that level of pupil dilation indicate? And when was the last time the breathalyzer was calibrated? Thank you. No further questions, your Honor.

That’s not an adventure. That’s not moving on or up. That’s just a quiet resignation to a long, slow fade into obscurity. Have fun listening to Jimmy Buffett in ten years, Kaitlyn. Don’t come bitching to me when you wonder where your mountain went.

Keep moving. Onward and upward. No detours. No complacency. Always forward. No looking back. Breathe out. Breathe in.

The air is definitely thinner up here. A full breath puts stars in your eyes. I wonder if this is part of the rush all those Adderall fiends at law school felt. Probably not. This is a natural high, brought on by my own effort and execution. Those losers wouldn’t know effort or execution if it came up out of their textbook and bit them on their ass-chin.

I could’ve taken the Bar a second time. That’s what Kaitlyn wanted me to do. Only a third of the people who take it pass it their first time. The pass rate goes up to fifty percent for second-timers. But what would that prove? Six more months of standing in place. Marking time, just to prove that I’m, maybe, in the top half. Watching my girlfriend head off to her fancy job each day, dreaming of distant mountains to climb.

And if you’re standing still, you’re actually moving backward. Because the rest of the world isn’t going to wait for you to catch up. How would that look if I was trying stupid DUI cases a year later, while Kaitlyn’s sitting second chair on murder ones? To say nothing of Rebecca in her high-tower law firm and Jimmy’s contract service.

It was time to move on. Life sent me a message, and thank God it did. If I had passed the Bar, would I be up here right now? Getting light-headed with thoughts of Everest? Nah, man. This. THIS. Is the life for me.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Keep moving. Never forward. Always look back.

No, wait a second. Keep looking forward, not backward. This thin air must be getting to me. There’s nothing worth looking at behind me.

Life’s a journey, not a destination.

I know that one’s a lyric. Amazing. Aerosmith. Steven Tyler. Now there’s a guy who doesn’t slow down. What is he, seventy? And he still runs around on stage and screams at the top of his lungs. That’s what I want to be. No, that’s what I’m going to be. Not a rock star, but still doing my thing. Still moving on. Journeying, not destinationing. Not sitting down at a desk reading case briefs. Not sitting down.

Sitting down sounds nice. Not forever, of course. Just to rest. My lungs are killing me. And my legs are… well, to be honest, I can’t really feel my legs. I wonder how high I am? The mountain just keeps on going and going. Life just keeps on going and going. Just a little rest here and then I’ll get up and finish.

What would be the use in taking the Bar a second time, anyway? As far as I could tell, only the girls passed. Except for Jimmy, but he has bubbly writing, so the graders probably thought he was a woman. What am I supposed to do, change how I write? Sure, I could study more this time. I could have studied more the first time. But studying seems so… so…

It’s so hard to catch my breath. Even when I’m sitting here in the cold. When did it get so cold? Probably when I stopped moving. But sitting feels nice. I can see all the way down the mountain from here. Such a long way I’ve come. The past looks so pretty from this vantage point.

I wonder what Kaitlyn’s doing right now. Probably kicking ass and taking names. I wonder if she’s moved on from me yet. She was always good at moving on. And moving up? She… She…

I should probably get up soon. But this is too comfortable. Once I catch my breath, I’ll get up. And then I’ll conquer my next big feat. Then I’ll be able to move on. Find a new mountain peak. There’s always another one just beyond the current one. Find a new girlfriend. Find a new career. Find a new life. Just right after I lie down for a bit.

I don’t think I’ve ever… listened to a.. Jimmy Buffett song. I wonder… wonder  if he’s any… any…

 

 

Ear in the Sky

Time to post another one of my near-miss flash fiction competition entries. The prompt on this one was to have the narrator be an inanimate object. I went through multiple iterations in a short span. I started out writing from the perspective of a rear-view window, and he was going to be in a mafioso’s car and would occasionally see the crimes and fights and whatnot happening behind the car, but he would never see what was in front. Oh, and everything was going to be reversed. Probably woulda been a cool story, but about two hundred words in, I realized there was no effing way I could crank that out over one weekend.

Then I decided to go with a bottle of wine on a restaurant table, because I was listening to a lot of Billy Joel Radio. Then I was about halfway through the story when I decided I actually wanted it to be from the music speaker’s POV. Because I was listening to a lot of Billy Joel Radio…

Don’t forget you can check out the two times my stories actually won here and here.

This one didn’t win. I present you:

The Ear in the Sky

Unmistakable chord. Yeah, I know this song. This is my jam, man.

A bottle of white. A bottle of red.

Billy Joel. “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.”

Fitting. This may not be an Italian restaurant, per se. But we’ve got plenty of pasta on the menu. Pasta goes great with wine. Forget the white. A complex red to go with a meaty pasta sauce, like a Bolognese.

We’ll get a table near the street. In our old familiar place. You and I, face to face.

Jeff and Karla have been here a number of times before. They’ve probably heard this song plenty of times before. The playlist here isn’t too long, standard repertoire of seventies and eighties easy-listening. This song is actually a little upbeat compared to the normal fare. Not this part of the song. This part, the part about the wine and the restaurant, is pretty standard, but it picks up. Turns into a song about a couple getting a divorce. Maybe not the lyrics you want playing in the background at a nice restaurant. More fitting for one of those red-and-white checkered, calamari-appetizer kind of a restaurant. Probably why we do an abbreviated version of the song here. Straight from the beginning to the end. Fits the ambiance better. Fits what people like Jeff and Karla come here for.

Let the bottle breathe a little bit. No need to speed through the wine. It’ll be here all night, sitting in the middle of lucky table seven. The table in the corner with the view of the river. The wine bottle can look out over the entirety of the place. Take the whole scene in. Frankie, the fancy waiter in his white shirt and long blue tie, both tucked into the black apron tied around his waist. He has a white cloth napkin tucked into the back of the tie rope, ostensibly to wipe his hands, keep them clean, but most of the time he just tucks his hands there, behind his back, out of habit. He pulls on the two sides of that napkin, checking to make sure they’re even with each other, more often than he actually cleans his hands. It’s a nervous disposition to stop him from hovering over his tables, of hanging his hands limply in front of his customers. If he doesn’t have pen and pad in his hands, they’re tucked behind him. The bottle of wine knows that about Frankie. I know that about Frankie. We all do.

If you’re going to be a vital piece of an operation like this, like I am, you need to know the idiosyncrasies. Frankie and his hands. Jenny’s worse with her hands. They shake. Whoa to the full bottle of red that she has to pour for a tasting. Many a nice cotton tablecloths have resembled a red-and-white checkered, calamari-appetizer style tablecloths after Jenny’s done a tasting.

You’ve got to know the back of the house, too. Luis, the sous chef, hates doing desserts, so when Luis is on the line, expect the desserts to come out slow. Joshua, the line cook, is dating Katie, the expediter. Well, I suppose you can call it “dating.” Let’s just say that the peppercorn steak might not be the only thing coming out spicy when the two of them are working together. But watch out if there aren’t any tickets up at this particular moment, those two might disappear into the walk-in refrigerator and whoa to the next tickets coming up. Better hope a nice long song comes on to bridge that particular gap in the service. Better hope the wine is pouring well, and not by Jenny.

You’ve got to know the customers, too. You’ve got to be able to read the room. Predict what each table, what each set of individuals with their individual goals and desire for the evening, want. Table three has tickets to the show tonight. They want to go fast. Table twenty-two isn’t quite a bachelorette party, but it might as well be. Raspberry mojitos, all around.

Jeff and Karla are taking their time tonight. They haven’t even sipped from the bottle of wine yet. The bottle senses that. I sense that. Frankie senses that. Jeff and Karla want some time to reminisce. Or at least one of them does.

“We’ve been coming here a long time, huh?” Jeff says.

“We have,” Karla answers. “A long time. Since the beginning, really.”

“What was it, our second date here?”

“Was it? I know it was early.”

Karla looks off into the air. Perhaps in thought. Perhaps absorbing the Billy Joel.

“I guess you’re right. It’s hard to keep track of stuff that long ago.”

Something seems a little off between Jeff and Karla. It’s hard to put a finger on it. Not that I have a finger. But it seems like Karla would usually be the historian in a conversation like this. Maybe they’ve just been traveling a lot. They haven’t been at table seven for quite some time.

Is it too early for a little Barry Manilow? Trick question, of course. It’s ALWAYS time for some Barry Manilow.

Karla’s ear ticks her eyes back toward the table when the piano melody starts. “Speaking of our early dates.”

Jeff looks confused. His brows meet in the middle, then his eyesight follows the direction of Karla’s ear, so that he’s looking up into the ether. Looking right at me.

“Who is this? Barely Man-enough? How would he remind you of our early days? Jason Mraz, maybe. Not Barry Manilow.”

“Not the singer. The song. “Weekend in New England.” About a couple that’s always apart from each other. Always traveling. Missing each other.”

Jeff doesn’t look all that interested in listening to the lyrics, but Karla’s now looking up at me. The conversation is over until the lyrics get to the part she wants to hear.

And tell me, when will our eyes meet? When can I touch you?

Jeff grabs for the bottle of wine. Pours a little bit in Karla’s wine. Turns it back to his. If the conversation isn’t going to highlight the evening, maybe the wine will.

And when will I hold you again?

“I guess I traveled a lot,” Jeff finally opines when the crooner moves into his signature key change. Man, nobody can signal an upcoming quarter-octave change better than the Manilow.

“We spent a lot of nights on the telephone. Me whispering sweet nothings from my heart, you dictating a porn diary of what you’d do to me when you got home.”

Jeff smiles. “Those were from the heart.”

Karla should smile at that. Her last comment should have been said with mirth. But there was a bit of pain in it. Her lips didn’t twitch upward at Jeff’s response. Instead, the muscles in front of her lower incisors contract. Not quite a frown, but a set.

I notice it. The bottle of wine notices it. Frankie notices it. He starts to swoop in, one step forward, hands untucking from his back-napkin.

“A little farther south than the heart,” Karla says.

A retreat. A joke that is not quite a joke, but carries the illusion of civility. I can relax. The bottle of wine can relax. Frankie can relax, which is good because there wasn’t much he could have done. Jeff had just filled their glasses and neither of them have touched the menus. Sure, he could offer up an apeasatory appetizer, list off some specials that neither of the regulars would be interested in. Thank you, Karla, for keeping things civil.

No thanks to you, Mr. Manilow. Maybe it’s time for a change.

“Deperado?” Really? The Eagles? The playlist has a mind of its own tonight. Not sure if it’s the best segue from the travelin’ man in the last song. What’s next, some U2 song about wild horses?

If I had my choice, I’d but out a little Yacht Rock here. Some Air Supply. “Every Woman in the World” or “Two Less Lonely People in the World.” Oh, how about Kenny Loggins’ “Danny’s Song?” Even though we ain’t got money, I’m so in love with you, honey.

Not that I have any say over the playlist. I can’t pick the tunes, but I can make you hear them. Probably a metaphor in there.

All I can do is let the sounds be heard. The ear in the sky. Probably closer to mouth in the sky, but I like Ear in the Sky. Closer to a song. “Eye in the Sky.” Alan Parsons Project. And I don’t need to see anymore to know that I can read your mind.

I don’t think Alan Parsons Project’s ever made it onto this playlist. Not sure why. It would totally fit the mood. Maybe not the lyrics, but the tune. Instead, I do my workman’s best to the likes of…

Desperado, why don’t you come to your senses? You been out ridin’ fences for too long, now.

Still, Karla tamed the Desperado. Pick up that thread if you know what’s good for you, Jeff.

Instead, he sips a little bit of his wine. Not good, buddy. Not good.

Karla follows suit.

Don’t you draw the Queen of Diamonds, boy, she’ll beat you if she’s able. You know the Queen of Hearts-

“Hey, remember the lyrics that the pastor said at our wedding?”

There you go, Jeff.

But Karla is the confused one now. Jeff didn’t get the Barry Manilow connection, and now she’s at a loss. The only difference is she remembers. She makes the connection. She just doesn’t really get it.

“Kenny Rogers?”

Kenny Rogers?

“Yeah.”

Wrong Kenny, Jeff.

“‘The Gambler?'”

Really, Jeff? I don’t know what’s worse. That you used “The Gambler” in your wedding vows or the fact that you think it’s appropriate here.

“Yeah. Every gambler knows,” Jeff is singing nowhere near what The Roaster can do. It would be painful in its own right, but it’s even worse against the Don Henley I’m spouting. Or is this a Glen Frey song? “That the secret to survivin’ is knowing what to throw away, and knowing what to keep.”

Okay, I’ll give it to you, Jeff. Or maybe to your pastor. It’s got a little bit of flair. But you know the gambler, like, dies in that verse, right?

“I suppose he’s right,” Karla says in response.

Oh, damn! Red Alert. Red Alert. Frankie, what are you doing just sitting there with your hands behind your back. Get in there and do something. There’s dead silence down there. All they can do is listen to the Glen Frey. Or maybe Don Henley.

It’s hard to tell the nighttime from the day. You’re losing all your highs and lows. Ain’t it funny how the feeling goes away?

Where’s the Air Supply? I need some Air Supply, stat!

“I was never really sure you wanted to be tamed,” Karla keeps going. “You were always the gambler, the traveler.”

“Until I met you.”

And now Frankie moves in. A verse too late, but Jeff seemed to recover. Sure, Frankie, refill their glasses. Talk about the specials. Ask if they want any appetizers. No? Okay, grab them some bread and butter. Great. At least it’s long enough to get this godforsaken Eagles song off of the Ear in the Sky.

Jimmy Buffett. “Coast of Carolina.”

Kind of a crapshoot here. Buffet wrote it as a sequel to “Come Monday,” yet another song about long-distance love. Man, I never really realized how many of those songs there were. But still, if the couple survived “Come Monday,” this sequel song has to be happy, right? Give these two something to focus on.

I live this dream and still it seems I’ve got you on my mind. From the bottom of my heart, off the coast of Carolina. After one or two false starts, I believe we’ve found our stride.

“What are we even doing here?” Karla asks.

And here it goes. I wish I had a record to scratch the needle across. No Frankie to jump in this time. The wine bottle can’t just tip itself over. And anyway, it’s halfway done its job. That’s a dangerous place, being halfway into a bottle of wine. Just far enough down to yank on the thread, but not far enough down to lose the thread.

“What do you mean? You love this place.”

Jeff just looks dumbfounded. He wasn’t connecting the dots up until now. I guess none of us were. Not the bottle of wine. Certainly not Frankie, who should be swooping in. Save a marriage to save a tip. But instead he’s in the back somewhere, putting little pats of butter in a tiny blue plastic ramekin. He’s probably hitting on Katie, the expediter, totally oblivious to the fact that he’s got no shot because she’s already been into the walk-in freezer with Joshua tonight.

So instead Jeff is here to fend for himself in this world that nobody was prepared for. While Jimmy Buffett does no help in the background.

These days I get up about the time I used to go to bed. Living large was once the deal, now I watch the stars instead.

No fault to Jimmy, really. These words could go either way. If Karla was in the mood to reminisce, if Karla was being her usual self, she’d eat these lyrics up. She’s usually focused on the fact that she’d tamed the wild horse, instead of how much work it was to get him to this point. Most people hear the Beatles sing “When I’m Sixty-Four” and think it’s a wonderful, forever-and-forever tale. But right now, Karla would just say, “Really, Jeff? You want me to wait until I’m sixty-fucking-four before you’re going to be a part of this fucking thing?”

And that’s the problem, really. Their roles are reversed. Jeff is usually the aloof one. He loves her, sure. That much is obvious, and always has been. He always came back. To Karla. To this restaurant. And he was always happy. But he isn’t always emotive. He isn’t always the one who can hear a lyric in a song and use it as a springboard to explain how he’s found his soulmate, his anchor, the one that puts his whole life in order. Bryan Adams. “(Everything I Do), I Do It For You.”

Unless the lyric is from “The Gambler,” evidently.

And so now that Jeff’s in this position, he doesn’t know how to respond. He can’t take the initiative. He’s figured out a way to be Newton’s equal-and-opposite reaction, but Karla needs to be the action. Karla’s not being the action. Karla appears to be done being the action.

 

All he can do is open and close his mouth. Knowing something needs to be said, but not knowing what it is. Open. A sound escapes. A “whuh” sound. Closed. Open. A “Kuh” sound. Closed.

The song changes. Oh no, playlist. Not this. Anything but Neil Diamond and Barbara Streisand.

You don’t bring me flowers. You don’t sing me love songs.

FML.

“I love you, Karla. I don’t know what else to say.”

Jeff is trying, I’ll give him that. I think he might’ve even noticed the song choice. Desperation. Hail Mary here. And honesty is a great policy. Especially if you’ve got no other viable policies.

“No, you know what, Jeff? I don’t know that-,”

“Did you guys want to hear about our specials tonight?”

Oh, Frankie. I applaud the effort, but you’re a day late and a dollar short. Actually, with this going on at one of your prime tables, you’re going to be much more than a dollar short.

“Sorry, Frankie,” Karla says, sticking her hand out at a forty-five degree angle. The universal sign for not-being-rude-but-stop. “Can you just give us a minute?”

Frankie backs away, his hands fumbling through the metaphorical tail no stuck in his legs. He’s going to try to be sneaky, slink off to the back to tell Katie and Joshua and Luis and all the others to take a wider berth around table seven. Oh, and to keep an eye on table seven.

“Like I was saying, Jeff.” It used to be so natural (used to be) to talk about forever.“I don’t think you know how to love. I think you only know how to pursue your own interests.” But used-to-be’s don’t count anymore, they just lay on the floor till we sweep them away.“And, yeah, I know that I have, invariably, been part of your own self interests. But the only reason we’ve stayed together this long is because I was always something you could come back to.”

“Dammit, Karla, that’s not true.” Baby, I remember all the things you taught me. “You weren’t just what I was coming back to.” I learned how to laugh and I learned how to cry. “You were the whole reason I was going in the first place.”

Oh, Jeff. I know what you mean. You mean that she helps you experience the world. That she’s what grounds you. That you’ve learned how to love and you’ve learned how to cry. The lyrics were right above you. You only had to grasp them. But instead you said… Are you aware of what you said?

The wine bottle can’t help anymore. Even if Jeff or Frankie had the wherewithal for a pregnant pause while pouring, it wouldn’t do any good. The bottle’s empty. That’s the thing about wine bottles. Everyone considers them quintessential to a dining experience. The first thing you order. But wine bottles usually don’t last the night. Four glasses per bottle. With two people dining, that’s only a couple glasses each. The wine isn’t there when the dessert rolls around. Or when the opposite of a dessert happens.

You know who’s still here? Who’s always here? I am. The Ear in the Sky. And I know what you’re thinking.

I just wish I could do something about it.

So you’d think I could learn how to tell you good-bye.

“Check!”

Karla attempts to flag down Frankie.

“It’s fine,” Jeff says. “I’ve got it.”

The only response he can give. Pay the tab. Slightly misogynistic, but well meaning. Kind of like Jeff. And, to be honest, half the gentlemen that reserve table seven. If they can’t come up with the nice words or the sweet sentiments, they can at least bust out the wallet for the nice view.

But whatever Jeff was hoping for, Karla’s taking him at his word. She stands up to leave.

“I’ll send the paperwork over tomorrow.”

And just like that, one of table seven’s most distinguished couples is done. Jeff is left footing the bill, both literally and figuratively. Frankie’s swooping in to drop off the literal.

Oh, hey, I hear a distinctive Australian duo coming up. Probably a song too late for you, Jeff. Not that I think it would’ve worked, either way for you tonight. But it’s the thought that…

I’m lying alone with my head on the phone, thinking of you till it hurts.

Ouch, playlist. Of all their songs, I feel especially bad for playing this one right now. Sorry about that, Jeff. I’m a speaker. I can only play the music, not pick the songs or when to play them.

Air Supply. “All Out of Love.”

Got Yer Published Work Right Here!

Hey!

So, I know some of you have enjoyed some of my “loser” flash fiction entries. And more of them are coming in the next week or two. But did you know that I don’t always lose? For copyright reasons, I couldn’t post the winners because they were going to be published along with the other winners.

Well, now you can check them out. And if you’ve liked some of my non-winners, you owe it to yourself to see the good ones, don’t ya think?

Although, let me say up front that I don’t get any royalties from these sales. The money all goes to the company that put on the contests so that they can hire interns to be totally wrong about all of my other entries (but totally right twice, just like the blind squirrel on the VCR clock). The main thing I get from being published in these anthologies is that I can now expose myself in public without… hold on, I’m starting to think that’s not what they meant by “exposure.” Hmm. Good thing it’s too cold for me to test my theory this time of year.

The first story, which appears in “72 Hour of Insanity, Vol. IV” is called “Those who Rule the Stars and the Universe,” and it’s the first one with that title. They gave us the title and we had to run with it. It’s a historical fiction. There were a few other options to choose from, such as a sci-fi story called “The Cartographer” and one that I really, really wanted to write, which was a romance called “Beating the Boardroom.” Hoo boy, mine woulda been sticky. But instead, I decided to go with the Trial of Galileo, as the question at its heart was, quite literally, about who rules the stars and the universe. Oh, and there are some distinct nods to “Assassin’s Creed.” See if you can find them.

In the second round of contests, I again placed one story, although this one was only a third place finish. I don’t care. I’ll take it. The story in “72 Hours of Insanity, Vol. 5” (yes, they went from Roman numerals to Arabic – something about Amazon publishing being less user-friendly than CreateSpace was) is titles “Over the Top.” It’s another work of historical fiction. Hey, I’m seeing a trend. We were given five options. My first inclination was the Gunpowder Plot, but then I focused in on the Spanish Flu. This was a major epidemic that started at the tail end of World War I. It ended up wiping out more people than the War did, at least in the United States. So I went with that motif, a soldier who escaped the trenches but couldn’t escape the Flu.

So out of ten events, I won one and came in third place once. They gave out five places for each event, so let’s see, two times out of fifty places. I’m four percent of a writer, now! Although I technically couldn’t place more than once per event, so two out of ten? Twenty percent? But then something, something, third place out of the number of entries, and carry the four, and…

You know what? I think I’ll stick to historical fiction.

Thanks for all of your support, peeps.

2018 Concerts, Part 2

Thanks for coming back. Earlier this week, I wrote about my trip to Red Rocks Amphitheater to see Drive-by Truckers and Tedeschi Trucks Band. Today we look at…

Concert Two:

After a concert of bands we’d never heard of, we went the complete opposite for concert number two: Foreigner, Def Leppard, and Journey. From “There Will Be Rock” to “There Will Be Stool Softeners.”

Once again, we missed the first band. Not due to any parking lot fiasco, because the concert was at AT&T Park in San Francisco, and there’s no parking there. And I don’t just mean at the baseball stadium, I mean in the whole city. Probably the better part of East Bay and South Bay, too. Parking is frowned upon in the Bay Area, because if cars could park then they couldn’t all be crossing the fucking Bay Bridge at the exact same time I’m crossing it every fucking time.

Oh, and probably some reason relating to the environment, as well.

Our delayed entry into this concert was twofold. First, as with Red Rocks, we once again encountered the dreaded long line. I kinda understand the long line at Red Rocks, which only has two entrances, but AT&T Park should have at least five or six. And I would think they have an infrastructure accustomed to processing tens of thousands of fans in a short period of time. Sure, it’s been four years since the Giants won the World Series, and their fans are notoriously fickle, such that the stands were only thirty-percent full most nights this season, but still, institutional memory’s got to have a shelf-life beyond three years, right?

Is this just what concerts are in the NSA States of America? If you want to see a band live, you must be suspect enough to have to go through a full body cavity search. And sticking your fingers up the assholes of fifty thousand screaming fans takes time. Got to be thorough.

But hey, Mr. Concert Security, would it kill you to change gloves once every ten customers or so? And one finger would’ve been plenty to find my IED. Be honest, the second finger is just for you, isn’t it.

But lines weren’t the main reason we missed the first band, and could only listen to hits such as “Cold As Ice” and “Hot Blooded” and “Double Vision.” And “Head Games”… And “I Want to Know What Love Is”… And, holy shit, Foreigner sings “Urgent,” too? Wow, this has been a great security line soundtrack. I had no idea Foreigner was so prolific. Why the fuck are they the opening band?

Sorry, where was I? Oh yeah, the main reason we were late to the concert. Because it started at six o’fucking clock on a Friday.

Who the hell starts a concert at 6:00? I know that the average age of their fans are more in line with happy hour than closing time. And sure, the new lead singer of Journey might have a curfew, but this is the Bay Area. Even if you count mass transit, I’m pretty sure it is impossible to get anywhere in the Bay Area by 6:00 on Friday. Like, even the bar around the corner from your work is occasionally a bridge too far. And quite literally a bridge too far, because you will probably have to pay a toll to go a block and a half.

So yeah, we knew we were going to be late, anyway. We already knew we’d be late when the Muni we were on, chock-full of the musk of aging rock fans, delivered us in front of the stadium at 6:15. Maybe, we hoped, there would be an opening band BEFORE Foreigner, and that’s why the concert starts so early. But nope, that’s definitely Foreigner rocking out on the other side of the brick facade. Or a damned good cover band.

Hey, I just thought of a great idea. Have a cover band open for the real band. Then you get to hear the songs you like twice, and hopefully (HOPEFULLY!) it’s better the second time around. Maybe the cover band could open with the real band’s finale, then work backward until you hear the final song of the cover band’s set twice in a row. Trademark this shit. Wait, I can’t trademark an idea? Can I patent it? I’m going to be a motherfucking millionaire with this shit.

I mean sure, I could be a millionaire by taking pretty much any cut of a multi-platinum tour. I don’t really need to be the master of the “Two-You/U2 Snake Draft Concert” to become rich. If Bono just wants to send me one percent of his next tour, cover band or no, I’d be cool with that.

We finally made it into AT&T Park during Foreigner’s last song. Which, coincidentally, is probably the last song I would’ve wanted to see live. I guess hearing it live through the throng of people in the walkways is good enough, because the people who built AT&T Park built it to look good on TV, not necessarily with the idea of tens of thousands of people attending. Hence the, I think, ten urinals in the entire park. Oh, maybe there are more, but you wouldn’t know it when you have to pee at a concert or sporting event and you miss half of said concert or sporting event.

But we eventually found our seats in time for Def Leppard to come out. I’ve always been kinda meh on Def Leppard. The old joke used to be “What has seven arms and sucks? Answer: Def Leppard.” But you know what? Now that I’ve seen them in concert, I realize how wrong I was. I take back every time I ever told that “seven arms and sucks” joke.

Because, it turns out that there are five members in Def Leppard, not four. So that means they have nine arms and suck. I apologize to the Academy and will never again say “Seven arms and sucks,” even if alliteration makes it way funnier.

Anyway, the band was fine. Nothing to write home about. Or a blog.

The drummer did look like he was going to keel over and die at any given moment. Of course, that could just be because he’s missing an arm and thus always looks like he’s lilting at an angle usually reserved for last call. But I don’t think it’s just that. He also wears industrial strength earmuffs, like he’s working on the tarmac at O’Hare or next to a steel furnace. And while proper ear protection is probably a good idea for someone who works around rock concert amplification on a nightly basis, it doesn’t really help the motif. You’re supposed to be a rockstar. This one goes to eleven, motherfucker. If you don’t want to hear your own shitty music, why the fuck would I want to?

They were cohesive, too. I think all five of them have been together since the beginning. The only lineup change they’ve had in forty years is the removal of one arm. That’s rare in a rock band, and it ought to be acknowledged.

So there, I’ve acknowledged it.

Also, I guess it was kinda cool to see “Unter, glieben, glauben, globen” said live. Something I never knew was on my bucket list.

Now onto the greatest thing about the Def Leppard show, which had nothing to do with the musicians on stage. It was the kid next to me. Maybe he was pushing thirteen or fourteen, but if I had to wager an over-under on his age, I’d say the kid couldn’t be much beyond twelve. But dude screamed at the top of his lungs and knew every fucking lyric. Pulled out his phone at the proper spot, ie “Love Bites.”

Little kids at old-fogey concerts aren’t new, of course. I once went to an Air Supply concert with eight-year olds who crooned “Making Love Out of Nothing at All” with absolutely no clue of the entendres. I don’t know if one can have a single entendre, but that song isn’t opaque enough to call it a double entendre. And I’ve forced my kid to listen to a certain temporary Sirus/XM state so much that when I was whistling a Christmas song a few weeks ago, she asked, “Daddy, is that you whistling or is it Billy Joel?”

The difference with Def Leppard kid was that his father seemed about as uninterested as one can be. He looked like I will look in a few years when my daughter forces me to the 2022 equivalent of Taylor Swift or the Jonas Brothers or Justin Bieber. Like, “Oh Jesus, can this torture go on any more?”

But this raises the question of where the hell this pre-teen came up with his love for a mid-eighties pseudo-rock/proto-hair-band? Is this going to happen to me? Is my daughter going to discover bands from my youth that I  didn’t like then and still don’t like know?

“Daddy, Daddy, Pantera is coming to town.”

“Okay, just make sure you wait until the second verse of “Cemetery Gates” before you take out the cigarette lighter app on your phone.”

Of course, it didn’t take long to figure out what chaperone dude was getting out of the show. Because when Journey hit the stage, hoo boy, those two had their roles reversed. Twelve-year old couldn’t give less of a shit. Cell phones are made for Candy Crush, not illuminating the air for a ballad. Which again raises the question of how the kid loves Def Leppard and the adult loves Journey, but never the twain shall meet. Maybe they weren’t father and son. Maybe Def Leppard Boy’s parents were all too happy to pawn him off on Uncle Journey for the evening. But this again raises the question of HOW THE HELL DOES THIS KID LOVE DEF LEPPARD?!?

I know, I know. Get over it, Wombat. Move on to…

Journey. How was that quintessential Bay Area rock band fronted by a karaoke singer half their age?

Hoo boy.

Yeah, maybe I shouldn’t bank on that whole “cover band” idea. That, after all, is what Journey has become. But it’s the worst kind of cover band, because it’s a cover band with all of the original artists sans one.

And look, it’s not fair. A band is a band, and that includes all of its members. It’s totally not fair when a band comes to town, having replaced their drummer and their bassist, and nobody bats an eye. Heck, I think everybody in Lynyrd Skynyrd died, and their still touring to this day.

I mean, if Steve Perry grabbed four musicians off the street and went on stage calling himself “Journey,” I wouldn’t bat an eye. But the reverse is not the same.

Because there’s something about the lead singer, where you can’t really replace them. I know the Eagles are now touring with Vince Gill since their lead singer died, and I gotta tell you, I’m skeptical of that one, too.

The only band that replaced the lead singer successfully was Van Halen. But the key with Van Halen was that Sammy Haggar wasn’t trying to be David Lee Roth. He had a different voice, and the band had a different sound with him as their lead singer.

And there’s one more thing about Journey that doesn’t affect latter day Glenn Freys or David Lee Roths or Sammy Haggars, and that is that Steve Perry has one of the most iconic voices of all time. The only other person in history with as unreplicable voice as his is Frankie Valli. I can’t wait for “San Francisco Boys” to come out in another twenty years to give Journey the Four Seasons treatment.

And here, I want to be fair to Journey’s new singer. He’s got a damn good voice. He’s very, very close to Steve Perry. He’s almost too close, and we’ve got the auditory equivalence of that uncanny valley shit that made Tom Hanks so creepy in “Polar Express.”

And I think this is where the biggest problems come in. Unlike Haggar, the new Journey singer is trying to be Steve Perry. The phrasings, the stylings, the timing. I wasn’t kidding when I called it a karaoke band. Dude is singing it as if it’s on a teleprompter in front of him. And I’m not knocking him. He does a spot on karaoke version of Steve Perry. Which is saying something because, trust me, there’s a lot of really, really terrible Steve Perry karaoke singers out there. Myself included. Holy crap, that shit’s hard to sing. How the fuck does he do it? And Phil Collins is tough as shit, too. He’s just in between my normal and flasetto range.

And it’s totally understandable why they got this guy who can (almost) nail Steve Perry. Nobody’s going to go to a Journey concert if they can’t close their eyes and pretend. If Journey went the Eagles route and picked up, I don’t know, Garth Brooks or Toby Keith to sing lead, and said star-in-his-own-right tried to re-imagine “Don’t Stop Believin’,” they’d be lucky to sell out a county fair. So Journey pretty much had to do a YouTube search for the world’s best Steve Perry impersonator.

But at the same time, the new dude didn’t earn the lifestyle. He’s running around on stage, giving high fives to all the fans in the front row, despite the fact that those fans don’t have a clue who he is and are only here because he sounds like something else. His stage presence was just a little bit off. Part of it was his youthful energy compared to the rest of the aging rockers in the band. But part of it is a little of the “Freaky Friday” syndrome, where he’s a guy that went from the smalltime to the bigtime in a heartbeat. I know, I know, his Wikipedia entry says he was a big thing in the Philippines and I am thereby racist to say he’s lucky as balls to be in his current situation. But regardless, he hasn’t gone the normal rockstar route. He went straight to arena rock band. He was never a “singer in a smoky room, smell of wine and cheap perfume.” He just sort of sounds like the guy who has.

And that’s where the real problem comes. The dude is singing songs he doesn’t own. Somebody else wrote those lyrics. Somebody else put his emotion into them. And it’s not that I’m opposed to remakes. The Beatles did “Twist and Shout” better than the Isley Brothers and, as I stated last week, Bruce Springsteen has the only listenable version of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” But in most of those instances, the new singer has put their own spin on it. They might phrase something different. Hold out this word a little longer, hit this note a little louder, because that’s what they feel when they sing it, as opposed to the original recording. If you aren’t doing that, then you’re doing a cover, not a remake. And cover bands don’t play baseball stadiums.

It was most obvious in the song “Lights.” And maybe it’s particularly noticeable when it’s being sung in the city that the song is about. But look, I’m not a San Franciscan, and that city annoys me more often than it amazes me. But dude, how the fuck dare you have the balls to stand on the stage at AT&T Park and sing, “I wanna be there in my city”? Do you even know which team plays there? And of course, he stresses the word “my,” because he has to, because Steve Perry did.

What made it even more awkward was that they referenced Steve Perry before they sang one of that song. They referenced the fact that he lives in the area, and that he regularly comes to this very park to watch his favorite baseball team play. Said team used his song, and gave him a cush seat, for a good portion of their three World Series runs.

And when they referenced Steve Perry, they said “Maybe he’s here tonight,” at which point we all hoped he’d come out on stage. But they followed that up, hand like a visor on their foreheads, looking out at the audience with a “Steve, are you out there?” We all looked around as if maybe the person who’s the reason we’re all here might be sitting next to us. Maybe he’s the Journey fan next to me that brought his neighbor’s Def Leppard-fan son with him. But then Neal Schon just continues with, “We hope so. If you’re here, we love you, Steve.”

Wait, you don’t even know if Steve Perry is here? I know there’s some bad blood, but did you invite him? Leave him a ticket at willcall in case he shows up at the last minute? Does he even know you’re in town? Maybe he’s not on the Foreigner mailing list and he didn’t know.

And if you did leave him a ticket, where was the seat? Because when you asked if he was here, you looked way up in the nosebleeds. You couldn’t give him a better seat than the Giants do during the playoffs? How does Steve not merit a backstage pass? Maybe you shouldn’t have left the new lead singer in charge of checking on Steve Perry’s availability.

And all of these various drawbacks and oddities were rather obvious on the stage. It was as if there were two entities on the stage, the band and the lead singer. Both tolerated the other as a meal ticket, but neither really cared about being a cohesive unit. The band members introduced all of the songs, complete with the stories of how and when they were written. Then they’d walk to the back of the stage, and the lead singer would run up to the front and belt to his karaoke heart’s content, all the while prancing around the stage and high fiving the sloppy-second hands raised up to him at the precise moment he saw Steve Perry do the same thing on the 1982 tour video.

The last time I saw a singer and band this much at odds with each other, this distant and uninterested in each other, was 10,000 Maniacs. I saw them in Monterey on Memorial Day weekend, 1993. They split up in August of that year.

But hey, 10,000 Manics did a great cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Because the Night.”

And I don’t see Journey going their “Separate Ways.” They all have that look. The one that says they know precisely which cash cow they are milking, and they will be doing that until the arenas stop filling. Which, based on the sales figures for Steve Perry’s recent solo album, is pretty much never.

2018 Concert Reviews, Part 1

In what has become something of a Yuletide tradition, because I’ve done it twice, I’m ending the year with a recap of the concerts I saw this year. Three times makes a streak, so here you go.

(Now I just need to plan a concert or two for next year)

This year, I only went to two concerts, but each of them featured three bands. So that’s, like… crap, more than one hand’s worth.

Three of the bands I had pretty much never heard of before, but it was a venue I had always wanted to go to. The other three bands I have known about for forty years, but never saw.

Since it’s two concert, and it’s 5,000 words, I’ll split it up into two posts. Come back later this week for Part Two. It’s what the business people call “synergy.”

Concert One:

One day, my wife stood at our Echo Dot and had a moment of indecision.

“Alexa, play… something.”

Yes, we are those people that only use this wonderful piece of technology for one thing. Weather alerts and alarms? Pshaw. Smart lights? What are those? It’s all about the portable DJ, baby.

“Okay,” Alexa responds. “Here’s something you might like. Shuffling songs by the Tedeschi Trucks Band.”

What the fuck is a Tedeschi Tru… Hey, this is pretty good. Alright then, let’s just ignore the fact that this AI knows what we want better than we know ourselves. I think this is how “The Terminator” starts, but what’s a little Singularity when I can discover new music? And how much do I have to pay Amazon to have Alexa suggest my book to people?

Fast forward to spring of this year, I was trying to come up with gift ideas for my wife’s birthday. She’s always wanted to go to Red Rocks amphitheater outside of Denver. So on a whim I decided to check the venue’s website to see if I could find an excuse to take her there, and who happens to be playing the weekend after her birthday? Why, it’s Alexa’s favorite band!

So the next thing we knew, we were flying into an airport that serves as the headquarters for the New World Order in order to watch a band we only liked because our robot overlords made us like them.

Hey, more synergy!

Of course, the real reason we were there was for the venue, and it’s not like I know any specific Tedeschi Trucks Band songs, nor can I tell you which riffs come from the album and when was either Ms. Tedeschi or Mr. Trucks (yes, that’s their names) improvising. Nor could I tell you which one plays which instrument. Because Alexa doesn’t show me videos. Alexa tells me to go sit in the corner until my chores are done or I’m going to bed without dinner because she won’t read the recipe to me, and the instructions on the Macaroni & Cheese are too complicated for a mere human to follow.

So yeah. Red Rocks was beautiful. Seriously, it was sublime. I wish I could make a joke, some reference to the Native Americans or the ancient Greeks with their outdoor auditoriums or whatever, but I really can’t. Hearing the naturally amplified sound while watching the setting sun reflect off a red and orange and tan mosaic rising out of the earth like the sinking Titanic, only with better music than Celine Dion playing, was worth the trip. I can’t complain about much.

But who comes to my blog to read platitudes? I think I’ll complain a little bit.

The hike up to the auditorium is a little bit of a “Holy Christ, I’m going to die.” You’re already up at, like, a million feet elevation, where the air is only, like, one percent as much as at sea level. And then they put the parking lot maybe seventy-five miles away. And ten thousand feet below, so you have to hike the last seventy-five miles directly uphill. Barefoot in the snow. Both directions.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t as bad as all that. I mean, according to my FitBit, my heart only stopped nineteen times during the hike.

The real problem, though, came after the hike. The line to get in stretched practically back to the parking lot.

And look at how it’s so precariously suspended in midair. Why, there’s nothing wrong with milling about on a free-standing structure with thousands of your human brethren for the forty-five minutes it’s going to take us to get up the stairs. I’m sure they built it with millions of pounds of stationary American girth in mind. But hey, can we maybe not stand four-wide the whole way up? They don’t have earthquakes in Colorado, do they? Or tornadoes? Or wind?

And although I have a tendency to exaggerate for comedic effect, the forty-five minutes we were stuck in line was, if anything, an underestimation. We missed almost the entire opening set. So sorry, Marcus King Band, but you sounded wonderful from my vantage point clinging to the other side of rock encampment that’s playing as nature’s own reverb machine for you.

Okay, maybe the Marcus King Band didn’t sound wonderful. But they were definitely passable.

The worst part about the long line to get in was that we had stopped for a couple of drinks in town, not wanting to be those people who showed up too early for a concert. Little did we know that, at this particular venue, arriving early means parking closer and actually getting into the venue. Damn you, Colorado. Have you never seen when your Rockies play in San Francisco or Los Angeles? Arriving on time is so gauche.

No, you know what? The wine bar wasn’t the most annoying part. The really annoying part was that we had at least three friends who had been to Red Rocks before.Each one of them discussed the majesty and the splendor and the truly breathtaking spectacle that was to be greeting us tucked away in this Rocky Mountain Garden of Edens. But not a one told us to get the fuck there early because it would take two hours to get from the parking lot through security.

Once we were through security, it was another hike up to the top to get food. Fortunately, the beer was a lot close, which was good because that wine bar seemed a month ago by now. And I needed a beer for fuel to get me up to the top to get food. You need to get calories to burn calories, people. This body doesn’t happen by chance.

Plus the opening band had just finished, so what better time to get in a food line? Oh I’m sorry, did I say what better time? I meant what worse time. Maybe we should have tried to find some seats during this intermission. But nah, why would we want to compound a mistake with a success, when there are so many other things to compound it with.

The food was good.

The seats, on the other hand…

The concert was mostly general admission. There were a few seats in the middle of the seventy or so rows that had reserved seating, but everything down by the stage and everything near the back was general admission. The typical row was a bench with approximately 140 seats. So there should have been somewhere around five thousand general admission seats. And we couldn’t find a fucking one.

“I’m holding that spot.”

“You mean those ten spots?”

“That’s why there’s a blanket there.”

“Can you scoot closer?”

“No.”

So much for Colorado people being polite.

So we watched the second band from a raised tree planter off to the side of the seating, near the stairs. And we weren’t the only ones. There were maybe ten planters, one every five or six rows, each standing ten feet high. Each planter had anywhere from five to twenty patrons, either leaning against the tree or dangling their feet off the ten-foot drop between the front of the planter and the passageway below.

Seriously, how many tickets did they sell to this thing? You might think they keep selling “general admission” because there’s no way to accurately count the number of seats. But no. Because this concert had been sold out when I searched for tickets. I had to pay extra on the Ticketmaster-sponsored ticket exchange, because if they can’t fuck you over with the initial purchase, then by golly, they’ll fuck over both the original purchaser and the secondary purchaser.

So they clearly only sold as many tickets as there are seat. It’s just that the fat fuck in row sixty-two is clearly taking up one-and-a-half seats. And the blanket cuddle orgy over to the left is looking for more lebensraum than the goddamned Schlieffen Plan.

But I can’t complain too much. From my vantage point all the way stage left, I had a beautiful panorama of those eponymous red rocks rising out of the earth stage right. In fact, from this angle, those rocks made a wide v-angle with the stage that continued to change as the sunset approached and then passed.

I never would have noticed this natural wonder had I been in the seats, able to focus my sight on something quaint like the video screen or the stage. And it’s not like I knew what the band members looked like and needed to see their facial expressions as they put emotion into lyrics I’ve never heard.

Besides, those benches were probably uncomfortable as hell.

Hey, speaking of singers and songs and shit, how was the band?

The second band that played on the evening was Drive By Truckers. With the Tedeschi Trucks Band, I’m noticing a trend.

But let me tell you, the Drive By Truckers kicked ass. I didn’t know what to expect, but they were tight. With their name, I expected something in the country-western vein. Maybe one of the hard-edge country bands, like… actually, I’m not really up on my country bands these days. Is Alabama still a thing? Were they ever edgy? How about Skynyrd?

Yeah, let’s go with Skynyrd. The Drive By Truckers were reminiscent of Skynyrd. They even reference Skynyrd in one of their songs, so they must approve of the comparison. But I’d also add in some Allmann Brothers. Or Jeff Healey. Part southern rock, part jam band. Laid back, conversational style but some great drive in their play.

I’ve become a bit of a fan since then. I mean, once I figured out which band we were actually listening to, because I don’t think it was ever announced which order the bands were going, and we couldn’t see the stage for any telltale indications of band name. For all I knew, this could be the actual Tedeschi Trucks Band, and they just weren’t letting the lady sing tonight.

But I remembered a lyric that went “I never saw Lynyrd Skynyrd” and was able to track down to the song “Let There Be Rock,” by the Drive-By Truckers, so then I knew who I had seen. Thanks, Google!

So now I’ve found myself listening to them a few times since. More often than Tedeschi Trucks. Even a few times on my Alexa. I wonder if think she knows that it stemmed from her initial recommendation? Thanks, Amazon!

Boy howdy, am I ready for our new AI overlords or what?

Speaking of Alexa’s original suggestion, how was the Tedeschi Trucks Band? Pretty good. Most of their recordings, and most of their YouTube videos, are from their concerts, so they sounded pretty much like I had heard and expected. Which is great. I mean, that’s what we were there for, right? Aside from seeing the amphitheater which, let’s be honest, was the real reason we were there.

But regardless of that, the Tedschi Trucks Band was solid. Very enjoyable. But they broke the number one rule of showmanship, which is to not be upstaged by the opening band. Or in this case, the second band.

In the end, we were tired of standing by a tree and not being able to see the actual band, and were mindful of getting to and out of the parking lot before the next presidential election, so we left before their set was over. Which doesn’t seem fair. You’ve got to wait until the finale and the encore to really judge a concert, right? Heck, “Let There Be Rock” was Drive-By Truckers’ last song, and it’s the one that finally pushed me over from enjoyable to kick-ass.

But meh, wife was over it, and I needed another beer, so we might as well get one on the way out. And I might or might not have still been able to hear the finale from the parking lot seventy-two miles away. Those red rocks can really reverberate, baby.

Come by later this week to hear about my second three-band show. I’ll give you a hint: One of the bands had a Filipino lead singer and the other has a one-armed drummer.

The Humbug is Strong

I’ve never really been a fan of Christmas music.

I’m sure that’s not an entirely true statement. If we could find a time machine back to the Carter administration, I’m sure we could find a little tyke doing all the fun calls and responses from “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.” What kindergartner doesn’t love to follow up a lingering statement like “used to laugh and call him names” with, “Like Columbus.”

What? Columbus wasn’t used as an insult? You’ll go down in history, like Columbus? I mean, sure, genociders are historical and all, but what, was Hitler unavailable? Honestly, the only thing that went down in history around Columbus was the population of Native Americans. But whatever, Montgomery Ward, let’s just stick with the moron that thought the world was a third the size that it really is.

Oh yeah, for those of you who don’t know, Montgomery Ward invented Rudolph as a marketing ploy to differentiate their mail-order catalogs from Sears in the 1930s. That’s why he’s not listed in “The Night Before Christmas.” Rudolph didn’t exist yet. It was just… um.. Vixen? Nixon? Dixen-sider? Wait, I know one of them is named Blitzen. See? Hitler!

And of course, beyond Rudolph are some of the other great hits. About snowmen and nights spent in sensory deprivation chambers. And bells, of both a chromatic and auditory nature. And, of course let’s not forget the annual debate over what does and does not constitute date rape.

Then there’s the song about… no, I think that’s pretty much it. There are only five Christmas carols, right?

That’s really where my disdain for Christmas music began. It’s not that the individual songs, in a vacuum, are bad songs. Except for maybe “Away in a Manger.” That shit’s horrible on listen number one or listen number infinity. Whereas the rest of the songs only become intolerable as they approach infinity. Which is about how many times I’ve heard “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” And, by extension, that means I’ve heard “And a Happy New Year” one-third of infinite times. Aren’t you glad to know that the subject I teach is not math?

My mom was one of those people who listened to Christmas music on a more-or-less continuous loop for the last part of every year. Most years she would wait until the day after Thanksgiving to start, sometimes she’d sneak it in around Veteran’s Day. My wife is in that same vein. I believe that, were I not in the picture, she would feel like the Fifth of July is a perfectly acceptable time to start signing about snow and bells.

Hey, speaking of Christmas in July, did you know Hallmark Channel did that promotion this year? Because I’m pretty sure they get eighty percent of their viewership when they run those crappy love stories, where Candace Cameron is about to hook up with some hockey player, but then Santa shows up at the end to kill the hockey player get some strange for himself. Wait, that’s not how the movie ends? Santa gets the two together? Shit, I’m super glad I never stay awake till the end.

Anyway, I know that Hallmark Channel does this because when I told my four-year old it was July, she said “Christmas in July,” because whenever she’s visiting grandma and grandpa, they have the Hallmark Channel on. They’re part of the twenty percent that watch year round. Including on Thanksgiving. Did you know there’s football on the TV on Thanksgiving? Because my in-laws don’t. When I explained this dilemma to my co-workers, they responded with, “Wow, that’s got to suck for your father-in-law,” to which I respond, “He’s the one putting on the fucking Hallmark movies!”

But at least there’s a variety of Hallmark movies. Not only can you watch has-beens from “Full House,” but “Party of Five,” too. I think I even saw a “Days of Our Lives” alum this season. Whereas with the Christmas music I listened to endured in my youth, it was the same three records over and over. And by records, I actually mean records. Oh, maybe one or two of them were on 8-track, but by and large, they were vinyl records. You know, the ones where you can’t skip a song?

As an aside, am I the only one who feels unfinished when “Yesterday” ends and it isn’t immediately followed by the opening riff of “Dizzy Miss Lizzie”?

My mom played those records like broken records. Over and over and over again. Which is pretty much what the seventeen different holiday channels on Sirius/XM are doing right now. “Hey, that was a great Bing Crosby song. Coming up after this John Denver song, we’ve got some Bing Crosby on the way.”

Because every Christmas song, it seems, was recorded in a three-year span by three artists. Oh sure, they’ve been redone by every Jewish musician known to mankind. Seriously. Barbara Streisand, Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, and Barry Manilow have all recorded songs about the glorious birth of Christ. Hell, when Rod Stewart released a Christmas album last year, my first thought was, “I didn’t even know he’s Jewish.”

So somewhere around the age of seven, listening to “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas” for the two-hundredth time, I realized that I was kind of over all of the Christmas songs. It was probably a balmy 82 degrees in Southern California on this particular listen of “It’s Beginning to Look a lot like Christmas” when I realized the absurdity of it all.

But when they go away for eleven ten nine months at a time, I sometimes forget the inanity. Somewhere around Thanksgiving or, knowing my wife, closer to Halloween, I’ll hear my first Yuletide song of the year. And I’ll hum or whistle along, because most of them are festive as shit. A little “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” goes a long way in mid-November.

But by the time December 1 rolls around, I’ve once again heard every song multiple times this year and I’m reminded that I still have another four weeks to go.  I try to grin and bear it, but the Stockholm Syndrome just won’t stick.

For a while, I was happy when new versions of songs, and even an occasional new song entirely, came out. I think my eyes went wide the first time I heard Bruce Springsteen’s “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” Like, “Holy shit, they can do that?” Hell, The Boss isn’t even Jewish, unless his grandparents changed the spelling from Springstein.

And of course, when Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” came out, I was in college, so I was perfectly fine to watch her traipse around in her little Santa suit on VH-1 once per hour.

But before too long I remembered that Bruce Springsteen is a communist that hates consumerism and Mariah Carey is bat-shit crazy.

And don’t get me started on that “Believe” crap from “Polar Express.” Holy fuckdoll, is there any way I can gouge my ears out a la Oedipus’s eyes by the end of that song? Shit, I’ve got time, the song has to be forty-five minutes long, right?

That’s the problem with hearing the same things over and over. You start to notice every single nuance and intricacy of it. You start to think, “Really, Beach Boys? Christmas comes this time each year? When the fuck else would it come? What was the B-side of this calendar dumbfuckery: Saturday is at the End of the Week?

Hell, I’d probably find reasons to hate “Layla” if I had to listen to it on constant loop for six straight weeks.

Scratch that. “Layla” is perfect. But the acoustic version is on a strict no-more-than-once-per-month diet.

But the last few years, I’ve tried to make my peace with Christmas songs. There’s something about the joy in a child’s face. Especially when that joy appears when she’s in the car with mom, who has Christmas songs on her radio, and I only have to see that joy through a rolled up window.

Wife is usually kind enough to hold her pre-December Christmas songs out of my earshot. I did my part by ignoring all of the changed pre-sets on her car radio. But all good things must come to an end, and the last week or two, I’ve endured.

Until yesterday. When my daughter said, and I quote, “I don’t want to listen to this song.”

My heart grew three sizes that day. I became Darth Vader at the end of “The Empire Strikes Back.”

Yes, child, I am your father.

“Why not?” Wife asks.

“They play it too much.”

A smiled pursed my lips. Forget Darth Vader, I’m going full Emperor Palpatine on this one.

Goooood. Let your hate flow through you. Fulfill your destiny and take your father’s place. The Humbug is strong in this one.

The song that turned her toward the Dark Side?

“Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.”

Meh, not the first choice on my hatred hierarchy, but I’ll take what I can get. Maybe I should make her listen to the Bruce Springsteen version and then explain how it’s a subtle dig at the imperialistic evil of the United States.

Unfortunately, my four-and-a-half year old wasn’t really enunciating her feelings properly. Shocking, I know. What she really meant was that she enjoys when mommy and daddy sing it to her, and doesn’t want to hear docile pre-recordings. Why does she love mommy’s and daddy’s rendition? Because if there’s one motif for the month of December in a house with a pre-schooler, it’s “You better not pout, you better not cry.”

In other words, “Shut the fuck up! You’re supposed to be fucking happy!”

Seriously, what is it about this month? I know a big part of it is the shorter days and the lousy weather. In the summertime, after I pick her up from daycare, we can go to the park or ride bikes or play in the yard until the sun sets well past 8:00 PM. This time of the year, the sun has usually set by the time I can pick her up. And sure, there are street lights, but it’s fifty degrees outside, which in California is practically arctic. The best we can do is drive around the neighborhood looking at Christmas lights. Otherwise, it’s a steady stream of Disney, Jr while I wrack my brain about ways to expend one million joules of pent-up, four-year-old wiggles in a two-hundred square foot jail cell without damaging the prison walls and furniture that mommy and daddy put a lot of effort into.

And dammit, child, I have a very important blog with seventy followers, at least ten of which might not actually be bots, so just sit there and watch the same goddamned “Vampirina” episode for the seventieth time. It’ll prepare you for a life of Christmas music.

But there’s also the compensatory factor of our stories about Santa Claus and his Gestapo powers of spotting every naughty action the child has ever committed. Not that said child can identify what action is naughty and which is nice, but she’s pretty sure that Big Brother Santa knows her deepest darkest demons. After all, he’s watching her sleep. After we made her sit on his lap. Nothing creepy about that.

And don’t get me started on the Elf on the fucking Shelf. Trust me, that NSA-inspired bullshit will get its own post from me at some juncture. And if that post doesn’t materialize by December 2019, assume I’ve been placed into a Christmas concentration camp. By the time I come out, I’ll be Winston Smith saying, “two plus two equals Happy Holidays.”

But all of this, the cabin fever and the fact that she isn’t entirely sure how the whole Christmas morning thing is going to work, leads to lots of whining. And lots of temper tantrums. And, oh my GOD, the pouting. I ask her what she wants for lunch, she’s reacts like I asked her to sever her arm. She runs to the couch, doubles over and buries her head like Burt the fucking Turtle facing a nuclear attack.

So props to the writer’s of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town,” because they’ve nailed the essence of what it is to actually have a child during this “Most Wonderfucked Time of the Year”. Because we’ve had to hit the first verse often. And early. Like, before Thanksgiving. Of last year. Because “Jingle Bells” and Parson Brown marrying some motherfuckers who just met ain’t getting this family through the Donner Pass of Christmas time any easier than watching “Fancy Nancy” learn the true message of Christmas for the seventeenth time.

And there I had to be an asshole and ask her if she needs to go potty again. Cue the histrionics and the psychiatrist bills. Maybe I need to get an Elf to blow cigarette smoke into her face and scream, “Ve haff vays of making ju grin.”

But in the meantime, we just sing. “You better shut up. You better not pout. No seriously, don’t pout. You better not fucking… hey, where are you going? Why are you burying your head? Seriously, Spring is still three months away, can you fucking work with me here? I’m telling you why.”

And the result of our subliminal reinforcement? It certainly hasn’t stopped the whining. But at least it’s made her not want to hear the song. Except that, if you dig a little deeper, she does want to hear one rendition. Not Bing Crosby’s. Not Bruce Sprinsteen’s. Only…

“Sometimes I pout just so you guys will sing it to me.”

Oh, fuck my life.

And here I thought I was raising another Grinch. A young padawan to carry my Sith-mas traditions into the next generation. A burgeoning naysayer who could listen to her Bruce Springsteen music and rail against the consumerist tendencies of a bourgeois society.

But nope. Looks like I’m just raising another child who can play her parents like a fiddle and can’t wait to see where that crazy elf has hidden himself today.

Pass the eggnog.

Maybe “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” was a bridge too far. Next year I can try again with some low-hanging fruit to get her to hate Christmas music.

Sing it with me everyone. “We’re simply having a Wonderful Christmastime.”

Sorry Mario

More flash fiction. The prompt for this week was that the character that the story revolves around can’t appear in the story. Not sure why, but the “Sorry, Mario, but our princess is in another castle” popped into my mind right away. Then it was a matter of getting there.

Sorry Mario

“Are you ready?” Jeff asked.

His wife looked back at him in the darkness.

“Are you sure we shouldn’t go to the police?” Melissa asked in return.

“The note said no police.”

“I doubt an ill-advised rescue attempt is sticking to the ransom, either.”

“It doesn’t matter. We’ll be in and out before they know what’s going on. You just saw the same thing I did. Three of them left. They didn’t have Daniella with them. That means she’s still inside.”

“I just…,” Melissa trailed off, then changed her tact. “You know you’re not Mario, right?”

“Who?”

“Mario. I don’t know, Luigi. This isn’t a video game.”

“Really? You went with Mario? Not Assassin’s Creed? Not James Bond?”

“Whatever. Isn’t Mario the one who’s always saving the princess?”

“That’s Link.”

“Okay, but Mario is the one that changes direction in mid-jump. You know you can’t do that, right? Hell, you can’t really jump, at all.”

“This won’t require jumping.”

The silence between the married couple stretched on.

“This isn’t a video game,” Melissa finally said, returning to the beginning of her argument as summary.

“So are you in or out?” Jeff asked.

“I guess it’s too late to go back now. It’s not like we have the ten grand they’re asking for anyway.”

“Okay then. Let’s go rescue our daughter.”

Jeff climbed through the hole in the fence and began to tiptoe toward the brick building that he had traced the kidnappers to. Melissa followed behind him, carrying the pistol that they had owned for a decade but never used. Melissa had tried to get rid of the thing when Daniella was born, but Jeff would hear nothing of it. He kept it in his bedstand, but kept the bullets up high in their closet, where a child could not accidentally find them or load them or shoot them. Without its bullets, it wouldn’t offer much protection, but Jeff assumed the sight of a gun might be enough to make a home invader flee. Nobody wants to hang around long enough to see if a gun is loaded or not.

Melissa might be right that this wasn’t a video game. But the vast number of heist movies and Liam Neeson thrillers had laid the groundwork for what lay in front of Jeff. Working for the City Comptroller gave him the rest of what he needed. No need to keep the kidnappers on the phone for ten extra seconds in order to triangulate the cell towers if you can just get a listing of the blocked phone number after the fact. From there, all he had to do was check the blueprints of the abandoned book depository, which were public record and available to any citizen of the city, as long as said citizen knew whom to ask.

Don’t fuck with civil servants, Jeff thought, was the moral of the story.

Once he saw the blueprints, it was obvious how this warehouse could be turned into a prison for a kidnapped child. Jeff knew, without even needing to think, where the bastards were holding Daniella. The old manager’s office lay in the back of the open warehouse, and it had a fortified vault in one corner. It didn’t take a criminal mind, or even a dozen watchings of “Ocean’s Eleven,” to know where he needed to go.

And with the three perps having just left, Jeff and Melissa should be able to waltz right in and save their daughter. Jeff patted himself on the back as he padded toward the door the kidnappers had left ten minutes ago.

The room beyond the door was dark. Jeff was happy. That meant none of the kidnappers were still inside. Everything was going to plan.

The booby traps were not part of the plan.

“Ouch.”

“What’s wrong?” Melissa asked from behind, raising the gun in her two hands, as she had been trained to do in the one class Jeff had made her take a decade earlier.

“Nothing. It’s just that the doorknob is warm. Even through these gloves.”

Melissa laughed to release some tension, pointing the gun back toward the ground. “Do people really use the old hot handle trick? I thought that only happened in Bugs Bunny cartoons.”

Jeff laughed, too, in spite of himself. “Ye- yeah. We’ve gone from video games to Looney Tunes. Let’s hope these guys are more Elmer Fudd than Bow-“

Jeff didn’t finish his thought. As he inched the door open, the subtle heat turned into a fireball. Jeff fell backward as flames exploded out of the doorway. Melissa screamed, dropping the gun as she shielded her own face from the conflagration. Her husband crashed to the ground, losing his wind as his back hit the ground.

It was not a continuous spout of fire. Not a flame thrower, nor a blowtorch. Not the type of sustained heat to make a creme brulee. This was just one explosive flame, a barbecue finally lighting after the fourth push of the igniter button. Perhaps more to frighten people away than to actually harm them.

“Further proof there’s nobody here to guard her,” Jeff said as he rolled over on to his stomach.

Melissa nodded, even though she had not been privy to his internal monologue. They had been married for a decade, and dated for an extra five years before that. She could follow his train of thought better than anyone. And she agreed.

Wife helped husband regain his feet. She wiped the dirt off the back of his shirt, while he did the same to the front of his jeans. Tentatively, Jeff reached forward. He grasped the cooling doorknob and pulled on the door, just enough to open it a crack, while ducking to his left, fully prepared to dive for the floor once again. But the fire was a one-time deterrent. The door opened without a hitch.

A dark expanse faced them. The scant light from outside only showed a few feet near the open door. But Jeff knew this room. The blueprint showed a seventy-foot-by-seventy-foot square. Jeff took a confident step forward. Then another. His eyes could still make out the general shape of the grey-brick, windowless walls from the scant light spilling in through the entryway. This was a convenient reinforcement, as the two into darkness as soon as the door closed behind Melissa.

The last picture Jeff had seen, filed by a construction firm filing a “Use of Historic Building” form, showed the room to be empty. All of the bookshelves had been removed to the school district’s newest warehouse. The old storage room was perfectly suited for the air rifle arena that the construction firm had been hoping to open, or an urban-themed disco, but both of those applications had been denied. The Comptroller was holding out for an artist enclave or some other upscale business to begin the gentrification process in this part of town.

His mind’s eye seeing the blueprint and the picture, Jeff took one cautious step forward in the darkness, then another. Within a few steps, Jeff was sure his eyes had adjusted as much as they could. He walked forward with purpose, his mind focused on the distant door to the manager’s office on the blueprint in his head.

Until his foot missed the floor. Or didn’t miss, per se, but came down on something else. A round object. A group of spheres, (Marbles!) rolling out from under his step, toppling him over once again. He tried to fall forward this time, flailing his arms out in front of him. In the end, he thought he pitched to the right, the brunt of the impact hitting his right shoulder. His head came to rest on his assailant. Not spheres, but tubes.

Not marbles.

Jeff thought back to the marbles on Daniella’s floor. He had almost tripped over them. He was always stepping on Daniella’s toys. The marbles weren’t as bad as those damned Legos. Marbles on a carpeted floor won’t cause any harm. But they had been there nonetheless. Sitting on the floor, as if Daniella had just been playing with them. It was all he could focus on at first. Not the open window, outside breeze blowing the tree outside gently against the side of the house. Not the ransom note on the bed. “$10,000. Instructions for delivery in two hours.” Only the marbles on the floor. And an indentation on the carpet. How long ago had Daniella been sitting there, playing with her toys?

When did the two hours begin?

A light switched on. A faint, LED glow illuminating the area in front of him.

“Not sure why we didn’t think of this before,” Melissa said, her phone having replaced the gun in her right hand.

The glow started to fade. She turned it back to her face and double-tapped the screen. Lumens returned, and she turned the screen back toward to scene on the floor.

“Can you turn on the flashlight,” Jeff said into the picture on her screen. A selfie of the three of them, Daniella’s face smiling between her two parents, the “Welcome to Disneyland” sign hovering behind their close-up faces. Jeff never liked that picture. He never knew where to look on a selfie. The other two beamed straight at the camera and he was gazing off to the right as if something had just caught his eye. A naked lady or a terrorist attack or an alien coming down in a flying saucer. Or maybe he was looking into the future, and a kidnapper taking his daughter from his very house while he was busy looking the other direction.

“Isn’t that the app that the Russians were using to steal your identity?” Melissa asked, but turned her phone back around to see if she could find the app in question. She thumbed the safety on her pistol and tucked it into her back pocket.

“I think that’s just an… ow… an old wive’s tale,” Jeff said, finally feeling the impact on his shoulder as he shifted his weight in an attempt to get up off the floor. Although he hadn’t felt any initial impact, he was pretty sure his wrist had lost some of its structural integrity. “Besides, at this point, the Russians can have my fucking identity.”

Three thumb-clicks later, the flash on Melissa’s phone shone down upon her husband as he regained his knees. Around him lay a scattering of white PVC pipes. Moving the light around, she saw them stretch on for five feet or more. It would have been impossible to avoid them in the dark, no lucky, walk-over bypass.

“Who the hell leaves a bunch of pipes laying around in the dark?”

Whether they had been lain there intentionally or leftover from some random inhabitant or potential owner, it was hard to know. But with the flash of a digital camera to lead the way, husband and wife were able to avoid this obstacle, and another batch of PVC pipes twenty feet further on.

“The positioning looks a little too precise to be there randomly,” Melissa opined, and Jeff was forced to agree. Eight pipes in a row, the last two angled to the right and the left, ensuring the whole batch would roll.

“I don’t get it. Did they want us to pay or did they want us to come here?”

It was a question that hung over the two of them as they made their way to the door near the corner of the far wall. Jeff thought he heard sirens in the distance, but it was too hard to be certain. Everything on his body was screaming. His injured wrist, his bruised shoulder, his scorched face. There was enough ringing in his ears to easily mask any exterior sounds. To say nothing of the thick warehouse brick. So instead of straining to make sense of a distant noise, he focused to the only sense that was working: his eyesight following that single trail of cellphone light to the inner office door.

Once there, Jeff and Melissa only stared at the doorknob. Melissa’s phone illuminated it perfectly. An utterly normal sphere of chrome, a simplistic keyhole in the middle. Jeff reached forward, then stopped himself. Once, twice. He finally reached all the way, tapped it with his finger. It didn’t budge, it didn’t melt, it didn’t morph into a evil maw with teeth ready to snap an assailant’s hand off. It did exactly what a doorknob should do when tapped, which is to barely notice, to continue existing precisely as intended. Slowly, ever so gingerly, reaching through a morass as if the ice age might sneak back into this room in time to rescue both father and daughter, Jeff grabbed hold of the knob and turned.

The mechanism released. The door released from the doorjamb. Jeff pulled on it while his wife removed the gun from her back pocket. Both sensed that, make or break, their journey would end on the other side of this barrier. The sirens from the street rose in pitch, adding a sense of urgency and dread. Melissa moved her phone to her left hand, thumbing the small safety nub into its receptacle.

The door swung open.

Nothing was there. Jeff blinked. Melissa blinked. Melissa shone the flashlight left, then right. The dimensions of the room were correct. Ten by ten. No desk. No furniture. And no vault door behind where the desk should have been.

Jeff took a giant step to his left, in the direction of the phantom vault, the spot on the wall that showed nothing. Straight forward, no variance. No time to think. Had he slowed down, he might have seen the trip wire. But probably not, strung as it was at shin height, as thin and as taut as an E string on an acoustic guitar.

Gunfire rang out. A bright flash to Jeff’s left. Reverberating crashes, a cacophony in an enclosed place. Four shots in rapid succession. Melissa returned fire without thinking. Bullets flew in both directions over Jeff’s shoulder. His knees gave out and he once again plummeted for the floor. Melissa stood stock still for a moment before belatedly realizing she should have ducked behind the wall.

But it didn’t matter. They were alone in the room. The gun that had fired and, blessedly, missed, had been yet another trap. Not another person in the room. And when Melissa shone the light on the wall opposite the muzzle flashes, they saw, to the right of the doorway where one would expect it, a light switch. In his mind’s eye, Jeff saw himself reaching for the light instead of darting to the left as soon as he entered the room. What any sane person would do.

He started to laugh. Quietly at first, then it grew. The entire idea was absurd. And the two of them were making it through not because they were trained, not because video games and movies had shown them the way to do it. But because they were just strung out enough, just impulsive enough, to ensure they were continually doing what no sane person would be doing at this time.

“I’m Mario!” He finally said between his laughs.

“What?”

“A fireball. A pipe. A bullet flying through space at nothing in particular! Hahaha! You were right! This is Mario. I just lost my third life. How many do I have left?”

Melissa only stared at her husband, through the smoky haze of residual gunpowder, laughing maniacally on the ground. She tried to make sense of what he was saying. Her senses were as overloaded as his. Darkness and light and smoke and gunfire. Sirens getting closer and closer. Only she wasn’t cracking, as her husband clearly was. She needed to stay grounded in reality, where neither of them had any extra lives.

“It’s over there,” Jeff continued between gasps. Melissa shone her light back to him, then followed the direction he was pointing. Her phone showed a vault door. “I was reading the blueprint wrong. I zigged when I should’ve zagged.”

Melissa started to laugh now, too. Seeing the vault door, knowing Daniella lay beyond. They were almost to the end. The end was in sight. The emotion that had been pent up for the last twenty hours finally came out.

“You… You changed the direction of your jump in midair.”

He stepped forward to hug her husband. The two of them laughed and sobbed for what seemed like an eternity. Exhausted and delirious.

“This is the police! You are surrounded!”

The amplified voice permeated through the building. Jeff and Melissa looked at each other in confusion.

“The police are here?” Melissa asked. “For us?”

“Did we set something off?”

“Did the kidnappers send them? No police, the note said.”

How many lives do we have left?” Jeff asked again.

The two blinked at each other in the cone of lightness.

“It’s okay. Just get Daniella out of there. Then we can explain what we’re doing in here.”

Jeff nodded. It would be easy enough to explain. They weren’t trespassing, after all. They were saving a captured little girl. Their daughter. They had every right to be in here. The cops would be very interested to hear about what had prompted this whole endeavor. Jeff took Melissa’s phone and walked toward the vault. At the last minute, he worried about a lock. Maybe the cops would be able to open the vault door and save his daughter from the other side.

He heard the distant door open, and footsteps storming into the building, as he reached the padded door. He turned the handle, this one a long metal bar instead of a chrome sphere, and was relieved when it swung freely. The door swung inward.

“FREEZE!” came a multitude of voices from behind.

Bright light blazed behind Jeff, illuminating the office. He raised his hands in the air, wanting to make sure he was seen complying. He hoped Melissa was doing the same, and he hoped her gun was not in her hand.

“TURN AROUND!”

But Jeff couldn’t turn around. All he could do was stare straight forward. Into the vault, now fully illuminated in the police lamps. He could see every corner of the tiny vault. The tiny, empty vault.

Daniella was nowhere to be seen.

Sorry, Mario, but our princess is in another castle.

For the fourth time today, Jeff fell to his knees. He dipped his head as cops grabbed his hands from behind. He stared straight forward as cold steel clasped his wrists.

The room was empty. Jeff was out of lives.

 

Campfire Story

Don’t let your blog die during NaNoWriMo, I told myself. I’m going to post some old flash fiction, I actually posted in said blong. And here it is the first week of Decemeber and, let me check… one post, three weeks ago. Bang up job, Wombat.

Okay, here you go. Some of my flash fiction that didn’t win any contests. This one was supposed to be a Campfire Story. So I tried to make it read as if it was being spoken aloud in front of some kids. They said I had too many rhetorical questions, and I guess it was too late to say they weren’t supposed to be rhetorical. They were assuming that people were responding to them. But I’m telling you that now. So no complaining!

Enjoy.

And the Queen of England

The night was a night a lot like this.

Do you see the way the moon sits above the tree line? The way it just hangs there, a dull amber hue, lighting up our surroundings. It’s big. It’s bold. Not the type of moon you see in the city. It isn’t hiding behind a skyscraper or around the corner of the church on Third Street.

The farmers call it a harvest moon. It’s closer to the Earth this time of year. It keeps a watchful eye out over you so you can keep a watchful eye out over your crops. It’s a moon that wants to remind you that once upon a time, people thought he was a god. They prayed to him. And, boy howdy, by the time this story is finished, you’ll be praying to the almighty light of that moon, just like those old farmers were. Just like I was.

Because the last time I saw that moon was the first time I saw the half-human, half-…

You know what? I’m getting ahead of myself.

There were four of us out in the woods that night. David, the bald one. And Josh. Well, I guess Josh was bald, too. Mostly, anyway. Not everyone can have locks as luscious as your uncle, here. But I don’t really remember Josh’s hair. I think of him more as the burly guy. Built like a brick sh-, um sorry. Built like a sturdy outhouse. No? No frame of reference for that? A port-a-potty? Although those aren’t very sturdy, I know. Think of a port-a-potty that is made out of brick. Okay, sure, like the bathroom at the park.

And then there was Sonia. Poor, little Sonia. I don’t remember why she was out there with us. She had always just kind of been there. Part little sister, part would-be girlfriend. The glue that held together our motley crew. Whether we were smokin’ in the boys room or home, sweet, home. Ha, ha! Trust me, kids, when one of your college roommates introduces you to that old-school, hair-band rock music, you’ll get what a funny joke I just made.

Although I shouldn’t joke about Sonia. I haven’t seen her since that night. Diminutive little Sonia. Stood maybe five-foot-one, dripping wet. She’d have to stand on her tippy toes to hit a hundred pounds. Pixie-ish is what I used to call her. Now I know how apt that was. She really had no business being out there. None of us did, it turns out. But Sonia, least of all.

The Queen of England was there, too. I don’t quite remember when she got there, but I know she wasn’t there at the beginning. I’ll get to her later.

Have you heard that saying, “you can’t see the forest through the trees?” Well, that’s true. You see those trees right there? I know it’s dark, but that ring that’s illuminated around us. What’ve you got there, a Douglas Fir? A Noble Pine? It’s like a veritable Christmas Tree farm here. Some of them are tall and some of them are short. I mean, short to the other trees. Not short to you or I. Heck. See that one right there? What is it, twenty feet tall? On a Christmas Tree lot, that would be one of the top money getters, but here he’s just a little runt, barely stealing enough sun and nutrients from his big bullies next door.

And speaking of those bullies, check out that bad boy over there. He’s gotta be fifty feet if he’s an inch. Flickering orange in this light, but what do you think he looks like in the light of day. Is his trunk grey, like an elephant, trumpeting its power over the rest of God’s creation? Or is he a meek brown, trying to camouflage himself amongst his brethren. “Hey guys, I may be the one that everyone looks at, but I’m just one of you all. Come on, group tree hug.”

But here’s what I was saying with that whole forest-and-the-trees thing. We’re looking at that tree. But can you see the forest? Can you see what it all means? Can you even see what’s behind it? What could it be hiding? Well, that’s what David wanted to find out. So he got up from around the fire, a fire very much like this, to kill that cat’s curiosity and try to see the forest with his very own eyes.

And what did he see? You want to know what he saw, don’t you? When bald, wiry David tiptoed up to a giant pine tree standing sentinel on the edge of the light, warding off the darkness, or maybe it was vice versa, protecting the darkness from the evils of the light. What did David see, crunch, crunch, crunching through the dried pine needles like a drunken lion on shore leave?

Well, I don’t know. Because as he got to the tree, as he peered behind ever so subtly, I saw him lean in behind the tree, take a step, lean in some more and then…

David was gone.

Gone! A ghost! Like the tree had swallowed him whole. I know. I didn’t believe it at first, either. Thought maybe it was a trick of the eyes. A vantage point kinda thing. But no. David was gone. We called for him. Said his name. No response.

Josh was up first to follow David beyond the tree. That’s the kinda guy Josh is. Was. David was curious, always chasing some tantalizing, ethereal distance. Josh was sturdy. Grounded. Ready to go as soon as the going got going. I followed shortly behind Josh, because for me it was a thought and for him it was instinct.

Now I know what you’re thinking. Josh is going to disappear behind the tree, just like David. They’re going to join each other in some Great Beyond like in that nineteen-eighties Netflix show. But no. Maybe it was a one-time thing, or maybe it was because I was right behind him. The darkness can only take you when you’re lonely.

Whatever the reason, Josh rounded the pine and came out clear on the other side, rounding back out into our clearling, moments before I broke the plane of the forest myself.

But there was nothing behind the tree. It was just the back side of a tree. Or the front side, or the side side, depending on your vantage point, I suppose. My point is that David wasn’t there and David had never been there. No sign of him anywhere. No black, size-eight Converse tennis shoes. No svelte, tan, designer jacket signifying “Dave was here.” If I couldn’t see his tent over by the campfire, I might not think he had joined us on our trip.

Wait, was Sonia still sitting at the fire when I looked back in that direction? She should’ve been, but I don’t remember, definitively.

What I do remember, definitively, was Josh circling the tree, and me circling behind him. Once around. Twice around. The sun and the moon. Like a yin-yang, always on the opposing side. The fighters in the “Beat It” video. Tell me your dads have shown you the “Beat It” video. Good. I don’t want to have to disown my little brothers.

Finally, I came to a stop. Josh plowed into me from behind. I had just rounded the black pine, my field of vision bleary from yet another darkness-to-light transition as the fire came into view.

Was that when I saw the Queen of England sitting in Sonia’s spot by the fire? No. No, I don’t think Her Highness was there yet. I think what had caused me to stop on this particular revolution was the sound. Or rather, the complete lack thereof.

Silence. Too silent. The cackling of the nearby fire was gone. There was no crunching of footsteps or rustling of twigs in the breeze. A silent that shouldn’t exist in a library, much less outside in the woods. I don’t even think Josh stumbling into my backside registered a single decibel. It was as if the world had put those noise-cancelling headphones on, then forgot to push “play.”

Until the scream. AHHHHHHH!

A cry. A wail. A scream both natural and unnatural. Super-natural. Like a human wail belted an octave higher than Mariah Carey’s falsetto. Like an animal trying on its human vocals for the first time. The ghost of a cat. The wraith of a raccoon. The role of a human baby’s first wail will be played in tonight’s performance by a demon from Hell.

I ran. Straight forward or left of right, I couldn’t tell you. I just ran. Past the clearing and the fire and the four empty chair, like the points of a compass, containing neither me, nor David, nor Josh, nor Sonia. Nor the Queen of England. Into the forest and the trees and the underbrush and the darkness. Somehow I avoided them all, a pinball maneuvering between every flipper in sight. Unclear about direction or destination, I just ran. Like a blind man racing against Usain Bolt.

Josh was behind me. I could feel his breathing. I could hear his grunting. I could smell his breath on my legs, then my back, then my neck and the top of my head. His hot, humid breath. A mussy, Mississippi windstorm. A slobbering, guttural growl as Josh finally overtook me.

It wasn’t Josh.

I tripped and I pitched, sprawled through the forest, sprawled through the trees, came skidding to a stop on the undergrowth. A soft, mossy landing. A pillow that cushioned me from the landing I deserved. I sent a silent thanks up to whatever spritely spirit had saved me from scratches and worse.

But as the snarls and the groans and the slobbers and the heat pressed down upon my prone form, I wondered if I was being kept whole for a more nefarious reason. A fly taking a well-deserved rest in a comfortable silken web.

AWWWOOOOOOOO!!

The sound was more distinct this time. Closer. So very, very close. Not a wail or a cry, but a call. A triumphant trumpet of victory.

I couldn’t turn around to look. I mustn’t. And yet a voice told me that I must. A tiny voice. Feminine, discreet. Either in my ear or in my head. A heart of resolve. Turn around, it was saying. See what you must see. A defendant must face his accuser. A fly must look into the maw of its spider.

The hairy, crushing, snapping, poisonous mandible of the spider.

The hairy, crushing, snapping, bloody muzzle of a creature most foul.

I’d like to say it was a werewolf. I’d like to say it was a giant rat. I’d like to say it was a rabid wombat. It was all of those things and none of them, so all I can say is what I saw bending over me from its nine-foot height.

Sharp teeth, ragged teeth. Not the precise canines of a predator, but the mangled maw of a scavenger instead. Rat’s teeth dripping with fresh blood that glistened in the near-darkness. The snout above the snarl was rounded, like a marsupial instead of a rodent. But not one of those cute marsupials, like a panda or a wallaby. One of those nasty-looking ones. A snub-nosed opossum. A hairy-nosed wombat. The flat, pale triangle of a nose at the tip of the snout curled up to smell my delicious fear and despair.

The eyes were coal black orbs. No iris, no cornea. One hundred percent pupil, an endless pit into the depths of a scorched soul. Black like soot, the aftermath of a forest fire. The surest sign nature has to tell us of swallowed-up lives.

I tore my eyes away from the slathering face only to be mesmerized anew by its legs. Human legs. Hairier than a human, lankier than a human, but the unmistakable bipedal structure and gait of an upper primate. Human thighs. Human calves.

Human legs in camouflage cargo shorts. And black, size-eight Converse tennis shoes.

The creature was David!

“Hey, Buddy,” I said, trying to crab-walk backward, but finding no grip in the moist, silky moss. A fly caught in the Hotel California. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

“Hey, sorry I took the last hot dog last night, David.”

The monster snarled.

“I promise I’ll get up early tomorrow and percolate some fresh coffee for you.”

It growled.

“I take it back. You’re right. Reese’s make much better s’mores than Hershey’s.”

David opened its mouth wide. It descended toward its prey. Me. Hot saliva scorched my exposed neck.

“You stop that, David.” A high-pitched, high-classed voice rang out. Melodic. Regal. Royal. Large and in charge.

I looked up, and who did I see, hovering above the imposing nine-foot figure of the WereWomRat, shining in the moonlight like the crown jewels herself? Do you know who? No, it wasn’t the Queen of England. It was…

Sonia! Tiny, diminutive Sonia. Spritely little Sonia, towering ten feet in the air.

But not towering. She was hovering. She had wings! Honest-to-goodness wings. A double layer on both sides, strutting out to form a couple of upper-case B’s bordering her body. A body which, if you can believe it, was even smaller than it had been when she had her feet on the ground.

“Now, David, this is not a proper way to greet our host.”

AWWWWWWW!!! The WereDavid screamed. It was not a cry of hunger, or triumph, or even anger. It was a cry of frustration. A wail of disappointment. A child asking for just one more episode of “Dora the Explorer.” But Mommmmeeeee….

“I don’t want to hear it,” Sonia piped. “It might very well be a full moon, but it’s also time for tea. And if you do not come back to the safety of the roost soon, I cannot account for how the Troll might respond to your dalliance.”

A glow, which I had never really realized was always a part of Sonia, grew in luminosity until it was unavoidable. From the cherubic red cheeks that I knew well to the comforting warmth of a sunset over a Hawaiian sea. Then, before my very eyes, the sunset became a sunrise. Then midday. A dazzling sheen of explosive yellows and oranges and whites, with the popping brightness of twenty stars’ luminosity. The glow erupted from the Pixie Queen, who I could swear now had a perfectly apt wand with a, wouldn’t you know it, star-shaped business-end in her hand, right before everything in my sight disappeared into the bright.

She said, or rather sang, something in some long-forgotten tongue. It might have been an “abra cadabra,” or a “ziggity zaggity,” or maybe even a “slainte chugat!” I couldn’t have told you then and I can’t tell you now. Because as the world got brighter, as Sonia’s voice got louder, my consciousness grew dimmer.

And then I was out.

I don’t know how long I was out. It could have been five minutes or five hours or five seconds. The next thing I knew, someone was shaking me awake. The hulking (trolling?) form of my good-friend Josh knelt beside me as I opened my eyes on a bed of green grass. Not a silky trap of moss, just a comfortable grassy mattress.

“You okay, guy?” Josh asked.

I tried to nod through a tight head. I tried to say yes through a mouth full of marbled cotton. Both attempts failed.

Josh lifted me up with a strength that shouldn’t exist in any human being and escorted me back to the campfire. I don’t know how I moved. I merely slumbered on, like the zombie that was missing from this story of the mystical.

When we made it back to the opening, who do you think was there?

No, not her.

It was all of my friends. David, looking just as bald and svelte as he always was. And Sonia, sitting there talking a mile a minute as if nothing had ever happened. Nobody said anything about what had happened, or if anything had happened at all. We just sat down, like all of us are doing now, and busted out the marshmallows and sticks.

And like I said before, I have never seen Sonia since that day. I don’t really know why.

What’s that? Is my wife’s name Sonia? Yes. Your Aunt Sonia. Why do you ask?

Anyway…Here’s the part you’ve been waiting for…. Into the copse of trees and the campfire of friends walked who else but…

No, you know what? I don’t think that was the time we met the Queen of England. That must’ve been a different time. Sorry.

Who’s got some Reese’s?