Archive for August, 2010


Oswaldo in Decline

by mdjb

The damage was done. Time and Fate were at cross purposes. Oswaldo, on paper much older than he appeared, and suffering stiffness in the joints beneath his fashionable clothes,  grinned at the sound of someone far off screaming, at how distance carried that scream, putting its own spin on the sound, turning it into the worst kind of stage whisper, ineffective and merely groping for attention. He looked down at his plate, thin pickings this evening, and then into the camera’s lens. He did not care much for the white light of scrutiny, but neither would he go out of his way to avoid being observed. He was never one for hiding even as he aged. He had never experienced the dull thud on the heart of promises not kept that slowed most people’s advance through life leaving them sluggish like flies trying to swim across the surface of a bucket of paint. “You want to know how I survive?” he asked the interviewer, a young woman wearing kitschy earrings and a matching necklace, but no makeup. She was all smiles and feigned interest, nodding. “I trim all the fat off the meat, and the only alcohol I drink is red wine.”
She had used the word thrive in her question, but he opted for something closer to what he knew.
She smiled halfheartedly but couldn’t match the grin on Oswaldo’s lips. She noticed red beads of what might be wine glistening on his mustache hairs, but from where she sat they looked like blood. At that moment, a wicked shade leaned on her peripheral vision, to her right, and she would rather have gleaned his responses through the reading of one of his great books, but it was too late for that. Her journal had beseeched; he had accepted, and she was in this for the glory. The damage was done. She glanced at her cameraman, then down at her notebook, and could not fathom the purpose of the questions remaining to be asked.


The Old Whitewash Trick

by mdjb

ThinkingTen – A Writer’s Playground (Academic Edition): Collections [Paperback]

Can’t think of anything new to say? Well, what you been telling us has some of us in awe. You’re really awesome, you know? Y’all notice every little thing that most of us take for granted.
Pull out one of the old pieces and throw some whitewash on it. Bucket of paint will do wonders, and it’s what’s at the core that’s important anyway.
Keep writing. She’s coming round.
She’s fresh as a strawberry, sliced and bleeding sweetness. If some of those little bitty grits get caught in the teeth, the wine’ll wash ‘em out later.
Did you hear Alma’s had twins? One of them, the boy, looks as if he might turn out slow. You can put that in one of your stories, but you’ll have to wait a while for propriety’s sake. I know you and old Alma go way back.
Yeah, I know you’re busy. I better take off and let you get to it.
By the way, have you thought about using that idea I was talking to you about last week?
God, I should sit down and write my own book. I get such good ideas sometimes, but I don’t know what to do with ‘em. That’s why I’m always bringing ‘em to you.
You look like you’re stymied. You’re not writing anything.
Bucket of paint, I’m telling you. Covers a multitude of sins. Metaphorically speaking, of course.


Alison at Eleven

by mdjb

Help! Alison whispered the word. She was hiding in a closet, and at that moment had no desire to be discovered. With a flashlight propped between her shoulder and her cheek, she continued writing her letter to her mother.
And, Mom, she wrote, I don’t want to say living with Daddy will be like a jail sentence, but I know he won’t want to do the things we’ve done. He doesn’t like the Beatles’ music. He always plays his old Frank Sinatra records and the Mills Brothers. Remember when I was six years old and we watched the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, and you said to Daddy, “Hank, these boys are going to be on top of the world one day,” and look, now they are.
He won’t take me to see Jane Fonda movies. Remember how we walked barefoot in the park, after seeing that movie? And how I said someday I wanted to marry Robert Redford, and you told me by the time I was ready to marry someone, Robert Redford would be the furthest thing from my mind? Later, we had tea on the balcony and watched the sunset. You talked about how you and Daddy met each other in high school, and I knew you were telling me the truth. Daddy would just tell me, “Yes, dear, and I’m sure you will. One day.”
He gives me freedom to do what I want most of the time, but he doesn’t give me good advice. I don’t think he knows how to talk to a girl. Mom, you’ve never smoked a cigarette. Why did you get cancer? How will Daddy and I get by without you there to help us?
Alison put down her pen for a moment and clicked off the flashlight because her neck was hurting from keeping her head at an odd angle. She had been writing as if in a fever dream, and didn’t like to stop as she knew that would be the moment the call would come.
Then, she heard her father’s voice, “Alison. Alison, are you in your room? Your mother is asking for you. It’s very important that you see her. Now.” Hearing the edge in the way he said, Now,” she thought if she just sat there in the dark, motionless, without responding, she would not have to wake up. This would be a dream, and when she finally did stir, things would be different.



by mdjb

He drove up in a rented car, half the size of the one he had back home, and his wife got in. Then he headed toward the bank. He’d had several tacos with a very picante salsa and a couple of beers for lunch while she had insisted on eating steak and potatoes in the hotel dining room. They were on vacation, for chrissakes! Now, she was wearing too much make-up and an orange blouse with sunflowers on it. Obviously, she’d wanted to stay behind so she could change her outfit yet again. Visiting places with her got up that way made him feel so much like some stupid tourist. Thank god she had no itinerary planned for today. At the corner he had to stop for a light.

“Can I have a cigarette?” George asked.

Brenda pulled out two, lit them and handed him one. “You know, we really should cut down,” she said.

In the intersection, a bare-chested young man in dirty pants laid down a cloth-wrapped bundle and opened it. He quickly arranged his props.

“Oh no,” she said, “Please don’t.”

“He’s going to do it.”

“I just ate my lunch.”

The young man spread several pieces of broken glass on the cloth and, for just a few seconds, lay face-downward, his ribs on top of the shards. Then he stood up again. The shiny brown skin of his chest was unmarked in any way.

Next, he picked up two rods each about half a meter in length. At first, George thought he was going to light them and perform the fire-breathing stunt. Brenda had translated an article from the local newspaper about the Mexican government trying to get the fire-breathers off the street and into rehabilitation centers. The kerosene they held in their mouths to do the trick burned the insides of the mouth and throat, affected their brains, and their career-expectancies were nine months to a year at most. But this kid surprised him.

As he inserted one rod for what seemed half its length up into his right nostril, Brenda looked up the street in another direction. She tossed her cigarette out the window.

“God, that’s gross,” George said, “He looks like some kind of surreal walrus.”

“Oh, don’t tell me,” she said, “I don’t want to know.”

“Have you got a peso?” George asked.

“You want to pay him for doing that?” As she turned around to see if she had any coins in her pocket, she must have caught sight of the youth removing the second rod because she flinched. She asked how it was possible to put something that far up one’s nose. He thought she was about to upchuck that expensive steak. Looking away again, she handed him some money and said, “People should pay him not to do it.”

“I think that’s the point,” George said. He handed a coin to the performer. The light changed and he drove on.

“Why couldn’t he just dress up like one of the clowns and juggle or do somersaults?” Brenda asked.

“Maybe he’d find that too demeaning,” George said, “At least he’s doing something for the money. Not like most of the homeless people back home in New York, who just sit in the street and beg.”

“What about the window-wipers on the Bowery?”

“I always give them something. They do me a service.”

“Yes, they smear your windshield with a dirty rag. And you know they’re only going to buy wine with the money,” Brenda said. “These boys are more likely doing this for food for their families.” She patted her permed hair in that way he found irritating.

“Hey, what a man does with the money he earns makes no never mind to me,” George said, “So long as he does something to earn it. Here’s the bank. Stay in the car and I’ll run in and make a withdrawal.”

“Take out enough so I can stop at the artisan’s place later. I promised my brother and Alison I’d bring them some souvenirs.”

“You just don’t get it, do you?” George said, closing the rental-car door with extra force. Did she even listen to him anymore when he spoke, he wondered.

“Oh, I understand you, George. You have your priorities and I have mine,” she said, “Besides, I need something to keep me occupied while you spend all afternoon and evening on the toilet.”


At Land’s End

by mdjb

Nothing made sense. The past was the past, and the future remained unknowable. All Chester Armitage had to work with was the present. It is all anyone has ever had for that matter, and memory. Would his present have turned out differently, had he not let The Incident take such a firm hold of his sanity, or had his madness always been circumscribed?
As he took note of a gull making its way toward the coast in its eerie darkness, Chester wished for wings of his own and cursed the day he had moved his family to this godforsaken place, Land’s End, which grew progressively bleaker as the winter months came on. In his joints, he was aware that it was about to rain, adding to the dreary atmosphere. Moving to Land’s End was by way of going underground, to avoid damnation and prosecution, yes, but it was an underground where the worst of the natural elements still taunted him.
If he could turn back the clock, he would do so, however uncertain as to the efficacy of such an ability. If he could lounge once again beneath the chestnut tree in his yard at Raimuth, smoking with the colonel and topping off another fine meal with a few shots of brandy, he might be willing to face the consequences of his seditious speeches. Colonel McTeague had never quit being a soldier, attending dinners at the Armitage mansion in his spotless uniform with all his decorations long into his retirement. Surely friendship with such a patriot counted for something. What stories the colonel would tell. He knew everything about everyone. Chester would sip his brandy and listen, making plans while watching the smoke rise from their coronas. Their politics were each of a different provenance, but the two men saw eye to eye over a good cigar.
Then, the colonel died, and Chester spoke without sanction or countenance, and that proved unfortuitous.
Now, he noted the empty bottle sitting on his desk, and recalled the words of Faulkner about the past being another country separated from the present by the narrow bottleneck of recent years, and therefore unchangeable, and likewise unattainable. Nevertheless, in memory, it was a beautiful country with golden dusks beneath a wide-reaching tree that offered only shade and solace without recrimination.
Realizing it was past midnight, he closed the book he had been unable to read, and made his way upstairs, leaning heavily on his one good leg and hoped his wife would not wake and confront him with questions to which he no longer had answers. Nothing made sense. If it ever did, that time was long gone.


Where One Could Live

by mdjb

“I wasn’t fooling anyone,” the woman said, “I pretended I had prospects lined up as I worked on each metal sculpture, but it was my sister who set me straight, when she suggested I take up a more fulfilling hobby…” She started to say something else, but flushed when her friend, said “Ssh,” as they moved forward with the group.
“Why, I thought you were the one friend,” she whispered, “who,” but was interrupted by the taut admonition, “Anywhere but here, Mona.”
The profusion of green overhanging the barren roadway they were being led past caught Edward’s eye as he tried not to let the talkative Mona invade his contemplation of the canvases on view. Up to this moment, he had been thinking each one represented a place where one could live. He regretted signing up for this particular tour arranged by the apparently happily married leader of his Divorce Counseling circle, and it was only after the guide informed them that Utrillo was a minor Impressionist that he spotted the woman, not part of the group, lingering to absorb more insight from the lonely street scene.
He moved on a little further and then solitarily reversed direction to return to the Utrillo.
He stood a little distance from the woman and from behind, admired her bushy dark hair. Her figure had the fullness of youth, though he could see from her stance that she was not exceedingly so. She seriously appreciated art, he could tell. He wished he was a boy in the painting, running with a stick flapping against the railings of the white fence, so that she would look at him while pondering his inclusion, but he was derailed by how that would turn Utrillo into Winslow Homer, for whom she might not express such raptness.
In a softer voice than he would have imagined, she said, without turning, “Do you see the woman looking through the bars of the fence?” and it was then he realized his staring had obtruded.
“You mean that suggestion of a person on the otherwise immaculate street?” Edward asked. “I always thought perhaps Utrillo was just not good at capturing people.”
“Why,” she said, finally turning, “That’s just about what I was thinking, But he excelled at architecture in perspective, don’t you think?”
His tongue felt swollen. He couldn’t believe his luck. He mumbled, “mm-hmm,” and stood silently beside her for several minutes.
When she appeared ready to move on, thinking quickly, he almost blurted out an invitation to join him for coffee, but remembering how warm it was outside, he said, “There’s a vendor selling Italian ices in front of the museum. Would you care to…”
And she was already nodding in acceptance.