Archive for March, 2011


Like Clockwork

by mdjb

“This place will swallow you up,” said my friend when we stopped off at the school where he works. He asked me to wait while some photos were taken for the yearbook. They had hired a professional photographer, and the guy was munching handfuls of cereal out of a box he kept putting down beside his tripod. He was keeping each of the attractive young women up on the little stage for much longer than seemed necessary while they tossed their hair and bent seductively over a stool or raised shoulders to impossible heights, and turned their heads as if caught off guard.
Sitting next to me, Alvaro was getting fidgety. “I don’t know if I’m up for all this business,” he said, “Let’s go get something to eat.” There was an awful smell in the air, wafting up to us from the back of the room, and I was no longer hungry.
I said, “No. Let’s wait for your turn. You’re gonna have to have pictures taken, anyway, and we’re here already.” He was sending messages to friends with his Blackberry and I was thinking. I didn’t mind waiting, using the time to ponder the week’s prompts on T10, trying to come up with a way to tie disparate phrases together, and wondering why there was no Canvas image this time.
I get up a rhythm when I attach myself to assignments, self-imposed or suggested, and when there are late breaking changes, it upsets my train of thought. For almost a year, I had been producing some of my best stuff once a week on the site. Now, everything was being taken “to another level.” I did not feel I had fallen into a rut, actually  looking forward every Saturday to gathering the five prompts and the graphic, weaving them into a tale I would never have thought of on my own. Five prompts and a graphic, like clockwork they would turn into stories for me. Now, I felt my impetus had been taken away.
As the photographer motioned to Alvaro to come up on stage, and he reluctantly shuffled forward, I had a moment of commiseration. Of course, he’d wind up with a good shot in the yearbook, but he never dreamed he would have to play fashion model to get there. He would have been happy enough to pop into one of those passport photo shops and be done with the whole thing in ten minutes.
But then, he was not an attractive young female, so the artist finished with him in ten or twelve minutes anyway. It appeared to be six of one, half a dozen of the other.
On the way out, we did not stop for the free coffee and doughnuts. “Mmm,” I said, “Just like Grandma used to make, only she’s been dead for forty years, and I think they’re from her time.”
“Let’s get out of here, and go to Bonampak,” Alvaro said, “I’m hungry for some real food.”


This Came for You

by mdjb

Hilary Jane Burckhardt moved into the apartment on Riverside Drive on a sunny day five months after Mrs. Akkerman died but it was on a rainy day three months later that Mrs. Akkerman began causing trouble.

It was not until much later, Hilary learned that was the same day Janisch Akkerman’s girlfriend Wenche had had an abortion and that that aborted fetus would have been Mrs. Akkerman’s only grandchild.

It was raining all morning. It was a Saturday. Hilary had printed out twenty stories to review because todo so on her monitor, even though it was twenty-one inches, bothered her eyes after a short time. Her father claimed she was ruining her eyesight and her health in general because she had taken on too much work and was not getting enough sleep. Now she had her own apartment in the city, she did not have to listen to his carping.

She made a cup of herbal tea and propped up over-stuffed pillows to get comfortable in a corner of her white leather sofa. In a bowl on the glass coffee table were celery and carrot sticks. Next to the bowl, cradleless, sat the cordless telephone. Hilary found when she was deeply involved in evaluating scripts, if the phone rang, she could not easily re-establish her rapport with the writer if she had to walk away from and return to her perch, but this way she could answer and say, “I’ll call you back later,” without feeling guilty or neglectful to either party.

The first two scripts were by inexperienced writers and were thus underdeveloped and forgettable, but the third was a horror story called This Came for You. It was gripping and admirably polished. Hilary knew a third of the way through she would be recommending the piece for inclusion in the next issue of Prototype.

Just as the indescribable horror was being described on the page, Hilary heard a noise across the room. She looked up at the foot high brass letters H J B on the opposite wall. The J gave way and fell to the floor. Then it slid across and under the sofa as if being pulled with a magnet from the apartment below and it crashed into the wall behind her. She jumped up and in so doing knocked over the little bowl of vegetables and the teacup causing them to smash into many pieces.

“What perfect timing,” she heard herself say aloud. She knew cleaning up the mess would break her concentration, just as a phone call would, so decided to put the rest of the scripts aside until later. She had a closet to clean out.

Janisch Akkerman had not done a very thorough job cleaning away his mother’s effects but had prevailed upon Hilary to hold onto a few boxes of things until he could come and get them. Three months had passed and he had not contacted her again. When she finally called the number he had given her, she learned the number was no longer in use. She had as yet no success tracking him down via the Internet or the usual avenues she might use for research but felt with persistence she would eventually find him. In the interim, she had decided she would look through the boxes she had previously left unopened. Now was the time.

The buzzer rang and when she answered it, the doorman told her there was a package for her down in the lobby. She told him she would come down for it later. She was in no rush. It was a box of groceries from her father. He had had one of his office lackeys go out with a shopping list and pick up health foods and produce and then bring the stuff up to her building.

She knew the doorman went off duty at three and figured she would have one of the porters bring up the box for her when the second doorman was on. He at least might think she had had the groceries delivered from a local market rather than having received them from a Burckhardt employee. She wondered why her father would go out of his way to embarrass her in front of her building employees. And why he could not trust her to take care of her own needs.

Hilary did her best to clean up the broken cup and bowl, and while reaching under the sofa to retrieve the brass J, she cut her finger on a stray sliver of glass. Though she tried her best to avoid doing so, a couple of drops of blood fell onto the white rug under the coffee table, and she knew immediately the rug was lost. Although she washed and bandaged her finger, she hadn’t noticed there was blood on the back of the J until she replaced it on the wall, and in adjusting it made the situation worse. Scrubbing with a wet cloth, she wore away paint, but the stain would not wash off.

Then, the buzzer sounded again. At the intercom, she could sense the annoyance in her own voice as she asked, “Yes, what is it?” and was a bit startled to hear the doorman respond, “Nobody rang, ma’m.” Lord, how she hated being addressed as if she were her mother’s age!

Everything seemed to be going wrong all at once.

She thought about the bedroom closet, but hesitated, waiting for another sound to set her in motion, and then it came. A knock on the door. Nobody ever knocked on her door, unless she requested the services of the handyman, which she had not done for nearly three months.

Looking through the peephole and seeing nobody, she felt the hairs on her arm flutter as she put her hand to the knob. When she heard another knock, she almost gave in to the impulse to ignore it and run into the other room, slip back under the duvet and try starting the day over again, but she could hear her father’s patronizing voice saying, “Hilary, you’re a woman, now,” as if he suddenly realized the truth one day. She turned the doorknob expecting to find one of the neighbor children standing outside looking up at her more confused than she felt at the moment.

What she found was an unattended package wrapped in brown paper, tied with twine, with the letter J written in red marker. Oddly, the letter ran over the cord, as if it had been added as an afterthought. The thing was too small to be the CARE pack she expected from her father, and she became unnerved. She glanced toward either end of the empty hall, and down again at the package, standing in her doorway for several minutes not knowing what to do.

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Frank Xavier

by mdjb

He’s older now; the lines on his face give his age away, and they call him Frank, if they call him at all, but when he was still known as Francis, he was the odd boy out. Sitting beside him on the front steps of our dilapidated apartment building in Brooklyn, on days when I didn’t have to go to school, I thought he was the coolest guy walking. Francis never went to school. I mean, he was supposed to, just like the rest of us, but somehow he got away with playing truant day after day, and that did not stop him from being smart. We all thought.
He never got involved in fights, though they always seemed to be occurring in his vicinity. He would just sit and watch. He had a handsome face with a clear complexion while the rest of us battled with zits, and I guess that was one of the reasons he never fought. He didn’t want to damage his good looks even a little, but his constant steering clear also put him in the position of playing judge, and selecting the winner. I think he enjoyed that part of it more.
Life is funny though, the attitudes of one’s youth that make us winners, can also make us losers in our dotage.
When two kids fight, they soon make amends, and differences of opinion grow into lasting friendships. Everyone curried Francis’s favor when he sat on the steps so stolid and handsome, but none of the guys ever became his friend. I tried to like him. I tried to be like him, but could never break through the veneer of indifference. You cannot buy into a friendship with someone like that. There’s not enough money to cover the cost.
When he grew into middle-age, still a bachelor, and later, when his beauty faded, many assumed he wasn’t right in the head. Little kids used to taunt him when he would walk down the streets with his shopping bags, “Wuccha got in the bags, Crazy Frank?” Then, he would hand out shiny nickels and the kids would run off to buy something. That was probably what they were aiming at in the first place rather than tormenting a lonely old man.
We thought he had a girlfriend for a while, when we saw him with Sally, but when we stopped to consider her druggy past, and figured she had probably never kicked as she had claimed, we realized she, too, was most likely looking for a little money.
Those of us who are left from the original crowd are quite aged now, and we never fight with each other. One miscalculated punch could do any one of us in.
I still think Frank was pretty cool when I sit and reflect, but it’s easy to see how he ended up the way he is, given his lack of confrontation. He would still be the most striking of any of us, too, if it weren’t for the lines on his face.


An Accident Waiting to Happen

by mdjb

They say it was an accident, but I know better. I didn’t use it when it first came up, and now I see it was fate because it comes in handy when the well runs dry. Reminds me of an old favorite I also “didn’t get” the first time around.
Ever watch one of those Women Behind Bars movies? You know the one where a woman with delusions of grandeur, through some unfortunate misstep winds up thrown in amongst the lower orders? Though they pretend to offer serious commentary on the wretched abuses being meted out on poor misguided women everywhere, they are actually produced with a sense of high camp focusing on a few stereotypical types. Eleanor Parker made me laugh while I watched Caged rather than forcing me to examine my conscience. With that sullen look on her face carried all the way through to the end when supposedly she has been toughened by her experience, she strikes one as a whiner who can’t see the camp for the trees. Hope Emerson as the mean guard, you have to watch in action to believe. Barely a nuance in her whole performance, she is still one of the most memorable screen villains ever.
In this age of cyber spying bombers using plastic explosives and high technology while searching for their true identities, watching an old chestnut like Caged should provide some comedy relief along with the “Yeah, get ‘em,” moments.
When Agnes Moorehead’s warden watches through a window and says, “She’ll be back,” you wonder what she knows.
There aren’t any weapons in the basement, nor Reds in the closet, but there is a distinct atmosphere of Fifties noir that makes this film an enjoyable Saturday afternoon entertainment for all the wrong reasons.
Like anything worthwhile, it’s there when you need it.



by mdjb

The book fell to the floor. It must have. In His Own Write; I love those nonsense pieces. When I awoke, that’s where I found it.
Before waking I had stood on a train platform and heard John Lennon repeating, “Number Nine. Number Nine. Number Nine…” I remarked more than once how Adrian reminded me of the dead Beatle. We made the trip to Strawberry Fields together for its inauguration in 1985, and returned every October for the next twenty years before Adrian disappeared from my life. I went alone to be part of the crowd on the 30th anniversary of John’s shooting, and it scared me to think he would have been 65, while Adrian and I were not much younger.
Was he trying to teach me something when he unceremoniously slipped through cracks I was unaware of? We had both listened to the same songs over and over.
Try as I might, I couldn’t get over the hurt and feeling of desertion. Once, it came from the actions of a misguided fanatic. The second instance was deliberate. Of that I was certain.
When Adrian played Imagine on a piano, it sounded like the original, and so I often would, imagine, that is. What if John had survived? Would the Beatles have gotten back together? Would Adrian and I be sitting together at a piano in our dotage? Did he mean it when he said he thought I resembled Paul McCartney? Or was he just fishing for compliments?
I mixed flour and water into a paste, tore news pages into strips, and made a papier-mâché model of his face. Left it sitting on a bookshelf to remind me never to give in to my base instincts again. Ever!
The moonlight waxed and waned. The night passed. I went to bed at 7:30 a.m. and woke before noon. My day would begin a bit late, but there was much to do before traveling.