The Righteous Brother: (Hoser)

It was one of those hot, glorious dog days of summer. I was playing in the front yard with a hose, when I spotted our neighbor Mr. Kay approaching down the street in his car. For reasons I will never be able to fully decipher, I had the sudden impulse to spray him with a hose right through the open window of his passing vehicle. I managed to time it so that the point of impact of the hose coincided with the arrival of his friendly wave.

Upon impact, he quickly slammed on his brakes and started scolding me.

“What in the hell did you do that for?!” he said, wiping the water off his face with a handkerchief.

I stood there like a helpless mute, hose still in hand.

My mother ran out to see what was going on. She apologized, took me inside, and proceeded to scold me even further. I had no ill feelings toward the man whatsoever, yet, I felt compelled to spray him with a hose.

It never happened again.

The Righteous Brother: (Playing in the Street)

When I was five, I told my two-year-old sister to stand in the middle of the street. It wasn’t a matter of not knowing any better. In fact, my motivation was to get her in trouble. All it managed was to get me in trouble. I like to think that I was at least humane enough to make sure there were no cars coming – but I’m not entirely sure. What I do remember were my parents running out the door and grabbing my sister from harm’s way, as my visiting grandparents watched from the porch. I remember the wooden brush against my ass. I remember crying. I remember my grandfather being so upset by my scolding, that he and my grandma left. Though I don’t condone hitting a child with a wooden brush, a hand, or any other object for that matter, I certainly don’t condone telling a toddler to stand in the middle of a street. Having a two-year-old of my own makes this episode even more cringe-worthy. This incident also sparked my first grounding – one week without friends, which was not that difficult for somebody with no friends.

The Righteous Brother: (“Do Me, Baby”)

c-cricket.1LIf you are making an effort to seem cool, don’t tell your classmates that your sister’s Cricket doll says “Do me, baby.” Even if you are telling them this because you think it will make you cool, even though a.) it won’t and b.) you don’t even know what “do me” means. For those that don’t know who Cricket is, Cricket was similar in concept to Teddy Ruxpin. For those who don’t know who Cricket or Teddy Ruxpin is, they are both animatronic dolls that play cassette tapes inserted into their ass – like Chuck E Cheese characters on a smaller scale. As the tapes play, their eyes and mouths are programmed to move along with it. Neither one them – or anything of their ilk – say “Do me, baby.” This led to my first and only time that I was punished in school. And it resulted in me getting a stern warning from Mr. Brusco – our cigar-chomping principal. I also had to write a note for my parents that said: “Today in school, I told my classmates that my sister’s Cricket doll said “’Do me, baby.’” It will not happen again. And I am sorry.” It never happened again.

The Righteous Brother: (Prologue)

You know you are a goody two-shoes when even your own father nicknames you “the righteous brother”. Some might see this as a compliment. But coming from my father, it wasn’t. Nor was he referring to one-half of the famous singing duo of “Unchained Melody” fame. It was in reference to my annoying and judgmental tendency to preach morality to my two younger sisters. I was also a tattletale, driven more by the desire to get my sisters in trouble, than by any moral cause.

I hated my nickname. It wasn’t that I was ashamed of being perceived as righteous. It was the fact that I knew that I was being made fun of for it – by my own family! It’s not that I didn’t earn it. Case in point: I was the kid who didn’t have a curfew simply because I was always home early enough not to warrant one. In truth, my straight-laced “righteous” behavior had less to do with morality and more to do with being a (sounds like) wussy – an affliction that didn’t exactly help my cause as a bullied youth. I made myself an easy target.

My cowardice emerged at a very early age. There is even photographic evidence to prove it. Exhibit A: I was just short of turning one and I’m being held in the arms of a clown at my hometown Memorial Day parade. The look of abject terror on my face says it all. In fact, it is a look that suggests something much more sinister. Then again, who wouldn’t be afraid?

Exhibit B: This same look of fear is duplicated over several photos taken on the lap of Santa and the Easter Bunny. Santa is scary enough. The Easter Bunny’s frozen, inanimate expression is even more frightening. However, I was still showing fear well past the age of five.

Exhibit C: I am just shy of three. My hands are held tightly over my ears as tears stream down my face. The source of such terror? … a kite, flown by my dad in the parking lot of the church behind our house. I was scared of the flapping sound it made in the wind.

As I got older, my phobias increased, extending to lighting matches, bees, dark basements, and routine blood tests – the latter of which makes sense considering how many times I passed out from them.

Despite the heaping evidence that I was a complete and utter wuss, there are a few scattered moments where the righteous brother showed signs of unrighteousness – many of which were accidental. Many people – especially other writers – could write volumes about such rebellious behavior. I can simply draw up a few blog posts. Although these instances are far and few between, it is my hope that sharing them could perhaps earn the slightest modicum of street cred (of which the first step is to probably avoid using such pompous words as “modicum”).

Stay tuned for the details …

Goats & Milk (excerpted from “Love & Vodka”)

Mockup1Before we went to get the milk, my finance Katya and her mother, Elena, decided that it was best for me to wait outside as they entered the small, village grocery shop outside of Dnipropetrovsk in eastern Ukraine. We were in search of edible meat and cheese. While I waited, I noticed a goat chained to a fence. I decided that I had to take its picture. As I began snapping, an elderly man with a long, white beard came waddling up, angrily waving his finger at me, shouting something in Russian.

“Nyet, Russkiy,” I said, pleading my case, but the man continued shouting at me. Moments later, Katya came running out of the shop, coming to my defense, while Elena finished up the grocery purchase.

“Is this your foreigner?” the man asked Katya in Russian.

Da,” Katya admitted nervously. “Did he do something wrong?”

“Get him the hell out of here! That cheap son of a bitch owes me!”

“What did you do?!” Katya asked me.

“No idea! All I did was take a picture of this goat,” I explained, gesturing toward the bearded animal. The man continued to yell.

“What is he saying?” I asked.

“He said if you want to photograph his goat, then you have to pay the price.”

“As in literally pay money … or is he threatening me?” I asked, equally amused and bemused by the whole situation.

“He wants you to pay him money.”

“I’ll butcher you like a cow if you take another picture of my goat, you hear me you son of a bitch?” the man shouted.

Katya apologized, took me by the hand, as though I were a small child in trouble, and escorted me back toward the shop, leaving the old man grumbling to himself.

“Never do that again!” Katya scolded.

“Do what again?” I asked, exasperated.

“You can’t just take pictures of another man’s goat.”

“Why? What’s the big deal?” I said in disbelief.

“Stop asking ‘why’ Bobby! That’s just the way it is,” Katya said, clearly annoyed.

“That doesn’t really answer my question,” I replied, standing my ground.

“You’ll scare people, that’s why!” Katya shouted, as everyone within earshot watched the drama unfold.

I’ll scare people?!” I said, losing my cool. “Look! This country scares me! Nothing works right. Nothing’s logical. Nothing’s rational!”

“If you’re looking for rational,” Katya snapped back “you’re in the wrong country. It might not be perfect like America, but it’s my country. This is how it is. If you can’t handle it, no one’s forcing you to stay.”

“I’m sorry … but it’s becoming more and more obvious that I don’t belong here,” I said, struggling to hold back my frustration.

“Bobby! Stop it! Stop talking like that!” Katya begged. “I’m supposed to come with you, remember?”

That helped settle me down.

We survived our first squabble, just in time for Elena to come out of the shop. We walked down the road in silence until we saw a middle-aged woman selling milk on the side of the road, her face worn and haggard.

Vechernee moloko?” (“Evening milk”?) asked Elena.

Utrennee” (“Morning”), the vendor replied sullenly.

Elena frowned, then carried on walking. Katya and I followed.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“They don’t have evening milk.”

“What the hell’s evening milk?” I asked.

“Milk that’s milked in the evening,” Katya succinctly explained as we headed towards the dark and dingy apartment building, in search of the elusive “evening milk.” From the outside, one could easily assume that the building was not only abandoned, but inhabitable. Yet here we were, about to enter.

“So where are we going now? The black market?” I asked, as we crept around to the back of the building.

“Shh. Don’t ask questions,” Katya warned.

Of course not. Why would I question us entering what I was pretty sure was Ukraine’s own Amityville?

As we entered, the stairwell was completely dark, making the dimly-lit stairwell of the family apartment in Dnipropetrovsk look like a sunroom.

We made our way up several flights, trusting that each step was evenly spaced since they were impossible to see in the darkness. When we finally reached our destination, Katya reminded me again: “No English.” Clearly, we were on a top-secret reconnaissance mission.

Elena called out. Moments later, another haggard, middle-aged woman appeared through a bead curtain hanging from the doorframe.

Vechernee moloko?” Elena asked the woman. The woman nodded and took the jugs from Elena before disappearing through the curtain, leaving us waiting in the dark hallway. Everything about this felt like a drug deal.

Moments later, the woman reappeared with the two jugs filled with warm, fresh milk. Elena handed over some money and we very carefully began our descent into darkness—a feat far more frightening than the way up. Each step felt as though we were about to stumble off a cliff into an abyss.

“Did she just milk a cow in there?” I asked, assuming it was now safe to speak.

“Don’t speak!” Katya retorted. I guess we were still in danger after all. It wasn’t until we were back on the village road leading to the dacha that my speaking moratorium (moo-ratorium?) was lifted.

After we returned to the dacha, Elena took out some glasses and began pouring milk, as everyone eagerly awaited a straight-from-the-teat treat.

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Professional Loser

It’s bad enough I lose at sports on a regular basis when I’m actually playing them. But it’s another thing to directly contribute to your favorite professional teams’ losing – even in the midst of championship runs.

I’ll start with my beloved Detroit Pistons. I became a Pistons fan during the play-off run that resulted in the second of their back-to-back championships (1989-1990). Shortly after that, things went downhill quickly and there were more losing seasons the rest of the decade than winning ones. It was also what was dis-affectionately known as the “teal” era, when the Pistons switched their uniforms from their classic red, white and blue to a puke-ish teal. It was almost as though the teal and the losing formed a what-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg effect.

Shortly after switching back to their classic red, white, and blue uniforms, the Pistons returned to glory with a championship in 2004. In 2005, they were making another run at it. After falling behind the Spurs 0-2 on the road in the Finals, the Pistons won two straight home games and had a chance to take the series lead with game 5 at home. The day of the game, a friend called to inform me that he had an extra ticket. I didn’t hesitate. After a tense, back and forth game, the Pistons found themselves up by three with just a few seconds left. With time running out, all the Pistons had to do was guard the three-point line at all costs. Instead, Rasheed Wallace decided to leave his man open by doubling up another player. Well, his “man” was the best three-point threat on the floor: Robert Horry, who promptly received the ball before throwing up a game-tying three-pointer. Overtime. Loss.

Then there’s my number one team – the Detroit Tigers. Unfortunately for me, the year I decided to jump on the Tigers’ bandwagon was 1990. They would go on to become the losingest team of the 90’s. Despite the losses, I continued cheering them on, watching just about every game with the hope that things were finally going to turn around and that my allegiance would make things all the more sweeter when (if) they finally did win. I knew it was only a matter of time. And I turned out to be right. But only after enduring the 2003 season, in which they fell one game short of the worst record of all time (53-119).

In 2006, the Tigers had a magical, World-Series bound season and a sparkling home record. I went to over a dozen games that season. They won two of them. In fact, it got to the point that my friends and family pleaded with me not to go to any more games. I even became a semi-regular on a sports talk radio, where the hosts begged me on the air not to go to games. Incidentally, the Tigers’ best stretch took place during the six weeks I was out of the country. Mercifully, my bad karma must have been out of their range.

Incidentally, despite my losing record, the Tigers were also one of the best home teams in all of baseball. Earlier in the season, I turned down a chance to go to a game because of a cold. The Tigers ended up winning 7-6 in come-from-behind fashion in what was definitely one of the highlights and turning points of the season.

But that was nothing compared to what happened at the end of the season. Going into the final weekend of the season against the last-place Royals, the Tigers led the division over the late-surging Twins by a couple of games. No matter what the Twins did, all the Tigers had to do was win one of those three games to clinch the division. Otherwise, they would have to settle for the postseason Wild Card spot. One win would end in a tie. They lost the first two games. It all came down to the final game of the season. Normally, the final game of the regular season is meaningless. At least, that’s what I thought when my friend Mike asked me months before if I wanted to go to the last game. I almost turned it down. As it turned out, the game now meant everything.

The Tigers had two ways in which to clinch it. The first way placed them directly in control of their own destiny: all they had to do was win. If they were to lose, the Twins simply had to lose, too. And I would be there to witness the first division championship at Comerica Park. The Tigers scored early and built up a seemingly safe 6-0 lead. They were well on their way … and then they weren’t. The Royals tied it late in the game and it went into extra innings. The out-of-town scoreboard indicated that the Twins already won, so now it was do or die. We lost. Instead of a champagne-soaked celebration, we were drenched in tears and heartbreak. It wasn’t so much the loss that hurt. It was the way we lost. Like the Pistons’ finals loss, this one still stings. And always will.

Fortunately, the Tigers still made the playoffs that year as the American League Wild Card team, propelling themselves all the way to the World Series, which they proceeded to lose in five games to the Cardinals. I was miraculously at the one game they won … for what it’s worth. Somehow, this only added salt to the wound.

The following season, I missed Justin Verlander’s first non-hitter by one day – the day before my birthday. I went to the game the day after. A loss.

Even my one legitimate shot at catching a home run ball was a loss. It was a Tigers spring training game down in Lakeland, Florida. I was sitting out on the grassy berm in left field in prime home run territory. Tigers’ third baseman Brandon Inge lifted a fly ball that headed right toward me. At first, I couldn’t believe it – not so much because of the odds, but because of my inability to judge fly balls. Next thing I knew, the ball landed directly in front of me on the blanket I was sitting on. If it had been any closer, it would have landed in my lap. The problem was, I had just returned from the concession stand. In one hand was a hot dog; in the other, a beer. I froze. Meanwhile, an unfrozen guy behind me dove directly onto my blanket, simultaneously snatching the ball and spilling my beer. Since catching a home run ball is equivalent to lightning striking twice, that was probably my one and only shot – not to mention the one thing I had control over, unlike the outcome of the game. And I blew it.

Somehow, despite the losses, I continue to keep rooting for my teams, as much as I do myself. Win or lose. Rain or shine.

Lovable Loser

I am not an athlete. I never was and never will be. Don’t get me wrong: I love sports and it’s certainly not for a lack of trying that stunted my athletic prowess. “Natural” athletes are born with two balls between their legs and one ball in hand the moment they climb out of the womb. However, having a father with absolutely no interest in sports doesn’t bode well for one’s athletic development. My mother at least watched sports from time to time (despite not being an athlete herself), but she certainly didn’t teach me how to play sports. Then again, nobody taught my two younger sisters and that didn’t stop them. Being short for my age certainly didn’t help. Nor was being the last in my class to reach puberty.

I never stood a chance.

Like most kids, my sports “career” began in elementary school gym class. It didn’t take long for me – or anyone else for that matter – to realize that I wasn’t a natural born athlete … nor was I one in training. Aside from being a loser at sports, I quickly came to learn, losing doesn’t always have to do with keeping score. I also learned that losing is simply giving up. And nobody could ever accuse me of doing that.

In elementary school, however, one thing I certainly didn’t win at was being cool. There are several ways for a boy in elementary school to elude popularity. I somehow mastered all of them. Take for example, my decision to sport a Sea-Monkey necklace (a small, plastic globe hanging from a string filled with actual live Sea-Monkeys).

My low threshold for pain also didn’t help matters. I would respond to the smallest of scrapes with the intensity one would expect from a broken arm. One of my earliest memories was at the ripe age of two when I fell off of my tricycle, scraping both of my knees. I screamed and cried for hours. I could never cope with the sight of blood. Even till this day, I have a tendency to pass out during even routine blood tests. I fear needles even more so than blood itself.

However, I was also teased about many things beyond my control. Like the ears that were too big for my abnormally small head. Or my inability to properly pronounce the following sounds: ‘r’, ‘f’ ‘s’ and ‘th’. As much as I loved to read, reading aloud always meant enduring mocks and chuckles from my classmates.

As a result, the school speech therapist would pop into my classroom on a weekly basis and gleefully announce for all to hear: “I’m here to take Bobby for speech therapy.” And away I would go, as my classmates snickered. Fortunately, the therapy paid off and I learned to speak properly. But the price I paid was constant teasing and embarrassment, which probably necessitated the need for a different type of therapy.

If there was one thing I was a champion of in my early childhood days, it was reading by my lonesome. So much so, I got to cash in numerous Book-It awards at Pizza Hut after accumulating the required stars over and over again. This counted for something, at least. Not with my peers, but with my teachers, parents…and Pizza Hut.

Perhaps the one thing that hurt my cause the most was constantly being picked last in gym class. Even a student with a missing limb got picked before I did. Of course, being small for my age had a lot to do with it, but one of the most athletic boys in my class was actually shorter than me. Since math might be the one thing I’m worse at than sports, I was unable to calculate that my Sea-Monkey necklace + getting picked last in class = my face shoved into dog shit in the 4th grade. But by then, it was already too late. Besides, when your gym teacher makes fun in unison with your classmates, you really don’t stand much of a chance. Unless, one doesn’t consider a jock-friendly gym teacher shaking his head in disbelief at your physical education deficiencies an act of teasing.

My lack of athletic ability certainly wasn’t for lack of trying – at least on my parents part. Bless their hearts, they tried, beginning with the blue and yellow Huffy I received for my 7th birthday. However, the gift I was most excited about that year was a Smurf record. In fact, I showed no interest in riding my bike for several weeks – mostly out of fear. Training wheels did little to ease my trepidation. Once I got the hang of the whole training wheel business, they stayed on for over two years. Of course, this prompted only further teasing by my schoolmates. And it came as no surprise. I always lagged behind my classmates – in terms of height, puberty, and refusing to believe that Santa was a myth until I was 12 (I stopped believing in the Easter Bunny a couple of years prior to that). Eventually, I battled my demons and the training wheels came off. By then, my bike and I became inseparable – when I wasn’t falling off it by crashing into a giant rock and landing on my tailbone … or, flipping over the handlebars.

Naturally, gym class was ground zero for my bullies. At least during team sports like dodgeball, I could sort of slip between the cracks and hide out of view. However, solo acts like chin-ups and robe climbing were the worst. It were as though a spotlight was shining on me on a stage of failure of shame as my legs dangled helplessly beneath me.

As though gym class weren’t cruel enough to endure, my parents – in an attempt to “normalize” me – signed me up for recreational sports, beginning with seemingly benign swimming lessons. Of all my early childhood sporting endeavors, swimming lessons were the least traumatic because they didn’t directly involve competition. What I did have to worry about, however, was drowning. It wasn’t because I couldn’t swim, but rather the fear of being drowned by my classmates. From the beginning, I proved to be a at least a “decent” swimmer. Translation: I could stay afloat without drowning. Even to this day, I aesthetically resemble a drowning rat when I swim with way too much unnecessary flopping and splashing around. But I can at least get safely from point A to point B, assuming calm weather conditions. Fortunately, I have no traumatic memories from swim lessons. What was traumatic, on the other hand, were the constant deep-end dunkings I endured after the lesson was over during open swim time. If anything ever drowned, it was my dignity.

Next came soccer and T-ball. Both sports were intended to supplement my athletic development. Both experiments failed miserably. There are two things I remember most from my short-lived soccer career: the taste of my plastic water bottle and the freshly cut orange slices brought in by somebody’s mom that always awaited us when we got off the field. The true highlight of my illustrious soccer career was being known as the weird little boy who stood in the middle of the field during the game, staring incessantly at his digital, water-proof Casio wristwatch, counting down until the game was over so he could be put out of his misery. Obsessive watch-staring was one of the countless reasons I am pretty convinced that I had undiagnosed OCD as a child. This watch-staring habit got so out of hand at school that my teacher actually had to call my parents about it, who then took my watch away. Now, instead of being the weirdo who stood in the middle of the soccer field constantly staring at my watch, I was the weirdo who stood in the middle of the field starting at the skin on my wrist where the watch used to be. I lasted one season. (As a side note, my daughter also lasted one season following a very similar experience. The apple doesn’t…).

I certainly didn’t fare much better in T-ball, either. The problem (well one of many) with t-ball was that I tended to make more contact with the tee, than the ball itself. And I was deathly afraid of the ball when I was in the field – even when it wasn’t hit anywhere close to me. I also had a tendency to run to the wrong base. Or I would run when I wasn’t supposed to, or run when I shouldn’t have been. I lasted three seasons, but showed no signs of progress, aside from an ego no longer just bruised … but turned to mush.

The next fiasco in my sporting career was a brief foray into gymnastics, which lasted even less time than my soccer career. Gymnastics – which requires great coordination, skill, and strength in order to dangle and balance up above – made perfect sense for a clumsy and uncoordinated kid afraid of heights. I lasted only a few sessions. Fortunately, I was smart enough to stay tight-lipped about this particular athletic endeavor to avoid further teasing.

Outside of gym class, gymnastics was my last attempt at athletics until middle school – unless bouncing around on a pogo stick, or rolling on a kick scooter counts. Neither one of these endeavors did anything to improve my popularity. So I naturally progressed to trying my hand at skateboarding, which was almost impossible to avoid as a child of the 80’s. Sensing an opportunity to improve my social standing, I begged my parents for a skateboard of my own. Granted, I should have had the foresight to realize that my lack of coordination was probably not a good fit for skateboarding, but I was willing to look beyond that if it meant any chance to be seen as “cool.” Of course, it was important to get a legitimate, authentic wooden skateboard like all the cool kids and pros used. But my parents bought me a cheapo, blue plastic skateboard that was about ½ the width of the bulky, “cool” skateboards. Not only was I teased for it, but I never quite got the hang of the whole balancing component required to navigate a skateboard, wiping out endlessly to the tune of several minor, but irritating scrapes and bruises. My skateboard suffered the biggest injury – having a large chunk of plastic broken off the tip, which I attempted to duct tape back together. After a few weeks, I used my skateboard for the sole purpose of rolling down the driveway in the sitting position.

When I was in first grade, I became a Cub Scout – the hopeful first step of turning into a man (or, at least, a Boy Scout). Aside from the fact that most of my fellow Scouts were also my bullies, my mother became a den leader, which added even more fodder for my pack to tease me about. It also gave my mother the opportunity to protect me like a, well, little cub.

One of the highlights of being a Cub Scout was the annual Pine Wood Derby race, which blessed me with the opportunity to race against other human beings in races where there were clear last place finishers. Prior to the Pine Wood Derby, the only racing experience I had involved my Sea-Monkey racetrack. Preparation for the Pine Wood Derby entailed conceptualizing, then carving out a wooden car made of pine that would then be raced on a downhill track. Unlike Sea-Monkeys, each car was unique and a clear winner was crowned. My dad helped me throughout the process, which meant he did just about all the work himself, since a.) I had no idea what I was doing and b.) he had no patience to teach me useful skills as carpentry, or anything else involving tools for that matter. My main contribution to the task at hand was adding the head of Stratos from my He-Man action figure collection. Sure enough, my car came in dead last. I would never get a chance to redeem myself. After that year, in the face of constant teasing, my mother and I both quit. I was simply not destined to become a Boy Scout. Me and my dad had one other, lightning bottle foray into miniature transportation This time, it involved a model helicopter that my dad spent weeks building form a kit. Instead of Stratos, he selected a Bo Duke action figure from the Dukes of Hazzard to be its pilot. On its inaugural flight, my dad managed to crash the helicopter directly into the curb in the parking lot of my middle school (which, in hindsight, seems par for the course for the Dukes of Hazzard). It shattered into a million little pieces. And poor Bo was found face down amidst the scattered debris, about 20 feet away from impact. Just like that, the helicopter experiment was over as quickly as it had begun.

My next phase of losing was also my worst: middle school, where the bullying and teasing reached an all-time high. It was also during this period that I gave recreational sports another chance and joined a basketball league – the highlight of which was scoring a whopping two points in a game – the only points I scored all season. My sports activities were supplemented with band and a brief foray into musical theater as a leading man, in a musical entitled Miracle on Angel St. After two hellish years, it was time to start high school, whether I was ready or not.

The combination of my short and scrawny stature and being in the marching band was not exactly a winning combination for an incoming high school freshman. My athletic ability and overall whiteness was so awful, I could barely march in step. On the first day of marching band camp, I overheard an upper classman proclaim: “Look how little he is!” It is a bit discouraging when you aren’t even safe from getting picked on in marching band. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before I found a “home” amongst my band mates and suddenly, I didn’t feel like such an outcast anymore. Or, at least not the only outcast. I was now surrounded by my own kind. Sure, we were still outnumbered. But we had each other. During my sophomore year, I branched out into the parallel world of vocal music, joining an all male glee club – the highlight of which was singing a solo in Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time”. The group was called Movement. It didn’t take much creativity for others to quickly add ‘Bowel’ in front of it, which is what we quickly became known as. With one foot in the world of both instrumental and vocal music, I flirted again with musical theater, where I was cast as a chorus member of Oklahoma. However, I quit when I was unable to keep up with the requisite choreography that musicals demand.

Aside from this musical misstep, music – like writing – made me feel at home. It made me feel wanted. This isn’t to suggest that high school was smooth sailing – especially outside the band room doors. The losing continued – in both sports and Solo & Ensemble competitions. Among the ways I lost: my favorite Casio watch was stolen out of my gym locker. Later, in that same locker room, somebody decided it would be funny to take my underwear and then put it in the urinal before proceeding to piss on it. The cream of the crop was when someone heaved a basketball over the gymnasium balcony, resulting in a direct hit to my skull. It not only knocked me off my feet, but I saw stars for the first time in my life … or were they birds? At least, I knew I could always retreat to the safe confines of the band room, with my tail between my legs.

Things began to look up in the summer of 10th grade when I magically grew several inches and finally hit puberty. At least I could no longer be considered short. I was still a dork, but a proud band dork. At that point, I began feeling comfortable in my own dork skin. However, despite being taller, my athletic skill did not grow along with me. In gym class, I consistently finished second to last in the 2-mile run. The kid who finished last weighed 300 pounds and had a bum ankle.

During my sophomore year of high school, I decided to do something about it by asking for a weight set for Christmas. Technically, they were very strong rubber bands, but still a major “upgrade” from the five-pound dumbbells I had previously worked out with. The time had come to finally put some meat on my bones. Incidentally, that same Christmas, I also received Michael Jackson’s Dangerous CD, which I worked out to vigorously. I can’t say I got any stronger – or more “dangerous” – but I certainly felt so mentally. After a few months, most of the rubber bands had either snapped, or were on the verge of snapping. Putting safety first, I quit.

Ten years later, I would give weightlifting another shot in the months leading up to my wedding (which also eventually ended with a loss). Only this time, instead of rubber bands, I lifted actual, iron weights. My athletic, Asian friend Tzu volunteered to be my personal trainer and (much-needed) spotter. Buoyed by Tzu’s intense Karate Kid-style mentoring, I got into the best shape of my life. My bodybuilding regimen was also aided with whey protein shakes, which gave me the worst, most foul-smelling gas of my life.

Back to high school: on the heels of my weightlifting experiment, combined with puberty, I was brimming with false confidence and decided to try out for sports. My first attempt was at basketball – both literally and figuratively, I actually thought I had a shot, but I was cut in the first round – and quite likely, the first to be cut, too. Next up, was baseball, but I completely whiffed once again, not making it past the first round of cuts. The only consolation prize was when the baseball coach gave me a firm pat on the back and said with a straight face: “At least you tried, son. At least you tried.”

Realizing I could never compete with my peers, I started playing pick-up basketball at my church, where I learned that I sucked just as much against overweight 40-year-olds as I did against people my own age.

When I started college, I stumbled upon a job in athletics at the university field house. My primary duty was ID checker. Yet again, I was on the outside, looking in. Although not in my job description, I was also required to clean out the men’s locker room the morning after hockey tournaments. Aside from having to deal with some of the nastiest odors known to man, I was forced to clean up various trash, tobacco spit wads, shit smears, and unidentifiable solids and fluids off both the floors and walls. The only saving grace this job afforded was the school volleyball team. From my vantage point behind the ID desk, I could sit back and watched 20 spandexed, long-legged athletic chicks working out. One even became “just a friend”. This almost made up for everything else.

My next job was more directly related to athletics: I became a little league coach. I had come full circle, back to my roots and quickly realized that I was as inept at coaching little league as I was in playing it, guiding my team to an 0-10 record. Those poor little kids never stood a chance.

The following summer, I formed my own co-ed softball team, which I guided to three straight, pitiful losing seasons before ultimately disbanding it. I would take three years off before joining a new team – a co-ed work team. The losing continued for several years, before ultimately leading to my singular moment of athletic greatness. Until then, there was still a lot of losing left to accomplish.

Fortunately, there is one athletic skill I can vaguely lay claim to: relatively the blinding speed of a chipmunk. I learned early on that I could usually run faster than most of my bullies – until I got tired and they caught up to me, or, at least until I tripped on a small pebble or twig, or was consumed by panic. When they did catch up to me, I would simply drop to the ground and curl into a ball – like an animal playing dead.

Unfortunately, my speed has not served me nearly as well in my athletic endeavors as I would have hoped. Take softball, for instance. When playing the outfield, I completely lack the ability to judge fly balls. I either overrun a ball, or stop short of it, watching it drop right in front of me (or, more often than not, far away from me). My blazing speed is rendered completely useless as a result. Another hindrance to my speed is my fear of the ball … even after all of these years. I’m even afraid of the ball when I’m running to first base. More often than not, I duck and/or throw my arms over my head as I approach first base, thus slowing down and thereby resulting in outs that should have been hits. I firmly believe that softball leagues should require batters to wear helmets. I’ve considered wearing one to alleviate this phobia, but then I would look like an idiot. Or, more accurately, more of one.

As is clearly evident by now, I suck at team sports. And as far as one-on-one sports are concerned, I have an under .200 winning percentage. Only a small handful of those losses were pretty damn close. Sometimes, my losing was so frustrating and unbearable, I would purposely lose (not that it took much effort or fakery … it just expedited things). Throwing in the towel allowed me to get out of my misery sooner. Sometimes, I would even go as far as to fake an injury just to get out of losing.

It’s bad enough I lose at sports on a regular basis when I’m actually playing them. But it’s another thing to directly contribute to your favorite professional teams’ losing – even in the midst of championship runs. A certified professional loser. Yet, despite the losses, I continue to keep rooting for my teams, as much as I do myself. Win or lose. Rain or shine.

I decided to become a faithful Pistons fan following their second of back-to-back championship runs (1989-1990), just in time for a decade of losing and mediocrity. This period also coincided with the infamous “teal” era, when the Pistons switched their uniforms from their classic red, white and blue to a puke-ish teal, begging the question: what-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg?

Shortly after switching back to their classic red, white, and blue uniforms, the Pistons returned to glory with a championship in 2004. In 2005, they were making another run at it. After falling behind the Spurs 0-2 on the road in the Finals, the Pistons won two straight home games and had a chance to take the series lead with game 5 at home. The day of the game, a friend called to inform me that he had an extra ticket. I didn’t hesitate. After a tense, back and forth game, the Pistons found themselves up by three with just a few seconds left. With time running out, all the Pistons had to do was guard the three-point line at all costs. Instead, Rasheed Wallace decided to leave his man open by doubling up another player. Well, his “man” was the best three-point threat on the floor: Robert Horry, who promptly received the ball before throwing up a game-tying three-pointer. Overtime. Loss.

I won’t even mention the Lions (ahem 0-16).

Then there’s my number one team – the Detroit Tigers. Unfortunately (and even more so … understandably) for me, the year I decided to jump on the Tigers’ bandwagon was 1990. They would go on to become the losingest team of the 90’s. Despite the losses, I continued cheering them on, watching just about every game with the hope that things were finally going to turn around and that my allegiance would make things all the more sweeter when (if) they finally did win. I knew it was only a matter of time. And I turned out to be right. But only after enduring the 2003 season, in which they fell one game short of the worst record of all time (53-119).

In 2006, the Tigers had a magical, World-Series bound season and a sparkling home record. I went to over a dozen games that season. They won two of them. In fact, it got to the point that my friends and family pleaded with me not to go to any more games. I even became a semi-regular on a sports talk radio, where the hosts begged me to stay away. Incidentally, the Tigers’ best stretch took place during the six weeks I was out of the country. Mercifully, my bad karma must have been out of their range.

Incidentally, despite my losing record, the Tigers were also one of the best home teams in all of baseball. Earlier in the season, I turned down a chance to go to a game because of a cold. The Tigers ended up winning 7-6 in come-from-behind fashion in what was definitely one of the highlights and turning points of the season.

But that was nothing compared to what happened at the end of the season. Going into the final weekend of the season against the last-place Royals, the Tigers led the division over the late-surging Twins by a couple of games. No matter what the Twins did, all the Tigers had to do was win one of those three games to clinch the division. Otherwise, they would have to settle for the postseason Wild Card spot. One win would end in a tie. They lost the first two games. It all came down to the final game of the season. When my friend Mike asked me months before if I wanted to go to the last game. I almost turned it down thinking it would be meaningless. Now it meant everything.

The Tigers had two ways in which to clinch it. The first way placed them directly in control of their own destiny: all they had to do was win. If they were to lose, the Twins simply had to lose, too. And I would be there to witness the first division championship at Comerica Park. The Tigers scored early and built up a seemingly safe 6-0 lead. They were well on their way … and then they weren’t. The Royals tied it late in the game and it went into extra innings. The out-of-town scoreboard indicated that the Twins already won, so now it was do or die. We lost. Instead of a champagne-soaked celebration, we were drenched in tears and heartbreak. It wasn’t so much the loss that hurt. It was the way we lost. Like the Pistons’ finals loss, this one still stings. And always will.

Fortunately, the Tigers still made the playoffs that year as the American League Wild Card team, propelling themselves all the way to the World Series, which they proceeded to lose in five games to the Cardinals. I was miraculously at the one game they won … for what it’s worth. Somehow, this only added salt to the wound.

The following season, I missed Justin Verlander’s first non-hitter by one day – the day before my birthday. I went to the game the day after. A loss.

Even my one legitimate shot at catching a home run ball was a loss. It was a Tigers spring training game down in Lakeland, Florida. I was sitting out on the grassy berm in left field in prime home run territory. Tigers’ third baseman Brandon Inge lifted a fly ball that headed right toward me. At first, I couldn’t believe it – not so much because of the odds, but because of my inability to judge fly balls. Next thing I knew, the ball landed directly in front of me on the blanket I was sitting on. If it had been any closer, it would have landed in my lap. The problem was, I had just returned from the concession stand. In one hand was a hot dog; in the other, a beer. I froze. Meanwhile, a fan behind me dove directly onto my blanket, simultaneously snatching the ball and spilling my beer. Since catching a home run ball is equivalent to lightning striking twice, that was probably my one and only shot – not to mention the one thing I had control over, unlike the outcome of the game. And I blew it.

Then there was my visit to my dream stadium: Fenway Park. The pitching match-up pitted two aces: Roger Clemens vs. Scott Erickson. There was just one problem: the game never happened. Despite their pleas, I forced my family to sit in the pouring rain for three hours and would have waited all night if I had to. I was certain the game would be played, but the weather gods had other plans. The game was called. And I haven’t been back since.

Now back to my “real” world of sports – where I have at least some control over the outcome. And despite various degrees of failure, I continue to try my hand at other athletic endeavors. And every now and then, I’m prone to brief flashes of athletic competence, but it never takes me long to come back to earth. Despite my failings, nothing has stopped me from attempting: curling, ice-skating, bowling, bocce ball, putt-putt, bean-bag toss, lawn darts, horse shoes, badminton, Frisbee, volleyball and, last, but not least, Wallyball (which aesthetically resembles the white-padded cell of an insane asylum). However, in Wallyball, the walls don’t have pads. They are made of concrete. And they hurt. As for the game itself, Wallyball is volleyball inside a racquetball court – the bumper bowling of volleyball.

Considering the Whitman Sampler world of sports that I traveled through with negligible results, I consider myself extremely fortunate that I’ve been able to avoid any serious injuries, aside from mental anguish (knock on wood). However, speaking of knocking wood, the closest I ever came to a broken bone was a deep bone bruise on my foot caused by a piece of wood, during an innocent game of kickball. It was field day at the high school where I was teaching at the time. A solid block of wood was used for home plate. The ball was rolled to me, but rather than kicking the ball, the top of my foot got all wood. The pain was so intense, I passed out. There’s nothing like getting a stupid, fluke injury in front of a bunch of high school students. They have a tendency to find more humor in situations like this than they do compassion or concern. When I woke up, the first thing I noticed were the number of smiling faces surrounding me, accompanied by various chuckles. I also felt the intense pain surging through the top of my foot. I thought for sure it was broken, but X-rays proved it was nothing more than a deep bone bruise.

Furthermore on the injury front, two of my three most “serious” injuries have involved balls hit in the air. The first one happened back in high school when my dad was tossing me pop-ups, encouraging me “stop being afraid of the ball!” His advice backfired when I attempted to catch it with my nose, rather than my glove. Blood everywhere. Fortunately, my nose wasn’t broken, but my confidence certainly was. And I’m pretty sure it led directly to nasal-septum surgery a few years later. As I indicated earlier, I’m still afraid of the ball. And I still can’t judge balls in the air very well.

My most recent injury happened on my work softball team. It was the last game of a long, losing season. There were two outs. I was playing first base – a position I’m actually halfway decent at on the account that it mercifully doesn’t involve many fly balls or grounders. It’s also a position that pretty much renders my speed (my only athletic asset) irrelevant. Well, with two outs, what should have been the final out hit a routine pop-up (for me, nothing is routine). I thought I was in position to catch it, which would have ended the game and our season with a win. Instead, the ball landed right in front of me, ricocheted off the hard dirt, before upper-cutting me directly on the chin. Like the earlier basketball shot to my head, I saw both stars and birds, accompanied by the ringing of discordant bells. I landed in the ER with a mild concussion. At times, I can still hear the ringing. Oh, and I should probably mention that we lost the game, finishing our season with a 1-19 record. I missed the one game we won.

This injury paralleled my unraveling personal life at the time, which reached rock bottom when my wife and I separated, leading to our eventual divorce. I was never more consumed by losing than I was during that summer.

Shortly after that summer, however, things began to turn around. By the time the next season came around, I was in a new, healthy and far more fulfilling relationship (with a former state champion of track and field!), compounded by the discovery that I was going to be a father. My daughter was due in late August, coinciding with the end of what had turned out to be a fantastic, turn-around season for the softball team.

We ended the season tied for first, which meant having to play a one-game play-off for the championship on a chilly, rain-soaked autumn night. The game was a doozy, going back and forth all game long. Of course, I was conditioned to accept that a loss was always lurking around the corner. I was especially thinking this as I headed up to the plate with the bases loaded in our final at bat, down by one with two outs. After years of folding under pressure, there was no greater choke opportunity than that very moment.

The fate of our entire season was now entirely up to me. Moments certainly don’t get more pressurized than that. To compound matters, I wasn’t having my best game at the plate to begin with. And I wasn’t expecting it to change now. I wouldn’t have expected things to be any different if I were swinging a hot bat. For starters, it was a brisk, autumn night. Any contact the bat made to the ball felt like a lightning bolt through my arm.

As I stood at the plate, I suddenly felt something change within me. Perhaps it was seeing a glimpse of the new life that awaited me as a father. Perhaps I had simply willed myself to refuse to lose anymore. Perhaps it was all the feel-good sports movies I watched over the years. Whatever it was, I suddenly had a clarity I never experienced before in sports. I knew exactly what I had to do. And nothing was going to stop me. I stepped into the pitch and swung, sending the ball sailing to right-center, splitting two fielders, who looked up to see the ball heading toward the fence. The ball continued sailing through the night sky, before arcing down and slamming down at the base of the fence. I had never come close to hitting a ball like this. It is important to note that in this particular league, balls hit over the fence constitute as outs. It would have been my luck to knock one out of the park and lose. But fate was on my side for once. And just like that, it was game over. We were champions. My one moment of athletic glory! Even though it doesn’t really mean anything in the grand scheme of things, I will never forget that feeling.

That same night, just hours after our thrilling victory, my wife went into labor. The next day, I was a father … and I’ve been winning ever since. Professionally, the game-winning hit, combined with the birth of my daughter mirrored my arrival as a published writer. Backing up a bit, if there is anything I have lost more consistently at than any sport or game, it’s my writing. As any writer knows, there are always more “losses” than “wins” (thinking plainly in terms of rejection vs. publications). Despite my losses in my attempts at writing, there have always been signs that I should keep pushing forward. However, one can take only so many semi-finalist awards to begin feeling like you were “always the bridesmaid.”

Over the years, I have come to view each and every rejection as both a loss and a victory. It’s a loss for obvious reasons. It’s a win because it’s proof that I have not given up – that I have not lost my passion, my desire, my lifeblood after years of putting everything I have into a dream that has eluded me for so long. Somehow, that championship-winning hit was the catalyst to a consistent stream of publishing, which ultimately lead to the publication of my first book. Now, every rejection and every publication are a both a testament and a monument to my lifelong commitment of never giving up no matter how many losses are racked up.

Even though I still have an overall losing record – and probably always will – the fact that I continue playing, makes me a champion – even if it’s in a league all to myself. But, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

A Day at the Circus (excerpted from “Love & Vodka”)

Mockup2-1Refreshed from a decent night’s sleep, Katya and I headed downtown. It didn’t take me long to become reacquainted with the city, which now felt like a second home, as opposed to my first trip when it felt like another planet. For the most part, everything was pretty much how I remembered it, however I did notice a couple of new residential skyscrapers taking shape not far from Katya’s apartment building. Unlike the drab, cinderblock style of Soviet-era apartments, these new buildings were both modern and very western-world glass and metal structures.

One of my regrets from my first trip was not visiting the Dnipropetrovsk State Circus. This time, I was determined to rectify the situation. I was especially intrigued by promotional posters and billboards throughout the city, advertising “The Flying Dogs of Dnipropetrovsk.” I had to see this for myself. As on cue, a stray mutt passed by.

“I guess there’s no shortage of performers,” I remarked, half-serious.

“Hey, it’s definitely possible,” Katya said, fully-serious.

I had been to a few circuses in my lifetime, but nothing could prepare me for the experience of a Ukrainian one. Unlike circuses back in the U.S., which roll into town for a day or two, the circus in Dnipropetrovsk runs from early spring through early fall. As is turns out, Ukraine is a hotbed of circus talent. In fact, many circus performers in the U.S. hail from all across the remnants of the former Soviet Union.

After purchasing tickets for a matinee performance, we headed to a nearby market to purchase warm beer and peanuts. We then entered the circus building, which had been built in 1980. For some odd reason, the lobby included a pet store. Various souvenirs were offered for sale around the perimeter of the lobby concourse by vendors dressed as clowns. As somebody who has a complete and utter fear towards these sinister spawns of Satan, it’s a wonder I didn’t head for the closest exit. The fact that they spoke Russian somehow made them even more horrifying.

We headed to our seats in the back row of the 300–400 seat arena, which was probably about three-quarters full. This was quite impressive considering that the circus is pretty much always in town in Dnipropetrovsk.

As we waited for the show to begin, Katya used an armrest to pop the caps of our beer off just before the chimes of what sounded like a very depressed clock rang—a cue for the audience to be aware that the show would begin in ten minutes. We used that time to make out in our seats, because nothing says romance like a Ukrainian circus. Five minutes later, the clock chimed again. A buzz filled the air. Katya explained that the chimes were ringing out the melody of the Moscow Circus. It sounded more like a funeral dirge to me. Finally, the lights dimmed and a spotlight shined upon the house band, perched in a balcony overlooking the crowd, which was now going bananas in anticipation. The band provided accompaniment for the performers throughout the entire show, which included everything one would expect to see at a circus: tightrope walkers, gymnasts, lion tamers, monkeys, clowns and performers inside giant, glow-in-the-dark worm-like creatures that resembled Slinkys on acid.

Prior to the intermission, a woman was brought into the ring from the crowd. She looked understandably shocked and confused. Moments later, a man was rolled out by a gang of clowns. He was positioned inside a giant ring—his arms and legs spread out like da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” drawing. After the clowns released him from the wheel, he got down on one knee in front of the woman and proposed. She accepted. How could she not? The crowd went crazy. All I could think was, why didn’t I think of that?

During the intermission, children lined up for elephant rides. More impressive was an enormous swing that was lowered from the rafters. And when I say enormous swing, I mean a swing that almost spanned the entire circus ring. I watched in utter fascination as approximately twenty children were strapped in at a time before being swung back and forth by some sort of contraption made up of levers, whirligigs, and gizmos.

The second half of the show began innocently enough with a half-naked gymnast twirling up and down a rope like a stripper on a pole. The next act became the realization of my worst nightmare as a posse of clowns ran into the ring, then up and down the aisles, searching for some poor soul to include in their act. I made it a point not to make any eye contact with any of them whatsoever. In retrospect, I think this may have been the wrong tactic, because as it turned out, that poor, unsuspecting soul happened to be me. Next thing I knew, I was being pulled from my seat and dragged down the aisle and into the ring below. Katya, meanwhile, couldn’t stop laughing as I looked back at her in a desperate plea for help.

The procurer clowns brought me down into the dirt-floored ring, where I was instantly surrounded by at least a dozen more clowns. One clown in particular kept running around me in circles, making funny faces three inches from mine. This had to be—indubitably—what Dante’s Seventh Circle of Hell is like.

The leader of the clowns commanded me to do something—in Russian.

“Nyet, Russiky,” I pleaded in desperation.

Apparently, he either couldn’t understand me, or chose not to. He continued barking at me in Russian, repeating the same command over and over—until it finally occurred to him that I couldn’t understand Russian. Once this understanding was finally established, he instead gestured for me to sit upon the raised feet of a clown who was laying on his back. A third clown was positioned in the same manner five feet away. I did as instructed—or at least I thought I did—but I was apparently not positioned the way they wanted me to be. Another clown helped adjust me into the proper position, at which point the clown that was holding me up began bouncing me up and down on his feet, as though they were spring-loaded. However, my position was still apparently not to his liking. The more they tried, the more it was becoming evident that it was no use. The poor clown holding me up was struggling to withstand my weight. Finally, his legs buckled and I fell right on top of his face. He rolled over, holding his nose in pain, as blood gushed out, soaking the front of his costume.

As the crowd booed, I was scolded by the clown leader, who pointed toward my seat. I trudged back toward Katya, head bowed, equally ashamed and traumatized. Just what it was that the clowns wanted me to do, I’ll never know. But I imagine it had something to do with being catapulted from one clown to the other. I couldn’t really imagine any good coming from that, so I am quite sure that it was for the best that it didn’t work out.

When I got back to my seat, Katya was laughing even harder.

“It’s not funny,” I said.

“It is hilarious,” Katya replied, cracking up.

Meanwhile, the clown whose face I fell on was being helped out of the ring, holding a bloody rag up to his possibly broken nose. One might assume that considering the way I felt about clowns, I would have claimed this moment as a victory. But instead, I felt sorry for the poor clown. I never thought it possible that a clown could elicit my sympathy. Then again, the more time I spent in Ukraine, the more I learned that anything was possible.

When the clowns finished up their act—which I had clearly curtailed—it was time for the grand finale: the Flying Dogs of Dnipropetrovsk! I was dying to know how they would manage to make dogs fly. Would they be shot out of a cannon? Surely, they wouldn’t be that cruel.

Initially, this trick was accomplished by having dogs wearing little backpacks walk up a ladder practically to the roof—a height of at least one-hundred feet. When the dogs reached the top, they would walk across a diving-board-like platform and then jump. Half way down, a little parachute would open, allowing them to land safely in the arms of their trainers.

And then, they brought out the cannon, which was pointed straight up into the air. And—just as I imagined—dogs were shot out of it.

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FBI’s Least Wanted

A few years ago, I ventured into Detroit for a scouting expedition for what I thought was going to be my first feature film – a gritty, crime drama set in Detroit. Accompanying me on our mission was an international crew of immigrants and fellow Americans – a Polish storyboard artist, a British director, an American location scout, and my fellow American co-writer.

What could possibly go wrong?

It was a dangerous undertaking for four white suburbanites, venturing deep into inner city Detroit and into abandoned structures in various degrees of decay, ranging from neglect, to arson. Many were clearly currently being used as halfway houses and crack dens. Although it may have looked like we were traversing on a grand-scale, post-apocalyptic movie set, we know full-too-well that we were miles away from a Hollywood ending.

Just past midnight, we ventured into the infamous, virtually desolate Delray “neighborhood” of southwest Detroit, running concurrently along the Detroit River. We approached the entranceway to the man-made, industrial wasteland of Zug Island, which resembles the skyline of Gotham City (incidentally, Batman vs. Superman was partially shot in Detroit).

Though I knew of Zug Island, I had no clue what went down there and was curious. Protected by my “crew”, the time had come to finally see for myself. My crew was skeptical, but I was driving so I turned onto the gravel driveway and over the one-way bridge leading to the island.

“It says no trespassing!” my director shouted, as we passed a giant “NO TRESPASSING” sign posted on the bridge.

“How is this different than all the abandoned houses we trespassed?”

“It’s very different,” the director said.

I convinced them it was worth it…in the name of art. As it turned out, it was actually in the face of stupidity.

We traversed onto what resembled a post-apocalyptic, industrial wasteland of an island dominated by an endless Habitrail system of a factory. Despite a handful of cars in the enormous parking lot, there wasn’t a single human soul in sight. It seemed unfathomable that any human life could possibly survive – let alone work there. However, it was becoming increasingly apparent that we were in the human-less domain of robots.

As we drove deeper into the abyss, none of us said a word, as though in mutual fear of voice-activated robot snipers. If it wasn’t already too late.

From a distance, the flaming towers of Zug Island resembled an enormous, scrambled pipe organ. Up close, the island resembled the gateway to hell, as enormous flames gushed out of industrial smokestacks, accompanied by the cacophony of various clicks and clanks, bleeps and bloops of whirligigs, gremlins and what-not overlooking an industrial wasteland devoid of human existence.

“Welcome to Cyberdyne Systems,” my co-writer said.

And then right on cue, flashing lights approached us from behind, seemingly out of nowhere. I couldn’t help but think of the driverless police cars in Bradbury’s “The Pedestrian”. A human voice (or something programmed to sound human) commanded: “Pull over at once. I repeat, pull over at once.”

Since it was clear we were the only humans in sight, we had no doubt that the command was intended for us. Since we were traversing across a parking lot, there was really nowhere to “pull over” so I just stopped the car, awaiting my final moments on earth.

The cop car’s spotlight was blinding and nobody was coming out of the vehicle.

“What the fuck is happening?” the Polish storyboard artist said with genuine panic in his voice.

“If we go to jail because of this…” my co-writer began.

“I’m sure we’ll just be asked to leave,” I said, trying to remain calm,

“What is this place?” the director said.

“Zug Island,” I said. “That’s all I know.”

“But I mean, what exactly goes on here?”
“I honestly don’t know,” I said. “But I have a feeling we’re about to find out.”

But we never found out, thus deepening the mystery and intrigue of our trespass.

After five excruciating minutes, a figure finally emerged from the vehicle, swallowed by shadows. If it weren’t the cop from Terminator 2, it would be Robocop. This was Detroit after all.

Finally, a grim-faced, humanoid security officer approached my window.

“May I ask why you are trespassing on the premises of Zug Island?” the officer asked, with a steely gaze and eyes that seemed incapable of blinking and emotion.

“We’re scouting locations for a feature film. We come in peace.”

“IDs please,” the soulless officer said, not buying what its programmer downloaded into his memory as a bullshit excuse.

We produced our IDs and Officer Android disappeared back into the blinding light of his vehicle. We waited 10 minutes for him – it – to process our data.

Once again, nobody said a word. We were frozen with fear.

While we waited, it dawned on me that the individuals in my car were not overtly suspicious, but just off-kilter enough to alert at least some suspicion.

The droid officer finally returned and handed us back our IDs, issuing a stern warning.

“If you come back onto the premises of Zug Island again, you will be arrested. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes,” we all replied in unison.

“Now go. Leave the premises of Zug Island at once.” I was fully convinced that we were communicating with an automaton.

“Just curious,” I began. “What exactly goes on here … on the premises of Zug Island?”

The cop simply glared at me with his beady, soulless robot eyes, before heading back to his car. It was clear to me that he wasn’t programmed with a response to this particular question. He then proceeded to follow us right off of the island until we were safely back on the mainland of inner city, abandoned Detroit.

Nobody said a word, but the tension could certainly be cut with a knife until I humbly admitted:

“Yeah, probably a dumb idea on my part.”

“You think?” said my co-writer said.

I naturally assumed that this ordeal was over at that point. I also knew sure as hell that I would not be returning to the premises of Zug Island anytime soon.

When I returned to the safe confines of my domicile, I immediately Googled Zug Island in an attempt to uncover just what exactly was so top secret about it. The only thing I could find was a vague reference to “top-secret government projects”, which – in its ambiguity – clearly explained the tight security. The lack of specific details was even more confounding.

A few days later, my theory that it was all over was proven bunk when I received a phone call from my mom – yet another reminder why being named after your father has its disadvantages.

“The FBI left Dad a message on his work phone,” my mom began, filling me with dread. “They want to interview him about his trespassing incident on the premises of Zig Zag Island … or something like that. Do you know anything about this?”

“As a matter of fact,” I told my mom. “Yes.”

“What did you do?” she asked.
I explained to her what happed. She questioned my judgment, then gave me the number to FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper awaiting my phone call.

I’m not quite sure why they contacted my father to begin with. Sure, we shared the same name, but not the same address. Yet somehow, they tracked him down at his workplace.

Shaking in fear, I called the number, already envisioning my future life on Guantanamo Bay.

“Hello, this is Robert Fox. I’m calling about trespassing on the premises of Zug Island. You guys called my father, but it was actually me.”

“Oh, yes. Mr. Fox. We need to talk.”

“Am I in some sort of trouble?” I asked.

“We would like to question you regarding your involvement trespassing on the premises of Zug Island. Can we come to your place of residence at your earliest convenience?”

My convenience? Are actual terrorists given such courtesy? If so, I was especially grateful in this particular instance. Realizing I really had no choice, we arranged a meeting for the following afternoon.

The FBI had me pegged me as a terrorist suspect. This was my new reality.

Just like that, my life morphed into Kafka.

I immediately called my international “crew” to see if they, too, were contacted. They were not. I was sure that it was only a matter of time. But their time never came.

I scratched my head over this, asking myself repeatedly … why just me?

And then it dawned on me. I lived in Dearborn, Michigan – home to the largest Muslim population outside of the Middle East. Not only did I live in Dearborn. I lived in east Dearborn, where the vast majority of the largest Muslim population outside of the Middle East called home. Bear in mind, this was just a few years after 9/11.

I decided it was probably a good idea to let my then wife know that the FBI was planning on stopping by.

“What?” she asked, flabbergasted.

“The FBI. They’re coming to talk to me.”

“Why? What did you do?”

“I trespassed.”

“Where?”
“On the premises of Zug Island.”

“Where’s Zug Island?”

“In Detroit. I’ll explain later.”

“Why does this type of shit always happen to you?”

I had no clue what she meant. Nothing even remotely close to this had ever happened before. But I didn’t have the time, nor the energy to inquire further.

“Everything is going to be fine,” I said, suddenly realizing that this conversation was in all likelihood wiretapped. It was only a matter of time before I would hear the constant whir of a helicopter.

Aside from trespassing, I knew I did nothing wrong, yet I continued to feel a growing sense of paranoia, despite my rational self being fully aware that I had absolutely nothing to incriminate myself with, aside from a simple trespassing violation. Yet, somehow, I couldn’t help but feel that I was a marked man. That my top-secret life as a terrorist was so top-secret, that not even I knew that I was a terrorist. These are the overriding thoughts one has when the FBI IS COMING OVER TO INVESTIGATE YOU!

After work (teaching 1984 of all things), I rushed home and prepared to meet my maker. I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I was somehow guilty– that I was truly a terror suspect. It was similar to the irrational feeling I get in airport security lines. I am overcome with the paranoid sense that security is on to me and therefore, I start looking guilty, which only makes me look even more suspicious, giving them an actual reason to suspect me, rather than the imagined one in my mind which kicked off the whole thing. It’s a vicious cycle.

As I was tidying up our flat, I reminded myself that acting nervous and jittery wouldn’t help my cause, but this thought was only making me more nervous. No amount of deep breaths or medication could help me now. And then it dawned on me that it probably didn’t help my cause that my walls were all bare in preparation of a paint job we were about to do, creating a sense that my living space was simply temporary, a terrorist cell awaiting activation. So, I did the only thing I could think of to neutralize the situation: I put a nail into an empty hole and grabbed my crucifix from my bedroom. It was my only defense.

With over an hour to spare, I sat down in my La-Z-Boy and turned on ESPN to appear as “American” as possible when the SWAT team arrived. Time trudged on in a slow drip.

My hour of reckoning finally arrived when the doorbell rang, alleviating my fear that their entrance would be heralded with the abrupt, crashing of windows. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad, after all. Maybe I would live to see another day – that I wouldn’t be stripped of both my freedom and my dignity.

I let the two agents in, trying with all my might to appear as calm as possible, despite my rattling nerves. I politely offered them a seat, as well as something to drink. They sat down, but politely declined my drink offer.

The two agents seemed nice enough and far more “human” than the emotionless, droid officer from Zug Island. Agent #1 was tall and thin, with an almost scholarly demeanor. Agent #2 was short and stocky like a prototypical blue collar beat cop and probably reported to Agent #1. Neither agent fit the profile of the stereotypical FBI agent that I envisioned, nor did I resemble the stereotypical profile of a terrorist. Then again, my olive skin tone from my half-Italian heritage might lead one to suspect that I was of middle-eastern descent. But surely they did their homework ahead of time.

Once we were settled, the interrogation process began. I tried to remain as calm as humanly possible. Other than the uncontrollable, repeated wiping of sweaty palms on my pants, I think I did okay, considering the surreal, nerve-wrecking circumstances. If I was this nervous being an innocent man, how does an actual suspect keep it together?

Agent #1 did all the questioning, as agent #2 scribbled down notes.

“So, what were you doing on the premises of Zug Island?”

“Scouting locations for a feature film.”

“A future film?”

“A feature film. And, I suppose, future film.”

“About what?”

“A gritty crime story set in Detroit.”

“Sounds interesting.”

“Thanks.”

“Have you ever been involved in terrorist activity?”

“No.”

“Are you affiliated with a terrorist organization?”
“No.”

“Are you aiding or abetting a terrorist organization?”

“Have you ever conspired with a recognized enemy of the United States?”

“No.”

“Okay, I guess our work here is done. Thank you for your time.”

The agents stood up, in perfect, synchronized unison.

“Wait, that’s it?” I asked, realizing that I sounded disappointment that my interrogation was over so quickly.

“Yes. We had to interview you as a formality, but we weren’t really worried,” Agent #1 said, as he handed me his business card. And then he threw me for an even bigger loop:

“By the way, since you live here in east Dearborn,” Agent #2 began. “We’d appreciate it if you could be our eyes and ears around here.”

And just like that, I was no longer a terror suspect…I was being called into duty as an FBI informant. It was now my “patriotic duty”.

“If you see anything suspicious,” Agent #1 began “Let us know immediately. And whatever you do, stay off of the premises of Zug Island.”

“I can assure you of that,” I said.  “But what exactly goes on those premises?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know…” Agent #1 said.

And that was that.

As I led the agents to the door, I still couldn’t believe how easy I was let off the hook. I was never more relieved, despite the lingering paranoia the whole experience left behind.

I never saw anything suspicious lurking in my neighborhood, so never had the need to call. But it sure felt pretty bad ass to have a direct connection to the FBI. I still have the business card till this day. Call me paranoid, but I continue to experience minor inconveniences at the airport – but nothing that leaving early doesn’t rectify.

Regarding the future, feature film that was indirectly the catalyst for this experience, I scrapped my plans to make it myself, but it has since been turned into a novel and currently in development as a film by individuals I hope will be wiser than me when it comes to location scouting. I remain as determined to get it made, as I am to get off of the FBI watch list. Of course, if I had my druthers and had to choose one outcome versus the other, my dream takes the cake.

Published in:

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Slag Review

My Funny Valentine

Charlie Baker’s last waking thought was how pleased he was with the direction his life was finally taking.

So naturally the next morning, when his boss/friend Brian called Charlie into his office, he assumed it had to do with their weekly lunch plans.

“As long as it involves burgers,” Charlie said as he entered.

Brian covered his face with his hands.

“Are you okay?” Charlie asked.

“No,” Brian began. “Not at all. I have to fire you, dude.”

“Fuck you.”

“No joke.”

Charlie’s too shocked to speak.

“I’m so sorry, man. I tried everything I could.”

“I know it’s not your fault,” Charlie said.

“It fucking sucks. Now, about that burger,” Brian said. “It’s the least I can do.”

“As long as there’s a bar.”

“I am so sorry,” Brian said, on the verge of tears.

“You know, on second thought, I think I just need to be alone.”

“Okay, I understand. Oh, and you need to have your stuff packed by close of business.”

“I’ll be out of here at two.”

“Take your time.”

The last thing he wanted to do was take his time.

At 1:51 p.m., he was escorted out the door of the agency.

“Company protocol,” Brian assured him.

The same company where he busted his ass – slaved – for the last five years. For a mere pittance. Meanwhile Brian – his best friend since kindergarten – not only passed him by …but lapped him.

But Charlie never once complained. He just did his job up until the very end.

He headed straight to his favorite watering hole – The Wasted Drink and ordered his usual: a 7 & 7. He promised himself to stick to no more than two, while attempting to process his lay-off. In hindsight, he wasn’t overly surprised. Advertising was cut-throat enough during the best of times and especially not too kind to low-to-mid-level ad people. Charlie had been stuck in a no man’s land between the two levels with no real hope for further advancement – at least not in this job market. Even if his best friend was his boss. So now what? He still had a lot to be thankful for: the impending release of his first book (even though it never pay the bills, it was pride and joy). And his marriage (shaky as it was).

Halfway through his second drink, as the stress and shock began to dissolve, he began his situation it as a blessing in disguise. Being out of a job meant he could now devote more time to writing his next book. Writing full time was something he always dreamed of. Now, he had his chance. And in the meantime, he could unemployment to help make ends meet.

First, he had to go home and face the music. At least his mind was in better place now than he before he walked into the bar. Sure, the booze helped. But he was leaving with a silver lining in his pocket.

He paid his tab, then received a text from his publisher. “CALL ME ASAP.”

With the way his day was going, his doom and gloom radar was on full alert.

He stepped outside to make his call.

“Hey, Charlie …” his publisher began in a tone that only connotated bad news. “Please don’t tell me there’s more notes,” Charlie interjected. “I don’t know if I could handle any more notes.”

“No notes. In fact, there will never be notes again.”

Charlie was confused.

“We’ve gone belly-up.”

“Trust me, we’re just as shocked as you are. Just know that we put our all into this. But unlike us, you can still live to see another day. You deserve better.”

“You were my only hope. You know that.”

“We are just as devastated by this, too as you are. This was our livelihood. Now it looks like we’re going to be stuck in academia from here to eternity.”

“Well, at least you got something,” Charlie said, unable to control his sarcasm.

“I’m certain advertising is far more interesting than academia.”

“I got fired …”

“When?”
“Today.”

There was a long pause, before Henry summed it all up:

“I’m very sorry.”

“Me, too,” Charlie said, deflated. “Any chance for any sort of Hail Mary here?”

“Trust me. We’ve used every last one.”

“Okay, well thanks for believing in my book. I’m very sorry about your loss.”

His words felt empty; his voice detached from reality.

“You wrote a kick ass book.”

Charlie hung up the phone.

This just has to be a nightmare, right?

Monetary impact aside, there was one thing that could dwarf the loss of his job, it was losing his publishing deal. Losing his job felt like losing a bit of his soul. Losing his contract felt like having his soul ripped through his asshole. Signing that contract was the biggest accomplishment of his life; the culmination of hundreds of rejections. His dues had been paid in full.

Of course, it was too good to be true. But it was a last resort. He had been rejected by everyone else – small, medium, and big presses alike. Looking back, he would have much rather never signed the contract at all, rather than to get this far, only to fall flat on his face. There was one positive: at least he knew the book was better than ever due to the endless revisions his publisher mandated. And now, it could return to the market and maybe stand a better chance.

And then it dawned on him: even with all the free time he would now have on his hands – could he even write again after this? It was one thing when he wrote under the false auspices of a wafer-thin publishing contract that his writing finally had a purpose. However, signing with a publisher was a game changer in how he approached the craft. Prior to the contract, at least he had the illusion of hope on his side. Now, he had nothing.

There was no way he could return home in this state of mind, so he headed back inside the bar and promptly ordered another 7 & 7. Before he knew it, his usual quitting time had approached. The last thing he wanted to worry about was warding off suspicion.

But when would he tell Jenny? He didn’t have to tell her right away, did he? Why risk upsetting her and making himself feel worse?

He paid his tab, which had a semi-sobering effect when he realized how every cent he spent was now on borrowed time. As he headed out to his car, he realized he might have been too drunk to drive, but was too drunk and exhausted to give a shit.

As he drove home, he attempted to clear his head and find the right frame of mind necessary to create the illusion that all was fine and dandy. Having a good poker face was never his strong suit.

When he finally pulled into his driveway, he took a deep breath, and entered. His wife was sitting on the couch, crying; a box of tissue at her side.

How does she already know? Did Brian tell her? His wife?

“What’s wrong?” Charlie asked, trying to feign ignorance.

“I’m fine,” she said.

“You are sitting on the couch crying.”

As she attempted to regain her composure, he realized that perhaps her vulnerable state would soften the blow against him if he just came out and told her the news.

“Jenny, I …,” he began.

“I’m leaving you,” Jenny said, before he completed his statement.

“Excuse me?”

“I’m so sorry,” she said, followed by a torrential downpour of tears.

“I don’t understand …” Charlie said.

“It’s so complicated. I don’t even know where to begin …”
“You can start with why.”

“Please, don’t …” Jenny pleaded, as though she were the victim.

“I don’t think you have much of a choice here.”

“I met somebody.”

“Who?” Charlie finally asked after the shock passed.

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Of course, it matters!”

“Please don’t make this more difficult.”

“How long has this been going on?”

“Over a year. Almost two.”

He was too stunned to speak.

She headed upstairs, leaving him to stew in the chaos. He thought about following her up, but felt as though his feet were cast in concrete. Was she expecting him to follow?

A minute later, she came down with a suitcase.

“Were you already packed?”

“Does it matter?”

He supposed not.

“I’ll be back for the rest when you’re at work,” she added.

“That’s mighty courteous of you,” he said, surprised at his ability to muster snark at a time like this.

She headed out the door. He watched helplessly from the window as she pulled out of the driveway, the blinding headlights only adding insult to injury. He was surprised he wasn’t fighting for her – for them. He was just too damn defeated.

Though the dissolution of his job and book contract came as a shock, as far as his wife was concerned, the writing was certainly on the wall– he just had his back turned toward it.

It’s no coincidence that his writing (more specifically, the failure that came along with it), played a tremendous part in the evaporation of his marriage. He certainly couldn’t blame her. How many times did he ignore her because he was in as self-described “writing groove”? He really didn’t blame her. But it still hurt all the same.

When the writing wasn’t holding their relationship hostage, his job was. She was frustrated with his long hours and even longer hours spent writing. If there was anything she wanted more than for him to find a better job, it was to go cold turkey and quit writing. In order to keep the peace, he kept his writing hidden from her, creating the illusion that he was agreeing to her terms. His writing, therefore became his mistress.

Now, none of it mattered.

He headed straight to his king-sized bed – which felt too big and empty for years. He lied down and stared at his dust-covered saxophone propped up on a stand in a dark corner of the room, bathed in eerie moonlight – a golden relic of his past that he set aside to focus on his writing career. Now, it felt so far from reality, he wondered if he could even play it anymore. Maybe someday, he would see for himself. On that thought, he drifted off to sleep, before he awakened minutes later with a jolt, as his new reality hit him like a brick wall. As he tossed and turned throughout the night, he tried to vacate his mind of all thought, but managed to only add to the load.

The next several weeks were a blur of denial, as Charlie held on to the hope that she would eventually come home. But after a couple of weeks of ignored texts and phone calls, mild acceptance began to settle in. She finally replied when he begged her to at least let him know she was okay.

Her reply?

“Please stop texting/calling me.”

So he did.

Then came a much-needed reality check: the discovery that his wife’s “mystery man” was a co-worker of hers that he recently met at a Christmas party.

Sleep continued to elude him over the course of the next several weeks. It wasn’t until he stopped sleeping in the king-sized bed that sleep came more easily (despite the fact that the guest bed being was far more uncomfortable).

He tried to turn to his usual therapeutic crutch: his writing. However, it appeared that the well of inspiration had run dry. For the first time in his life, he had what could only be one thing: writer’s block. He never understood how people could get writer’s block. He thought it was something writers used as an excuse to avoid having to write.  And it infected him during the one time he finally had ample time to write!

Unable to break out of his slump, he put his writing on the back burner, with the hope that it could stew into something later. He would try reading more, which often sparked his creativity. Most importantly, he would focus on trying to have a good time.  And hopefully find his muse along the way.

On a wintry Valentine’s night, Charlie headed downtown in an Uber. He wasn’t taking any chances. Not only was heavy snow in the forecast, but he planned to get shit-faced.

A light snowfall greeted Charlie as he stepped out of his ride in front of Cliff Bells – an old school, Art Deco jazz joint that was resurrected from the dead fifteen years ago so.

Charlie entered the half-packed joint and surveyed the round two-tops for a place to hunker for the remainder of the evening, as a jazz combo jammed on stage. He found the perfect spot in a dark corner. He started with a shot of Jamison, along with an Old-Fashioned, realizing he should probably slow his pace lest he bring the evening to a premature end.

As Charlie waited for his order, he sat back and grooved to the music that had been his lifeblood ever since he joined his middle school jazz band. An escape from his bullies and then later a steady muse for his writing. As the music soaked deep into his soul, it mingled with the alcohol he began pumping into his bloodstream, hopeful he could conjure his long, lost muse.

As the band finished their set to take a short break, Charlie was feeling a decent buzz. And for the first time since Jenny left him, he felt happy. Content. Rejuvenated.

When the band returned from their set, the trio introduced a singer – a curvy, redhead in a matching, red cocktail dress. She had a retro, throwback look that Charlie fell in love with immediately – not to mention a voice to match, which magnified her physical beauty on a deeper ethereal level. The second coming of Ella, Billie, Bessie, and Sarah all rolled up into one. Her voice filled his soul like whiskey filled his veins, hearkening him back to a much more glorious past.

His vintage chanteuse crooned one jazz standard after another. He was obsessed.

And she probably hadn’t even noticed him. As she sang, she closed her eyes in beautiful, tender ecstasy. She seemed both vulnerable and confident. When she opened them again, she looked his way – or, was it just his imagination?  He realized that she appeared to do this to every customer, but he convinced himself that she lingered a moment longer on him.

Wishful thinking, perhaps?

Not wanting to appear like the stalker that he was certain he was becoming, Charlie looked down, honing in on a stack of white cocktail napkins. They seemed to be taunting him, daring him to fill their void with his words. And then, his attention was diverted as the band broke into his favorite jazz standard of them all: the melancholic “My Funny Valentine”. Her interpretation was the most beautifully haunting rendition he had ever heard – more so than Chet Baker. And that was no easy feat! After the first verse, he returned his focus to the napkins. They were no longer taunting him.

They were beckoning him.

Calling out to him.

He reached for one, staring into the snow-white canvas before him. He then removed a pen from his pocket, then looked toward the stage, making direct eye contact with the singer. She flashed a hint of a smile, before closing her eyes as the song reached its coda, as though escaping into another world altogether before slipping into another one of his favorite chestnuts: “At Last.”

At last indeed, he thought as his pen dropped to the napkin like a needle to a record, freely moving on its own accord. He was simply the conduit. A vessel from which his words would flow, painting an all-too-familiar story about love and regret, loss and redemption, of love and regret. Never was he more in sync with both plot and theme, intertwined in such a way that they became one. He wrote in perfect rhythm to the music, tune after tune, accompanied by jazz as hot as his pen.  In less than five minutes, every square inch of the napkin was filled, inside and out. He reached for another. Five minutes later, his pile quadrupled. He couldn’t remember the last time he wrote with such efficiency and precision.

He had no idea what he was really writing about, or even whether it was any good. But it didn’t matter. Nor did it matter if his  booze-soaked scrawls were legible (they rarely were).  And he could care less if it was the worst writing of his life. All that mattered was that he was writing again, which in turn made him feel alive again. His train was back on the tracks and nothing could stop him from finishing his journey.

At some point, he realized he had lost track of time, as happens when soaring through the wild frontier of creativity. Periodically, he would come up for air from his unfiltered prose to catch a quick glimpse of his new muse, before joining her once again in their respective art.

He quickly ran out of napkins and asked the waiter for more, ordering another drink while he was it. While he waited, he took a moment to shake the numbing cramps from his hand. Moments later, he was feverishly writing again.

Following the next, gem-filled set, the band took another break and Charlie realized he needed a break of his own. After guzzling down a glass of water, he headed down a hallway toward the restroom. He felt as though he were floating on air – wrapped in the natural high of an artist working at the peak of his powers.

On his way out, Charlie spotted his new source of inspiration sitting at the bar, sipping on a cocktail. His instinct was to immediately bee-line back to his table like a dog with its tail between its legs, but realized he had more than enough liquid courage to attempt conversation – completely against type.

Just as he took his first step toward the bar, she got up and headed back toward the stage for the band’s final set. Charlie headed back to his seat like a limp, deflated balloon. He would get another shot after the show. Writing sessions this intense were rare and he wanted to make sure to milk it for as long as possible. In fact, his next set – like the music that accompanied it – was even hotter than before.

The waiter interrupted him to ask if he wanted another drink. Though tempting, Charlie asked for more water instead. And the tab. His writing high was far more intoxicating than any booze could ever be. And he knew that too much booze would put his inner muse to sleep. He was surprised he didn’t already cross that line.

Toward the end of the band’s final set, he felt his writing well begin to run dry. Every great session must come to an end. Even the greatest ones. Besides, his blistered fingers needed a break, but like any good workout, it was a good kind of hurt. He gathered up his napkins and stuffed them into his pocket, before sitting back to let the music take over for the remaining half hour.

The band finished their last set with an effervescent rendition of “Fly Me to the Moon” – another one of his all-time faves. He couldn’t believe how in sync this band was to his own personal playlist. When the song was over, the houselights came on and the band began to pack up.

Now was his chance, but he felt his confidence begin to waver. He took comfort in how many strides he made that night. Once again, his writing came to his rescue, though he knew the morning would bring with it his new reality – not to mention a likely hangover.

He ordered an Uber, then threw on his coat and headed back into the empty night now blanketed in a heavy snowfall. As he waited outside, a sudden bone-chilling sudden gust of wind ripped sucked the napkins out of his pocket like over-sized snowflakes, which dispersed in every possible direction. He desperately chased them down, realizing it was a futile effort, despite managing to salvage a few of them. Hopefully, he would have enough to cobble everything back together later. But he wasn’t counting on it.

As he continued to gather the scattered fragments of art, he saw a peripheral vision of red against the falling snow. He stopped mid-pursuit of a napkin, as she stood there, with a warm, inviting smile that threatened to melt the snowflakes into raindrops. She immediately began to help him gather a couple of stray napkins and brought them over to him as her bandmates loaded up a rusted-out van.

“You shouldn’t litter, you know,” she said with a seductive smile.

“Trying to quit,” Charlie said. “You guys sounded great, by the way.”

“Thank you,” she said.

Though he wasn’t certain, it appeared that she was blushing.

They continued to gaze at one another through the falling snow.

Words weren’t necessary. Just music.

“Let’s roll!” the bassist said, climbing into the van.

Charlie’s muse continued to hold her gaze with him as she took a few steps backwards, before she finally turned around and disappeared into the van, which then disappeared into the dark vacuum of night, leaving Charlie behind as the snow fell around him.

And he never felt so wonderfully, utterly, and equally alone.

 Published in the Scarlet Leaf Review:

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