Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Just a Few Things I've Noticed...

Here are some thoughts for the New Year.

  • Football officiating is getting worse. I've always wanted to write a novel based on a crooked a ref who throws games. Think of how easy it would be... One fake, non-reviewable call in a close contest would do it. Now, as I watch the refs bumble, stumble, err and screw it up, I often wonder whether my fiction idea is not already fact. Can some of these calls really be anywhere near impartial?

  • Why is Obama an African American? When did we decide that half-a-Black is Black? Oh, wait! I'm sure there must have been some court decision during Reconstruction affirming just that. But if that's the fact, isn't it time for a change?

  • The First Lady is almost as wide as the new Prez. I have a feeling she's not much on nonsense. That's great!

  • I saw (a nauseatingly large number of times) a TV ad for a Ford truck. The ad was composed entirely of men grunting, yahoohing, groaning, burping and for all I know farting in admiration of the product. Someone at Ford thought I might want to buy a truck based on this. That's so weird that I don't really have anything more to say about it.

  • I saw another ad and haven't yet figured out what it's for. Blue background, people telling me about I'm-not-sure-what, but I should go out and get one. Or maybe two.

  • Speaking of ads, I just made myself an espresso and forgot to put the cup beneath the spout. I do this at least once every other month, and Starbuck's best decaf ends up on my kitchen floor, which is taking on a rich, brown color. But this time, since I recently purchased Sham Wows (really, I did), I managed to mop up the mess in a minute. I am humbled. These things work!

  • I am selling my 1990 Ferrari Testarossa. It's red and gorgeous and when I'm rich and famous, you'll regret not buying it. Get in touch with me if you're interested.

Here's installment 65 of Wasted Miracles.

“Course I’ll help. Whaddya want me to do?” Joe the Cop balanced a cup of Starbucks coffee on one knee, holding the top with two fingers. It was too hot to drink even though he’d been blowing on it for five minutes. He looked down into the cup with an unhappy expression. “You’d think they could figure something like that out, wouldn’t you? I mean, it shouldn’t take a genius to know that if you order a coffee to go, you want it so you can drink it, not juggle it.”
Mamadou said, “Sir?”
Joe the Cop kept staring at the coffee cup. No one had called him ‘sir’ in a long time and it didn’t register. Colin said, “Joe, here’s what we need you to do.”
Later, Colin dropped by Orin’s house. Marsha was on the front porch sitting in her husband’s rocker sipping Red Zinger.
“I wish Orin were here, Colin. He’d know how to handle this stuff. I can’t reach him, though, tried a bunch of times and left messages but he hasn’t called me back yet.” She sipped, thought, sipped. “But yeah, of course, you get Josie out, bring her here. It’s been a while since I dealt with crack addicts, used to get them all the time in the emergency room when I was with Fairfax Hospital. So you bring her here and we’ll get her stabilized, find the best place to put her in for detoxing.”
Colin nodded, could hear her voice was full of doubt. “We’ll be careful, Marsha.”
She gave him a wry look. “Yeah, you’d better. Something happens to you, I’d never forgive myself. And Orin, he’d get even more impossible to live with.”
Catherine’s eyes were wide, her lower lip was quivering. “I mean, what do you know about this man Mamadou? How do you know you can trust him, Colin? What if something happened? And Joe? Why would a policeman go along with something like that? It’s illegal, isn’t it? You’re going to break into this drug dealer’s home and try to snatch Josie? What if she gets hurt?”
Colin didn’t really have answers, chose his words carefully. “You have to trust somebody, Catherine, and unless you want us to bring back a corpse, we’ve got to act now.” The image had the desired effect. Catherine closed her eyes, shuddered.
“We’ll bring her to Marsha and Orin’s house. You know where they live, off Gallows Road? I’ll call you when we get there. Marsha’s a nurse. She’s handled druggies before, knows what to do.” He fell silent, waited for Catherine to nod her head.
“It’ll be all right, you’ll see. We’ll get Josie back and she’ll be fine.”
Catherine nodded again. There really wasn’t much of a choice, was there?
When the Zulu came into the room, he found Comfort squatting in front of Josie. The girl was trembling, her limbs palsied. Her eyes were closed and she was breathing heavily. The Zulu thought she might be unconscious. Comfort said, “She’s coming down very hard, Dingane. I don’t know what you’ve been giving her, but if you stop like this, it will kill her. I’ve seen it before.” He said it without inflection, this was information the Zulu should know.
The Zulu sighed. It was taking far too long and his patience was wearing thin.
“So what do you suggest?”
Comfort shrugged. “Her health is not my business, Dingane. But she needs to be weaned off. If you want her to live, that is.”
The Zulu nodded, his face a mask. “I will get her something. She can’t die yet.”
As soon as he left the room, Comfort brought his mouth close to her ear and whispered, “Listen, Miss Stilwell. Listen very carefully.” There wasn’t much time. He hoped she was rational enough to listen and understand. He lowered his voice even more and when he was finished asked, “Will you remember this? You must! It’s your only chance.”

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Shameless Plug

I belong to a group of about a dozen writers from all over the country, and once a year we get together. We call ourselves the Red Dogs, after the title of one of our member's novel, and it's a jolly reunion. We exchange gossip, eat a lot, review each other's literary efforts, and devote two full days to a writing workshop led by an established author or publisher.

This year, we're meeting at Hueston Woods Conference Center, a lovely site in Ohio bordering a lake, and we have retained the services of Robert Gelinas.

Gelinas is an author and the owner of Arche Books, a small publishing outfit in Florida. He's also a workshop leader who has put together a high intensity series of lectures and exercises for writers who really want to get published and haven't managed to do so yet.

Lets face it, a writer's life is seldom a fulfilling one. I remember reading years ago that the average annual income of all writers--from Stephen King to the lady at the church who does the newsletter--is $360. Additionally, less than one percent of writers' output ever gets published, so we're not talking a high success rate here. I've been fortunate; a couple of my books have made it into print, but I am still a neophyte and need all the help I can get.

I mention all this because this year we have decided to open the workshop to a small group of ambitious folks who are serious about their writing. The workshop will be held May 28th and 29th, though we suggest participants plan to arrive the 27th and leave the 30th. Cost is $800, and this includes three nights at the conference center, all meals, and the workshops and workshop materials.

It's a pretty good deal, all told. If you've been thinking that it's time to finish the novel you started writing a decade ago, give this gathering some thought. If you want more info, email me at, and I'll give you all the information I have.

Here's installment 64 of Wasted Miracles.

Mamadou dropped by later that day. “I tried to call but you were out. Things are all right?”
Colin nodded. ”Went to talk with a friend.”
“No. Someone else.”
Mamadou nodded, then asked, “But Catherine, she’s doing well? Bearing up?”
“As well as can be expected, I suppose.”
Mamadou was thoughtful for a moment, said, “When I lost Amelie, I thought the purpose of my life was over.”
There was an awkward silence, then Mamadou said, “I couldn’t... protect her from the same thing threatening Catherine’s daughter.”
Colin sensed Mamadou wanted to say more. He waited but the Senegalese had ceased speaking, was staring at something outside the window. Finally, Colin said, “I’m sorry.”
Mamadou blinked, rubbed his eyes, changed the subject. “So we have the same news. Yours came in slightly rougher form, I take it. Tell me about it, I’ll fill in what I learned from Aunt Mim.”
Colin did, there wasn’t much. “They were here when I came in, whacked me around, tied me to the machine,” he pointed to the Monkey Ward device. “They asked me about Herbie, and I told them what I knew, which is nothing. They mentioned the Zulu, asked why I was interested in ‘his woman.’ Their words. Then I managed to break free, and that’s pretty much it. Oh, yeah,” he smiled, “I vomited on their shoes. That made them pretty angry.”
Mamadou laughed out loud. “Yes, I’m certain it did.” He peered at Colin. “But you’re all right?”
“A little sore.”
“And quite lucky. The Zulu is a very nasty person, according to Aunt Mim. It’s fortunate you’re not a lot worse off.”
“Aunt Mim knows about him?”
“Aunt Mim knows about everybody.” Mamadou paused, walked to the sofa, sat. “So she knows about the Zulu, who really is a Zulu, incidentally. There’s a man named Comfort who works for him, and Comfort as been buying take-out food and bringing it back to the Zulu’s house. A lady neighbor noticed that because it was unusual to see Comfort at all. He doesn’t socialize much. And suddenly he’s coming home with bags from Burger King, almost as if there are guests at the house. And yesterday, this man, Comfort, appeared briefly on the front porch of the house with a young blond woman. The lady neighbor noticed that too, and more. The lady is a retired hospital worker, she spent 20 years watching addicts come in and out of where she used to work, and even from a distance she can see the young woman is under the influence of something. She guesses crack. That’s what it looks like to her.”
Colin closed his eyes, lowered his head. “Bastard.”
Mamadou nodded, continued. “This isn’t a neighborhood with a lot of white faces. A white one, a blonde one at that, stands out.” He paused, added, “I think it’s about time for us to intercede.”
Comfort didn’t like the Zulu’s new employees, they looked like thugs, had no finesse. He was vaguely pleased they’d been hired to do the strong arm stuff. Truth was, Comfort really didn’t have the heart for it anymore. He’d done it many years, in many places, it had been part of his job and he took a certain pride in doing any job well, but in fact he hadn’t enjoyed it much, not really. He could remember the first time he’d killed a man. It had been far messier than he’d planned and he’d learned some valuable lessons. The subsequent deaths he was responsible for had all been as surgical as could be managed. Until Herbie. He sighed, opened a window to let fresh air in.
He was in the efficiency apartment he’d been renting for close to two years though he’d never spent more than ten nights there. The Zulu didn’t know about it or, if he did, didn’t care. The rent was cheap, the building nondescript and not as well kept as Comfort could have wished, but the neighbors never asked questions and at least the hallways were clean and didn’t smell of urine.
It was sparsely furnished, sparsely decorated. The walls were bare save for a tourist poster from better times that entreated tourists to visit Nigeria. The poster showed a lakeside resort with white sands and mostly white people gazing at a red sunset. It read, “Come to Nigeria and Fall in Love.” Comfort wondered if anyone in the past two decades had come to his country for that purpose. He doubted it.
An adequate stereo played selections from a Muzak station, a small color television was tuned soundlessly to a sitcom featuring a black family with a bellicose father and three hapless teenagers.
Comfort sat at his desk, a yellow legal pad before him. The numbers he was multiplying, adding and sorting through, he’d already seen a hundred times. But it pleased him nevertheless to go through the calculations again. He did it twice, smiled to himself. Soon he could go home.
This pleasant thought was vaguely disturbed by the image in his mind of the young white woman in the Zulu’s basement. He hoped she wouldn’t die, or that if she did, he would not have to witness it.
It worried him slightly that she had not yet told the Zulu what he wanted to hear. The idea of helping her was tempting--a few words from him would do it, but Comfort was not yet completely at ease with the notion. He had not come this far to be led astray by a wisp of misguided compassion. He wondered whether leaving the girl alone with the two new thugs was a good idea. They probably wouldn’t harm the girl, had certainly been given orders not to touch her, but you never knew.
Comfort glanced at his watch. The girl had been without drugs for eight hours now and her cravings would be fierce. He glanced at his watch again, nodded to himself. He’d finish his calculations and go see her, maybe give her some milk laced with sugar to lighten her suffering.
He wet the point of his pencil with a flick of his tongue, focused on the numbers once again, hummed along with the music coming from the radio.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Inaugural Hi-Jinks

On the day of the Obama investiture as President of the US, I will be unable to use any of the roads or bridges leading to Washington, DC. In other words, even though I live a few minutes from where the soon-to-be-prez will be celebrated, I (and all the rest of my fellow North Virginians) will be stuck at home. No Obama T-shirts for us, or key chains, hats, posters, etc.. We will be second-class citizens. It's galling, particularly since no such restrictions exist for Marylanders, our scrappy neighbors to the North. They will be able to come and go as they please, thank you, and buy all the presidential crap they can get their hands on in DC. Also, they'll get to enjoy the extended bar hours and drink til 4 a.m. Now that's really tempting!

Am I upset? Not really. It's going to be a zoo. The buses and subway will run, or so I understand. I imagine that if I really wanted to, I could use these public conveyances, but I'm no fool. There will be close to 4 million people doing exactly that--sardining themselves--and I don't find that at all appetizing. All in all, it might be easier to swim the Potomac at that point in the river where legend has it George Washington flung a silver dollar. Plus, I haven't been invited to any of the inaugural events, surely a mistake on someone's part, but today I am in a forgiving mood.

Some Washingtonians rented their homes out for inaugural week, and will themselves be heading for Florida or Vegas. Others are having parties--my local Giant Food store is offering Time for Change deli platters that look suspiciously like the Lets Keep Things the Same platters. One friend is thinking of doing a personal pay-per-view programming effort. He will allow you into his house to watch his gigantic-screen for $20, refreshments not included. I think this is the essence of America--entrepreneurship in time of economic difficulties. I really admire that.

Here's installment 63 of Wasted Miracles.

With Joe the Cop gone, Colin tried to reach Mamadou, Catherine, Orin. No one was home but Marsha, Orin’s wife. She listened to Colin’s story and ordered him to go to the hospital.
Colin refused. “It’s not that serious. And if I go there, I’ll have to explain what happened and the police might be called. I don’t want to get involved with that.”
“Then come over,” Marsha said. “At least I can take a look at you, patch you up.”
So he did. Orin was in Pennsylvania roadtesting a new gizmo for wheelchair users. “I have no idea how it works,” Marsha said, “but it allows people to use this little device and change traffic lights.” She touched his head. “God, Colin, you’ve got a lump there the size of a goose egg.”
She wrapped ice in a towel, pressed it hard against the wound. He winced, groaned. She shushed him. “You really ought to go and get checked out. You could have a concussion. What’d they hit you with?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t see it.”
“Well,” she pressed the ice down harder, “you’re lucky you’ve got a thick skull. But we knew that before, didn’t we?”
He nodded. His neck still hurt. “What I’m trying to figure out is how they knew anything about all this. I haven’t exactly been shouting from rooftops. Catherine wanted to keep everything quiet. And I’ve never heard of this guy, the Zulu.”
Marsha bent down, inspected her work. “The swelling seems to be going down... Well, it seems to me the best thing to do is figure out the odds here. How many people did you tell, and how many can you trust.”
“I’ve done that already.” He recounted the conversation with Joe the Cop.
Marsha was quiet for a moment. “What about Joe? He mentions it to other cops, they talk, word gets around.”
“No. I don’t think so. Joe knew how important it was to Catherine to be discrete. She didn’t even want him involved in the first place. I trust him. He’s been my pigeon for awhile, I know him pretty well.”
Marsha asked, “So who are the people you don’t trust?”
“Lars. He’s an asshole. But he has nothing to gain. Mamadou, the limo guy. He volunteered to help. It wouldn’t make sense for him to set me up. Mollie Catfish--”
“A girl, Josie was her sponsor.”
Marsha smiled. “That’s really her name?”
Colin nodded, winced. “She knows Josie. Met the boyfriend, Herbie. Didn’t like him, said he tried to hit on her.” As an afterthought, he added, “She’s a dancer. At a club downtown.”
Marsha looked thoughtful. “Lots of drugs in that kind of crowd. I used to know some dancers, back when I was working in a free clinic. They’d come in for tests, some were trying to get drugs, Valium, Xanax, Prozac, pretty much anything they could get their hands on. Lots of them were users. The money’s good, lots of tips, a lot more if they were willing to do parking lot duty.”
“Do what?”
“Parking lot duty. Go out with the customers to their cars. Quick sex.” She looked momentarily embarrassed. “A busy girl could make a lot of money that way. Here.” She took Colin’s hand, put the ice pack in it. “Hold that there for a few minutes. Anyway, the women I met always seemed to know who was selling what. Really well plugged in. So maybe it’s the dancer.”
Colin thought that might make sense, wasn’t sure. “But why?”
Marsha shook her head. “Hey, I’m no psychic. I’m offering suggestions. Someone comes to your house, beats the heck out of you, there’s got to be a reason, that’s all I’m saying. And it seems to me your friend Mollie is the weak link. I don’t think this other guy, the drug dealer, Herbie? I don’t think he rose from the grave just to get you roughed up.”

Monday, January 5, 2009

Things I Have Learned, Part I

Be honest--like me, on January 2, you participated in and heard the collective sigh of relief: It's over, hallelujah. We bid a not-so-fond adieu to 2008 and look to the new year with hope, wonder and trepidation.

As many of you know, I'm an alcoholic and addict who has not needed to drink or use drugs in almost 18 years. This never ceases to amaze me, and I can say with total candidness that I don't know how any of this occurred. I don't know if my chromosomes or environment are to be held responsible for my ailment, and I don't know why I have, so far, managed to stay clean. The former is of no import. I do not blame my parents or grandparents; my immediate surroundings both as a child and as an adult are innocent. The latter--sobriety--is far more meaningful and interesting. I think I have managed to stay clean through a regimen of fear, avoidance and faith. And a bunch of varied sayings and adages I've picked up over time. So, as we start a brand new year, I thought I'd share a few of these with you. Some are self-evident, others, I hope, will provoke some thoughts. Enjoy!

Things I Have Learned

1. I can be right or I can be free
2. People do the best they can
3. Nobody ever woke up and said, “I think I’ll be an asshole today.”
4. My first reaction is always wrong
5. Not every day has to be the best day or worst day of my life
6. I can’t erase the past but I can turn the page.
7. I’m powerless over alcohol, no matter who it’s in.
8. The less I mess with my future, the better it gets.
9. Faith is not jumping from A to B. It’s jumping from A.
10. I may be powerless but I’m not helpless.
11. Stop putting quarters in the jukebox if it don’t play your song.
12. It’s not whether we get it, it’s whether we do it.
13. Live in the process, not the goal.
14. Normal people tailor their behaviors to their actions. Alcoholics tailor their actions to their behaviors.
15. Don’t stand in the idiot spotlight.
16. You can’t work it every other day at a time.
17. No matter how far down the road you go, you’re always the same distance from the ditch.
18. Drinking is for reward or relief
19. Acceptance is not approval.
20. Honesty is having one story.

21. Crying doesn’t pay

And just in case you're still reading, here's installment 62 of Wasted Miracles.

Chapter 16

The door was still open ten minutes later when Joe the Cop walked in, a broad smile on his face. “Hey, Colin! I’m glad you’re home, I wanted to tell you about--Jeezus Christ what the hell happened to you!” Joe stood in the doorway. He sniffed the air. “Oh man, it smells like a distillery in here. You OK? Did you...” He let the question hang.
Colin was on the couch. His head hurt and he was rubbing the back of his neck. “Just fine, and no, I didn’t.”
Joe’s eyes were wide, taking in the tipped over Monkey Ward machine, the weight plates on the floor, the puddle of water in the kitchen. “Holy shit! What happened?”
“Had a visit. Two black guys, wanted information about a dealer called Herbie.”
Joe looked blank.
Colin continued. “Herbie was Josie’s boyfriend, except that he’s dead. I’m pretty sure it was the guy in the paper. These two guys seemed to think I knew him. I didn’t. They didn’t believe me.”
“What two guys?”
“Don’t know. Ever heard of someone called the Zulu? They were his people. He’s got Josie.”
Joe went to the kitchen. “Jeez. What a mess.” He foraged in the refrigerator, came out with a quart bottle of ginger ale. “Zulu. That rings a faint bell. Listen, you OK? Want me to take you to the hospital or something? You look kinda rocky.”
“They tried to pour some vodka down my throat.”
Joe came closer, inspected Colin’s face. “Oh jeez. That’s shitty.” He peered closer. “How’d you feel?”
Colin tried to smile but it hurt his face. “I think that if I’m going to have another drink, I’d prefer to pour it myself.”
Joe nodded. “Yeah. So. Want to go to the station? Try to ID them?”
Colin shook his head. “But can you go there and hit the computer? Search for Zulu, maybe find out who he is? I don’t understand any of this, why they would come here, how they’d know we’re looking for Josie... It doesn’t make any sense. Only people who know about it are you, me, Catherine and her husband. And that girl, Mollie Catfish. And the limo guy, Dioh.”
Joe counted in his head. “That’s what, seven people? Hard to keep a secret. You told the African guy? Shit, there it is. He probably told the other spade. Simple as that.”
Colin thought about it, decided against. “I don’t think so. Me and Catherine saw him. He’s straight.”
Joe looked doubtful, stood. “OK, I’ll check. Zulu. That’s Z-U-L-U. I’ll look under the AKAs.” Halfway to the door, he turned. “Almost forgot. Wanted you to see this. Maybe it’ll cheer you up. It goes into the record books.” He pulled a newspaper clipping from his notepad, found his reading glasses, put them on his nose. “Today’s Post. Listen to this. ‘A man driving a stolen car was shot to death early yesterday by a man apparently upset that his frolic in an open fire hydrant was disrupted by the car’s presence on the street, D.C. police said. Blah blah blah. The gunman and a woman who disrobed to join him were enjoying the rush of water from an open hydrant blah blah blah. A short time later, a 1988 Chevrolet Cavalier that police later determined was stolen drove onto the street.’ This is where it gets good. ‘Police said witnesses told them that the man enjoying the water became upset at the driver. He got up and took a handgun from a man standing nearby. The man walked to the car, fired several shots into the windshield and then fired several more through the passenger window. The driver was dead at the scene.’ Can you imagine that? Running around naked with your girlfriend in front of a hydrant and just offing another guy. You gotta admit, that’s rich.” Joe folded the clipping, replaced it in his notebook. “I’m keeping that one, nobody would believe it.”