Not Non-Fiction

Stories.

It’s Part of a Ceres.

Scientists land probe on dwarf planet.—News item

orbit“Guys, come here. Check this out.”

“What is it?”

“Dunno. It’s metal. It’s been forged. This is some real quality work. This is beyond anything we could make. Way beyond it.”

“Uh oh.”

“What?”

“They found us.”

“Who found us?”

“I always knew it would happen eventually.”

“Quit stalling and tell us.”

“Remember that girl?”

“Which girl?”

“The one who came and stayed with us for a while. The one who cleaned the house and cooked and stuff.”

“I remember she was a terrible housekeeper. One morning I found a chamber pot in my sock drawer.”

“Yeah, and then she ate that poisoned apple and fell into that deep sleep for, what, a year? Remember how we made that nice case for her? And then we ran her stepmother off a cliff.”

“I haven’t had an apple in ages.”

“Shudwarft up. I thought all that was resolved when that prince kissed her and woke her up and she left.”

“Remember why we left? That crazy stepmother had to have relatives. I knew sooner or later they’d come looking for revenge. That’s what this is. It’s a weapon.”

“Get out of here. No one knows where we are. I didn’t tell anyone where we were going. Did you?”

“No.”

“Did you?”

“No.”

“See? No one could know where we are. There’s no way this is a weapon.”

“What if it is?”

“If ifs and buts were candy and nuts…something something something. I used to know the rest of that. Anyway this doesn’t even look like a weapon.”

“I haven’t had nuts in ages.”

“Shouldn’t we at least be prepared? This could be serious. We could all be in terrible danger. Come on guys, get your picks and axes ready.”

“Hey, that’s not a pick. That’s my leg.”

“And that’s not an axe, that’s my…and wipe that stupid grin off your face! Do we have to take him?”

“We’re not leaving anyone behind. There are only seven of us.”

“Six. Remember? We lost the one who was in a bad mood all the time on the way.”

“Oh, yeah. I still regret cutting him loose.”grumpy

“You’re the only one.”

“Hey, look at this. It’s a camera. This isn’t a weapon. It’s just for exploring.”

“You’re sure it’s not spying on us?”

“Don’t be paranoid. Come on guys, line up. Let’s do something fun for the folks back on Earth. Come on, everybody gather around. You—get that stupid grin back on your face. Okay, all together now!”

“CHEESE!!!”

“I haven’t had cheese in ages.”

dwarves

Try The Caviar Cluster

February 13, 2015

Wexler Candy Company
Valentine’s Day Deluxe Assortment Focus Group Testing
Session CRM-114

Sample 1
Participant response:
Part.2: Oh, I’ve had these before. These are really good.
Part.5: What the classic caramel lacks is a crunch factor to punch it up a bit and make it stand out a bit more.
Part.3: I like it, but it sticks to my teeth too much.

Conclusions: Mixed responses, but overall positive. Recommend continuing to include the classic Maryland caramel in this year’s selection.

Sample 2
Participant response:
Part.7: I love the little sprinkles on the dark chocolate. I just wish they wouldn’t fall off.
Part.2: The round ones are soft on the inside, right? I like those. Sometimes those caramel things are hard to chew. I’ve had fillings come out. Really I have.
Part.3: I feel funny.
Part.1: I like the texture of the inside. Fluffy. Cool, it’s pink! What are these little spots? This is really good.

Conclusions: Overall responses were positive except for Part.3. Emergency services got him to the hospital in time and legal affairs is arranging a settlement. Other participants liked this enough I think it’s worth keeping.

Questions: Do we want to risk including the Dragonfruit whip after what happened? What are the odds? Check with the FDA, see if we need to update warning to "Contains nuts, peanuts, and dragonfruit". We don’t want a repeat of the mocha chewing tobacco debacle.

Sample 3
Participant response:
Part.6: I’m, uh, I’m not a real big fan of nuts, you know? I mean I’m not allergic or anything. Not like that other guy. Hey, does he still get paid?
Part.5: Did you consider white chocolate? That would be a subtler flavor playing off the saltiness of the cashews, really bringing it out.
Part.4: Hey, you know what you should call this? "Cashews Clay"! Har!

Conclusions: Overall positive response. Add the cashew cluster.
Questions: Forward "Cashews Clay" idea to marketing. Possible boxing tie-in?

Sample 4
Participant response:
Part.1: I’m sorry, I don’t care for this. It’s not very sweet.
Part.7: Yeah, if this were the first thing I pulled out of the box it’d be a real turnoff.
Part.5: Maybe it’s us. We might be better off with a sugar-free sherbet or ice as a palate cleanser instead of just bottled water.

Conclusions: Withdraw Bordeaux truffle.
Questions: Put it in the carb-free collection?

Sample 5
Part.1: What is this? I’m afraid to put it in my mouth.
Part.2: (spitting out sample): It tastes like moldy wet onions and smells like raw sewage.
Part.4: Is this a, what do you call it, a control? I just call it nasty.
Part.5: Is this something avant garde?
Part.6: I like the taste, it’s kinda sweet, and custardy, but I don’t know if I can get past the smell.
Part.7: This greenish color is almost as big a turnoff as the smell. Are we supposed to eat it or thin paint with it?

Conclusions: Discontinue durian fruit cordial immediately.

Sample 6
Part.1: This is different. Kind of salty. Is it peanut butter?
Part.7: Yeah, I think it’s peanut butter, but there’s something different about it.
Part.5: It has more umami than you’d expect from a traditional peanut butter, and a spiciness that plays well off the chocolate. The texture is unusual, with a kind of melting quality that’s very nice.

Conclusions: The gravy cream is a success.
Questions: Participant 5 watches too many cooking shows. Guys, can we screen for this sort of thing?

Final conclusions: Implement changes immediately. Have marketing prepare a press release.

Prep the next focus group. This afternoon we’ll have them testing the new line of chocolate-covered sushi.

The Year That Was (Part 3 of 3)

deathtarotUnlike most of the other cards the next one didn’’t have any figures, just a dark swirl. I could make out a tiny sailing ship just at the edge of the center.

Hilary said, “”The Maelstrom means forces of nature working against you. It could be a storm of events that shake up your life or force you to change your plans. This card may also mean that others come with you. Like you bring them along, like a crew of a ship. This is interesting. It’’s paired with the Queen of Wands. With her present you’’ll be able to come through whatever storm you’re facing.””

July-Michael and I invited Chaz and his girlfriend to join us in renting a beach house for a week, but they’’d hit a rocky spot in their relationship and didn’’t want to come. So we invited Simon along, since he’’d loosened up a lot. We also thought he needed to get away from the office. Who knew a tropical storm would arrive the same day we did? Michael had to cancel his plans to troll the beach for “babes”, and we all had to cancel our fishing trip. One day I braved the storm to visit the small aquarium at the other end of the island where I petted stingrays and watched seahorses glide about. Most days I was content to sleep late, have a bagel for breakfast, and watch the rain-spattered windows melt sea and sky together into an abstract study in gray while I worked. At night we piled into the car and went to one of the three restaurants. Michael flirted with the waitresses while we drank beer and gorged ourselves on fried pickles and oysters. The morning we left we woke to a clear, sunny sky. I stood on the patio and could see porpoises curling over the water.

““The spreading tree is life, rejuvenation, renewal, or even new growth. Putting down new roots, maybe, if you move somewhere else. The Page of Cups is reversed. That’’s loss and confusion.””

“”That sounds like a contradiction.””

““You can’’t take the cards so literally.””

August-It was time to take the glass I’d saved to the recycling center. As I emptied the box under the sink I was racking my brain. How did I go through six bottles of olives in a month?

I could read the next card, which showed an old robed man with a staff climbing a hill. “”The Hermit,”” I said. ““That sounds like me.”” Hilary nodded. ““The Hermit is isolation, loneliness, but also inner contemplation, questioning, and discovery.”” She tapped the card next to it, a hand holding a sword with a crown over its tip. “”The Ace of Swords means strength in solitude. These cards really enhance each other.””

September-I got home late and picked up the mail off the floor. Among the bills and catalogs was an envelope from my high school reunion committee. I paused, realizing how many years had simply slipped by. It wasn’’t the worst time of my life, but I didn’’t feel any nostalgia for high school either. After moving halfway across the country I’d lost touch with almost everyone I’’d been to high school with. I turned off my phone and locked it in my desk drawer, then locked the door of my apartment and went back down the steps to my car. I turned down a back road that briefly ran parallel to the interstate on-ramp, then turned off through woods, into darkness. The oldies station on the radio played songs that were new when I was in ninth grade. Soon there were black hills on one side of my and the river on the other. My headlights beamed into nothingness. Saturn was directly overhead. I could be anywhere, anywhen.

Hilary reached up to the final row. ““The Queen of Wands reversed means chaos, disorder, anger. She’’s paired with The empress who brings wisdom, generosity, and helpfulness.””

““So kind of like order out of disorder.””

““Something like that. This is an obscure and difficult pairing.””

October-At first I thought it was the radio, then I remembered I hadn’’t turned it on. I strained to listen, then stuck my head out of the shower.

““Hello? Is someone there?””

Panic ran through my like an electric current as I heard movement outside the bathroom, then a knock. I grabbed the shower head. The door opened, and I heard a lilting, slightly accented voice.

““Hello. It’’s just me.””

I ducked back behind the curtain. “”I’’m in the shower, Mrs. Schwarzherz!””

““Did you have a date last night? I saw you come here with someone, and from downstairs it didn’’t sound like one of your friends.””

““This isn’t a good time!””

““I heard thumping and thought it might be your bed. I hope you used a condom.””

“I’’ll talk to you later!””

““I left you some peanut butter raisin cookies on your counter. They’re on a paper plate, so you don’t have to return it right away.””

I hit my head against the tile. ““Get out! Please get out of my bathroom!””

She’’d already left.

A bright yellow orb glowed from the upper corner of the next card. A nude figure knelt down next to a pool. It was hard to tell with the card upside down from my side of the table, but I thought the figure was scooping up water into a jug, or possibly pouring it out. ““The Star,”” Hilary said, ““means renewal, cleansing. It’’s also the myths that help us make sense of the world, that give us order and comfort. The Ace of Pentacles is reversed, meaning the status quo is reversed.””

““Sounds like I’ll be sitting at the kids’ table at Thanksgiving again.””

November-One of my six-month dental checkups was always scheduled a few days after Halloween, a mistake I’’d made years earlier and never gotten around to correcting. I blamed a succession of cavities on my weakness for leftover candy, although there might have been a conspiracy by the American Dental Association. Yet I looked forward to seeing my regular hygienist, Janet, who was bright and friendly. As I was settling into the torture chair she told me one of her earlier patients had been a hockey player. I said, ““You know, I went to a fight once and a hockey game broke out.”

““Wait, what?”” Janet stammered then laughed. “”That’’s backward. Okay, I get it. Has anything been bothering you since you were last here?””

““Well, that whole situation in Russia has me pretty concerned.””

Janet held up her pick and mirror. ““Open your mouth and shut it.”” Once the cleaning was done she patted me on the shoulder. ““All right, rinse and spit and you’’re good to go.””

“”I’’m clean?””

““Yep. Everything looks good. You’’ve got six months to come up with new jokes.””

On my way out I popped a caramel in my mouth.

““Death.”” Hilary sighed.

““I thought the Death card just meant change. Not actual death.”” I didn’’t know much about the Tarot, but I’’d heard that somewhere.

““Sometimes. It’’s all about placement. And it’’s paired with the Ten of Swords, which means being overwhelmed. Depression, darkness. I’’m sorry. There’’s just no good way to read this combination.””

She began putting away the cards, leaving the last two. I turned them around to study them. I could see what she meant about the Ten of Swords. It showed a figure lying face down, pinned to the ground by swords in his back. Blood seeped from his wounds. Overhead a black sky seemed to push down. The Death card was also intimidating. A scythe-wielding skeleton against a sickly yellow background looked up at me. Its wide round eye sockets and exposed teeth seemed to be laughing at me.

““I see what you mean,”” I said.

““Yeah,”” replied Hilary. ““Any way I look at it it’’s bad.””

December-I’’ve always prided myself on being a skeptic, and yet as the year end approached I started to feel uneasy. Things seemed to have fallen into a pattern over the previous months, or was I just imagining that? It didn’’t help that things at work, and outside of it, were going so well. I got all my holiday shopping done early, and even sent out cards for the first time in years. I also accepted every invitation I could. I helped Malcom and Lynne decorate their tree, celebrated the first night of Hanukkah with Maya and Kim, went to a Solstice party with Chaz and his girlfriend, and had tea one afternoon with Mrs. Schwarzherz. We nibbled stale ginger snaps while flurries skittered by the window. I drove back to my old home to spend Christmas with my parents, then got back in time to go to Simon’’s New Year’s Eve dinner party where we ate Cornish hens and played Trivial Pursuit. Everyone else faded out around ten o’clock. I didn’’t want to admit I was anxious. As I drove a slightly drunk Michael home I thought about getting him to spend the night on my couch, but then he played songs on his phone and sang along. Badly. At home I huddled in bed and read until I heard fireworks outside and my bedside alarm clock chimed. The next morning I slept late, and woke to streams of bright sunlight. Nothing had happened. I was still here. What a coincidence.

The Year That Was (Part 2 of 3)

Hilary moved her hand along to the bottom left hand row of cards. She pointed to one of a young man in a motley blouse and tights. He looked like he was stepping off a cliff. “”Things start with The Fool. Anything could happen to you. This is a card of untapped possibilities, but also a lack of awareness. He’s paired with the Three of Pentacles, which represents coming into a small fortune through luck.””

January-Kenny, the assistant editor who, thanks to nepotism, had risen above his level of incompetence, had shelved my piece on Yellowstone for six months. Finally he exercised his right of first refusal and refused it, and asked if I could do something on local gamer culture. I’’d just heard that the last video game arcade in the area, a relic that operated more like a social club than a business, was closing. It was being forced out by the closure of the mall where it had been since the ‘80’s. I covered that. I also sent the Yellowstone piece to an editor friend at another magazine. He liked it and put the check in the mail.

She went to the next pair of cards in the row. It was turned toward me, so I could see it was a nude couple. The card was titled “The Lovers”. ““Since this card is reversed,”” said Hilary, ““it means rejection and disappointment. But the Nine of Cups with it means a gathering, like a party.””

February-Malcom and Pat invited me to join them for dinner at Marko’’s on Valentine’s Day. Then they also invited Chaz and his girlfriend, then Lydia and Rose, and they asked if Kelee could come along too. We laughed about a small crowd of us making reservations for a table on the biggest couples’ night of the year. As we were chatting over desserts I felt someone’’s arms around me and a soft, beery kiss on my cheek. I turned around. There was a handsome young man in a suit standing behind me. He took a step back. “”I’’m sorry,”” he said. ““I thought you were someone else.””

““The Plague,”” said Hilary. ““I guess you know what this one means. It’s disease, but it can also be disruption, or a sweeping change. The Two of Wands with it means futility.””

March-All winter I’’d avoided getting sick. I’’d gotten the flu shot, washed my hands regularly, kept a bottle of antibiotic in my pocket and used it until my skin cracked. Then during a wave of cold that broke the early spring I woke up with a hundred degree fever. For two days I dragged myself around my apartment in a haze. I moved back and forth between my bed and couch, barely conscious enough to even follow daytime television. Mrs. Schwarzherz from downstairs brought me some of her special soup. It smelled like feet. As I was pouring it down the sink I felt my fever break.

““Next is The Knight of Swords, who’s brave, but also reckless. He’’s paired with The Lightning Struck Tower.””

““That doesn’’t sound good.””

““It’s not always bad. Sometimes it can mean a revelation, or something unexpected.””

April-I was more than a month late getting the oil in my car changed. There were no openings on Saturday, so I made an appointment and left the car at the shop on Monday morning and took the bus to work. I picked up the car in the afternoon, and was halfway home before I realized one of the technicians was asleep in the backseat.

Hilary raised her eyebrows. ““You have the Ace of Wands paired with The Devil. You’’ll feel impulsive, but directionless. You’’ll suffer indecision and instability. If you’’ve made plans they’’ll go wrong.””

““I hope I don’t have anything big planned then.””

May-Every Friday I had the same thing for lunch: clam chowder, bread, and a large green tea. On a whim I decided to change my order.

““I’’ll have the broccoli cheese soup.””

The woman at the register looked behind her then turned back to me. “”Sorry. We’re out of broccoli cheese today. Would you like something else?””

““Ummm……”” I was suddenly overwhelmed by the menu behind her head. I looked to the left and all I could see was cherry pastries and chocolate chip cookies. There were fifteen people in line behind me, and I could feel thirty eyes burning into my skull.

““I guess I’’ll have a clam chowder.””

““Do you want chips or bread?””

The word “chips” was right on the tip of my tongue, but I stuttered. It took me a moment to recover, and I blurted out, “”Bread!””

““You want a drink?””

I looked at the drink dispenser. The bright labels blurred together, while the metal tabs hung like tongues laughing at me. What did I want? I looked at the menu. Drinks? What drinks? Starting to sweat I said, ““Green tea.””

““For here or to go?””

I could hear fifteen exasperated sighs behind me.

““Don’t worry,”” Hilary smiled. “”The Hanged Man isn’t as bad as it sounds. It’s a change in perspective, a different view. The Page of Cups with him means laughter, humor, a bright outlook. This looks like it will be a happy time for you.””

June-Chaz, Simon, and I were standing around the water cooler when Kenny came in. He looked at us. “”I see you’’re all working hard.””

““We were just talking about that freak snowstorm,”” said Chaz. ““Did you see it? Just came out of nowhere.””

Kenny looked at him then at me.

““Yeah,”” I said. ““Covered the whole area. Really dusted the trees.””

Simon cleared his throat and shifted uneasily. Please don’’t spoil this, I thought. We’’d let Simon in on it, even though he preferred to stay out of doing anything.

““I don’t get it,”” Kenny muttered, and went to his office. A minute later he stomped out again.

““You jackasses better get in there and clean every one of those styrofoam peanuts out of my office STAT. Including the ones all over my fichus plant. I shouldn’’t have to tell you never to go in there. And never open my window. Ever.””

As we were picking crushed styrofoam out of the carpet Chaz hissed, “”Or I’’ll tell my uncle!”” in perfect mimicry of Kenny’’s nasal voice. We cracked up, and Simon, who’’d come in to help us, surprised us all by laughing and throwing handfuls of packing peanuts in our faces.

The Year That Was (Part 1 of 3)

egyptianIt was in that brief lull between Christmas and New Year’’s that I decided to see the psychic. I’’d been by the business, a small former home perched on a hill between a small car dealer and a strip mall, every day on my way to and from work. In the evenings the red neon hand with a blue neon eye in its palm would be lit, and I’’d think, I should try that just for fun. I called and made an appointment. I wasn’’t sure what to expect—; incense and scarf-covered lamps and candles, crystal balls and skulls, chimes made of strange gewgaws all seemed too cliché to be real. When I stepped in I found that, if not for the Zodiac poster and framed papyri of Egyptian gods, it could have been a small tax accountant’s office. I wondered if she also did a booming business from early January through early April.

When Hilary, the owner and resident psychic, introduced herself, I wasn’’t surprised to have my semi-serious image of a dark-eyed woman in a bandana with hanging gold bangles draped in a long, flowing dress completely dashed. She wore a long sweater, black jeans, and her eyes twinkled behind wire-framed glasses.

Most people just go for the basic reading,”” she explained. That was the $10 one I’’d seen advertised outside. “”It’’s a numerological reading based on your name and birth date, to give you an idea of where you are and where you’re going. It’’ll say a little about what’’s to come, but it’’s pretty general.”” I bet it is, I thought skeptically. There’’s a reason you’re doing this and not winning the lottery every week. But then I chided myself. Keep an open mind. This was supposed to be fun, and I had neither the skills nor the desire to do an exposé. I wasn’’t even entirely convinced she was a fraud. As I looked over the list of services she offered–card readings, past life regression, romantic advice, reiki healing, business and home cleansing and protection— I thought most of her customers just wanted a sympathetic ear and to be told they were all right. She probably wasn’’t that different from degreed therapists, and at least as helpful.

“This time of year I offer a big special, an overview of the year to come. It’’s a cast of the cards that goes month-by-month, highlighting big events to come in your life.””

I decided to spring for that. There’’s no time like the present to think about the future. And if I could sell an article about it I could write it off as a business expense. Hilary took my name, birth date, and credit card. Then she took a purple velvet pouch and produced a deck of oversized cards. ““Hold these with both hands, close your eyes, let your fears and desires infuse the cards. Think about the future.””

I wasn’’t sure how long I was supposed to hold them, and had a little trouble focusing on the future since she was also charging by the hour. I let about thirty seconds of the future tick into the present then the past then handed the cards over. She began dealing them across the table in pairs, twenty-four cards in all. Once that was done she began turning them over. She let out a low whistle.

““What is it?””

Hilary gave me a very serious look. ““You have Major Arcana in every month. You’’re going to have an interesting year.””

I remembered hearing that there was a Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” Then I remembered that a Chinese friend of mine told me he’’d never heard any such thing. I braced myself to find out how interesting the year to come was going to be.

sword

If You Have To Ask You Can’t Afford It

December 12, 2014

From the Klay & Vellum Catalog:

Item: Woolly Mammoth
Your cavemen ancestors hunted the fearsome Woolly Mammoth. Now thanks to a scientific breakthrough you can too! Your own personal Woolly Mammoth will be delivered right to your doorstep. Once it’s arrived you’re all set to hunt the great Woolly Mammoth with a gun, bow and arrow, or the old fashioned way with your own stone-tipped spear (sold separately, see page 54.) Tusks are optional.
K+V is not responsible for any damage to property or personal injury, including death or allergic reactions to mammoth hair, skin, or meat. Gift wrap not available.

Item: Rocket Sled
An elegant bright red nosecone gives way to a sleek, tapering chrome fuselage and beautifully curved fins, making this retro-styled rocket launcher beautiful as well as functional. Able to achieve speeds of up to MACH 1 it comes with 500 miles of track and enough fuel for three trips. Fuel refills and additional track are also available.
Customer Wile E. Coyote of roadrunnercatcher.net says, “Finally! A rocket sled that works the way it’s supposed to and doesn’t flip over, fly backward, knock me over a cliff, fall on top of me, and explode. Thank you, K+V!”
Express delivery only.

Item: Edible Outerwear
We know it sounds crazy, but as soon as our CEO bit into a sock and said, “Tastes like chicken” we knew we had something special Now we’re bringing it to you! Indistinguishable from regular clothing this new line is made from special fabric that’s completely edible and so tasty you won’t believe it. Never have to worry about your favorite foods staining your favorite shirt, because they’ll be one and the same. Never worry about having to sneak snacks into movie theaters or having to pay extra fees to bring your own food on an airplane. Pants shown are available in chocolate or whole wheat. Jacket shown is available in sage, blueberry, oyster, licorice, and rhubarb cherry plaid. Shirt shown is available in vanilla, lemon, key lime, strawberry, and bleu cheese paisley.
Sizes: S-9XL

Item: Personal Hospital.
Having trouble finding just the right healthcare? Wish you didn’t have to wait when you go to the doctor’s office, or sit in a waiting room full of sick people? Tired of having to go all over town for your ear, nose, and throat appointments? Ever wished you could redecorate and warm up your hospital room? Well now with this unique, limited-time item you can. It’s your very own hospital. Comes complete with wards for general practice, radiology, an infusion ward, transplants, physical therapy, dentistry, and veterinary practice.
Medical staff and personnel sold separately.
Ground delivery only.

Item: Time Machine
Imported from Belgium, this new time machine is, unlike other models we’ve tried, user-friendly and easy to use. The controls are straightforward and can even be customized depending on whether you prefer North American date notation (Month/Day/Year) or European (Day/Month/Year). The localized singularity drive also provides up-to-the second accuracy, and easy neutron flow reversal allows for quick maneuvers through time eddies and loops. Download the optional app for your phone or tablet to take advantage of additional remote functions. Entertain your friends with stories of (spoiler alert!) things to come, and educate your children with a real taste of the past.
Adult supervision recommended. This is not a toy. Temporal paradoxes can unravel the entire space-time continuum.
Order by December 27th to guarantee December 24th delivery.

The Best Trick Or Treat Ever

October 31, 2014

It was the first Halloween our parents let us go trick-or-treating by ourselves. As my friend Stephen and I walked along past the smiling pumpkins and happy skeletons he muttered, “This whole holiday is getting way too commercial. There was a time when it was all about the candy. And tipping over outhouses.” I agreed. Indoor plumbing had ruined the holiday. It was time to put the Hallow back in Halloween.

I was dressed as Boba Fett. Stephen was Raggedy Ann, because his sister had stolen his Han Solo outfit. Our first stop was the Scoot Sack down on the corner, where we shoplifted four cans of shaving cream and bought some turkey jerky, for the protein. As we were walking out Carbuncle Clarence, the seventeen-year old who was perpetually behind the counter, stopped us. Stephen had shoved the shaving cream cans down his shirt, so he now looked like a pregnant Raggedy Ann. I was sweating behind my mask, and Stephen’s eyeliner had started to run, making him look like a goth Raggedy Ann. “Hey you kids,” said the Carbuncle. “Didn’t I see you in here earlier?” We both shook our heads. He pointed to a bowl of those peanut butter kisses in the orange and black wrappers. “Take some. Happy Halloween.” We thanked him and hurried out back to the neighborhood.

The first four houses we hit were decent enough, giving away chocolate bars, caramels, little bags of jelly beans and candy corn. The fifth house was dark. Not being home on Halloween wasn’t a personal affront to us, because we were on a mission, but we decided these heretics must be punished. We filled their mailbox with shaving cream. This didn’t seem quite enough, though, so we covered their mailbox with shaving cream. There was still something missing, so we set it on fire. This was a fair warning, but for good measure I left a note in their door apologizing for the fact that the baked Alaska they’d ordered had been delivered late. We then moved on.

Two doors down we found a pumpkin carved with a smile, which was an insult to everything Halloween stands for. I whipped out my pocket knife and turned the smile into a snarl. Then we used a combination of shaving cream and chewed turkey jerky to make it look like the pumpkin was vomiting blood. A sweaty guy with a garden hose came around the house and asked what we were doing, so we ran to the next block. The first house there belonged to crazy Mrs. Morrison. She gave us each a light bulb and a whole box of chocolate laxatives. She also gave me a roll of electrical tape. We made a note to stop by her house again on the way home. She never had candy, so she gave away whatever she had handy. The previous year Stephen had gotten a license plate and a potato. I got a chandelier.

A few doors after that was my summer school history teacher Ms. Sheldon. She apologized for forgetting that it was Halloween. She hadn’t bought any candy, so she said we’d have to pull a trick of some sort. We liked Ms. Sheldon and really didn’t want to do anything bad to her, but she didn’t have an outhouse. Since we couldn’t think of anything else we settled for breaking one of her windows and setting a bush in her front yard on fire. The next house was empty because it was for sale. Damaging the mailbox didn’t seem appropriate for a house that wouldn’t get any mail, so instead we used the shaving cream to write cuss words and warnings about the dangers of apostasy on the brickwork.

Moving on to another block we found some young kids who’d had their candy taken away from them, so we shared what we had along with the rest of the shaving cream. We also promised to take care of the infidel responsible, and directed them to Mrs. Morrison’s house. We both knew who the candy thief was, and only had to follow the trail of smashed pumpkins to our old nemesis, Kevin, the school bully and son of the town proctologist. We split up as we approached him. He was dressed like Lee Marvin in Gorky Park. He saw me first and tried to run, but Stephen had crept up behind him and wrapped a candy necklace around his neck. Using it as a garrote Stephen whispered in his ear, “What’s this we hear about you taking little kids’ candy?” Kevin gulped. “I didn’t do nothin’,” he gasped. I said, “Let’s see,” and took his bag of candy. While Stephen tied him to a stop sign with electrical tape I replaced all the Hershey’s, Snickers, and Three Musketeers bars in his bag with laxatives. And I took all his peanut butter kisses in the orange and black wrappers.

After we stuffed a handful of orange circus peanuts in his mouth a big sweaty guy with a garden hose came around a corner and asked what we were doing. We realized it was Kevin’s dad, so we ran back to my house. My parents weren’t back from their euchre tournament yet, so we dumped out all our candy in the living room floor and started to go through it. First we separated out the peanut butter kisses in the orange and black wrappers. We licked each one and added it to the big ball in my closet. Since it now weighed at least twenty-seven pounds we agreed it was time for phase two. The next day we’d dump it in the school swimming pool before class. We then turned to separating and categorizing the real candy, putting chocolate in one pile, jellybeans and gummies in another pile, pixy stix, jawbreakers, and sweet tarts in a third, and so on. Stephen was allergic to licorice, so I traded all his for my candy corn, a light bulb, and a pencil sharpener I’d found hidden in an apple. The radio was on, and as we sat contemplating our haul “Werewolves of London” began to play. Stephen and I realized we’d experienced the real meaning of Halloween, so, to celebrate, we dressed all in black and went back out and set Kevin’s house on fire.

Living Or Dead Is Purely Coincidental (Part 4 of 4)

““You’’re not a couple?”” I regret the question as soon as it leaves my mouth. There hasn’’t been any sign of romance between them, but I chalked that up to the age of their relationship. Kelley smiled reassuringly at me.

““Michael is a rube.”” She slaps her hand on his thigh and leaves it there for a moment. ““Like any rube he doesn’’t touch what he isn’’t willing to pay for.””

Michael’’s expression doesn’t change throughout this cryptic statement, so I assume they’’ve been over this subject before. Still there seems to be a certain disquiet in the air, so I try to shift the conversation by asking how they met. Even though they worked the Boulevard at the same time they never noticed each other. Instead they met at a stage production of The Rocky Horror Show, as it turned out, not in Los Angeles, but a small production put on by a community theater group in a church in Pasadena. By pure coincidence they both attended the same afternoon matinee, which was mainly attended by older people, so perhaps it wasn’’t such a strange coincidence that they were the only ones who came dressed up: Kelly as Riff Raff, and Michael, on a dare from some friends, as Magenta. They may not have become lovers, but they became instant friends, and embarked on conquering Hollywood. The Rocky Horror connection, it turned out, went even deeper. Both had been fans of Tim Curry since childhood, his portrayal of Long John Silver making an odd impression on both of them when they saw Muppet Treasure Island. Seeing The Rocky Horror Picture Show a few years later Michael was been impressed by Curry’’s range. Kelley was intrigued by the way simple makeup and costume could transform the short, swarthy pirate into pale, lean Dr. Frank N. Furter.

In the morning I get to see Kelley and Michael transformed again. Adjoining stools and a brightly lit makeup table have been placed in an area behind their TV. Michael, a tight skullcap pulled over his hair, is dressed as Spyral, sans coat. He sits down and pulls a sheet up over his front. Kelley sits opposite him and opens a black case with metal trim. She takes out small canisters of yellow and blue makeup and begins carefully applying and mixing. His skin begins to turn green.

““Why do you mix the colors on his skin instead of using green makeup?”” I ask.

Kelly continues applying, but explains, ““Skin isn’’t all one even tone. This allows me to add subtle shade differences.”” She then takes out a canister of white and blends it into Michael’s cheeks and forehead, which lightens those areas and makes his eyes appear darker. The horns are applied, as is the pointed chin. Kelley then stands and covers his head with the silver mane that reaches to his shoulders. The whole process takes over an hour. She then turns to the makeup table and begins the transformation into Mordella. She tucks her hair under a skullcap, applies heavy white makeup, lipstick, and the scar. I notice her false eyelashes are attached to false eyelids. Karloff wore similar false eyelids as Frankenstein’’s monster, but Mordella’’s, —or Kelley’’s, —are thinner, giving her a sinister, haunted look, rather than the shambling creature’s dazed stare. The whole process takes less than twenty minutes. Before she excuses herself to change I ask if her makeup is simpler out of deference to Michael.

““No.”” Kelley looks over at him as he puts on his jacket and slips contacts into his eyes. “”Makeup is my passion. I love making up others, even when it’s become routine. We both get what we want.””

We part ways at the Boulevard. I resume my post at the coffee shop, where the baristas are starting to know me by name. I watch Kelley and Michael continue working over the tourists. I also take advantage of a mid-morning lull to walk up the street and talk to some of the other costumed characters. I try to talk to Spider-Man, since I was a fan as a kid, but he seems to be doing an homage to his appearances on The Electric Company and remains mute. I ask if I can take a picture with him. He nods vigorously, and we put our heads together for a selfie. I reach into my pocket and offer him a five, but he waves it away. Then he slides his hands down his legs. It never occurred to me that Spider-Man has no pockets. Where did Peter Parker keep his camera?

Thor is more chatty.

“”Nine months. That’s how long I’’ve been doing this. So I’’m green. Still learning.””

““What do you like about it?””

He grins. ““Beats the hell outta working. Plus I talk to people. And the ladies love the muscles.”” He flexes a heavily padded arm. ““Check out these guns. Come on. Give ‘‘em a squeeze.””

My fingers sink into inches of foam rubber. He nods.

““Nice, huh?””

““So what do you do when you’’re not doing this?””

““I’’m a comedian. My agent got me doing this, told me to do it for a couple of months so I could loosen up, get used to dealing with strangers. I had a bad time with hecklers.””

He tells me he’’s kept doing it, and plans to keep doing it, possibly even investing in some other costumes because it’’s fun and it’s a wealth of material. It gives his comedy an odd angle it lacked before. He tells me I should come see him at a place called The Chuckle Wagon on Sepulveda.

I cross the street and head back toward the coffee shop. It appears trouble is brewing near Kelley and Michael. A man dressed in a plain white t-shirt and jeans, shoeless, is carrying a sheet with what appear to be streaks of blue and red spray paint. ““Whoo!”” he cries. He stops and ties the sheet around his neck, spreading it out like a cape. I briefly wonder if I should scrap journalistic objectivity and go offer to help, but I think maybe Kelley and Michael are used to this sort of thing. Then, stopping several cars, the man crosses the street in the middle of the block and joins me.

Up close he’’s young, blonde, not bad looking. He’’s clean-shaven, and too clean to have been on the streets long. He pulls out a prescription pill bottle and inhales deeply from it, then offers it to me.

““You want some?””

It’’s full of what look like dead wasps.

““No, thank you, I’m trying to cut down.””

He nods gravely, bows, then runs down the street. “”Whoo!””

It’’s time for a latte.

In the evening, after dinner (Michael’’s own tuna casserole), I can’’t sleep. I sit up on the couch to do some work by the light of their aquarium where neon tetras and black mollies dart back and forth. I’m so engrossed in the tap tap tap of the keys that I don’’t hear Kelley come into the room. She glides into my field of vision, her pale robe wrapped tightly around her up to her throat. She looks ethereal, moving through the semi-darkness.

““Working late?””

I nod.

She sits down next to me. I wait for her to say something else, but she doesn’’t. The buzz from the wine has worn off and my head is achy, but I think now might be the time to ask something that’s been preying on my mind.

““The other night, when you said Michael couldn’’t touch what he hadn’’t paid for–” Nervously I glance over at her. Have we had enough time to establish this level of trust? I plunge ahead. “”Are there others who have paid?”” I have a speech on the tip of my tongue, that I’’m only angling for information, that for my story I want a fuller background picture, something, perhaps, that could contrast her success with the cliché tragedies of Hollywood Boulevard. It never gets out.

““Don’’t make me into something I’’m not.””

Kelley reaches over and closes my laptop.

 

Living Or Dead Is Purely Coincidental (Part 3 of 4)

As the sun sets we head home. There will be more foot traffic in the evening, but, Kelley and Michael explain, most of the evening tourists are going to the theaters, and it’’s harder to get good pictures at night. Their apartment is two blocks from the Boulevard, in a former hotel I’’m sure appeared in Nathanael West’’s “The Day Of The Locust”. The building was converted into apartments in the seventies, and, based on the threadbare forest gold carpeting and avocado-colored walls hasn’’t been touched since. Still I wonder how they pay the rent on a spot so close to Hollywood Boulevard. It’’s cheaper than I’’d think, they tell me, since the Boulevard and its surrounding blocks quickly degenerate into seediness. Just beyond the Walk Of Fame there’s an entirely different breed of characters—. Most are homeless drug addicts —who, while held at bay during the day, become much more active at night.

As we climb the stairs to their apartment Michael explains that working the Boulevard isn’’t their main source of income. He has the cliché part time restaurant job, as well as occasional commercial work. Kelley gets regular makeup gigs. Most of her jobs are small, but a good one can pay the same as more than six months of working the Boulevard. And, they apologize, dinner will be leftover lasagna.

While they’’re stripping off their daywear I make a dash to a corner market for a baguette, some bagged salad and an Italian dressing, and three bottles of what, based on the price, I believe is a good Pinot Grigio. In California the corner markets have a better wine selection than some Midwestern liquor stores. Back at the apartment I’’m shocked when Kelley emerges from her room. Her hair, now brown instead of shiny black, hangs loose, barely reaching her shoulders. Her skin is remarkably tanned. Dressed in blue jeans and a loose white t-shirt, she examines the wine, clicking her tongue in disapproval. If my journalistic plan is to ply them with alcohol she says I should have gotten something better. And cheaper. “We’’ve got some good stuff,” says Michael, emerging from the bathroom in a cloud of steam. His transformation is even more shocking than Kelley’’s: his hair is light brown and curly, the horns are gone, his eyes are a soft brown, his skin is a healthy pink, and his chin has shrunk considerably. He looks almost formal in khaki slacks and a blood red button-down shirt. I offer to help him put dinner together, but he ushers me out, telling me to relax. I join Kelley on the couch.

““Tell me about Mordella,”” I ask. ““Why did you choose her, and what’s the fascination?””

““I think it’’s easier to understand if you see her in action.”” Kelley pulls out a DVD.

““How did you get that if it’s never been released in any home format?””

““It sometimes plays on slow Tuesdays in October at one of the legacy theaters. That’’s how I first found it.”” For a bootleg it’’s surprisingly good quality. ““I made it myself. It was easy. I was the only one there.”” She laughs, then adds, ““I could have brought in a wide-angle lens, camera, and tripod and they probably wouldn’’t have cared.””

She then fast-forwards to Mordella’’s first appearance, stretched out on a table in a room with mysterious symbols painted on the walls. As she opens her eyes and sits up Lugosi sounds remarkably like Victor Frankenstein, shouting, ““She’’s alive! She’’s alive!” The camera, though, is fixed too far away. Clearly this isn’t James Whale’s work. ”

I can definitely see that Mordella was an inspiration, but Kelley has made some changes as well. She’’s kept the long black hair done in an elaborate topknot, and the strangely heavy eyebrows and long eyelashes. But in addition to trading in Mordella’’s simple black gown—, which could have been an inspiration for Vampira, or even Morticia Addams, —for something more intricate she’’s taken the forehead scar and curved it into a gruesome smile.

““I can see the appeal,”” I say.

““Oh, you have no idea.”” Kelley pauses the movie. ““She’’s a total badass. Bela Lugosi was still a big star then. This was before the morphine, before Ed Wood. Even at the time this was low budget schlock, and no one’’s sure why Lugosi did it. Maybe they blew the whole budget on him, and he’’s only in a couple of scenes. Lugosi got top billing,”” Kelley goes on, ““but Mordella’’s the one who really moves the plot along.”” She then begins to fast forward again, summarizing the plot as the scenes flick by. Lugosi plays Dr. Hieronymus. He’’s been able to prolong his own life artificially, but was unable to save his wife—, Mordella, of course, —a century earlier. Now he’’s finally managed to raise her from the dead, but she’’s changed. She’’s no longer quite human. He loses control of her. Shortly after he revives her Lugosi’’s Dr. Hieronymus inexplicably disappears and Mordella becomes the focus. She pursues young handsome men and drains the life from them by placing her hand to their chests. The police become suspicious, and a young detective begins following her. She lures him into a jazz club, then an alley where, instead of touching his chest, she places a hand to his forehead and he becomes her servant. Still fearing the police she makes him drive her out of town. As they’’re passing a farmhouse he begins to shake off her control. She puts her hand to his chest, draining him, and the car goes off the road. Another car, carrying a young couple, comes by and stops. The young man gets out and offers to help. Mordella advances on him, but the young woman steps between them. She and Mordella begin to fight. Kelly holds up the remote again, allowing the final few minutes to play normally. Mordella picks up the young woman and throws her into a well. There’’s a scream and a splash. The young man, on the ground now, backs away as Mordella holds out her hand to him. Then the young woman’’s voice comes from the well, shouting, ““I know who you are!”” Mordella cackles, turns into a giant black bird, then flies off toward the moon.

The credits roll.

I’’m stunned by the abruptness and bizarreness of the ending, which makes Kelley chuckle.

““So that’s it,”” she says.

Kelley has researched the film as much as she can, but information is limited. Mordella was played by Ilinca Tarus. Little is known about her, and this is her only recorded film appearance. She was married to the director, who is also a mysterious character. This was his first film for an upstart studio that folded shortly after its release. Both disappeared before it even premiered. They are believed to have moved back to their native Romania, but no one’’s sure. There are also rumors they went to Mexico. The only other member of the cast and crew Kelley has been able to locate is the young man from the final scene. He made a career playing small parts, and died shortly after playing a store clerk in John Carpenter’’s They Live.

I’’m still trying to make sense of the ending when Michael calls to us from the table. ““Children,”” he says, ““time for din-din, or I won’’t bring you breakfast!””

Dinner is quiet at first. The sudden intimacy of dining in their home and realization we’’re still strangers turns Kelley and Michael reticent. And they’’ve been so forthcoming so far I don’’t want to risk prying too much too soon. I throw out what I hope isn’’t too personal a question about where they’re from, since no one in Los Angeles is from there. Michael and I are delighted to learn we’’re both from the same small town in eastern Kansas. We even went to rival high schools, albeit more than a decade apart. When I mention Penny Annie’’s, the candy and sandwich shop in the heart of downtown, Michael declares the need for a toast. He runs to the kitchen and returns with a bottle of tequila and three shot glasses. He fills one for himself and me, but Kelley only gets about a tablespoon. We all tilt our glasses back, and after the burn has passed I ask her if she doesn’’t like tequila.

““Oh, I love it,”” she says. “”I just don’t like who it makes me.””

She then tells me she’’s never been farther east than her home town of Needles, on the Arizona border. ““If the universe had a colon blockage,”” she says, “”it would be Needles.”” Her dream is to be able to afford a trip to New York, but only by car. And even then she says she wants to get their by the most circuitous route possible, stopping at every roadside attraction on the way. ““I want to see snow, and the Grand Ole Opry.””

I start to ask about this odd juxtaposition when Michael yells ““Pudding! We have pudding!”” He runs to the kitchen again and, in moments, I hear an electric beater going.

Kelley smirks. ““He’’s not much of a cook, but he’s quite the showoff.””

After dinner we move back to the living room. As the evening goes on and the wine goes down our conversation turns more to the personal. Being young adults their thoughts easily shift to their love lives, or rather the lack of love in their lives.

Living Or Dead Is Purely Coincidental (Part 2 of 4)

When they began working together Kelley and Michael decided to do something different.

At first they ask me to guess who they are, then, watching me struggle, admit that Michael is his own invented character, while Kelley has adapted her look for a character in a film too obscure for me to have ever seen. Michael, I thought immediately, must be some sort of super-villain, with his green-hued skin and curling silver horns. “”Close!”” he smiles. In fact he is Spyral, a character from a comic he wrote (but never illustrated since he couldn’’t draw—and couldn’’t find anyone who could to his satisfaction—–he says he wanted “the look of ‘The Watchmen’, but in black and white”) when he was a teenager. Spyral is a morally ambivalent character. A former scientist and victim of a freak lab accident, he has the makings of the archetypal mad scientist, but instead his real priority is mere survival as his body mutates. Sometimes this means breaking into labs or creating his own temporary laboratory in abandoned warehouses where he conducts less than ethical research, but, having never considered himself a part of the world to begin with, he’’s not motivated by revenge. And occasionally his research may have potential benefits for humanity, but that, Michael is quick to tell me, is an accident—“, like Silly Putty”. This backstory also explains Spyral’’s tatty outfit, consisting of a ragged black overcoat, a black t-shirt fading to gray, and black jeans that have been ripped apart at the knee and sewn back together with orange and green thread. His eyes are also, thanks to contacts, orange and green.

So is Kelley, I naively ask, part of Spiral’’s world? Is she one of the “companions” he depends upon? With her pale skin, heavy lidded eyes, and a prominent scar across her forehead she looks like a victim of a lab accident herself. She quickly corrects me. “”Have you ever seen a 1936 Bela Lugosi film called ‘The Demon Bride’?”” I shake my head, but quickly try to recoup any credibility I may have lost by adding that I do own a DVD of ‘Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla’. Kelley explains that ‘The Demon Bride’ is extremely rare in spite of its star. “A few prints exist, but there are no copies you can buy in any format.” She tells me she’’s based on the film’s character “Mordella”. “Except for the costume.” Apparently the cinematic Mordella doesn’’t wear a nicely cut jacket, waistcoat, and tapered trousers, all from the same fabric with an elegant black-on-black paisley design.

They both insist that their present characters were born out of unwillingness to compromise. But compromise what, exactly? Even before I ask, though, I already know the answer. When Kelley and Michael say they don’’t want to compromise they mean they don’’t want to be someone they are not. They want to be themselves, even if that does mean applying enough makeup and costuming that they look like someone else. I start to ask Kelley why she chose Mordella, but there are tourists coming, and I feel the need for a latte.

Around noon Kelley and Michael invite me to join them for lunch. Or rather they ask if I’’ll get them lunch from a nearby fast food place, with the offer of further information about their backgrounds. I tell them I’’ll pick up the tab if they’’d like something better, but Michael chuckles and says, “We’’re putting you to enough trouble as it is.” Since they’’ve also invited me to stay with them that’’s more than an exaggeration, but I decide not to argue. Kelley wants a fish sandwich and a sweetened iced tea. Michael requests one of the “signature” salads, saying, ““I have to watch my girlish figure.”” His instructions for how he wants it prepared are so elaborate they take up more than two pages in my notebook and I have to repeat them back. Twice, because he keeps making changes. Maybe I’’ve been enlisted as courier because Michael’’s been banned. But shortly after I’’ve ordered they join me at one of the place’s concrete tables covered by a metal umbrella.

Lunch is brief. I don’’t want to keep them, but there is time for a question that’s been pressing on my mind: have they ever been noticed by anyone in the industry? ““A couple of times,”” Kelley says. ““Once an indie film director—–no name dropping, but even then he was too big to call himself ‘indie’ anymore—–stopped and talked to us. I gave him my card and he said he’’d call if he had a job for me. You know how that goes.””

She hands me her card. It’’s simple— black and white, no embossing. The lower right-hand corner gives a number, an email address, and a website. In the middle is her name and, below that, “Makeup Artist. Design, Application.” I’’m surprised. I thought everyone on the Boulevard was aspiring to work in front of the camera, not behind it. I want to ask about their ambitions, but they’’ve finished and are popping breath mints. Kelley opens her bag and begins applying touch-ups to Michael. Then, taking out a hand mirror, she dabs at her own face with a sponge. She then carefully reapplies her lipstick, which, for the first time, I notice isn’’t black as it appears from a distance. It’’s iridescent, and shimmers purple or turquoise as it turns.

In spite of not being recognizable figures Kelley and Michael do a surprising amount of business, averaging about six tourists an hour, although I’’ll later learn this is a third or less of what the established figures get. Perhaps the attention they draw is because their costumes are so unusual. After all it was their unusual look, followed by Kelley’’s husky, ““Hello, stranger,”” and Michael’s slightly cryptic ““Help is wanted, needed, and available,”” that drew my attention in the first place. What’’s their strategy, though, their desired end game? That takes me back to Kelley’s card. Is she offering a live version of her portfolio? Michael, I’’ve learned, is more in line with the others, a hopeful actor. But he has a dream some producer will see potential in Spyral’’s backstory. Summer bonanzas have been made from less in Hollywood, which is why it’s also “Hollyweird”.

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