Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Out Of Hell

 Fiction to help celebrate Halloween:

A shiver runs through me when I think back to the time when Tammy, my wife of five years, came to the conclusion that the gray tabby who’d lived contentedly with us since we bought her on our honeymoon, was lonely. Tammy convinced me that Sausalito, “Saucy” needed another feline to keep her company. On Halloween of ’79 we decided to purchase a kitten.
We soon discovered it wasn’t the right season for kittens. We were about to give up our search when we spotted a Siamese kitten for sale in the classifieds. We called the number and were invited over.
The breeder’s residence was a normal looking house, at least I remember it that way. The silver-haired husband and wife selling the kitten appeared normal as they ushered us into plush chairs in the living room. As we made ourselves comfortable two stunning Siamese cats pranced across the room in perfect unison, reminding me of the reason ancient Egyptians worshiped felines. They settled on the hearth and glared at us as if we were the ones about to be bartered away.
Are those the parents of the kitten we’re here to see?” I asked.
“Yes,” answered the woman. “Do you know much about Siamese cats?”
“No,” Tammy replied. “We have an adult cat but she’s a plain gray tabby. We’re looking for a companion to keep her company.”
The woman exchanged a furtive look with her husband. He frowned at her until she said, “George, go and get the kitten so these nice folks can get acquainted with her. I’ll pour everyone some iced tea.”
After a few minutes our hosts returned, she with the drinks and he with what looked like a squirming turd covered in sooty fur. The turd opened its eyes and I could see that it was a cat. Missing were the fathomless blue eyes so characteristic of Siamese cats; instead, there were unusual flecks of orange that looked like glowing embers. Too bad I hadn’t foreseen in those eyes the orange of a prison jumpsuit. Rather than an ermine body with mink-colored accents, this kitten’s fur was dirty brown. It had enormous ears like those of a bat.
We should have bolted for the door but Tammy, to my surprise, started making cooing sounds. “It’s soooo cute,” she said, practically purring herself.
The two regal cats near the hearth looked at me critically when I said, “This cat doesn’t look like its parents. It doesn’t have white fur, or blue eyes.”
“It will lighten up as it reaches adulthood,” the woman said hastily. “That’s when the eyes turn blue.”
“What about those ears? She can probably pick up Radio Free Europe with those things.” I’d expected a smile. Was Radio Free Europe still operating?
 “She’ll grow into them,” the man said. I noticed fresh scratches on his arms.
“How much is she?” Tammy asked.
The husband and wife glanced at each other. “Fifty dollars,” they said in unison.
“May we have a moment to discuss this?” I asked.
They placed the kitten between its parents on the hearth, and left the room. The parent cats stared at their offspring for a moment, rose and dashed from the room. The kitten made no effort to follow them. I tried to pet it but the kitten shook as if trying to shed its skin. My brain was crowded with all the red flags popping up.
Tammy was undeterred. “Isn’t it adorable!” she exclaimed.
I didn’t think it was adorable; it had a face only a mother could love, and from what I could see its mother didn’t love it.
“And what a bargain. Only fifty dollars. Let’s go for it.”
I could tell from the steely glint in my wife’s eyes that nothing I could say or do would change her mind. When the owners reappeared I handed over fifty bucks and we left with the kitten.
We named her Tas because she was like a Tasmanian devil, always racing about in a whirl of agitated motion. I’d never actually seen a Tasmanian devil, other than the cartoon, but the name seemed appropriate because I’d never seen a cat like this before.
Saucy, whose supposed loneliness was the reason we’d purchased Tas, stared at the new arrival like a surfer eying a fin in the water. Saucy wanted nothing to do with her. As time passed, Tas did not grow into those ears but her fur remained dark as a coal mine. Her eyes never changed to blue but continued to glow like embers recently pulled from a furnace.
No matter how nice we were to her, Tas would not purr. She refused to accommodate the rhythm of our household. She clawed the furniture, jumped on us while we slept and seemed to smile while throwing up food during the dinner hour. When she wasn’t a blur of motion she was laying on top of our fridge with her head dangling over the edge, looking at the world upside down. This was where she was situated one Saturday when I decided to make myself a sandwich. Not wanting to bonk her head when I opened the fridge door, I nudged her out of the way. Tas bit me. Not a nip but a bite, her fangs sinking deeply into my flesh.
I yelped and exploded with a barrage of obscenities. A kitchen cleaver was nearby on the counter and I considered sinking it into the cat’s skinny neck, but at that moment Tammy, who’d been gardening in the backyard, burst into the kitchen to see what the fuss was about. She failed to close the door leading to the backyard. Tas leapt off the fridge, sailing through the air like she’d been born to it and landed on the floor. She dashed out to the backyard and vanished in a flash.
“We’ve got to find her!” Tammy screamed. “She’s so small. Big cats will beat her up.”
Not likely, I thought as I finished rinsing my hand in cold water and wrapped a paper towel around it. Blood bloomed through the paper. “She’ll come back on her own,” I said, half-heartedly, glad to see her go.
Tammy dashed up and down the street but finally returned, alone. She sank onto a kitchen chair and began to cry. I patted her shoulder. “It’s for the best,” I said. “Tas wasn’t happy with us.”
Our house returned to the tranquility we’d enjoyed before bringing Tas home that Halloween. Months later it was hard to remember we’d ever lived with such a disruption. But an incident brought Tas vividly to mind one hot July evening shortly after her departure. I’d cracked open a window in our bedroom to let a slight breeze into the stifling room and something flew in the window. I didn’t recognize it at first, but Tammy rose up on the mattress, pulled a pillow close to her face for protection and began screaming, “Bat! It’s a bat!”
I grabbed the golf putter she’d given me for my birthday and tried to clobber the bat but it proved as illusive as a hole in one. I finally made contact and the bat fell onto the bed, where it lay without moving.
“Get it out of here,” Tammy shrieked. “Get that filthy thing out of my bedroom.”
Thinking it dead—and with no thought for the diseases they undoubtedly carry—I grabbed the bat by a wing and tried to fling it out the window. Instead of being dead it sank its rat-like teeth into my hand, the same spot where Tas had bitten me months earlier. I reached for the alarm clock on a nearby nightstand and beat the bat until its head crushed and it released its bite on me. Taking no chances, I wrapped the broken animal in an old t-shirt and carried it down to the garbage can beside our house. The sanitation truck emptied the can later that morning, just as the sun came up.
My sleep was disturbed the next few evenings by the rustling of wings. But when I explored with a flashlight I could find nothing. Tammy once woke to find me sitting on the edge of the bed, staring at her. Moonlight poured in through the window painting her with a pearl-like glow. She was more beautiful than ever and a sensation swelled in me that I’d never felt before. I wanted her desperately, more than I’d wanted her that first night on our honeymoon five years ago. But this was different. This passion originated in a different place. I had a nearly uncontrollable urge to sink my teeth into her neck, but I resisted.
Futile. It was only a matter of time.

 "Blind Cat" painted in 1999 by Stephen Hayes



Monday, October 29, 2012

Conclusion: Ghost of Kilarney Park

 If you missed Part One, check it out here.


Haunted houses and Halloween go together like dots on dice, but the haunted house on our street never did anything to attract trick-or-treaters. So why was there a light burning on Verna’s porch?
 My feet began pulling me to the light. My head swirled with thoughts of murder: rat poison, asphyxiation, throat slashing, but I was more interested in candy than my safety.
 I inched up the front steps to her porch and peered into Verna’s kitchen window. She was seated at her kitchen table, her head resting in her hands. Her back was to me and I couldn’t see her face, but I could hear her crying, a raspy soul rending sound, not the depraved rant of the undead or the wailing tirade of a guilt-riddled wife who’d murdered her husband. 
 Instead of ringing her doorbell, I turned to go. As I did so I saw something on her table that made me squeak like a mouse finding a wheel of cheese—treasure. Edible treasure.
On Verna’s kitchen table was a large pirate chest made of cardboard. Among the pirate images painted on it was one of the most cherished names in a chubby kid’s lexicon—Hershey. Inside the chest were countless bars of chocolate. Not the penny-size ones—these big boys fetched upwards of a quarter each. I felt like Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo as I eyed such treasure.
Verna must have heard my squeak. She turned around and looked at me standing there on the other side of her kitchen window.  I’d never seen her up close and I noticed she was totally opaque without a ghost’s translucence. Her eyes, while red, didn’t look otherworldly. She swiped away tears with the back of her hand and waved me in, saying, “The door isn’t locked.”
The door opened with a moan, as if it wasn’t accustomed to swinging open. My costume didn’t make entering any easier. Verna’s house had the same floor plan as ours which meant I was practically inside her kitchen when I stepped through the threshold. She stood up and gave me a watery smile. She looked…rather pleasant, even with puffy eyes. But then Hansel and Gretel would never have entered the witch’s house had she not also appeared pleasant.
 “That is a very nice costume. Did it take you long to make?”
 I nodded.
 She turned to the chocolate chest. “I ordered this from a catalog a few months ago.”
 “It’s a lot of candy.”
 “I was planning on handing it out to trick or treaters this evening.”
 “But you never give out candy on Halloween,” I said.
 “True. True. But this year I decided to make up for all the years I sat in this dark house without handing out treats. Unfortunately, I had to work late tonight and by the time I got home all of the children had already passed through the neighborhood. All the children, except you. You’re Stephen, from across the street, aren’t you?”
The costume didn’t disguise me as much as I’d thought. I nodded.
 “Would you like some candy?”
 Another nod.
She reached into the chest for a foil-wrapped chocolate bar, dropped it into my pillowcase.
I thanked her and headed for the door, but her sniffling stopped me. “You should come to neighborhood barbeques and block parties next summer. And my birthday party is in two weeks. Why doncha come?”
 “After all this time, I don’t think people would want me to come,” she answered.
I want you to come.”
 She looked kinda pretty as she smiled at me and closed her door. I headed home, where my mother waited with her sweet tooth.
The next day I awoke to find a Hershey’s treasure chest on our front porch. An attached note said:

For Stephen, my only Kilarney Park friend.
Don’t get a stomach ache.
That afternoon something sprouted on our street that we hadn’t seen before. The bright red paint seemed out of place in front of the gray house that had once haunted my feverish imagination. Hammered into Verna’s front yard—a FOR SALE sign.
A few weeks later, the Ghost of Kilarney Park moved away.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Ghost of Kilarney Park

In keeping with the season I’m reposting a true Halloween story from my memoir The Kid in the Kaleidoscope. I hope you enjoy it:

Haunted houses belong in the realm of goose bumps, foggy nights and old neighborhoods, not pristine suburbs with freshly asphalted streets, unblemished sidewalks and immature trees. But a ghost lingered across the street, in a house where a man died.
I was only two when our neighborhood suffered its first fatality. Kilarney Park (later to be swallowed up by the Silicon Valley) had just opened for occupancy and neighbors had yet to come together with barbeques and meet-and-greets. It didn’t help that none of the parents on our street seemed to know the dead man’s name, much less how he died. By the time I was eleven no one could even remember what he’d looked like. For years he was referred to as The Ghost of Kilarney Park.
Once after an excessive dose of cough medicine, I peered out of our front window and saw the ghost sitting on a nearby light pole. The next day I got the best grade I’d ever received on an arithmetic test, a C+. I figured the ghost was good luck and I spread the word. Soon kids in the neighborhood were attributing good luck to the ghost, as well as bad.
The deceased had been married to Verna, who continued to live in her neat little house at Kilarney Park until I was eleven. She wasn’t old enough to look grandmotherly, but she appeared older than the adults on our street. If she had any friends or family they were never seen visiting her.
Verna’s house was a colorless shade of gray. Her car was gray and she went to work on weekdays wearing gray suits that matched her gray hair. She planted no flowers. Weeds such as dandelions might have added a hint of color but they refused to take root in her soil. The developer of Kilarney Park had planted sycamore trees in the front yards but Verna’s died. In its place was an Italian cypress shaped like a giant candle stick. It was such a dark shade of green that it appeared black. My mother complained that the sight of it depressed her.
“Why?” I asked.
“Italian cypresses are associated with cemeteries.”
“Because the roots don’t fan out. They grow straight down and don’t disturb the dead,” she said.
On weekday mornings Verna could be seen driving to work. She was the only woman in our neighborhood who worked outside the home until my mother landed a job when I was fourteen.
Verna was grist for our rumor mill; our fertile imaginations ran rampant: The reason The Ghost of Kilarney Park hadn’t moved on was because his wife had murdered him and his soul cried out for revenge. She done it with poison—rat poison, maybe. Or maybe she slit his throat with a carving knife while he was snoring. My best friend Ricky Delgado didn’t buy that one; he said the police would have hauled her away if her old man was found among blood-soaked sheets with a gaping hole in his throat. Another theory was that she asphyxiated him with car fumes in the garage. There was little by way of malice that we kids in the neighborhood wouldn’t attribute to the poor widow.           
Randy Bernardino who lived three doors down from us was a feverish Twilight Zone fan; he floated the idea that Verna was as dead as her husband—a ghost, one who might not even know she was dead. This notion of Verna being a troubled specter caught between two worlds began to lose plausibility when her battery died and Dad rescued her with jumper cables. It seemed improbable that a ghost needed a car to get around in.
The years rolled past and Verna continued to live in a universe parallel to ours, keeping her own company while never interacting with anyone. She drove by our lemonade stands, lawn parties and garage sales until she faded from our sight. But after several years of invisibility, an episode happened that brought her vividly into view.
Except for Christmas, Halloween was my favorite holiday. My mother always checked my booty when I returned, claiming she was looking for tampered candy or hidden razor blades. She always used this as a pretext for confiscating some of the best candy. Ricky Delgado and I always worked on our Halloween costumes together. One year he’d be a pirate and I’d be a cowboy. Or he’d be a spaceman and I’d be a vampire.
Several days before Halloween in 1963 we both decided to be robots. Since neither one of us was willing to consider a different costume, we played a game of rock-paper-scissors to see who got to be a robot. My paper covered Ricky’s rock, but my best friend could be a dickwad and wouldn’t lose gracefully. So we both built robot costumes.
Boxes were glued together, a small one for the head and a large one for the body. Openings were cut from the inside so our heads could slide into the smaller box like the headpiece of a space suit. Wire coat hangers were straightened and attached as antennae. The larger box was supposed to rest on our shoulders to prevent the weight from pressing down on our heads, but the costume still managed to give me a tremendous headache.
When it came to finishing touches, Ricky struggled to keep up with me. I never received a grade less than an “A” on art assignments. In the fifth grade I was King of the Bulletin Boards. (The extra credit helped get me a “C” in arithmetic classes.) I cut neat openings for the eyes with an X-Acto knife and appropriated a broken shower nozzle for the mouth. After spray painting the boxes silver, I painted rivets and welded seams. My pièce de résistance—a laser blast to the body where a space creature had zapped me. A few more details here and there, legs and Keds wrapped in aluminum foil and presto—Man of Metal.
That year Halloween fell on Thursday. I faced an arithmetic test the next day and wasn’t prepared for it. (I’d spent too much time working on my costume.) My mother refused to let me go trick-or-treating with Ricky until I’d finished all my homework and assured her that I was ready for the test. Hearing my mother hand out candy to trick or treaters on our front porch only darkened my mood.
Ricky was long gone by the time I covered my legs in aluminum foil, slipped into my costume and grabbed a pillowcase for the candy.
“It’s getting late. Don’t go too far,” my mother said without commenting on my
costume. “And don’t eat anything until you bring it home so I can check for razor blades.”
A wane moon floated overhead as I began knocking on doors. Many houses had already handed out their candy and turned off their porch lights. I received an unexpected reception by those still handing out goodies. I’d worked hard to make my costume memorable, but I hadn’t realized just how similar mine was to Ricky’s. Everywhere I went I was mistaken for him. And he had over an hour head start. The candy distributor at every house I approached said nearly the same thing as they closed their door in my face, “Nice try—you’ve already been here.”
As fast as possible for a chubby kid dressed in boxes, I huffed and puffed to a section of neighborhood where I didn’t normally go. Still, every doorbell I rang had already been rung by Ricky. Before long my Zorro wristwatch was telling me it was time to head home: I was the only kid still walking the pavement and most porch lights were off. My empty pillowcase hung limp in my hand as I headed home.
The lights of our house were likewise off when I turned a corner and headed home. I had a splitting headache from the heavy costume pressing down on my head and a back itch I couldn’t possibly scratch. Then I saw a light. In the strangest of places.

Conclusion tomorrow….

Friday, October 26, 2012

Death In The Family

Everyone I might have offended with this post is dead, except my mother who doesn’t have a computer, and there’s something I’d like to get off my chest. I’ve always been suspicious of the manner in which my uncle died.
This happened when I was two years old so I’ve had to piece together a picture of the event from various relatives, mostly my mother who was not actually there when the tragedy took place.
My mother’s boisterous Portuguese family had gathered at Anderson Reservoir, a recently opened man-made lake along Coyote Creek in California’s Santa Clara County.  As the story goes, five or six family members, including my Uncle Laddie, left the picnic area and rented a motorboat.  They sped off across the lake, but when they returned a few hours later Uncle Laddie wasn’t among them.
Evidently, he fell out of the boat and drowned. His body, tangled in the flooded vegetation cluttering the bottom of the newly created lake, wasn’t recovered until a full year later. By that time an autopsy was unable to ascertain the cause of death, which the police deemed an accidental death by drowning.
I’ve always struggled to believe what I was told about this. I admit to having an overactive imagination, but I doubt what I was told. Why? You be the judge.
 Seven men rented a boat for a spin on the lake. Oddly, no women accompanied them. A coincidence? I understand this was a small boat, a tight fit for seven men. Alcohol was no doubt involved, prompting the driver to throttle the boat into high gear. According to another uncle, now deceased but present on the boat, Uncle Laddie simply vanished; one moment he was there, gone the next. They’d been traveling at high speed and it took a while for the boat to slow down—the precise spot of his disappearance unknown—but several of the men reportedly dove into the water to look for Laddie. Witnesses said Laddie was not seen struggling in the water, apparently having never surfaced after falling into the lake. Heart attack? It’s possible, but Laddie was young, in good shape and without a family history of heart illness.
Perhaps I’ve watched too many CSI-type programs but here’s what troubles me. How do six men, sitting knee to knee in a cramped boat, not notice someone vanishing overboard? No one heard a splash? No one saw a man in distress? No one noticed anything odd until suddenly the boat was less crowded?
 As a writer, it’s easy for me to envision a conspiracy to eliminate Uncle Laddie, one that would necessarily include everyone on that boat, including two of Uncle Laddie’s brothers, but I have no evidence of a conspiracy. No motive. Still, The Godfather comes to mind, that scene of murder on the water where Michael Corleone orders the death of older brother Fredo.
I have no reason to believe Uncle Laddie’s friends and relatives were implicated in his death or that they were anything other than grief-struck by this incident. Laddie was quite popular from what I’ve heard. A carpenter and handyman, Uncle Laddie was generous with his time, always available with a smile and helping hand. He build a screen door for our kitchen and helped my dad pour the cement walkway beside our house.  
Uncle Laddie’s disappearance happened on a warm summer day nearly sixty years ago. No one aboard that boat is still alive. I wish I had more memories of him, but I was just a toddler at the time of my uncle’s death, too small to remember him clearly. But I do recall a smiling man in a bright Hawaiian shirt, holding out a cookie jar to me. And I remember Uncle Laddie’s dress army uniform, left behind in a closet when my aunt sold the home she’d shared with my uncle and stored her furniture in our spare bedroom, later my bedroom. I would take out that uniform and fill it with my imagination, running my fingers over the brass buttons and concocting fantasies about an uncle who’d single-handedly defeated Hitler.
I’m glad to finally get these concerns off my chest, but I wish I could close my eyes without picturing all those men on that boat and wondering what actually happened.

 Any strange occurrences in your family you care to share?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Cheaters Never Prosper?

We say it to kids all the time, but it isn’t true: cheaters very often do prosper. Case point, Venice in 1564. Back then, rich dudes would donate money to build social clubs dedicated to popular saints, which in Venice meant a saint whose body had been stolen and brought to Venice. (Check out my post Conspiracy, Theft and Sin for the outrageous manner in which St. Mark’s body was smuggled into Venice.) These clubs were places where rich folks could pretend to be pious while patting themselves on the back for arranging to have been born into rich families. 
The Scuolo Grande di San Rocco (The Confraternity of Saint Roch) was one of these clubs. In 1564 artwork was needed to cover the interior of a massive newly completed clubhouse gaudy enough to please Donald Trump. Venice overflowed with great artists, so the board of directors did what many organizations do when they want free ideas before settling on what they really want—they held a contest.
Painters in good standing with Venice’s Art Guild were invited to submit a single sketch for a painting to fill the massive oval opening in the ceiling just inside the Scuolo’s new entrance. The theme of the sketch: the Glorification of St. Roch. (Yes, the body of St. Roch was brought to Venice under suspicious circumstances.) A young painter named Jacopo Robusti (better known by his nickname Tintoretto) wanted this commission badly. To win it, he did something no other competitor had the nerve to do. He cheated.
A day had been set aside for artists to come to the Scuolo to present their sketches and have them judged. The artist with the winning sketch would be awarded the job of creating the final ceiling painting. Competition for this project was heavy and many great sketches were presented. Tintoretto was last to show his work. But he didn’t present a sketch. He pulled a cord rigged to the side of the entryway and a tarp slid to the ground, revealing his Glorification of St. Roch, a completed oil painting. Tintoretto and a few of his drunken buddies had snuck into the Scuolo the night before and installed the finished painting in the ceiling.
The other artists cried foul since only a sketch had been asked for.

 Tintoretto claimed this was the way he sketched—fast and furious with a paint brush—although he finally admitted to cheating. But he’d done his homework well, studying the Scuolo’s bylaws and discovering that no gift to the Scuolo could be rejected. History didn’t record his exact words, but Tintoretto must have said something like this to his angry fellow artists and the board of directors: “You are all correct; I have cheated and don’t deserve to win this contest. As my punishment, I give the Scuolo my painting. Pay me nothing.”
The board of directors must have rubbed their chins and thought this quite a deal. Instead of awarding an expensive commission they were receiving a magnificent painting for free. And didn’t it look great already installed in the ceiling? To the irritation of the other contestants, the board of directors happily accepted Tintoretto’s painting. To this day it can be viewed where Tintoretto and his drunken buddies hung it in 1564.
Tintoretto may have not played by the rules, but for the next twenty years he painted scores of masterpieces to cover the walls and ceilings of this massive building. The Scuolo never considered hiring another artist because it was felt that all paintings needed to match the Tintoretto in the entryway. And who could match Tintoretto’s style better than Tintoretto himself. The artist had played his cards well.
      One of the Scuolo's many rooms decorated by Tintoretto.
If you believe cheaters should never prosper and your sense of fairness outweighs your interest in great art, the next time you’re in Venice I suggest avoiding The Scuolo Grande di San Rocco. In addition to being a repository of some of the finest examples of Renaissance painting in Italy, it’s also a monument to cheating.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Expiration Dates

“Haven’t I told you to stop doing that?” my wife growled while scowling at me from a barstool on the far side of the kitchen counter.
 “Yes, you’ve told me to stop doing it.”
 “How long would you say I’ve been asking you not to do it?”
I gave it some thought. “About forty years.”
Her lips tightened into a line. “You really are a slow learner.”
Mrs. Chatterbox and I are usually sympatico—Tweedledee and Tweedledum joined together at the hip—but on this we’re worlds apart, hostiles on opposite sides of the Neutral Zone. My blood sugar was dropping and I wasn’t in the mood for battle. I chose my words carefully. “I’d think that after forty years you’d catch on that no matter how much you nag me I’m going to sniff the milk in the fridge before I pour it on my cereal.”
“It disgusts me to see you sniffing the milk carton.”
I considered listing a few things she does that disgust me, but decided it best to keep those worms in the can. Besides, that was a battle I couldn’t hope to win—I have quite a few disgusting habits. “I don’t want to pour sour milk on my cereal and have to pour it all down the garbage disposal. I hate the taste of sour milk.”
She sighed the sigh only the wife of a truly stubborn man can sigh. “Just check the expiration date.”
This was the battle cry that had launched our Forty Year War; it had little to do with me sniffing the milk carton and everything to do with her desire to convert me to her philosophy of expiration dates. She rose from the barstool and walked over to the fridge, where I’d returned the sniffed milk after deeming it worthy of my cereal. She checked the date on the carton. “This expired yesterday,” she said smugly. “That’s why I bought a fresh carton yesterday at the store.”
“If you didn’t want me sniffing the milk, you could have thrown it out yesterday when you brought home the new.”
 She spoke slowly, as if explaining God to a toddler. “Yesterday, Sweetie, the date hadn’t yet expired.”
I hadn’t seen the new carton because, like most guys, I suffer from refrigerator blindness; only humans with uteri can find things in the fridge. It’s a scientific fact that uteri function like tracking devices, making it easier for women to find things. Not that I would have chosen the new carton had I been able to locate it lurking behind the pulpless orange juice. I would have chosen the old one because I don’t believe in expiration dates. Why throw out perfectly good milk just because of a number stamped on the carton? I sniffed the milk and it was fine. A cow gave its all for this milk and I wasn’t going to pour it down the drain until it plopped out of the carton in congealed,  semi-solid form.
For years we’d gone round and round on this business of expiration dates. I’m of the opinion that the date alerts supermarket personnel that the product shouldn’t be sold after this date; Mrs. Chatterbox believes it shouldn’t be consumed after this date.
Several times I’ve asked store employees to weigh in on this. They should know, right? They always side with me. But this isn’t good enough for Mrs. C., who I suspect has climbed out of bed to toss out groceries whose dates expired at midnight. It’s a good thing there isn’t an expiration date on our wedding license or I could now be reeking of
curdled milk while living in a Dumpster.
So how does it work in your family: does the product expiration date mean the store should no longer be selling the item, or does it mean it’s no longer safe to consume it?

Note: today is Mrs. C’s birthday and it’s a momentous one. I expect most of you to side with her on the above question, so this will be my first birthday gift of the day to her. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

What Are We Looking At?

After finding this picture in my file of travel shots I scratched my head trying to remember what was so interesting as to prompt this photograph. It took me a while, and then I remembered; this was a shot looking down from the balcony of our ship as we passed into one of the locks at the Panama Canal.
The black line at the bottom is the space between our ship and the concrete wall of the lock. Here it was about five inches, but it got even tighter. The second picture shows another ship entering before us, another tight fit. After passing through the canal we docked in Costa Rica and a crew came out to paint away the massive black skidmarks left on our ship from rubbing against the lock. No wonder the Panamanians have decided to widen the Canal. Still, it’s been an engineering marvel for over a hundred years. 

Happy Sunday everyone.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Killed By The Cure

Last night while watching TV a commercial appeared that went something like this. (Note: imagine this being voiced over by a minor celebrity from the Seventies whose career stalled after several DUIs.)
“Is your life so empty that you don’t care your kids are now covered in tattoos heralding a Zombie Apocalypse, or that your spouse has a house account at the Embassy Suites and a credit card receipt for a strip pole in his hotel room?  Or that you’ve broken the tail-wagging mechanism on the formerly exuberant golden retriever that now whimpers and drags his butt across the carpet when you walk into the room?”
The TV screen showed a dreary montage of average looking folks with long faces and tragic expressions— the look of French aristocrats being marched to the guillotine. The colors were washed out—the cheerful colors of Mordor.
“If this sounds familiar you might be depressed. But you don’t have to live with depression. Ask your doctor about Happiva!”
The screen suddenly exploded with color, as if Ludwig Von Drake from Disney’s Wonderful World of Color had liquefied a rainbow in a blender and flung the contents at the screen.
“Happiva! One pill a day will set you back on a path to happiness and fulfillment, convince you that life is again worth living, cage the negativity monkey that has been flinging poo at you.”
The morose, colorless folks at the beginning of the commercial became giddy as munchkins, smiling and dancing like a house had fallen on a wicked witch. These transformed users of Happiva, never filmed actually taking the drug, were now shown taking childish delight in simple things, holding a grandchild’s hand in a park, walking on the beach with a frolicking pooch, looking into the eyes of a loved one with that come hither look—wait, that’s the boner commercial with the separate bathtubs. Anyway, you get the picture. The drug manufacturers pushing Happiva were promising a miracle in a pill. This is where I sat up and took notice—the side effects.
The narrator started talking faster and hundreds of words in miniscule print appeared at the bottom of the screen. I listened closely.
“Before using Happiva be sure you’re not pregnant and are able to tolerate a three month detox program to wean you off Happiva. In certain instances test groups have displayed tendencies toward:

#1.  Diarrhea. —Nothing my own cooking hasn’t caused.
#2.  Painful urination. —Managed this in college after a batch of funny brownies.
#3.  Constipation. —When God gives you cement, make bricks.
#4.  Nausea. —Maybe I’ll lose a few pounds.
#5.  Excessive Flatulence. —I’ll hang out in my basement and write the next great 
       American novel “Fifty Scents of Grey.”
#6.   Weight Gain. —So much for losing a few pounds.
#7.   Emotional Distress Leading to Instances of Rage.— I’ll work this out on the 
#8.   An Oily Rectal Discharge You Can’t Control. —Are you sh**ting me?
#9.   Loss of Interest in Sex. —I thought the last one was bad.
#10. Sexual Performance Issues. For men, the inability to maintain an erection; for  
        women, sexual urges when confined to solemn places like church and PTA 
        meetings. —This could be awkward.
#11. Swelling of the Tongue. —Might as well include this one in #10.
#12. The Inability to taste certain foods. —Only your favorites. Broccoli, spinach and 
        liver will taste just fine.
#13. Reduced Tolerance to Alcohol. —How will I muster courage to entertain friends
        with fabulous impressions?
#14. Physical Dependency.  —What’s in this crap? Crack?
#15. Memory Loss. —Will I remember that I’m now worthless in the sack?
#16. Joint Pain. —Your fingers will be too sore to roll one.
#17. Increased Body Odor. —I doubt anyone will notice the difference.
#18. Hair Loss. —Hopefully this refers to hair on my back.
#19. Reduced Ability to Tell Right from Wrong. —Finally, a true benefit and plausible
        legal defense.
#20. Feelings of Suicide. —What the F**K!!!!!!!

Okay, I admit to some exaggeration. I’ve borrowed some of these side effects from products other than Happiva but currently on the market. But I swear #20 is true. I mean, what’s the point of taking medication to address your depression if it makes you want to eat a bullet sandwich? Or commit a crime…while having an uncontrollable oily rectal discharge?
It troubles me to admit that writing this post has depressed the hell out of me. I think I’ll take a few pills, steal a car and drive to a park to yell at some kids. When the cops show up I’ll blame it on the Happiva.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Becoming A Hero

PT Dilloway was one of the first people I connected with when I began Chubby Chatterbox. Aside from the fact that PT is an exceptional blogger with a razor sharp wit, he’s also an accomplished author celebrating the release of his new novel, A Hero’s Journey. Fans have been looking forward to this book for a long time and I’m honored to have him as a guest blogger: 

Becoming a Hero

Thanks for letting me take over your blog today, Mr. Chatterbox!  I can’t hope to match the eloquent narration of the Chubby Chatterbox, especially not when it comes to real life—or a close facsimile thereof.  But I figure I do have a character who likes to tell convoluted stories from his real life.

So let me introduce Mr. Percival Graves, from my novel A Hero’s Journey.  In this scene, Percival tells his young protégé Dr. Emma Earl how long ago he became a superhero known as the Scarlet Knight in order to give her a glimpse of what she’s in for as the latest incarnation of the hero.

I was born in London, long before even your parents were born.  I came here after the war.  I had heard in a pub that America was the place to be.  America would be the center for the new age now that they had the Bomb and had come out of it with hardly a scratch, not up to their necks in blood like us in Europe.  The man was drunk off his arse, but he seemed on to something.  So with what money I had left from my service days I got on a boat to this country.

I didn’t get far once I landed here.  About the only work for someone like me—someone with more muscles than brains—was to work on the docks as a mule.  I worked there ten hours a day for next to nothing.  Shared a tiny flat with five other blokes. 

Then one day this government wanker shows up.  Not a military man from the look of him. Probably in the CIA, or OSS like it was back then.  He said there was a crate on board we were absolutely, positively not to touch.  Some of his own people were going to handle that one.  Of course all sorts of theories went around about what it might be:  Nazi gold, a secret weapon, or even Hitler’s body.

You’re a smart girl, so you might have figured it out already.  I didn’t until that night while I slept.  One of my old army mates, Reginald, came to me in a dream.  He said, “You haven’t made anything of yourself, you wanker.”

“What do you want me to do, Reg?  I’m just a mule.”

“You got the brains of one, that’s for sure,” he said.  Then he softened a bit and said, “But you got the heart of a lion.  I saw it over there.  Like when you carried me all the way to the field hospital when that sniper hit me.”

“Not much need for that sort of thing over here, is there?”

“If I weren’t a ghost I’d give you a good kick in the knickers for that one.”  He gave me that hard look like when he would order us to take a machine gun nest.  “That government crate has something very important on it.  You need to get your arse in there and open it up.”

“But I could go to jail for that.”

“Only if you get caught, you damned fool.”

“What’s in there?”

“Something that will allow you to be somebody.”

“What are you getting on about, Reg?”

“Trust me, lad.  There’s a reason you didn’t die in the war when by all rights you should have.  You have a destiny.  It’s in that crate.”

I still didn’t believe him, but I decided to go anyway and see what it was all about.  If the government blokes showed up, I’d just tell them I got mixed up.  They were only on the outside of the ship, though, to watch the perimeter.  I waited until one of them took a smoke break and then I went inside.

You already know what came next.  I got the crate open and inside was that big red box, just like the one you found.  I opened it up and saw the armor inside.  Then this damned ghost showed up, and started to give me his spiel about the honor and tradition of the Order of the Scarlet Knight and how imperative it was I save the world from evil and so forth.

Of course about the only reading I’d ever done was the comic books.  I was dumb enough to think I’d be just like one of those costumed adventurers.  Thought I’d go around punching out criminals and kissing damsels in distress.  I thought it would be fun.

The first time I ran into the Dragoon, it stopped being fun.  His armor arrived from overseas too.  Some air force colonel found it and decided he would make himself an atomic bomb.  Then he’d bring the rest of the world to its knees.

First time I saw him, he was at Rampart State, to steal the notes from a scientist there who had worked on the Manhattan Project.  He killed the poor bloke and made off with the notes before I could stop him.  I finally caught up to him at an airbase where he planned to steal himself a casing for his bomb.  We got into a tussle with me finally coming out on top. 

I thought I’d won.  I felt so generous I gave him the chance to surrender.  Instead, he pulled out a detonator he’d hidden on himself.  He’d rigged the munitions bunker to explode in order to cover his escape.  The explosion might have killed both of us if not for the armor.  It saved my life that day.  Of course the air force people around there didn’t have no armor.  About thirty of them died.

The Dragoon tried to escape.  I caught up with him again and this time there was no nonsense about it.  I ran the Sword of Justice right through his foul heart.  Just to be sure I cut his head off too.

I hid the black armor away, and hoped I’d seen the last of it.  Then I got down to work. Found me a job at the Plaine Museum, pushing a broom around.  The pay wasn’t great, but it was enough that I could get my own place so no one would bug me.

It wasn’t at all like in the comics.  It was a nasty business for the most part.  Night after night of going out there, busting the chops of purse-snatchers, bank robbers, murderers, and rapists.  The mob back then was even worse than it is these days; the harbor was practically backed up from the number of bodies floating in it.

Here’s what you need to understand, lass:  no matter how many of them I put away, there
were always more of them.  You think people would learn, but for some men—and women—that’s all they know.  They come from the bad neighborhoods or maybe they’re just twisted inside.  All they know is taking, like a bunch of wild dogs fighting over a bone.  You can kick a few of them to the pound, but there’s always going to be more.

If you like this excerpt, you can buy A Hero’s Journey from Solstice Publishing here.  It’s also available from Amazon, B&N, and other retailers. To learn more about my novel, including character bios, deleted scenes, and a visitor’s guide to Rampart City, visit my blog at

Thanks again for hosting me, Stephen!
Note: PT is giving away a free PDF copy of his new novel to one lucky Chubby Chatterbox commenter, so let him know you want it by leaving a comment.