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Chinga Las Vegas

From the air, the landscape surrounding Las Vegas looks a lot like Mars. To be more exact, it looks a lot like what I can remember from the 1980 TV-miniseries adaption of The Martian Chronicles, which also had Rock Hudson and a disco soundtrack. These two elements were of course missing from the southern Nevada terrain, but a similar desolation was there.

Becca and I were flying Frontier, an airline on the cutting edge of the industry’s trend of reducing amenities. The seats felt like they were acquired secondhand from hospital waiting rooms. They did not recline, which was bad in itself, but the FAA-mandated spiel about returning them to their upright positions added insult to injury.

We decided to take a shuttle from the airport to our hotel downtown. On our last trip in 2015, we took a taxi and got a driver who treated us to a circuitous route that put 10 extra bucks on the meter. This time we knew better.

Or so we thought. The vehicle and driver were both fine. The problem was the other passengers. There were a lot of them and they were all going to get dropped off before we were.

If you want to get downtown in a reasonable amount of time, you get on the freeway and avoid the Strip entirely. Of course, that doesn’t work if you have to take people to a bunch of destinations on the Strip beforehand. For close to an hour, the bus weaved its way through a warren of connected parking garages and the snarled traffic on and around the Strip.

To make matters worse, one passenger kept bothering the driver, asking him to recommend a good bar (he said he didn’t drink) and restaurant (he mumbled something noncommittal). She then turned to her friend and talked about how she was here to celebrate her 30th and wanted to make it a weekend to remember. Her friend no doubt knew all this, which probably explains why the words were delivered at a sufficient volume so everyone else in the van knew about it as well. I didn’t care about her birthday plans, but I was curious how she managed to last three decades without being murdered for the common good.

Becca and I had broken a promise to each other by even being here. After our 2015 trip, we mutually concluded “fuck this place” and vowed not to return for at least five years. Not returning for the rest of our lives was also an option.

We found ourselves having a good reason to break that promise. Our dear friend had gotten engaged to a wonderful guy and the two decided to get hitched at the Elvis chapel in Vegas. Since our high opinion of the couple outweighed our disdain for the city where the wedding would take place, we decided to attend.

Being there for a reason made the place a little more tolerable and we were able to relax and enjoy ourselves to some degree. Sure, the streets and casinos were packed with douchebags who spoke in monosyllables and reeked of Axe Body Spray, but we were on a mission to help our friends celebrate the beginning of their life together.

We were also there to get drunk. Neither Becca nor I have any interest in gambling, but we do like to drink. Las Vegas has an endless supply of booze if you’re willing to pay inflated prices in bars that have piss-elegant ambience and are staffed with silicone cyborgs.

After some back-and-forth messaging and miscommunication, we met up with our friends at one of the bars in the Golden Nugget for a little socializing before the wedding the next day. They had family and friends in tow. The bride was pleased we could all be there though a little embarrassed as if she felt unworthy of all the attention. At first, I thought she was drunk. Then I remembered that this was just how she is. I was tempted to say, “You deserve every good thing that comes your way. Now shut the fuck up and drink.” It was probably a good thing I didn’t, what with her mom standing right next to her and all.

After stopping by a dinner buffet for decent chocolate cake and mediocre everything else, we called it an evening. Becca and I walked back to our hotel, the El Cortez.

“I wonder what a tez is,” I said to her. “And why it is an alternative to elk.”

“Bitch,” she said.

I woke up the next morning hung over and dehydrated.  Vegas tap water doesn’t taste great, but I should have forced myself to drink some regardless. More sleep would do me good and had plenty of time after breakfast to work in a nap before the wedding. Becca was not yet awake. I grabbed my phone from the bedside table to see if the world was as awful as the last time I checked.

It was worse. Eleven people had been killed in a Pittsburgh synagogue. The photograph of the suspect showed a man with uninquisitive eyes and John Wayne Gacy-esque pudge. Like a lot of anti-Semites, he probably sucked at life and took comfort in scapegoating others for his own shortcomings. Most of his ilk are content to be misinformed and unpleasant. The more virulent engage in acts of vandalism. He felt the need to do murder.

It was the kind of act that most of us should and do condemn, but the effect is not the same across the board. It is one thing to deplore brutality and quite another to deplore it and worry that you could be next.

I’m a gentile so anti-Semitic violence is not something that poses a personal threat. The closest thing to one occurred in Cape Town back in 1999. Like this weekend, I was there for a wedding. The bride had recently converted to Judaism and I attended a ceremony to welcome her into the community a few days prior to the wedding itself. After it was over, a bunch of us gathered outside to shoot the shit before getting on with the rest of our day. PAGAD was up to its nasty tricks at the time so someone came out and asked us to socialize inside because a synagogue had been firebombed a week before. Since none of us wanted to get hit in the head with a Molotov, we readily complied.

I’ve told that story to a lot of people over the years for the same reason I told people about the British soldier in the troop carrier in Belfast pointing a machine gun at me. It’s world-traveler bravado of the best kind because in neither case was any bravery required. The danger was as hypothetical as it was temporary.

There was a near-zero chance anyone would be firebombing the wedding that afternoon. An Elvis chapel is not exactly an inviting target for hate criminals. I’m sure most bigots like Elvis. If any shit went down, it would be more akin to what happened at that country-music festival a year ago where the murderer did it just to be an asshole.

Becca was awake at this point and we both needed food. Since we planned on going back to bed after breakfast, showering could wait. We left our room and walked down the stairs into the casino, each of us with the kind of hair one sees in DUI mugshots.

Las Vegas is not a morning town. On Fremont Street, pedestrians were sparse and moving real slow. A few vomit splashes dotted the sidewalk. Without the neon, the hotel facades were comically ugly. It was a sad carnival.

We entered a Denny’s and were seated in a booth looking on a side street. It is not usually a place I want to eat unless it is and then it’s perfect. Vegas Denny’s is extra perfect because it has a full bar. We each ordered the “Lumberjack Slam” and a couple of Bloody Marys. The menu dutifully informed me that we would be consuming upwards of 1500 calories. I walked out of there feeling like my heart was full of sand.

On the way back, we stopped at Walgreens and picked up some bottled water to rehydrate and energy drinks for later on. We crawled back into bed and before going to sleep, I checked to see if there was any further news on the Pittsburgh murders. I learned that the shooter, shot multiple times by police, was expected to pull through. The medical team apparently went that extra mile to make sure he lived. Personally, I would have poured Pop Rocks into his wounds.

We woke up in early afternoon, feeling much better than we had that morning. There was plenty of time to shower and put on clothes that did not smell like last night. We ventured out and took a Lyft to the Aria, the hotel on the strip where our friends were staying.

There was a reason we stayed downtown instead of on the Strip this time around. All of Vegas is tacky as hell, but at least downtown is an amusing kind of tacky, like a pole dancer who is missing a limb. The Aria is far too upmarket to provide that kind of fun. It’s a glass-and-steel citadel that would make an excellent movie for where the privileged live in a dystopian sci-fi. After downing an $18 scotch and soda, we met up with our friends and piled into a limo that took us to the wedding. We listened to an all-Elvis radio station on the way there.

The chapel and the wedding itself were both lovely. This is no mean feat. There is an inherent silliness to having an Elvis impersonator administering the service, but you have to remember that what is felt between the people getting married is important and not to be trivialized. The people running the show were obviously aware of this so it all struck the right tone. You didn’t care that the Elvis looked more like Tony Robbins than the king of rock and roll. He had the voice and moves down pat from the moment he chauffered the bride and groom right into the chapel in a pink Cadillac.

It is worth noting that the Caddy’s vanity plate had “Elvis” and the number two after it, fitting for a man who died on the toilet.

After the wedding, we all went back to the Aria for the wedding dinner. Becca and I did not know too many of the other guests, but it was enjoyable nonetheless. It was great to see the newlyweds having the time of their lives, being so happy and perfect for each other.

We later took a stab at more drinking downtown, which was a mistake. It was the Saturday before Halloween and the mass of revelers looked intent on swallowing us whole. We begged off and fled back to the El Cortez.

The next morning, Becca and I had breakfast at White Castle. It was 7:20 in the morning and the breakfast menu was available, but we weren’t interested. We wanted those little hamburgers and split a bag of ten.

Our flight out of here was a few hours away. We were glad we came, but we were also glad to leave. I thought about the Vegas of yesteryear, of the Rat Pack glory days and the freak show described so well by Hunter S. Thompson. Both those Vegases were gone now. Gone too was the Vegas that the 80s frat-boy version of myself visited and enjoyed from the comfort of being up my own ass.

After graduation while I was flat broke and living in Santa Barbara, I drew a little comic called “Chinga Las Vegas.” It featured Drake Weber, my alter ego at the time, who looked like a crudely drawn Steve Dallas of Bloom County. Drake got into a lot of mischief and somehow ended up directing animal porn. The comic wasn’t very good. Maybe someone today can create a better one. Not me though. I’m done with this town.

 

Encroachment

The concrete seating made my ass hurt. Most of the people around me wisely brought seat cushions, but the only padding I had was the kind I packed on myself. Too many nights of poor choices in food following poor choices in drink can do that. Unfortunately, cushions made of ass fat also contain nerve endings so they are not nearly as comfortable.

There had been both kinds of bad decisions the night before. After some immoderate drinking at Iron & Gold, Becca and I stopped by McDonald’s on the way home. It had been years since I’ve been there and I regretted it even at the time.

I spent much of the next day lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, and feeling two kinds of poisoned. Becca headed off to Berkeley early so she could be first in line (or near enough) for the Interpol show. I was free to show up whenever, as long I arrived by the time the doors opened at six.

I made it out the door sometime after four and arrived at Berkeley BART around five. From there, it was a mile hike uphill through the UC campus to the Greek Theater. It was warm out, in the upper 70s, and I zigzagged to take advantage of every bit of shade along the way.

When I got there, Becca was there with her Interpol friends (whom she calls “Interpals”) near the start of the line. They were dressed in black and eager to get in. I was sweaty and eager to sit down. In my defense, I’m old, over twenty years older than most of them.

My job when the gates opened was a simple one. I was to carry Becca’s purse and deal with any delay from its being searched for contraband while she made a beeline for the front of the stage. The plan went as expected. Becca secured her spot at the railing. I handed back her purse then went off to buy an energy drink and find a seat in the old-people section.

The first of the opening bands had yet to take the stage so the crowd was still sparse. I found a spot one section over and about 30 feet left of the soundboard. As one could guess from the venue’s name, the place was laid out like a Greek amphitheater with a semicircle of tiered seating in front of the stage.

There was also an open area for people to stand. I don’t know if that’s part of a traditional amphitheater. My knowledge of ancient Greek is limited to Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and I only know about that because of the Tom Lehrer song.

The first band, Sunflower Bean, got on stage and started playing. They started with something pretty Joan Jett-esque. The rest of their set had some songs I enjoyed more than others. Overall, I liked them pretty well, as was the case with the following acts, The Kills and Interpol.

When I really the music at a show, whatever else is going  on in life seems unimportant. I get into my bobblehead, knee-bend dorky dance and I am immune to worry. A rocking Dave is a bulletproof Dave.

Oddly enough, there is a similar effect if I really dislike the band. Then I focus all my mental energy on inwardly heckling the act. I sneer at a band member’s resemblance to some D-list celebrity, even if the resemblance is slight at most. I mentally rewrite the lyrics so the songs are about something violent and/or degrading. This activity creates a sort of Kevlar against what might be bothering me at the time.

If something is bothering me, going to a show where I like the music just OK is problematic. The tunes are neither engrossing nor off-putting so they fade into the background. That leaves the brain free to wander into unpleasant territory.

The territory on that day was particularly unpleasant. It was not the usual work-related paranoia or agonizing over some idiocy of mine from decades ago. This was something more tangible and dire.

My landlady had sent me an email saying she was going to inspect the back deck. Seeing the kitchen was less than wonderful, she announced that she would be inspecting the rest of the place. How bad is bad enough to merit an eviction? I wasn’t sure. I made arrangements for a junk-removal service to haul way years of accumulated crap and hired a house cleaner as well. Would that be good enough? Would anything be? I knew that being in a rent-controlled unit, I was paying way below market rate. It was not in my landlady’s best interests financially to cut me any slack.

Thinking about this had kept me up much of the night before. As drunk as I was when got home, I told myself, parking myself further back would allow me enough personal space to relax and put my worries out of my mind.

What I failed to consider when I first sat down was not everyone shows up at the same time. More and more people arrived before and during the opening act. As the amphitheater filled, a design flaw in the seating plan arose. There was no set width of an individual’s space allotted, but that’s not what bothered me. Some folks are fatter than others and I’m OK with that. The issue was there was no set boundary how far you could sit back and how much legroom you got on the tier in front. I found myself wedged between one person who sat way back and another who liked to stretch his legs.

I tried to shrink away, but the more I did, the more my neighbors fore and aft took advantage of the space made available. I looked to the side of me to see if the person next to me was in the same predicament. He was playing air guitar and seemed to not to have a care in the world. How I envied him.

After the show, I moved to the front as the crowd dispersed and found Becca. She said that she and her friends were going to stake out the exit and hope to spot one or more members of Interpol. I wished her the best and headed back toward the BART station.

I moved briskly through the campus so I could make the last train back to the city. The charge on my phone was all but dead so I had to make the trek without use of the Google Maps app. It turned out I didn’t need it. To reach my destination, all I had to do was keeping going downhill.

Life During Wartime

I was sitting on the couch when the shots were fired. I was not sure they were gunshots at first. They could have been fireworks. I am not an expert on such matters and besides, I had a somewhat stressful workday and was deliberately not paying attention to the goings on of the outside world.

Instead, I refocused on the game I was playing on my laptop. Some time later, Becca came into the living room and told me that there were gunshots at the corner of Elizabeth Street and San Jose Avenue, half a block from our home.

“I read it on Citizen,” she said. Citizen is an app that sends alerts of local crimes and other unpleasantness. Becca uses the app to help fuel her disenchantment with San Francisco so when the time comes to move up to Portland, there will be no second thoughts.

I decided to install the app as well, but not for the same purpose. It’s not that I lack disenchantment, far from it. It’s just that I was already acquainted with the city’s nastiness back when my fondness for the place was unwavering. Besides, the app would likely only alert me to the misfortune of those I didn’t care much about. In the end, all it would fuel is my schadenfreude.

The post-installation payoff was immediate. As I was was reading comments about the alert (at least one person was decrying “snitches”),  the cops arrived and investigated the scene as they are wont to do when shooting is done by non-cops.

Of course, shots fired neither by nor at me only hold my interest for so long. I like a little quirkiness in the crime I read about. The more an incident resembles a scene from Reno 911! the less real danger it presents because it does not seem quite real.

Florida has traditionally filled this need. Whenever I read a news article with a Sunshine State dateline, I expected there to be some guy high on jenkem and naked as a jaybird, running down the street with a meat cleaver in his hand and a rubber chicken hanging out of his anus. I giggle at these stories, but know deep down that every one of them is a peek inside the soul of America.

Or something like that. Your soul-of-America mileage may vary.

I decided to use the Citizen app to find a bit o’ Florida in my own backyard. I did not have to wait long. The next morning, I saw an alert about a “MAN ARRESTED FOR TRYING TO STEAL BABY.” Then there was “AGGRESSIVE NUDE WOMAN THROWING ITEMS AT TRAFFIC” and later, “MAN PERFORMING LEWD ACTS” at a BART station. It was wonderful and I wanted this kind of entertainment to continue. Being as crazy as I am isn’t always easy, but there is some comfort to be had by being surrounded by stuff that’s even crazier.

It didn’t work out that way for long. Some wise, old grumpy pants once said, “The problem with the common man is that he is unbearably common,” and the same holds true for the common criminal. In the end, the Citizen app proved not to be showcase for warped performance art, but rather for dull, violent people doing dull, violent things.

The app inundated me with robberies, fistfights, stabbings, and whatnot, all at an alarming rate. Since I was used to getting my news through conventional news outlets, someone has to consider it newsworthy for it to appear on my radar. With the Citizen app, there is no baseline threshold to speak of so I get everything. On one level, I really shouldn’t find this all that surprising. I’m no stranger to this kind of misbehavior. People suck. I have known that for years.

This is not just armchair misanthropy talking. I have personal experience to back it up. Though I  am not prone to committing acts of physical violence, I have often been sufficiently impaired to make myself an inviting target. As a result, I have been in a few unfortunate situations. None of them made the papers.

Another thing I noticed is how random and senseless the violence is. Again, it’s a case of confirming my suspicions rather than surprising me with some  great revelation. I never for once thought there was a grand choreography at play yet something in my brain expects some modicum of rhyme and reason.

I think that’s a holdover from how I’m used to getting my news. I don’t think the outlets are concocting overall themes as part of some media conspiracy, but the themes exist nonetheless. Some stories get reported because they’re a big deal all on their own. Other lesser stories might get omitted if not for being somehow related to the big-deal stories. As soon as you have related stories as part of editorial decisions, cohesion is manufactured. Real life makes a lot less sense.

As depressing as Citizen can be, I am not about to remove it from my phone because of the treats it occasionally throws my way. Just two hours ago, there was a report of a man at 17th and Capp throwing used needles at pedestrians.  Good for him. AIDS and darts should go together.

Like an abusive partner with a box of chocolates, this app knows how to keep me coming back for more.

 

Have Most of You Reached a Verdict?

I read a news story recently that disturbed me. It was about a man in Oregon who was freed after serving his first year of a 50-year sentence for molesting an underage girl. I don’t know how underage she was. Given the stiffness of the sentence, my guess is plenty. Or maybe he had priors. I have no idea.

The man was convicted by a non-unanimous jury. He may or may not have been innocent. One thing is certain. The girl was lying her ass off.

The story was centered around a dog (no, the dog did not fuck the underage girl). According to the girl’s testimony, the man threatened to shoot her animals if she went to the cops. To demonstrate he was serious, he gunned down her pet Labrador Lucy. It was a vile act of villainy. It also never happened.

While the man languished in prison, the Oregon Innocence Project was hard at work trying to clear his name. They managed to enlist the help of the prosecutor, who was both admirable and uncommon for holding justice in higher regard than his conviction rate. Through their concerted efforts, they found Lucy very much alive and living with another family. The prosecution’s case relied  heavily on the girl’s. testimony. With that testimony now proven to be false, the conviction was overturned.

There are unanswered questions here. Was the man innocent? Quite possibly. The girl’s credibility was blown so unless you’re willing to cherry pick what parts of testimony to believe, you have to dismiss her as a liar. And what about her family?  They apparently believed her when she said the man molested her. Fair enough. But believing her story about the man killing the same family dog that they later put up for adoption? That’s a tough sell. Then again, trying to convince the world that you’re not a kid fucker is also a tough sell. Accusations of that sort come with an assumption of guilt.

However, the wrong conviction is not what bothered me about this news story. For one thing, I cannot see it happening to me. Creepy as I am, no one is ever going to accuse me of molesting children because I think they are gross and I can’t stand being anywhere near them. “Susie, can you point to the part of the doll that the man wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole?” See how ridiculous that sounds?

No, my issue was with what I see as the backward idea of non-unanimous juries handing down guilty verdicts. I did not even know that such things existed in this country. It turns out they do in two states: Oregon and Louisiana. Louisiana I can kind of understand. It’s not like it’s part of the civilized world. But Portlandia-progressive Oregon with its legal weed and an openly bisexual governor? That just doesn’t seem right.

With 12 Angry Men and countless lesser efforts, we are acquainted with the hoary trope of the lone, holdout juror preventing a gross miscarriage of justice. This rarely happens in practice of course. Most jurors want to be done with it as soon as possible. If that means convicting someone who only probably committed the crime, so be it.

I can see their point. I have been summoned for jury duty several times, but have never been selected to serve. Even though I’ve been lucky so far, each time is a period of dread.

The prospect is not that bad now as I work for a company that pays for the first four weeks of jury duty. Back when I was contracting, there would have been a sizable loss of income. You can be excused for severe financial hardship, but you’re at the mercy of the judge for that. Judges are not known for their merciful nature.

Despite the dent that jury duty can put in your finances, there are people who take its civic-duty element way too seriously. One time, I was in a bar griping about a recent summons and some guy admonished me with “your country asks so little of you.” He happened to be a career officer in the US Army, an organization that routinely asks people to die, so I guess it’s all a matter of perspective.

Still, I’m willing to do what I can to avoid sitting on a jury. One way is to call my impartiality into question. I don’t outright lie, but I strategically give parts of the truth top billing. There was this one personal-injury case where I pulled out my opinion on tort reform and wore it like a codpiece. The judge was unimpressed by this dodge, but the plaintiff’s attorney saw it differently. Being on that jury was going to cost me money, but it was going to cost thatlawyer a whole lot more. He quickly asked that I be excused.

There may come a time when I may be forced to sit on a jury and if it’s a criminal case, I have one last card to play. I’ll be the holdout juror, but motivated by spite instead of justice. I’ll hang that jury like it’s Anthony Bourdain and there’s not a goddamn thing anybody can do about it. I figure there’s a list of known assholes who should never be summoned again and if they put me on it, they will never have to worry about me again.

All that goes out the window once I move to Oregon. Unless it’s a first-degree murder case, they don’t need a unanimous verdict. I won’t be able to cause any mistrials up there and that is a sobering thought. Fortunately, sobriety is a treatable condition.

 

 

 

2 in 1

I been very tempted,
To grab it from the till,
I been very hungry,
But not enough to kill.
-The Clash

Somebody took a dump in the urinal at work. It was not the kind of thing I expected to see, not in the restroom of a Silicon Valley tech giant. Since this was not my doing, I can only conjecture as to its when, how, or why.

Of these three questions, when it happened is the least up in the air. Barring any “Future Poo” scenario, I do know for a fact the defecation occurred prior to August 15, 2018 at 8:16 am. I know this because I took a picture and that was the tinestamp.

“Fight the power” was the caption when I sent the pic to Becca via Facebook Messenger.

“Whoever did this, urinal lot of trouble,” I later mused.

Lacking forensic expertise, I cannot be sure if it occurred late in the day of August 14 or in the wee hours of August 15. That’s a big time window and I am curious who else knew about it. Let’s see. There’s me, the perp, and the poor bastard who had to clean it up. Who else? Was it ever reported and if so, is the Poo Division of HR conducting some kind of investigation? If requested, I would be more than willing to cooperate. I would also be willing to speak to the media as an eyewitness.

“It was like a movie,” I would say.

The how is not without its mystery either. The mechanics of taking a shit are pretty straightforward and the urinal is at a height to allow any non-dwarf to accomplish the task with relative ease. The question is not how it was done, but rather how it was done without detection.

The restroom sits between two parallel walkways with an entrance on either side. To pull off this urinal pooping without someone walking in on you, you need to get in, pinch clean, and get out with Ocean’s Eleven precision. I managed to get away with pisser shitting when I was 10, but that was at summer camp with the other kids and counselors gathered around a campfire singing insipid songs.

Now comes the biggest question: why? What would possess someone to do such a thing? Anger and frustration seems the most likely answer. After all, large corporations do create their own dystopias and although you’re technically free to leave anytime you like, financial realities dictate otherwise. So you hold it all in for as long as you can. Some people eventually snap. If you have no regard for other people’s lives, you show up to work with a gun and start blasting away. If you’re less murderous, but have no qualms about ruining a toilet cleaner’s day, you shit in the urinal.

Of course, there could be any number of other reasons. It’s not like the person left a note. I can only guess what would have motivated me if I were at my worst (i.e. what I was like around 30 years ago). These days, there is little appeal to joining the dumpenproletariat with such a garbage move.

So yeah, a job can be infuriating. I get that. I just don’t want to take it out on someone who had nothing to do with souring my mood. If I want to incorporate poo into coping with the prison of the workplace, I’ll stick to elective turtling on the toilet, enjoying an intimate moment with my cellmate Mister Bran.

What the Fuck for Under a Buck

I hit the publish button for Hot Flashes eight days ago. It was a big moment for me. I could now call myself a professional writer since anyone who wanted to read my eBook had to cough up 99 cents to do it. So far, 12 people have.

Technically, it isn’t the first time I made any money through my writing. Back in the 1980s, I interned at a weekly paper in Santa Barbara and was paid 10 bucks a pop for a couple of fluff pieces I contributed. Perhaps somebody scanned them and they’re still out there, gathering dust in a digital archive somewhere. I wouldn’t bother trying to find them though. If memory serves, they weren’t very good.

That was over three decades ago so I figure there’s some kind of statute of limitations in effect. Besides, it’s not about the money. I already have a job to keep a drink in my hand and a roof over my head. I just wanted to have a showcase for my stuff other than my blog and since I doubt any legitimate publisher would have anything to do with me, Amazon KDP seemed like the best bet.

The idea for this eBook has been in my head for at least five years. I was inspired by Etgar Keret, whose fiction tends to be very short and twisted. Hey, I told myself, I write very short and twisted stories. Never mind that my work lacks both the literary value and underlying human decency of Keret’s stuff.

I decided to put out a collection of flash fiction. To make sure I was doing it right, I looked up flash fiction on Wikipedia (which had already become my go-to to learn about anything). To paraphrase, flash fiction is a story with a length of 1000 words or less.

I pulled the fiction posts off my blog to use as future eBook fodder. Stories short enough to be flash fiction would be candidates for Hot Flashes. The rest would perhaps be included down the road in a collection of longer pieces.

It soon became obvious that as is, my eBook would be no longer than a pamphlet. I looked at my other work to see if any of it could be trimmed down enough to qualify. Some stories needed tightening and fit right in. Other stuff was legitimately bulky or morbidly obese. In either case, there was nothing to be gained from trying to editorially shoehorn it into a pair of skinny jeans.

In the end, I still needed more material so I set about churning out new stuff. Over the next year, I wrote 14 stories to flesh out the collection to an even 30.  A lot of attempts along the way were discarded, either for being appallingly bad in their own right or just an inferior rehash of stories I had written before.

Nearing completion, I secured permission to use a photo I liked for the book cover. All that remained was a little cleanup before I unleashed it upon the world.

Then I walked away.

Four years passed without my giving the project more than a passing thought. Then one day a couple of weeks ago, I was browsing my cloud backup out of boredom and came upon those writings. They weren’t bad and some of them actually made me feel proud of myself.

I spent the next week polishing these 30 little turds and handed them to Becca to give it a proofread. On the night of August 13, I submitted them to the Amazon Kindle Store then Becca and I went out for a celebratory drink.

One of the buyers of my eBook was an old, dear friend who dutifully sent me screenshots of typos. There weren’t many, but enough for me have another look at the manuscript. I found some more. I asked Rebecca to have another look. She found a lot more.

It was a learning experience. One lesson was that I can’t proof my own work for shit. Maybe it’s because they’re my own words, they look all right to me even when they are wrong. The other lesson is that checking for errors takes time. Becca did a rush job at my urging. Stuff got missed on the first go and that’s on me.

Last night, I submitted the updated work and it became available for download at around six this morning. I’m sure there were a few errors that went undetected. Even major publishers churn out books with a blemish or two. It is better now though thanks in large part to Becca’s diligence and patience.

As for the 12 of you who bought damaged goods,  sorry about that. Try to think of it as a collector’s item like a postage stamp with an airplane flying upside down. Typos or no, I hope my debut effort can still manage to offend you in the best possible way.

Hershey Highway Revisited

There was no shortage of bloodshed in 1991. American warplanes carpet-bombed Iraqi forces. Civil war broke out in Sierra Leone. Ethnic cleansing began in the Balkans. I was bleeding from my anus.

I’m going to talk about the latter.

There was only a little blood at first so I decided to ignore it. Maybe it wasn’t blood at all. Maybe it was ketchup and my body had forgotten how to digest it. I contented myself with this bit of denial until I let loose with an absolute gusher.

Yep, I was bleeding all right so I made an appointment to see a doctor. I had insurance, but I was only 28 so I didn’t see the need for a PCP. The doctor’s office nearest my work was a clinic located in the International Terminal at SFO. I went in to have my asshole checked out during my lunch hour.

“Young man, I’m Dr. S-,” the man said. He was older, well into his sixties, and he had a large index finger. I was unaware of this latter detail upon meeting him, but found out in short order when he had me bent over on a piece of medical furniture made for anal probing. As he rooted around inside me, I tried my best to mentally detach from the situation while I waited for it all to be over. #metoo

After he was finished, another doctor came in and said he wanted to have a look inside me with a video thingy that looked a little like the stalk on the Martian ships in War of the Worlds. I was given a shot to numb my rectum before it went to town on me.

I liked this doctor better for both his demeanor and his technique. I didn’t want to disparage the other doctor in front of him though. For one thing, that would have been rude. Also, I did not know how I would have reacted if he said “What other doctor? I’m the only one working here.”

I got an anatomy lesson that day. Apparently, there’s this ridge up inside our assholes that’s prone to laceration. It can nicked by brick-like turds or perhaps a toilet-paper-wrapped finger that ventures up farther than is necessary to get the job done (don’t judge). It seems like a design flaw given the heavy traffic through that part of the body.

Anyway, a nicked rectum ridge was what happened to me. The blood that came out was bright red, which meant there was little need for alarm. It’s the brown blood from farther up that’s indicative of colitis or cancer. I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was that I was bleeding down there. I had a college friend who did that. He wound up shitting in a bag and eventually blew his brains out. It was better to be safe than sorry, but once I got a clear bill of health, future butt periods merited little more than a shrug.

There was one misconception from that day that stayed with me for over 20 years: I thought I had undergone a colonoscopy. A probe did go up my ass and what it found did get displayed on a video screen. The difference was that it didn’t go up very far so the procedure, I later learned, was a sigmoidoscopy. I still don’t know what the prefix sigmoid- means. I’m guessing it’s a contraction of “Sigmund Freud.” I’ll have to get back to you on that.

If I paid more attention to Katie Couric, I would have learned the distinction. She had her colonoscopy broadcast on nationwide television back in 2000. Her husband had died of colon cancer two years earlier, and she wanted to raise awareness and inspire others to get checked. I’m sure she had some measure of success, but I can’t help but wonder how many of her viewers were sad men, white-knuckling their puds as they watched because that was as close they were ever going to get to the inside of her pooper.

Even if I had watched the show, I doubt it would have inspired me to run out and get a colonoscopy of my own. My scare was years behind me and at 37, I was 13 years away from needing to get one. Couric’s husband was only 42 when he died, but he was especially unlucky.

Despite my predilection for abusing alcohol et al, I managed to make it to 50 more or less intact. Within a year and a half, I went in for a physical for the first time in over a decade. I also planned to get checked for barnacles in the torpedo tube, speed bumps on the old dirt road, whatever you want to call them. The time had come.

After the doctor advised me cut down on my drinking (three drinks a night was cutting down; I thought I had made that point clear), she gave me two options for getting my bunghole checked. One was a colonoscopy. The other was sending a poop sample to a lab to have it tested for blood.

I would gone the colonoscopy route except that would have required that someone come with me and take me home afterward because unlike a mere sigmoidoscopy, serious anesthesia would be involved. All my close friends at the time were bar people. Don’t get me wrong, they’re wonderful people, but our commitment to helping one another only lasted until closing time.

So my only option was to mail off my poo. The lab didn’t want the whole thing, just a dab sealed in a container and placed in a biohazard envelope. There was a proper way of going about it. You couldn’t take the plastic sampler and go spearfishing in the toilet water. The poo had to sit high and dry so to ensure a beach landing, I leaned to one side while powering it out. Since the toilet had an autoflush, I had to be at the ready and stab fast before the water whisked it away, leaving nothing but a useless skidmark.

I was victorious.

It’s worth noting that I did this at work and because I was already scheduled for a layoff, I took perverse pleasure in leaving the envelope on my desk for the rest of the day. However, I resisted the temptation to be even more disgusting. It was just after Halloween so a lot of excess candy was brought in and up for grabs. I considered handling the envelope with the leavings of Snickers and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups on my fingers, but decided against it. That was a brief moment of maturity on my part and I regret it to this day.

Unlike a colonoscopy, which is good for ten years, the Shitman’s Sampler is an annual event. I did a couple more rounds, but then my diligence flagged. This year, my current doctor suggested I go in for a colonoscopy and get it out of the way, Since there’s someone I could trust to fetch me afterward (thank you Becca!), I readily agreed.

I made the appointment and as the day approached, I began to wonder what would be found. Given past life choices, lung, liver, or esophageal cancer seemed the most likely causes of death, but one can never tell about these things. It had been a couple of years since my last poop test, ample time to sprout a polyp or two.

And if it was a game-over scenario, what then? I guess I’d have to start for the moment on a level I had by ever tried before. I wouldn’t go on a killing spree because that would bring me no pleasure, ditto rape, but I would damn sure take up smoking again and start doing a fuckton of drugs.

Planning for this contingency brought me peace of mind. I did not relish the prospect of having my golden years taken away, but being high as a kite during my fleeting final months was not such a bad consolation prize.

The procedure was scheduled for 2 pm with a 12:45 arrival. I took a sick day, a first at my current job. I wasn’t concerned about what the doctor would find. I just wanted it to be over so I could eat again.

I had been on a clear-liquid diet since noon the previous day and had nothing, including water, since eight that morning. It was like Ramadan, but with liquishits. To reduce the murk in my bowels, I had to take two doses of a high-powered laxative, one at 7 am, and the other at six the previous evening. By the time Becca and I left for the endoscopy clinic, my decks were clear from bow to stern.

After filling out forms and answering several health-related questions, I waited for about an hour before being led into the back and asked the same questions again.

They gave me a patient gown to wear (open in the back, natch) as well as no-skid socks and something that looked like a shower cap. I was covered with an electric blanket even though it wasn’t cold in the room. They put an IV in the back of my hand. It was attached to a saline drip and had a little attachment where additional injections could be administered. Minus the saline, it reminded me of the thing sticking out of Kitty’s paw when she got euthanized.

Lying on a rolling bed, I was wheeled into the examination room. It was a short trip, but I made it a point to enjoy the fluorescent lights passing overhead like I was in a real hospital drama. When I arrived, they asked me to roll on my side and the anesthesia was injected into my IV. They dimmed the lights and I stared at the railing on the side of the bed, wondering how long it would take for the drugs to kick in.

“You’re all done,” was the next thing I heard. I was back in the other room, being told there were no polyps so I wouldn’t have to do this again for another ten years.  It looked like I have a lot of years left in me after all. My big blowout party is just going to have to wait.

In Praise of False Equivalence

I often turn to Facebook when life isn’t irritating enough. All it takes is a quick scroll down my timeline and I’ll find something to energize my misanthropy.

An old friend from college had put up a new spin on WWJD with the letters evidently standing for “Whom Would Jesus Deport.” It was a meme stating that heaven has both a wall and strict entrance requirements while hell is welcoming of everybody.

It’s a specious argument even if you a)believe in heaven and hell, and b)believe it should be a model for our immigration policy. The first part I’m not going to touch. Faith, by its nature, is impervious to debate. However, the anti-immigration folks might not want to follow this celestial example too close. Otherwise, they’d have to allow anyone into America who accepted Uncle Sam as their personal savior.

I doubt my friend who posted the meme was being serious. He’s a conservative Republican so he probably has a stricter view on immigration than I have. However, he is not a Christian so I doubt he puts much stock in this decidedly Christian view of the afterlife. My guess is that he thought it would be fun to shoot a hornet’s nest with a slingshot and watch the ensuing chaos from a safe distance.

If that was his intent, he succeeded admirably. An evangelical chimed in with hell being a place you choose by not accepting Christ. Another person of a differing faith replied that the evangelical was being hateful and hurtful. I took the bait as well, asserting my atheism as we atheists are so fond of doing. Not to be outdone, those with a firm grasp of the obvious were quick to point out that the USA has separation of church and state.

Then it got ugly. And stupid. One guy, a friend of the meme poster, objected to the idea of this separation, going so far as to call it “a lie perpetuated by those who want to destroy America.” He might have even written it in all caps.

That was some serious American Taliban shit right there. As an enlightened San Francisco liberal, my gut reaction was to sneer and feel superior to this benighted troglodyte. He deserved no better, but it made me feel a little dirty. Contempt against those you disagree with is easy. It’s a little too easy and often the go-to reaction for most. Liberals are smart and conservatives are idiots. See how simple that is?

If only it were, or failing that, if only I were better at making myself believe it were so. My conservative friend who posted the meme, likely for mischievous fun, is anything but stupid. We agree on next to nothing, but I don’t dismiss his opinions out of hand. For example, he is opposed to the legalization of recreational cannabis because stoned drivers are a goddamn menace. I favor legalization even though I don’t like to smoke the stuff. However, I can see his point as I once drove off the road on my moped while high as a kite. My overall position has not changed, but I’d be amenable to measures to discourage people from smoking a bowl and getting behind the wheel.

So maybe he’s the exception, a lone thinking conservative standing head and shoulders above the knuckle draggers. Liberals, on the other hand, are thinking individuals and we care more. Face it. We’re just better.

Fortunately, I have a friend who keeps me from falling for that line of thinking. That isn’t his intention, but he does it all the same. Not long ago, he posted a meme that claimed to quote the US Constitution. It said:

Article II Section 4: If the president is impeached for treason, the vice president and all civil officers shall be removed.

I was skeptical for a couple of reasons. First, it just didn’t sound right. When Clinton was impeached, there was no mention of Gore losing his job as well if the president was convicted. I went and looked it up. Sure enough, Article II Section 4 said:

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.

In other words, people in any of these positions can be removed from office if impeached and convicted of the aforementioned crimes. That’s a very different thing from a total purge of the executive branch.

Also, my friend has posted untrue things in the past. One particularly egregious example was the how Daisy, the 9/11 Wonder Dog. Daisy led people to safety after planes hit the twin towers. She went back in and led more people to safety. She kept going back in and ended up saving close to a thousand lives. Thank you, Daisy. Good Girl!

“What a wonderful story!” he added as a caption when sharing this unlikely tale of canine heroism.

I let that one go. It was bullshit, but it was harmless bullshit. Misquoting the constitution like this is different. Neither my credulous friend nor I want Pence taking over if Trump gets booted. The difference is that I’m not going to buy into some wishful-thinking lie to avoid that possibility.

So I pointed out his error in a comment to the meme he shared. I was nice. I did not use the R-word even though I felt it in my heart. “Please check your facts” I wrote along with a Snopes link.

“Oops, my bad,” or words to that effect would have been a reasonable response. Instead, his reply was that his interpretation of the words was valid, even if that meant changing the words themselves.

Alternative facts, it seems, are alive and well on both sides of the aisle.

Mr. Dahl

John Dahl found himself wrapped in a soft, white blanket. There were voices nearby, either in the room or down the hall. He was not sure where they were because the blanket was wrapped around his head as well, but guessed they were not very close because he could not make out what they were saying.

He thought back to the last thing that happened before he ended up here, trying to put together some causal link between then and now. There was none. How could there be? The last thing Dahl remembered was dying.

Maybe this was the afterlife, but it was not like any that he had imagined. Heaven and Hell were supposed to be harps and pitchforks. Nowhere did Dante mention being swaddled and mumbled at. Or maybe he had. Dahl had never read any of Dante’s work, but he did have his preconceptions and assumed they were in accordance with the accepted authority on such matters.

For a fleeting moment, Dahl considered the possibility that he did not die at all. He quickly dismissed the notion. That bullet definitely entered his brain via his eyeball and he did have that brief, semi-lucid moment realizing what happened to him as he lay on the ground before everything went black.

Why did the cop shoot him? People who are white and unarmed are usually taken into custody. Dahl wasn’t even making any sudden moves. The policeman probably reacted emotionally and if so, it would have been most unprofessional.  Perhaps he had a daughter of his own at home, someone like Susie. But it wasn’t this Susie so in Dahl’s mind, the cop was way out of line.

How many Susies had there been? Dahl knew early on that he couldn’t keep track so decided to count in reverse. As a result, the latest became number one. The rest were unimportant. He had no recollection how many of them were named Susie, if any. He just liked the way it sounded and considering all that was forced upon them, a name change was small potatoes.

Over the years, Dahl had managed to go through life leaving a vapor trail of AMBER Alerts. It was quite a streak of success and Dahl owed much of it to his approach.

The conventional wisdom was to make his move under the guise of familiarity. “My name’s John. I’m a friend of your mother’s. Get in the car.” That sort of thing.  The problem is that most kids have learned to see through that ruse.

So instead, Dahl would play the authority card. He would introduce himself as “Mr. Dahl,” tell the kid she was in a lot of trouble, and that she had better do what he said if she knew what was good for her. That tactic proved to be highly effective and as a bonus, it established the fear dynamic. This dynamic would be instrumental for what would transpire later on.

What did transpire varied little from Susie to Susie. Anything about a particular girl was unimportant. He did not care much about what she looked like. Hair color, eye color, and facial features were all superfluous details. All that mattered was she was nine years old (or near enough) and that she was terrified. For the rest, the Susie du jour was just, pardon the expression, along for the ride. Dahl then did what needed to be done, to use words he would later tell himself.

With the important business concluded, all that was left was a sobbing, frightened loose end. Sealing the girl’s fate by using his own name was merely a formality for Dahl. Her fear that made her so pliable (as well as so much fun) would wane once she was away from him.

This latest Susie was no different. She would tattle because that is what children do. The only way to silence her was to do it permanently. The problem was that Dahl did not see himself as a killer. For him, strangling the girl with a ligature or plunging a knife into her little heart was as much an anathema as dating a legal adult.

Fortunately for him, he had Mother Earth to do his dirty work. He also had a shovel. So in a rehash of events played out countless times before, he ordered the girl to lay still while he dug a shallow grave. Dahl worked up a sweat as he dug. He thought about making the girl dig the hole herself, but decided that would be unnecessarily cruel. She was also too small and weak to be any good at it.

Dahl stopped when the hole was three feet deep.

“Get in,” he said.

Susie complied.

She continued to sob as he put shovelful after shovelful of dirt on top of her. Dahl was not completely heartless. He could see the sadness in the tragic events taking place and to make himself feel better, he decided to believe in reincarnation.

Dahl convinced himself that Susie and all the Susies before her would come back and lead charmed lives, devoid of this sort of unpleasantness. Of course, there was a small chance that all future lives would be an endless stream of sex and death coming way too early.

What kind of God would allow that, Dahl asked himself as he emptied the last of the unearthed soil to the hole and smoothed it flush with the ground around it. It was a deep philosophical question and Dahl promised himself to ponder it when the next Susie came along.

That moment would never come. A hiker witnessed Dahl and Susie walking into the woods, thought it suspicious, and called the police. The cops arrived, but as is often the case, a little too late.

While one officer held Dahl at gunpoint, the other frantically dug up the girl. She was unresponsive. He tried reviving her with mouth to mouth, but to no avail. Seeing this made Dahl smile, as he recalled doing something that looked like this just 20 minutes before.

“Does this amuse you, you sick fuck?” said the cop who was holding the gun on him.

Dahl thought it prudent to try to calm the police officer. He knew getting caught would eventually happen. When it did, it behooved him to come off not as a monster, but as a man who genuinely loved children. And who better than Mister Rogers? Dahl had spent years practicing the late Fred Rogers’ grin in front of the mirror and now it was time to put it to use.

The impression was spot on. Maybe that’s why the policeman shot him. Dahl died before any explanation was given.

So here he was now, wrapped in a blanket, and neither shot nor in any afterlife that he had ever heard of. Perhaps he had been reincarnated, just as he hoped Susie would be. It seemed as likely an explanation as any.

Hands large enough to cover most of Dahl’s torso surrounded him and carried him away. The blanket kept him from seeing anything, but the echo of heels on floor tiles made it sound like he was being taken down a long hallway.

He heard a door open.  A few moments later, the blanket came off and he was staring into the face of a girl who looked to be about nine.

“OK,” a woman’s voice said. “I want you to meet a friend of mine. His name is Mister Doll. He is your friend as well. He’s going to help me know things that you may not want to talk about. All you need to do is point out the part on his body where the man touched you.”

The girl reached out and touched a spot between Dahl’s legs. Her hand was trembling. There were tears in her eyes.

She was just his type.

Acoustic Kitty 2001-2018

“To think, I killed a cat” -Sid Vicious 

I woke up shortly after midnight on June 13. The cat was on the bed with us and I thought I had rolled over on top of her. I had read a tragic news story about a father who had killed his infant child in this manner and while this might have been a good move for him in a financial sense, it must have been emotionally devastating.

I checked the cat to see if she was still alive. There was no response to my gentle prods. This did not necessarily mean she was dead. She was dying, but had been for some time. I grabbed my phone from the bedside table and turned on its flashlight. Kitty squinted a bit from the light and I could see that she was breathing normally.

That was a relief. Becca and I had already decided that we were going to take her to the vet to be put down, but I did not want my fat ass to move up the timetable. We both knew the risks of having her sleep on the bed with us, but we did not want her last night to be spent on the floor alone. There was not much we could do for her at that point, but at least we could do that.

Confident that I had not clumsily bumped off the cat, I put the phone back on the cordless charger. I keep this on the bottom shelf of the bedside table because the charger’s pulsing light, barely noticeable in a well-lit room, is annoyingly bright when the light is off. With the pulsing glow largely eclipsed by the edge of the bed, the effect was almost soothing. I stared at Kitty next to me. Every so often, her legs would twitch or her head would briefly raise. For the most part, she was motionless. She was not really asleep because her eyes were partially open.  She was not really awake either because she seemed mostly oblivious of everything around her, including me.

I watched the cat fade in and out with the charger’s light and thought about the night we met for the first time.

Acoustic Kitty was born nameless and feral sometime in the middle months of 2001. When she was a kitten, she, her mother, and other members of the litter would sit on the deck outside the sliding-glass door to the kitchen, hoping to get some food. Both Laura (my wife at the time) and I were softhearted when it came to cute animals so their endeavor was almost always fruitful.

As months passed, the litter began to shrink in size. It would be nice if Kitty’s siblings were adopted by loving residents in the network of backyards. This was doubtful, doubly so as it was more infirm-looking kittens who disappeared first. It was far more likely that they fell victim to raccoons, disease, or young serial killers in training.

After a while, only Kitty and her mother were left.  They eventually went their separate ways. Neither Laura nor I were interested in adopting a cat at first, but Laura did arrange with the SPCA so the mother and daughter could be spayed. Captivity lasted only long enough for surgery to heal and then they were set loose.

That November, Laura traveled to Bolivia to visit friends who were living there. Meanwhile, I spent my days working at a startup that was circling the drain.  Nights were spent in a bar, drinking until I half believed that I might still become one of those dot-com millionaires after all.

One of these nights, I staggered home and decided to conduct a little experiment. Instead of setting the food dish outside, I would plop both it and myself on the kitchen floor. I sat cross legged and tried to remain motionless. Kitty, being feral, was hesitant at she moved behind me, rubbing her body against my back as she passed. She eventually let me pet her. By the time my wife returned, we had ourselves a cat.

Six months later, Laura left for reasons that had nothing to do with the cat. Kitty stayed on for another 16 years. I learned to adore her quirks and mannerisms, and perhaps she did mine as well.

Her habit early on of attacking my toes when they poked from under the comforter was less than ideal, but for the rest she was utterly charming. I loved how talkative she was, her affectionate head butts, and how she was a total attention whore. I didn’t even mind the prezzies she gave me from her hunting expeditions. They were gruesome, but her heart was in the right place so I made it a point to let her down easy.

“Thank you for the eviscerated mouse, but after this burrito I don’t think I could manage another bite,” I would say.

By the time Becca first visited in 2013, Kitty’s days of hunting mice (and toes) were behind her. She was just as affectionate as ever, perhaps even more so as her feral instincts began to mellow with age. It was not long before Becca was in love with the cat as much as I was.

In recent months, Kitty began to decline. She lost weight, grew more listless, and peed wherever it suited her. Multiple trips to the vet turned up evidence that her kidneys were failing and a few suggestions to improve her health. Nothing really worked. She was old and dying. Becca and I resigned ourselves to that and figured all we could do was keep her as comfortable as possible for the time she had left.

Neither of us were in any hurry to have her put down. She did not seem to be in any pain and still purred when given scritches. As long as she could enjoy her existence at all, that was good enough.

On Tuesday evening, that all changed. When we were giving her subcutaneous fluids, we noticed a raw spot on one of her hind legs. Her walking skills were not great and she must have been dragging herself around while we were at work. She also looked miserable.

That was it. She was clearly suffering and we could no longer in keep her around in good conscience. I would call the vet in the morning to have her euthanized. I didn’t want to do it. I had hoped that Kitty would check out on her own schedule, peacefully and painlessly. But just as living can be a messy business, dying can be as well.

I had a hard time getting back to sleep after I awoke that night. I watched Kitty in the pulsing light, breathing rhythmically. She seemed OK for the moment, or at least as OK as she was going to get. I figured that if there was a perfect time for her to exit the world, this would be it. Instead, she just kept breathing, neither awake nor asleep, somewhere between dead and alive.

Looking back, I’m glad she held on until morning. Dying on her own might have been painful, and neither Becca nor I wanted that. I called Mission Pet Hospital and made an appointment for 11 am. The vet was very nice and gave us a few moments alone to say our goodbyes and shed a few tears,

There were a lot of tears.