Wednesday, December 31, 2014

С Новым годом!

Today I was watching the live feed of anti-Putin protests in the cold, 0° F Moscow night. While I watched people mill near the Kremlin, I thought back to a cold December night in the same spot. I only spent one New Year's Eve on Red Square with friends from the embassy and thousands of other revelers—a sea of mostly strangers drenched in cheap champagne, waiting for the fireworks to erupt at midnight. As crowded and chaotic as it was, it was definitely better than just watching the big blue clock face on Soviet TV as the old year died. In those years, the clock face ticked away the last minutes to the sound of Europe's "The Final Countdown." Cracked me up every time.

Some of you already know the following story, but hell, I've never been one to tell a story only once. So, here we go again. Heh.

I remember my first New Year's Eve in Moscow in 1989, spent in the tiny embassy bar across the street from my first apartment. I had on a slinky black dress (if you can believe that) and heels (even more unbelievable considering my current taste in comfy footwear), all completely inappropriate for the icy, cold evening, but second nature for a youngin' who had to walk about five steps from her front door to the bar on compound. I spent most of the night chatting and singing with a sweet young chick, one of the embassy's many nannies. Turned out both she and I knew our share of ABBA songs, including "Happy New Year," the 1979 tune that asked "what lies waiting down the line/in the end of '89..." 

Well, there we were in '89, in a tiny bar on a secure compound, drinking god knows what, eating Thai spring rolls made by the wife of one of the security guys. In the middle of our profoundly loud rendition of the ABBA tune, sweet nanny and I got it in our heads that the mili-men (the Soviet police/uniformed KGB) who were on duty at the security post nearest the bar (opposite the Russian White House) needed champagne and cookies to ring in the new year. We went out into the frigid night with plastic flutes, a plate of cookies and half a bottle of champagne. Teeth chattering, we slipped and skated our way to the hilltop leading down to their post. In retrospect, this is crazy, but we both took off our heels and slid down the snowy hill in our good dresses to bring treats to the mili-men. They thought we were nuts. They laughed and howled, but after checking to see if anyone was watching them, they gladly took our offerings and wished us a happy new year in return.

We then used our heels like ice axes and climbed back up to the little street that ran through the compound. It was weird, it was fun, it was the kind of dumb thing you do when you're young and unafraid of cracking your tailbone on ice or coming down with pneumonia. 

Man, that was a million years ago.

So, here I am now. It's New Year's Eve 2014. I'll turn 50 in this new year. So much done. So much yet to do. But for now, I'm just thinking about 1980s Moscow, 1990s Moscow—my old home—and the fireworks that lit up the sky from all directions on New Year's Eve. Bottle after bottle of cheap champagne chilling on my balcony... the neighborhood children shouting "URA!" with each burst of bright color that filled the darkness... the mili-men on security detail, smoking cigarettes to stay warm as the rest of the city celebrated... I made up care packages for the mili-men at my second apartment for New Year's my last year there. It was just things like dry milk, canned vegetables, and tinned tuna—a little like a food bank giveaway for them to take home to their families. (Side note: this did not ensure any additional attention to safety or security, says the woman whose car was broken into at that location shortly before she departed Russia.) As I thought about the mili-men and New Year's Eve and that first year, sliding down the hill with snow in my tights and a bottle clutched to my chest, this drawing formed in my head and fingers:

First it was just a guy in uniform, in that grey wool great coat, then, the fireworks rising into the sky, and finally, an explosion of color to welcome the new year.

I have many hopes and dreams for 2015. I hope you do, too. May you welcome it with optimism and an open heart.


Thursday, December 25, 2014

And to all, a good night!

Things have kept me from sharing words here for a bit. Lots of pondering going on.

For tonight, as we settle in for a Christmas night snooze, I simply wish you all well for whatever holiday you celebrate and for the coming new year. Be back here soon with fresh words!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Nota Bene: the Value of Voicemail and the Ghosts Around You

The last post I made here, Qarafa, was started a good number of days ago. There was (as there always is) head scratching and pondering about what to write. Then, I didn't finish it because the free verse I included below the narrative was pretty lousy. It's still lousy, but I had a few "what the hell/nothing ventured/who gives a damn" moments on Thursday and punched the publish button.

During the time that post was perking in Draft Purgatory ("Come for the writing angst, stay for the editing demons!"), there were two postsone on Gizmodo and another on io9that resonated with me and what was on my mind in Qarafa. The Gizmodo post, You're Wrong About Voicemail by Leslie Horn, dealt with the issue of a sudden family death, and the fact that voicemail—seemingly nearly universally loathed by folks younger than 30 or 35, if many online discussions are to be believed—might offer you peace, solace, and a connection to someone gone while you are grieving their loss. That hit me in the gut, as I've been there, hearing my mom's voicemails, or those from my late sister and brother. Made me cry. Yep, Gizmodo made me cry. There were some wonderful comments on that piece. (Just bypass the people who only tapped their keyboards to say "I still hate voicemail." They missed the point, big time.)

The other piece, We Are All Living Among the Dead by io9's Annalee Newitz, covered territory very familiar to me: that, as we continue on in this life, the dead in our lives
—our family, our friends, others who impact our existence—multiply. How we see them, how we honor them, how we cope with their loss and their intangible presence... it's something I think about a lot.

One of the key takeaways from all these good words (and my own mediocre ones!) is this: document the living daylights out of your family's stories. Take pictures, take video, take audio. I did questionnaires for my siblings years ago, although only a couple ever filled them out. Take pictures with your family and friends. I think I'll take a picture with the Sasquatch this weekend, whether he wants that or not. Most of our visual memories are 27, 28, 29 year old college photos. Just get your stories in whatever way rings your chimes. It's worth it. Look, none of us knows how long we have on this planet. So, be a story collector. Your future will thank you.

Anyway (she says, carefully stepping down from that overused soapbox)...

I just wanted to bring your attention to these two lovely, well-written, thoughtful, and touching pieces. I really get them. I hope you do, too. I like a little psychic synchronicity. Maybe it's the autumn making us all more thoughtful. In his hilarious piece on the seasonal bane of pumpkin spice, John Oliver describes autumn as "the best season" and then notes that fall foliage is a reminder of our own mortality. Watching the leaves furiously roll and turn from my window here, I totally get it.

Enjoy good reading, especially from people who have (or are) better editors than I. Peace out, autumn people.

Vintage tractors on the lawn of a little house in Riverside, Iowa,
future birthplace of James T. Kirk. I took this shot on the Iowa road trip
my sisters and I took with our brother's ashes in 2006.

Friday, October 17, 2014


The nature of being a teller of (mostly) creative nonfiction tales is that you tend to live in the past. You're behind the curve. Fifteen years, fifteen decades, fifteen minutes—it's all time gone by. You build your work from experiences you or others have already had. There are thoughts and glimmers of the future held in your words, of course, but no actual future action because that leads to speculation and, then (the horror!) fiction. There’s fiction in the past, of course. Every writer has atoms and molecules of fiction in their nonfiction past. You can’t remember every moment of a life's adventure. Instead, you hold onto the essence and the truthful highs and lows as much as you can. Then you patch them together with a measure of fuzzy grace and humor or pathos and grim intent. But all along, you live in the past. You create in the past.

A few nights ago, I was up in the wee hours with an ice pack on my shoulder, numbing that torn joint into submission in the hopes of a few more minutes of sleep. I sat on the sofa, a pained zombie yet again, eyes glazed over, half watching some documentary on Cairo. I saw familiar sights—places I’d visited with a lost friend (lost when we drifted without conflict and discovered we were on different paths in Washington and incompatible ones in life in general):

--The Egyptian Museum where we studied drawers full of animal mummies and gaped at riches from ancient tombs... 

--The twisting streets of the Khan el-Khalili where we drank glasses of cold, pressed strawberries with crushed mint... 

--The Coptic church where the caretakers wept and showed us photos of their priest who had been dispatched to Texas to oversee a flock far from home.

-- And, in all its crumbling, macabre glory, the City of the Dead—Qarafa, or el-Arafa—the massive cemetery sprawling across a swath of southeastern Cairo. 

People live there among the dead—housing is scarce and expensive in the Egyptian capital. Some there claim they took up residence to be closer to their ancestors, but that is a polite fiction to cover the humbling state of poverty. Couples marry there. Children are born there. The old and infirm die there.

My friend and I walked through the cemetery. We spoke to people who live among the dead. They are very much alive. Poor, certainly, with limited options, and very aware of their silent neighbors under the dust, under their homes. Considering Egypt’s historically complex relationship with death and the dead, it didn't feel as strange as I initially expected it to. I have my own complex relationship with the past. In my case, it's mostly contained to what's in my skull or what I type out here late at night. 

I will admit to being haunted by it a lot of the time. I don’t see faces in the darkness, and nothing goes bump in the night. But I feel the past weighing on me. Sometimes it’s a heavy choke chain, reminding me of all the hopes that were held for me (especially those I failed to achieve). The kingdom of "What If?" is a lonely place just a few steps from a locked ward, and it's populated with people we've lost and all the unresolved conflict and unfinished plans left in their wake. 

Sometimes the past just visits in the form of words—neither good nor bad nor studded with guilt. Just words. Some words need to spill out, or you will burst. Some stories—even those that don’t seem to matter to more than a handful of humans with whom you share DNA—need to be shared, and not forgotten.

-- The Christmas rituals with twisted candy cane cookies made in a hot kitchen while “March of the Toy Soldiers” played on a tiny black and white TV on the cookbook shelf.

--The Thanksgiving where the turkey hit the floor when the table leaf was not anchored in place.

--The uncles never known, lost to war, whose stories are still spinning out, decades after their bodies perished.

--The last great road trip you took with your family and all the side trips that so wonderfully and unexpectedly glutted the itinerary. Devil’s Tower! Wall Drug! (Sadly, Wall Drug’s “bowling cat” had died, but we did get our free ice water.)

It really doesn’t matter how mundane or silly or serious. You tell the stories for yourself and you hope you impact at least one other person. You can’t lose the narrative. There is room enough in the world for all your words. All the things you fear might perish with you, if you don’t write them down, if you don’t say them out loud before you, too, leave this fragile planet. 

I cringe when people point out that I retell some of the same stories quite a bit. For me, it’s a way to make sure I don’t forget. Every telling is a rehearsal. Every version gets a little bit better, I hope—or at least a little bit more polished. And it’s a way to make sure I myself don’t vanish into the woodwork. I tell a story, and I am still here. I tell a story, and the people who have left the scene are still here. I can hear their voices, and, in turn, you can hear their history. Right now, I can hear my mother saying, “You’re like your father. You never met a story you couldn’t repeat to death.” True. I will own that.

If I tell you a story you've already heard, just tell me so. I’ll find another one for you. Or, if you prefer, I will remain silent in your pleasant company. I’ll use that time to flip through the yellowing reference cards in my head, seeking something untold to reveal. We all have those cards up there, with our own personal drawer in the great cosmic card catalog. 

In our own way, we are all historians and archaeologists of a deeply personal variety. We just have our own ways of disseminating the results of our fieldwork. My work tends to be ill-cleaned, rough pieces of the past, brought up from the dig without much editing or thoughts of polished presentation. For others, the work is artful or charming. Some are visual, some tangible, some soft on your ear, some hard on your heart. Some breathless with joy, some crushing with grief. 

It’s all around you.

-- A baby quilt with panels embroidered by the hands of three or four generations.

-- Kodak carousels of slides of family vacations and a parade of terrifying hair styles and pastel polyester.

-- Canisters of brittle films of Boy Scout jamborees and holidays in a parade of overstuffed homes.

-- Photo albums that show one grandmother as an adventurous teen with a mischievous grin and another as a vain girl with your same unruly hair, a pocket-emptying love of fashion, and a hint of her future battle with mental illness in her sad smile.

-- Decades of letters inked in Palmer Method script—generations of narrative and love and the commonplace stuff that makes up a life—all flowing through your hands and heart in a cursive river.

It’s everywhere.

All the stories I hold, all the stories you hold…

of your loved ones now gone… 
of the histories you cherish and hate…

of all the commonplace events that make up a life or a family or even a whole civilization.
We all live in our own city of the dead. A rich place in your heart and head where the living mingle with the lost. Carry your stories, be sure to hand them off them to others when you want or need to, and don’t be afraid to retell your stories 

and retell your stories 

and retell your stories

so they are never lost. 

So those lives are never lost.

Truthfully, what I offer materially in this life is next to nothing. No children to carry forward any legacy. No grieving lover who will weep when I, too, am dust. But here in the ether, I hope my immateriality has some value. There are fewer than ten people who read this blog on any regular basis. I don’t count the people who stumble here looking in vain for something strange they sought on a search engine. They are anomalies. But for the 8 or 9 people who come with purpose (or out of gluttony for punishment), the writing and the reading is a shared experience. I give up something personal, and,  in turn, I hope one of you among the handful who come with purpose finds a story you will enjoy or retell somewhere, sometime. And then, that story’s soul can live a little in your own city of the dead.

Some of you already know I suck at poetry. (See I Suck at Poetry: the Autumn is A-Comin' Edition and I Suck at Poetry: the Lydia Deetz Edition.) I've sucked at poetry since I was a child, but that doesn't stop me from trying. Autumn makes me wistful, as does pain and change. And now, I have all three in abundance, and the poetry muse is poking me with a sharp stick. Like my prose out here, my poetry is offered without guarantee or charge, so there is no refund for lousy free verse. That's right—it's free verse. Free verse. Get it? Yeah, I'm a comedian, too.

This is my city of the dead
There is no gate, no lock to turn
Just come inside and sit with me
And brush the dust out of my eyes
I'll tell you what I know

Unfold my hands
And you can see the stories that I hold
Of people who have turned to ash
And others buried deep below

Bones grown smooth 
Will slip through fingers
Cinders blow like drifting sand
So I cling tightly to my words

But if you want
And if you ask
I'll pour them all
Into your hands

These are my travelers, now stilled 
My family and acquaintances
Voices, faces fade and fail
Beneath their stones with timeworn marks

But trace the grooves with fingertips
And call their names out loud 
They'll waken and they'll come to us
And we will greet them as they rise

Grey forms that fill with color now
Alive as you and I

For in this moment
As you read
And as I write the words
They live another hour here

Embraced by curiosity
Made solid by our dreams

See empty halls
And fallow farms
Flood full color
Lush with life

And something grows
You see? 
So vivid

Ripe and full

So come, love
And grab some fruit
Before the story ends

Before the travelers fall to sleep
And everything is dust again

Now everything
Is dust again

This is my city of the dead
And what I have is yours to take
In words, I'm offering you my life
My relics and my memories

All given without question

There are no guarantees of course
(So present no reservations)

Unseen to strangers on the street
My only riches serve, in truth
To fill an empty dowry tomb
Chipped chalices and deep flawed gems

Still, treasure all the same

No invitation needed, friend
Come dip your hand into that well
Embrace a soul that waits for you
Collect your well-worn prize.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

I continue to suck at poetry

When autumn comes, the temperature dips and my brain fires at a slower, more thoughtful pace. And then, God forgive me, I write poetry.

I used to keep a jar (or was it a tin? my memory is fuzzy now) in my apartment closet in Moscow where I would drop scraps of paper with phone numbers never called (some of them for fairly famous artists and writers, so more's the pity), and poems that I would scribble on the Metro or a trolleybus. In Moscow, we're all the poor man's Zhivago.

When I moved from Moscow, the jar (or tin or animal cracker box, for all I can recall) vanished, and with it a small measure of creativity. It was probably recycled with my moving boxes, turned to dust by the City of Moline or Montgomery County, if it made it all the way to Bethesda. It matters not. We string words together every day. Some good, some lame, some forgotten in minutes or hours. The goal is to string together a better line or two or three the next time.

In Moscow, most of the year felt like fall to me. Fall, winter, thaw, fall, winter, thaw... So, I wrote more poems there. Here, it's more of a once-a-year event. Literally once. I get the bug, I write some lines of free verse, and I move on. I have no expectation that anyone will enjoy what I write. Sometimes, I don't like what I produce. That said, it's a liberating form of writing, and if you're working in free verse, nothing matters. What's in your head moves to your hand and appears on a screen.

I can't dance. I have no rhythm. With my nerve damage, I have no balance (which is very rough on someone who was never very well-coordinated and always accident-prone and bruised). Flop, fall, flop, fall, hopefully not break something, lather, rinse, repeat.

I think what I produce in the way of poetry reflects my own lack of equilibrium, so I embrace my lack of skills. And in posting it, I'm showing equal parts hubris, humility, pretentiousness, fearlessness, and stupidity. Lots of stupidity. If one of those aspects outweighs the other in your mind, dear 2.5 readers, I bow to your judgment.

Wrote something this week, and I'll probably post it later today. For now, I hear the clarion call of laundry. It's become somewhat urgent to do laundry. Clean undies and fresh warm socks trump poetry any day of the week.


Saturday, October 04, 2014

If you'd like to leave a comment here...

...and for some reason the "post comment" button isn't working (as it wasn't for me this morning), right click* to open the link in a new window, and that should take you to the comment frame, no problem. Thanks!

*(or whatever Mac users do!)

Thursday, October 02, 2014

The Sloths of Summer (and Spring... and Autumn)

So, I'm a sucker for a good wall calendar. I'm also horribly cheap, which means I usually buy my calendars sometime in February. What a bargain!

It used to be I would go to Borders, a mile up the road, right after Christmas and snag my fill of numbered days. Then Borders died. (sigh) I'm still not over the death of Borders. I'm not wild about the Fast and Furious Barnes & Noble up the road, despite them having a Starbucks that's open until 11 pm. The parking lot is a gathering spot for local street racers, hence the unofficial name (at least in my mind), so there's a sea of spoilered Honda Civics in the lot all night, and a crowd that seems particularly disinterested in purchasing printed paper. It's not my scene. If Vin Diesel shows up with zen thoughts and a kitten for us all to pet, I'll revise my opinion.

Now, I buy my calendars online, and I've learned that year-round calendar purveyors do not have the mad post-holiday sales of a brick-and-mortar bookstore. I'm a fan of RetailMeNot, and Ms. Cheapskate can usually find a coupon code or two that makes a paltry new year discount more palatable. Those suckers don't show up until February or so, though, so I stagger through January without a page to scribble on, and then get something pinned to the wall. Yes, I am a Luddite when it comes to counting my weeks and months. I'm fine with that.

There's something about turning a page, seeing a beautiful image or thoughtful words heralding a clean slate of days, and, maybe a number outlined in Sharpie, reminding me of a loved one's birthday or a vacation day, orimportantlypay day. Those days are treasured for their ability to keep me housed and fed and my pencil case filled and the Internet and coffee perking. I have them outlined in green.

This year's calendar is a festival of Art Nouveau lushness in the form of twelve Alphonse Mucha beauties. As a kid, I used to love the Job rolling paper poster one of my sisters had in her room. I had no clue of the weed paraphernalia significance of the rolling paper ad back then. I was too young, and I was just captivated by the gorgeous woman on the slick paper, smoke curling around her fingers and head, a look of some sort of out of body experience across her face. The Art Nouveau revival of the 1970s certainly helped form my taste in art, but it would take me decades to realize it.

I'll never have a real Mucha of my own (unless I win the lottery—enough F-U money can turn anyone into a gen-u-ine art collector), so I'm willing to settle for fridge magnets and wall calendars. And, in February, I got my bevy of twelve beauties to pin to my wall at work. They are gorgeous and even have a little glitter going on, which actually amuses me, a definitively non-glitter girl.

In the spring of this year, things started to get very unsettled in my life. Had to move, things started looking very dodgy and uncertain in the work realm... I realized things were neither hunky nor dory. One morning I arrived at work to find one of the kids' magazines produced by my employer on my desk. The cover story: sloths! I love sloths. There's something mellow and sweet and weird about these critters, and they look like they're blissed out most of the time. I don't know what clicked in my head right then. Maybe it was just this overwhelming sense of coming sea change (in which I
anticipated being Leonardo DiCaprio and not Kate Winslet on that damn door), maybe it was another project postponed or cancelled, maybe it was just a need to blow off steam... I don't recall now. I just know I had a compulsion to cut out all the sloth photos in the magazine, pull out the Scotch tape, and and affix those happy fuzzballs to my Mucha calendar.  I giggled like an idiot as I did it. Someone walked past my door and gave me this "she's lost it" look. I didn't care. God knows we all need relief valves in this life, and if mine could be gently turned with tape and scissors, that's a good thing. Trust me, I commute to work by car in DC. At least I wasn't yelling at anyone.

Miss April was the first Mucha girl to get slothinized. Since then, I've gingerly removed the same four sloths from one month and moved them to the next. They've been torn and repaired and even had limbs removed to suit my Frankensteinish requirements. They make me smile. It's so stupid, but at least once a month, I have five minutes at my desk to do something that doesn't cause stress or require me to ponder the future beyond 30 or so glittery days.

I've tried to snap a cell phone photo of each month since April, but somehow I managed to miss a couple of months, alas. So, for your amusement, I offer a selection of the Mucha Sloth Nouveau Tableaux 2014.


Miss April had the added bonus of a little letterpress angel and devil.

June only sported three sloths up top. The tree hanger dude is off screen at the bottom.

July got a little chummy with that guy hanging off her shoulder. "We cool. We cool."

August saw "chummy" become a little more intimate. He's makin' moves.

October took a total "harvest cornucopia of sloth" turn. All hail autumn and her crop of sloth!

Next comes November, and the sloths will turn on my birthday. I may have to add a hand turkey into the mix. We shall see. I'll get some construction paper and make them all Santa hats for December.

What happens come the new year? Still to be determined. Not sure where my calendar will hang come 2015. Nor do I know if the sloths (a new, less battered batch) will still be cavorting with the lovelies of Mucha's hand or another artist altogether. I'm accepting suggestions. Glitter optional.

Friday, September 26, 2014


I took a nasty fall yesterday. I had scheduled myself for an early morning eye doctor appointment in an attempt to be virtuous and not miss any work hours. The eye guy's office is just a few blocks from work, so I figured that, even with giant eyeballs, navigating the sidewalks of DC in the misty rain would be no problem.

And the sidewalk, indeed, proved to be no problem. Getting my appointment started, however, was. Doc was late due to an accident out on one of our heavily traveled commuter roads. Rain, like snow, is a signal to the drivers of the metropolitan DC area to drive in a fashion that can only be described as "batshit crazy."


Pretty much.

I saw a bad accident on my way downtown, so I wasn't surprised by the doc's delay. However, his late arrival had a snowball effect. Doc late, appointments pushed back, eye dilation (of which I have many due to my mutant eyeballs) pushed back... end result: me, late to work.

Little Orphan Black Massive Pupils navigated the uneven sidewalk just fine, dumped damp coat in car, got into the lobby of National Geographic, and a frisky tourist child zipped in front of me and my cane, and BOOM, that was all that was needed to take me down like like a deer on Ted Nugent's ranch. BLAM. Left knee took the hit.

I was offered help, which I rejected. People are kind when you fall, especially if you have a cane and huge-ass sunglasses on that make you look like you're desperately trying to trade disability for a modicum of oversized glamour. Instead, I sat for a while in the corner of the hall by the stairs, while colleagues came by to see if I was okay. I was. Damn eyeballs. Damn speedy kids! GET OFF MY MARBLE LAWN!

It was sort of the diamond crown capper on this week.

Of course, it was only Thursday.

By the time I left for home, in the still damp and misty remains of a sudden downpour, my knee was about the size of the old Underdog balloon at the Macy's Parade. The old Underdog balloon and I have a lot in common: born in 1965, overinflated, tends to run into things...

I believe poor Underdog has been retired. I'm not there yet, but I think my current handlers are about ready to let go of my guidewires. Here's hoping I don't take out any lamp posts or pedestrians when that happens, eh?

On the way home, I left the windows open on my car. With enough speed, the mist felt sharp on my arms, and it was a nice counterpoint to the dull grey fog that slowly rolled into my path. Large clumps of leaves fell and hit the pavement with audible thuds, reminding me that fall had arrived. So much has been going on in my mind that I needed a reminder. And I felt a deep sadness about that. I should be happy about sweaters and jack-o'-lanterns and the coming delicious wind and darkness.

I am an autumn baby. People's Exhibit One: me in fuzzy photos I scanned many moons ago when I had a much less deft hold on technology. Here I am, 364 days old.

My new year was always the start of the school year, with notebooks, and pencils, and fresh pink erasers. I was born on November 1st, which, I realize, gives me a few weeks over old Underdog, who would appear with the turkey and cranberry sauce my first year on the planet.

I always feel better when I hear dry leaves blowing along the street. I'm happy when I see a plump pumpkin at the market, waiting for a family's cheerful blade to carve a grimace on its face and gut it with terrifyingly joyful imprecision. Like white lights in the snow on my balcony, I find coming home in autumn to candy corn twinkle lights framing orange balls filled with tea candle bellies and jagged smiles so wonderful.

I was raised on Ray Bradbury and Stephen King, the Twilight Zone and Outer Limits. Flashlights and fire circles are my emblems, and the quickening of my heart about what might brush past me in the cooling night makes me feel more alive. (Of course, anything that might snag your heel can be countered by the power of a blanket tucked tightly around your feet.) My imagination was fed by the nightmare carnivals in the books I read. By the dark, kohl-eyed evil of blood-flushed, flesh-hungry, shadow-dwelling autumn peoplealways clutching at the life light and the very breath of vibrant, earnest, bookish children. I loved that the forces of evil were so often conquered by the strength and unspoken love of sturdy, resolute Midwestern and New England families. So often, there seemed to be an absent or distant father who would finally rally to the brave children in peril and vanquish the autumnal forces of supernatural evil.

I always wanted one of those fathers. I mean, I had the absent, distant one. I wanted the one who rallied to my side. But real life is tougher than fiction, and I would have to slay the monsters of my childhood autumns myself.

Some of my friends like to tell me that my father's lack of interest in my existence has made me a more resilient person. I'm not sure about that. I do know I need to keep slaying my monsters and sending my ghosts to sleep on my own. This autumn, the monsters are bigger. They take different forms than they did when I was a kid, and they are much more real. I feel their shadows over me when the alarm goes off in the morning. Funny that they are roused by the daylight. And some days, they are hard to shake.

The monsters of your adult life have smiles and authority, handshakes and back pats, agendas and titles. And frankly, they're much more terrifying than anything that crawled out of my books or my imagination back in Illinois.

But autumn is mine. They cannot take that from me. They cannot declare any victory over me. I am a child of the fall, a warrior of autumn. And I will chase the shadow people back to their dark corners and win a flame-leaved crown. I claim this season for myself. You should claim it, too.

Carve a pumpkin and light it up, make a crock of chili, wrap up in a blanket on your steps and watch the constellations form in the rising night, like a benediction from the heavens. Capture it your heart and mind like a firefly in your hands.

Own it.

Right now, I have a huge spider living on my balcony. Friends have identified her as a Argiope aurantia, or the North American Yellow Garden Spider. She arrived in a stealthy fashion, and quickly took over a large piece of brick wall, on which she has been making quick work of sizable prey. From reading the Wiki on these critters, I have learned they can eat small vertebrates. Small vertebrates. (Holy craplizards?!?) Makes me glad I am a very large vertebrate because I don't think she would give me any quarter were I to get caught in her orb woven web.

But, while I initially had a mental meltdown upon discovering her (by reaching up behind my head and putting my hand directly into the damn web and on a dead bug wrapped up like a little burrito), I've come to appreciate that she is grabbing her own piece of autumn, and she will do me no harm. (Wikipedia says her venom is "seemingly" harmless to humans. Seemingly.)

I understand that she will die with the first frost, but until then, she is the queen of that section of real estate. I respect that.

I named the spider "Bella" as she is mostly black and yella. And tonight, in the cool air of this early autumn night, I will join her on the balcony. She will have... well, whatever the hell is caught in that web now, and I will have an Irish coffee and prop up my battered giant knee on an old ottoman. Bloodied, but not beaten. Still alive, both of us ladies on the balcony.

Be Bella. Albeit a Bella with a much heartier constitution and a much, much longer lifespan.

Stake your claim. Slay your monsters. Leave your mark. I will not let my monsters ruin my season of joy.

Hello, autumn. Your child is home, and she will survive.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Is it too much... want a life that holds contentment, a measure of love, and freedom from fear?

A little joy would be prized above diamonds and gold right now.

I want that for all of you. I want that for all of us.


Thursday, September 18, 2014

I Dunno, This Seems a Little Sketchy

A friend emailed me overnight that my last blog post was depressing. That was not the aim of my post. It was, in fact, a post about how positive sensory experiences or memories can transport you in tough times.

Apparently, it was taken by some as a pathetic cry for virtual hugs.

My bad.

So, to lighten the mood, here are my three latest tablet 'n' stylus drawn people that only exist in my head. These are repeats to friends who read my posts on Facebook or Twitter, so I guess they will only be a revelation of low art to (according to StatCounter) the sad, lonely men of the Middle East who somehow end up on my page while searching in vain on Blogger for boobs and other things generally attached to women. (Guys: it's called "Google." Trust me, you'll find more boobs there accidentally than you could possibly image.)

She looks like an angry cross between something Elizabethan and something Victorian. Vizabethan? Elizatorian?

I would like to be able to dress like this at work, truthfully. Sadly, I would look like a fat Bea Arthur channeling 1970s glam Lawrence of Arabia.

I like her. She is my Apple Harvest Festival Goddess, and I can't wait for autumn to begin.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Smelling the Happy

What fills your lungs and clears your head?

Takes you somewhere better, brings you calm?

Fresh brewed coffee.
The spice store up the street.

All the stuff to open and sniff at the local Aveda spa.

A good man, freshly showered with a nice, simple soap.

Minty fresh breath.

Smoke and BBQ'ed meat from a back street rib joint.

Wild lilacs on a cool breeze.

Fresh ink on new paper.

Old books, much loved, with yellowed paper.

A pot of chili on a cold night.

Mulled wine on a colder one.

A baby's head.

The salt-rimmed shore of the ocean.

Fresh cut grass.

Honest sweat on that good man, mixed with the simple soap of his shower.

Clean laundry dried outside your childhood home.

Your mother's perfume (even if it made you sneeze).

Garlic and onions and cinnamon and peppers and cardamom 
and cocoa and chili powder and vanilla

Sometimes, it is very simple things we need, we crave, we seek, when things are not going well. And the memory of scent can elevate us from a dark spot to one warmed by thoughts and pictures of better things gone by. 

I've had a week that has been stained with tears I couldn't hold back, even when I tried with all my might. It's been a week of working behind a closed office door. A week when kindness from others has only served to bring on more tears. Hell, I looked at the big model dinosaur at work and it made me cry. It's a fake dinosaur, for crissakes.

There's this little, angry demon of doubt that has taken up residence in my gut, and as it kicks and struggles from within, it feels like a belly full of broken glass and ragged-clawed cancera cancer of distrust and uncertainty. It's something I cannot change. I cannot change what someone thinks of me. I cannot change someone's belief that I am lazy or useless or untalented. I know it's untrue. And fuck 'em if they can't see that.

This ugly sadness will pass, I know, and I will find myself again in that place where I feel right. Until then, I'll try a little homegrown aromatherapy voodoo to raise my spirits. I will breathe deeply and take in the good stuff, the simple stuff, the stuff that floods me with all the little pools of love.

I worked from home today in blissful quiet. First thing this morning, I made myself brew a pot of coffee just to fill the apartment with a little Starbucks vibe and find a better spot in my skull. I only drank a cup of the coffee, but that didn't matter. It cleared my head and I could pretend people I love were here with me, chatting, laughing, doing nothing and yet everything that makes me feel better.

Now, I'll mix myself some chai, sit on the balcony, and fill my lungs with the spices spinning in the glass. And in the darkness, punctuated by the crickets and owls and fading cicadas, I will tell myself everything is going to be okay. And I will hear those words in your voice. In my mother's voice. In my best friend's sweet voice. In all the voices that matter to me. And I will know I am not alone.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Fiction Night: The Recruiter

As promised, tonight I'm posting some fiction. This is a short story I wrote in 2012 to dip my toes back into "unreal world" storytelling. You are most welcome to offer feedback. (Just be more creative than "You suck!") I have added a copyright statement to my blog to protect my writing. It may not be fabulous, but it's mine, and if you steal, you are going to a very Catholic Hell. 

Catholic Hell... hmm...

Nah, too obvious to go on my list of band names. 

You are welcome to link to this piece, as with anything on my blog, as long as you provide proper credit.

My gratitude again to my friends James "the Letterpress Sasquatch" Quigley, Darren Goldsmith, and the fabulous Javier Grillo-Marxuach for being kind enough to read this and give me feedback. Some advice I took, some I was too full of myself to take, and some I didn't know how to use without making myself crazy.

Gratitude to all the magazines that rejected this and provided some colorful words of disdain, as well. "Awful" and "juvenile" this first try might be, but it makes me want to work harder to prove you wrong!

So, here goes nothing.

The Recruiter

June smelled the demon before she saw him. She had been in deep slumber, dreaming of a slow stroll through a Wal-Mart, shopping for lawn furniture with some generically handsome basic cable actor, when the stench of rotten eggs jolted her awake. Gagging, she sat up in bed, only to discover she could not move her legs. There was a heaviness holding them down, and in the darkness, she could see cat eyes glowing yellow, hovering at the foot of her bed. The feline eyes blinked.

With a shaking hand, June reached for the lamp on the bedside table and clicked it on. She clapped one hand over her mouth, stifling the scream she felt welling up. Don’t wake up the neighbors. Don’t wake up the neighbors! She took some shallow breaths, then rubbed her eyes, blinked, and looked again. The thing on her bed was still there, just watching her.

“Oh my god,” June said, fumbling for her eyeglasses on the table. “What the hell are you?” With trembling hands, she pushed her glasses up her nose and focused on the unmoving figure at her feet. “Jesus Christ,” she whispered, squinting at a leathery creature hunkered down at the foot of the bed.

“No,” came a ragged chuckle from the beast. “Definitely not Jesus Christ.”

“Three biblical references in under thirty seconds! That may be a new record!” The thing chuckled, holding up three gnarled digits. “I’m a demon, June. I’ve come from Hell to chat with you.”

June tilted her head to one side and half-smiled. She glanced at the collection of pill bottles on the table. Helluva cocktail, doc. She squinted at the hideous thing at her feet.

It was maybe two feet tall, with dark leather hide clinging to knobby bones and a pair of goat legs covered in a shabby pelt, stretched out under a distended belly. The skin was so tight, it creaked like a saddle with each breath the demon took. Streaks of slime and waste coated its limbs and torso, and it released great waves of brimstone-peppered flatulence.

“Okay,” June nodded, crossing her arms, wincing slightly at the tenderness under the bodice of her gown. “Riiiiiiight. What do I call you, then, demon? Baal? Beelzebub? Azazel?”

“Alan,” it said matter-of-factly, folding a set of stunted wings against its knobby back.


“Yeah,” the demon replied, shrugging his shoulders. “Alan. My name is Alan. Problem?”

“Well, no,” June scoffed. “But it makes you sound more like an accountant than a demon.”

“It’s the name I chose for myself,” Alan sniffed, looking down at the scabby flesh on his hands and inspecting his filthy nails. “What’s it to you?”

“Nothing, I guess,” June said, amused by her hallucination. “I just expected something more… demonic.”

“Ah! But you see,” Alan said, dragging his scrawny carcass up the bed, closer to June’s face, “that’s the point! No one expects an Alan to be a demon. It’s so deliciously… mundane.” He found a nice spot on June’s soft belly, and pressed down on her a few times through the quilt, like a cat finding the perfect perch. He tucked his greasy tail under his haunches and stretched out one hairy leg toward June’s face, so a cloven hoof, crusted with what looked and smelled like manure rested on the flatness of her chest.

Damn, these are good drugs, June thought. She plumped a pillow and propped it behind her shoulders so she could better study her hallucination. All the better to see you, my dear. “Alright, Alan…” June decided to embrace the moment. “Just what sort of Hellspawn are you?”

“Low-level,” Alan replied, resting his scabby head on a fist of claws. “Mostly sports injuries.”

“Sports injuries?” June’s brow knitted. “What do you mean?”

“Oh,” the creature chuckled, waving one hand around his face, “you know, wannabe Olympic sprinters who tear a ligament right before a qualifying heat, or the football kicker who gets turf toe and is gonna be out all season? That’s where I come in! They trip up, they say, ‘I’d sell my soul, yadda, yadda…’ and—boom—there I am, contract in hand. Admittedly, I don’t get the big stars or the showy stuff, but a soul’s a soul. And every one I get is a step to bigger and better things.”

“I’m sorry. What’s ‘turf toe’?” June asked. “That doesn’t sound real.”

“Ah,” Alan said cheerfully, sitting up and releasing another noxious blast from his backside. “It’s a metatarsal-phalangeal joint sprain!”

June shook her patchy head, a few tufts of fine hair floating as she moved. “I’m pretty smart, Alan, but…” She waved her hand at industrial strength pharmacy on the table. “Could you please speak in plain English?”

“Ah. Certainly, June,” the demon answered, nodding his head. “I get that. Sure. So… turf toe…” He framed the air with his gnarled hands, as if lecturing to some invisible classroom. “It happens to football players on artificial turf. Some guy gets tackled, another player falls into the back of that guy’s calf while he’s got his knee and tips of his toes on the ground. Toes get hyperextended, and BAM!” He knocked his knuckles together, making them crunch. “That joint is messed up, and that guy is down for the count for a while. Toes… so small, yet so important.” Alan looked down at his own cloven, toeless hooves and the corners of his mouth fell. “Little miracles of balance, no?”

June rolled the demon off her torso like an oversized cat and slowly sat up on the edge of the bed. Purell, she thought, looking at her hands after touching the fiend. She slipped her feet into an old pair of scuffs and appraised the creature intently looking up at her from an unpleasant smear across her bed. “That bedspread is gonna have to be burned, you know,” she said with a measure of irritation. She sighed. “I think I want some tea. How about you?”

Alan uncurled his tail and sat up, his wings rising slightly on his shoulders, waggling like misplaced dog tails. “Really?” He responded with more enthusiasm than was probably dignified for a hellbeast and clambered off the bed. His eyes fell on the rows of pill bottles across the nightstand, and surreptitiously snaked a hand toward them, but June swatted his hand. “Hey! Not for you!” Alan flinched and growled.

June studied her dirtied palm. “Eh, what the hell,” she shrugged, wiping it on the ruined quilt. “So,” she said, rising stiffly, “you cause these injuries and then what?”

“Well,” Alan said, hovering in June’s path, “I arrive, tell them I’m there to help, I can save the season, save their career, make sure they don’t get dropped from the roster… keep the family fed and living in the style to which they’re accustomed—or better… all I need is…”

“A soul,” June finished. “You come for that man’s soul.” June collected a cane from next to the bed, shoved past the demon, and shuffled down the hall toward her kitchen.

“Not immediately!” Alan defended himself, following at the woman’s heels. “I come for it in ten years, twenty… sometimes a whole natural lifetime. They pay with eternal hellfire, certainly. But I leave their families alone, and they live on with the pride of a champion’s glory. It’s win-win, don’t you see? I make my quota, they live a dream.”

“And then they burn forever, right?” June flicked the lights on in the kitchen.

“That is the way it works, June. You play, you pay.” Alan brushed a fly from his face and clambered up onto a farm chair at the kitchen table, balancing on his hooves, wrapping his tail around a chair leg. He looked across the counters, strewn with more pill bottles, and at the refrigerator festooned with reminders for doctors’ appointments and tests. Crayoned cards and children’s collages were pinned to the walls. “Get well soon, Miss Clark!” was scrawled under a rainbow on pink construction paper. Alan frowned.

 “You know, I’m actually a little hungry,” June said as she flicked the switch on her electric kettle. She turned to her increasingly real hallucination. Can you smell a hallucination, she wondered. “Would you like something to eat?”

Alan’s pointy ears pricked up, like a cat that’s heard the can opener turn. He offered a hideous smile of rotting fangs. “I could eat,” he said, trying to hide his eagerness.

June studied the fairly bare shelves. “Doc says it really doesn’t matter what I eat now, of course. Sweet’s pretty much all I can sense…” June paused. “I guess if you’re going down, might as well go down in flames, huh?” She pulled a package from a cabinet and shook it at him. “Oreos? I mean, unless you don’t eat cookies. Please don’t tell me you eat babies or something like that…”

“Naaaaah,” Alan growled. “Most of the time, I feed on anger and hostility, fear and loneliness, pain and misery. Bitter tears are delicious, you know, and the sorrow of cancer tastes like a champagne truffle.” (He refrained from noting that infant flesh was considered a delicacy among his comrades.)

June just stared at the creature planted at her table. “Wow… well, that’s, uh… quite profound. Me? I can’t taste much these days. Chemo fried my taste buds. Except for the little bits of sweet stuff, I don’t eat much anymore, and if I did, I think I’d want some barbeque ribs.”

“Oh, plenty of barbequed ribs in Hell!” Alan grinned. “Of course, they’re human, and barbeque is a particularly cruel form of punishment. Agony makes for an exquisite sauce…” He drifted off, drooling a little, and raised one tufted eyebrow at her.

“I’ll pass. Oreos?” She shook the bag at him again.

“Oh yes!” The demon reached out with lightning speed, snatching the crinkling plastic wrapper from his host. He clawed the bag open and hooked the cream center of a cookie with one filthy claw. June realized she wasn’t going to be eating out of that bag again.

She went to the freezer and pulled out a sleeve of Girl Scout Thin Mints she’d been saving for the right moment. This was probably it. She was talking to a demon in her kitchen, and in the morning, a nurse from the hospice was coming to talk to her about pain management and a morphine drip.

She laughed.

            “What’s so funny?” Alan spewed black cookie dust as he spoke.

“Oh, nothing. It’s just… this isn’t how I figured things would end.”

“Things rarely end the way people expect it, June,” the demon said. “Life’s not a made-for-TV movie. Endings just come. Que será será.” Alan shrugged with a rustle of stubby wings.

     “Wow. A demon who quotes Doris Day songs.” June chuckled as she eased her way into a chair across from her visitor. “Who couldn’t love that?”

“It’s a Jay Livingston and Ray Evans song, June. Doris Day just sang it.”

June raised her eyebrows.

“Hey, I’ve been around,” Alan sniffed, a tinge of insult in his tone. “I know the Great American Songbook.”

“Bully for you,” June said.

“I’m no Philistine,” Alan said defensively.

     “Alright,” June said in the voice she usually reserved for calming children. “So… how do you convince your victims to sign on the dotted line? I mean, don’t you scare the beejezus out of them with this get-up?”

“This is no get-up, June. This is simply who I am. What you see is what you get – true form and all that. And these people are no victims. None of them are forced to sign any contracts or take any deals. They choose. Free will.” He swallowed another Oreo whole. “And when I manifest myself to them, I take on a much more terrifying form, believe me.”

“Good lord,” June whispered. “What form is that?”

“Sports agent,” Alan replied. “Slick suit, scent of overpriced cologne, mirrored shades, manicured, manscaped, and teeth veneered to the nth degree... Bluetooth headset…”

June sucked air through her teeth. “Ooooh, the Bluetooth thing. That’s the worst.”

“I know,” the demon chuckled. “Total douchebag. But they buy it. I offer them the world, and they buy the gates to Hell. Yep. They buy it all. Fame is fleeting. Perdition is forever.”

“Words to live by. You should have that in a counted cross-stitch on your wall. Or on your business cards, at least. So, if your sports agent guise works so well, why do I get this scabby, flatulent thing with horns and a tail?”

“Hey! Be nice!” The demon hissed, insulted. “This is my true form. You should be flattered. And you were raised Catholic, no? I figured a fairly traditional form—all hellfire, brimstone, and pea soup—would make a better impression. It’s actually nicer than the sports agent, trust me. Less sordid. Less… overtly sleazy.”

June nodded. Probably couldn’t argue with that.

“But if your portfolio is filled with athletes, why are you here with me?”

The demon sighed. “I’ve been watching you for a while now. I came for a pro bowler down the hall. Bad wrist. Drinking problem. Gambling debts. Straight out of some bad movie. Wants his moment in the sun. He’s going to get it now.” He stopped to sip his tea and looked at his mug. World’s Best Librarian.

“What happens to him?” June asked, genuinely curious.

“Oh, he’ll make a miraculous comeback, win a few trophies, make his estranged children proud… then he’ll die of a heart attack in his La-Z-Boy in about a decade—”

“Could be worse,” June interjected.

“—and spend eternity in flames. No strikes. Definitely no spares.”

“Wonderful,” June’s nose crinkled. “You must tell these people the most spectacular lies to agree to damnation.”

“Not at all, June,” the demon said. “I never lie. I cannot lie. A contract based on lies cannot be enforced. What I leave unsaid—and what they fail to read in the fine print—is something altogether different. They choose their dreams, and they willfully ignore the consequences. It’s so easy to do.”

“So, again…” June said. “Why me?”

The demon took a deep, wheezing breath. “I saw you at the elevator one day. I could smell the cancer in you. I could feel life slipping away, bit by bit. But you seemed so… serene. I had to see if you had any regrets.”

June offered a wan smile. “I had regrets, Alan, but I let them go.” She shrugged. “It’s been a good life.” She gestured to the photos that filled her walls. June on a mountaintop. June at the pyramids. June surrounded by laughing people on a beach. “I’ve traveled the world. Made some money. Made a lot of friends. Loved some. Been loved... what more do you need?”

“But you have no one now, June,” Alan answered. “No husband, no lover, no children. And where are your friends? You’re only 43. Don’t you feel angry? Aren’t you bitter about the legacy you’ve lost?” The demon laid his left hand over hers, the heat of his flesh almost searing the paper-thin skin of her fingers.

“Come with me and live forever. Exact revenge on all who abandoned you or wronged you. You can spend the years doing the same for everyone like you, left behind by fate!”

June tilted her head back and howled at Alan’s drama, eliciting a knock on her ceiling from her upstairs neighbor.

“You could take care of that one, for instance,” the demon snarled, pointing a claw toward the tiles above their heads.

“No, no, no, Alan,” June continued to laugh. “I have no intention of consigning my neighbor to the abyss. Listen,” she said, “I was really angry once. When I recognized I was going to die, I went through my own modified stages of grief: one stage of shock and denial, followed by six stages of anger. I was pissed off. Really pissed off. Had I known the chemo was going to fail, had I known a double mastectomy wasn’t going to do jack squat, I wouldn’t have gone through it. Could have kept my hair and my boobs and left a pretty corpse. But I fought the cancer tooth and nail, and the thought of victory was worth it.” She paused. “Too tired to be angry now. No point. It only drains what joy is left. No regrets.

“And I wasn’t abandoned, Alan. I sent my friends away. I wanted them to remember me when I was better.  Stronger. They don’t need to see how I am now, so close to my end. I have my books for when my eyes are clear, I have the phone when I have the energy to talk, and my music keeps me company. A nurse drops by once a day. I am content.”

“But what about him?” The demon pointed to a photo of June, beaming, healthy, golden hair past her shoulders, pressed against a handsome man, his arms wrapped around her waist. “The one who ran away when he realized you were terminal? Wouldn’t it feel good to see him in pain?”

“No, Alan,” June spoke quietly. “There’s no hate, no anger. Only pity. He was weak and insecure. That can only be pitied.” She sipped her tea and smiled like the Cheshire Cat. “Besides, he was in such a hurry to depart, he left his MasterCard behind. I hope he’s enjoying his Fruit of the Month deliveries, that subscription to Highlights for Children, and his very generous donation to the Cancer Society.” The demon’s eyes brightened with admiration for the dying woman. “I told you, I have no regrets. Not anymore.”

“Oh, June,” Alan positively glowed and even farted loudly in approval. “You are a woman after my own heart. If I had a heart. You have it in you. Why not come with me? Watch the history of the world unfold. Cull the herd of the weak-willed, desperate, and greedy. No more pain, June. At least, not for you.”

“Well, thank you, Alan,” June said, as if wrapping up a job interview. “But I don’t see being Satan’s minion as a viable career path.”

Alan looked genuinely disappointed, a crooked frown on his face exposing one long, stained fang over his lower lip. He drummed bony fingers on the table. “I see. Well, you can’t blame a guy for trying, right? Perhaps I can come back another time. You might change your mind, you know.”

“Oh, I doubt that. I’m pretty sure I don’t have a future in torture or coercion.” June said. “I’m dying, Alan. Very soon. I should be gone already.”

The demon set down his mug, his awkward grasp spilling orange pekoe on the tablecloth. “I know, June. That’s why I’m here.” He stretched one grubby arm out to her and touched the small scar above her right elbow where her chemo line had once been inserted. It had all been too late. The cancer that flowed through her body was like a steamroller—unstoppable— and it hadn’t mattered where it had started or how many drugs the doctors pushed into her. It wasn’t going to stop. “I want you to know you have choices.” Alan sat back and looked at her, oozing demonic sincerity, a fist of claws under his chin. June halfway expected him to push a brochure over to her. The Afterlife: Know Your Options.

“Milk with your cookies?” June ignored the sales pitch, stood stiffly, and shuffled to the refrigerator. She pulled out a quart of milk in a plastic jug labeled with a smiling cow, wreathed in flowers and cursive script: If it’s daisy fresh, it’s Daisy Dairy! It all seemed so incongruous with everything around her now. She took two fresh mugs from a shelf and returned to the table. “Ever dunk an Oreo, Alan?”

“No, I haven’t. I’d like to. Do you like Scrabble, June?” Alan vanished into thin air, then reappeared a few seconds later with a scuffed box, rattling with tiles. “My clients aren’t big word guys. A lot of ‘hundred percent,’ ‘this is for the fans,’ and ‘push through the pain’… It gets tiresome. Shall we play?”

For hours, the demon and the dying woman talked and played word games, sustained by milk and cookies like children on a sleepover. Alan had a player’s advantage over June, with millennia of words in his head. Yet, he cheated himself now and then to let her win. June knew he was giving her the upper hand.

Alan played “QI” at every opportunity, snatching high points from June, who raised eyebrows at his ability to place those same two tiles together again and again for ridiculous values. “Qi,” June pondered. “Do you even know what it means?”

“It’s Chinese,” Alan said, his eyes fixed on the board. “Means ‘energy’ literally. But it’s more the life force running through you like currents. The Force,” he said, looking up. “You know, surrounds us, penetrates us, binds the galaxy together? Use Google, young padawan.”

“You speak Chinese?” June asked.

“Of course,” Alan replied. “Sports agent, remember? Ever seen those Chinese basketball players? Giants! And people trapped in repressive regimes are more than eager to make a deal.”

The edges of June’s mouth turned down. “That’s cruel.”

“It’s my job, June,” Alan said without hesitation. He shrugged and his wings squeaked against the slats on the chair back. “If I didn’t do it, someone else would. I’m not in charge. I do what I’m told.”

“Only following orders, right?”

“No,” Alan shook his head and fixed her with a gaze that intensified the yellow of his eyes. “Humans have a choice. They have free will. They can decide to be good or evil. Sometimes, they die for their choice. Sometimes, they surrender to evil to save themselves and live another day. Either way, it’s their choice.”

Alan pushed away the board and tiles bounced across the table. He crossed his arms and glowered, the scent of burnt coal rising from his shoulders. “I am outside those rules. All demons are. I have no free will. I am beholden to fallen angels who, in turn, are beholden to God.”

“God?” June leaned in closer to the demon until she felt his hot, rancid breath on her face. “You are beholden to God?”

“We are all God’s children, June. Even the worst of the fallen are his creations. But most of us are not granted the rights his most favored children have. You live, you die, you make your way in the world according to your own design, for humans are beloved of God. You’re your very own ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book come to life.

“You have the right to have faith in God or believe he is a fiction, or think God is a dog-headed dancing girl for all that matters. He doesn’t care because he designed you to think for yourself. And he relishes seeing what humans do with that freedom.”

“And you?” June asked. “Why can’t you live by your own design?”

“I am merely a servant, June. A low thing. I am immortal, tethered to the darkness and to my task to tempt and try the will of men. I am bound to a list of names that never ends, and my path cannot deviate.”

June leaned back and chewed her lip. “I think that’s a cop-out, Alan. Have you ever tried to stand on your own two feet—“


“Fine, your own two hooves. Have you ever tried to refuse an order? Divert from your assigned tasks?” The demon shook his head. “Then how do you know you don’t have free will? Throw out the list! Take a day off! It’s summer, Alan. Do something I’d love to do again—go to the beach and just listen to the ocean. Take the sports agent so you don’t scare the children. Get some baggy shorts and flip flops and coat yourself in sunscreen. Have a hot dog. Dig your toes into the sand.”

“I live in Hell, June. Sunscreen isn’t an issue.”

“Fine,” June said. “But go, take a break. Be your own man. Or… whatever you really are.”

“They smite those who abandon their tasks, June. They find you, and they strike you down with righteous wrath, and you are gone forever. Or so I’ve been told.”

June stared deep into those feline eyes. “But would you rather live forever as a slave, or die a free man? Freedom’s not easy, of course. So many choices and so many mistakes to make.” She sipped her cooling tea. “Ever see Little Big Man, Alan?”

“Of course,” the demon answered. “Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway, Chief Dan George… good movie.”

“Well, remember when the elderly man Old Lodge Skins decides it’s time for him to shuffle off this mortal coil?” The demon nodded. “He says, ‘Today is a good day to die.’ For me, Alan, after this remarkable—and frankly bizarre—night, today is a good day to die.” She patted his hand. “May you someday find a good day to die, too, Alan. Die a free man.”

The corners of Alan’s mouth pulled up into a big grin that showed his rotted gums and threatened to crack the hide on his cheeks. “You’re feisty, June. I like that.”

“I feel good, Alan,” June replied. “I feel better than I have in weeks. Hell, better than in months. God, it’s good to feel this way.”

Alan’s face fell. “You know what you’re doing now, right, June?”

A tear rolled down the woman’s cheek. “I’m rallying, aren’t I? They say some people rally just before the end, don’t they? Dammit, I feel so good.”

The demon looked back down at the Scrabble board, not wanting to see the growing wetness on her face. Seeing his discomfort, June patted his forearm with her fingertips. Alan could feel the fragile quality of her skin, abused, like all her body, by disease and the courses of alien chemicals forced into her cells with no success.

June smiled and collected the tiles scattered on the table. “Let’s just keep playing, Alan. Before I get tired again.”

So they played and talked some more in the quiet of the night. She asked him about things he’d seen (and less about things he’d done) in all the ages of man on earth. She sat breathless at his eyewitness accounts of the great and the awful and the remarkable events that came before. “Human history,” Alan said while pondering the board, “is a patchwork of war and famine and filthy disease, all stitched together with improbable moments of inspiration and invention that propel the world forward and keep everything from falling apart.” 

Alan fixed June with a piercing look from his narrowed, yellow eyes, reached over, and tapped her chest. “That you—or any human—are here today is a miracle, considering how many times you’ve brought yourselves to the edge of destruction. The forward momentum of humanity never fails to amaze me. Then again, your backward falls never surprise me, either.” He bent his head down to the board. “Ah, there we go.” His claws brushed the word LADYLIKE onto the board. “Triple word score. More tea?”

They spoke in Russian and French (“For every one Russian or French tennis sensation,” Alan told his host, “there are dozens of simply awful players, but they all want to be Martina or Bjorn Borg.”) They pondered why so many girls were named April, May, and June, but so few Februarys walked the earth. The demon shared secrets with June: what happened to the Lost Colony of Roanoke, what’s really out in Area 51, the true location of the island of Avalon. He knew she would not tell, nor did she have the time left to share these whispers. No one would believe her anyway; they’d blame it all on the drugs that sustained her in decline.

He told her how demons came to be, born of angels and human women, whom the angels coveted from high above the earth. They called the children Nephilim, and they were once giants among men—champions and heroes—but fell from God’s grace through hubris and violence. “In the great flood,” Alan explained, “While Noah counted animals, most of us perished, but some were left to roam the earth, sentenced to tempt man for seventy generations, until the great time of slaughter and destruction. And that, dear June,” Alan paused to sip his tea, “is where we find ourselves now. Won’t all the atheists have an ‘I’ll be damned!’ moment when the Apocalypse finally comes? Oh—and for the record? Some of them will be damned… but, hey—they’ll have plenty of believers for company, trust me. More cookies, please?”

Alan’s matter-of-fact pronouncement of the coming end didn’t faze June. Que será será, indeed, she thought. “I guess you get what you earn, no?”

“That you do, June. That you do.”

“You’re not a hallucination, are you, Alan?”

“No, June. I’m very real.”

The dying woman sighed. “Alan, I’m tired. Very, very tired. I think I want to go back to bed.”

“Alright, June. I’ll help you.” The demon hopped down from his chair and extended one hand to the woman, curling his claws under as to not cause her harm. June smiled and reached out to lean on him. She did not mind the slime and waste. He did not mind her scars or baldness or lack of breasts. The dying woman leaned on the demon as they walked, and the demon purred at the warmth of the human body against his.

“Alan,” June whispered as she fell back into her bed. “You know what you’ve done tonight?”

“Other than fail to recruit you to our ranks? No, June. What have I done?”

“You’ve given me hope. If there are demons in Hell, there must be angels in Heaven, right? An up for your down.”

“True,” Alan agreed. “There is a Heaven. And despite my best efforts, I know the truth that you are bound for it.”

“That’s nice, Alan. I wasn’t sure before, you know. I wanted to believe, but rational thought being what it is…”

“Free will, June. Keep thinking for yourself. God admires that.” The demon pulled the stained quilt up over the woman and smoothed the wrinkles with his awkward hands, making the awful smears even worse.


“Yes, Alan?”

The creature dipped his head, almost sheepishly. “May I come call on you again?”

“Now why would you want to do that, Alan?” June asked, weary amusement in her voice. “I’m not changing my mind about your job offer.”

“It’s just… it’s just that it’s pleasant to spend time with you, June. You’ve been decent to me,” Alan said, sadness in his tone. June could hear his sorrow, and her heart broke a little for the hideous creature. She knew, just as well as he did, her time was done. And if it was true—that there was an up for his down—June wouldn’t see the demon and his triple word scores again. But Alan was right. It had been pleasant, and there was no reason to ruin the moment with the bleak truth.

“Alright, Alan. You may come back to visit.”

“Thank you, June.”

“Alan?” June conjured all the cheer she could. “If you’re coming back…”

“Yes, June?” Alan’s ears perked up.

“You’ve got to do something about your farting. My god, it’s like a mustard gas attack.”

“Yes, June.” The demon giggled a little.

“And Alan?”

“Yes, June?”

“Be your own man. Or… whatever you are.” Yellow eyes glowed, and June could see a jagged smile fading into the darkness.  Weary, the dying woman closed her eyes.

“I’ll try, June.”

Tucked beneath the covers, June looked almost translucent, and her breathing became shallow. Alan watched and listened to her heart race and slow, race and slow. Gingerly, he climbed onto the foot of her bed and curled up into a ball, his tail wrapped tight against his torso. The demon stayed there, silent, listening, until he felt the first rays of sunlight on his back and vanished into the brightening air.

In that space between what is seen and unseen, the demon Alan paused on the stoop of June’s building. Even dressed in the skin of the sports agent, he hunkered down, as if on goat legs. He was merely a shadow passed without note or comment by the Salvadoran man delivering papers to the apartments along the street. A slippered man pulled his jacket tighter around his shoulders as he walked his dog past the building, but he had no clue as to why there was a sudden chill in the air. The dog barked and pulled toward the steps, but his master tugged him away with a shush.

Alan shook out his wings and nibbled on one of the last Oreos he’d palmed from June’s kitchen. As he chewed, a bright beam of light cut through the colorless sky and landed on the step above him.

“Hello, Amon.”

“Hello, Karl. And it’s Alan now. You know that.” The demon spoke without looking at the sharp-dressed man who had appeared over his shoulder at the end of that beam. Tall and handsome in that generic basic cable actor sort of way, he had wings, too, but they were broad and strong and matched the gleam of his ice cream white linen suit.

“I’ll call you Alan if you stop calling me Karl,” said the angel.

“Fine, Karael.”

“So… got yourself a girlfriend, huh, Alan?” The angel smirked.

“It was just a recruiting call,” the demon said defensively. “And besides, she didn’t seem to mind me being there.” He looked up at the angel with sadness. “I think she liked me.”

“No one likes demons, Alan.”

“She did.”

“Go to Hell, Alan.”

“Very nice, Karl.”

“No, Alan. Really. Go to Hell. Sun’s rising. Shift change. Punch. Out.”

Alan found angels smarmy, but, just as he did, they served a purpose.

“Please,” he pleaded in a whisper, “Watch over her. She’s going soon.”

“Yes, she is, demon.” Alan and the angel looked at the figure who had appeared at the bottom of the steps.

“Death.” Both angel and demon bowed heads toward the Grim Reaper, today dressed as a dour, obese woman in scrubs, a hospice ID badge clipped to her shirt, and a rolling stand for a morphine drip in one hand. “Work to be done here, boys. And why are you here, demon? She was never on your list.”

“Alan thinks he made a friend,” the angel mocked.

“No one likes demons, Alan,” Death sniffed matter-of-factly. He turned to the angel. “And Karael, no one likes a smartass, either. Very unbecoming for the heavenly host.” The smirk faded from the angel’s face. “You have tasks, demon. Go about your business. You have none here.”

“Yeah,” Karael said, waving a hand dismissively. “Don’t you have some broken down Field of Dreams pitcher with a bad rotator cuff and shattered hopes waiting for you?”

Christ, Alan thought, angels are assholes. He reached into his suit pocket and ran his fingers across the page of parchment that never left his side, a list of desperate names and crushed ambitions. The paper felt like a lead weight. It always did.

But then, his fingers brushed against the last Oreo he’d stolen from June’s kitchen. He pulled it out and started to pop it into his mouth. Then he stopped and slowly turned the two cookie sides apart. He studied the filling, and his face brightened.

Before his puzzled colleagues, Alan slowly licked the cream side dry. “Yep. That I do.” He stood up and adjusted the sports agent’s tie. “Not today, though. Know what I’m gonna do?” Alan pressed a fingertip into Karael’s chest and tapped him. “I’m taking the day off! I’m gonna ditch this suit, get some baggy shorts and a pair of flip flops and slather myself in sunscreen. I’m going to the beach, Karael, and I’m gonna eat a hot dog and watch some pretty girls. Dig my toes into the sand and listen to the sea. Hell’s not going anywhere. Hell can go screw itself.” The demon cocked his head and saluted Death and the angel.

“You don’t actually have toes, Alan,” Karael sneered as the demon turned and walked away. “He doesn’t really have toes,” the angel repeated to Death, who shrugged.

“HEY!” The angel yelled at Alan’s back with the realization he wasn’t joking. “HEY! You can’t do that! They’ll smite you, Alan!” The angel taunted the fading figure. “You abandon your post and they will find you, and they will smite you, demon!”  

“Perhaps,” Alan said as he vanished into the sunlight, a measure of June’s serenity on his face. “But I think it’s a good day to die.”