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An old Scottish sea captain’s lament reveals how a life of utter isolation on the Isle of Soay begins to change the island’s only two other residents.
“I suppose the strangest thing about them is their telephone booth. When they moved to Soay, they brought with them on their boat one of the old red telephone booths. Part and parcel as they may be to the London cityscape or even Edinburgh, it’s quite strange to see one standing alone in the middle of a field with pink puffs of blooming thistle grown half way up the sides.”
It’s often said reality is stranger than fiction. I completely agree. This very short story (only 570 words) pulls much more from a specific experience than my usual stories. I’ve done my best to appropriate the voice of a captain I met on a boat trip off the Isle of Skye. He actually was one of only three permanent residents of the Isle of Soay. The dog was a genuine wildlife spotter. The rest is my own pondering over how that level of extreme isolation would dredge up deep and personal truths about ourselves.
There are many things I love about Scotland and many things I will miss, but since this is a blog dedicated to my writing career, I wanted to take a moment to say thank you to the amazing city of Edinburgh for all it has done to inspire me as a writer.
Edinburgh is a writer’s dream. It is built around a stunning medieval castle perched high on the crags of an extinct volcano. Its narrow, windy streets full of ancient buildings and churches are at one moment gothic and brooding and the next enchanting, but they’re always stunning. There are parks and green space everywhere. There is a mountain (another extinct volcano) to climb right smack in the middle of the city where you suddenly, improbably feel like you’re in the middle of the Highlands. There is a beautiful beach along the Firth of Forth, its mouth gaping open to the North Sea on Edinburgh’s east side. .
In short, it is a city that endlessly inspires, and there are stories in every nook, cranny and crag. Stories old: Body snatchers, ghosts, witches, deeds great and terrible of Scottish kings of yore. Stories new: thousands marching for Scottish Independence, visits by the Queen and Will & Kate, celebrities roaming the streets and pubs because they don’t get harassed here the way they do in the States.
It’s a city that, unlike most, also tells a good story about its writers. It supports its writers, cherishes its writers, incubates its writers. It is, after all, the world’s first UNESCO City of Literature. It is home to a wonderful writer’s museum and one of Europe’s top creative writing programs at (my soon-to-be alma mater) the University of Edinburgh. It is the only city in the world whose largest monument memorializes a writer: the Walter Scott Monument, aka ‘The Gothic Rocket.’ There are also wonderful monuments to the great Scottish poet Robert Burns and Sherlock Homes author Arthur Conan Doyle, who was born here.
And for all that, it feels like the perfect home for a writer, which is why so many writers seem to make it home.
Edinburgh’s sort of like L.A. for fiction writers, in that way. If you bother to talk to anyone in the pubs or on the street, you’re like to meet an author every day. Maybe they’re like me — struggling to get a start, looking to get that first manuscript published. Maybe they are Ian Rankin or J.K. Rowling – both known to still prowl the streets of Edinburgh. Even my dog introduced me to an up-and-coming writer in this city. My wife and I often take Uli for romps in a nearby fenced-in park, where she has made great friends with Buster the greyhound. It just so happens that Buster’s owner is Lucy Ribchester, whose first novel, The Hourglass Factory, is being published by Simon & Schuster in January 2015 (Lucy, if you read this, I’ll be ordering a copy and everyone else should do the same if for no other reason than you are exceedingly kind and the type of person who rescues racing dogs!).
It seems like everyone is working on some sort of writing project, and I can’t adequately sum up how important it is as a writer (perhaps the loneliest occupation in the world) to feel that sense of community and others being in the fight with you. It’s a great support group.
You know what else makes for great support? Knowing that the things that have inspired much of my writing this last year also inspired some of the greatest and most successful authors around.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve had what I think is the best new story idea ever while walking through the Meadows, listening to the magpies squawk or watching the gaggles of school kids in their Houses of Hogwarts uniforms horsing around on their way to school. Then I think of how Muriel Spark must have been inspired by the very same thing when she expertly sent ‘Miss Brodie’s set’ through the Meadows near the beginning of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
I developed a love for Edinburgh’s many hidden places, usually haunting in one sense of the word or another. Anyone would because Edinburgh is at its best upon closest inspection, so it’s no surprise that a deep back corner of the Greyfriars Kirkyard would overlook an old school building that became Rowling’s inspiration for Hogwarts and be curiously populated by gravestones featuring names like McGonagall, Moody and none other than Tom Riddle. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter and plotted out the series in Edinburgh, in case you didn’t know.
I’ll miss the monuments to writers, the respect and appreciation for writers, the little hidden inspirations for writers that make Edinburgh a city of literature. Mostly, I’ll miss the writers themselves and the community. I know I’ll carry the inspiration wherever I go, and hopefully in this 21st century world of constant connectedness, I can even hold on to a bit of the community.
Editor’s note: I mentioned going to work on a novel-length zombie manuscript two months ago. So, about that … c’est finit! After laboring through my epic surrealist literary wank dissertation, writing a zombie novel felt like playing drunk kickball on a nice spring afternoon. I could do it for hours. And I did. So it’s done, and I’m sending out queries to agents. Obligatory fingers crossed, please. Below is a little mis-en-scene taster from a flashback that occurs in the course of events. If you’d like to know more about the plot, check out the synopsis of PRISON CAMP 26 here.
Sasha knew it was getting bad, real bad out there in the world. But, to be honest, she didn’t pay a lot of attention to it. She was married to her work, basically living out of a brand new researchers’ dorm at the CDC campus. The cafeteria always had food. The fact that the rest of the world was starving was irrelevant to her, not her problem. She could only focus on what she could control, and that was nasty, population-decimating viruses.
But with all that crap going on in the world, she couldn’t understand why the top dogs at DSR were so preoccupied with her research. She sure as hell couldn’t understand why they would give Carl an order to start Virus 26 trials on human test subjects.
No, she told Carl point blank. It’s not going to happen. It’s the same as killing people.
“Adam’s alive.” That’s what the idiot said to her. And then that fat, flaccid, worthless man turned red as a tomato, swelled up with a conviction she didn’t think him capable of mustering, and with all the authority of the DSR behind him told Sasha she didn’t have a fucking choice in the matter. Either do your job, start sticking the virus in people, or we’ll find someone else to do it.
Sasha thought she was clever asking Carl where he expected her to come up with human test subjects for trials. He said don’t worry, the DSR will take care of that. And that’s exactly what happened. Sasha was staring at her infected hairless monsters clawing each other apart trying to climb over each other to get at her, gnawing away at the bars, while Carl led 20 adult males into a lab that had been converted into what amounted to a jail cell by order of the DSR. Sasha didn’t want to know who they were, where they came from or how they ended up there.
She just wanted to make sure none of them were ever infected with Virus 26, and she was going to do whatever was within her power to make sure that’s exactly what happened.
“I need you to come talk to these people, Dr. Emerson. Make up something nice about the tests they’re going to be part of. We were … vague … on that matter. We just let the money do most of the talking.”
Carl had entered the cage room. He was wearing his nice suit to welcome in all the new residents, a bleak brown affair with a jacket that was too tight in the chest and too long in the arms and pants that were frayed at the bottom because he had never bothered to have the cuffs properly hemmed. He wore a necktie with all manner of muted colors exploding in sunbursts that looked eerily like Virus 26 under the high-power microscope.
“I thought I told you never to come in here without your biohazard suit on, Carl.” Sasha’s visor was slightly fogged, but she could still see the guilt on his pathetic, jowly face as he meekly absorbed the weight of her rebuke.
“Sorry, Sasha. We just need to tell them something soon. Now that they’re in and see all the crap around here, they’re nervous. And you need to start tests soon. Like ASAP. Washington is breathing fire down my neck. They want results. They have plans for this thing.”
It was the first time Carl had ever come right out and said it, like presenting her with a peace offering of knowledge for violating the cage room rules. Sasha suspected as much, but it was different hearing it put so bluntly. Straight from the horse’s mouth. If the government had plans for a virus that created zombies – and that is what Sasha had come to accept them as now – it could only be for a few things, and none of them good. They’d see it as a weapon, most likely. She didn’t really care. They weren’t going to get their hands on it. She had every known sample of Virus 26 with her right there in that room. Except for Adam, and she knew what to do with Adam. She was sorry, so very sorry, but Adam didn’t exist anymore. When she punched in the code to sterilize the room, the isolation chamber’s decontamination system would incinerate everything, Adam included, and Virus 26 would be gone. Unless whoever sent it had more.
“Come here, Carl. I want you to see what you want me to do to these people up close.” She moved to a cage full of docile rnu rats, their wrinkly hairless bodies wriggling and writhing like normal, having grown used to the stink of the infected rats in the cages around them.
“I’ve already seen it. I’ve seen it a hundred times. You’re not going to guilt me into compassion. This needs to be done. Besides, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Adam doesn’t seem that bad off.” Carl’s eyes instinctively sank to the ground, averting Sasha’s piercing glare. “I mean, he’s not dead. And you could find a treatment. Or they could end up like those rats that don’t show symptoms. Think positive, doctor.”
“The rats that don’t show symptoms. That’s exactly what I want to show you, Carl. That’s what these are, right here.” Carl edged further into the room as Sasha spoke. “You’ve seen it yourself; one out of every 10 shows no evidence of symptoms. The virus lives in them. They’re still carriers. As dangerous to others as any of the zombie rats.”
“Don’t use that term, doctor.” Carl was close to her now, also in front of the cage of shriveled, pink-skinned rats.
“Carl, what are we going to do when two of the men in that room don’t turn? When they’re completely human, asking us questions. When do we get to leave? When do we get to see our families? We won’t be able to send them back out into the world. They’ll be too dangerous.” She reached into the cage and plucked out a mouse. It wriggled in her gloved hand, but put up no real resistance. They were used to being handled.
“Keep that thing away from me,” Carl said.
“Look at it, Carl. Its eyes are normal. Its behavior is normal. It is a docile creature. Are you going to be able to look the two men in that room who come out OK in the eyes and kill them? Because I’m not going to do it. It’s on you, Carl. You’re going to be the one.” She held the hairless rodent up to Carl. He grimaced, but didn’t move away.
“You say these ones – the immune ones – are completely normal? Nonviolent?”
“But if they bite you or inseminate you or, possibly, bleed or spit on you.” Sasha left the rest unsaid. Carl was reaching toward the rat, as if he wanted to pet it, to comfort it, let it know everything was going to be ok. Sasha saw her opportunity. She pinched the rat’s hindquarters, pinched it hard, and it instinctively lunged at Carl’s hand, biting down hard on his index finger.
“You bitch,” he shouted. Blood dripped on the floor as Carl pressed down on the bite with his other hand. Sasha threw the struggling rat into the open-lidded glass tank with Eve, who had been watching the whole scene unfold in a lethargic stupor. Carl made like he was going to hit Sasha, or worse.
“Your time’s already short, Carl. You better get to the med unit now. If you’re quick, they might be able to amputate your arm to stop the virus from spreading. If not, you’ve got two hours before it takes over your central nervous system.”
He hesitated. Looked at her, then at the door.
“Tick-tock,” Sasha said. He bolted out the exit, screaming for help as he went. Thank God he didn’t look at the glass tank, Sasha thought. Eve was tearing what remained of the uninfected rat to shreds. Adam would be the last strain of the virus to eliminate, no loose ends. Just like in West Africa.
By the time she had dumped all the rat cages down the incinerator chute in the cage room, the alarm was sounding. She was surprised it took that long, but everyone at CDC resented the DSR’s presence and thought Carl was an idiot. He had zero presence of authority and in his panicked, blathering state, it must have taken him some time to get anyone to take him seriously. To convince anyone that Dr. Sasha Emerson, rising star of the virology division, had gone off the deep end and attacked him with an infected rat. Sasha almost broke a smile at the thought of it, or maybe it was the act of plucking Eve out of her tank with a pair of forceps and chucking her down the incinerator chute.
Fueled with a bulging stomach full of rat, Eve had her fight back. She scrabbled so ferociously against the forceps that she nearly pulled her torso in half stretching toward Sasha’s fingers before Sasha tossed her and the forceps down the incinerator.
“That’s for you, Adam. It’s the least I could do.”
That wasn’t true, though. What she had to do next was what she truly owed him, the Adam who solved crossword puzzles and Sudokus and cryptograms like they were child’s play. That Adam would thank her for what came next.
Sasha moved quickly down the hall to the elevator. Adam was two floors up, still underground, but on the same level as the medical unit where Carl was hopefully now sedated. The doctor’s never would have amputated his arm. First of all, they never would have just started hacking at the word of some crazed lunatic. They would have tested his blood first to confirm the presence of the virus. Second, they never would have risked everyone else’s lives by exposing the operating room to Carl’s blood. If he was infected, his blood would be everywhere after an emergency amputation, and they’d be at risk of a major outbreak. Sasha had personally briefed every doctor at CDC headquarters that they were never to take that risk.
She burst out of the stairwell and took a left. She felt so slow, but kicked against the restrictive biohazard suit and started to run, feeling her window closing, her chance to end this before it ever started. She punched in a code to get access to the wing. She entered a hallway with a long row of isolation units lined up one after another like jail cells, only with bullet-proof Plexiglas sealing the rooms off from the outside. The lights in the hall were all off, operating on motion detectors as people passed by. All of the isolation units were dark, too, except for the one at the very end. Adam’s unit.
Sasha moved toward it, walking now. Something felt wrong that kept her from running. As she moved down the hall, a new bank of lights came on with every few steps as the ones behind her cut back off. She felt like she was suspended in a cube of light, like she was a hamster in a plastic ball, walking against it to propel herself down the hall.
Then she realized what was bothering her. She could hear Adam. The sound was muffled, barely noticeable behind the thick glass seal, but it was there. The sound of it scratching and biting and clawing against the other side. That was wrong. It should have been in a state of almost suspended animation, unless something had provoked it. That was her final thought before the last bank of lights in front of Adam’s unit flicked on.
No more than 10 feet in front of her, Carl stood completely still, blood staining his bandaged hand and a gun held in the uninjured one.
“Row 3, column 14. That’s the cage you took that rat from.” He raised the gun and pointed it at her chest. “Isn’t it, Dr. Emerson? You think I’m such an idiot, but you don’t know me. You know nothing about me. You never gave me any credit for how closely I paid attention to your work. I really admired how … meticulously … you work, doctor.”
Sasha was about to tell Carl he wasn’t a killer when he squeezed the trigger and shot her in the chest. As she looked down and saw the blood start to trickle down her suit, she thought, “He’s right. I don’t know anything about him.”
Back in early May, I posted the first chapter of a then-just completed 120,000 manuscript called The Dream Trip. In that post, I said I had a lot of revising to do. I wasn’t kidding. I think this story about two married people going rogue to get their marriage off the rocks (as opposed to the usual marriage narrative in fiction — hate, sadness, inevitable destruction) has so much potential, but I’m trying to do more with it than anything I’ve ever written before. You know, fancy stuff like theme, metaphorical imagery, dalliances with metafiction.
At times, I felt like I had gone too far. Let’s be honest: at times, I was asking myself, “What the f*ck are you doing, homes?” while running to the kitchen for the nearest bottle of whisky. So I decided to condense down the heart of the story to about 30,000 words and submit it as my master’s dissertation at the University of Edinburgh’s Creative Writing program. This allowed me to put it in front of my wonderful dissertation adviser Jane McKie several times before submitting. Jane was incredibly supportive and enthusiastic about the work, which makes me think maybe having a little faith in myself to stretch into the rarefied realm of “literary fiction” paid off. Or maybe Jane just suffers from the same strain of crazy I have.
I’ll find out in November when I receive my dissertation grade. Until then, I’ve made the novella available on the front page of the site or you can just click here. It’s only 30,000 words. What better way to procrastinate before finishing your own dissertation or [insert important project here].
Art and Amelia cruised the Strip to burn off the weight of dinner. They stopped at the Bellagio to watch the fountain show and see its Chihuly glass and flower displays, walked through Caesar’s under the cloud-and-sky ceiling of its shopping center, and made it as far north as the gondola-filled canals of Venice. Every inch of the Strip was put on, spun sugar, like the perfect gingerbread house with a witch lurking within ready to eat you. But there’s a divine comfort going along with the show, accepting Vegas’s whole ludicrous act, that gets you out of your own skin.
They settled on Bally’s as their casino du nuit on their way back south. The tables were less expensive than the Bellagio or Caesar’s, but it was less grimy and run down than O’Shea’s and not as depressingly empty as the Trop. They circled the floor like sharks, waiting for the right moment to strike. They dropped small bills in slot machines at random, winning a few dollars here, losing a few dollars there before cashing out.
Then their wanderings and a touch of fate brought them before a $5 blackjack table. It was removed from the long bank of table games in the main pit, off to the side and alone next to a craps table and a roulette table. Unlike every other blackjack table, the dealer wasn’t an aging attractive woman or slick-haired wannabe Mafioso type. He was an old, clean shaven black man with a name tag that said Ivory. Remarkably, there were three open seats. Anyone who has ever been to the Strip knows exactly how remarkable it is to stumble upon even one open seat at a $5 blackjack table at any hour, much less as the peak shift was coming on.
Recognizing Lady Luck when she stared them in the face, Art and Amelia sat down quickly.
“I was hoping y’all would sit down and play,” Ivory said. “We’ve got a nice little game here. Where you folks from?”
“Well, sort of nowhere and everywhere right now,” Art said.
“Oh, we got a lot of folks from there in this town,” Ivory said. He was everything a Strip blackjack dealer was not supposed to be. He wore a big smile full of pearly teeth, he chatted, he invited you to be his friend. He was slower than sin, feeling the edge of each card on his fingertips before drawing it from the automatic card shuffler. He’d slide a card out, give it a little shake up and down as if he was testing the weight – or the luck – of each one, then drop it with a dramatic flourish in front of the next player. He’d examine each turned card with a little “hmm” or “ooh” before moving on to the next.
Art and Amelia adored him immediately. “How long you been dealing, Ivory?” Art said. Amelia smirked and nudged him under the table.
Ivory didn’t know or just didn’t care Art was having a little fun with him. “Oh, I been here at Bally’s about 15 years now. I used to be across the street at the Flamingo. I reckon I was there for about 20 years.”
“Don’t listen to him. I play at this table every week for 20 year and I never see him until 10 year ago.” It was the Asian lady playing to Art’s left, holding down third base. She had broader features that looked Chinese, but her face was painted like a geisha – a thick coating of white face powder caking up in the deep cracks in her face, cherry red lipstick, thick eye liner. Her black hair was molded into the shape of a Connie Chung circa 1980 do. The long painted fingernails on her right hand clicked and clacked on her mountain of chips With her left, she managed to smoke a Virginia Slim despite the curling claws. She smelled like a dead pepper plant.
“Oh, I wouldn’t argue with you, Madame Chang. You remember everything. I’d bet you remember every hand I ever dealt you. But I didn’t always deal blackjack here. You must have missed me on the three card poker tables when I first come to Bally’s.”
Madame Chang appraised Ivory. Her eyes narrowed and her heavily lipsticked mouth pursed into a little frown. She tapped the table with the long fingernail of her right index finger. “Hit me, Ivory. Make it good.”
He threw her an eight. “Twenty-one,” Ivory exclaimed.
Ivory flipped over his hole card and showed 15. He threw himself a six. “And that’s twenty-one.”
“Ah, you motha fucka sometimes Ivory. You lucky Madame Chang like you so much.”
“Plucky little peacock,” Amelia whispered in Art’s ear.
Art traded in five $100 bills for $5 and $1 chips and placed his customary first bet of $10 with $1 pushed forward to tip the dealer $2 on a winning hand. Then he did the same thing in front of Amelia. No matter how much Art encouraged her, she never had the confidence to play at a live table. She knew most of the right decisions to make, but she clung to the irrational fear that she’d accidentally hit and throw off the whole table, then become the hated villain. Or even more embarrassing, watch everyone walk away to escape the novice. But she did very much like sitting at the table where she could route for Art and get a steady supply of free booze since it looked like she was playing.
Ivory dealt the first hand like an artist reading poetry. Art had to stay on 16 and 15, but Ivory busted with the slowly unpacked tension of a Cormac McCarthy novel. Art exhaled when the final card fell and the group at the table let out a cheer.
“It about goddamn time, Ivory.” Madame Chang looked at Art. “You come to straighten Ivory out, huh? You good luck for table. Very handsome, too. Don’t worry, honey. Madame Chang see you married.”
The cheer caught the attention of a passerby. A particularly haggard passerby. The man limped up to the table and asked if the table was hot. The deep canyons running up and down his ragged face made Madame Chang’s wrinkles look like ant trails in the dust. His face was a lattice work of leathery grooves. His eyes were a dull grey. Hair grew out of his nose and he had the longest, floppiest earlobes Art had ever seen.
“It not so good Henry. Ivory take all our money.”
“Oh, I know all your tells, Madame Chang.” Henry sat down quickly in the last open spot, just to Amelia’s right. “If you say go away, it means you’re raking in all the money. Howdy Ivory. Deal me in. I want a taste.”
Art wasn’t sure if the man could taste. Up close, he looked even older. He might have been 100. He had some sort of small crater on the left side of his forehead, like a skin cancer or something had been removed. Liver spots covered the rest of his forehead and all along the back of his hands. He wore a World War II Veteran trucker hat.
“I’m Art. Pleased to meet you.”
“Howdy son. We’ll be good friends so long as you don’t take the dealer’s bust card.”
“That won’t be a problem, sir. Can I ask, are you a World War II veteran?”
“Yessiree. Proud veteran of the United States Navy. I fought the Japs at Iwo Jima. Admiral Nimitz shook my hand personally after the battle.”
Art was stunned. That would put the man at 90 years old, or close enough it made no matter. Madame Chang rolled her eyes.
“You tell same story to every new blood who sit down? If I hear about Yanks saving China one more time, I going to shit brick. You sure your money not better on craps table tonight?”
“Hell, he asked, honey. I’m just being friendly.” Henry slammed the edge of the table as Ivory slowly flipped the fifth card to the dealer’s hand. A five.
“Twenty-two,” Ivory said. “Dealer busts.”
“Hell yeah,” Henry cheered. “I ain’t going anywhere, Madame Chang. I’m parking my little fanny right here tonight. This table’s hot. I knew it.”
Art didn’t mind the banter. Madame Chang, Ivory and old Henry were exactly the queer brand of off-kilter Vegas entertainment he and Amelia were hoping for. And he was now up $40 in two hands. He dialed back to two $5 bets to let the winnings settle for a minute. He ordered a Red Bull and vodka from a cocktail waitress. A little boost to gear up for a big night.
Ivory was a master of dramatics on every hand, throwing the players fakes by looking at their cards before he dealt them, making painfully twisted expressions to dash their hopes before dropping the exact card they wanted. He’d wave his free hand over his hole card and chant for it to be a bust card before flipping it. When dealer showed ace, he’d draw in a deep breath to make the table’s collective pulse race while checking for blackjack, only to slide the cards back into place with a sly grin on his face.
There were more ups than downs and the whole table was in good spirits. Plenty of dealer busts to keep everyone in the black. Madame Chang hit a string of blackjacks and was making a killing on the side bet besides. It was Lucky Ladies – any unsuited 20 paid 4-to-1 and suited 20s paid 9-to-1, but every sucker playing the bet was really chasing lightning in the form of two queens of hearts at a 125-to-1 payout.
An hour passed like a few moments. Unlike in the main pit, it seemed no other dealers were around to rotate with Ivory. He was a pleasant mainstay. As winning tables are want to do, the players got friendly. Art and Amelia, Madame Chang and Henry, in particular. The couple leading off the table mostly kept to themselves, whispering some Eastern European language no one recognized.
“You ain’t Italian, are you?” Henry asked them.
“Italian? No,” the man said. He looked Mediterranean, but sounded Russian. Maybe Croatian or Serbian, Art thought. The man wasn’t volunteering any clues. Henry turned his attention back to his left.
“I can’t stand them Italians,” he said. “Snake bastards. Fight with Hitler one day and the next act like it’s all red wine and spaghetti. Come visit Italy, they say. Have a great time. You’ll have to take me to hell in a hand basket before fascists get a dime of my money.”
“Well, it’s been almost 70 years,” Art said. “Things have changed a lot. They’re a very tolerant country now.”
“Snakes hiding in the grass, that’s all. Seventy years ain’t nothing. Mind that lesson, young man.”
Ivory listened to the conversation attentively as he dealt. One. Card. At. A. Time. Art and Henry gestured with their hands to hit or stay as the game carried on, one deal after another, prattling on uninterrupted.
“Ask me, ’Murica’s getting too much like Europe. Germans. Italians. The damn French. Can’t tell a difference between us and them anymore. That’s the problem with us today. We won the war, had it all going for us, then we started acting like the losers. You kids took everything we give you and messed it all up. No offense. Don’t mean you personally.”
Art didn’t mean to, but he closed his eyes and sighed. It was all he could do not to get started with a nonagenarian.
“Hey now, you don’t have to look defeated. Like you’re ashamed, or something. That’s another problem with you kids. You give up too easy. You can’t never commit to nothing because you expect everything to be handed you with a pat on your candy asses telling you how great you are. Sometimes, I think we gave you too much. Made life too easy for you.”
Art hesitated, then gave in. “Well, I don’t know about what you gave us.” Amelia gave him a curious sideways glance. “Look Henry, I’m grateful for what you and all the veterans have done for this country, but I don’t know if your generation accomplished anything other than listening to your parents. Same as most any generation.”
“How’s that? I don’t reckon I follow, son.”
“Well, I’m just saying I think the name Greatest Generation was given one generation too late. Your parents said fight here, fight there, do this, do that, build this, build that. So what’d you guys really accomplish? Everything great was done because your parents had the idea for it.”
Ivory stopped for a long moment and looked at Art, then remembered to keep dealing. Madame Chang emitted a surreptitious little giggle and lit another cigarette. She was never without one for more than a minute or two.
“Now I know I must have heard you wrong, son. Forgive my old ears. But you’re going to have to speak up.” Henry’s voice rose steadily, making it clear he heard Art just fine.
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to offend, Henry. Let’s just play the game.” Art waved over his cards to stay. Amelia rubbed the small of his back and smiled at him in approval of his restraint.
“No. No. No.” Henry was insistent. “Say what you mean, son. I want to know what the hell your generation done to give you the right to speak like that.”
“Well, that’s just it. My generation’s barely adults now and we haven’t really done anything yet. Well, we’ve fought in a couple wars, but I’ll admit it’s different than the two yours fought in. We’re still just trying to figure out who we are. We’re just doing what our parents have told us to do. And the message they gave us is don’t be fooled into believing in a myth like they were. So I think we’re trying to live life the best way we can figure out how. That makes us just like you. Your parents told you to build a bunch of shit, so you did it. The difference is my generation hasn’t fucked up their kids with a bunch of bad advice and phony American Dream bullshit like yours.”
“That’s it, son. I’ve about had it with your smart lip. I ain’t going to be talked about like that by some young punk.”
Ivory glanced up at the Eye in the Sky and signaled with discreet sleight of hand. Henry kicked his stool back and stood up. The Eastern Europeans looked on with a succulent newfound interest in their neighbors. Amelia ducked down in her chair.
“You son of a bitch,” Henry said as he uncorked a right cross. The old coot filled up with spit and vinegar from some hidden reserve tank. There was a little fire in his half-dead grey eyes. Art was too stunned to move. He saw the fist coming in slow motion – fairly close to actual speed in this instance – but it still connected square with the orbital bone over his left eye.
“Ow,” Art shouted. “You old fucker.”
Henry was on his way over Amelia’s stool to jump on Art when two massive men in suits appeared from nowhere, grabbed him under each arm, and dragged him through a nearby door leading to the bowels of the casino before he had a chance to disturb any of the other tables.
“Poor Henry. That his last strike. Guess we won’t be seeing him anymore, huh, Ivory?”
“No, Madame Chang, it doesn’t seem so,” Ivory said.
Amelia fussed over Art’s eye with a wet napkin. “You’re going to have a shiner in the morning.”
“I can’t believe I got attacked by a World War II vet. Sensitive old bastard.”
“Oh, he not really World War II vet,” Madame Chang said. “He just look that old. Drink too much. Bad liver. He really a Vietnam War veteran, but he embarrassed about his war so he steal good war he can brag about.”
“How do you know that?”
“I sleep with him about 15 years ago. I see his Veteran I.D. card. He only like 65 years old.”
Art and Amelia’s mouths hung open.
“What?” Madame Chang looked offended. “Henry very charming then. He have all his teeth then, too.”
Ivory chuckled and started to deal a new hand.
“Well, I guess I feel a little better then. Henry packs a punch.” Art had taken the wet napkin from Amelia and was holding it to his forehead.
Ivory held his hand up and signaled a cocktail waitress. “Darlene,” he said. “This man’s going to need a whiskey. Top shelf, please. Let the boss know who it’s for. He’ll understand.”
Darlene returned a minute later with a tumbler filled with three fingers of beautiful deep amber whiskey. “What is it?” Art asked as he handed her a $1 chip.
“Johnnie Walker,” she said.
Art took a sip. It wasn’t like any Johnnie Walker he had tasted. Neither Red nor Black. Darlene was already gone. He whipped his head around to Ivory. The old man let out a deep, soulful laugh.
“Taste a little Blue?”
“Seriously?” Art said.
“You feeling better, sir?”
“Hell yeah. Let’s play.”
Ivory resumed dealing, his measured hands acting out a story with every game. Ivory was giving as good as he got, but somehow Madame Chang’s chips continued to stack higher. Even after trading in $5 chips for $25 ones and a few $25s for $100s.
“You know how much money you lost tonight?” she said, blowing smoke out the side of her mouth away from the table.
“We’re up about a hundred, actually,” Art said.
“No,” Madame Chang insisted. “You are losing money. You play side bet, you be up $300 right now. Side bet good to us tonight. You play Lucky Ladies.”
“I’m not a big fan of side bets. Those are sucker bets. No offense.”
Madame Chang gave Art an ornery look. It wasn’t much different than her standard resting face.
“You know, it’s none of my business, sir,” Ivory said. “But Madame Chang don’t dole out advice very often. She must like you. I’d consider listening to her.”
“You like me?”
Her jowls and pouty lips ratcheted down another degree, making her stare that much more ornery. “Madame Chang like anyone who get rid of Henry. Besides, you tell him right. Old Americans all full of their own bullshit. Now, you going to play side bet or not? Ivory slow enough already. Don’t waste my time.”
“I’ll play.” Art put down $5 chips on the Lucky Ladies circle at his base and the one in front of Amelia. Ivory promptly dealt a 19 and an 11. Ivory scooped up the $10. Art doubled down on the 11 and got stuck with a 16. Ivory then flipped an ace against the nine showing. The quickest $40 Art had lost all night.
“See, side bets just aren’t for me.”
“Play again.” Madame Chang’s scowl deepened.
Art played again. No dice. Another $10 gone. “I think that’s it for me,” he said.
“I don’t know, Madame Chang. I can’t keep bleeding chips.”
“I’ve never seen Madame Chang be wrong before about something like this,” Ivory said. “But it’s up to you, sir. I know what I’d do.”
“Alright then. Here we go, Lucky Ladies.”
Ivory dealt the first round of cards. He paused for a long moment over the card that was headed for Amelia’s base. “Hmm,” he said, and slapped down a queen of hearts.
“Lucky Lady. Lucky Lady,” Madame Chang said. She latched on to Art’s left arm with both hands. He felt her claw-like nails dig in. Ivory then threw down a jack of clubs in front of Art. “Ooh, Ivory treat you good now. See?”
Ivory felt the moment and dealt the next four cards with almost the speed of a normal dealer, until he came back to the spot in front of Amelia. He ran his fingers along the edge of the next card in the shoe and carefully extracted it. He didn’t lift it to look at it, but held it down against the table.
“Let’s look at it together,” he said. Even the Eastern Europeans were rapt. They leaned in over the table. Ivory closed his eyes and lifted the card up over his head, then slapped it down in front of Amelia.
“Lucky Ladies! Lucky Ladies,” Madame Chang shouted. The Eastern European couple threw their arms in the air and shouted in triumph before regaining their previous state of surly composure. Amelia jumped out of her seat and kissed Art on the crown of his balding head. Art himself grinned from ear to ear and gave high fives to Madame Chang and the Eastern Europeans.
For good measure, Ivory then threw down the 10 of clubs on top of the jack of clubs in front of Art. That’s $45 for the suited 20 and $625 for the Lucky Ladies. It won’t pay the mortgage, but it sure feels good.
“See. I tell you. Lucky Ladies were ready to pay.” She cracked a smile for the first time all night. It was a tortured thing.
“Madame Chang, I don’t understand how you’re even allowed in the casino. You’re amazing. You must rob them blind.”
“Oh, no. I down $20,000 this year. I not so lucky. But it’s my husband’s money. Who cares?”
I’ve been taking advice to gamble on a stupid side bet from a degenerate, Art thought. Luck, who says it’s not real?
Over Madame Chang’s protest – she insisted the Lucky Ladies were still paying – Art and Amelia bowed out, shook everyone’s hands at the table and tipped Ivory with a $25 chip.
“Enjoy your life,” Ivory said. He let out a quiet old man’s chuckle as he set his eyes back down at the table to dawdle his way through the next hand.
Editor’s note: So I have one ‘finished’ novel manuscript being pitched to agents (mostly crickets so far; don’t those agents know how much writers love their rejection letters?) and a second completed manuscript that is in the editing stage. I figured, why not go for the holy triumvirate of unpublished noveldom and start a new one? The editing process on a novel is pretty brutal — it’s generally known as the time authors start to despise their story, seeing everything that’s wrong and choking back little baby vomits at the thought of all the work that’s needed to fix it. To give myself a little break from that dreary slog, I dove head first (or maybe belly flopped) into a new project that brings me nothing but unadulterated joy as I tap into my inner 13-year-old to write. That’s right, I’m writing a zombie book. It’s my party and I’ll be cliche if I want to. I don’t know if I’ll use the following faux-news article or not, but it provides the set up for this budding zombie world.
Supreme Court OKs viral incarceration
Drake administration praises decision as ‘game changer’ in War against Hunger; defiant states threaten to protect inmates’ rights
by Kareem Raji, The New York Times
17:49 | Dec. 15, 2021
Article approved by the FOB
WASHINGTON – On the 230th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights, the Supreme Court on Wednesday narrowly ruled in favor of the Justice Department’s Project Freeing Resources so Everyone Eats with a 4-3 vote along partisan lines.
Each of the four justices appointed by President Drake after February’s fatal Supreme Court chamber terrorist bombing – Eaton, King, Pendleton and Rivera – sided with DOJ arguments that viral incarceration does not violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. Civil liberties lawyers failed to convince the majority that the infection causes conscious suffering.
In their dissenting opinion, the three justices who survived the bombing and remain capable of sitting the bench wrote: “Of course, there is no conscious suffering; the infection eliminates the conscious. Victims of Virus 26 suffer because the lives they once led are taken from them. They are robbed of any opportunity for penitence, morality, and indeed basic humanity. They exhibit dangerous predatory behavior without any instinct for self-preservation. By no other name, infection is the definition of cruel and unusual.”
Justices Robertson and Sotomayor remain on life support under heavy guard. No timetable has been set for their return to the bench or on a decision to replace them.
“We are highly distraught at this blow to the human rights and civil liberties of America’s prisoners,” Terrence Updike, lead counsel for more than two dozen activist groups challenging Project FREE, said. “We pray for the prisoners who will be soon be infected with Virus 26 and that their souls may one day find peace. We have all failed them. The government doesn’t want us using this word, but the public needs to know what infected prisoners become. We’ve seen these things after infection and it rhymes with [CENSORED].”
Barely six months after Mr. Drake’s executive order establishing Project FREE, the court’s decision marked the final hurdle his administration needed to clear before initiating the infection program. The Supreme Court declined to hear a State of Vermont case alleging viral incarceration using Virus 26 violated the 29th Amendment prohibiting capital punishment last month, citing official Department of Scientific Research findings that infected human test subjects were, in fact, alive despite a dormant heart beat and reduced brain function.
U.S. Attorney General Jack Coehlo said the DOJ would immediately begin implementing viral incarceration for all inmates serving life sentences in each of the 37 federal penitentiaries and 22 federal correctional complexes, despite threats from several jurisdictions including California and Texas to defend prisoners located within their borders “by any means necessary.”
California Gov. Robert Greenberg and Texas Gov. William “Buck” Doolittle issued their most aggressive statement to date after the court handed down its ruling. “This administration has once again overreached by illegally expanding federal authority, and now plans on trampling states’ rights by using armed federal forces to subjugate our citizens’ lawful decision to ban this immoral form of cruel and unusual punishment. We will not stand for the federal government’s Draconian tactics and are evaluating all options, including secession from the union and mustering state militias to defend the rights of our citizens.”
The statement was co-signed by eight officially unrecognized provisional governors of former states located in consolidated federal territories.
“Out-of-touch politicians can beat their chests about defending the rights of hardened criminals all they want, but as the Supreme Court has demonstrated today, the law is on our side,” Coehlo said during a press conference following the ruling. “Not only the law, but justice. Project FREE is about justice. Millions of innocent citizens are going hungry in this country every day, and California and Texas want us to take food out of their mouths to feed guilty criminals when we have available a perfectly humane solution to eliminate dietary needs for inmates. If you ask me, that’s the real crime.”
The attorneys general of Wyoming, Kansas, Louisiana, Virginia and Ohio were the first to query the DOJ for permission to transfer inmates serving life sentences in their state prisons to Prison Camp 26, where the Bureau of Prisons will detain infected inmates after administering the virus in an adjacent maximum security medical facility.
As of March, federal and state prisons held more than one million life-sentence prisoners (LSPs) for the first time in U.S. history. The DOJ estimates viral incarceration of all LSPs would free up about 1.5 billion pounds of food annually that would instead be distributed to the public through the federal Food Aid program. Each LSP also costs the government an average of $57,000 per year, according to the DOJ, but will cost less than $3,000 under viral incarceration.
WEB EXTRA: Three-year anniversary of Drake admin
order abolishing early parole. Are we any safer?
Coehlo said the billions in savings will be used to import additional food, but did not specify where those supplies would be procured. Mexican and South American food production continues to plummet as increasingly arid soils wreak havoc on staple grain production. Canadian crop yields reached record highs last year, leading its agriculture minister to declare the “Golden Era of Canadian farming,” but Prime Minister David Hawkins quickly threatened to tighten sanctions on food imports to the U.S. after the high court’s decision on Virus 26. European and Southeast Asian food imports have slowed to a trickle for the third consecutive year on the heels of lucrative trade agreements with China and Europe’s ongoing defense crisis facing a growing number of food raids led by increasingly organized and well-armed African militia forces.
A Defense Department official who wished to remain anonymous said Canadian military forces continue to organize around key agricultural zones in Alberta and Ontario, but denied rumors that the U.S. war machine is gearing up after President Drake’s saber-rattling threat issued on Thanksgiving promising to annex Canada’s most productive agricultural lands if Hawkins does not lift the food sanctions by New Year’s Day.
“The Supreme Court scored an important victory in the War against Hunger today,” the White House said in a statement to media. “This new weapon against hunger is a game changer as we work diligently toward our goal of providing all Americans with adequate nutrition by 2025. We will do whatever it takes to protect and feed our citizens through these challenging times, and look forward to swiftly easing the burden hardened criminals have placed on innocent Americans.”
White House and DOJ officials again declined to disclose the top secret location of Prison Camp 26, citing national security concerns, but offered assurances that the facility and infected inmates would be separated from the public and general prison population “by a safe distance.”
Editor’s note: For those of you who know I recently returned from a trip to Rome, I can neither confirm nor deny that any version of these events actually happened. I can confirm that this story is, in the end, fiction. I wrote this piece specifically with McSweeney’s Internet Tendency in mind, and although it was rejected, the editor did take the time to kindly wish my day be passed in the comfort of shorts.
Original sin is located somewhere in the kneecap. This seems to be the official position of the Vatican. At least, that’s the only logical conclusion I can reach after the Pope made me wear pants. The Pope made me wear pants, which means he’s the one to blame for that pool of purple puke in the hall of the Hotel Primus Roma. Send the cleaning bill to 1 Vatican City c/o Papa Francesco.
Pope Francis may be a reformer, but he’s not taking a sledgehammer to the foundational belief of the Church: discomfort = spiritual okey dokeyness. Why else would I have to wear pants just to enter St. Peter’s Basilica when it’s 90 outside and not even a wisp of a Frenchman’s cigarette smoke in the sapphire sky? Millions of exposed kneecaps in San Pietro’s crib might be akin to Satan and his minions assaulting Heaven’s Gate, but I’ve never been closer to the devil’s door than standing crotch-soaked in ball sweat for two hours under the Roman sun waiting to get in to the home of the Holy See.
I admit, the Pope didn’t force me to wear skinny jeans that were up my ass like Kim Kardashian bikini bottoms, limiting any movement to itty bitty steps like a Japanese maiko in platformed okobo, but I have to think it was the Catholic spirit that drove me to choose corporal mortification by diaper rash.
I can sense your lack of sympathy, but consider the consequences of the Vatican’s medieval modesty. If Il Papa hadn’t made me wear pants, I wouldn’t have broken my wrist because I would have had the crotchal flexibility to clear that fence barricading us from the cool stuff in the Roman Forum. I wouldn’t have been forced to eat at the shady late night spot with the tainted prosciutto because all the reputable places were closed after I got out of the hospital or had two liters of red table wine because it was only €14 instead of the €30 it would have cost at a typical tourist trap. It wouldn’t have mattered that the bathroom window in my room at the discount hotel was stuck open or that the window had no screen or that pterodactyl-sized mosquitos were streaming in through the opening or that I closed the bathroom door to keep them from infecting me with Italian herpes or that the doorknob was broken and wouldn’t turn to open the door to the bathroom or that, when I panicked because I couldn’t get to the toilet when the food poisoning struck in the middle of the night, I ran naked into the hallway to eject the aforementioned two liters of wine plus about a cubic meter of spaghetti noodles across the white tile floor like a curling stone gliding over ice.
The night desk guy told me in broken English that he watched the whole thing on video and thought I was throwing up blood because I was possessed by a demon. He was wearing a rosary from the St. Peter’s gift shop. I wasn’t listening to him, not that closely, really, because I was still wearing the briefs into which I had heftily sharted in observation of Newton’s Third Law mandating an equal and opposite reaction to my projectile vomitus. My briefs smelled of the devil’s handiwork, not spiritual cleansing.
The Pope made me wear pants. And there were consequences.
Editor’s note: On the heels of finishing my manuscript for Happy Jack, I probably should have started submitting it to agents to get the long and arduous (and possibly painfully futile) process of getting it published rolling. But then I got the itch to write another novel. Right on top of one I just finished. My first experience finishing a novel, I didn’t want to think about writing for months, so I figured I might ought to use my surprise writing juices while they were still flowing. The result is a 120,000-word first draft of a novel tentatively titled The Dream Trip. Here’s how it happened: I saw The Secret Life of Walter Mitty right after finishing Happy Jack and thought, hey, I want to write a feel-good travel adventure story. Carrie and I also took a road trip across the ole U.S. of A. last summer so the feeling of it was still fresh and ripe for some appropriation into my writing. Needing more than just “people on a road trip,” I quickly drifted into making the story of Art and Amelia thematically about America’s cultural comeback, then somehow ended up with a magnum opus for the Millennial generation (I do love me some Millennials). We’ll see how it turns out. I’ve got a lot of revision to do. But here is the opening chapter of The Dream Trip.
Chapter 1 – A Month Ago
“How long has this been going on?”
Art’s coworkers had decided to send for help. Naturally, they went to the head of Human Resources. Vicki Thorpe is not a psychologist or a life counselor. She’s not even first aid certified. But in the face of a potential medical emergency, Art’s boss went to Vicki because A) it was the lowest risk course of action and B) major corporations are where very smart people go to become very stupid.
“No one knows,” Tom said. “Nobody remembers him saying a word this morning, but that’s normal. After a while, we just thought he was giving us the silent treatment.”
“So he hasn’t said a word all day?”
“Nope. None of us remember seeing him move, either. Alice balled up a piece of paper and hit him in the eye earlier. He didn’t even flinch.”
“You shouldn’t waste paper,” Vicki said. “It’s a cost center.”
It was 3 p.m. At 8:56 a.m., Art marched in to work without a word, sat down, turned on his computer and commenced to stare at the screen with his hands folded in his lap. Motionless silence since. As he was leaving the house that morning, Amelia announced to him that after nine-plus years of marriage, she was leaving him. He hesitated a moment, then responded “Love you, bye” like he did every morning. He picked his briefcase up from next to the umbrella stand, walked out the door, put the key in the ignition, and drove the concrete expanse of U.S. Route 1 to the corporate headquarters of Lynx Pharmaceutical in Princeton Junction, New Jersey. Art was not aware that Amelia’s five words (“I’m leaving you. I’m sorry.”) triggered a panic attack that had been ongoing from the moment his mind processed them.
“Art. You there buddy?” Vicki snapped her fingers in front of his face. He didn’t even blink. He stared at the little screen saver picture of Amelia hugging him on the Seaside Heights boardwalk the summer before Sandy destroyed it. It bounced around the edges of his computer like the ball in a game of Pong. The rest of the world was black, a void. His remaining senses were tuned in to his heart. It was beating so fast, but it had also started skipping beats. It had been working at over 100 beats per minute for nearly seven hours, well above Art’s normal resting heart rate. To borrow a phrase: he was freaking out, man. Slight trembling and droplets of sweat on his brow were the only signs on the outside. Inside was much worse. His chest felt tight. He felt like his throat had almost closed up. Then, the picture of him and Amelia became fuzzy as he felt something for the first time all day.
“Art, snap out of it. Come on. You’re scaring everyone.” Vicki shook his shoulder, gently for a moment before really rattling his cage with the full force of her doughy, overweight, white collar body. Her skin smelled like 1988.
“Maybe we should call a doctor, Vicki.”
“This might be serious.”
“He looks pale. He might be having a stroke or something.”
“See, Art, you’re scaring everyone,” Vicki said. “You’re not being a good teammate.”
Art turned his head and stared directly into Vicki’s dull grey eyes.
“There you go. Now what’s this all about, Art?”
“I can’t breathe,” Art said. “I can’t breathe.”
He kicked out of his chair, knocking Vicki and another coworker crowding his chair aside. He ripped off his Q*bert 3D pyramid tie then tore open his Pierre Cardin business shirt from T.J.Maxx, launching cheap plastic buttons that plinked across his neighbors’ desks. He wasn’t wearing an undershirt and his hairy gut wobbled over his belt. Quite a crowd had gathered at this point. The more courteous now had the decency to avert their eyes. But for every one of those, four new gawkers would happen to stroll by to watch the train wreck unfold. They stared at him like an animal in the zoo.
Art started making a noise. A horrible noise. Not a scream or a cry or a whimper. Something long and low and pathetic. Pathetic in action as a verb. He patheticed a terrible, mournful noise.
Art swirled around, not looking at anyone, but looking for something. He saw the plastic five-foot-tall palmetto that had been stationed behind his cubicle since the day he started at Lynx Pharmaceutical almost eight years ago. He grabbed it, pulled it to his soft, pale chest. He clung to it as he started to climb onto his desk, but the pot was too heavy. Art alternated trying to get himself and the tree on top of the desk, but failed either way. On each attempt, his belly fat formed a long line across his stomach in the shape of a smile. His two nipples were like large pink eyes. The smiley face beamed at the onlookers, letting them know everything was OK. Tom was so embarrassed for Art, he stepped forward to help him lift the plastic palmetto onto the desk.
“Tom, please. Don’t. That’s not helping,” Vicki said.
Art still couldn’t hear anything. He sat down on the large pot on top of the desk, wrapped his legs around the synthetic trunk and wet himself. Pissed long and hard as he patheticed that terrible, mournful noise again.
Editor’s Note: The following is a selection from my mostly completed (they’re never really done until and unless they’re published) manuscript, HAPPY JACK. It features the title character doing what he does best – making people happy.
In almost no time at all, rumors of the miracle worker on Dauphine Street spread throughout New Orleans. Within two months, people were lining up around the corner of Esplanade Avenue waiting to see Jack Hazelwood and Dr. Claudius Beauregard Archambeau – the men who sold happiness like a commodity in the Hazelwood & Archambeau Holistic Wellness Clinic.
Especially after Bastille Day, the day of Red’s Revival.
By July 14, 2010, Red Armstrong was mostly know as a harmless beggar who frequented the outskirts of the French Quarter by day and lingered outside the doors of Bourbon Street clubs by night listening to the Big Easy’s new wave of ragtime bands. To the younger generation, he was a nameless face. But to the old timers, he was a fallen star, another resident of Katrinatown.
Red was once considered the greatest trumpet player to come out of New Orleans since Louis Armstrong, who, coincidentally, local legend had it was Red’s illegitimate father. There is no sound evidence Louis Armstrong fathered Red, although there is evidence Red legally changed his last name from Oliver in 1956. None of that matters to those familiar with the New Orleans jazz scene. They say the way Red played his trumpet was as all the evidence they needed to prove he was the true heir to Louis’ talent.
But Red lost everything in Katrina – his house, his popular jazz club in Tremé, and most importantly the trumpet he claimed Louis gave to him as a boy. When that was gone, people said he just stopped playing. He lost the will to play and he lost his wits. No one could remember which got lost first, but folks had enough of their own problems after Katrina that no one had it in them to stop his free fall.
By the time Jack came around, those who still knew who he was thought he was too far gone to save, this man who spent all his days mumbling broken lyrics to Louis Armstrong hits. Those who didn’t know him didn’t care in the first place.
Except for Jack, who caught a glimpse of Red walking by on the Dauphine Street banquett in front of the clinic. The lines were shorter then, but the waiting room was still full. Jack asked Dr. Archambeau if they could take a break so he could help the man, who he didn’t know from any other old hobo in tattered whisky-stained rags.
The doctor said they didn’t have time for charity cases, but Jack insisted the man was worth helping. He was sure Dr. Archambeau would like what happened if he did.
The doctor was intrigued enough by the offer to let Jack bring him in. The people in the crowded waiting room, however, were not amused. Most of the already unhappy assembly griped and complained about getting skipped by a bum. A couple patients recognized Red and told Jack not to waste his time, there was no use bothering over the old coot. Jack begged forgiveness and promised everyone it would be worth their while. Worth it for the whole city.
One of those waiting room patients was Demetrius Applewood, an up-and-coming clarinet player from Red’s home neighborhood of Tremé. Applewood was in the clinic that day because he was struggling to make it as a musician and was looking for a way out of some trouble he had gotten himself into trying his hand as a small time drug peddler. The story of Jack and Red is one I might have never known if Applewood hadn’t overheard me interviewing other former clinic patients at his new restaurant and live music venue on Spain Street, just north of the French Quarter. He sat down, measured me with a few questions, then said any friend of Jack’s was a friend of his. That he owed everything he had to Jack.
Demetrious Applewood, former patient; proprietor, Who Dat Soul
I saw Jack messin’ around over Red and thought this man crazier than we is. How am I supposed to get help from a dude who don’t know the difference of troubled mind from lost-his-mind? I be seein’ Red on the corners back then, just talkin’ nonsense. But there was always somethin’ a little off with that dude. I used to sneak into his club in Tremé back when I was a kid and he’d dedicate every set to his Pops, Louis Armstrong. I’d be like, old man, nobody believe all that mess. Not even ya own damn band.
What I’m sayin’ is Red, he was pretty unmoved ‘bout this whole episode at that point. He just hummin’ along while Jack drag him into the clinic. The whole time Jack pleading with us and Dr. Archambeau to hear him out, Red mumblin’ old Satchmo, same as he always did. Sound like: ‘I see trees of green, red roses too … two left feet, oh so neat, has Sweet Georgia Brown … oh when you smilin’, when you smilin’ … they all sigh and want to die for Sweet Georgia Brown … and I think to myself, what a wonderful world.’
Anyways, Jack tell Dr. Archambeau he need about a thousand dollars. Dr. Archambeau don’t like this none too well and he lookin’ around at us in the wait room shifty as hell because he don’t want all these fools knowin’ he keep all that money up in there. But, sho’ as I own that seat you parked on, he go off in the back and come back with a cool stack of Benjamins. Jack don’t hesitate. He run out the door and come back 10 minutes later with a classic Besson trumpet and a starter drum kit. You ax me, he got a fine deal on that brass. Just as good as stole it for $800, but you know how it was tough times and all back then. Them drums weren’t worth a handful of beads, though, so I guess the pawn shop got him there.
Dr. Archambeau, he say, ‘Jack, you wanna take this back into the treatment room,’ and Jack say, ‘Naw bawse. These people need to see the show they been waitin’ fo’.’
Jack sit down and start bangin’ on them drums, and I think, damn, boy can do some work with them sticks. Shit, I might pay just to come jam with this brother. That’d surely have my step feelin’ light again. He’s layin’ down the dirtiest old ragtime drum line you ever heard and people in the room start bobbin’ they heads, you know, gettin’ into it a little bit. To the point we don’t even see ole Red step over to the Besson that Jack laid up on the end table.
Man, son, you couldn’t believe it. Like that trumpet never left his lips. He was smokin’ that piece. Everybody in the room get up and start dancin’. Yeah, you know I did. We got music in our blood in this town. Red’s feelin’ it, too. He shakin’ it pretty good for a old ass bum. Then he start playin’ his way right out the front door and everybody like, ‘Yo Red, where you goin’ old man?’ Jack sling a strap ‘round his neck with the snare drum and tell us to just come on wit’im.
It sound stupid anywhere else, but not in N’awlins. We straight started marchin’ down the street and had us a parade. Red marched us the long way ‘round the block to Louis Armstrong Park. Everybody was out celebratin’ Bastille Day and we picked up, shit, I don’t know, prob’ly like two, three thousand folks along the way. Little kids with they hair in braids dancin’ ‘round Red. Must have had ‘bout eight, nine dogs start tailin’ us, too. Then shit got real when this Ma Rainey lookin’ whole-lotta woman joined in. Dressed like she on her way to church in her high heels, purple dress, flowers fallin’ off the side of her hat. I never seen this woman in my life and never seen her since, but I can tell you she stole 1926’s heart with that voice. You better believe Bessie Smith turn over in the grave that day axin’ who stole my sound. That’s when musicians started poppin’ they heads out to see where that new old sound comin’ from. We just about had us a full street band playin’ when we got to the park. ‘Bone, more drums, clarinet, this one zydeco cat had his washboard. They see me and know who I was and be like, ‘Yo D, that crazy Red? Red Armstrong?’
Yeah, yeah it was. Boy, that was a time with a capital T.
Red’s still playing, but no one compares him to Louis Armstrong anymore. He was reborn with his own sound. His new band plays every Thursday night in Who Dat Soul with Applewood on the clarinet. Jack’s not the drummer. He never was a drummer, and he couldn’t play the drums on his own if he tried. It’s what his gift guided him to do that day, that time.
The Mythological Monster Madness bracket is set, but not all competitors are created equal. We break down the field to separate the real contenders from the pretenders in this year’s edition of the greatest sporting competition in the mythological history of the world.
Asia Pacific Region
No. 1 China: Chinese Dragon
No. 4 Nepal: Yeti
Expect the imperial Chinese Dragon to wear down Nepal’s Yeti with waves of cultural hegemony and feigned friendly diplomatic overtures, setting up its famed “Maoist backdoor cut” all day long. China has to be seen as favorites to win the whole tournament as its greatest symbol of power is backed up by the deepest bench in the field, 1 billion-plus Chinese laborers.
No. 2 Japan: Pikachu
No. 3 Australia: Drop Bear
If Japan can get past Australia’s Drop Bear, it could be a tricky match up for the Chinese Dragon thanks to Pikachu’s electric conductivity making it highly flame retardant. That will be no easy feat, though, as Drop Bear – a giant, flesh eating koala – will look to down Pikachu like so much eucalyptus. The Selection Committee dealt a crucial blow to Japan’s hopes when it denied Pikachu’s appeal to evolve into Raichu, stating that Raichu did not appear on Japan’s official roster.
British Isles Region
No. 1 Scotland: Unicorn
No. 4 England: Pixie
England once again brings a big reputation and little substance to the tournament as the Pixie relies exclusively on its strategy of leading opponents to the woods and leaving them there lost, which should pose no problems for Scotland’s Unicorn – a native of woodland habitats. The Unicorn is the only competitor that is not only its nation’s most prized mythological creature but also the actual national animal. Bald Eagle doesn’t seem so great anymore, does it? The only thing standing between Scotland and a title run is the Unicorn’s blood – instant immortality will make any opponent that drinks it a real challenge. A potential Final Four match up with Vladimir Putin could spell international disaster should the Russian Dictator, er, President get hold of the Unicorn’s horn.
No. 2 Wales: Welsh Dragon
No. 3 Ireland: Leprechaun
Lacking the wisdom and strategery of the Chinese Dragon and relying more on brute force, the Welsh Dragon boasts perhaps the best offense in the field. However, Ireland’s Leprechaun will look to exploit the Welsh Dragon’s uncontrollable gold lust with its own damnably-frustrating-to-steal pot o’ the shiny stuff. Should Ireland advance, it would surely fall to Scotland. The Unicorn’s ability to completely disorient the Leprechaun by farting a maze of rainbows would nullify its famous shiftiness.
No. 1 Russia: Vladimir Putin
No. 4 Austria: Krampus
What, we ask, is more mythological than Vladimir Putin? This legend has hugged polar bears, rode horseback shirtless through the Siberian wilderness, shot whales with a crossbow, saved a TV crew from an escaped tiger, flown on a hang glider with migratory cranes and distracted the world from his impending invasion of Ukraine with a little event symbolizing world peace known as the Olympics. After an excellent season of terrorizing Alpine children, Austria’s lovable horned pseudo-Pagan-Christian Christmas demon Krampus stands little chance against the world’s greatest living myth left after the passing of North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il.
No. 2 Greece: Minotaur
No. 3 Germany: Wolpertinger
What better creature to survive the labyrinth of the world’s most competitive conference tournament than the Minotaur? Besting such rivals as Cyclops, the Titans, Hydra and Cerberus to make it this far, the “Cretan Beacon” is a strong hope for perennial power Greece. However, the brutal Greek Conference left the Minotaur bloodied and vulnerable after Theseus beheaded it in the waning moments of the league championship game. Having no head with which to see should play right into the paws of Germany’s Wolpertinger, the deer antlered, bird winged rabbit-wolf creature whose main skill involves hiding from drunken Bavarian hunters.
No. 1 Argentina: Diego Maradona
No. 4 Guatemala: El Sombreron
The former child street urchin and cocaine addict is worshiped as a god by many in his soccer loving nation. The people call him Golden Boy and Hand of God, but his most famous nickname came from a radio commentator who wondered aloud on air after a Maradona goal, “Cosmic Kite, what planet have you come from?” The egomaniacal mighty mite’s greatest power is perhaps his unflinching hyperinflated belief in his own legend. Underdog El Sombreron from Guatemala is the feel good story of the tournament, a silver guitar-playing bogeyman in a big sombrero who stalks women by ceaselessly serenading them, trying to braid their hair, and putting dirt in their food so they’re always hungry and can’t sleep. Unfortunately, those skills mirror Maradona’s, and El Sombreron doesn’t kick a soccer ball nearly so well.
No. 2 Egypt: Mummy
No. 3 USA: Chupacabra
America’s best hope was squashed when the Selection Committee ruled that Chuck Norris was not eligible for mythological competition because all acts of greatness ascribed to him were, indeed, 100% factual. That opened the door for the upstart goat-eating Chupacabra out of Puerto Rico, the first tourney contestant to carry the flag for an imperial overlord. Egypt back-doored its way into the tournament by virtue of an American archaeologist’s early 20th century theft of a cursed mummy. The Committee ruled that the Mummy’s 100-year residence in the basement of a small New York college library qualified it to compete on behalf of its original nation in its new home region. The Mummy is coached by the legendary Anubis, Egyptian god of the dead, and may be able to upset Maradona in the second round by convincing him of the benefits of embalmment.
Biggest tourney snubs
1. Norwegian Troll
The struggles in recent years of Norway’s legendary Troll have led to a drastic drop in fuzzy-headed troll keychain sales as its stock falls faster than Duck Dynasty ratings, leading some to label it the Kentucky Wildcats of mythological sport.
2. Polite Frenchman
Perhaps the strongest mythological entity to be left out of the field in centuries. The Polite Frenchman is so rare that it is rumored the Committee extended him a bid, but he was never located to accept it.
Africa’s mythological sport leagues continue to languish under the Eurocentric Selection Committee bylaws excluding these nations from competing on the grandest stage. A history of racism and bias against oral folklore once again casts a shadow over this great tournament, and we expect more African nations will follow Egypt’s lead finding alternative routes into the field through gross cultural appropriation by Europe and the United States. To wit, former NBA star, Old Spice pitch man and Dikembe Mutumbo Saves the World hero Dikembe Mutumbo is rumored to be in training to compete on behalf of the Democratic Republic of Congo next season.