Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Years later, he still heard the gunshots, the chaos of people. He roamed LA for weeks, months, years, went from law school and campaigns to film school to odd jobs to taking orders, flipping burgers. Ironic, working in a kitchen, but this was his penance, circling a reality he couldn’t confront. His old life hazy photos burnt at the edges. The pictures of RFK lying on the ground, head bleeding, the darkness punctuated by bleached light. One day, his father appeared. Both were stunned—it had been years. Son, I paid for you to go to law school. Like he was 10 again, he nodded his head, listening to his father, silent. He wanted to say, I’m a ghost, I was shot and killed that day too. I saw you on tv, pleading for a doctor, and we just knew. Sizzling burgers shrinking, cheese bubbling, the beeping of cooked fries. Things changed, Dad, I’m…this…it’s okay. You have to leave the wilderness some time, son. And he’s back at the podium, anyone that’s a doctor, please, and that young busboy, kneeling in jazzman’s lighting, arm cradling the dying senator’s body, looking to anyone wondering, what. His eyes for years staring at this fractured mirror, seeking a way back inside, just before the gunshots.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

New work @ JMWW

Yellowfin Tuna has been published in the Fall 2009 issue of JMWW, here.

The rest of the Fall 2009 issue, featuring a cool new design for the site, is also worth checking out.  Start here

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Celebrity Writers

This post title doesn’t refer to writers who have become celebrities—Stephen King, John Grisham, J.K. Rowling, and the like—nor does it refer to celebrities who have books that come out under their own name but were actually written by someone else—those books with celebrities’ names printed in big type on the cover, often autobiographies, motivational-type books, or even novels, and the smaller type “With” someone else who actually wrote the book. No, this is more about celebrities who are truly writers in their own right, such as Steve Martin and Ethan Hawke.

I have not read the books of Steve Martin and Ethan Hawke, but I have read some of Martin’s writings in the New Yorker, and they were pretty good and definitely worthy of being in a major publication. I remember when I first read them back in the 1990s, I had to double check to make sure this was the Steve Martin, that wild and crazy guy, and not someone else with the same name. I think I groaned a bit when I heard that Ethan Hawke published a novel, but I later learned it seemed like a genuine effort of his, and he published a second one a few years after that. I imagine Hawke’s novels are probably decent if undistinguished reads, similar in quality and subject matter to a lot of stuff that’s out there and probably better than the standard fiction bestsellers. There’s nothing wrong with that, if that’s the case.

Of course, those of us struggling to make a name for ourselves as writers have to wonder, what do published writers Steve Martin and Ethan Hawke have that I don’t have? They have their names, for one, as well as access to the best agents and connections. All right, sure. Do they possess superior writing ability? Not necessarily. If both were unknowns, they might be in the same boat as the rest of us who write. We’re all fighting to get our names recognized, but it’s a difficult task with so many unknowns out there. I think most of us would like to hit the big time on our own writing merits, certainly, but we also wouldn’t mind if we had some other legitimate angle that gave us that extra nudge.

For me, I’m not concerned about the seemingly great injustice of celebrities getting book deals while the rest of us toiling writers collect piles of rejections and live unrecognized. I can live with that and the capitalist notion that recognizable names on covers sell books. I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing. Actually, it’s kind of fun to think that someone like Steve Martin might be sitting in front of a computer right now, doing what I’m doing, thinking of the right way to phrase an idea, wondering if he’s using the right word. At such a moment, we’re equals.

Saturday, September 26, 2009


Don’t ask me why we eat lasagna for Christmas. We have no Italian heritage, just the normal tasteless American variety. My mother heard once that some people have it as tradition, so, devoid of our own, she debased herself, stole it, called it ours. Just like Mom—she often scavenged to cobble together our family life. Like a street person pushing a cart, collecting sellable scraps. Right by the front door is a big mirror with steel flowers filigreed around the perimeter. This was lifted from an evicted neighbor’s belongings. Always look before you go out, she reminded us, to make sure you’re together. This became the family’s unwritten creed. Christmas arrives and I walk in, look at that timeless mirror that needs a shine, see the peeling wallpaper around it. The smell of lasagna—oregano and sausage—was strong. Ciao!, she says, hands up, suddenly Italian. Perhaps we could watch a Godfather marathon, maybe act out scenes from Moonstruck. My brother lives far away and never comes. No one else, often it’s just mom, dad, and me. Sitting at the table, eating a reserved meal that wasn’t ours. Those boisterous large Italian families—fiction for us. In the mirror there’s the three of us, holding hands tightly if only we could.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Common Cold

He sneezes 30 times straight, each a staccato blast in his bare apartment, calls his older brother, says, remember when we would count how many times we’d sneeze in a row?

Yeah, what’s the record, like 68?

I forget, he says, thinking it probably only seemed like so many when they were kids. I got a cold, he says, sick voice flubbing words, as he rattles off three sneezes.

Through the phone he hears an electric guitar, sounding live not recorded; a train rattling, symptom of congested city living.

Sorry to hear that, his brother says, the baby just got over one. You have to come up, see us some time.

In the mirror he sees bloodshot eyes, thinks, I need sleep. Says, remember when dad’s eyes would get bloodshot—I thought maybe he sneaked shots of whiskey upstairs when he was supposedly working the crossword.

No, you’re wrong, it was because he slept five hours a night. Like Edison. Right up to when he died.

You think dad was a genius?, he says, hearing that guitar again, thinking where his brother lives, with his luck, it could be some virtuosic player like Petrucci or Satriani shredding in a bare brick-walled tenement.

What do you think, his brother says. A pause, silence. Gotta go, bro, work to do.

They hang up, and just before falling asleep, he remembers as a kid waking in the night, throat scratchy, going to the kitchen for some water. There was dad sitting at the table, wide awake, reading glasses on nose, pen in hand above a Doppler graph of numbers on paper, one of many now-lost theorems, looking up as he walked into the room.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Problem with Umbrellas

The author has trouble keeping track of umbrellas. He buys them and loses them, leaving them behind at friends’ houses, on public buses, in Asian restaurants. He often finds himself in a situation where it’s raining and he has no protection, running from place to place as his clothes, shoes, and hair get soaked, pondering if one gets wet the same amount whether walking or running through the rain. He hopes that perhaps you, dear reader, have once been the beneficiary of his forgetfulness, that one of his lost umbrellas has protected your suede, your irreplaceable documents and photos, your health. He wants you to know that, yes, he’s concerned about this condition being a symptom of early-onset Alzheimer’s, and thanks you if you have shared this concern, but wants you to know that this has always been a problem, ever since he lost his Sesame Street umbrella during a trip to the zoo in kindergarten. He requests that if you see him out in the rain, running for cover and getting soaked, do not laugh or feel sorry, but rather, contemplate his dilemma for a moment—man against nature, the continual replay of the same situation, etc.—pretend there’s some meaning in it.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


Thinking it was the dentist’s office, I walked into a taxidermist’s shop. Workers glanced at me, intense stares as if caught doing something wrong, then back to work. I was about to leave when I realized the place smelled of lemons. Intrigued, I asked the closest person—a balding man, thick glasses, decked in clean-room white—about the aroma.

The skins are treated with lemon juice, he said. We use lemon air fresheners to further mask odors.

The shop was one large working area. A Smithsonian exhibit, animals frozen in various poses. Dogs and cats. Turkeys and deer. An attacking bear, a falcon grasping prey. Frozen, dead eyes staring back. Like a cemetery, a place of still nightmares.

Can I help you, sir, the man asked. I mentioned my mistake. He made a standard pain-dentist joke.

This seems like arcane stuff, I said, like alchemy, phrenology. Don’t know anyone who’s employed a taxidermist.

The man was working on a hawk. Fierce talons forever poised for strike.

You’d be surprised, he said. It’s regaining popularity. People want memories, preservations.

I left pondering that, found the dentist. Afterward, the smell of lemons—air freshener, disinfectant, lemonade—returned my thoughts to that shop. A view suspended in liquid, watching that man stuff a dead bird.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Coconut Shrimp

We kidnapped Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane figuring he’d be valuable as one of baseball’s top GMs but learned his cost-cutting team wouldn’t pay a ransom, as Beane had instructed. So, here we were, fledgling kidnappers, stuck with an unransomable executive, burdened with startup costs such as guns, fake IDs, warehouse space. We treated him well, housed him in clean quarters and even fed him bottom-line-squeezing coconut shrimp he’d requested, as we pondered what next. After two days, he said, look, I’ve considered what you guys do, and have devised a system to determine who’d be worth the most in ransom in terms of money and risk. Of course, we were all ears. Three names for you: Mark Cuban, Steve Jobs, Ben Carson. That’s a lot of money/importance. He said, it’s statistical analysis, I’m just telling you what the equations produce. You also came up with McCurdy, Fritz, and Obenchain, reminding him of failed draft picks. He squirmed in his seat, said, you win some, you lose some. Bill, these aren’t draft picks, if we lose, we’re toast. That reminds me—the amateur draft’s coming. Any chance of settling this by then? How about some more shrimp? We the kidnappers looked at each other. What’re we going to do with this guy?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Writing, Circa 1993

Lately, I’ve been looking through old files of writing that I happen to have in a format that’s usable in 2009 (not everything was on the Brother Word Processor; I acquired a very used PC some time in early 1993, though it did not outlast the Brother machine).

A great deal of the stuff is useless now, though there are some common themes in my thoughts regarding writing and just what the heck I was doing. Am I writer, how do I write consistently, what do I write about. I have nothing to write, I’m wasting my time and not writing anything productive, I have writer’s block. There’s a general lack of confidence and just trying to get my bearings.

That point was probably the point where most would-be writers get lost. They see the daunting task before them of improving craft, dreaming up and completing projects, and the likelihood of not receiving outside recognition any time soon and give up. I see it as stepping out onto a big blank space all by yourself and from there you’re supposed to find your way to some lush writing grounds. You’re bound to wander around lost for awhile looking for landscape.

These sentiments I expressed years ago must be natural for the beginning writer. Some of them linger after those beginning days, sure, but I think you develop a set of tools or just thicker skin to put them in their place and not let them drag you down. You keep moving along because it’s what you do. You even learn to love what you’re doing and can’t imagine doing something different.

My writing-related concerns these days are more along the lines of, what project do I work on, to where do I submit, in what direction do I take something I’m working on or how do I revise it and make it better. The other stuff creeps in sometimes, but I’m too far in now for it to stop me.

Friday, September 11, 2009


F developed an engine that ran on jellybeans. Buy a bag, dump it in, and off you went. The black and white, F said, provided the most oomph. But he could’ve been making that up. F’s engine was real but he was given to tall tales. He claimed he talked jellybean fuel with Ronald Reagan, the chief jellybean man, but he was either in jail or incognito during those years; insisted he’d found a way for Lucky Charms to replace household batteries; said he blended Cadbury Crème Eggs and mystery ingredients into the ultimate healing concoction. F was hailed as a genius, bringing his peapod jellybean machine to car shows, races, and invention expos, until one day, the car stopped working. Couldn’t figure it out, even tried some alterations. Nothing. Whispers of collusion, disgruntled murmurs under his aging breath, the jellybean makers changing their recipes, payoffs from auto and oil. The years went by and his theories and inventions all fizzled. Nothing new under his sun. He’d arrive at shows, dressed in fine Italian suits, and throw jellybeans at the new inventors. Security would haul him out as he kicked and screamed in protest. He died from drinking too many Yoo-Hoos mixed with ginger and artichoke, the key to long living, he claimed.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Killer of Worlds

Outside her front door she found it sitting there: a small violet-colored box, the size of a billiard ball, with a note, folded into a small square, attached to it. The note read, "opening this box will cause the world to be destroyed." The box, light as air, fit within the palm of her hand. She contemplated opening it. If it truly worked, it would annihilate her last love, who left for another woman the previous week. It would eliminate everyone who has broken her heart or wronged her. But it would also wipe out everything else: herself, her family, the decent people of the world. It was selfish and not what she imagined herself like; nonetheless, destroying everything appealed to her. All in pain would be free; all causing pain would be destroyed. It was like killing the body to claim victory over a disease.

Feeling abandonment, rejection and loneliness—a chasm of life pain—she opened the box. Nothing happened. The pain was still there. She laughed then cried. She realized, somewhere, a stranger was breathing, eating, getting dressed. A speeding bullet, moving closer to the day he would enter her life and inflict pain upon her. She looked down at the open box. It was black and empty inside.

Monday, September 7, 2009


V’s mind runs a short film loop: her father being lowered into a dark hole in the ground. She’s 8 again. She watches. She can’t cry. The coffin lowered into the earth, deeper than where the dead usually go. She thinks she sees a halo around the coffin, an intense sun that will still shine even after being covered by concrete and dirt. She hears the crisp crackling of a Geiger counter, the static of a lost radio station, her dead father searching for a broadcast frequency.

He was gone, her mother said, before the coughing, the vomiting, before anyone said, Chernobyl. The reactor dressed in white sarcophagus—always in the distance, an afterimage that can’t be erased. Like her old house that still sits, far away, abandoned like the rest of the town. Slumping porch, white paint peeling, broken windows. She can still see her father sitting on the porch. Vodka in hand, looking to the sky, his face forcing a smile through exponential decay.

Now, she has a husband. They have no children nor will they. She wonders if he looks at her, sees her body becoming transparent, fading away.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Egg Custard

One day after school bullies chased me into a bar. Inside: smoke, cheap beer stench, weathered men like my father reading newspapers, shooting pool, playing electronic poker. Everyone stopped what they were doing, sized me up. At the bar I saw Jim, the neighborhood snowball man, his eyes widening, amber-colored drink before him. His weather-beaten white truck chugged through the neighborhood on warm afternoons, broadcasting canned merry-go-round music. My friends ordered chocolate or cherry, or novelty-named flavors like Pete Rose or Shaun Cassidy. I always ordered egg custard. That’s what he called me.

He approached me, said, Egg Custard, you can’t be in here, escorted me outside. No bullies in sight.

Kid, don’t tell anyone about me at the bar. Anyone’s parents find out, it’s no more snowball truck.

I looked at him, nodded. He forced a smile.

Look, how about free snowballs you keep quiet. When you’re alone. Look, I’m no creep, Egg Custard, just I can’t afford all your friends.

The snowballs-for-silence deal worked fine. One day though Jim’s truck stopped coming. Some said Jim lost his license; others he was stabbed, died in his sleep. A Good Humor truck took over. I could duck into a thousand bars and never see its driver, never hear the name Egg Custard.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Old Way of Doing Things

I started this writing thing about 18 years ago using a brand new Brother Word Processor I bought for a ridiculous amount of money. If you’re not familiar with what such a thing was, it was essentially a typewriter computer, complete with its own orange screen monitor, with no functionality beyond word processing. You could save your files on standard 3-1/2” floppy disks (single/double-sided, double density only; high density didn’t work), though once the files reached a certain size, you’d have to start a new file to continue. Since it was a typewriter, you had to buy costly ribbons to print your work, which would run out of ink without warning (you might end up with a mostly blank page), and it printed just like a typewriter as you inserted one piece of paper at a time. You could even buy different daisy wheels if you wanted additional fonts.

Someone else's Brother WP-3400
I thought that word processor was the neatest thing. If I would’ve been smarter, I would’ve used my money to buy a decent used computer, even if they were primitive at the time compared to now, since I now have useless disks of documents from that period that I can’t access. Fortunately, I did print out everything—another fun thing was going to a place like Office Depot and buying packets of high quality paper for printing and then putting the printed works in binders—so I do have these works. But I don’t have the time or patience to retype these things into modern day Word.

In a way, it’s probably good that I can’t access these works now. Putting it simply, they stink and are embarrassing to read all these years later, which is to be expected of most 19 year olds who have just begun expressing their creativity. Most of us aren’t Mozart or Carson McCullers or John Keats; if you are, congratulations, though be aware that they all died young. The rest of us need years of writing crap and living our lives before we can find our voice and craft.

That Brother Word Processor, though it’s now long gone, will always hold a special place in my memory since it was a critical part of my writing journey. It was a primitive tool in my primitive years—the first tool I purchased specifically to aid my writing ambitions. I consider the day that I bought it as the start of my writing career.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


Jeremy died eating flying shrimp. Blame Benihana: the argument of his mother’s $5 million lawsuit. The chef, in white hat and apron, sliced and diced on a sizzling hibachi in a circle of customers. After salad and onion soup, he worked the circle flipping and tossing steak, chicken, shrimp. Oohs and aahs, the spectacle of spatula-launched meats landing in mouths. When he reached Jeremy, the shrimp soared high; Jeremy stood, leapt, fell backward, head crashing into a ceramic tree pot. The chef and customers rushed to his aid, but not quick enough. He’d caught the shrimp in his mouth, died from traumatic head injury.

Jeremy was not great at catching things, his mother said, crying, flanked by lawyers at the press conference. Thrown objects like footballs and baseballs had eluded him since childhood. If anyone there had bothered to realize this, maybe he’d still be alive. His father, God rest his soul, had tried to improve his skills, to hone his timing, to work past sunset throwing balls, to forge his progeny’s legacy as all-county, all-state, MVP. But the boy just didn’t have it.

Someone mentioned Jeremy did, at least, catch the shrimp. But his mother was lost, contemplating how a healthy settlement check would compensate for everyone’s failure to outlive her.