Archive for the ‘Short Fiction’ Category

My dog-walking outfit consists of a black glove on my right hand (the poop bag hand) and a black surgical face mask with the bio-hazard symbol etched in gray on the muzzle. When I saw it online I thought it had a certain outpatient chic. However, I’m concerned of the scare-factor for the general public: guy walking towards you, Bull Terrier, black glove, face mask—biohazard symbol—got your attention?

But I happen to live in Los Angeles just a few blocks from the Hollywood/Highland intersection with its hordes of sunburned tourists being shadowed by almost as many cartoon rubber heads, mascara-lidded Captain Jack Sparrows and Marilyns perspiring in their blonde wigs. Point being, in my hood, the mask/glove combo will likely be taken as a half-assed pass at doing a Michael J. If I wore sunglasses and the hat I could probably pick up a few bucks while getting the dog detail done.

Then I hear it. A leaf blower rounds the corner of a building preceded by a cloud of dust and debris made up of (at least in my imagination): the fecal droppings of a half-dozen species in various stages of  decomposition, used cotton swabs, wadded tissues, discarded band-aids and desiccated condoms. In short, a billowing cloud of infectious disease that will envelope me, travel my nasal passages into my lungs where it will take hold and infection will bloom. I’ll be hospitalized, treated with massive doses of antibiotics.  Then another, more resistant hospital-born super-bug will appear. After some astonishingly pricey I.Vs of experimental Hail Mary concoctions cooked-up by Pfizer, I will die. Death by leaf blower. I cross the street.

Such is the stuff of daily life after a routine blood panel revealed a disturbingly low white blood cell count. You know there’s a problem when your doctor calls you at home regarding your recent blood test.

“You should come back in and let’s re-do it,” he says in an alarmingly neutral tone. “Must be a mistake at the lab. Let’s run it again.”

“When?” You ask.

“Now,” he says.

You become dutiful—he’s the new sheriff. While you sit in front of him he goes over the results of your second test (from a different lab just to be sure). The results are identical. He picks up the phone, dials a hematologist (a personal friend of his) and elbows you an appointment in three hours. “You’ll be fine,” he says. “Sometimes people’s bone marrow just gives out. You have insurance.”

Bone marrow? I figured it would be heart or maybe liver or lung; something with the esophagus—a stroke perhaps? All conditions related to my addictive nature—those middle years of cocaine and vodka, the tumbler of rum & coke endlessly freshened, shots of tequila backed with a Marlboro Red.  Bone Marrow? Not even in dreams, but it does have a deep, bluesy resonance—after all, it’s down in your bones.

Dr. Sally is my kinda gal: horse pictures line her office; medium-length silver hair parted in the middle and she’s ready for work. She runs yet another blood test (in-house, she’s got her own robot-like machine which I will come to know very well over the following months).

“How do you feel?” she asks.

“Fine, except I’m sitting here in your office.”

“I would put you in the hospital, but I’m afraid you would get an infection.”

“Hospital? Really?”

“On a scale of 1-10, 10 being normal, your immune system is at a 2. You are at high-risk for infection. You need to go home, monitor your temperature every four hours. If you have any kind of fever you are to go immediately to the ER and give them this piece of paper (my paltry blood count). You are not to travel to any third-world countries, don’t eat sushi or deli; cancel your gym membership if you have one, no gardening and don’t pick up dog poop.”

Well, there goes India.  My wife, being a former Kathak dancer, sees India as her spiritual home. And then there’s our delayed honeymoon to Istanbul fading away. I manage a wry smile as I envision telling her, “But honey, the doctor says I can’t pick up his poop.”

It’s the Sushi directive that sends my spirits tumbling. In my heaven you’ll find me tucked at the quiet end of a sushi bar presided over by my own sushi chef for an endless round of Omakase so fresh and inventive it fairly wiggles as I pop each morsel of raw, bacteria laden fish into my mouth, followed by a sip of the most subtle of sakes and then the next tiny plate arrives … according to Dr. Sally, I may as well point a gun to my head and spin the cylinder before tugging the trigger. Hai!

It’s a long walk back to the car from Dr. Sally’s; I seem to be moving through a medium heavier than air. I’ve been here before emotionally, but fear always arrives looking fresh. When I was 14 my adoptive father informed me that my biological father was dying of Huntington’s disease, a genetic disease that would, in the case of juvenile onset, likely kill me before my thirtieth year. Obviously, I ducked that bullet. Anyone who has read my book Marker knows the story intimately. However, here I am at 61 and I get to experience it all over again—a variation anyway on my being at risk for an early death, but this time it’s no mistake.

Diagnosis: MDS (myleodysplastic syndrome) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myelodysplastic_syndrome

I’m in good company: Carl “billions and billions” Sagan, Roald Dahl, Susan Sontag and Nora Ephron all died from complications related to MDS.  If I got very busy or even desperately notorious, I would be unlikely to claim a comparable fame, but at least we’ll share a common line in our obits.

The Problem Is I’m Healthy.

MDS is asymptomatic—I have no sickness or any symptoms of illness. I was diagnosed after a routine blood panel—I was concerned about my cholesterol which is down. So I got that going for me.

From all outward and visible signs, you’d think I was healthy. In good shape even. Until I get sick and then I’m in for a bumpy ride. That is the illusion I’m living:  there is no pain, no visible wound, no seeping buboes. It makes it difficult to remember how truly vulnerable I am. There are bruises that appear occasionally from minor collisions with everyday objects and they are slow to go away. But other than that, there are simply no daily reminders staring back at me from the mirror … just the voice in my head when I see the pink-haired girl at the curry counter, who is not wearing sanitary plastic gloves, reach down and adjust her ankle sock around the fresh tat before she ladles up my order from the steam table—“Is she the one that will kill me?”

UP NEXT:

“My Bone Marrow Biopsy or Hey, Where Did Everyone Go?”

When I was boy, there were few things more delightful than terrifying my little brother. Torturing the younger sibling is one of nature’s unattractive conventions like balding or dying while you still have money left in the bank.

Anyone who has either had or been a younger sibling knows the gamut of abuse runs from name calling to actual physical wounds. But in my tenure as the MC of Mayhem in my brother’s early life, the Cave of Blood ranks as the most well-imagined and executed. It was the high point of my low behavior.

The Cave of Blood was situated beneath our ranch style house in Odessa, an overgrown oil town that clung like a like a wart on the chin of the Texas panhandle. It was a region completely devoid of trees and so flat that you could stand in the middle of the highway and see fifty miles in either direction—a hundred if you stood on a Tuna fish can.

There was no wandering in the woods or exploring nature because—as you could clearly see—there was nothing out there. So we, as a people, were constantly thrown back on our imaginations and the liberal use of alcohol.

I conjured up The Cave of Blood to amuse us (I make my brother a party to this invention because I never would have done it if he hadn’t been there, his gullibility gleaming like a new coin begging to be spent even though past experience had shown him time and time again that following my agenda often led to some kind of pain.

It was a winter night in West Texas. A cold wave had dropped down from the panhandle. Mom and dad were out at the Golden Rooster wearing lobster bibs and getting hammered. The babysitter, a mature woman with a fondness for “resting” her eyes,  was snoring on the sofa by 8:30.

I was considering giving beer a try when my brother appeared and asked if we might be going to the Cave of Blood tonight. It had been an ongoing fiction for some time and I had promised that one night I would take him, but only when he was old enough and wouldn’t be scared and run away because “they” always caught you when you ran. He assured me he was not scared and would never run.

But you will tell Mother.

No, I won’t’ tell mother.

You’ll tell dad.

No, I won’t tell dad.

Ok. Basically, my brother was calling me out—he wanted to see this Cave of Blood or tell me I was a big fat liar. You see the position he put me?

There was a special door that led to the Cave of Blood. It was located in the bathroom—the same bathroom that separated our two bedrooms. I instructed him to prepare himself by spending the next ten minutes praying. That gave me time to get busy art directing the Cave of Blood.

I made sure the door that entered the bathroom from his room was closed and locked from the bathroom side. Then I turned on the hot water full blast in the shower. Clouds of steams begin to rise. There was a long, tiled counter top that stretched for about five feet and just above it a mirror that ran the length of the counter top and rose up to the ceiling. It reflected everything in the room.

From my closet I dug-up a cheesy old Halloween skeleton mask with the black one piece, tie-around the neck pajamas of painted bones. These I  hung from the shower curtain rod where they moved slightly in the billowing clouds of steam. With mom’s lipstick, I made bloody red finger prints across the counter. I took from a bottle Vitalis, dad’s hair tonic, and poured puddles on the ceramic tile of the counter top, struck a match and lit them.  With the lights off, the flames from the burning puddles were reflected in the mirror doubling the effect as was the skeleton costume wavering in the clouds of steam that filled the room like an eerie fog.

I switched off the lights in the hallway and closed the door to the bathroom behind me.  I called out to my little brother, “Are you done praying?”

He appeared wide-eyed at his bedroom door nodding his head.

“Are you sure?” I asked. Again he nodded. “No mom, no dad—pinky promise?” He nodded. “Then follow me,” I said and slowly opened the bathroom door. The puddles of flames flickered as if suspended in the fog and were reflected again in the hazy mirror, seeming far away, as if the room had expanded. The skeleton costume rippled in the clouds of steam that swirled around us …

My brother looked as if he’d just been stabbed in the neck with an ice-pick—his face a      rictus of horror frozen around this gaping mouth. It was worth a thousand beatings.

“Don’t let them catch me,” he cried as he turned on his heel and ran.

I retired to my room where, God, help me, I laughed and laughed and laughed.

Then mom and dad came home and things got very quiet. I figured he would rat on me and began constructing an elaborate lie involving a science fair project.

When my mother opened the door, I pretended to be asleep. When she switched on the light, I didn’t move. She ignored all that and got to the point.

“What have you done to your brother?”

“Whaa … “I said rubbing my eyes.

“He won’t use the bathroom. He won’t even go in there. What have you done to him?”

“I didn’t do anything.”

“Why is he scared of the bathroom? What did you do to your brother in that bathroom? It’s your fault if he wets the bed, mister.”

My brother wouldn’t even use my parent’s bathroom. I guess he figured all bathrooms led to the Cave of Blood and was probably lying in bed, his bladder bursting trying to delay the humiliation of wetting the bed. Or worse …

I was up and out of my bed. Moving quietly, I crept into my brother’s room.

“Hey, it’s just me. Are you awake?”

“Yeah.”

“How you doing?”

He didn’t answer.

“Hey, the whole Cave of Blood thing was joke. I just did it to scare you a little.”

“I saw the fire.”

“That was dad’s hair tonic. I poured it on the tiles and lit it. It burns like a candle. The skeleton was an old Halloween costume. There’s nothing in the bathroom now. Honest, I can show you. Come on get up …”

“No.”

It hit me then what a bully I had been to my brother. Even if I’d never laid a hand on him, I had traumatized him mentally which would probably take longer to get over. I felt terrible and swore then and there that I would never do it again.

I walked over to the door that opened from his room into the bathroom, “Come on, I’ll show you …”

“Don’t …” He buried his head under his pillow.

I opened the door and flipped the bathroom light on.

“Look. It’s just the bathroom. That’s all. Come on. I’ll stand right here while until you’re done. I promise.”

He eased his head out from under the pillow and squinted into the glare of the lit-up bathroom.

“Now, come on and use the bathroom so you don’t wet the bed and mom gets mad at both of us.”

My brother got out of his bed and shuffled to over where I stood. First, he stuck his head in and peered around just to be sure.

“There is no Cave of Blood, there never was. It was just a story I made up. Now go ahead and go will you?”

He stepped into the bathroom and lifted the toilet lid. A stream of pee came blasting out of him.  The relief was visible on his face; I remember the expression of contentment. My little brother actually seemed happy just to be peeing.

That’s when I reached over and turned off the light.

“Don’t let them get me!” he cried, peeing on my foot as he fled back to his bed.

I could hear Dad say, “Awww hell.” As he rose from his bed and began to move my way. It became clear to me that though suffering was hard, changing was even harder.

The End

Q: Here we are again with author, raconteur Mel Green with some, should I call it investment “advice”?

A: Let me get this pill down and I’ll be right with you … there, all better.

Q: So much fear out there in the investment world, Mel. Housing is still going down, a volatile stock market, what does a regular American do with his or her money?

A: I chose the stock market. The exhilaration of watching a stock plummet from thirty dollars to two in a single day simply can’t compare with the long slow process of watching your real estate slip underwater like an armless child.

Q: I take it like so many others, you have lost money in the stock market.

A: Of course. That’s the point. Everyone has the wrong idea about making money in the stock market, “Oh, I want to get rich playing the market.” No, no. I use it as a way to protect myself.

Q: Really. How so?

A: I managed to get into the stock market when the DOW was well over 1400 …

Q: At its peak then?

A:  It’s called “timing”. I timed the market so I got in just at the very top right before the big crash.

Q: I’m sorry to hear that.

A: But it was brilliant! With the losses I have incurred I should never have to pay taxes until I’m well into my eighties.

Q: But don’t you have to actually make money to benefit from any tax breaks?

A: And I am well prepared should that occur. I consider these huge losses as a preemptive strike against any future profits.

Q: So you would advise people to get into the stock market regardless of the consequences?

A: Well, not now you moron. It’s dropped too low. Wait until it goes back up and then if you’re diligent … again—it’s timing.

Q: Certainly an original approach.

A: Not for everyone. You’ve got to have the right meds.  Pass me that other bottle would you …

Q: Do you see any investment opportunities other than the stock market?

A: I’ll be bidding on one of the old space shuttles soon to be offered on Ebay.

Q: Ah, envisioning a space museum of some sort?

A: No, douche bag. I am not envisioning a space museum. I think they got another trip left in them.

Q: Trip? You mean to the moon?

A: Of course to the moon, Alice! They got at least one, maybe two moon shots left in them.

Q: That’s a complicated undertaking. Wouldn’t you need NASA to do that?

A: Hell no. Gas the thing up, sell tickets to rich assholes, hire some bat-shit crazy pilot from the Reno Air Race to fly it. Toss in a case of champagne and some vomit bags and you’re good to go.

Q: But that seems so risky.

A: Exactly.

Q: There could be disastrous consequences to such an endeavor.

A: Only if it’s done right. Think of the losses: equipment, personal injury lawsuits, damage on the ground from a botched re-entry. The list boggles even the most medicated mind.

Q: A messy enterprise no doubt.

A: Just another bump on the road to discovery.

Q: Perhaps. However, a venture of that scope would require considerable capital. What about the small investor, the little guy looking to ease into something less ambitious?

A: Prison.

Q: You are referring to a penitentiary?

A: Penal Colony, Labor Camp, Super Max—whatever you can get your lame ass into before they fill up with Investment Bankers. Imagine the money saved on rent and food over the years not to mention wardrobe, travel expenses, health care–all paid for by the state which is really just another way of saying paid for by the poor suckers out there who are actually paying taxes—not me!  Oh, make no mistake about it–prison is the most reliable retirement package out there.

Q: I won’t ask how you intend to gain entry into one of these facilities.

A: Make your way to Wall Street and strangle the first prick in a suit that’s not carrying a protest sign.

Q: Are you advocating violence as a means to social change?

A: No, of course not. But starving to death lacks drama.

For three days I carried my friend’s unhappiness like a bag of dogshit I could find no place to set. Goodbye breakfast at a diner, my tongue came loose with the caffeine and broke the air between us. “When was the last time she said ‘I love you’?” He shook his head to find the memory, but nothing rattled down.

Leave her I said. He cleared his throat and chuckled into his coffee—an animal that won’t leave his cage.

We’d met at fifteen over a pack of Luckies at military school and marched through it together, though he with a lighter gait than me.  And years later, as promised, he threw the rope that tugged me free from the swamp of Houston, West to San Francisco, into a converted attic off the Haight. Twain had it right, cold as hell. But he’d just gotten off the Appalachian Trail and gave me the bed preferring to sleep outside on the landing where he would proceed to get drunk and rail against his high school sweetheart, a red-lipped stewardess who dumped him for a guy that sold calendars. FuckYou! He screamed over the fog horns. FuckYou! Yanking hard at the trap of her memory. The next morning, always the gentleman, he apologized.

The first to leave, he returned to the South with his architect’s degree. Back to mama and three sisters. The only man in the family. The second cry came over the phone, wedding cake still on his fingers, “I think I married the wrong woman.”

“Why didn’t you stop it?”

“They were all coming. It wouldn’t have been right.”

And so, the sons came one at a time to make a lanky pair. And he disappeared into the woods with them; scouts and the rites of deer hunting—mapping for them the dangers of the world outside while back at home a mean-ness grew and dropped from her. So his steps were always considered and the sudden prick stinging and real.

She willed him out of the house each morning, his sacraments of instant coffee and oatmeal clutched in Styrofoam cups. Banished each day to his office, returned in the evening to something covered and once warm on the counter. One more beer, dazed by the TV and slide into the bed like double-wide coffin where any movement would be suspect.

She’ll dump you when they’re both out of college. I said.

An odd smile rose up over his coffee mug, floated out the window of the diner, off  into the woods escaping among the trees.

And I recalled that morning, making my way down the hall of his perfect tomb of a home to find one son had returned from college late in the night, the door open as I passed the boy’s room, startled to come upon such intimacy: there was my friend leaned over the bed, intent as a farmer bent to a hand planted furrow, arms around his half-sleeping son holding him in an embrace as if he were breathing him. And I understood the odd smile, the look out to the green woods beyond, I understood for the first time what I had always wanted from my father.

Toss aside those reading glasses. Measure the distance you’ve moved from clear print and that much closer to the grave. Senses muffled by age. Been said and sung how, “it all fades.” But that’s only half the story, for there is an abiding sweetness though that’s a lollipop word hardly up to the task: it’s as if the heart, born mummy-like within the body’s tomb, sheds its wrappings layer by layer even as the eyes dim and the teeth wobble—layers unraveling until the heart rises unfettered, a ghoulish joy, arms outstretched to embrace everything it sees. Happy Birthday, Death!

©Mel Green 2011

The Portuguese Bend region is the largest area of natural vegetation remaining on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, in Los Angeles County, California. Though once slated for development the area is geologically unstable and is unsuitable for building. It has been described as a constant, slow-moving landslide.

Portuguese Bend #56

Posted: January 10, 2011 in Poems, Portuguese Bend, Short Fiction

The Portuguese Bend region is the largest area of natural vegetation remaining on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, in Los Angeles County, California. Though once slated for development the area is geologically unstable and is unsuitable for building. It has been described as a constant, slow-moving landslide.

56

His fuse was lit for fame, we all heard it fizz. Tall and lean, eyes full of blue irony, ready to milk the moment for satire. Funny Man the poison worm turned within. Invited him to lunch to see the waitress I was hot for, an oily blonde, she never took her eyes off him while I became prosaic as the pastrami she slung before me. His wife, a doe-eyed lush, red-cheeks mashed by Manhattan winter so I figured him for the pillar. The solid ground. Years later, a fleet of failures smoking behind us, golf and LA the consolation, we passed on a putting green, he jabbered proudly of a son and his rock ‘n roll antics, scion of rebellion, did his wild daddy proud. All was good, and she was good, sure she was, the lushly wife and soon we would golf. Soon we would. Next I’d heard he’d slit his throat, outdoors somewhere, don’t know exactly but I saw a field of grass, a sun-driven mad blue sky and him lying there curled on the green, the red thick around him, quiet at last. Beyond the need to entertain, impress or achieve. How do we come to this: I shall cut my throat, with a razor and here, I’ll do it here and it will be today because … I simply cannot or care not … no, no more … I am done.

©Mel Green 2011

I’m not someone usually found in church on Christmas Eve or, if I can help it, anywhere near La Grange, Texas. But Andy, my nine-year old nephew had called full of news: he’d been cast as one of the three wise men—the wisest—according to him or at least the one with the most lines. Any second thoughts or excuses I might have were quashed when Andy delivered the closer: there would a real live Baby Jesus.

It was clear upon entering the church that they had gone all out for this year’s Nativity: Volvos in the parking lot were missing seat covers so kids playing the lambs had woolly coats. The baby Jesus, as advertised, was indeed real and wiggling in the arms of the Virgin Mary, portrayed by a tall girl who seemed not only older than the other children, but also somewhat drunk … slack-jawed with an odd tilt to her head. She must have gotten into the communion wine backstage. The pressure of Christmas.

I too have always struggled with Christmas. The pressure of gifting. The incessant Christmas carols, the baby Jesus thing, Santa Claus—fairy tales, myths told to children so that one day they can feel lied to which I suppose is the real training for becoming an adult. My own childish belief had been shattered by a pair of cynical six-year olds and as I grew into a holiday hardened teen I remembered firing a question at the priest concerning all the frippery and seasonal dressings of the church, “How would Jesus feel about all this stuff?”

Father Vander was a sharp-tongued chain smoker rumored to have once strangled an altar boy. I braced myself, but he answered quietly, “The trappings of the church are merely reminders—an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”

Meanwhile, back in Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary were having some halting exchanges of dialogue when it became apparent that the Virgin Mary was not tanked. She was “special”. Challenged. The poor girl had a disability and was trying her darnedest to get her lines spoken while maintaining a grasp on an infant tweaking on sugar. The actual mother was easily located: front row, leaning towards her child like a hungry leopard.

Enter the Three Wise Men: Andy was resplendent in a purple robe, previously a plastic shower curtain. Holding his gift for the Baby Jesus, a foil-wrapped cigar box. The other Wise Men were also outfitted in shower curtains of watermelon and avocado respectively. The Baby Jesus, however, was not responding well to this color combination that was now moving towards him.

“I offer this gift of frankincense to honor the blessed child,” Andy said as he   extended his gift, and then Baby Jesus lost it: with one kick of his tiny legs, he broke free and we all watched the Baby Jesus execute a half-gainer, bounce with an audible burp on a padded step, roll over the wine-colored carpet and come to rest on his back, arms spread to the heavens.

A horrified gasp erupted from the congregation. No matter what you believe in, watching a baby free fall does affect you: your arms extend from hopeless distances. The infant’s mother sprang forward like a sprinter. But Andy, being nearer, swooped down and casually retrieved the Baby Jesus as if he were no more than an errant basketball. We all waited for the tears, but instead a big loopy grin spread across the infant’s face.

Unlike the Virgin Mary, who with hands clasped over her mouth, eyes brimming with regret, was sinking into her own private hell. And it was here that Andy did the amazing thing: he walked over and handed the baby back. Back to the girl that just dropped it! It was like watching someone tugged back from the brink of a life-crippling memory—forever marked as the girl who dropped the baby Jesus. Gratefully, she took the child from Andy and delivered her final line. The house lights came up to deafening applause while the lambs ripped off their seat covers.

I had that light-bodied feeling I get whenever I’ve forgotten about myself for over a minute. My eyes were still on Andy, and having just witnessed a child’s spontaneous act of generosity, I felt something like pride. Rather than blame—Andy had given the gift of a second chance.

I listened to the happy burble of humanity as the crowd moved towards the doors. Like I said, I don’t often come to these things, but there was something special in the air that night. In Father Vander’s words—an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”   Merry Christmas, everyone!