And each time I’ve tried to explain that I after I finished So Dark the Night, I fully expected to write more accounts of my partners in crime…but it just didn’t happen. I could no longer hear Nightstalk’s voice and, after awhile, moved on (with regret) to other things.
But a few weeks ago, my old friend Evgeny Nightstalk dropped in for a visit. Not an extended stay, I could only pry a short story out of him, a case from their first months together, an affair (wouldn’t you know it), set around Christmas time. Maybe Nightstalk was cutting me some slack for his long absence.
Here’s the first part of “Finding Charlotte”…if you’d like to read the rest, click on the link and you’ll find the complete PDF. Free reading, I should add: read it, download it, share it with friends. And if “Finding Charlotte” strikes your fancy, have a look at So Dark the Night. It’s a grand adventure, my two supernatural detectives involved with all manner of Lovecraftian monstrosities and occult-oriented schemes. A fast-paced yarn, I think you’ll love it.
* * * * * * * *
Finding Charlotte (A Zinnea & Nightstalk Mystery)
Cassandra Zinnea called them “C.O.N.C.s”. Cases of no consequence. She could be snooty like that sometimes. I told her once, hey, even Sherlock Holmes realized they can’t all be Studies in Scarlet or whatever. When you get handed a lemon, y’know, make lemonade.
She didn’t buy it. She got bored pretty easily. Very Holmes-like that way. Only she had different diversions than a seven per cent solution of cocaine. It’s debatable if they were any healthier in the long run but, well, that’s a discussion for another time.
The affair involving the disappearance of Charlotte Bednarski didn’t have a promising beginning and you’ll have to decide for yourself if everything worked out for the best in the end. I’m not what you would call big on analysis. That’s my partner’s domain. Smart and gorgeous, the complete package. Miss Marple and a Victoria’s Secrets model all rolled into one. As kind and decent a human being as you’re likely to encounter this side of Heaven. And that’s why it was nearly killing her giving the Turnbulls the bad news.
“—so terribly sorry,” Cassandra said, standing in front of our shared desk, her voice quaking with emotion. “It’s official policy and I’m afraid there are no exceptions. We don’t handle missing persons cases or divorces. We’ve found they both involve too many…complications. You say you’ve already been to the police—”
Dennis Turnbull snorted. “Fat lot of good they were. Wouldn’t give us the time of day, would they, hon? What’s this world coming to?” He was chubby, forty-ish, some kind of nerd. Baby fat and large, soft features. Likely cried during sappy movies and was good about helping with the washing up. A “girly man”, as my buddy Arnold would say.
I was hearing warning bells. The cops in Ilium may not have been top drawer in many respects but they tended to ramp up their game when there were children involved. “How long did you say your kid’s been missing? Two days?” They nodded, tired and discouraged, leaning into each other. The wife seemed older, utilizing a full palette of makeup to disguise her true age. Offhand, I’d say she applied it with a trowel. But they were nice people, just addled, desperate. “You gave us the impression she was quite young…”
“Around nine, I would say,” Cheryl Turnbull confirmed, “but small for her age.”
That sounded funny but at that point Cassandra jumped in. “So this isn’t any ordinary runaway. She’s under-aged, alone out there…” She choked up. Mrs. Turnbull nodded, the two of them close to blubbering.
“That’s what we tried to tell the police,” she croaked, “but they wouldn’t listen.”
I could see my partner wavering and decided enough was enough. “Yeah, that’s, uh, definitely strange and if I were you I’d, uh, definitely go back there and get them to put out an A.P.B. on your daughter and—”
Dennis Turnbull was shaking his head. He tapped his wife’s leg and they rose together. “We’ve been humiliated enough, thank you very much. That Detective-Sergeant or whatever he said he was. Snowden…” I glanced at my partner. “You must know the man. He’s the one who told us to come down here. ‘The court of last resort’, he called you.”
“He’s an idiot,” Cassandra said.
“What she says,” I added.
The Turnbulls helped each other on with their coats. We could only stand there and watch.
“I have to correct you on one point, Mr. Nightstalk.” Dennis Turnbull tugged brown leather gloves over his thick fingers; it was a cold night, a week ’til Christmas, the wind off Lake Erie downright lethal. “Charlotte wasn’t our daughter. My wife and I are childless by choice.” She offered us a thin smile. Not entirely by choice, it seemed to say.
Now I was really confused. “So…she was a niece? A neighbor–”
“Oh, no, she lived with us.”
Cassandra and I exchanged befuddled looks. “Adopted?” she ventured.
“No, she was there when we moved in.” She saw our bafflement. “She came with the house.”
Nope, still didn’t get it. But Cassandra did, I could tell from her spreading smile. Suddenly the case had become much more interesting.
I blundered on. “She was living there? Like…squatting?”
“No, Nightstalk,” my partner corrected me. “She’s always lived there.”
The Turnbulls smiled at each other. “She’s the reason we bought the place,” Cheryl Turnbull confided. “The location is nice but the backyard is far too small for our tastes.”
“We both like to garden,” Dennis chimed in.
“But once Charlotte made herself known to us…we knew we couldn’t let it go.” They were standing by the door. “It’s been ten years now and we’ve never regretted it a moment.” They clasped hands. Forming a common front.
Cassandra’s demeanor had undergone a radical transformation; all at once she was in full hunt mode. “Now that we’re more fully apprised of the situation,” checking with me for confirmation, “I think we might be of service to you after all.”
“Just don’t call her a ghost,” Cheryl Turnbull pleaded, crossing toward us, holding out her hands, a big purse looped over her wrist. “That awful Snowden man kept saying that. I hate it. Ghosts are feeble and sad and pathetic. Charlotte is none of those things. She has a personality, a—a—”
“Easy now, dear,” her husband coaxed her, “we’re among friends here.” He regarded us hopefully as he patted her shoulder. “It’s nice to be with folks who don’t make you feel like you’re, y’know, coo coo.”
“We’ve lost friends, even our families won’t come to visit.” Cheryl Turnbull managed to look hurt and defiant. “Just because we set an extra place at the table or put on her favorite show when it’s time. What’s that to any of them?”
I could only manage a sickly grin so they focused their attention on my lovely colleague. She, in contrast, gave off waves of understanding and empathy.
“Come over here and have a seat. We’ll start again.” Signaling me. “My associate, Mr. Nightstalk, will take down the particulars. Give us a bit of background and talk about the day she went missing. All the details you can think of, no matter how inconsequential they might seem.” I found my steno pad and a pen. “Let’s see if we can get to the bottom of this…”
To read the complete story, click here: Finding Charlotte
From his favorite hideaway, five storeys above the ground, Little Po is an inconspicuous witness to the chaos below.
There has been talk of trouble for weeks, soldiers and police regularly taking up stations on street corners, stopping and harassing people, making a nuisance of themselves. Intimidation is the norm with the ruling junta but this time, it seems, their tactics have only succeeded in making things worse.
Shouts and screams, the rattle of automatic weapons and crak-crak-crak of small arms fire. Smoke drifts over the neighbourhood, a grey, evil-smelling pall. There are makeshift barricades and men roaming about with home-made clubs and pop bottles filled with gasoline. The building shudders from a nearby explosion, a crump as a burning car bursts its seams, provoking whoops and cheers from the surrounding crowd.
Little Po is safe or, at least, safer than he would be down there, in the midst of the mob. Some women have joined in, adding their unmistakable shrieks to the din. Most of the men are intoxicated, swilling alcohol looted from a nearby store. They swagger about, brandishing crude weapons, their courage fortified by drink. The boy creeps back under the overhang created by ducting and ventilation works. Finds his tattered blanket and slips into an uneasy sleep, sucking his thumb for comfort when the tumult disturbs his slumber. This sooty rooftop, shared with none but the occasional stray cat and roosting pigeon, is a refuge, shelter from a dangerous and hostile world.
He wakes to dull morning light, the stench of burning rubber.
His hunger is an undiminishing ache, a twisting, voracious worm in his guts. He spends most days in a surreal netherworld; sick, confused and disoriented. Bumping into buildings or colliding with passersby, clutching at them for support and being swatted and cursed for his trouble. He begs, he steals and still only manages to scrape by.
As he descends via the rickety fire escape, he is aware that slowly but surely he’s losing the battle. Malnutrition is eating his frail body and soon he will be reduced to nothing. When someone reaches such a state, people say that person has “joined the invisibles”. One day, they’re simply gone, evaporating into the air, leaving nothing behind, not even an ounce of bone dust to bury or mourn over.
The first person he spots when he ventures out is Old Fania. Her pet monkey chatters on her shoulder and she makes a warding gesture at him. He gives the witch a wide berth. The monkey eyes him sullenly but is constrained by a short leash made of twine. The little beast has been known to inflict a painful and septic bite.
The streets and avenues have been transformed overnight. Rubble and debris are scattered carelessly, gutted buildings stripped of everything that can be carried or dragged away. He scours the ground for leftovers, something to eat or barter. But he’s competing with other scavengers who fiercely guard the meager leavings, growling and threatening him if he approaches. He is smaller and weak and therefore must go without. It is not that ordinary folk are unsympathetic or hard-hearted, it is merely that deprivation has become a way of life to the people in this part of the city. They have been herded together, marginalized, made to feel they must fend for themselves. Poor and increasingly desperate, they have lost any sense of shared or communal suffering.
The riot last night followed days of demonstrations, spontaneous protests against the inhuman living conditions. There have been scores of deaths, nervous soldiers shooting into crowds, protesters beaten and dragged away by security forces.
And finally the world press has taken notice. Reporters flood in and, congruently, the economy goes into a tailspin as investment money dries up, foreign nationals leaving in droves. It is a familiar, sad story in this region of the world.
Little Po drinks from a puddle and forages from a dumpster behind a restaurant. He is covered in rat bites and festering sores that won’t heal. He knows that his situation is increasingly desperate but there is nothing to be done about it. As he clambers out of the stinking bin, the back door of the restaurant bangs open and an employee toting a five gallon pail of grease and slops spots him. They regard each other for a long moment and Little Po finally slinks away, what little food he has found clutched in his fist.
There are rumours that local businesses have hired a squad of off-duty cops and given them the job of ridding the city of riff-raff. Some kids were gunned down as they sat on the steps of a church. A church. In the last two weeks, several dozen street urchins have been either killed or spirited off in dark vans, never to be seen again.
Later that morning, Little Po is walking through a park and spots Fish and the Silent One. Fish has fresh bruises on his face, rolled for pocket change. And the thing is, everyone knows Fish has absolutely nothing worth stealing. He tells the joke that he’s so poor, someone once cut him open and stole his heart. And he’ll show you the long, zippered scar to prove it. The Silent One glowers behind him, a menacing presence. His head is squashed, misshapen. He can’t speak but his dangerous mien says don’t fuck with me, brother.
Little Po falls in alongside them and they head off to the mission together, stand in line for a bowl of watery soup. Supposedly there is a piece of chicken in there somewhere. Either donations are down or the priests have been dipping into the collection plate again. Little Po deftly palms an extra slice of bread, the maneuver escaping the sharp-eyed Brother’s notice.
When they finish, they hang out in the graveyard for awhile. Fish produces three precious cigarettes but smoking only makes Little Po queasy so he puts his away until later. Soon afterward a cranky old caretaker shows up and chases them away.
Fish says he wants to stop by Ven’s place, that he’s heard something and Ven Ficus is the one to go to if you have information to trade. Depending on his mood, he’ll either reward you generously or snap his fingers and have you turned in to a human pretzel. But Taft, Ven’s imposing gatekeeper, says his bossman isn’t in today and hints that it’s in their best interest to fuck off. Now.
Fish is disappointed but vows to come back later. Taft goes back inside and they hear him say something to the other hoods. Mocking laughter follows the trio down the street.
As they walk, Fish has to keep stopping to retch. Every time he does, he groans. He says something feels broken inside. Little Po and the Silent One exchange grim looks. Who knows when the free clinic will open again. The French doctors who ran it were declared persona non grata and given forty-eight hours to clear out. No one has replaced them. Word is the junta was embarrassed to have foreigners tending to the needs of the poor. This past winter Little Po caught a bug that made him cough until his ribs ached. He truly believed he was going to die. His lungs still feel tender, especially on cool days.
In the early afternoon he parts company with the others, waving as he angles away.
Despite the soup he is still famished, light-headed. He thinks about the slice of bread in his pocket, the one he is saving. Little Po takes out the bread, raises it to his mouth and bites off a piece. This is the way it is. You are hungry and when you have food, you eat.
Later he will curse his greed. This, too, is the way of things.
But for Little Po, time has shrunk, contracted, the future no longer measured in years, months, weeks, but days, perhaps hours. His skin is transparent, his arms and legs thin, meatless. His joints ache; pain and hunger and despair are constant companions. The world around him is losing definition, leaking away at the edges.
Soon he will join the invisibles. It is almost certain. He knows this. Maybe even tonight, on his rooftop haven, under the high, eternal stars. He wonders what it will be like to be dead. His undernourished imagination has a hard time grasping the notion. The priests speak of heaven and hell during the sermons that are mandatory with the free meals they dispense. In the afterlife our sins are remembered and judged. The worthy are rewarded and the evil ones consigned to an all-consuming fire where they burn forever and ever, a-men.
Little Po steers a course toward the only home he has, occasionally stumbling, nearly falling. Traffic rolls heedlessly by. The soldier on the corner stares past him, through him. A few moments later, Little Po looks for his shadow and can’t find it.
Perhaps it is only the angle and intensity of the sun. He moves on, seemingly lighter than air, no longer able to feel the hard, unforgiving ground beneath his feet.
© Copyright, 2009 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
* * * * *
“Among the Invisibles” was written the last time I entered a short story competition.
It didn’t even make it past the initial round of readers.
You understand now why I rarely enter these stupid contests?
To read more of my tales (and some novel excerpts), go to my Fiction & Novels page.
“Time to break with long-standing tradition. No room for humility, maintaining artistic ‘Purity’ and all that bullshit. Gotta get with the program, boy! Right now, you have the profile of a blind mole and you gotta do something about it, capiche? So, let’s hop to it…”
That’s the publisher part of my brain, giving me a good dressing down. Lately that impatient, cigar-chewing entity has been making his presence felt, insinuating his way close to my psyche, whispering his poisonous advice.
Unfortunately, it seems I’m starting to listen to him. I’m behaving very much out of character and as evidence I offer up the following:
First, I’ve entered a couple of my books for literary prizes.
I know. Spooky, isn’t it? I usually have zero interest in such things—couldn’t tell you who won the last Pulitzer or Booker or what have you. But my publisher got his way and I popped four copies of The Last Hunt off to the judges of the Western Writers of America’s “Spur” Awards and a similar number of my New & Selected Poems to the folks behind the Saskatchewan Book Awards. Rather dubious bids to draw attention to my work, I thought, but those misgivings were completely disregarded.
Second point: I’m submitting a tale to the annual “CBC Short Story Prize”.
Sherron sent me the guidelines for this year’s competition and my Muse, with uncharacteristic glee, supplied me with a 1450 word offering that I’ll be mailing later today (just ahead of the deadline). Weird. Not only am I sending them a tale, I’m also paying a $25.00 “administrative fee”, a practice I’ve always derided in the strongest terms. “Ripping off writers,” I snorted. “Isn’t it supposed to be editors paying authors, not the other way around?” Etc.
Something’s going on. The problem is, I’m an independent author and publisher. There are two sides of my personality to satisfy and right now they’re pretty much at war with each other. The writer in me has no interest in shilling his books, evincing a distaste for the kind of shmoozing some of his colleagues do, trying to curry favor with the Powers That Be. The publisher persona, however, insists these books we’re producing cost money and, besides, they’re good books, why not do what we can to get the word out? It’s not about greed, it’s about securing a decent readership for well-crafted stories of obvious literary merit…
Ah, he’s a clever bastard all right. And he’s been winning a few minor skirmishes of late, exploiting his new found sense of authority. He was delighted when I sat down at my desk and commenced a brand new tale for the aforementioned short story contest.
Until he read the final draft.
“It’s not…not…and too…there isn’t any…” Spluttering, unable to finish his sentences, incandescent with fury.
And the author in me rejoicing, enjoying the spectacle. Waving the printed sheets of paper teasingly, skipping away while his counterpart screams and gesticulates…
Another terrific short story in the can.
Too bad it doesn’t stand a fucking chance of winning.
Received word from Greg Freed, an administrator of the Galaxy Project science fiction writing competition, that my tale “Eyes in the Sky” garnered an honorable mention in this year’s contest.
Placing in the top five with over 100 entries ain’t half bad…but what made my day was when I received an e-mail containing words of encouragement from none other than Barry Malzberg. As I wrote to Greg Freed, having folks like Monsieur Malzberg and Robert Silverberg judging the contest was one of the reasons I decided to submit my tale in the first place. The notion that one of those luminaries might read my work…well, that made it irresistible to me. Those few short sentences from Barry Malzberg meant a lot to this scribbler—a classy act by a classy guy.
Congratulations to co-winners Susan Forest (Canuck gal!) and Robert Walton, as well as my two fellow honorables, D.K. Paterson and John Hemry.
Kudos to Greg Freed and the folks at Rosetta Books for sponsoring the competition and doing such a good job organizing the entire venture, making sure winners were notified promptly, etc. All in all, a pleasant experience though unlikely to get me back on the ol’ submission treadmill again. These were special circumstances and now that the results are in, I’ll be sending “Eyes in the Sky” off to the Amazon Kindle people.
I’m interested in the “Singles” program Amazon offers, short works for budget prices. I’ll charge a buck or two so folks can download “Eyes in the Sky” and hope that readers—sci fi fans or otherwise—will be drawn by the same elements and strengths that attracted the attention of Messrs. Malzberg, Silverberg and Drake.
“Eyes in the Sky” features a classic what if... scenario, an alternative history where the Space Age never happened, the nuclear bomb was a dud and the Russians and Americans are locked in a very different kind of Cold War. Ten thousand words and every damn one of them counts.
Sound intriguing? Keep popping back here for further developments.
Montana fading in the rearview mirror and I’m looking at fairly substantial revisions to my western, The Last Hunt.
My meetings and the research I conducted while in the Livingston and Yellowstone area proved invaluable; I’ve found numerous inaccuracies that have to be addressed, many details that can be woven into the narrative to give the novel far more authenticity and impact. There’s a small box of books to go through, a mountain of notes and photocopies, and I’m about to dive in, head first—
Instead, my Muse decides to bushwhack me and, like the worst blindside hits, I never even sensed this one coming.
I’ve had the notion for a science fiction story for a couple of years. I’m a huge fan of the genre, grew up devouring everything space-related I could lay my hands on. Three early efforts that had a big effect on me were “A Walk in the Dark”, a tale by Arthur C. Clarke, and two short story collections, Ray Bradbury’s The Golden Apples of the Sun and a youth-oriented anthology titled Tales of Time and Space (edited by Ross Robert Olney). The latter included “Birds of a Feather” by Robert Silverberg, which is still a fave. I spotted an edition of Tales of Time and Space at a library book sale a number of years ago. Immediately recognized it (even after an interval of thirty some odd years) and snapped it up. I treasure that book; both my sons have read it as well.
My tale, I’ve known from the start, would have a “retro SF” feel to it: like it could have been written back in the late 50’s or early 60’s by someone like Alfred Bester, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, A.E. van Vogt or, yup, Robert Silverberg. Nothing state of the art or high tech. A small story about a lonely, little man. Some alternative history thrown in, a universe with some important differences from our own…
All very nice. But eight days ago I’m cleaning up my desk, sorting through papers and I come across a contest for novelettes and novellas, fiction between 7500-15,000 words, and all at once I’m overcome by this notion that my SF idea would be perfect for that length and I could use the contest, which has a decent payday, as my motivation. Poking a finger at the prize money: that would just about pay off your Montana trip, laddie.
Going after my conscience, my on-going worries over finances here at Casa Burns. My Muse has no sense of propriety or shame.
One things leads to another and, heh heh, eight days later I’m done, presented with a 37-page, 10,000 word tale called “Eyes in the Sky”. It came in a rush and would not be resisted. Any gal who’s given birth knows exactly what I’m talking about. The piece arrived just about fully-formed and its creation was so effortless, it made me suspicious that the bloody thing was no good. But Sherron has reassured me. She read a printed draft last night and gave “Eyes in the Sky” high grades. So I’m relieved.
But still perturbed to get yanked away from my western novel with no warning, no explanation. I guess it’s an object lesson. Something this control freak had better get through his thick head: I am not in charge. I am merely an agent, not the Source. I am servant to a difficult, mercurial taskmaster. I may grumble and groan but am compelled to obey; no rest for the weary and, as I should know by now, there’s always another story, waiting to be told…
Some gals we met through a local “Open Mike” event invited my family and I to pop out to their high school and participate in a public reading.
We love to show our support for stuff like that and were delighted to accept. The only problem is, I needed something new to read. And over the course of a couple of days, a notion for a short tale presented itself to me, pretty much full-blown. A few touch-ups here and there but nothing serious. It’s wondrous when that happens. All the proof I need that the universe is conscious, sentient and permanently beyond human ken.
The story’s short, vivid, to the point. Read on…
“Bagshaw,” my father says suddenly. He’s been silent nearly an hour and his voice gives me a start.
“What was that, Dad?”
“Who I was talking about.” Shooting me a stern look. “The little queer.” I don’t remember any reference to Bagshaw but, never mind; clearly he’s been off on some kind of mental ramble. “Worked at head office with me. A swish, and not ashamed to flaunt it either.” He pauses to get his breath. His lips are dry and grey. Everything in the process of shutting down. Propped up to help him breathe, Demerol to handle the pain. He’s making a sound, wheezing, could it be…laughter? “Lord, how I tormented that man.”
“What did you do?”
His face is still drawn but animated by something that looks suspiciously like a smirk. “I’d put thumbtacks and pins on his chair. Not every day, spacing it out so he’d always be caught off guard. I was down the hall but I could hear him squeal. Served him right.” I’m leaning forward, fists clenched. Make myself ease back in the chair, force open my furious hands. He angles his head toward me. His eyes sunken, lusterless. Dark holes in his face. “Other things too. I’d send him flowers, have them delivered right to his office. With a card, Love, Charlie or whatever.”
“You’re kidding.” I can’t help it, blurting it out.
“Sure.” His thin smile confirming it.
I haven’t seen this side of him before; I’ve often found him thoughtless but never believed him capable of out-and-out malice. “You hated him that much?”
“He made me sick. And I wasn’t the only one. But I was the sneakiest.” A sly wink. “I’d call him, late at night.”
“Never from home. Sometimes from other cities. He’d change his number, get an unlisted one…” His face crinkling with mirth. “Didn’t matter. I worked with the guy. In Human Resources, no less. Jesus. I knew where the bodies were buried and how to find them. That’s why I lasted so long.” He gestures for the water glass and I automatically move to comply. Holding it for him while he sips through a straw. One final indignity he must endure.
“What would you say,” I ask, once he’s done. “When you called him.”
“Sometimes nothing. Just letting him know I was still out there. Other times I’d be all…uh…y’know…you queer, you dirty, little faggot…you’ll get what’s coming to you. Just spooking him.” I back away, fumbling behind me for the chair. Then I realize I still have the glass and must rise once more, replacing it on the nightstand beside the bed. Finding it difficult to approach him again, this stranger I’ve known all my life.
“What was his first name?”
“What? I don’t recall. He only lasted a year.”
“Couldn’t take it, I guess.” There’s no remorse, that’s the thing. He’s talking about running over a dog in the street, thirty years after the fact.
“And then you left him alone? Or—”
“Hell, no.” Frowning at his foolish son. “That might look suspicious, give him ideas. I kept at it six more months. Just to be safe…” He’s fading again, ebbing away. “Old Bagshaw.” Almost a whisper. “You know, the bastard actually lisped?”
My father is sixty-four years old and staunchly conservative. A self-made man. In our house, he was the one who held the reins and cracked the whip. Stern but fair, I guess you could say. My sister sees it differently; she believes mom worked and worried herself to death, trying to please him.
I should tell him. Right now. Go over and spit it right into his face. Just to see his reaction. God. Wouldn’t that be something? I’m dying to tell him, I’m about to tell him…but at that moment his mouth sort of sags open and my dying father begins to snore.
© Copyright, 2011 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
Each episode was six or eight minutes long—it was really just filler so you never knew what time it would run. Anywhere from 6:30 a.m. Saturday morning until the “Star Trek” theme music cut in at 10:00 sharp. It’s possible the show was produced out of the nearest TV station, which was in Yorkton, about seventy miles away (the only channel that came in clear). “Robot Boy” had that really home made look, the production values pretty shabby. But I didn’t care. I was an avid fan. Hated it when I missed an episode, just about inconsolable for the rest of the weekend. Yeah, even then I was a bit of a diva.
The premise was stupefyingly simple: Robot Boy (really just a cheap, windup toy) is insatiably curious and one day wanders away from the safety of the toy box to seek adventure in the great, wide world. But unfortunately he soon gets lost and embroiled in various unfamiliar situations, trying to logically decipher what’s happening with his tiny robot brain. Some of the conclusions he reaches are hilarious, way off the mark. He’s totally naive when it comes to things that go on in real life.
There are shots of Robot Boy shuffling slowly down the sidewalk, going about 50 feet an hour, gigantic human shoes stepping over him, nearly knocking him into the gutter, legs moving past in the background, everyone oblivious to the lost little robot creeping through their midst.
My favorite episodes, the two I have the clearest memories of: Robot Boy is menaced by a ferocious dog…but interprets its behavior as a warning and thanks it profusely while the dog strains to reach the tin figure, just an inch or two out of reach. And there’s the episode where Robot Boy gets accidentally locked in a supermarket overnight and wanders up and down the aisles, admiring all the “exhibits” in the “museum”.
I Googled “Robot Boy” and found a few bloggers who reference the show. There’s even a loose association of people who post on forums, swapping old news and rumors. The main problem is there were only ten or twelve episodes of “Robot Boy” that were ever aired and no copies in any form seem to exist. Which gives even more weight to my conjecture that the show was locally produced. Maybe at one time it was even shot on videotape. But those tapes are long gone or erased and reused. There are still photos, grainy, not entirely convincing, their provenance unclear. Forum members are divided, the rhetoric sometimes heated. People are touchy when it comes to nostalgia. Some have gone to all the effort of building scale models of Robot Boy, their attention to detail bordering on the obsessive.
I made mine out of cardboard boxes I found in the garage. I was seven years old and the ugly duckling of the family…but when I slipped inside my cardboard costume I became Robot Boy. My other life forgotten, my human existence shed like an itchy, constricting skin suit, too tight in the crotch. The boxes smelled of apples and old newspapers. I hung my arms out holes I cut in the sides. Hands instead of pincers and an aluminum pie plate taped to the front, the dial sketched in with black marker.
I kept it in the basement, away from prying eyes. In a cubbyhole by the furnace, where my sisters would never look. My alter ego and guardian angel. Big and blocky and comforting. Made of indestructible metal. Powered by atomic cells. An obedient, loyal friend, willing to endure anything for me, even long hours in the dark. I loved him and he loved me. We understood each other. And when “Robot Boy” was canceled, I grieved and felt a genuine sense of loss and betrayal. I went down and I kicked the hell out out those boxes, kicked them to pieces. They never showed re-runs and I wouldn’t have watched them anyway. Robot Boy was dead to me. That part of my life was over…
This is blog posting #150 and, well, I wanted to make it something special.
I trust you enjoyed this trip down memory lane.
Feel free to share your thoughts, on “Robot Boy” or other relevant matters. Here’s hoping for a great year ahead in 2011 for one and all.
I’ve kind of lost my zest for performing my stuff live but I started going, hoping it would encourage my two sons, both talented writers, and their friends to contribute. I love it when a visibly nervous teen author stands in front of us and, voice quaking, reads a poem or short story. Takes me back to the days when I—
Well, never mind.
I always try to have new material for the “open mike” and this time premiered three pieces that even my wife hadn’t heard before. Here are the four offerings I read last night, including “Accident”, which appeared on this blog a couple of years ago but, what the heck, thought I’d reprint it anyway (it read beautifully):
This is a car crash. It’s happening right now. A collision in progress. Metal folding and bending, glass slow-motion bursting, bodies swaying in their seats. And the thing is you see it with perfect clarity, high-def to the max. You watch in fascination as the air bag blooms in front of you, a time-lapse explosion expanding toward your face as you lean forward to meet it. Something else. A heaviness. In the region of your chest. A tug in your neck that isn’t quite pain but soon will be. A sound, a soft exhalation but really a scream in the midst of being born. From the backseat. Ten A.U.’s behind you. Any moment now it will all come rushing in, a cacophony of distress, a wall of noise and sensations. Someone, maybe even you, might be in the midst of dying. On the threshold of an instant. The law-defying lip of an event horizon. Falling…and forever suspended mere petaseconds away from nothing at all.
November is bleeding,
leached of color, vitality,
the land losing its life’s blood
in dark, spreading gouts.
Anemic, cancerous, brittle,
tiny bones crackling underfoot:
this is the graveyard of summer.
Brightening it with festive lights,
disguising it with tinsel, false cheer
but unable to defeat the oppression,
looming like a storm front.
Hibernation is a state between life and death,
a sleep from which some animals never wake–
another hard winter descends from the mountains,
the sun creeping back to make way.
“When that love was done with, I was left like a bird on a branch. I was no longer any use for anything.” Paul Eluard & Andre Breton, The Immaculate Conception (Translation by Jon Graham)
I am that bird/a useless, futile thing/purposeless and unblinking/stiffly clutched on my shivering perch
Denied foresight, stratagems/creature of instinct, heedless/as scattered petals or blown seed/no decisions, save alarm and flight
like the lilies of the field
like the trees and stones,
or a worm, turning in thick, black dirt
Free from striving and strife/charged only with existence/descended from dinosaurs/ small-brained and tuned to the stars
Waking you with piercing melodies/disdainful of the tardy dawn/spying with small, beady eyes/as you depart for work in a funk
Nestled against the weather/high up where the cats can’t reach/alert, yet lightly dozing/untroubled by what you call “dreams”
“My health was endangered. Terror assailed me.”
Arthur Rimbaud, on the writing of Illuminations
Franz Kafka insisted we should only read books that “bite and sting us”. Volumes, one presumes, capable of savaging unwary readers, leaving them spotted with blood. Kafka, a gentle man, left strict instructions in his will that his writings be burned. His executor, Max Brod, ignored his friend’s wishes and preserved his distinctive novels and stories; as a result, each year I risk serious injury plucking them from my shelves.
Words created us and words sustain us:
“The technical language of religion is
symbolism, with storytelling one of its
most important varieties.”
(so sayeth Huston Smith)
Ideas become words become action. The correct conjunction of vowels and consonants will, according to some mythologies, lead to an unbinding.
A return to nullity. From whence we came.
Be mindful and compassionate. Practice right thought, right speech. Do not call the worst into being. Offer prayers to a Creator beyond faith. Use the ancient words of praise. The ones handed down through the ages. Hallowed be thy name, o, God, thy will be done…
When I finished reading, Sherron was beaming.
Snuck in under the eight-minute time limit too.
Thanks to all the participants and audience members. See you at my book launch on Wednesday!
(Photo by Zach Den Adel)
My, my, how time flies.
It seems like only yesterday we were having the book launch but I see that a significant amount of time has passed since then, the summer well in progress…and I’m overdue for an update.
You know how it is, when this blog goes silent, that means I’m working. So deeply immersed in a project, I’m thinking of nothing else. Including food, water and most of the other basic necessities of life.
I’ve been feeling in a rut, writing-wise, which sometimes inspires me to bend my brain in other directions. I know very little about visual art, theory or practice, but every so often I like to pick up a paintbrush, find an old slab of board and have at it. This time around, my medium of choice was collage. I keep files of visual images and dozens of issues of old magazines lying around just in case I get it into my head to try something like this. Collage is a cumulative process; I moved the images here and there, tried them against different backdrops…but the key for me came when I decided to incorporate small blocks of text, usually relating to economic theory (the most savage form of social Darwinism imaginable).
It struck me as I was going through the literally hundreds of images I’ve collected over the past X amount of years, that I am an astonishingly morbid person. I mean, Jesus, click on the image (above), you should get a larger sized version. Would you trust someone who saves pictures like this to babysit your kids or date your daughter?
This is some sick, sick shit.
But as I was piecing everything together, as it all started to fall into place, I realized that what I was creating was a depiction of humanity run amok, the awful, indescribable damage we, as a species, have inflicted with our ideologies, our stupidity and greed. Depressing, yes; sick-making? Undoubtedly. But is this vision inaccurate, flawed or misleading? Well, like any creative endeavor, it’s up to each individual to decide for themselves.
The end result of that little experiment pleased me to some extent but I didn’t feel like I was quite done with cutting things up. My eyes happened on a pile of books I’ve snagged from various thrift shops and library book sales over the years. I decided I wanted to create an homage to one of my literary heroes, William Burroughs. I’m sure you know all about the “cut-up method” that was developed by Burroughs and his mentor, Brion Gysin. Take any number of literary texts, carve them up, piece them together and marvel at the wonderful word collisions and strange juxtapositions that are created.
My project started out as a noble venture but, as with most activities that involve me creatively, my Muse took over and things quickly got out my control.
I used scissors to pare out sections of a 1960 thriller called Operation Terror! I then snipped out various portions of the other books I had lying around: an anthology of detective fiction that included Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, a forgotten novel by Ngaio Marsh, etc. etc. Found a heavy sheet of black cardboard, set up on our basement workbench and proceeded to play with the various passages I’d selected.
At one point I realized I was probably defeating the purpose of the whole intention of “cut ups”, that my method was too conscious and controlling but by then it was too late. I was caught up in creating an all new narrative, trying to come up with a satisfactory climax–
Once I’d arranged the text into a coherent storyline, I decided I wasn’t done: I would then write a story based on the outline I’d created using the borrowed snippets. A completely original work utilizing pre-existing text. And I’d frame it as a teleplay for a long-forgotten TV series…
I repeat: Good Lord.
But there’s no use trying to talk sense to my Muse: she simply won’t be reasoned with. Once she gets an idea into her head, I am powerless to resist her.
So at the conclusion of this article you’ll find a link to the PDF version of my weird, whacky “mashup”. It’s an homage to Mistah Burroughs in the form of a script from a 1950’s crime drama that never was. Go figger.
I make no apologies for this story and predict it might annoy a significant proportion of readers. But fans of Burroughs and Gysin might be more inclined to give grudging approval to the thought behind this bizarre creation. They would see it, quite rightly, as a labour of love and even if they found fault with its execution, they’d think kindly of me for at least making the attempt.
Click on the link directly below for a free download of my story:
A couple of things to cover this time around:
The proof copy of So Dark the Night arrived and we’ll get pictures up soon. It’s a beautiful book—the folks at Lightning Source have done a brilliant job and we couldn’t be happier with the finished volume. Unfortunately, there were a few minor glitches: for one thing, we forgot to add the cover price (yeesh! what dopes!) and there were a couple of formatting mistakes inside that needed tweaking. So we sent in a revised set of cover and text files and that should be it.
In the meantime, the proof sits on my desk, just as pretty as you please. At least five or six times a day I walk over, pick it up and ogle it, turning it over and over in my hands.
So…unless there are any unforeseen problems, we should be going into production in the next ten days and I’ll begin taking orders for So Dark the Night at that time. Or you can buy my book through Lightning Source (and eventually Amazon and wherever else I can get it)
Watch this space.
This one has two main sources of inspiration:
The first was Roman Polanski’s “The Tenant” (terrific creepy film and the perfect evocation of Roland Topor’s short novel) and the second…well. We’ve all seen the stories on the news, an obscene act of violence perpetrated by someone who is clearly delusional. Our initial, knee jerk response to gruesome incidents like the killing on the Greyhound bus is to wash our hands of the assailant, throw away the key, put him out of his misery, etc. etc. But, of course, as a writer my curiosity is piqued when I try to divine the thinking of such an individual: what in God’s name would cause them to act out in such an extreme and horrific manner?
And so I wrote “Bedevilled”.
I have to say, now that the novel’s done and at the printer, I find I have some extra time to do things like journaling and writing short stories and I’m enjoying myself immensely. “Bedevilled” challenged me and I think the end result is a solid short story. I’ve played around with the formatting on this one, tried to make it more readable and eye-friendly (in PDF form). Let me know what you think, dear Readers, especially you folks using devices like the iPad, Kindle, etc. Do you like the fatter margins, find the spacing agreeable?
Let’s kick off the summer reading season with a tale of psychological suspense, shall we?
Click on the link below and…enjoy!