Movie Review: Cam

Many Netflix original movies have so far ranged from simply awful (The Cobbler, The Ridiculous 6) to charmingly loopy (The Babysitter, Turbo Kid), frequently producing content that simply would not fly in a theatrical release, either due to shocking and unexpected violence or the laziest of comic writing.  However, with 2017’s Wheelman Netflix showed that it could produce a first-rate thriller, creating a fast-paced, exciting ride, even if the plot was a little thin for a theatrical release.  2018’s Cam represents another step forward for the production team, crafting an immensely watchable and unconventional thrill ride, one that is familiar in the type of tension it brings to the fore yet wholly modern in its conclusion.

Though Cam was helmed by promising first-time director Daniel Goldharber (and co-written by Goldharber and Isabelle Link-Levy), the story comes from Ilsa Mazzei, who used her own experience as a working cam girl to color the piece with an unmistakable layer of authenticity.  The story concerns Alice Ackerman (Madeline Brewer), an enterprising young woman who makes a more than healthy living as a cam girl, which is a term I was unaware of before I saw the film.  Cam girls make their money by performing an improvisational pornographic cabaret in front of their personal webcam, receiving suggestions and payment from legions of leering patrons.  The film offers a peek inside the world of the cam girl, including the friendships, collaborations, and antipathy shared among this society of modern entrepreneurs.  Early in the film’s runtime, however, Cam takes a turn to the dark underbelly of the Cam girl business, making of itself an unconventional and immensely watchable thriller.

As the movie never strays from her character’s point of view, Madeline Brewer delivers what could be a star-making performance, displaying in equal parts intelligence, strength, resourcefulness, and desperation.  As Ackerman and her cam girl pseudonym “Lola_Lola” are toyed with by a mysterious doppleganger, the film’s tension expands into unexpected avenues, keeping the tension tangible and unconventional.  There is at one point a threat that Ackerman’s cam girl persona might be exposed to her friends and family, and while a more conventional look into this business might cast this as the ultimate horror, Cam simply allows it to happen and then deals with the consequences.  The greater threat comes from the false “Lola_Lola,” and in a climactic showdown that takes place entirely on Ackerman’s webcam, she vanquishes the threat and regains control of her digital identity.

Though the film is littered with excellent supporting performances, most notably from Kevin Druid (13 Reasons Why) as Ackerman’s younger brother and Patch Darragh (The First Purge) as her most slavish patron, the film lives and breathes through its star.  Brewer’s performance acts as the perfect conduit for the statement being made by Ilsa Mazzei, that cam girls are not like prostitutes or even strippers whom could become victims of exploitation, but are more akin to explorers in a new field of profitable sexuality.  Though this statement might seem dubious to some, particularly Ackerman’s mother Lynne (Melora Walters), Cam constructs a fascinating argument, and heralds the arrival of exciting new talent in modern filmmaking.

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Movie Review: Cam

The Treetops (2nd draft): Chapter 3: The Teddy

Mason led the Treetops to the Main Concourse, an asphalt line that bisected the park and was decorated with irregularly placed streetlights.  It was twenty yards wide, and at night completely barren, making of it an eerie black stone river.  One could almost watch the ghosts of wandering tumbleweed, emerging from nothing only to immediately disappear, as if they were too scared to exist.

This river, when viewed from above, looped, pooled irregularly, and split away from itself only to suddenly end in various places.  At certain times in its history, many groups including but not limited to those aligned with the local government, had taken the mission of finishing Norwood Park’s Main Concourse once and for all.

Colorful speeches and jeweled banners often spoke of resurrection, attaching a religious significance to mending this economic hub, but the reality of the job was too much.  Moral and economic bankruptcy on all sides of the effort had made the most noble hope crumble to nothing.

This meant that the concourse, which had been proposed and designed ages ago by people no one tried to remember, was like a mural born of committee politics.  It began with a goal, undoubtedly, but the issues of diverse eras had caused the public to realize that they didn’t really care about Norwood park.

It was a forbidding symbol, the Teddy at night, and it’s reputation assured that law abiding citizens stayed away.  For these bystanders and potential witnesses, The Teddy’s darkness was a symbol of a world they didn’t want to visit.

Simon, vitalized from what he felt had been a victory over Mason, strode ahead of the group and spoke to everyone like a camp counselor.  “Let’s find a spot and post up, see what breaks.”  Simon broke into a light jog, coasting out in front of the rest.  He strode out of one of the streetlights’ halos, shadowing him in the night haze while he looked back at the others, “Why’a you all so tense?”

Mason grinned, barely letting his teeth show.  Max noticed this anticipatory smile and called after Simon.  “I don’t think that’s real wise.”

Simon responded, “Whatever,” curt and sharp.  Hopping and boosting himself up over it with his arms, he sat on top of a garbage can, hanging his feet before its mouth.

As soon as he did this, two large, muscled gangsters rushed out from under the trees and knocked Simon to the ground, causing him to land painfully on his hip.  They were both wearing black tank tops, green suspenders and world war 2 era headgear.

“The summit is to take place in Norwood park, keep moving.”  These were members of War Helmet, a gang renowned throughout the city for its brutal discipline.  Simon tried to lash out at the Helmet who’d assaulted him, but before he could take a swing, two more grabbed him by each arm and held him still.

“That’s War Helmet,” Mason said casually, smirking and chuckling.  “They’re providing some of the security.”

“Security?”  Simon opened his mouth as if he didn’t understand.  After just a moment of consideration he closed his mouth and relaxed his arms, seeing that in a physical contest he would be overmatched and outnumbered.  “Understood.”  Simon frowned and lowered his head.

As they continued down the Concourse, Mason kept the dialog going.  “War Helmet comes from Port Ashland, I don’t know much about them, don’t mess with ’em though.”

“Yeah,” Simon said, defeated.

As quickly as the members of War Helmet had arrived, they disappeared into the darkness under the trees.  Art was intrigued by this show of mastery, and he searched the darkness for other members of this gang, crouching under low branches and peering up through leaves toward the streetlights.

“Stop looking for us,” a voice came from nowhere, loud and deep.  “The summit is to take place in Norwood park, clear the Concourse.”

“Or what?”  Simon trotted slowly into the middle of the black, solid path.  Stretching his arms to his sides, he straightened his right leg out in front of him, then hopped to his left.  “Come on, War Helmet, scare me, I wanna see your force.”

After around 15 seconds watching the willows, Mason tapped Simon on the shoulder and spoke softly into his ear.  “Unless you’re gonna go in there and look for them, I think we should go.”

With his mouth held open and his pupils flicking back and forth, Simon nodded and began to walk forward.  The rest of the Treetops followed, continuing an unnerved caravan.

 

The Treetops came to and passed what was affectionately referred to as the Big Fountain.  The Big Fountain had once upon a time been one of the city’s central meeting places, hosting all manner of political rallies and musical performances, but it had been decades since water had flowed through it.  Now it was simply a grouping of mold-covered gargoyles looking fearsome and portending doom.

On the edge of the Big Fountain sat a fairly nondescript group of street hoods, displaying no obvious colors and all facing in different directions.  They didn’t seem like a gang at all, as all of them were distracted by their own pursuits.  The tallest one, with his hair cut down to a light fuzz that covered his skull, quietly bounced a racquetball to himself on the edge of the fountain.

As the Treetops passed by, this apparent figurehead noticed Mason’s approach, and turned on his heel.  “Mason,” he spoke, “Who’re these?”

The Treetops stood together in a tight group, as if they only just now realized the danger of their situation.

A Skinny man in an undershirt waved, remaining silent.  His face was gaunt and his bones stuck out, making it appear as though he’d not eaten for years.  The streetlights circling the fountain made the divots and crevices in his face create shadows in his face.  The shadows made him appear ghostlike, but not the ghost of a person, more like the ghost of rumbles past.

“That was Jeremy, he runs The Numbers, they’re all right.”  From the fountain, The Treetops and The Heaters continued through a tight group of willow trees.  The trees were packed together such that they created a decaying canopy, moonlight shining through its gaps at different angles.

Max became uneasy.  “Who’re The Numbers?”  Max asked nervously, as though the answer would harm him.

“They’re from the outskirts, I think, by the train yards, I think.”

Waiting until the Numbers were out of earshot, Simon eventually proffered his analysis.  “The Numbers is a stupid name.”

“So is the Treetops,” said Art, casting his potentially offensive statement casually; just throwing it out there.  “And so is the Forty-Niners, and so is the Heaters.  Gang names are stupid.”  Art looked into Simon’s eyes, challenging him.  Simon and Art conflicted often, sometimes even coming to blows, but Simon was too scared after his encounter with War Helmet to tire himself out in this way, so he said nothing.

As soon as he invoked the name of the Heaters, which had already been the center of a contentious moment, Art looked Simon in the eye, seemingly daring him to make a move.  Simon silently kept moving, trying not to look at Art.

“The numbers is a stupid name,” Simon spoke, his voice tinged with anticipation.  “The Heaters is a stupider name though, it must be said.”

In an instant Simon was on his back, Mason standing over him with a cocked-back fist.  “Why’re you fuckin with me?”

Simon twisted and pushed up with his hands, backing Mason up and claimed his own patch of grass.  “Cause we don’t need you.  I don’t even know why you’re here, get the fuck out.”

“He’s here cause we wanted a guide,” Roly said, backing Simon and Mason away from one another.  “We weren’t gonna come up here with no plan.  Mason knows the park better than we do.”

“Oh wow he probably knows they got trees and stuff.”  Simon spoke staring into Mason’s eyes as they circled each other, Big D standing between them.  “Fuck that, like we can’t figure it out.”

As he stretched his arms out, Big D sounded like a toddler begging his parents not to hurt each other.  “Two is better than one right?  Isn’t that a good enough reason?”

Simon responded quickly, “No, I don’t trust Mason, he’s got a plan and I don’t like it.”

Purposefully and deliberately, Max strode out between them.  “Cool it, Simon.  Fact is, we weren’t gonna come without a guide and you know it.”

“But why couldn’t we come without a guide?  We got an invitation same as them, we’re not stupid.”

Max lowered his head and beckoned Simon with his hand to lower his the same way so they could speak more softly and privately with one another.  “I wasn’t comin’ without a guide, that’s what it comes to.  You wanna blame someone for nothing?  Fine blame me, but cool it, you’re not helping us, look around.”

Simon stood up straight, looked around and saw they were surrounded at all sides by the Heaters, many of them clutching weapons.  He looked left to right, seeing the whole situation.  “Okay, whatever.”

Mason stood silent watching Simon’s face, seeing from his expression that his apology had been insincere.  “It’s okay, whatever.  Want us to take you to Norwood now?”

Max felt sickened by Mason’s superior attitude, but he just said “yeah,” and they all moved on.

The Treetops (2nd draft): Chapter 3: The Teddy

The Treetops (2nd draft): Chapter 2, Mason and the Heaters

The Treetops all stayed silent as the train pulled into the Grayson Street station, where they had planned to disembark.  As the train slowed to a stop, the metallic click of its trucks colliding with the track sounded like gunshots to some, and they all had flashes of the bloody dawn this evening could bring.  Would the morning sun fall on a field peppered with bodies, or discarded weapons?  Would the summit be symbolized by a fully felt handshake, or a knife in the stomach?  Nothing makes you dread things going wrong more than considering what could be if things went right.

Big D was chuffed, or full of a bubbly, exorbitant cheer.  His head bobbed and his grin widened.  He stretched his lips as tight as he could, imagining his cheeks caught by fishhooks.  This was a habit of his, and he performed it whether or not he was undergoing any emotional strain, but this time he felt as though his blood were on fire.

The Treetops, D felt, mostly regarded him as a bit of a patsy.  He was without a doubt invaluable in a fight, and not one to be shook by the introduction of police sirens, but he was unlikely to be included in any planning or debate.  Though he was not really as dumb as many of his cohorts considered him, he thought it was valuable to play the doofus, for comic relief and overall group togetherness.  On this day however, though Simon had opened the door for a session of “Big D is stupider than. . .”, no one seemed to be in the mood.  A pallid silence lay like a body over The Treetops.

Max would just as well have stayed on the train, he didn’t want to attend the speech; he didn’t want to see such a beautiful dream melt.  It was spelled out in his mind’s eye, the headline splattered in blood on the asphalt: “NORWOOD PARK MASSACRE, FULL STORY ON PAGE 13.”  It would be the lead story, he imagined, for at least one day.

He grinned, as he could predict what Simon might say if he shared with him his vision of a nightmare headline: “No way we’d make it above the fold, a Norwood Park massacre would be on page 2 of the metro section, no doubt.”  Simon would grin while Max’s face drooped, knowing the truth of these words, and that nothing would matter anyway.

They all would be forgotten, Art knew, in the grand scheme of things.  Though legends and memorials did exist in the gangster world, the world they occupied, he didn’t take them seriously.  Everything was legend in the gangster world; vague, confusing, preposterous legend.  Did the founders of Hi Rize, which held a tenuous truce with War Helmet, the Gents, and the Rosies over the entire Southern half of the city, really all spend their entire childhoods on the 68th floor of the Spencer-Hasting’s homes Southwestern Campus?  No, of course not, but that’s what everyone said.

Art was the Treetops’ official historian, but it was mostly because he had the best imagination, and he could describe the most interesting ways for things to have happened.  Little Bit, the firebrand of a dwarf who’d recently become one of The Treetops biggest earners, had been killed accidentally by a civilian minivan three weeks previous, but thanks to Art, the Treetops rank and file believed the pigs had murdered him on purpose.

Only Art, Max and Simon knew the truth about Little Bit, as well as a host of other truths they held in the strictest confidence, and this served best to make them all wary.  They knew that underneath the sectarian posturing and greedy logistics of what it was to be a gangster, every heart beat the same, and all were prone to stupid wanton wrath.  So far, Max had been the only one to give his concerns public voice, but he was far from the only Treetop concerned.

Simon was scared just like Max, but he told himself he wasn’t.  Smiling wide, he hopped the turnstile on his way to the exit stairs, turning his body sideways and rolling over the top of it.  On the other side, he landed on his heels facing Art.  “Do you feel the air?  It’s electric.”

“Shut up,” Art pushed past Simon, rolling his eyes.

“Let’s put our war faces on,” Max bellowed as bellicose as he could, acting the leader again.  He jogged a few yards ahead of the others, turning in his last steps to look the Treetops in the eyes.  “This isn’t a fucking joke.  We gotta realize, um, this is dangerous.  This isn’t a thing we’re just gonna walk away from, um, unchanged, I mean, this is gonna change everything.”

Simon could tell that Max wanted silence, and he obliged at least for the moment.  His pure human instinct was to push back and show Max that authority in any form was a stupid dream, but it was easy to see Max floundering, and Simon wasn’t cruel or vindictive.  What mattered most to Simon was freedom, and he believed that whatever the cost, all people should be free all the time.  He realized however that open rebellion would not help at the moment, so he let Max say his piece.

Max’s voice was sober.  “I see them say in movies to keep your head on a swivel, and I think that describes it well.  Just be aware.  Don’t get snuck up on.”

After a pause, Simon interjected again, sputtering with laughter.  “Everybody heard Max, stay frosty and don’t get captured.”

Max laughed, looking at the ground, “Fuck you Simon.”

“If you are captured the agency will disavow—“

Max grabbed a fistful of Simon’s hair and pulled down.  “Shut up,” Max hissed into Simon’s ear, in no mood for nonsense.

Simon relented, lowering his head and raising his hand in the air as a sign of conciliation.  “Sorry man, just keeping’ everyone’s spirits up.”

“Whatever man,” Max responded, humorless and dry.  “Just fucking watch yourself, right?”  With his mouth open and his hands apart, slowly shaking his head, Simon returned the offense Max had given him.

“Ladies, please,” Art interjected from behind Max and Simon, “Pull out your tampons, man, we’re all friends.”  Roly and Big D started guffawing and slapping their thighs, saying “oh shit” under their breath while laughing.

Standing near the turnstiles of the Grayson Street station, The Treetops stared into each other’s faces and forced laughter as best they could.  They were all scared, but they couldn’t let it show, especially to themselves.

Chuckling and glad-handing, the Treetops struck out on to the sidewalk, claiming the staircase leading up into the station as their own.  Max, Art and Simon sat on the bottom stair, watching Big D and Roly jut out to look for Mason, whom they’d known since they were little, and who was meant to be the Treetops’ guide.

Mason was head of a mid-sized city gang, the Heaters, and he’d proposed squiring the Treetops to the summit.  At first, this had made Max and Simon nervous, they didn’t trust Mason.  “Why do we need a guide?”  Simon had asked aggressively, furrowing his brow.

“We don’t need a guide,” Roly submitted aggressively.  “But me and D grew up with Mason, we know him, he gives us an in, we won’t have to prove ourselves.”

“Maybe I wanna prove myself,” said Simon, staring out the window at a fixed point.

They both looked at Max, indicating that he would break the tie.  Opening his mouth, keeping silent, Max considered the problem, what should they do?

Before Max could come up with an answer, Art, who normally stayed silent as decisions were being made, proffered his analysis.  “We don’t need to prove ourselves.  If someone steps to us we’ll smash ’em and take what’s theirs.”

The Treetops waited for Mason at the bottom of the Grayson Street station stairs.  Simon clicked his tongue and whistled, trying to seem bored.  He raised up and started to wander, looping around, swinging his legs and sighing.  His eyes drifted upwards into the starless night. “”So-oo-ooo,” he inhaled sharply before smoothly resuming his speech, “Which of us isn’t gonna make it?”

Art and Max glared in response, being sure not to make a sound and remaining as still as possible.

Just as it had countless times previously, this tactic fell short, and Simon continued.  “I won’t make it, the funny one never survives.”

Max quivered silently with anger, and probably would have said something, but Art beat him to it.  ”You’re not the funny one,” Art was annoyed, he sneered and spat on the sidewalk.  “You’re the annoying one, the crowd cheers when you catch it in the face.”

Simon was energized that he’d drawn a mocking spirit from Art, “Five bucks says you die first.”

A loud, strong, steady voice cut the air.  “If you’re right it’s worth way more than five bucks,” Mason clucked and came out of the alley just as the Treetops walked by.  Mason had twenty or thirty mute soldiers trailing behind him as he emerged from an alley.  “If he dies first you can take his shoes.”

“No one’s gonna die,” Max spoke quick and angry.  “I’m sick of this shit, no one’s gonna die.”  Max’s skin, or the fluid under his skin, boiled and gas was released as steam seeping from his ears.

Mason, feeling the strength of having a large, silent servant class en masse behind him, cackled as he spoke.  “His shoes are worth at least five bucks.”

Max was famous for his anger, but like a clown, it was often used as a stupid parlor trick.  He erupted in blustery profanities from nowhere on a regular basis.  Many of his eruptions were saved on VHS tapes and tucked away behind rotting drywall, only occasionally to be unearthed by Max when he was drunk and at an informal viewing party.  All of the Treetops had attended these viewing parties, where people would cheer and throw things.

Many of the other gang’s leaders, particularly Mason, often looked at the Treetops as a joke, though they could fight, everyone knew.  There was no organized authority that stood watch over these fights, fights just happened, and seeped into the topsoil.  Many upstart gangs big and small had stuck their toes in Evergreen, and been penalized.

If you deal in Evergreen, a Treetop’s gonna spot ya and flip a dove, which was only their way of calling Simon, Max or Art.  At that point, whichever leader of the Treetops would make a call and get the rest of SAC in after them, which is what they called throwing bricks and rocks at any interlopers.  These colorful sayings and turns-of-phrase had become street speak in the Treetop’s section of Evergreen Estates, and were exemplary of the Treetops’ attitude.

They fought a lot, ran some light protection schemes, small-to-mid level larceny.  They stayed away from drugs, even beating up gang members for selling anything without permission in a neighborhood they occupied.  They’d once attempted to eliminate the drug dealers completely, but now they simply taxed and regulated the drug trade in the areas they control.  Drugs were like a tidal wave, they rotted neighborhoods from the inside out, and there was no fighting against them.  The Treetops ran Evergreen with a stiff tax on any dealers they came across, which was the Treetops’ chief source of income.

As soon as Mason made himself known by stepping into the streetlight, Big D emerged from the darkness and gripped his forearms.  Big D and Mason touched foreheads before falling into riotous laughter, slapping each other on the shoulder and swearing.  They hugged and cackled, speaking of that one time last year when Mason had run into that one girl they remembered from back in the day, the one with the huge titties, and she was wearing like a business outfit or some shit, and she acted like she didn’t even see him, but who cares cause she was a bitch anyway.  When they’d been in the same grade school back in Evergreen, they’d been very close, running in the same crew and always having each other’s back.

“Mason!  This is the guy I told you about, he runs the Heaters.”  Big D held his arm out towards Mason, giving him a formal introduction.

Big D jogged up and clasped Mason’s hand, holding it to his breast and gripping it tightly.  “Mason, these are the Treetops.”  He then introduced every member in attendance, indicating them by holding his hand out towards each in turn.  “Max, Art, and Simon.”

The Treetops’ leadership remained seated, each holding out their hands for Mason to shake, which he did.  After Mason shook their hands, Max, Art and Simon each stood up, putting themselves at his eye level and nodding slightly.

The most notable thing about Mason was his hat; a huge, ostentatious neon orange top hat, speckled with a green felt boa wrapped around its brim.  Behind him were four lieutenants of the Heaters, wearing plainly colored stetsons, each of which had with him two soldiers wearing bowlers.  Simon blurted an observation: “You guys should be the Hatters.”

Roly yanked on Simon’s hand and lowered his voice to rasp out a whisper.  “Shut up, they know, they don’t like to talk about it.”

Simon cackled, knowing full well of the bear he was poking.  ”I know, I’m just sayin, they’re all wearing hats, and hatters is pretty close to,–”

Roly pushed Simon’s shoulders, “they know, they know, shut up.”

Art and Max could both see the writing on the wall, and they each tried to grab Simon before he could do it, but they were too late.  Simon laughed loudly, coughing as he spoke his observation.  “Oh shit!  The name of your gang is a typo!”

It took both Roly and Big D to hold Mason back.  “Our name is not a typo!  It was a typo, but it’s ours now.”

Simon could see the situation was more serious than he’d considered and tried to backtrack.  “Okay, it’s your name now, begging your pardon, I meant no offense, sorry.”

Mason sighed and threw his right hand out in front of him, indicating that he let the insult roll off his back.

Simon, never one to leave well enough alone, continued.  “Level with me, though, the name’s a typo, right?”

Mason flared once again, but this time Roly was right next to him and whispered something to him, calming him instantly.  Mason finally admitted it, “Yes, the Heaters were supposed to be the Hatters.”

Art guffawed and slapped Mason’s right shoulder with his left hand, causing Mason to sneer.

After a few silent, calming breaths, Mason called out, “Right, let’s go!”  The Heaters and the Treetops began to make their way across the Teddy.

The Treetops (2nd draft): Chapter 2, Mason and the Heaters

The Treetops (2nd draft) Chapter 1

“Caius said no weapons right?”  Big D croaked as he lifted himself over the seats of the M train, pressing his hands and feet on the stabilizing rails.  He was watching Max balance a chef’s knife on his knee with the point down and the tip of the handle resting against his forehead.  The very tall, stick-thin gangster hoisted himself over Max, staring daggers down.  D’s question might have seemed like a threat, given their relative sizes and positions in the train car, but Max, the far smaller of the two, held all the power.

Max was annoyed,  “Yeah,” he began, taking the knife by its handle and casually tossing it from his right to his left hand and back again.  “I’m a stash it.”  He silenced Big D’s concern with a flick of the wrist.

Overpowered, Big D ignored the slight Max had given with his somewhat cavalier response.  He knew that he had no power, because he wasn’t even an official Treetop yet.

Both Big D and his brother Roly had joined the Treetops only two years previous.  Every member of the Treetops had to procure their own uniform, and Big D’s uniform wasn’t even finished.  D still had to find and steal shoes, but size 24’s were few and far between.

The Treetop’s uniform was cheap, that was its operative characteristic.  The Treetops came from the far Southeast suburbs, a place where incomes were very often subsidized by nickels earned recycling cans.  Their uniform was just a dark T shirt and jeans, often sheared at the knees with a knife or a broken bottle.  These uniforms were scavenged from fences and clotheslines, stolen from citizens and fished out of dumpsters, as they could not be paid for.

Big D had yet to find and steal shoes gigantic enough for his feet, so he’d had to buy them.  Since he wasn’t able to steal his shoes, he was technically a prospective Treetop, and on a lower social rung than the others.

Simon, one of the founders of the Treetops on the same train, saw that Big D needed to be reminded of his station.  “Fresh kicks, D, you rollin’ large, moneybags?” Simon purred with a sick grin on his face.  This was, for Big D, a joke he’d heard since he’d begun initiation proceedings, and he was growing tired of it.  His eyes flared and his lips spread apart showing his teeth.

Noticing the aggression growing, Max held a bare palm up above everyone, said “Not now,” and that was the end of it.  Max was the most senior members of The Treetops, and also quite smart, so he held a position of expertise and authority.  Max knew it was pointless to squabble, as the gang needed to stay calm.  He knew rash action could lead to disastrous consequences.  The Treetops’ destination was possibly now already drowned in bloodshed.  They were heading to a speech, the audience of which was to be made up of representative groups from gangs all over the city.  They all knew that this would create a tinder box of blades and egos.

It seemed that the impossible had happened.  It seemed that Caius really had brought everyone together.  It was rumored that he was very near to granting an immediate and retroactive amnesty to all on behalf of all.  As he put it in his weekly radio hour, which was broadcast on a low frequency unknown to the police, “All beef will be squashed and put to bed.”  It was fantasy, it was a fever dream.  Many including Max wanted to believe that Caius could usher in an era of peace, but considered it a virtual impossibility.

This speech was meant to be some sort of coronation, or state-of-the union, or list of commands.  If it was a coronation or a state of the union, many gangs would chaff under any kind of leadership.  The Nomads, for one, didn’t even have an official territory, they lived by their wits wherever they found themselves, and would surely refuse bearing allegiance to anyone.

If the speech became a list of commands, there was no telling how many would die.  Whatever happened, Caius would be killed, Max reasoned, very likely.

Max considered himself a student of human moves, of the way people at all times kept their eyes open for ways to gain personal advantage.  Just as it was in the straight world, in gangster society war was big business, and economics seemed to demand boodshed. Max knew that the peace Caius promised was a dream.  Beyond this pessimism Max reserved for the obsession with money, everyone knew the danger of the event they were nearing.

Bad blood ran too deep and too many gang leaders were agents of chaos to make a lasting peace feasible.  Threats had flown freely for many years, and gang backlogs were full of debts to collect and wrongs to revenge.

Despite all the bad blood, the speech was happening.  The morning of Caius’ speech, Max, Art, and Simon had all received messages in letters slid under their front doors inviting them to a “rebel summit.”  By that time, the grapevine had been alive with talk of Caius for months, and these invitations told everyone where and when they could see him; midnight, Norwood Park.

After much debate, the Treetops had decided to send a small running crew.  The running crew consisted of Max, Art and Simon, the most senior of the Treetops, as well as Roly and Big D, brothers who seemed like they were from a fairy tale.  Big D was tall and skinny, Roly was short and fat.  Big D was dumb and trusting, Roly was clever and spiteful.  Both of them could fight, and in defense of one another they were unstoppable.

The fact was that the Treetops’ crew was minuscule compared to some of the others.  Many of the other gangs certainly would come in force, and likely outnumber The Treetops by five or six times.  To reach Norwood Park, The Treetops needed to take the subway all the way from Evergreen, the southeastern suburb they called their ‘hood.  This meant that if they had a crew of twenty or thirty, they would very likely draw stares from the Pigs, so they kept the crew as small as they could.

Every gang and every gang member had the same mortal enemy, the Pigs.  They were all the same; liars and cheats, thieves and pushers, same as they said of the gangs.  The thing the gangs really hated about the Pigs was not the deception in their words or the evil in their deeds, it was their self-righteous swagger.  They walked their beats as if the neighborhoods belonged to them, but Caius had foretold of the day fast approaching when the Pigs would know what true power is and find themselves wanting.

Caius had risen to be a prominent figure in the world of the criminal underground through “The Bulletin,” his weekly radio show on 123.7 AM, a low-wattage independent radio station he ran out of his headquarters.  All the gangs including The Treetops were avid listeners, as Caius’s brash anti-authoritarian take on lifestyle and philosophy appealed to them.  “We must lay low on a day-to-day basis,” Caius said regularly, “but our time will come.”

Within each neighborhood, every gang had created a unique network of alleys, shortcuts, side streets and backdoors to avoid the Pigs.  Caius had told them, if every gang’s network were connected, the Pigs could never find them.  Caius sketched a plan with his words, that if a member of a gang had too much heat on him anywhere in the city, there could be a stash house on every block, and they would all be communal.  He encouraged all to imagine a future war, one where the gangs could unite, recognizing that they all had the same true enemy.

Caius called it paradise, utopia, and more than anyone else had before, he made people believe in it.  Caius, the revered one, he could make everything like it should be.

Roly sat across from Max and shrank his voice to a low growl.  His eyes were still and locked in to Max’s, holding them tight.  “So what do you think?  I’ve never met Caius, I don’t even know what he looks like, so why am I gonna listen to this guy?”  Roly’d heard the same rhetoric everyone had, and he knew that many were praying for the dawning of a new era, with some even counting on it.

“Everyone I’ve talked to who’s heard him speak in person says it’s like nothin’ else.”  Max rolled his eyes and opened his mouth wide, as if the top part of his head was falling away from his face.  “I don’t know, he might just be smooth, all I know is everybody’s gonna be there, and whatta you wanna be left behind?”  As he finished his question, Max closed his mouth and looked into Roly’s eyes.

“All I’m saying is we’re leaving our territory, that’s all.”  Roly’s face quivered.  He looked scared, which made Max nervous, as Roly wasn’t the type to be easily shook.

Simon giggled, “You scared?”

Roly’s eyes narrowed and and he tightened his lips, “No.”

Max interrupted, “Everybody listen up.  I know this isn’t ideal, we’re gonna be exposed.  But I think we can smash anyone, and if we can’t they’ll know us when we’re gone, and they’ll know where we come from.”  He looked over the Treetops as he spoke, and it gave him no confidence.

Simon blew contempt through his lips, “Yeah our names will be on official documents at the morgue.”

Max normally enjoyed Simon’s gallows humor, but he wasn’t in the mood.  “The morgue?”  Max stared at Simon, trying to show him rage, but it came across like terror.  At Simon’s jape, Art guffawed, but it was more in agreement than mirth.

Spurred on by the show of support, Simon continued.  “Yeah this is about to get blown up, man.  Caius said no weapons, but whatta they gonna do, check?  Fuckin’ forget it, this’ll be a free-for-all, I ain’t scared though.”

“So it’s agreed, we pack blades at least,” Max raised the point of his butcher knife to be parallel with his line of sight.  “Got mine,” Max grinned.

Big D seemed to be getting frustrated, but he wouldn’t dare try to tell Max anything, he’d learned his lesson.  He just tried to change the topic and shift focus from Max, “None of us have heard Caius in person, though.  So what—what if they’re right and he is the one?”D finished his statement with a trailing off voice, as if attempting to seem mystic, or like he knew some securet the others didn’t.  However, Simon was listening, and he couldn’t stand for what seemed like soupy-eyed optimism.

“What if who’s right?  The one!?”  Simon spoke quick and loud, loud enough so that everyone could hear his voice break.  “Caius’s head of the Eastside Forty-Niners, what if he wants everyone to be a Forty-Niner?  I’m not a fuckin Forty-Niner, I’m a Treetop.”  Simon hadn’t put his fear of the summit in such stark terms before, and he he put a colloquial capper on it for good measure: “I’m-a stay a Treetop, too.”

As Simon spoke, Max eyed him suspiciously.  His chin dropped, leaving him slack-jawed, portraying a knowing gloom.  “You holdin’ anything that shoots, Simon?”

Big D rushed Simon and held him by the collar, “I swear to god, if you fuck this up I’m gonna kill you.”

Simon laughed as he slid a snub-nosed .38 out of his pocket and threw it on the ground.  He sat back as far as he could and held his hands in the air.  “Fuck me man, fine, I’m not carryin’ anything.  I was gonna stash it before we got there, jesus.”

Roly looked at the gun for a few seconds considering, then pulled out his own and put it on the ground next to Simon’s.  “I believe in Caius, I think there’s too much money at stake for anyone to fuck this up.  So, we don’t wanna get caught with nuthin’.  Stash all pistols in the same place.”

“Money?”  Art said, his voice laced with a mocking suspicion, “There’s money?”  At the mention of money, Art’s ears picked up and his tail wagged.  Art had been standing on a seat near the door between train cars, but as he spoke he lowered himself to the floor and stood in front of the others.

Roly knew that Art’s blood ran green, “Well if Caius brings us together, the way everybody’s saying, we can make real money.”

Big D hated when gang members talked about money.  “This is fuck all all about money, this is about finding a way to live.”

Art rolled his eyes and stretched over a couple of seats on the train, laying still as he pretended to snore.  Max seemed to shrink in his seat, pulling his feet close to him and wrapping his arms around his knees.

They were all frightened, this was new, heading to a speech.  Workers and administrators and servants went to speeches; gangsters didn’t go to speeches.

The Treetops (2nd draft) Chapter 1

Poem: The Head (Chapter 1)

He doesn’t know if he’s ready, but he has his assignment and the time is now,

the moment for man-making is, he steps into the air holding pack and saber without

fellowship partner or dog, he is all alone in the night heavy with sweat,

his contract is a death to bring, he must find a wolf and claim its head as his,

all of his friends have done it and if he wants a wife he needs to prove worthy

in the night, dodging rocks and hurdling logs, traversing bog

mud patches, in the distance he spies a torchlight, beelining to it

he mouths a curse and spits thick, turning around escaping into darkness

behind every bush, his father’s words echoing behind his eyes,

“as darkness spreads all around, teeth fill in the space between trees,

watch yourself with your feelings, they are all you will have in the dark.”

 

Seeming to have direction, he loped from the flame, to grow his length from light

as the fire faded from view, he groped the stillness and willed his thoughts to settle

his eyelids shut around him, he achieved silence, but someone struck a flint

spawning a dim light through the brush, he he this time ran for face afire, knife out

whoever they are he thought, he would kill them, becoming a man though he knew

society would wonder, they would ask, “where is your trophy head?”

and he would respond simply, “I cleaved but one,” hanging a soul from a chain

sneaking quiet near the light, he was almost to it, suddenly the flame snuffed

and thus he was alone again, madly whirling, he stabbed his blade in the air

when four torches circled him, he stumbled feebly, he felt the cold ground rise,

“did you bring enough coin?”

 

This new voice sounded thick and travelled, experience and rum heaved

at four men holding torches emerging from the wood, fitted for business

each held a fire to his right and dangled a wolf’s head to his left,

a voice slid through the night like warm poison syrup,

“Raise your silver slow, boy,”

the salesman spoke an offer that cut the boy’s pride at an artery,

“The price is twenty for the head alone and seventy for the full pelt,”

“I carry no silver tonight, man,”

the boy holding his knife spoke with a dumb and haughty pride,

“My blade carries a death to the unholy but I’ve brought no coin,”

“You’re just a fool then, kid”

the salesman spoke on spewing a rueful mockery and contempt,

“Go with your god but when you fail you will search for my torch,”

“I am a righteous fool, sir”

the boy took this talk for a verbal joust and leveled his lance high,

“And if I find your torch I promise that you will die that night.”

 

The torchbearers riotous laughing, they fell as pins tipped over,

“I too was once a child,” came a voice behind him, “I was stupid,”

a pain swept through his knees, he was knocked down looking up,

“this is a lesson learnt,” the boy saw dark shapes, “learn it well,”

weighted leather fell with a thud, the blackest night shot through

the boy was in red mist hanging from a string,

acid rain melting him down,

to nothing,

shink like a descabbard blade,

daytime comes in a great wave that heats his eyes,

the boy is a furious painful hate, directed at himself completely,

“You are like a soft egg,” cursing the reflecting pool, “a dead fool,”

he held his knife in suicide posture, ready to open his veins.

 

“Stop!” a voice burst from the sky, “you’re not serious, you can’t be,”

“Idiot!” another came from behind, “an idiot with heart and derring-doo,”

The salesmen emerged, stalking slow and grinning deeply at the boy,

only a pair of them stood, Jackal and Horshoe with two sinister smiles,

“chance” said Jackal with a start, “or divine providence some would call,”

“yeah,” and Horshoe was giggling, “it’s the lucky day they would say,”

The boy sat on a log, making scales and seeing what options are best

under the dawn shone bright, the world is a game with ease of advantage.

 

Competition, hope and greed, they taught, or would,

“if today be my first lesson I will sop it and smile,”

the boy knelt, palms upturn, mind opened, wanting,

“I drop to knees and supplicate myself completely,”

Jackal cackled, and there was no other word for it

for his teeth sounded like knives, “that’s dangerous,”

moving like smoke he continued, “do you know?”

“he knows,” Horshoe contended, “sure he does,”

clapping the boy’s shoulder, lifting him skyward,

“don’t you?”

Poem: The Head (Chapter 1)

100 word story: Surprise Breakfast

There was a sandwich waiting for me on my breakfast table in the morning, so from the jump off I was amazed and energized.  I guessed she’d forgiven me, which was pleasingly ahead of schedule.  It was my favorite sandwich, eggs and sausage, but I couldn’t eat it.  I’d cheated on my wife, and the impact of this betrayal hit me in my soul, looking at the sandwich.  I decided that I couldn’t eat through the guilt, so I went to apologize, tearful and loving.  When I opened the door she tried to stab me, talk about a crazy morning.

100 word story: Surprise Breakfast

100 word flash fiction: Oh Shit

In the house there were cabinets full of boxes of raisins and crackers, cantaloupe and salmon fillets, bacon over a working stove.

All my favorite brands of cereal and a toaster for the plentiful bounty of bagels, marmalade and peanut butter painting designs on the wall

There was as well a freezer section with desserts and the unsweetened ice tea that had been my favorite back in the days of crackers and carelessness.

And a note, naming me welcome to all till I’m stuffed and happy, but they forgot to leave a key, or not,

I could be in hell.

100 word flash fiction: Oh Shit

The Apple (100 word flash fiction)

“So far,” Colonel Johns said looking over the remaining rations, “it’s not lookin’ great.”

We were desperately starving, and there were six of us.  “We’ve got one apple, and that’s it.”

Chaplain Holmes’ eyes flicked from the apple to group captain Mandrake and then to the gunners Thompson and Dunbar, all of them craving to the point of breaking.

It was only Jimmy, the homeless orphan-turned mess hall boy, who knew what to do.  He lunged at the apple, grabbed it and flung it over the side of the raft into the ocean.

We all starved, but none were murdered.

The Apple (100 word flash fiction)

Sylvester (volume 7)

As I lay beside Sonia and covered her with my bare arm, for the first time in my life I had a dream in which I could fly.

I sailed above sand dunes in a desert, skimming just over their crests.  I whistled through the air at increasing speed, and had the sense that I needed to hurry, and feared that for some reason I would be late.  I didn’t know what my deadline was, but I sensed my time was almost up.

I hurried as best I could, and as my speed increased I began to feel that I would make my deadline, whatever it was.  There was a single great sand dune ahead of me, bigger than all the others, but as I approached its pinnacle, the ability to fly suddenly left me.  I plummeted down toward the sand, and at the moment I hit the ground, I started awake with a loud cough.

“You’re up?”  Sonia quested from the kitchen, where she sat at the small table eating a plate of eggs and toast.  “You slept for a while, you were tired, huh?”

I sat up and yawned, raising my hands as high as I could behind my back.  I swung my legs over the side of the bed and felt cold linoleum under my bare feet.  My eyes shot open and my spine straightened.  I trotted into the kitchen and took the seat opposite Sonia.  “I guess, what time is it?”

“Two,” Sonia said, crunching into her toast.  “Hungry?”

I said “Yeah” as I grinned, anticipating a tasty breakfast.

Sonia likewise smiled, pointing towards the stovetop at the laid-out components of a growing breakfast.  “There’s the eggs, bread, the toaster, and here’s the butter,” she indicated to a small dish at the center of the table.  “You know what to do, I’m already eating.”  She sat up in her seat with an impish grin on her lips, pointing at things with her fork.

I silently made my way to the stove top, cracked a couple eggs, and dropped their insides in a pan.  “Did you sleep?” I asked, over my shoulder.  I wanted it to seem as though what was happening was completely normal to me, and no big deal.

“Yeah,” she answered simply.  I breathed a grateful sigh of relief.  She’s playing it cool too, I thought.

I flipped my eggs with the spatula to my left and turned to the right, watching Sonia through the edge of my vision.  “Good,” I said, raising my two eggs over hard out of the pan with the spatula.  I placed my plate of eggs onto the table and joined it with a piece of toast, onto which I began to spread butter.  “So what’s up for you today?”

As I started to ask the question I could tell by the wrinkles in her nose that it was annoying to Sonia.  “I don’t know, what do you care?”  Her left eyebrow elevated slightly, indicating what could have been incredulity, but was more likely bitterness.

“I don’t know. . .” after this first phrase I let a pause hang in the air.  I thought about what I should say, and then I remembered our conversation from the night before.  “I care because I guess because I like you, whaddya want me to say?”

Sonia stepped towards the sink and began to slap her palms down on the counter to the side off it, laughing uproariously.  “Oh yeah,” she leaned over the sink and turned her head around to look in my eyes.  She smiled softly, as if grinning on her own in a private moment, and then lightened the mood with a joke. “Did we ever find a dick in the sky last night?”  As she said the word “dick” the teeth in her grin shined like the whites in her eyes and warmed my heart.

“No,” I said, returning her smile with my own as I did, “We can’t see stars in the city.”

“Right, of course,” said Sonia, taking the seat at the table opposite me.  We both ate our meals slowly, inspecting each other’s faces, staring into each other’s eyes.  “I bet if we could we would find dicks all over the place, though.”

I returned her comment with barely a pause, as if I were reciting written dialogue.  “I imagine cavemen did.”  I slowly took a bite of my toast.  “They probably saw whatever they dreamt about in the night sky.”  As I spoke I thought about the way that, in the past, before even literature, human imagination had to be ignited by perceived patterns in the stars.

“The stars were their TV, I guess,” Sonia chuckled to herself.  I couldn’t remember ever meeting anyone who chuckled as much as she did.  “I bet there’s lots of swastika’s up there too.”

I cackled furiously, and as we continued to discuss constellations, each of us burst into laughter over and over again.  We imagined seeing written messages in the stars like “WASH ME” or “FOR A GOOD TIME CALL—“ as well as comic tableaus that told stories of people falling on their faces.  Our discussion went on and on, accompanied by rising and falling waves of laughter, until I finally looked at the clock on the wall and saw that it was 4:03.

“It’s four already,” I said, smiling wide and flashing Sonia the most tender eyes I could.  “We’ve been talking for hours.”

Sonia, who’d just been sitting on the front room’s couch, yawned and stretched out onto her back.  “Yeah,” she said, allowing her voice to fade away as she stared at the ceiling.

“Yeah,” I parroted, thinking about all the things we could do together.  I imagined us as a private-eye team in the twenties; some cuckoo dame could come to us saying that she thinks her husband is cheating on her, but we would find something far more nefarious.  Or maybe we could be lovers and artists in 19th century France, discussing the signals god sends us through the clouds.  I could feel myself falling in love, for real, and then being in love.

I’d fallen in love in the past, or anyway I’d felt that great pain plenty, but I called it love only because of the cliche that “love hurts.”  This was the type of love I’d grown accustomed to, the unrequited variety.  This type of love is very sad, powerfully disruptive, and completely selfish.

I call this type of love selfish because when love is unrequited the loved figure ceases to be her own being, in my mind, and becomes my personal object of desire.  This both strips her of her own identity, and means that she can only become a symbol of pain in my life.  But now it seemed that I might actually get to “be” in love for a time, and I was excited to find out what that would be like.

As I sat on Sonia’s front room couch looking out the window, I daydreamed, allowing my conscious mind to flit around wherever it wanted.  “Have you heard back from your mom?”

Hearing Sonia’s question was like stepping on a bear trap, and I was instantly curled in pain.  Oh no, my inner monologue screeched, I forgot.  “No, I should probably head back home.”  I said coolly, as if everything were going splendidly and to plan, but inside I was a nasty cyclone.

You idiot, I cursed at myself silently through clenched teeth.  While trying to seem calm and in-control, I clutched at my right thigh as hard as I could, feeling the shape of the bone in my thigh.  She could be dead by now you useless, fucking loser.

“I’m in a show at Gallery Cabaret tomorrow,” Sonia chirped brightly, unaware of the emotional iron lung I was in.  “It’s a stupid kinda show, basically an open mic really, but you could come, the show’s at eight.”

“Eight o’clock, tomorrow?”  I spoke, thinking that I might not make it, because my mom might be dead.  “I dunno, might be working’ late at the store, Tuesday’s our inventory day.”

“Oh okay,” she said, chirpy as ever and showing me a smile.  Her cute, lovely eyes made me wonder why I’d lied to her.  Tuesday wasn’t our inventory day, and I didn’t understand why I’d claimed it was.  I said something nonspecific about hanging out later that day and got out of there.  I had one concern: I’d been away from my normal life for too long, and I needed to see about it.

Before I could look back on my own mind and guess why I’d become such a liar, I slipped my shoes on and hustled out the door.  I stalked onto the sidewalk in a big hurry to get home.  As I sensed a matt of flop sweat on my forehead I imagined that I probably looked disheveled, desperate and lashing out at the world with passion.

I half-grinned as I hurried along in my khaki’s, huffing and puffing in rhythm with the sound the legs of my pants made rubbing together.  ShvooBAH.  My fat little stub legs made this sound as they crushed into each other with a crazy rhythm.  It wasn’t more than maybe ten paces of this hurrying bullshit that my inner thighs felt like they would burn off.  But just as the pain seemed a bit too much, like my pants would literally catch on fire, I found the strength to go on.  I knew, as I saw Welles Park, which was about the midpoint between Sonia and I, I for the first time felt that maybe I would actually make it.

 

The pain was great and liberating.  My legs burnt and I breathed smoke.  I had collapsed onto one of the benches outside an organized middle school soccer game at Welles Park.  As I sat there panting and coughing, watching little kids run and run, my head dropped, planting my eyes on the sidewalk beneath me.  I closed my eyes, folding my hands between my knees.  I grimaced, bearing my teeth and emitting a painful groan; what was I thinking?

As had happened frequently during my life so far and was likely to continue happening for the foreseeable future, I raged at myself without understanding why I’d done what I’d done.  It was the right thing to do, I decided, to leave Sonia’s home for my own, as it may have been, but I shamed myself for doing it in such a sudden and unexplained fashion.

I considered going back, ringing her doorbell and waiting just outside for the door to open.  With the door open, I’d have been free to shower Sonia with kisses to my hearts’ content, but I realized in the middle of this thought that it would have been a terrible idea.  I calmed myself down, assured as I was  that Sonia really did like me.  I regretted leaving her as abruptly as I had, but I felt we’d really made a real connection, and that our connection could last for the foreseeable future.

I stood up from the bench and trotted home, the tension melting off my cheeks.

As I walked out of the park, my pace slowed greatly and I inspected every pile of leaves I came across, wandering over expanses of grass in lazy loops.  I retrieved my phone from my pocket and called my mom once again, expecting her to answer and place an order.  It was at that point around 4:30, and I knew that it was around this time on most days that my mother is overcome by a need to buy some liquor.

I rolled my eyes as I heard the start of the first ring, expecting my mom to pick it up after only a couple rings.  When she did not, and the answering machine picked up, I left a pointless message.  “Hey mom, how’s it going?”  I don’t know why I asked questions like this one frequently in voicemail messages, but I always have.  “Yeah anyway, so I had a great night last night and I hope you did too.  I’ll be home in just a few minutes, see you then.”

Theree was no real reason to leave such a message, when I could have just hung up.  I was suddenly gripped once more by the tremendous fear that I might discover my mother’s corpse.  As I turned onto my street, and stared down the long row of houses to the end of the block, my pace quickened again.

I thought about finding my mother dead on the floor, in front of the TV, with a line of drool trailing from the edge of her mouth.  Along with my fear that my mother could be dead when I arrived home came the sad realization that perhaps she’d be better off.  She’d been hurtling downwards into despair for as long as I cared to remember.  My biological father’s death, which occurred when I was only two years old, effected her more greatly, I think, than she ever let on.  Maybe if I found her dead, I realized, I could believe that she is once again with her love.

Of course, I don’t really believe that.  I believe after you die you will probably spend most of your time underground, and that’s about it.  If my mom died while I was out, I realized, then I wouldn’t get to tell her about Sonia, and that would mean that my mother died believing that I was lonely; and without anyone.  This fear more than anything, terrified me.  I’d been excited to tell her about Sonia the next time she was sober, but she could have died while I was out.

This possibility gripped my spine and pulled me forward, causing me to sprint down the final half-block, coming to a rest before my front steps.  As I slowed to a halt, my shoulders fell forward and I placed my hands on my knees.  Doubled over, I gasped for air as quickly as I could, believing that more air would stifle the pain in my legs.  I rarely run, because when I run my legs burn like the devil.

I moved slowly up my front steps and put my key in the lock.  I began to feel very powerful and conflicting emotions about what I might find inside.  I feared the grief that would overtake me when I saw that my mother was dead.  Though through my fear of the great sadness I would feel upon discovering my mothers’ death, I also anticipated great relief.  I thought a calming might overtake me, and it might be awesome.

This thought, that my mom’s death would be great, added a sharp layer of guilt onto my mess of emotions.  This type of guilt is very familiar to co-dependents like me, it is the guilt of not making sure your addict has enough of their preferred drug.  I didn’t need to worry, though, because when I opened the door and walked in, I saw my mother snoring, passed out on the couch.

As I’d long claimed to suspect, though actually I knew, my mother had several small bottles of vodka hidden around the house.  “Hidden” isn’t the right word.  I’d just say they were placed around my house, and while I was out my mother’ed downed a few.

She lay, passed out on the couch in the front room of my house, and I sighed theatrically, as if there was someone to complain to.  She snored loudly as I slowly approached to guide her into her bed, but before I did I noticed Scrabble was out and set up.  My mother had even put two words on the board, opposite each other; one for me and one for her.  I smiled, because this was the same shit she always pulled when we played Scrabble.

It was a joke we shared.  She’d set up a game of Scrabble for us, and she would place our first words.  Her first word would just be a random jumble she made on the spot, and my first word would always be something unbelievably good like “ZOMBIFY” or “PACKWAX.”  She would then say that these two words were completely random, and this meant that I began the game leading by one hundred and fifty points.

I never once bought it, though, and I would shake my finger at her.  I imagine I was probably really cute when I was five years old, sneering at my mother and scolding her.  “No cheating,” I would say, demanding that we draw again.  We would draw again, and she would absolutely destroy me.  I never was able to beat her, and I never will, because I don’t count it as a win unless neither player passes out before the end of the game.

My left hand rose to cover my mouth as I began to cry, softly and only a little before I was able to jam it back down my throat again.  Another wave of tremendous guilt overtook me, as I remembered leaving a message saying that I’d be home soon, and even suggesting a game of Scrabble “like old times.”  I thought this indicated that she was also excited about Scrabble, and that I’d driven her to drink by not coming back when I said I would.

I imagined her on the couch, setting up Scrabble, sitting and waiting.  Who knows how long she waited, but she waited.  I resented her to my core, for creating the circumstances that led me to feel tremendous guilt that I’d not made it home in time to play Scrabble with my mom.  She’d have been drunk anyway, I told myself, lifting my mother from the couch and guiding her into her bed.

She was very heavy, like me, and I wasn’t in great shape especially after the walk.  I regretted carrying her all this way, because I could have dragged her or just left her on the couch.  Grunting and straining, I put her over my shoulder and dumped her on her bed, collapsing next to her sideways over the mattress.  I realized then that I would love a sandwich, so I was off to make one.

Heading to the kitchen, I was excited by the possibilities.  Open-faced grilled cheese with bacon on top!

Sylvester (volume 7)

Sylvester (Volume 5)

There was a single staircase that came up from a tiny entranceway next to the hardware store, and to many, it seemed spooky.  It was lit by a single light bulb that had been flittering for at least twenty years.  This led to Lincoln Square Lanes.  “The Alley,” as I’d called it my entire life, had become my normal bar of preference for what were primarily sentimental reasons.

The Alley was important to me.  I’d spent my adolescence there.  This wasn’t a bowling alley where little kids had birthday parties, this was a bowling alley where unemployed people drank beer and played pinball.  It was like the “Townie” bars I’d known in college, where people went to shut up and drink.  Most afternoons after school from sixth to eighth grade, I went to The Alley and bowled.

I wasn’t drinking yet when I used to hang out at The Alley, I just went there to pass the time.  I guess I liked bowling, or anyway the soundtrack of pins tumbling down was distracting.

In grade school, though I had a few close friends, we never really did much.  I was pretty lonely most of the time.  That evening at Sonia’s open mic, things would be different.  The Alley was no longer going to be a monument of isolation.  That day, there was a chance it was going to get me laid.

As I climbed the staircase to The Alley, I wondered, excitedly, what Sonia’s open mic would be.  I’d been to open mic’s in college, maybe even participated in a few (I couldn’t be sure either way), but those were mostly comprised by stoned singer-songwriters.  This was a mic Sonia had earlier that day assured me was “Just for comedy.”

Comedy open mic’s are events that occur mainly in bars, and give aspiring stand up comedians the chance to test out and advance their material.  I wondered about what it would be like.  What kind of jokes would these open mic comics tell?  I thought about about the standup comedy that I’d loved in the past.

I’d once loved Emo Phillips, and I thought about my favorite bit of his: “I saw an old school friend yesterday, Jimmy Peterson, I hadn’t seen him since third grade, and I slapped him on the back, saying ‘why Jimmy, how the hell are you?’  Jimmy started crying and screaming, “Mommy!  Mommy!” and I realized that if that were really Jimmy Peterson, he would’ve grown up too.”  Halfway up the stairs I burst into laughter considering this bit.

I loved the absurdity of the routine, and the way it told the story of an adult striking a child with wit and lightness.  That day, since the time I’d been with Sonia, I’d been trying to think of something similar; a fractured way of seeing the world.  I thought about my own childhood, and the ways I’d thought.  This was the joke I came up with:  “I like that Beethoven guy, well, the beginning of the fifth symphony, anyway.”

The moment I thought of this joke, I knew I didn’t feel strongly about it.  Anyway as I stepped up to the bar I told myself that I wasn’t going to perform that night, even if asked, as I had work in the morning.

On the other side of the wall adjacent to a row of bowling alleys there was a small, roughly one foot high platform, and on it stood a mic stand.  Behind this “stage,” Sonia was at work setting up an amplifier.  She switched it on, stood on the platform and began to perform a mic check.  “Hello everyone, is this microphone on?  Is everything cool?”

Sonia gave the bartender a curious look as he placed a bottle of cheap beer before me.  The bartender nodded and gave a thumbs up, saying “Yeah it’s good, no louder.”

“Cool,” she said, extending the microphone past its stand before pulling it back into its regular position.  She noticed me, and lowered her head to hold it just in front of the mic.  “And we have a new guest, Sil, who I’ve only recently met and has already turned me down for sex, give him a hand everybody.”  She raised her hand towards me, holding her thumb up and fingers out, like a model on The Price is Right.

For a moment I was stunned, preparing to feel humiliated.  I hadn’t turned her down, I thought, we’d just had a missed connection.  I was going to jump up onto the stage, pull Sonia close, and explain what had happened between us.  I would explain that had been my fault, and that I was still totally into her, but several sharp cackles cut the air between us.

There were four people at the bar, all of them seemed like teenage boys.  Despite the fact that they were all wearing baseball hats and jeans, I figured they were in their mid-twenties.  These boys all sort of reminded me of myself at their age, or they made me imagine the way I might have been, if I’d had a “Crew” of “Bro’s” like they did.  I pondered it, but couldn’t picture it.

As I pulled a stool out from the bar to take a seat, the white boy nearest me seemed to yell with a booming voice, “What were you thinking, man?”  He had a goofy face, and he seemed to be opening his eyes as wide as he could.  He had loose curly bright red hair that popped out the back of the bandana he was wearing like water from a fire hydrant.

I must have looked confused, as my mouth was slightly open and my eyebrows were knit tight.  “Um. . .” I spoke, trying to think of something funny to quip, and hopefully reduce the tension of this interaction.  I pulled a stool up close to the bar, sat on it calmly, and told the truth.  “I don’t know.  I was scared, I guess?”

The young man laughed and clapped in a way that seemed to be more at me than with me.  I ignored what I might have considered a slight as I felt Sonia’s arm lay across my upper back.  She wrapped her palm around my shoulder and brought it tight against my bicep, squeezing me harder than I’d have expected.  “Sorry about that.  I just saw you, and I’d had a few and I was holding a microphone.  So, ya know?”  She shrugged adorably.

“No, no, it’s fine,” I said truthfully, as it really was fine.  Sonia hadn’t embarrassed me by blurting out into a microphone that I’d refused her offer of sex.  Just the opposite, it made me seem quite the gentleman.  “I just wanted to come up and see, uh, what’s goin’ on.”

Sonia went about showing me the list of comedians and explaining its workings with a simple summary.  “I put the list up at eight, and it’s pretty much first come first serve, but if you wanted to go up early I can slide you in.”

“The list?  Slide me in?”

Sonia chuckled putting her hand on her hip.  “Slide you in just means put your name on the list to perform tonight.”

I would’ve probably objected, saying that I couldn’t possibly go up tonight, but I was caught by Sonia’s eyes.  I figured it was probably some obvious touch of makeup, like a dusting of blush or rouge wherever, but her eyes were stunning and they caught me; I was helpless.  From the wit in her eyes I could tell that she expected me to fumble, but I held strong and acted cool.  “Yeah okay, I’m in.”

Smiling and clapping, Sonia picked up a pen and the clipboard that held the list of that night’s performers.  The numbers one and two were blank, but the numbers three through fourteen were filled with names.  I turned to Sonia, as I was not quite sure what to do, but she told me that I didn’t need to put my name on the list, because she’d get me up whenever I was ready.

“Bullshit!”  The kid with the fire hydrant hair waved his arms and stomped his feet.  “He turned you down though, Sonia, fuck him.”

“You’ve already met Cali,” Sonia said with flippant disregard, “I guess you can tell he’s a shithead.”

“Shut up, bitch,” Cali responded quickly, and they each moved on.  It seemed like they’d been joking, or at least had some sort of prior understanding.  I laughed neither nervously nor excitedly.

Sonia introduced me to the three remaining young white boys.  “And that’s Jerry, Nathan, and Bob,” she said, pointing to each in turn.  “They’re awful too, like we all are, but they’re nice at least.”

The lad in the middle, Nathan, raised his hand as he called out.  “I’m not awful, I’m awesome.”  He was the one who seemed oldest, as his face was a bit pudgy and his hair seemed to be receding.

All the comics laughed, and Sonia put her shoulder to Nathan’s and leaned against him.  “That’s right,” she said, extending her lower lip out past her chin, “Nathan’s our favorite.”

Nathan laughed, shyly nodding his head as he did so.  “That’s right I’m awesome.”  Nathan squeezed his eyes shut in a mock sob as he lowered his head.  Both Jerry and Bob patted him on the back, offering their own condolences.

Open mic comedians, in my experience, are a strange bunch.

 

“Hello and welcome to this, the second edition of: The Bowling Microphone!”  Sonia stood in the center of the small, makeshift stage that rose only two feet up from the ground.

“It’s a straight first-come first serve, you can put your name and only your name on the list.”  She raised a single finger and wiggled it side to side, telling me that she wasn’t really that serious.  “Your time is four minutes.  You get the first light at three, this is the light.”  She opened her cell phone and held it above her head, “This means wrap it up.  If I’m waving at you and flipping you off, get off the stage.”

She finished her opening spiel in a way that seemed very practiced, and as she wrapped up by announcing the night’s drink deals, she moved on to her comedy.  As it would happen, most of her hosting set was spent discussing me.  “Okay, gang, so here’s what happened,” she bugged her eyes out a little and chewed her bottom lip, “I met a boy.”

She almost giggled, putting her hands over her waist and bending her knees slightly.  I giggled a bit too.  Her impish grin melted away in an instant and she pointed at me, saying plainly, “It’s him, so. . .”  She shrugged, “I’m not, ya know, wild about it.”

I burst into laughter so hard I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt its like.  I was able to keep my composure, so this guffaw was short-lived, and Sonia continued her set.  From this opening quip, she segued into written material.

“I’ve done a lot of research, and I believe I can say, with confidence, that without a doubt, the itchiest spot of the body,” she let the joke draw out smoothly, like a master calligrapher.  “Is the taint.”  She then took her free hand and inserted it between her legs, scratching the spot where they were stitched together with her nail.  As she at least pantomimed digging her nail into her crotch (though I think she probably actually scratched), she let out a soft groan.

Huoawhoah,” she sounded satisfied, releasing rather than creating her own unique call.  “This is one of the most important things in life, the little pleasures.”  She stood and looked out over her audience, moving swiftly on to the next joke.  “When I was a kid I thought the world was speaking to me.”

I was confused by the way Sonia’s material seemed to meander around.  “Like you know the sound of a stomach growling?  I used to think it was a little voice saying “stomach.”

Sonia was able to manipulate and shrink her voice such that while it did sound a lot like the sound your gut makes when it’s empty.  “You know, ‘cause I thought it probably knew what I called it.”

After just these few opening bits, Sonia retrieved the list and read the first name off of it.

“Uh oh, this first comic, this guy’s trouble, Lyle the Cutter.”

A tall, pudgy, clumsy-footed man with what I used to call a buzz-cut ambled onto the platform and faced his audience.  “My name is Lyle and the doctors told my parents to make sure there’s nothing I can strangle myself with at our house, I guess it was because I cut myself a lot.”  Lyle spoke in a monotone, varying the distances between his words very little.

This manner of speaking was unsettling to me.  It sounded as though he might have some kind of mental disability.  This consideration left my mind as soon as he told his first joke: “No seriously, I love to draw but they took my pencil away ‘cause I stabbed myself with it.”

I cracked up.  It was hilarious, and I didn’t consider even for a second how tragically honest Lyle the Cutter may have been.  The open mic comics who’d seen Lyle many times before laughed, with several of them also cheering and hooting.  Other than that, the three or four regular bargoers chuckled nervously and glanced at each other.

From there, Lyle’s act devolved into near-robotic recitation of facts and lists.  His joke about stabbing himself with the pencil really made me laugh a lot.  As I thought about it, most of the humor of this statement seemed to come from the lack of a comma between “away” and “‘cause.”  If you pronounce the joke like that, I felt, it would be like you were reading the joke like a news bulletin, and that there was nothing odd about it.

After Sonia and Lyle kicked the show off with a very weird pair of sets, the mic was off and running.  To tell the truth, I’d admit that the majority of these comics were forgettable, but there were a few standouts.

One guy, Bob Avaro, whom I’d sort of been hanging out with at the bar with just prior to the start of the mic, seemed to do his best to bring down the energy of the room.  He held the mic in front of his chest, lowering his head to meet it.  “I usually wake up pissed cause I don’t wanna go to my work, but then I remember I lost my job yesterday, and that calls for a celebration drink.”

After Bob, both Jerry and Nathan, his two compatriots from the bar went up in direct succession.  Their acts were sort of hackneyed, blatantly obvious, and distinctly forgettable.  The same could not be said for the comic who went up soon after them, Malcolm, “cali” Kavanagh.

Cali, who I’d met earlier and had made an annoying impression on me.  His long, curly red hair, as well as his obnoxious demeanor, made me want to push the palm of my hand into his face.

His “jokes,” if they could be called that, meandered from reflecting on the fact that he was performing at a bowling alley to noticing the people in the audience that looked weird.  At one point he even said “Get a load a’ this guy, what’s with his head, right?”

As Cali performed in this way, each “joke” only earned only silence and derision from the audience, until he turned to me.  As he looked over his audience, groping for something funny to say, his eyes locked on me and he smiled wide.  He pointed at me, “And did ya hear?  This guy turned down Sonia, what the hell man, she’s a milf!”

I raised my hands, pointing my palms to the ceiling, trying to think of something to say.  Cali’s mention of Sonia and I had garnered the only laughter his comedy had received so far, so  I knew he wasn’t likely to just move on without getting my response.  I wasn’t fast enough at it, though, as before I could respond to him, Cali resumed aggressively questioning me.

“So what’s the deal man?  You gonna hit that or what?”

I just stared up at him and watched him point the microphone at me.  Having no response, I looked at Sonia, and she was jumping up and down, waving an open cell phone in the air; I pointed to her, “I think your time’s up.”

“Just when I was finally getting laughs!?”  Cali gesticulated with his hands, pretending to hurl the microphone on the floor, and then placing it gingerly on the top of the stand.  “I apologize, as always, for everything I’ve said into this microphone.”

Cali dropped his head as he placed the mic back on its receiver and lowered his head.  Looking out over the audience, which by that point was comprised almost entirely of aspiring comedians, and then sat on the stool to my right.  As he was doing this, Laura resumed her hosting duties.  “That was our main man Cali, give him a hand.”

At 11:43 PM, I was feeling tipsy, so I decided it was time for him to go home.  I considered heading out, and I remembered that I’d told her I would perform I would perform that night.

Will she hold me to it?  This thought wrapped itself around my head and would not let go.  What would she do when I told her he didn’t want to try standup?  Would she make fun of him?  These open-mic comic people seemed to be pretty quick and nasty with the insults, what would they say?  What if they pressured me to perform after all?  It could become a very embarrassing situation, and I hated those.

As the second-to-last comic was just about to come to the mic, I feebly sidled up to Sonia.  “I don’t think I’m gonna go up, actually.”

I’d spoken shyly, as though ashamed of my cowardice, and I expected her to denigrate me.  Or worse yet, she could’ve acted disappointed, hanging her head and shaking it slowly.  However, in response to my cowardice, she smiled and spoke with a warm voice.  “Oh no problem, maybe you’ll do it some other night.”

Hearing Sonia say “some other night,” excited me, as it indicated she was already planning to spend more time with me.  “Yeah maybe I will,” Sonia responded, switching off one of the microphones on her PA system.  She walked over to me, laying her wrist on my shoulder.  “You stickin’ around?  We’re almost done.”

“I got work tomorrow, sorry.”

She fired back like she’d been ready.  “At least stay to the end, you’re almost there.”

I agreed.

Sonia stepped to the mic, holding her eyes on me.  “And now, here we are, the last comic of the mic, let’s hear it people.”  The seven or eight people that were still listening clapped and hooted half enthusiastically.

It was an eighteen year old with lame jokes whose name I don’t remember, but during his entire set, Sonia and I were ensconced in the “looking” game.  This is the game that occurs between people when there is both a mutual attraction, and a public shyness shard between two people.  I would stare at her until she looked back at me, then I would avert my eyes.

We did this until Sonia noticed that she should’ve called the comic off the stage a minute ago, and she jumped on the stage, closing the show up as quickly as possible.  As she did this, she added a bit in the end that caught my ear.  “And so, thank you for coming to this, the second installment of The Bowling Microphone, now let’s all get laid!”  The significance of this quote from Back to School was not lost on me, and I smiled wide because of it.

After she slid the microphone into its place on the stand, she stepped off the platform towards me, cutting the distance between us to almost nothing.  She stood before me, our noses almost touching, for what felt like a long time.  Though it was not at all like me, and afterwards I was never able to adequately explain to myself where I gotten the courage to try such a thing, I kissed Sonia.

It was not for more than a moment and it was very sweet.  We flowed into each other, as it seemed our energies fed off of the inspiration of the other.  At least that’s what I felt, and Sonia seemed to feel the same.  We made out a little before traipsing down the staircase to the street.  When we left The Alley into the deep dark starless night, Sonia took a left when I’d have taken a right, and I followed her.

I thought about the reasons not to go with Sonia, from the fact that I’d promised my mother I’d return to the fact that Mondays are often a hectic day at Harvest Time, but none of them received precedence.  I was with a groovy chick at 12:39 on a Monday morning, and we were going to have sex.  I forgot everything else I could possibly have been thinking at the time.  I was about to have sex

Sylvester (Volume 5)