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Saturday
May282016

My Clickhole Failure

So a while back, Clickhole put out the call for new writers/content monkeys. You were required to create 10 headlines in their multiple categories (Video, List, Article, Quiz). I obviously did not get the gig (which bums me out, since this would have been a fun-ass place to work), but I was pretty pleased with my submissions/thought thy was mostly pretty funny. So I'll set them here, in this wayward and disregarded corner of internet posterity.

While I met with failure, I regard it as a worthy failure.

Please to enjoy, Tiny Handful of Readers.

 

LIST:

17 Ways My Ex Is An Ungrateful Dragon Hooker


VIDEO:

Watch Harrison Ford Plow His Small Plane Into This Family Cookout. Last Thrill For a 9-Year-Old Star Wars Fan!


LIST:

11 Vermin Elizabeth Banks Would Eat Raw Before Laying Her Alabaster Hands Upon Any Part of Your Sad Carcass


QUIZ:

Test Your Knowledge – Track From Cast Recording of “On Your Feet!” or Thimble Brimming With Tepid Spit?


LIST:

4 Senses That Are Heightened For Matt Murdoch (Editor's note: Non-Daredevil fans may struggle with this one)


ARTICLE:

Find Out Why the Rest of the Color Wheel Calls Pantone 719B a “Scabrous Little Dick Hole”


LIST:

12 Tricks For Preventing Your Next Brunch From Becoming Another Pointless and Harrowing Ordeal


ARTICLE:

Hapless Stumblebum Jeb Bush Has Actually Been Israeli Spy For Past Three Decades. “This is some ‘Mr. Bean’-level shit,” Reports NSA’s Gen. Alexander


LIST:

Estate Planning: 18 Reasons You’ll Be Dumped Unceremoniously Into a Pauper’s Grave 

QUIZ:

Which Is Sadder: This Jar of Store Brand Gravy, or This Toll Booth Operator’s Partial Erection?

 

Monday
May162016

WRITE CLUB Podcast

This is cool - the WRITE CLUB podcast, which Lindsay Muscato, Josh Zagoren, and Annie Costakis and I have been putting out for a year just got a nice write up in the AV Club's Podmass

Check it out - give a listen. Subscribe. It's the goodness for your ear holes.

You find out all you need at the WRITE CLUB site - HERE.

Sunday
May012016

Walkabout

Thornton sloshed awake, his face sliding through the grit of a metal floor. The drool at the corner of his mouth split like a young scab when he lifted his head.

He winced as the floor lurched, creaking, under him. There was a throbbing egg-sized knot just behind his right ear. The thick idiot meat of his tongue probed at the stubby horn of snapped-off tooth in the pulpy socket where his incisor had been.

He could smell diesel and dust. His gut had curdled into an acid slurry. He heard the toneless hum of tires on a road. A truck. He was inside a truck.

He tried to focus. Parcels. Dozens of them. He squinted toward the stripe of daylight at the front. He caught sight of a pair of hazel eyes in the rearview as the truck leaned around a turn.

“THERE he is,” said Hazel Eyes. “How’s the head?”

“Nf. Not good.” He tried to sit up. His wrist was pinned.

“I bet,” said Hazel. “You should have stayed down the first I hit you.”

Thornton groaned, looked down the length of his arm. He was handcuffed to a steel rail low on the wall of the truck. He felt more alert.

“Um. Listen,” he said. “You can take my—“

“Got it,” broke in Hazel, holding up Thornton’s wallet. “And, no. This is not about money.” Hazel grabbed the thick sheaf of bills from inside the wallet – unblinking eyes on Thornton in the shuddering mirror – and hurled them out his window. A twenty got blown back inside and twirled to rest by Thornton’s shackled hand.

“What is it you—“

“What I want, Mr. Thornton, you’ll see soon enough.” The hazel eyes found Thornton in the jostling mirror. “Now shut up.” Hazel was in a brown uniform.

Thornton shut his mouth, mind ricocheting, breathing ragged.

They drove on. For a while. The stripe of daylight at the front turned golden and crawled up the truck wall. Then it turned red. The headlights flickering in through the windshield grew less frequent. City sounds dropped away. It sounded really open outside. It sounded far.

Thornton started awake, snorting a little. The truck wasn’t moving. Hazel was not up front. The engine ticked.

He heard footsteps outside. The latch on the back door was thrown. The double doors swung wide. A dry herb smell rushed in, like the ghost of soup. Sage, Thornton recognized sage.

“Come on out,” said Hazel, tossing something. A single short-bladed key dinged onto the deck of the truck, near Thornton’s free hand. “Let’s go. Chop, chop.”

Thornton unlocked the handcuff.  He sat up warily. If felt like his jaw had come unhooked and was hanging to one side.

“Why are you—“

“We’ll get to that. Come on.”

Thornton slid his sore body along the nubbled metal. He set his feet in sand. He was missing a shoe, his left. He looked around. He knew this place, he thought. He had been here. Long time ago. Before it was run down this way. The white paint was abraded off the stucco walls. The paths were sand-blown and buckling. But he had been here. This had been a spa. He had come here to this pampering place with one of his wives. Or a mistress, maybe. He couldn’t recall – which woman it had been, or the name of this place.

“How did…” Thornton trailed off, struck dumb by the riot of stars, paisleyed and arabesquing across a vast sky. He had sat in a long-ago Jacuzzi, marveling at this confounding and luminous carpet above. Any sense of the woman was erased by time and indifference. The residue of these stars persisted.

“You remember this place. I can see it,” said Hazel.

“A little,” said Thornton. “The sky, mostly.”

“Yeah,” said Hazel, taking it in. “It’s something, isn’t it?”

For a weird minute, it felt to Thornton like they were friendly. Which couldn’t be. That’s not what this was. You don’t wake up cuffed in the back of a truck and then get all, what? collegial with the guy who put you there. A sky like this, though. Made you feel so small. Like you wanted to huddle in caves with other humans, eating meat with your fingers and reasserting your existence.

But, no. This guy with hazel eyes had hauled him away. Had beaten and cuffed him.

He caught his first good look at the guy’s face. Craggy, worn. The face of a guy who’d worked outside for a long time. Downturned mouth, pursed by many disappointments. His close-cut hair was like silvered sand. Bit of an underbite – his creased top lip sat on the yellowing chisels of his bottom teeth. Color of his teeth matched the flecks of gold in his hazel eyes.

Thornton got a flash of memory, now. He’d been leaving the office, checking his phone.

Car service was late again. This guy – Hazel – had approached, in his brown uniform with the short pants. He’d extended that tablet thing and said: “Mr. Thornton. May I get your signature, please, sir?” And while Thornton had looked the guy over, taking dim note that he had no parcel, parting his lips to ask the guy to leave the package – wherever it might be, in the truck, still, Thornton guessed –  with Angela on Monday, a burst of light had detonated in his head. The guy had struck him. Hard. Thornton had tried to form some mush-mouthed protest, the guy had smashed him on the jaw. With a long-handled silver something. Wrench, maybe.

This had been… when? Earlier today, Thornton guessed.

“Your shoe’s in there,” said Hazel, jerking a thumb toward the truck. “Might want to grab it. You’ve got walking to do.” Thornton looked dumbly in the direction of Hazel’s thumb.

“Dark,” said Thornton. His mouth was swollen and loose-toothed. Hurt to talk. “Can’t see.”

Hazel clicked on a long-barreled flashlight, like cops carry. Thornton stepped unsteadily inside the truck.

“Grab that jug of water. And the pouch of jerky. I’m not interested in killing you.” This came as no small relief to Thornton. But he grew wary. Long walk. Gallon jug of water. Thing of jerky. Provisions. Hazel was going to cut him loose out here. Wherever the hell here was. Thornton grabbed the stuff. Pulled on his shoe, laced it up. He should be ready, he figured.

“Now,” began Hazel. “I could cat-and-mouse you all goddamn night, but I’ve got to get back. So. Here it is. You know this place. Because you were here. Eight years ago. Getting mud baths and hot stone massages and whatever the hell else people like you fill your days with when you come to places like this. You recognize her?”

Hazel extended a photo of a determined-looking green-eyed blonde. Mid-thirties, maybe. Thick hair in an unruly knot on top of her head. Collar of a denim shirt and chunky turquoise necklace visible at the bottom of the frame. Thornton regarded her for a moment. She meant nothing to him. Which made him afraid. Right now, this face mattered, a lot. A crucial face. Most important goddamn face in this whole desert, and Thornton couldn’t place it.

“No,” said Hazel, after a moment of letting Thornton scour his memory. “I don’t expect you would.” He gazed at her briefly before returning the photo to the cargo pocket of his uniform shorts.

“Her name was Daphne. Daphne Benson.”

Thornton waited for more, mind revving. “Was… name was.” This woman was dead. And Hazel thought Thornton had something to do with it.

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

Thornton’s eyes darted at the arched entryway to the drained pool, the busted terra cotta on the Spanish-tiled cabana visible over the crumbling stucco wall. He tried like hell to shuffle together that anonymous face with this desiccated place, but came up with nothing.

“OK,” replied Thornton at last. “Sorry to say I don’t know any Daphne Benson.”

“No, I know,” said Hazel. “I did, though. I loved her. Still do, I guess.” He looked up at the shocking excess of stars. “Daphne’s been dead four years, almost,” he told the sky sadly.

Thornton waited.

“Sorry to hear it,” offered Thornton at last. “But. Like I say. I didn’t know her.”

“Right,” said Hazel. “You didn’t. You just wrecked her. Pulled her life down. Like it was a dead tree. And you moved on.”

“I don’t… I’m not…”

“Eight years ago. Like I told you. You were here. Daphne worked here. She was a maid. You complained about her. Complained enough over a long weekend to get her fired. Fired cause you were throwing your weight around.”

Thornton remembered a little, now. Not this maid. But this tactic. He’d have been here with a mistress, then. Made sense. Even looking past the decay, this had never been a top-notch place. It was the kind of place with faux Navajo rugs that catered to strivers. Exactly the kind of place he’d bring somebody young who didn’t know better. Somebody who responded to displays of power, however empty. So he’d bitch about his turn-down service, or the chatter of his caddy, and the Rebecca or Chloe he’d bring to these places would be suitably impressed. And would make known how impressed she was between the sheets. Or in the shower. Or at a rest stop on the drive home.

It felt less clever to him, now.

“It wasn’t the only thing that befell her,” continued Hazel. “But it was what her counselors at the rehab place called a ‘precipitating event.’” He kicked at the sand. “She’d been off the Oxy for maybe four months when they fired her from here. She could never seem to kick it after that. Didn’t want it enough, I guess. Brutal stuff, Oxy.”

Thornton waited.

“Took me some while to find you. I’d given up, actually. After Daphne’s funeral, I tried maybe a year to hunt you down. Couldn’t do it. All I had was a last name and a city. ‘Thornton, Phoenix A-Z.’”

A coyote yipped off in the brush.

“Figured it would never happen. Then they gave me a new route at work. And I was in the reception area at your office. And I heard you on the phone. How you were. On the phone. Mean. Arrogant and mean. And I saw your name in metal on the wall behind the reception desk. And knew that a man that puts his name on things in gold-toned metal – he likes to feel important.”

Well, shit, thought Thornton.

“So I observed you for a while. Few months, actually. Had to be sure. Then. When I was. It was just a question of picking a holiday weekend. When I could take you back here. Let you walk it off.” He looked at Thornton for a minute. “So,” he said at last. “Get going.”

“Wait,” said Thornton. “Who are—“

Hazel gave a barking laugh. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I’ve accepted a transfer. To far away. I leave tomorrow. It would surprise me greatly if you ever found me.”

Hazel pointed East. Or easterly, Thornton guessed, since it was the opposite direction of where the last coppery light painted the final sliver of horizon.

“Plenty of starlight. And you’ve got a half moon. You can see OK.” As he spoke, he set Thornton’s phone on a rock and shattered it with the butt of the flashlight. “Your wallet’s out that way,” he said, hurling it far, toward the East. It landed with a barely audible Fuff! as it hit the sand off that way.

“Get going,” said Hazel.

Thornton thought for a second about trying to overpower the guy, knew he couldn’t. Thought about pleading, could tell it wouldn’t work. Thought about apologizing, knew it was a lie.

So he started walking, resolving to follow the road.

“Get some good thinking done,” Hazel called after him. “You think about Daphne.”

And there was the sound of a gunshot. It sounded small in the desert.

Thursday
Apr282016

The Blue Gables

 

Fawn was less quiet, now. But only because she had to be. She had to make known somehow her strandedness. She could not cross the parking lot. There were reasons for this. But Fawn didn’t understand them. Fawn was made up of a longing she could not name, for a place she could no longer conceive. She knew only that she was ensnared here.

The motel Fawn couldn’t leave was two stories tall and clad in vinyl siding that was cadet blue. It wrapped in an L shape around the lot where Fawn’s mom and dad had parked a long, long time ago. The neon out front proclaimed in a flickering white-then-blue stammer that the motel was called the Blue Gables. They were gone. Her mom and dad. Had been for more time now than she could say. Out behind the motel, shielded from the road, was a small swimming pool, shaped like a kidney and blue as window cleaner. Fawn didn’t go near the pool, wouldn’t go near the pool.

Fawn did not know much. But she did know the pool was a Bad Place, a shimmering basin of her unease, a cruel sun-lashed lagoon.

The effort it cost Fawn to make herself known was exhausting to her. It demanded all her focus and depleted her badly. Things would go sparkly around the edges of her vision and she’d have to rest. Besides. It was only the one maid Natalia who ever took notice. Guests at the Blue Gables never detected any vestige of Fawn’s presence – they were too in-between, too consumed by homes left behind or obligations ahead. Fawn stood watch over what they took to be their seclusion, bearing witness to their most secret activities, their rutting and tears. The rest of the staff at the Blue Gables was too stricken by chatter – on phones, out of radios, inside their own heads. Mostly, Fawn believed, people were too intent on being the hero of the story, and as a consequence, other intersecting stories got crowded out, shouted down.

Natalia was the only person to frequent the Blue Gables who was suitably inward and attuned to recognize it when Fawn summoned the will to slide a key card off the nightstand, watching it drop softly on the worn carpet, or to riffle the shower curtain, or jostle the squat wicker wastebasket. The vocabulary Fawn had to communicate with Natalia was vexingly small. And the messages she sought to send were indistinct, veiled, like trying to pass coded notes in a language sloppily translated. Fawn sometimes tried to trace out letters in the dust of the windowsill or the fog of the bathroom mirror where Natalia bent and scrubbed, but Fawn’s fingers exerted no pressure, had no point of contact. She could carefully trace the block-lettered message “I AM HERE” in the dust, but her powdery, insubstantial fingers produced no trail; they could not breach the skin of dust, could not cut through the rind of steam.

Fawn kept trying, though. Because she sensed that she and Natalia shared the kindred-ness of the bashful, that wordless ability to seek out the reassuring eyes of those similarly afflicted by crowds and uproar. It is the unnoticed who notice each other, who counsel each other to persevere with a nod and no more, citizens who exercise their right to assemble in solitude.

All Fawn knew of Natalia was that she spoke little, had eyes always trained far away, on the horizon, and came from one of the countries in the skinny part of a map of the Americas – Guatemala, maybe, or Panama. One of those, anyway. Fawn retained a shard of awareness from her time before that geography had not been her thing, that maps failed under her gaze to coalesce into anything sensible.

Fawn could no longer even remember, really, the house she belonged in. She could picture her father, a little. A mustache. Short-sleeved dress shirt – sometimes mint green, sometimes russet. And she could see fully her mother’s kind, wet eyes. Eyes the aqueous color of young jonquil stems. She could see also a nimbus of honeyed hair that framed a face she could no longer conjure clearly.

Fawn had been groping along through every part of the Blue Gables for as far back as her awareness stretched. She didn’t know how long it had been. Could not know, maybe. But the things in the vending machines were all different, now. Gone were the tubes of Lifesavers and sleeves of Chuckles, replaced by oblong boxes of something called Nerds and bags called Skittles that looked like M&Ms but weren’t. Over time, the bulbs in all the light fixtures got replaced by luminous coiled things that looked like whitely lustrous grubs.

She was tethered to the Blue Gables, like a goat to a stake. She could roam as far as the edge of the grass-tufted lot to the west, its corners filled with drifts of flattened cigarette filters and mashed bottle caps; the tree line to the south, fat cones like grenades opening in a ragged stripe under Ponderosa pines; and the scarred back fence of the oil-change place to the east, the bottom of several wood slats kicked out; and buckling and patched parking lot out front to the north. Whenever she attempted to wander farther than any one of these frontiers, she came dismantled somewhat and translucent-er.

One day, after Fawn had tried in vain to knock over a stack of hand towels on Natalia’s cleaning cart, she felt a jolt like a tongue on a battery. Natalia had been changing the sheets on the bowed bed in Room 116. She straightened from tucking a fitted corner. She smoothed front of her teal poly smock.

“I feel you,” said Natalia, simply. “I know you are here. I think, also, I know who you are.”

Fawn was beside herself. To have remained unseen for so long was maddening, like a ragged snag of cuticle flesh that would not tear loose. But now. To be heeded. In what she felt certain was a kindly manner. This felt bounteous and giddy-making. Fawn swatted at the hand towels, attempting a reply. Nothing.

“I visited Madame Vadoma. She does readings near my home.”

Fawn saw a flash of a battered-looking bungalow with a giant neon eye and the word ‘TAROT’ in flickering red letters. She could see Natalia seated across from a wrinkled woman with stiff pile of steel wool hair and pale gray eyes like a wolf. The cloth laid over the table between them depicted constellations. Fawn could see the scene between Natalia and Madame Vadoma unfold before her like a movie.

“She is real,” Madame said. “She is there.”

Natalia seemed relieved to learn that madness had not overtaken her.

Madame gripped both of Natalia’s coarsened hands. Madame winced in concentration.

“She died in water. She was not yet a woman.”

Natalia’s eyelashes glistened.

“She is imprisoned. Is in need of help. Your help.”

A tear escaped and made its way down Natalia’s face.

Fawn was back suddenly in the room now, facing Natalia, whose hands were clasped before her. Natalia bowed slightly, in a formal way, and extended her hand toward the door leading out of the room.

“Please,” she said. “This way.”

Fawn felt apprehensive. She believed Natalia to be good and kind, but knew somehow that she was being guided to the pool. She hated the pool. It was the only place in all of Blue Gables that she feared.

Natalia exited the room. She turned and beckoned to Fawn from the concrete landing. After a moment, Fawn wafted after her.

They descended the stairs. Fawn was feeling jagged. She did not wish to approach the pool. But she knew somehow she must. Fawn had been once to see a rodeo. She recalled now the eye-rolling terror in the face of a calf as a cowboy on horseback thundered after it and trussed up in the divoted dirt of the arena. Fawn now felt as she’d imagined that calf had – pretzel-ed and strangling. She drew lungless gulps of air, air she no longer needed.

Natalia led the way down the dewy cool of the breezeway that connected the parking lot out front to the pool in back. Natalia walked at a somber and measured pace, as Madame had cautioned her to – “You must not startle the dead girl,” she had said.

Natalia looked almost stately in her smock as she mounted the low steps up to the pool. The latch clanged faintly as she opened the chain link gate. To Fawn the latch sounded like a guillotine.

“Come,” said Natalia. “In here.” She gave a stately little bow, presenting Fawn to the pool.

Fawn felt disparate and spattered, unmoored and twitchy. The pool was Bad Place Number One. She couldn’t say why, exactly, but she knew at the root of herself that the pool was to be forever avoided. But Natalia was so patient and placid, her eyes black and shining like coffee.

Fawn hated the pool, but found herself trusting in Natalia. So she rippled up the steps and inside the fence. This, now, was nearer to the pool than she could remember being. Since… since it had become for her the Bad Place.

Natalia, sensing somehow that Fawn was beside her on the concrete deck that skirted the pool, swung closed the gate with a quiet kang noise. Natalia sat at the edge of one of the sagging deck chair and slipped off her crepe-soled nursey-looking shoes and rolled her socks down over her feet. With some ceremony, she pulled her smock off over her head, standing now in a sleeveless undershirt. She folded the smock with care and laid it over the arm of the deck chair. She sat with a hand on each knee.

Without her smock, she seemed no longer to be Natalia, of the Blue Gables. She became Natalia, human – she was just a person, now, perched at the edge of the a sun-bleached deck chair, a person alert to the possibility of helping. A breeze riffled the surface of the pool.

“Ready?” Natalia asked the air.

Fawn did not feel ready. Not in the least.

Natalia rose from her seat, and padded across the deck on bare feet. She held the chromed handrail and strode with an even grace down the three nubbled white steps into the shallow end of the pool. She turned and extended her hands to Fawn, whom she could not see. The water pulled at her thin pants, a stripe of darkness wicking up her legs.

“Come,” said Natalia, her hands welcoming, palms up, coaxing. “You have nothing to fear.”

Fawn could nearly believe, as she hovered next to Bad Place Number One, under the soothing spell of Natalia’s cool, quiet voice, that she did have nothing to fear, that the gnawing frazzle at the center of her was a lie.

“Come,” said Natalia again. Matter-of-fact. “Your name. Was Fawn.”

Fawn entered the pool. The water did not touch her, for there was nothing of her to touch. Fawn felt a panicked spike of distress run up through her. She saw flashes of herself. Her former self. Her fleshly self. Thrashing in the water. This water. Then a big inrush of water into her windpipe. The witch hazel-y taste of chlorine. The divestment of tears from her eyes, invisible, subsumed by the water. This water.

Then. Blackness. And floating a few feet above her body. Her dad in a rumpled taupe shirt, bent over her. Her honey-haired mom, dropping to her knees, wailing.

As Fawn strode without striding deeper into the water, she could feel herself – whatever self of her there was – begin to dissipate.

Natalia thought for a moment, in the late afternoon angle of the light, that she spied something like iridescence dancing languidly upon the water – like motor oil in a rain puddle, but lighter and lovelier.

It was pleasant enough, thought Fawn: this dissolving. As the water claimed her once more, Fawn was unafraid. And she was free.

Thursday
Apr072016

Hot Doug's. And My Death Wish.

So the Chicago Reader is letting me do infrequent pieces for their online feature "The Contrarian."

My first one was about the death of Justice Scalia. Nobody gave a rat's ass.

My most recent one was about an overrated hot dog place

Response has prompted my playwright pal Mark Chrisler to observe: "This is the piece that will make you the Salman Rushdie of Cook County."

Another playwright pal, Bilal Dardai had this to say: "Ian Belknap: The Captive-Bolt Gun for All of Your Sacred Cows." Which may be the highest goddamn praise I've ever received. Whatever his intentions may have been.

Dummies take it as an attack on Doug Sohn, or on hot dogs generally. Which it is not. It's about hype, dummies, and your susceptibility to it.