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improbable-looking limestone karsts in Guilin

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

The Heart of Hell

Willie Whopper, that congenital li'l liar, sits at a piano in black and white, pounding out his theme song while his dog helps. Though the title on the "Celebrity Productions, Inc" card is VULCAN ENTERTAINS, and though the incomplete color print I have on laserdisk and DVD calls it MASQUERADE HOLIDAY, this is really a 1934 cartoon called HELL'S FIRE, from producer (and legendary animator) Ub Iwerks, who made history at Disney as Mickey Mouse's first animator (and who made the classic SKELETON DANCE as well) before going out to form his own company. Later, he went back to Disney and was subsequently honored for technical innovations (like the multiplane camera). He also animated some bird attacks for Alfred Hitchcock's classic, THE BIRDS.

Now, this cartoon goes back and forth between color (two-strip cinecolor, looking pretty darn good here) and black-and-white, because there are many parts of this particular short that don't exist in black and white at all. It seems to me that here would be a legitimate use for colorization technology, but I digress. This is an improvement over the all-color version I have, because it has all the parts that were cut from my version in an attempt to disguise the fact that this is a cartoon about a little kid and his dog going to Hell (by going down a volcano, not by dying in their wickedness), where they see a mini-pageant of famous monsters in Hell, the precursor of some South Park cartoons where, it seems, every famous person went to Hell. But it's a fun kind of hell, with luaus and parties to help blunt some of the sting of eternal torment. I digress again.

Willie and his dog, who I will refer to as Fido, because if three minutes of searching won't turn up anything better than "his dog," then man was not meant to know. Now he's Fido. Willie and Fido are apparently dicking around atop "the world's most dangerous volcano," as kids will do, and get into a hassle with Satan, who sits around smoking directly under the circular opening of the volcano. He gets irked when Willie drops a rock on his head, but Willie arranges for his dog to lick the lump until it goes down, and everybody's happy as hell again.

Now that the most evil being in all creation is well-disposed toward our hero (and his dog), we go back into color for some light entertainment, as the fallen angel puts on an impromptu parade of unworthies from history for Willy's enjoyment. Napoleon, Nero (fiddling Turkey in the Straw), Rasputin (doing a Hopak and burping rhythmically, he seems to be played by John Barrymore), with Cleopatra and Mark Antony next — he bangs on a cymbal while she twerks at it. I suspect at some point they wanted her can to be hitting the cymbal and chickened out.

Heh. Ub I-twerks.

ahem. Simon Legree whips through next, on a dogsled pulled by bloodhounds, and some eloquently shrugging Pasha? with a blue beard? Eh, he must be Bluebeard. Then the Frederic March Jekyll turns into a hairy Hyde, and the color stops long enough to introduce the guy this cartoon's really all about, Old Man Prohibition. You don't see his label in the color part, but it was clear enough who he was from his long black frock coat, tall hat, and blue nose. Well, he's blue all over, but a lot of that is nose, and the Devil really, really, really dislikes him. The inmates of Hell dislike him. Willie dislikes him. I'm pretty sure the animators hated him intensely. Not sure when in '34 this came out, but Old Man Prohibition was killed in 1933, so he'd have been a fairly recent addition to Hell.

Well, Satan rags him a bit, and the others laugh, and demons with pitchforks chase his ass, knock him down, flatten him, and refill him with booze (including a fairly disgusting maneuver with a funnel that I'll skip describing if it's all the same to you). Whoever chicken-edited this later on, apart from their notable lack of technique, seemed bent on disguising not only Satan and Hell, but the identity of the personification of the 18th Amendment, who had been a standard figure in cartoons for many years by this time. Because any mention of booze at all is tantamount to endorsing it in front of all those wholesome, imitative kiddies! Though, to be fair, the vehemence we will see in "getting" OMP seems almost to be a call for everyone to get drunk in reaction.

There's some by-play with Cerberus, the three-headed dog of the Underworld (and Hell!), who gives Iwerks a chance to really let loose on the incredible Three-ness of everything. One head eats the bone, the next head swallows, the last burps. The music seems designed to hang tripartite jokes on, and in parts of this scene, the note-for-note mickey mousing of the score actually can get a little oppressive. But it's hard to stay oppressed when watching a textbook example of a perfect dog-butt crawl maneuver (which good old Annie was a master of, back in those childhood days), and we perk up readily. If you really want to see Ub let go on triplicate motifs, go find Goldilocks. It's true that the tale calls for exactly three bears, but by the time that cartoon's over, you'll feel like you've been cobbled on the noggin repeatedly and rhythmically for ten minutes by a great big hammer, a middle-sized hammer, and a wee, tiny, baby-sized hammer.

More black and white scenes have Mr. Prohibition frightened by hallucinations (apparently he's an easy DT), but starting to enjoy himself just in time for heightened persecution by the hound of hell. He lurches and dashes awkwardly away down what is apparently the only corridor in Hell, and Satan points and shouts "Stop him!", forgetting that he could manifest lightning hands and catch somebody, the same way he caught Willie and Fido (and remember, future animation scholars, I gave him that name!). So Willie, that little kiss-ass, jumps up and puffs his already-spherical form up, and gives chase. "Satan's Little Pet," as a Far Side cartoon once said.

Willie gets within ass-grabbing range of the fleeing inebriate (who is apparently still not "cool," even though he's as drunk as Hunter S. Thompson), assisted by some of the lightning hands that Satan seems to have tardily recalled. To make up for lateness, they reform themselves into a flaming brace and bit, which of course proceed to drill his keister up to the hilt. Ho ho! He got it in the butt! Walt Disney, I hope you're taking notes on this, because you're going to use this gag in cartoons two times for every hamburger sold at McDonald's. The terror-stricken pariah, ignoring the Ixnay signs, heads into the boiler room. The boiler room of Hell!

For some reason, the image of the red imp (in nice blue gloves and booties) happily pulling the release of the coal chute feeding that furnace is my favorite of the cartoon. The colors are rich and saturated, the floor and walls are a clearly marked stage, and the boiler emits satisfying flames when the coal flies in. Then Willie and Fido (© me!) and the Old Man go barreling into the chute and knock it aside, which (paradoxically) causes it to overload with coal, and in the ensuing ka-boom, all three are blown out of Hell, into a large nest a mile or so away from the world's most dangerous volcano (remember?). The NRA (National Recovery Act, that is) Eagle shows up, posing iconically before unbending into a regular, albeit huge, bird that picks up the trio, glides over the cone of the Hellmouth, and drops Prohibition back to Hell again before flying off with Willie.

So, they really did hate the guy.

Willie, back at the piano, invites us to tell our own lies ("Now YOU tell one!"), but we have learned our lesson! No more lying for us, not even a little white one. If you lie, we end up, like Willie and his dog (Fido!), doing the bidding of the Prince of Hell, before being carried off bodily to an unknown fate by a giant PSA logo. At least we know he came back afterward, seemingly the same happy kid as before, but how could he not be changed by such a horrific experience? How?

Answer: he could not. Some time later, Willie lost a lot of weight, and his voice changed. It's all documented in the films.

Take-away from all this? Never tell the truth. Eat a lot. Prohibition bad. If Satan tells you to "get" someone, don't ask stupid questions, just do it.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Our New Colossus

A gigantic, bronzed statue of a dame,
Gleaming limbs 'neath 'lectric sunlamp tanned;
Below yon giant lamppost, see her stand—
This brazen woman sings her song of flame.
She gestures, having turned from early fame
To spurn unshelter'd poor. Now her hand
Waves them off with heavy book of Rand;
Thro' painted lashes seeks she fitter game.
“Keep your poor and tired trash,” calls she
With ruby'd lips, “Send me your rich, your white
Your lucky heirs, who scheme to live tax-free;
The wretched I refuse—my legal right!
Outsourcing, open-handed men for me—
Above my door I shine the scarlet light!”

[line 8 tweaked 15 Feb 2015]

Saturday, October 11, 2014

this just in (in 1972)

"A recent study by the Food and Drug Administration reveals that over 90% of all alcoholics started with beer. The yellow-ish colored carbonated beverage, which many groups contend is harmless, contains up to 12% of ethanol (c2h5oh), the same active ingredient found in higher quantities in stronger liquor.

"Though the study failed to find a provable cause-effect link between the use of beer and of harder beverages, the researchers did point to 'an atmosphere of experimentation" that was conducive to involvement with more powerful alcoholic drinks."

This was presented as a (fake) news item in a 1972 National Lampoon, and from time to time I want to quote it somewhere, so here it is as a private service. 

Caveat: reproduced from memory, and likely paraphrased as a result, but it's accurate in its particulars.


Thursday, September 11, 2014

baboon river anthology?

This has been festering in my head for a while.


I met a human from a time-lost land
Who said: “A woman, bronze, with diadem
Sits broken, buried slantwise in the sand,
Her legs and trunk are gone: no sign of them.
A head remains, two shoulders, arm and hand,
A torch, long dead, and one piece yet beside,
A copper plaque in whose impassioned plea,
Corroded words bade weary travelers bide.
I traced their meaning; not an easy chore:
‘Give me your masses, yearning to breathe free…
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’
My horse browsed nigh; the witness to my yell:
You blew it up! Curse you forevermore!
Mad, hairless apes! God damn you all to hell!”

Friday, September 05, 2014

Toon River Anthology continues

It's a long one this time!


No disrespect to Dad, of course, but I never really understood
Why Mom insisted on combing my hair in just that particular way
With those little ‘dags’ always sticking out on the sides. 
The lookalike thing was fun when I was little, but as I grew up,
I wanted to be myself, to be my own man. I asked to change it
When I was sixteen, but she got around me just as easily
As she always got around him. The hair stayed as it was.
I even kept wearing those one-button shirts, just like his.
Years passed. After Dad died, I finally ventured out
And found a college 300 miles away — close enough
For visits, but far enough that I felt independent, able
To make my own decisions and, more importantly,
To make myself something other than a living memorial
To my father. The barber I chose said he’d never seen a cut like it.
I told him to take a picture, because it would soon be gone.
He trimmed it down into a generic cut that I picked
From the poster by his mirror. He chatted away as he cut.
I mumbled assent occasionally, thinking of my new, different life.
For me, the cut symbolized everything regrettable about Dad:
Eccentric, almost willfully so; sticking out inconveniently, 
Yet docile, deferential, even kind of dumb. I was done with it.
The barber brushed and patted and sprayed it with something,
And told me I looked great. In the mirror sat the new man,
Moving when I moved, standing when I stood, brow furrowing
At the exact moment that something looked unsettlingly familiar.
The shop faded away, leaving only me and the staring stranger.
I pushed my hair to the right. He pushed his to the left. I pushed mine back,
As did he. My heart thumped, and I wished I had a sandwich.
For no reason I know, I was holding the barber’s skinny comb.
My hand moved, held it under my nose, not unlike a mustache,
And I knew. I knew him then. I knew myself, and I knew why Mom
Spent all those mornings brushing and combing and spraying my hair
To avoid this moment: The man in the mirror could be none other
Than Mr. Woodley — Herb Woodley, from next door. Dad’s best friend
Who’d died in retirement, down in Florida. The resemblance was clear.
The intolerable moment passed. The barber was still talking. I settled and left.
For the next while, I kept to my room until it was long enough
To restore the way I’d always looked. Well, I stayed in college two years —
Enough to learn I was no office worker; I ended up becoming a mailman.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Jukebox for August 30, 2014

It's Ben Light again (see also January 11, 2009)! Last time we had the science fiction utopian tale of the scientific robot man. This time, we're bending genders just to see what happens, with Ben singing the role of a housewife with a special friend. Clicking the title will open an MP3 of the 78 in another window.

I listen for the bell
I’ve primped and powdered so
I know his footsteps well, and in case you didn’t know,
I’ve got a crush
I’ve got a crush on the Fuller Brush Man.

He shows me all his samples
And he looks so wondrous wise
That I can’t help but listen
As he looks into my eyes.
I’ve got a crush
I’ve got a crush on the Fuller Brush Man.

Oh, every time he comes he shows me something new
He sweeps my sitting room
With a fancy broom
He sweeps my dining room
And then my back porch too
For a man like that, what wouldn’t I do?

Oh, he sets me all a-twitter
My, I could write a book
Oh, what a wife that man could make
If only he could cook
I’ve got a crush
I’ve got a crush on the Fuller Brush Man.

[instrumental with tinkly, arpeggiated piano from Ben]

Oh, he takes me in his confidence
And he holds me in his spell
He plays with my… emotions
And he makes me feel, oh, well,
I’ve got a crush
I’ve got a crush on the Fuller Brush Man.

For every brush he sells, he gives a guarantee
That it would last for forty years,
That’s long enough for me!
I’ve got a crush
I’ve got a crush on the Fuller Brush Man.

He gives a special prize with every brush he sells
With ones as big as this, he gives a little kiss.
It won’t be long before my precious bankroll’s shot
Cause I’m a-gonna buy the biggest brush he’s got!

He’s got a brush that tickles,
And he’s got a brush that hurts
And then he’s got a special brush
That I think is the nerts,
I’ve got a crush

I’ve got a crush on the Fuller Brush Man!

Charming, and the music flows like water with Ben's liquid piano playing. I was so impressed by this and the Robot Man song that I listened to all the Ben Light sides I could find at Archive, and I was a bit disappointed with the rest of his output (which is far larger than what they have), because of a degree of casual racism that suddenly showed up and ruined everything for me. I do hope there's more of the good stuff out there somewhere.

ps: According to a link I followed at the bottom of Ben's page at Archive, he's not the vocalist in these recordings. They don't know the vocalist's name. He sounds a bit like Benny Bell at times, but I think that's just the tone of their delivery. There's a two-CD set of recordings from Light (born Benjamin Leight in 1893), but these don't seem to be the party records, alas. Which doesn't mean they might not be great. Time will quite possibly tell.


from January 26, 2001 (quoting myself):

I've been reading Marlowe lately. Great stuff. Nobody could begin a
story like him:

For long and weary hours, I bored myself
Counting the old, tired webs of spiders
In my narrow office. Just then I heard
A ringing sound from the bell out front,
And in my dismal garrett I beheld
A wench who made a good first impression
To my eyes. Her face, I thought could launch,
A thousand or so ships, her eyes burn down
A hell of a lot of topless towers.
I took in her form and her tear-streaked face
She beseechingly asked,  "Mister Marlowe?
I'm in trouble. They told me you could help."

  (Christopher Marlowe, _The Tragedy of The Big Slumber_, act I)

(This is on the web in a couple of places, but it seemed advisable to put it somewhere I could reliably point to it as needed.)

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

toon river anthology strikes again


Sweet Mother Macready! I hate to disappoint you,
But if you’re here for a tearful admission 
Of my gnawing fears and secret doubts, or
An ironically revealing origin story, or perhaps
The news that I was put here by the betrayal
Of a colleague or a loved one —
My dog, maybe — then you’re out of luck.
Dead? No way! I don’t know what this is about, but
It sure as hello kitty isn’t my grave or my stone.
Death is for saps and sidekicks. No sirree Bob,
I’m not under this dumb rock. I’m somewhere else,
Sticking my neck out, enjoying an honest rhubarb.
This? This is a dream, or some imaginary story,
Maybe even a sinister plot by my enemies
Meant to fool someone or other. Happens every day.
Heroes don’t die. Anyone with the common sense of a flapjack
Would know that. Scrambooch, buster,
And save your flowers for somebody who needs 'em.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

still more toon river anthology


Dithers came at me with the ash tray. I ran, of course.
One minute, I was tossing paper airplanes with Crane in Payroll,
And the next, the boss was screaming about the Stevens account
(Which, for reasons beyond my understanding, flew remarkably well)
And the old man went completely ape. Well, I’d seen him like that,
So I ran for the elevator, which closed in my face as usual.
With practiced grace, I pirouetted past him toward the break room,
Trying to put the table between us, but he flung it aside and kept coming.
Long years of running had taught me to head for his office:
Sometimes Cora was there, and he always stopped when he saw her.
This time she wasn’t, so my only recourse was the window.
Hoping to get out on the ledge. The old boy hated heights,
So usually he’d just throw things at me and curse till he calmed down,
But before I could get my footing, he was striking at me,
Red-faced, panting and shaking. I slipped, whirled, and grabbed the sill.
In half a second, he was banging away at my fingers with the ash tray.
When he lost his hold on that, I thought we were done, but he resumed
With his putter. Up to now, there was nothing new about any of this,
But this time, he kept hitting. He screamed. I screamed. I was losing my hold
On the sill, and still he kept hitting. My fingers were bleeding
And my attempts to keep a purchase on the wood only resulted
In trying to cling to a surface slick with blood. That couldn’t last.
When I fell, I was dimly aware that my hands were hurting a bit less
And that Mr. Dithers was still yelling, brandishing the club like a Zulu,
His face getting smaller and smaller as the buildings seemed
To crowd together, as if to witness my descent.
The last thing I remember was my own feeling of surprise
About life, the boss, and the Stevens account. Well.
How was I to know the old man was really mad?

Thursday, April 03, 2014


Behind our brow the pressure's far too high
The dam of silence burdens us too hard
The hand we hold leaves us no other card,
So come; the weight's too much. It's time to cry.

We'll prime the pump with brine, our eyelids pursed
We're all alone. No one will mock our sobs
The others are off, busy at their jobs
And won't be here to see us at our worst.

Some gland purrs like a cat behind out eyes
We pray that brain's endorphins buy some peace
Too much to hope our cares might really cease
But, for a time, the hard lump liquefies.

The silent burden won't be eased by sleep
So come; the load's too great. It's time to weep.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

the meaning

It was merciful.

There I was, looking down at the contorted shape that had been my car, thinking that the idea I'd been trying to scribble on the back of one of my business cards probably hadn't been worth it, after all. As the flames that started in the puddle under the engine quickly engulfed it, I concluded that this wasn't going to be one of those near-death experiences, and it only took a short look at my body to confirm that, to paraphrase some Madison Avenue type, death was the new life.

I watched myself for a few more seconds, thinking I hadn't done so badly. I wasn't too far out of shape. My face and form weren't all that ungainly. I actually regretted what the fire was about to do to me in there. Closed casket, definitely. I couldn't watch. I pulled away and took stock of my situation.

Forty-five years old, and already, I belonged to the ages. The small design firm I had managed to keep solvent was someone else's concern now. By rights, it should pass to Dave and Irma, who I'd come to rely on more and more, but I wasn't sure they could do it, legally. I hoped they would at least start a new company together -- I think they'd be good at it, even if they didn't seem to have the confidence.

At the moment, I had nothing. Fair's fair, I didn't really need anything. I could float around. Was I dressed? Wearing, perhaps, a ghostly pair of Dockers with a pressed shirt and a vest? It didn't feel like it, and it didn't feel unlike it. Whatever. It was sufficient. So now what? Do I do something? Do I go somewhere? Heaven? Purgatory? Relive my life now past, like the movie about that small-town cemetery?

What is the meaning of life?

The thought came to my mind like any other, but there was something different about it. A different voice, or a different typeface. It wasn't my own thought. I realized I now had a task. Homework, or maybe a final exam. I had to figure out the meaning of life. 

My life? Life in general? No answer. Any explanation apparently has to come from me. The clock is ticking. Use only a Number Two pencil. As the emergency vehicles started showing up, I willed myself along the way I was going when I had so rudely interrupted myself. Home. I was heading home.

Home. My progress was a little unsteady. I was distracted by things I saw along the way. There was so much going on along the familiar route. I saw a family of mice in a culvert. How could they live there? What would they do when it rained? They reminded me suddenly of my own family, and my -figurative- heart fell. My family! They didn't know yet, did they? I hurried along a little faster, then paused again to look at one of those roadside crosses people put up when someone they know is killed on or near the road. It barely registered on me when I was alive, but it had been there for two years. The flowers on it hadn't been there for two years; they looked a week old at the oldest. Would Elaine put up one of those for me? Elaine! I stopped looking at the cross and made for our apartment.

Once there, I determined that I could pass through a wall. No real surprise there. Elaine was in the living room watching a kid show with our two boys. The stuff six- and eight-year-olds watch. They were on the floor about a foot from the screen. I went to Elaine and tried to get her attention. I think I was relieved that nothing I said or did got through to her. I tried with Rodney, and then with Jacob. I even checked to see if I could mess with the TV. Nothing. Then the phone rang.

I didn't want to watch. I wanted to fly away and not think about it. I was strangely unemotional about my own death, but the idea of watching my family cope with it was painful. Still, I stayed and watched as she told Rod to turn the sound down, picked up the phone, confirmed who she was with a nod the caller couldn't see. Then she got the news. Disbelief and shock caused her to stagger. She yelled at Rod to turn the set down again, then turned away and shielded the mouthpiece and her mouth with a hand, as if she could keep the bad news from leaking out. She asked a few questions. Are you sure? When did it...? Was anybody else...? The voice at the other end answered, offered official condolence, gave her a number to write down. She absently drifted as far as the cord would let her from the living room and called her sister Doris. Asked her to take care of letting the rest of the family know. Pause. No, she said, they don't know yet. Pause. I will. Longer pause. Yes, she said, yes, please.

She hung up again. She looked back at the doorway to the living room where our boys didn't know yet. Stood looking at the silent phone. I'm off now, she said, and the TV got louder. Then she sat at the kitchen table and buried her face in her arms. I wanted to put my hands on her shoulders and stop them from shaking, but I couldn't. I could only watch as she got control of herself and wiped her face. Then she called to the boys to turn the TV off and come into the kitchen. They tried to argue a little, and she said no, come in now. And because she didn't raise her voice, they were curious and came in, and they looked at her face and said, what's wrong, Mom?

And she told them. 

And she said, we're packing some clothes and we're going to visit your aunt and uncle for a couple of days. And I watched them hug each other and cry and try to comfort each other, and I thought, I really had a good family. They picked out some clothes and toys and put them in the big suitcase we used last summer to go to Oregon, and every now and then one of them broke down and the others were there, and they got in the car and set out on the sixty-mile drive to her capable sister's house.

I followed along. It was a pretty quiet procession. Rodney had to go to the bathroom, and they stopped for that. A couple of times, they just pulled off the road so she could cry some more, but for the most part, she kept it together in front of the boys. I watched them and cringed when another car got too close, and asked myself the question. What is the meaning of life?

What had my life meant? What did my life mean to them? What did their lives mean?

I thought back over my life, now conveniently completed. It seemed like my memories were actually clearer than they had been when I was alive. Was I distracted by life when I was experiencing it? Was this a fringe benefit of being dead? Whatever, it was easy to review my twoscore years and five. There was my great-grandpa who died when I was four. I was four, and they were explaining to me. Nineteen, and I'm getting the news about Grandpa Ben. Twenty, and it's Grandma Alice. 

I wondered if Doris had called my folks in Florida yet. 

I felt close to the meaning. It wasn't things. It wasn't stuff. Ideas? Ideals? 

Those things were important, but they weren't the meaning. They were things we had, things we did, to get close to other people. Or maybe keep them away. Were people the meaning? I watched our minivan pull into another rest stop. Elaine went to the vending machines, bought a bottle of cold water, and they set off again, sharing the water. Was sharing the meaning? I noted that Elaine was driving very carefully. Good girl. Might as well learn from my mistake! She had to take care of the family now, this new family that was shaping itself to get along with three. Rod was already starting to move into his niche, taking some of the load off of Elaine. I wanted to hug him.

I sighed. Metaphorically, if not corporeally. I thought I was kind of detached about this death thing, but I realized that I was really regretting it. I had wanted to live a lot longer. That was when it came to me. The meaning of life.

The meaning of life, I said, phrasing it in my mind (as if writing with a number 2 pencil), is to live as long as you can. We surround ourselves with others to form entanglements so that we'll be sure and try to live as long as possible. Life wants life. If we're alone, we might succumb to a momentary impulse or get careless and lose the thread. 

We intellectualize it, but it's a flame that wants to burn as long as it possibly can. It's as simple as that. The meaning of life is to live as long as possible. That was my final answer. I stopped following the car and looked up at the clouds and the stars and the moon. That's my answer, I thought. How did I do?

The foreign thought spoke in my brain again. Without words, I now had the impression that this answer had been satisfactory. I had passed the first part of the test.

First part? That was the first part? I looked at the cars below and realized they were starting to look indistinct, as if they were farther away. Not smaller, just harder to see. Words formed in my mind.

What is the meaning of death?

I groaned inwardly.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Toon River Anthology continues


How does it happen that Mr. Wilson outlived me?
I was young, with decades yet to go,
And I reminded him of it every day,
Sometimes loudly playing games to point up the age gap
Or by frequently speculating on just how ancient he was.
One giddy time, I yelled across the fence
That when I reached half his age, he’d be long gone.
I could see the red run up his neck 
Like Mrs. Dowd’s ol’ cat skinning up her elm tree to avoid a rock.
That changed him. He stopped yelling, stopped cursing,
Stopped trying to keep me out of his house.
He got friendly with me, gave me presents,
Like his old Boy Scout knife, lawn darts, a Zippo lighter.
He convinced Dad I was ready for a two-wheeler,
And later showed me how he could ride with one hand—
No hands! Who knew? All it took, he said, was practice.
When our other neighbor’s moving van backed over me practicing,
Good ol’ Mr. Wilson was first on the scene. Insisted on carrying me in.
The last thing I remember was him murmuring “sleep quietly,”
With a look of mild regret on his saggy, bulbous old features.


Saturday, November 16, 2013

Family Talk

"On one night of the year…"

Kurt drove for hours, back to his home town. Flying would have taken longer, so he endured the boring drive along interstates through plowed fields of crops, then state roads to the small town he'd grown up in. The town he always felt he'd escaped from. 

In spite of himself, he was looking eagerly for signs of the familiar. He nodded faintly at a red barn on the outskirts of town, pursed his lips at the closed drive-in theater next to it. The town sign, with medallions for Lions Club and Rotary, could have been the same one he'd left behind 17 years ago. The mall he passed was new to him, though it already seemed to be on the skids, with the anchor store's space at the end given over to a flea market, and two other stores in the middle combined in a church bordered by a tanning salon and a video store.

Downtown, familiar buildings stood, one or two still with the same merchants he'd known as a boy. Others had new occupants, which seemed almost like squatters. Kort's Dry Goods still had their name set proudly in black and white tiles in the front entryway, left unchanged by the Dollar Store that used the space now. Goldberg's still had its sign up, but the store was dusty, and nothing remained inside but some boxes and parts of mannequins. These reminded him of why he was there, and he sighed, turning onto a side street to pass one more familiar address before he got where he was going.

And there it was; the family house. Kurt parked across the street from the two-story brick building with the white wooden pillars on the porch. Lights inside discouraged him from walking up the steps to see if the stains were still there from the time he'd spray painted his five-speed bike. One of the lights was in his old bedroom, and he briefly thought of ringing the bell and asking to look at it. He sat for five more minutes, hand on his chin, sometimes nodding to himself, before he started the car again and drove to the motel he had selected for the night.

"Crosby family still own this place?" he asked the clerk who came out of a back room when he rang a bell on the desk. "James Crosby?" He had a mental image of a tall, red-faced bald man who took no nonsense from anyone.

"Old Mr. Crosby passed on in '02," said the young man behind the counter. "His son sold his interest to a cousin lives in Council Bluffs, and my dad manages the place for him. Cousin's related to the Crosbys, but his name's Bennet." He looked at Kurt's signature on the form with no sign of recognition. "If you haven't eaten supper yet, there's a Dairy Queen a block over, and Plantation Inn is four blocks beyond that. Their chicken is pretty good." 

"I used to eat at the Plantation Inn every couple of weeks," said Kurt. The clerk smiled politely, without much interest.

"Here's your room key. You're in 15A, around back. TV's got basic cable plus HBO. If you need anything, just dial 0." 

"Do you have wi-fi?"

"Sorry, no."

A half hour later, Kurt was walking back from the Plantation Inn with a steaming cardboard container of chicken with dumplings. He paused by the gate of a cemetery and seemed to feel a sudden chill. In the fading light, he peered as well as he could, but couldn't see far back enough to make out the stone he was looking for. 

He stepped closer, observing that the gate was designed to keep cars out, but wouldn't have any effect on a pedestrian, other than requiring a step around one end. The sign said CLOSED AFTER DARK. Kurt nodded again, to nobody in particular, and continued back to his room, warming himself on the box he held.

He ate slowly, relishing the food, which still tasted the way he'd remembered it, flipped through the channels on the TV, finding no local programming, At 8:30, he set an alarm on his watch and went to sleep on the bed with his clothes on.

His watch woke him at 11:15. He got up reluctantly. He put on a dark sweater, and then turned the TV on and flipped channels again for five minutes. He looked at the box that had contained chicken. It was still empty. He looked at his watch. He checked through a black bag with a flashlight and batteries in it. He looked out the room door, feeling the night's temperature. He put on a dark jacket as well. 11:45. Kurt sighed and walked out of the room, carrying the flashlight and the black bag and a camp chair carried in a shoulder tote.

He walked quietly down the sidewalk, avoiding any appearance of furtiveness. At the cemetery, he walked around the gate and then headed toward the back, turning the flashlight on when he was a few yards in. He took a couple of turns, pausing once where two similar lanes diverged, pulling on his lower lip and choosing the right-hand fork. A few yards later, the flashlight beam picked out the stone he was looking for. "Dad," said Kurt. He checked his watch. 11:55. His stomach growled, and he tapped it absently. He took out the camp chair and sat down to wait.

At midnight, he reluctantly turned to the gravestone. "Dad?" he said, and waited. After a minute, "Dad?" again. "Dad, it's me. Kurt."

"Kurt?" said a voice so quiet it might have been his imagination.

"Yes, Dad, it's me."

"Is it that day?" said the voice, almost as quietly.

"Yes, Dad, it's that day. Dad, I wanted to say something to you..."

"You left me alone."

"I'm sorry, Dad. That's what I came to..."

"You left me to die in that place," said the voice, still quietly, with barely any inflection or emotion.

"Dad, I didn't have a choice. I had my family to..."

"You left me there. I used to call to you, and you only came once a month to see me. All the years I took care of you."

"Dad, I had... I have... two children. They had to come first. My duty was..."

"You didn't care that I was rotting there. Just like I'm rotting now. I was dying inside, losing my mind bit by bit. You could have taken me home."

"Dad, I did the best I could. It was too expensive to have you with us, and you were too..."

"Your grandfather lived with us until he died. He never went into a home. We took care of him. He was part of the family. I was part of your family."

"Dad, I couldn't do it. I was working, Margaret was working. The girls couldn't have..."

"You left me to die there. How could you do it?"

"Dad, listen to me. I was raising a..."

"A son's duty is to his father."

"Dad, I'm sorry. Just let me..."

"You couldn't wait to leave me. You ran off. You didn't want to work at the garage with me. I couldn't do it by myself."

"I was going crazy here. It was killing me to..."

"Some day you'll know what it's like. Some day your children will do the same to you. You've taught them to be like you."

"Dad, that's not..."

"I have nothing more to say to you."

"Dad, just let me talk." Kurt waited. There was no response. "Dad, the way you were acting then... I couldn't have you in the same house with my daughters. I couldn't have you unsupervised. You kept trying to do things. You'd turn the stove on and forget it. You could have burned the house down. Dad?"

There was no response. Kurt looked at his watch again, sighed. He folded up the chair and worked his way back to the gate. He heard a voice, urgent, entreating, and stopped to listen, switching the light off. The voice came from somewhere in the darkness, from another part of the cemetery. It was a woman.

"But where? Where did you leave it? You wanted to provide for us, but we don't know where it is!" There was a pause. Kurt couldn't hear anything. "Please, just give me a clue.... no, I know you did... do... but now we need your help! Please!"

Kurt sighed and turned the flashlight on. He shook his head. "They talk to you," he murmured, "But you can't make them listen."

Another turn and he was out of the cemetery. Two blocks, and he was back in his room. He undressed and turned on the TV again, falling asleep in front of it. In the morning, he drove back the way he came, stopping only for another box of chicken. Carry out.

©2013 by Kip Williams

Monday, September 09, 2013

TOP TEN Amazing Facts about Sir Isaac Newton!

Tried to promote military uses of gravity, but farmers of the day couldn't deliver enough weaponized Granny Smiths.

Was accompanied for years by lookalike nephews, J-saac, M-saac, and N-saac.

Instead of "Theory of Gravitation," he had originally intended to pen a sweeping multi-generation outer space sage, but was advised to "write what you know."

Never actually won the Nobel Prize for Gravity!

Would try to impress his name on acquaintances by urging them to visualize a NEWT ON his head.

"Sir" in his name was actually self-awarded, and was always accompanied by "air quotes."

He once dropped an apple on a man in Reno, just to watch him make that "Ow! My head!" face.

He personally founded a small town in Massachusetts.

Hated goddamn figs!

And the #1 Amazing Fact about Sir Isaac Newton:

Recanted Law of Gravity on his deathbed, and everybody floated off into space!

Friday, August 23, 2013




After a bus ride from hell, I arrived in Colorado from Texas and took refuge at a former schoolmate's house and phoned one of my oldest friends, a former Army brat who I'll call Gee. How about I come over to your place, I asked. Okay, said Gee, in a voice which (I didn't notice at first) seemed more quiet and hesitant than the self-confident tones I'd heard from him in the almost twenty years he'd been in and out of my life.

But there's something I need to tell you. My name's not Gee [male name] any more, it's Ess [female name]. And the story came out.
From earliest childhood (Ess said), I felt like a girl instead of a boy. When my sister was born, they were calling her a girl, and I said What do you mean? I'm a girl! And I resolved at that time to keep it to myself and tough it out, and live my life as a man, like everybody expected. And I managed.

Then, when I was in my teens, I started having this hallucination. In the periphery of my vision. It was the tip of the barrel of a pistol. Over the days and weeks, it was always there. Over a period of months and years, all through high school, it filled in and became complete.

Then the hammer started cocking back.
And through all this, my friend was a success -- surprising everyone by joining the army, then afterwards marrying, having a son, easily finding jobs, living a good life. There was a certain humor in how accident-prone Gee was: driving off the road, for instance. We joked about it, the way you do with friends who have that kind of luck.
And then one day I found myself on the porch of my parents' house, with a shotgun in my mouth. Only instead of pulling the trigger, I said, **** this ****, I'd rather live. And to do that, I have to live as the person I really am, not as the person I'm supposed to be.
What did you tell your Dad, the Colonel?
He said, he always felt that way too, like he was really a girl, and decided he had to hide it.
I was somewhat dazed at this point, from the trip and other things, and I decided to postpone going over there, but I got contact information and put her in touch with my sisters, who are a pretty good de facto support group, and worked to wrap my mind around the fact that the person who used to beat on me a little, and who once shot me point blank with an air rifle just before we both got caught in a blizzard, was undergoing such a profoundly alienating and distressing experience, and had been for years, without being able to tell anyone.

I called my sister who still lived in the area, and after laughing once -- perhaps at me -- she made herself available to Ess and stayed in contact. I saw her after that at my sister's house, and tried to keep in touch as well, though it was my sisters who got actual visits, due to geographical location.

My middle sister asked Ess once about her little son. Do you see him? "Yes." How did you explain to him? "I told him as best I could that this was what I had to do."

What does he call you?

"He calls me Daddy."


Ess's son, an Iraq War veteran, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in November. It might have been some kind of accident.


I heard from Ess a short while back, after the "Fufumal" post was picked up by Slashdot. She was pleased at the coincidence of "running into" me that way, and we exchanged a couple of messages. Even as she relished the joke, it was clear even to me that she was under a cloud of sorrow over the loss of her son. It was a short exchange. I don't remember who wrote last. I went and looked at photos of a cheerful, confident young man in uniform on Ess's flickr page. She was so proud of him.

Tonight, after putting Sarah to bed, I received an email from my youngest sister -- who used to hang out and laugh with Gee, and who kept in touch with Ess -- that Ess had shot herself on Tuesday.

Coincidence. I was thinking of some "Gee stories" earlier in the week. I don't think it was on Tuesday. Might have been yesterday. It might be a good time for me to write down as many as I can: the ones I witnessed, and the ones he used to tell. I remember those laughs too. I could sure use one now.

originally printed in my LiveJournal in 2007