Thursday, March 31, 2011

Flash Fiction Challenge: The Portrait

Another flash fiction challenge at Chuck Wendig's blog. Participants are asked to write a short story based on the picture above. It's pretty ghastly, so I concocted a horror tale set in the 1860s about a photographer and a special little boy. A departure from my current writing style, I evoked the tone of Poe and Lovecraft in a story I call "Say Cheese". Hope you enjoy this creepy mo'fo.

Say Cheese

Why do you think I’m mad, officer? I’m as sane and as rational as you, perhaps more. My mind is lucid and competent, especially after the ordeal I witnessed. One need only review the day’s events in a logical fashion to preclude I’m not some raving lunatic but a citizen who witnessed a blessed event.

A transformation.

Such things are rare these days. Science, free-thinking and rationality have dampened the miraculous beauty of God’s graceful masterpieces. Nature is dissected and studied under the glass of a microscope. Why there’s even that chap Darwin who’s claiming mankind wasn’t perfectly formed by our Creator, but evolved over millennia from lowly primates.

What of the natural world, the one not in the textbooks or scientific treaties? Though majestic and sublime, it’s not all beautiful. Nature is a dark mistress, one with her tawdry, vile secrets. Sometimes she subtly lets out horrible entities which defy the imagination. I’ve witnessed one of these abominations first hand, officer.

It all started with the boy.

He was a harmless lad, of no more than seven, with an impishness about him. Children are so filled with wonder and prattle on about this and that, making up fanciful tales and whiling away the hours in the throes of play.

As to the boy’s origin, nobody really knew. My landlady, Mrs. McCleary, said the lad was from a broken home, and his father a common laborer who’s fallen to drink. The boy’s mother was imprisoned in the sanitarium after she tried stabbing the boy with a knife.

Why anyone would have wished bodily harm upon this innocent cherub filled me with disgust, and I immediately went to befriend the boy. He was wary of strangers, so it took time before he trusted me. Mrs. McCleary said the boy was “a little off” and “one strange lad” who often played alone outside the boarding house.

I invited the child in to dine with Mrs. McCleary and I. We spent many nights feasting and talking; me about my job as a photographer and he about his troubled past. How a tyke could part with such troubling accounts is shocking, and many times Mrs. McCleary excused herself from the table under a pretense she needed washing up to attend to or to make the coffee. Yet I knew her constitution wasn’t strong enough to handle the boy’s woeful stories.

The boy would not reveal his name to me, no matter how hard I pressed. I decided he wished to remain anonymous, so I addressed him plainly as “lad” or “boy”, labels he didn’t protest.

I showed the boy my photography equipment, by bulky tintype camera, the collection of iron plates and jars of chemicals such as silver chloride and silver iodine. Curious, the boy began peppering me with questions about photography and how images are recorded on the tin plates. I launched into a dry explanation of Tintype photography, of creating images on a sheet of glass painted with a chemical solution, then using an emulsion process to clarify the final work.

Proudly I showed the boy portraits I made, of widows who lost their husbands, of soldiers in full uniform, of children looking pensive and uncomfortable in their Sunday church clothes.

“These people are small,” the boy said. “Do they live in these portraits?”

“No, my lad,” I said. “They are afterimages taken. They are not the actual persons.”

“Are they all alive?”

“What a queer question, my boy. Some are alive, while some have died. That old woman there, the one dressed in black, she’s passed on.”

“Did you know these people?” he asked.

“Some I’ve known, while others hired me to take their photographs,” I said.

“Does it hurt? When the photographs are taken? Did they suffer much?”

I laughed at this question the way an understanding father laughs at the innocence of his young.

“No, it doesn’t hurt at all,” I said. “Do these people in the portraits appear to be in any pain or discomfort?”

The boy scrutinized the portraits and shook his head.

“Photography is a painless profession,” I said.

“Could you take my portrait?” the boy asked. “I haven’t anything to pay you, but if you need compensation, I could borrow a penny from Mrs. McCleary.”

“I would be honored to take your portrait, boy. Cost is no charge. We are friends,” I said.

At this, the lad smiled and I directed him to be seated on a divan positioned against the far wall of my studio. The boy complied and sat perfectly still, like a Grecian statue, mute and motionless.

I prepared the iron plate and treated it with a collodion solution of ethyl alcohol, cadmium iodine and bromide. When the plate was wet, I put it in a silver solution, then carefully slipped it into the box camera.

A tarp covered my head to shield any light from the rear of the camera as I stare through the tiny pinhole.
“Say cheese,” I instructed.

A reverse image of the boy was refracted back at me and I flicked the switch. The lens opened and light poured in for an instant.

When I’m through, I submerge the plate in a developing solution in a dark room off the studio.

The chemicals slowly revealed the boy’s portrait in front of my eyes, appearing as if by magic. However, what revealed itself to me wasn’t a smiling lad but a horrific monster, whose terrifying visage burned into my mind as the chemicals burned it onto that plate. The creature – there was no other word for it – had lifeless, hollow eyes, jagged fangs and no lower jaw. Wiry whiskers protruded from the beast’s head and the thing caused me momentary nausea.

I gripped the plate and charged into the studio, my body convulsing.

The boy appeared normal, with the same youthful visage. He stared up at me innocently.

“What the Hell are you?” I demanded and thrust the plate at him. “Look at what the camera revealed!”

The boy merely smiled and replied, “Mortal, what can a pathetic wretch like you do about it?”

So you see officers, I really had no choice. The boy had to die. I couldn’t let something that special live. The world could not accept someone like the lad. He was beautiful in his ugliness, in his horrific nature. A boy transformed, altered by whatever force created the world and breathed life into man.

If you don’t believe me, look at the photograph. It’s here, somewhere, among my many portraits. In this confused jumble of lives, you’ll find one unlike the others, the very manifestation of evil.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Angry in Atlantic City

Deep into the night sitting at the bar at the House of Blues in Atlantic City pounding back a Coors light and the guy seated next to me is cursing up a storm at the video poker terminal.

Bottles perch on step-like shelves, a Mayan pyramid of top shelf liquors, almost taunting us to order them: Crystal Head Vodka, Patron, Grey Goose, Kahlua, Malibu rum, Jose Cuervo, Hennessey Cognac, The Glenlivet and Chivas Regal. This is the neon voodoo dungeon, a depressing place where people sacrifice their money at the blinking electric altars and smile through the pain.

A group of 50-somethings mills around the bar and quote old pop songs from the 1960s as young couples pound down their mixed concoctions. It’s a dismal Sunday night, quiet except for bleeping slot machines in the next room, and cocktail waitresses delivering mixed drinks in the Mardi Gras of supreme avarice. Asian tourists poke their heads into the bar on their way to the baccarat chamber, where they crowd around tables and add more cash to their exploding empires.

I sit in this mausoleum of American greed with my watered down beer and type into my cellphone, a fevered scribe dutifully recording this screed, my sleep-addled brain directing my fingers to tap the keys faster and with abundant rage.

Now the old man who played video poker next to me at the bar is gone and a scruffy 20-something with a reverse baseball cap assumed his place. Atlantic City doesn’t care about your soul. It just wants your money, a smiling highwayman robbing you blind with a bit of glittering spandex on her thigh and a shit-eating grin on her ruby lips.

A woman whoops like a crazed mandrill after winning baccarat. A smattering of applause and Korean clipping across the table. This town reeks of top shelf alcohol and failure, and from the stinking abyss, I become just sadistic enough to laugh. Sucking on her cigarette, a woman sitting next to me exhales, spewing a toxic cloud all over my jacket. She turns to her boyfriend, who barks into his cellphone. Three guidos hoist drinks and commiserate, and hurl expletives like the fucking pope hurls Latin.
I hate them all, puppets regurgitating profanity, vulgar afterbirths consuming air and producing shit. This is the American future, a generation of spoiled dicks, assholes and cunts flicking their cigarettes and speaking like fourth graders with Tourette syndrome.

Amid this perverted clown party, I finish my piss beer and leave the bar. I head back to the casino floor, a jungle of bright lights and shattered dreams, back to the old ladies with varicose veins and old men who stare stupid and hypnotized by the slot machines. The House of Blues’ flaming heart logo is a fitting symbol for this carnival of perversity. Yet I’m not hostile nor do I harbor any resentment for these braindead maggots. They are merely puppets for my own amusement, wayward hitchhikers I momentarily pick up and converse with and let loose on abandoned desert freeways.

For a brief moment, our lives intersect and they become the background noise in a tableau of truth, one of American absurdity and a cyclical pattern of idiocy and superficiality. This drunken butterfly bursts forth from its entombed chrysalis changed and brightly beautiful. No cynicism from the doom prophet and wild scribe tonight. Now I’ll conquer this place, a 21st century berserker Viking lopping the heads of errant loudmouths and cramming wisdom down their neckholes. As the prodigal son makes his triumphant return to the Land of the Lotus Eaters, poker tables, slot machines and roulette wheels embrace me.
Sodom and Gomorrah by the Atlantic, you’ve met your match.

Tonight I feel lucky.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Flash Fiction Challenge: Baby Pulp

Sometimes it takes a gentle nudge to get me writing. Other times it takes a swift kick of a hobnailed boot to the ass.

Author and screenwriter Chuck Wendig has a fantastic blog where he offers sage wisdom to writer-types like myself. He also offers flash fiction challenges and invites scribes to post their short tales centered around a particular theme.

The current flash fiction challenge is Baby Pulp, i.e., stories centered around babies but written in the lurid pulp style of the 1930s and 1940s.

I've never written flash fiction before and posted it anywhere, so here goes.

I'm throwing my flash fiction hat in the proverbial ring by offering up this twisted tale of pulpy noirish babylike adventure and romance.

Hope you have as much fun reading it as I did writing the sucker.

Mother’s Milk of Explosive Dreaded Doom

Damn you, Mr. Wiggles.

Fluffy purple stuffed bunny with its idiotic bucktoothed grin staring at me like it’s the awkward aftermath of relaxing pillow talk. The mean silence of you staring at me in this damnable crib, solace for a teething baby, or so you think.

I slap you with my weak, pudgy arms, cursing the day you were made.

My cooing turns into an angry grunt as I strike you with a squishy fist balled in infantile rage. I continue to rain blows upon you, Mr. Wiggles. Flesh meets terrycloth or polyester or whatever diabolical chemical you’re manufactured of. Finally, with one desperate swing, I topple you. The rabbit’s body slams against the plastic activity center, scattering the baubles and doodads and bright little shinies that are supposed to lull me into a comatose, gurgling stupor.

Not today, boys!

Today I’m breaking out of this hellish prison, this crib of torment, this goo-goo gulag.

I pick up the tiny bottle and wrap my mouth around the rubber nipple and drain it of all the sweet milky formula. With a satisfied belch and a full tummy, I hoist myself up and wobble to a full stand.

Straightening my diaper and setting my plush fedora on my head, I set out for adventure.

I grasped the plastic colorful mobile dangling overhead and hoisted myself up, swinging like a fat pink pendulum. If I could only use the momentum to hurl my pudgy cute self to that crib railing, I could possibly seize hold and…

Drat! I tumbled down onto the binky, a crocheted blanket granny fashioned with yarn and the tender kind of love only a half-blind a septuagenarian can bestow.

The utter shock of falling on my bum-bum caused me to shiver, then before you know it, I was hollering like a bobcat in a woodchipper. The world blurred as I turned on the water works.

That’s when she came into the room, gliding like a Valkyrie soaring across the heavens on Teutonic wings of brilliance as Wagnerian operas filled my ears. Her lovely countenance stared down at me in the crib and her green eyes widened when she saw me.

She lifted me to her bosom and whispered into my ear softly, “Don’t worry, baby. Everything’s all right. Mommy is here.”
I immediately ceased my crying and nuzzled her. Mommy was soft and nurturing, the kind of dame a baby needed to keep away the bad scary creepies hiding in the closet. Of all the broads in this hellhole of a nursery, mommy was the one who made me forget about everything.

Mommy carried me to the living room and set me on a blanket on the floor, the one with the smiling doggie playing by the happy sunny face. She gave me a cookie and flashed me that winning smile, an angelic one that made me want to be a better baby.

All I could do was smile back and giggle.

“Mommy is going to fix dinner now, so play nice,” she said and walked out of the room.

I didn’t have time to brood over my imposed exile to the living room. Something watched me from the shadows, an unnatural thing advancing on padded feet. I heard this vile creature moving slowly near the alphabet blocks, creeping along the carpet. When the beast came into full view, I clenched my fists and stood up and brashly confronted the thing head-on.

Empress Yum-Yum, the family cat, an Asian Semi-longhair with a bejeweled collar and an attitude like the world owed her something, stared at me with her cold blue eyes.

“Meow,” the cat uttered. “How cute. This missus brought the offspring to my domain.”

“Can this offspring malarkey, you pretentious ball of fluff! I got every right to be here,” I replied.

“If I were you, I’d watch my tone. Empress Yum-Yum doesn’t take kindly to insolence,” the cat said.

“Tell it to someone who cares, kitty. I’m going to Mommy,” I said, and lurched towards the kitchen.

“I don’t think so, runt,” the cat said as it slinked toward me. “Not without paying the empress a little tribute.”

“What could a filthy animal like you want?”

The cat stared at the cookie and started purring loudly, a deafening sound like a million chainsaws resonating in my feeble baby brain.

“No! Not the cookie! Mommy gave me the cookie!” I said, clutching the sweet treat in my sweaty fingers.
“The cookie or else!” the cat said.

“Or else what?”

From the shadows emerged a familiar purple face, a furry haunting grin I’ve memorized from all my time in the crib.

Mr. Wiggles!

The stuffed rabbit drifted forward, mute and terrifying, a fuzzy behemoth thirsting for revenge.

“Back for more, eh?” I said, and swung my fist at the dastardly stuffed toy.

The rabbit parried and slapped me square in the jaw. I flew backwards, but a plush clown broke my fall. I improvised and grabbed the clown and flung it at Mr. Wiggles, who dodged out of the way. Landing a blow to my chest, the leering lagomorph stared at me with those lifeless, jolly eyes.

I wiped snot from my nose and stared up at my constant enemy. With resolve, I hit Mr. Wiggles in the gut and the rabbit spun around, stuffing flying from a tear in his side.

“I’m sending you to the big toybox in the sky,” I growled and finished off the fluffy bastard with a series of lethal punches.
When the melee concluded, Mr. Wiggles lay in a heap on the living room floor.

Mommy entered and saw a hyperventilating infant, a frightened rabbit, a broken cookie and a toy rabbit in a million pieces.
“What on Earth have you been up to?” she said, crestfallen.

As she scooped me up in her arms, I smiled. No need to thank me, dollface. Just protecting the dame I’m wild about.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Last Train to Doomsday

Dark days are upon us, my friends.

Japan fell apart, struck by a tsunami and now impending nuclear meltdown. Libya is a chaotic maelstrom of fire and death with Gaddafi bombing the crap out of his own people to show he's got the hugest dick in the Sahara. Stateside, the GOP is declaring war on Planned Parenthood, National Public Radio and anything else that gives liberals hope.

Also, Charlie Sheen is still batshit crazy and selling out live performances.

If the first two months are an indicator, 2011 is going to be rife with violence, bloodshed and bullshit. We're winging through the end of days, when the cosmic lamb takes a massive dump on the dragon's scaly head and casts the planet's lawyers in a fiery lake.

While destroying all layers is not a particularly ominous portent, the rest is a phantasmagoric nightmare of society winding down.

Those birds dying en masse have cut out of the party early, leaving the few stragglers to clean up the vomit, put the panties back on the soiled debutantes and shut off the lights.

Yes, the party is over.

America, you beautiful dicktease with smeared lipstick and a purse filled with condom wrappers and phone numbers hastily scribbled on cocktail napkins is hooking up for the last time. She's getting one last fuck in before the lights go out and she's in the bathroom deciding who to hook up with. The old gal has mileage on her, and only wants to be ridden hard and put away wet before the Apocalypse.

Speaking of sexually active women in their 30s and 40s, the eastern cougar, once a proud and noble large cat is no more. The elegant beast, which inhabited the forests and mountains from Canada to the Mid-Atlantic has gone extinct. Just another casualty in a world where life is as cheap as a pair of Crocs.

But it's okay. The cougars are only one of the species checking out early. They came to the party, probably brought a bottle of chardonnay, milled around the cheese plate and were hunted to the brink of extinction before they left. They rushed out in such a hurry they didn't even retrieve their coats from the bed.

In a world where death is commonplace and violence and oppression consumed like high fructose corn syrup, the extinction of the eastern cougar isn't big news. Merely registers a blip on the radar.

We're sailing off into the horizon, a planet swinging around the sun, twirling along its orbit while its inhabitants tear apart everything like locusts in a cornfield. But these locusts are particularly angry and carry guns.

So party hard, my wayward children. Imbibe your sweet nectar and devour ambrosia like Olympian gods, for tomorrow we all may die. It might be in a wall of water, a hail of bullets or a nuclear Armageddon. Or we might plummet through a crack in the earth. No matter how we go just remember, like our beloved deceased friend the eastern cougar, we were once alive, once felt the warm sun on our faces, once smelled the sweet air and existed for a short time on this merciless yet wonderful planet.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Winning Meltdown

Two words: Charlie Sheen.

If that didn’t get you laughing, you’re probably without Internet access, obsessed with the news from Wisconsin or Libya or actually living in Libya.

For those without cultural barometers, Sheen, the actor and star of TV’s drekfest “Two and a Half Men” is suffering an epic Hollywood trainwreck meltdown of Biblical proportions and the voyeuristic public is hitching a ride.

The downward spiral began last year when Sheen entered a rehab facility, then trudged on for a few rocky months, which included a rollercoaster of alcohol and cocaine. He filed for divorce, was taken to the hospital with reportedly abdominal pains and entered another rehab program.

All of this is old hat in the entertainment business, where narcotic-fueled celebrities lose their inhibitions and minds at an alarming rate and either end up in rehab, prison or dead in some Sunset Boulevard hotel next to a screaming hooker.
What makes Sheen’s colossal blowup so engaging, intriguing (and hilarious) is his use of language. Not that Sheen is a profanity-spewing guttersnipe, but rather a distraught madman poet railing against the scumbags in his industry while embracing the cosmos like a lusty bohemian on smack.

In spite of his oft-amusing and bizarre tirades (or because of them), Sheen, who was a Twitter virgin before Tuesday, now has 1 million followers on the online instant messaging site. He had half a million followers before he even submitted his first tweet.

When Sheen gives interviews, he skewers his detractors while constructing a monument to his own ego and brand, an alpha male wolverine ravenously tearing into the gamey flesh of the weak-willed, sanctimonious phonies he perceives as persecuting him. Within this murky wonderland delirium beats the savage heart of a rakish warrior, a drug-addled fuck-machine with a penchant for booze, fast living and porn stars.

His verbal warfare is like Sheen, Hunter S. Thompson and Timothy Leary took a road trip to Vegas, gambled away their money, raided the brothels and zipped back to L.A. only to shoot heroin together on the bathroom floor of the Viper Room.
I overheard two old biddies speaking at the local library about Sheen’s cataclysmic career shift.

“I hope he gets his life straightened out and gets cleaned up. Think of those poor children,” one grandmotherly lady said.
“It’s just awful, isn’t it? So self-destructive,” the other one replied.

I hope he doesn’t get sober. Celebrities and the glitterati hold no interest for me, their exploits vain and self-centered, yet I feel extreme schadenfreude in this case, watching Sheen duke it out with destiny and pummel Hollywood with verbal upper-cuts.

America is fascinated by it. Sheen is a circus unto himself and we must devour every catchphrase with gusto. These Sheenisms may be cleverly-crafted gonzo koans written by a publicity director, or they may be genuine aphorisms from the actor's fevered imagination.

Wherever their source, we're riveted.

A friend of mine phoned me and said he's spellbound by Sheen's media blitz, saying America is held rapt by it all and "he's a social rubbernecking delay" we just have to crane our necks and watch as this accident unfolds.

Sheen’s statements have gone viral and sparked several websites featuring his most colorful quotes. Whether he exists like Belushi or Farley remains to be seen, but it seems like the celebrity with the tiger blood and appetite for winning is careening the runaway locomotive off the tracks and into oblivion, pulling the vast unwashed multitudes with him.

Here are some of Sheen’s most noteworthy remarks from various interviews and sources:

“I have one speed. I have one gear. Go.”

“I am on a drug. It’s called Charlie Sheen. It’s not available because if you try it once, you will die. Your face will melt off and your children will weep over your exploded body.”

“I don’t live in the middle anymore. That’s where you get slaughtered. That’s where you get embarrassed in front of the prom queen.”

“I have a disease? Bullshit. I cured it with my brain.”

“The run I was on made Sinatra, Flynn, Jagger, Richards, all of them look like droopy-eyed armless children.”

“I’ve got a different brain. I’ve got a different heart. I’ve got tiger blood, man.”

“I’m gonna win inside of every moment and they can just find the most comfortable chair in their small house and sit back and enjoy the show.”

“The motto now is you either love or you hate and you must do so violently.”

“They’re not welcomed to be in the presence of what I am doing.”

“Rhymes with winning? That would be us. Sorry, man, didn’t make the rules.”

“We are high priest Vatican assassin warlocks. Boom! Print that, people!”

“It might be lonely up here but I sure like the view.”

“It comes from my grand wizard master.”

“There are parts of me that are Dennis Hopper.”

“Most of the time – and this includes naps – I’m an F-18, bro, and I will destroy you in the air and deploy my ordinance to the ground.”

“Watch me bury you.”

“Don’t live in the middle.”

“Look what I’m dealing with, man. I’m dealing with fools and trolls. It’s just strafing runs in my underwear before my first cup of coffee.”

“I got magic and poetry at my fingertips.”

“I am a peaceful man with bad intentions.”

“We win so radically in our underwear.”

“I drink water through my eyes.”

“A.A. was written for normal people, people that aren’t special. People that don’t have tiger blood, you know, Adonis DNA.”

“Come on, bro, I won Best Picture at 20. Wasn’t even trying. Wasn’t even warm.”

“You can’t process me with a normal brain.”

“As I said, ‘The first one’s free, the next one goes in yo mouth.’”

“I’m not Thomas Jefferson. He was a pussy.”

“People say, ‘You have to work through your resentments.’ Yeah, no, I’m gonna hang on to them and they’re gonna fuel my attack.”

“You have to hate everyone who is not in your family because they are there to destroy your family.”

“Imagine what I would have done with my fire-breathing fists.”

“If people could just read behind the hieroglyphic.”


“There’s a new sheriff in town. And he has an army of assassins.”

“The only thing I’m addicted to right now is winning.”

“They picked a fight with a warlock.”

“We’re Vatican assassins. How complicated can it be?”

“There’s my life. Deal with it. Oh, wait, can’t process it? Losers.”

“Surprise. That’s what winners do.”

“Could I have one little part of my life that’s not TMZed up the butt?”

“I'm bi-winning! I win here and I win there.”

“You borrow my brain for like five seconds and be like, ‘Dude! Can’t handle it! Unplug this bastard!’”

“I’m tired of thinking I’m not special. I’m tired of thinking I’m not bitchin’ and a total frickin’ rock star from Mars.”

“I’ve exposed people to magic!”

“They lay down with their ugly wives in front of their ugly children and just look at their loser lives and then they look at me and they say, ‘I can’t process it!’”