Thursday, October 29, 2020

Free Halloween story

Please enjoy a free story in the Halloween spirit. This exists within the Snow Globe universe, so readers of those books may recognize some lore and locales. Happy Halloween!



Stories Within Walls

Aaron Gudmunson

 

From the road, the house resembled a brick of melty mint ice cream, tilted and wobbly. A wasp nest hung beneath the eave like a tumor, the only sign of life about the place and even its inhabitants had died with the summer. Most of the windows had been broken out years ago, victims of kids hurling gravel from the edge of the lawn—none dared creep closer.



 Hilly Mascal had been one of those kids. He'd heard the legend of the old place practically from birth; anyone who'd grown up within thirty miles of Ashford had. The house had been the site of the Kern murders. Allegedly, Mrs. Ida Kern had woken up one Halloween night after taking her kids trick-or-treating, stepped into the kitchen, found the butcher knife her family had used to carve pumpkins that day still drying in the dish rack, and had gone room to room stabbing her family while a late autumn thunderstorm thrashed outside.

            Rumor had it (based on a supposed police report that leaked and had since woven its way into the Kern legend), Ida slashed her husband's throat so viciously he'd been nearly decapitated. She'd gone next to her daughter's room before visiting the twins on the ground floor.

When she'd finished, she repeatedly asked her kids who among them wanted to help her carve one last pumpkin? But when Ida received no reply from her slaughtered family, she purportedly sat on her front porch and carved the final pumpkin alone using the murder weapon before stalking through the storm to the police station downtown. She'd brought the knife and bloody jack-o-lantern with her and seemed more upset that her family refused to answer her than about the atrocity she'd committed.

            It was that final image that had always struck Hilly hardest: a blood-spattered woman in a bathrobe and slippers, hair wrapped in yellow curlers, trudging up Church Street, gripping a knife in one hand and a sputtering jack-o-lantern in the other. Thinking of it forced a shudder through him and he almost turned his Schwinn around and pedaled home.

            Almost.

            The train tracks ran a hundred feet from the back door. They were rusted and long disused, at least by locomotives; kids often walked the rotted ties from Ashford to Murdoch, a more direct route than biking out on Red Pointe Road. Of course, biking was half the fun of Indian Summer, but if it meant shaving off half an hour getting to Arch's Market to buy bottle caps and baseball cards, the sacrifice was well worth it—at least that's what they told each other. The real reason was that almost everyone in town understood Red Pointe to be a haunted road.

The Kern house had become the usual starting point since it stood removed from the rest of town as if quarantined and thus served well at bike hiding (sometimes as necessary an activity as bike riding). The place had been abandoned since the murders and the county seemed content to let it rot over spending valuable funds to raze it. Or perhaps they hadn't been able to find a contractor with guts enough to come tear it down.

Hilly walked his Schwinn into the weeds flanking the tracks and scouted around. Sure enough, half a dozen bikes lay like dead fish on a riverbank, baseball cards clipped to the sprockets with splintery clothespins. He recognized Jason Bandy's BMX Raptor, which meant the others belonged to his gang of goons. Jason held the two-time title of master bully of Ashford Middle School. He was also the starting quarterback for the junior high team, which made him the most popular kid in school.

"You can't spell starter without star," he often bragged.

And truth be told, he was probably right. It simply wasn't fair.

Hilly made up his mind to head back to town—being in the vicinity of the place on Halloween seemed catastrophically stupid even in broad daylight, and besides he wanted to grab a Coke at Buddy's Pump & Go, where his brother worked.

He gave it one last look, thinking, I'll come back, you mean old biddy—and then stopped. Something occurred to him.

When kids left their bikes on the tracks, they didn't bother to lock them up. The ragweed grew tall enough to hide them from the road, so no one worried about a would-be thief ambling along. Hilly felt a smile split his face as if pulled by puppet strings.

He unwound his bike chain from the seat tube of his Schwinn. He had an extra chain at home—an assortment of them, really, lying in a coiled heap in one corner of the garage like nesting asps—and wouldn't miss this one.

He dropped his bike into the overgrown lawn and hurried to the tracks to wheel Jason Bandy's Raptor a few yards away to a spot where the iron rail had pulled up from the gravel bed. Working quickly, he chained the Raptor down, snapped the lock together, and spun the digits in all directions. That would slow down Mr. Star Quarterback faster than a linebacker blitz. He jogged back to his bike and slung a leg over the crossbar.

A sudden clamor arose and Hilly spun toward the house. All too easily he imagined Ida Kern stepping out, butcher knife clamped in one gnarled fist, mousy hair twisted up in curlers, bathrobe hanging open to expose a blood-spattered pink nightgown and matching slippers.

Instead he saw Jason Bandy and his hoodlums bolting helter skelter out the door. Apparently, Arch's candy aisle had been forsaken today. They launched like great apes into the sawgrass. Never had Hilly seen this bunch of tough guys look so panicked. They didn't even seem to notice their potential victim straddling his bike near the edge of the lawn.

"Go-go-go!" Jason screamed. Witnessing their terror jumpstarted Hilly; in an instant he was standing on the pedals and pumping hell and gone up Church Street. Distantly, he heard the others grabbing up their bikes and joining the exodus. All except Jason Bandy, he of the incapacitated Raptor.

It wasn't until Hilly reached the corner of Jackson that he heard Ashford Middle School's star quarterback begin to shriek.

 

#

 

Hilly didn't stop until he reached Buddy's Pump & Go. Jake's battered Plymouth dozed in a back parking slot. He had no idea what exactly had happened at the Kern place moments ago, but seeing his big brother was all he wanted to do right now. And that said a lot.

            Jake sat on a stool behind the counter, smoking and skimming the current issue of Penthouse. Buddy Fredette allowed neither on company time, but Buddy happily left his managers in charge while he vacationed in Maui from Labor Day through Easter. The job paid next to nothing, Jake informed anyone who would listen, but the perks more than made up for it. Anyway, he might as well get used to it; it was probably the best work he was going to find after dropping out of school last year.

            "Well, well. Look what the puss dragged in," Jake commented. Then, noting his kid brother's pallor, stubbed out his smoke and said, "Jesus, kid, what's the matter? Someone kick your ass again?"

            "I was down by the Kern place and—"

            "Didn't I tell you to stay away from there?"

            "—some kids came running out scared to pieces."

            "They probably saw a raccoon. Those mamas will do anything to protect their pups."

            "I think it was Ida Kern," Hilly whispered.

            Jake laughed. "Dude, you are so stupid. Ida Kern went up to the nuthatch, like, forty years ago. If she's still alive, she'd be pushing seventy now."

            Hilly swallowed and whispered, "Maybe it was her ghost."

"Man. Who would've thought the kid brother of Jacob Allan Mascal would be such a moron?"

            Hilly opened his mouth to explain the prank he'd pulled—and its aftermath, whatever that was; he still wasn't sure whether Jason had screamed in frustration because of how he'd found his bike or for another reason—but stopped himself. He'd gone unseen, so no one could pin the deed on him. For now, he'd keep it to himself.

            "I'm serious, Jake."

            Jake licked his teeth. "Tell you what. After work, you and me'll go take a look. More'n likely we'll just find that raccoon and her pups. I'll bring my .22 just in case."

            A gun wouldn't make a damn bit of difference against a ghost, Hilly thought, but didn't say. His brother remained steadfastly convinced he and his peashooter could take out the entire Russian Army if called upon to do so.

            "It'll be dark by then," Hilly said. No one went to the Kern house on Halloween after nightfall. Not anyone with any sense, anyway.

"Just be here at six." He picked up a bottle wrapped in a paper sack from beneath the counter and sipped before returning to his literature.

"Gimme some of that," Hilly said. A little nip of whatever it was would probably be enough to settle his nerves.

"You don't get to taste of the good stuff till you've earned it. Now get out of here before I call the cops and report a shoplifter."

Hilly helped himself to a Coke and pushed out into the late afternoon light. He rode to the park at the center of town, brisk wind knuckling his jacket. The park was a square of grass with swings, a merry-go-round that had probably resulted in as many child deaths as Ida Kern, and a single sorrowful basketball hoop, silent as a cemetery. It sported a splintery bench at the far end. Hilly did his best thinking there.



He dropped his bike and plunked down, cracked his soda, and swigged, wishing he had a paper bag to put it in to look cool. A sparrow regarded him from the crossbar of the swing set with black BB eyes.

What had happened to Jason? What had he and his goons seen that had made them flee in terror? Had it really been only a raccoon, or had it been something else? Someone else?

Maybe Hilly ought to go back to the Kern house and see if Jason Bandy had freed his bike or whether he'd given up the ghost, as the saying went.

Hilly finished his Coke and flipped the bottle into the steel trash bin then climbed onto his bike. He rerouted to approach from the back. Fifty yards out (he could just see the slanted roof stripped of most of its shingles and one leaning wall, its windows dark and webbed over), Jason's bike came into view, still anchored to the track.

The back door stood ajar. The boys had not bothered to close it.

Hilly made for home, shadows deepening around him like the collapsing walls of a canyon. He arrived in time for supper, but found he had no appetite. What had happened to Jason? It was maddening, not knowing. He fidgeted at the kitchen table.

"Something on your mind, hon?" his mother asked, sliding a plate of spaghetti before him.

"Just school stuff."

"Math still giving you trouble?"

"A little."

"Well, Jacob should be home soon. He can look it over with you."
            Never mind the only math Jake ever had success at was counting empty beer cans. Hilly stared at the damp sprinkle of parmesan on Ragu. The clock stood at ten past five.

His mom wound noodles onto her fork while studying Dear Abby in the paper, one wrist tucked beneath her chin. Hilly had to abruptly fight hard not to cry. She looked beautiful like that. He wondered if Ida Kern's children had ever looked at their mother in such a way. What could cause a mother to butcher her family? Children she had borne from her own body and a husband she had vowed to honor and cherish? Hilly pushed back his chair, came around the table, and kissed his mother's cheek.

"My goodness, Hilliard, where did that come from?"

"Nowhere. Everywhere. I guess I just wanted you to know I love you."

"Why, I love you too," she said, beaming.

Hilly tried to smile too, but it felt as wobbly as the Kern house looked. He bolted out the front door, barely hearing his mother call after him. He dragged his Schwinn upright and pedaled for town.

A gaggle of boys huddled in the park. It took only a moment to register they were Jason Bandy's posse. Was Jason among them? It was hard to tell in the dusk.  

"Hey, Mascal, come here a minute," one of them called.

"I have to be somewhere."

"Seriously, dude. We got to ask you something," another hollered.

He knew he should keep going, but turned a wide circle into the park, pulling up short of the gang. Treachery often exposed itself too late for escape. It had happened to him at the hands of these kids more than once.

"What do you want?" he asked, preparing to be blitzed any second. But these guys weren't on the attack today. If anything, they looked like they'd been attacked.

"You seen Jay?" Greg Jessup, the football team's left guard, asked.

Hilly's mouth dried. "In science class yesterday. Why?"

"Not since then?"

Hilly made a movement with his head that he hoped appeared as negation. "Is something wrong?"

The boys glanced around, unsure whether to divulge information to one so low as Hilliard Mascal, a studious runt with the weirdo name who had no chance at playing a team sport with any measure of success.

Derek Francisco stepped forward. He played center for the Armadillos and as such was tasked with snapping the ball to Jason Bandy. They were best friends.

"We were all out to the Kern house today," he said quietly, as if that single declarative explained everything.

Hilly managed to keep his face neutral, he hoped. "You go in?"

The boys traded another round of glances. Finally Derek nodded. His eyes shined with some emotion Hilly couldn't translate. Fear, perhaps, or sorrow. Maybe both.

"What did you see?" Hilly asked breathlessly.

Derek opened his mouth, but Greg slugged his shoulder. Derek blinked. "Nothing, kid. We just wanted to know if you'd seen Bandy. Get on out of here now before we steal your bike or something."

Hilly expected one of the others to make a crack about no one wanting a piece of shit Schwinn, but the boys only studied the ground. Hilly didn't have to be told twice. 

It was still too early to meet Jake, so he sailed around the town's older neighborhoods studying the quiet houses, gussied up with ghosts, witches, and pumpkins. Each of them had a story to tell, entire lives which had occurred within their walls. What could one learn if those walls could speak? Would they whisper of snowy school mornings and ninth birthday parties? Would they murmur of piano lessons and burnt pork chops and stomach flus and late night monster movies? Would the mirrors reflect glee and grief? Madness? Death?



What stories would the walls of the Kern house tell?

Hilly braked in front of a Cape Cod and stared up at the bay window hung with paper cats and skeletons in top hats. Who lived there? He checked for a name on the mailbox, but the decals had long-since peeled away. Likely he would never know a single detail about what went on behind that front door. A sudden deep sorrow rushed through him. The world was such a private place. No one knew a thing about you unless you wanted them to. Or unless you did something so horrific it warranted telling.

Where was Jason? Safe at home, living the story being told within his walls? Or was he living (or dying) an entirely different story within the walls of a broke-down house by the tracks? The idea that Ida Kern's bloodthirsty ghost chased him to the place where his BMX had lain on lockdown, only to drag him shrieking back inside her mint green prison seemed as plausible as it did ridiculous.

As the wind scattered leaves, the thought of revisiting the place tonight even with Jake and his pistol seemed bloodcurdlingly horrific. Maybe he would ride back home and ask his mother to reheat his spaghetti. Then maybe he'd put on a costume and troll the neighborhood looking for kids to scare out of their goodies. He was too old to trick or treat, but not too old for candy. Screw the Kern house.

But Hilly couldn't say screw Jason Bandy. He wouldn't sleep a wink until he knew the bully was safe. He turned onto Arapahoe Lane and sped to Buddy's.

Through the window, Jake was handing the keys to the next clerk on duty. He noticed his younger brother looking in and gave him the finger. Hilly tried to calm his pulse until the door jangled open.

"Ready, ding-dong?" Jake asked, striding for his battered Plymouth.

"What about my bike?"

"Lock it to the wall. Not that anyone would steal that deathtrap."

Hilly thought he could truthfully say the same thing about his brother's car, which he kept locked at all times, even at church. Instead he said, "You kidding? It's Halloween. Someone'll take it and throw it in the lake. Besides, I don't have a chain."

"Well, toss it in the trunk and get in. I want to shoot me a raccoon."

When they'd hit the road, Jake popped the glove box, pulled out his .22, and dropped it in Hilly's lap.

"Load that sucker."
            "Why?"

"No good without bullets."

Hilly found a small box beneath a creased state map and a box of condoms. The gold casings with their lead heads lined up in neat little rows of impending death. Guns didn't kill people; bullets did.

One by one he inserted them into the magazine which Jake had likely fired empty shooting at beer cans at the abandoned Jankowski farm out on Red Pointe Road, a teen hotspot. Legend had it something as bad as what happened at the Kern house had taken place on the property way back around the turn of the century, but no one seemed to know exactly what. As far as Hilly was concerned, he never needed to know. Having one murder house in town was enough.

Jake jabbed the car into PARK after skidding onto the Kern lawn. Hilly relinquished the firearm. 

"Let's have a little peek, shall we?" Jake asked, sauntering up to the back door and kicking it open like he'd lived there all his life. Something about that seemed strange to Hilly and it took a moment to place what it was. By the time it came to him, his brother was already inside.

"Jake, wait!" Hilly screamed. The last time he'd come out here, the door had been open. "Jake, come back!"

There was no answer other than the whispering of the wind through the leaves. Hilly stood a moment in frozen indecision. He needed to pee. Finally rushed to the door, stopping short of crossing the threshold. The jamb had splintered when his brother kicked the door in and long, jagged spikes of wood hung askew. Hilly selected the longest and stepped into the house.

The kitchen wore laces of cobwebs along the countertops and in the corners. One cabinet door hung ajar on a broken hinge and a single ancient can of Carnation condensed milk peeked out. Jake's footprints on the dusty linoleum could not easily be picked out because Jason's crew had tromped through it already.

"Jake?" Hilly called. No response. A sound issued from someplace deeper in the house, a sort of shuffle-step across shag carpet. That would be Jake looking for a place to hide, waiting to jump out as a little Halloween prank on his kid brother.

Hilly looked over his shoulder at the overgrown lawn. The sawgrass bent in the wind as if in worship of the house. Two blocks over, the sound of kids shrieking "Trick or treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat!" rode the wind. He had half a mind to return to get his bike and leave Jake here to shoot the stupid raccoon on his own. If Ida Kern showed up, well, the jerk deserved it. Except the bike was in the trunk and Jake had locked the car like always, so there would be no popping it. From his place, Hilly could just make out the handlebars of Jason's Raptor lying like a skeleton on the tracks.

"Jake, this is stupid," Hilly called. His hand stung and when he glanced down, he realized he'd been gripping the sliver of door jamb hard enough to break the skin. "I'm outta here."

Hilly turned and jumped down the four steps to the grass below, pitching the wood into the yard. He took slow steps, giving his brother time to catch up, but when Jake did not appear, he ran the rest of the way home.

 

#

 

He listened for Jake's car to come squealing into the driveway. Most evenings, Jake would cruise out to the Jankowski farm to see what kind of trouble he could cook up. Halloween would be a guaranteed visit—the place would be loaded with thrill-seeking teens hoping to catch a glimpse of some long-forgotten ghosts and scaring themselves stupid in the process. People found the farm a more appealing place for Halloween mischief than Ashford's other spook house; the Kern place repelled troublemakers the way rubber repels rain. No one wanted to get close to that more recent, more tangible history. Every so often, some idiot would stand on Church Street and stare through the windows, but no one ever got closer than the sidewalk once full dark fell on October's final day (although he'd heard rumors John Carpenter had found at least some inspiration in the Kern story for his Halloween film franchise). No one except him and senseless, fearless Jake and he'd only gone in because he thought a gun made him invincible.

            So Hilly told himself there was nothing to worry about when the battered Plymouth remained absent at eleven o'clock.

He probably went home with a girl, Hilly thought, hoping the thought would cheer him up, maybe even make him chuckle like an old lecher. It did neither.

By 11:30, Hilly knew he had to return to the Kern house.

 

#

 

Seeing the Plymouth absent from the Kern's side yard settled his mind. Jake had likely gotten bored with hiding and headed out to the Jankowski place.

            Hilly took a few steps onto the weed-choked lawn. The Plymouth's treads stood out plain in the moonlight. It looked like Jake had peeled out fast. Hilly would catch hell for ditching him. It would probably be the beating of a lifetime.

The back door stood open. Inviting. Welcoming. Thunder mumbled distantly.

            Jake might go easier on him if he brought something home, some proof he'd gone back to the Kern house. On Halloween night, no less. What could he take, though? What would be proof enough?

            The can of condensed milk, of course. It was right there in the kitchen cabinet: ten paces in, ten paces out. Wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am, as Jake often liked to say.

            Hilly took the steps two at a time without a second thought. He could see the outline of the ancient tin in the moonlight. The leaves made dappled patterns on the open door and the wind shushed through the sawgrass. In an instant he yanked the can out of the cabinet with the sticky kiss of a cobweb on the back of his hand, and spun toward the door. The first flash of lightning flickered through the window.

            Then the door slammed and Ida Kern stood behind it, dressed in curlers and a bath robe. The flesh of her face appeared stretched over her skull and her lips looked like strips of raw liver peeled back over teeth as crooked and eroded as Old West tombstones. Eyes the size of ping pong balls bulged from blackened sockets. She gripped a butcher knife in one knotted fist and cradled a pumpkin in the other. Hilly tried to scream, but found his lungs on lockdown.

            "Care to help me carve, son?" Mrs. Kern rasped, raising the knife, ready to write a new horror story within the walls of her wobbly green house.

 


The End

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Election Day

 I wrote this bit of flash fiction in the summer of 2012 for an open call for science fiction stories about the upcoming American general election. I missed the deadline, though, and never found another suitable market for it. I rediscovered it today and find it oddly analogous to this election cycle. In any case, I hope you enjoy and I would love to hear your comments about it or anything regarding the upcoming general election. 


Election Day

By Aaron Gudmunson

 

The curtain drops behind me and I snap on the latex gloves. Carefully, I wipe the corner where I'd picked the ballot up and place it on the podium. A trickle of sweat inches out of my hair and down my neck like an earthworm. The old-fashioned ballpoint pen clutched in my fist is a weapon, its tip dripping venom. It's a throwback to elections of yore, when the world was a simpler place, meant to tie modern life to traditionalism, but it does nothing to settle my nerves. If I don't vote soon, my resolve could sway.

            It should be no big deal. Pick a candidate who speaks to me and mark an X by the name. Democracy at work. But there is more to it. Isn't there always?

            I feel my eyes scan the ballot as though they are cameras, detached. The names leap out in stark boldface font. Pick one. That's it. A flourish of the pen, two swift slashes of ink and it's done.

            The Association candidate is driven, tall, genial, and claims allegiance to a higher power. The underdog. The Gray. 


            The Union candidate is rotund, tidy, and flaunts his patriotism. The Old Guard. The human.

            My eyes, working independently, flick from one name to the next. My pen hand wavers. I check over my shoulder to ensure no one can spy on me and feel relief in the confirmation that the curtain hangs full-length behind me – no gaps.

I know how I want to vote and I know how I should vote, the two odds with one another. Cat vs. mouse. Dog vs. cat. Man vs. dog. God vs. man.

The eyes skim and scan, over and over. Too much time spent in here will look suspicious, and they observe everything. I must make my move.

Someone coughs in the adjacent booth and I hear the scratch of pen on paper. I listen, setting my ear against the curtain, but all I hear is the murmur of volunteers explaining the process to new voters.

I check my watch, alarmed to see five minutes have elapsed. Too long. They will grow suspicious if I don't exit soon. Suspicion can be a dangerous trait in the New Interstellar Union.

Against my judgment, I twitch aside the curtain and peer out. People and grays mill about, speaking in whispers as if attending a funeral. No visible threat.

Gripping the pen like a knife, I slash at the name of the candidate I think will bring about the change so necessary for our continued survival. Then I just stare at what I've done. Oh God. What I've done.

I ignore a sudden vicious impulse to tear the ballot to shreds and request a new one. Then they would know. One look at my pale, sweaty face and they would know my vote.

With the paper folded along the dotted lines, per the instructions printed on the reverse, I move toward the curtain. Before drawing it, I take a moment to compose myself. I remove the gloves and stuff them in a pocket, gripping the ballot along the edges. I pat my hair in place and arm sweat from my cheeks. I wish I had a mirror to consult, but too much time has elapsed anyway.   

Mustering my courage, I pull the curtain and toss a glance over my shoulder to ensure I'd not forgotten anything. That's when I see the eye, peering through a nearly invisible tear in the fabric of the booth. Its iris is green flecked with spots of red, the pupil black as the darkest nightmare. It looks innocuous, curious even. It is without accusation, but it is there. It stares at me, memorizing my features, marking my guilt. Then it disappears.

I have no choice. I must submit my ballot. Maybe the eye hadn't seen my vote.

Rushing toward the intake machine, I almost trip over a carelessly-placed shred bin and consider tossing the ballot into it. Too late. The Ballot Master, a human, has seen me.

“Your ballot, sir?” he asks, holding out a pale hand. He grins, his smile opening like a surgery scar.

“Can I put it in?” I ask, not wishing to relinquish it even for an instant.

“Be my guest, sir,” he says.

I insert the ballot into the machine, which draws it inward hungrily. Once it's gone, my fate is sealed. Either democracy still rules the day or they will come for me tonight. Either way, I'll be ready for the results.

I offer the ballpoint to the Ballot Master, but he shakes his head. “Keep it.”




Tucking it into my pocket, I thank him and catch the first taxi I see. It whisks me skyward toward 112th Street, where my apartment awaits. On the way, I pop the window and toss the pen onto the roof of Feed Factory #4. Those pens are equipped with a tracking system. Some of them may even contain explosive devices that can be triggered from a secret control room. I'm not stupid.

At home I tri-lock my door and bunker down. I keep the pan-vision tuned to election results. My candidate is winning by a slim margin. After six hours, no one has broken down my door. I relax. At some point, I doze.

When I wake, the election results are complete. My candidate won by 1221 votes, thereby securing the popular vote (which, as you know, replaced the antiquated Electoral College preceding the general election of 2064). The human opponent, of course, has officially demanded a recall.

I laugh at myself. All my foolish paranoia about democracy's decline. These past few years of living under what I presumed was a neo-Fascist regime, all bunk. I'm extremely pleased and looking forward to years of positive change. Maybe we can turn things around for ourselves. Maybe there's still hope.

I'm just about to turn off the election results when a breaking news bulletin cuts in. Feed Factory #4 has just exploded, cause unknown. Everyone inside has been killed, no survivors. I put a hand to my mouth and watch, tears blurring my vision, and just then something kicks at my door.



The End

Monday, December 23, 2019

Christmas Wishes from a Special Guest Blogger


Today's post is by a special guest blogger, though this was written well before any blog existed. Before the internet existed. Heck, even before I existed, though I was on the way. Today's guest blogger is my mother, Lisa Jeanne. This piece was often included in outgoing Christmas cards to family and friends and though she has not been with us for nearly a decade, her words are as powerful as ever. Perhaps more so given these troubled times. They deserve to be shared with a wider audience this holiday season. So without further ado, please enjoy:

______________________________________________________________________________________

We wish for you what we wish for ourselves--a Christmastime of thoughtfulness and rest, of assessment and compassion. A time to look back on the year just passed and sort out wastefulness from growth. A time to plan a new year of work informed by respect for individual worth and love for one another. A Christmastime of realizing that time is all there is--and is not too late to change our lives. 

We wish for all of us the courage to hold on to a vision of a world in which children are born wanted and loved with enough food and care and shelter to grow up whole. The vision of all people as perfectable and transcendent--free of social prisons of sex and race--and remarkable for the hopes and dreams and capabilities that exist in unique and unrepeatable combinations in each of us. 

This Christmastime it is too late to justify suffering with the promise of rewards in some other world. Too late for nationalism, for racism, for violence, or for the belief that one can win only if another has truly lost. Too late even for brotherhood of man because it has excluded the sisterhood of woman, and therefore the humanity in us all. 

At last we begin. We look into the god in each of us and say YES. We celebrate the world outside us. We say peace on Earth, good will to people. 



Melissa Jeanne, 1966

______________________________________________________________________________________

Merry Christmas to those who celebrate the season, and a Happy New Year to all.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

How to Tell Your Kids the Truth About the Santa Claus Myth


A few months ago, I posted a belated eulogy to my friend Rob who passed away unexpectedly in October 2018. It dealt with immortality and its many forms. Today I would like to revisit the subject with an important topic most parents who celebrate a secular Christmas must deal with at some point or another.

For years I agonized about how I would explain the Santa Claus myth to my children once they got too old to believe (although are any of us really too old to believe in the everlasting symbol and spirit of Christmas?).

Bettmann/Getty Image


As a child, after hearing kids at school claim there was no Santa Claus, I had to know for sure and I asked my mother to give it to me straight. She sat me down and explained the truth. I felt cheated. I felt like one of the happiest parts of my life had been a lie and that I had been deliberately deceived by those I trusted most. I vowed that if I ever had children, I would not lie to them the way I had been lied to.

But then kids happened. My older was born a few days before Christmas, so I had at least a full year to figure out what to do about the St. Nick myth. Because that guy is everywhere during the holidays. In songs, on television, peeking cryptically from the covers of books and magazines, winking from greeting cards, his droll little mouth drawn up like a bow everywhere you looked.

So that presented a dilemma. I could refuse to perpetuate the myth, but that would merely cause confusion when every other source of incoming information says that Santa Claus does, in fact, exist. Even the editor of the (now defunct) New York Sun once insisted to a little girl that "Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus." And Santa symbolizes so much cheer and goodwill, wouldn't it be cruel to deny my kids a decade of magic and merriment in imagining the right jolly old elf visited once a year, courtesy of a team of flying reindeer, to bring them toys and treats? I've seen Miracle on 34th Street and always thought the mother character so cold in denying her daughter the joy of Santa Claus (well, the joke was on her, am I right?)



So we went with it. We perpetuated the myth, all the while dreading the day I would be asked to elucidate on exactly how one man can traverse an entire planet in a single night with enough room on his sleigh for toys for every single child. Or how he could live for so long, being the benevolent bearer of gifts for generation after generation of kids from one to ninety-two. For a while, as they grew older and more dubious, certain sources would act as a salve to their doubt. The Polar Express deals with doubt and belief in a beautiful fashion. The various Rankin/Bass stop-motion specials provided Kris Kringle origin stories and explanations and affirmations and perfectly perpetuated the myth for years. The aforementioned Miracle on 34th Street, which proved, irrefutably, in a courtroom, that Santa Claus exists.

Then, one day, it happened. My older came home from school and reported a teacher who said that Santa Claus didn't exist and that anyone who still believed in him was too old for such. Okay, real quick: If you're not the child's parent YOU DO NOT GET TO DECIDE WHEN OR HOW THEY LEARN ABOUT SANTA CLAUS. I cannot stress this enough. You do not get to do that. Go have your own children and tell it to them, but leave mine out of it especially when it's none of your damn business. They'll come to you when they're ready to know. Kids are smarter than they're often given credit for; trust their instincts. 

So I sat her down and asked her what she knew about immortality. Being a Star Wars fanatic, she cited blue force ghosts and Luke Skywalker sagely advising: "No one's ever really gone." We talked about different forms of immortality. I told her no one physically lives forever, not even Santa Claus, but he's very much alive in other forms. Dozens of songs and poems keep his spirit alive. Hundreds of programs and films. I played the man once in a 3rd grade play. I told her to just look around at Christmastime: Santa is everywhere. She asked if he's not alive in body, then who delivers all the presents on Christmas Eve? I explained that St. Nicholas is based on a real person who did deliver presents to children at one time and that while he may no longer be alive, his legacy lives on. He's become bigger than a living person could ever possibly be, not a myth, but a legend. Santa Claus is the most recognized face on the planet. He has become an idea and an ideal. He has been immortalized in song and story, and in that way can never die. She still looked doubtful and said, "So you're Santa Claus then?" This is the question I had been waiting for. I clinched it for her.

I said, "Anyone who knows the truth about Santa Claus becomes him. Yes, I am Santa Claus. Your mother is Santa Claus. So are your grandparents, your aunts and uncles. Everyone who has ever given gifts in his name is Santa Claus. And now, with this knowledge, you are Santa Claus. He lives on through you."

That did the trick. All was well. She was satisfied. I'd done my job as a parent as honestly as I could and didn't cheat her (at least I hope; I'm sure some will attempt to correct me on that). I proved to her that Santa does exist, as sure as she exists. Or as her idol Luke Skywalker might have paraphrased: "A thousand generations of Santa live in you now."

And then, as a kind of epilogue, and, admittedly, to not destroy all belief in one fell swoop, I told her--and this is 100% true, something I'll swear to with my dying breath, whether or not you choose to believe it--that shortly after I learned "the truth," I fell asleep on the couch one Christmas Eve and around midnight blinked awake to see Santa standing nearby, admiring our tree. He turned his head to me, touched a finger to his lips, smiled, and vanished. I'm sure it was nothing more than the fading remnants of a kid's last hope clinging to the myth he'd believed for nearly a decade. That has to be it. Right?

Right?



Merry Christmas to those who celebrate the holiday and best wishes for a Happy New Year. 




Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Eulogy, A Year Removed

Photo credit David Scharenberg

A year ago today, a close friend of mine passed unexpectedly. We met in the late 90s through an acquaintance when the ragtag outfit of musicians I consider my first band badly needed a drummer. No one we tried out even came close to the personality or musician we sought.

The acquaintance told me, "Hey I know this complete animal who would fit right in. Better yet, he's a great person." He introduced us to Rob, who had come home on military leave, and he could not have been more right. Rob was both an animal of a drummer and a great person, who became a great friend. Who became a brother.

I could spin endless threads about the adventures we shared in the two decades plus that I knew him (half of that time playing in various rock outfits), but I won't. Not here. Ask my sometime face to face. That's where they belong, not in this cold web deadspace. I will tell you this, though:

In my memories, I can feel in all five senses. I can smell the tang of weed and ancient ashtrays of each backstage of every venue we played; I can hear the audience clamoring, a raucous, multi-headed creature, hungry to hear what they paid for, and their cheers and catcalls and croons of "Play 'Freebird,' dudes!" (Rob hated that); I can taste every beer we ever shared onstage or backstage and every greasy meal in every grimy road house or diner while touring; I can feel the ground-and-pound bass throbbing through subwoofers and the driving backbeat of the drums like rail spikes through your rib cage and the guitar screaming like a demon unleashed and the way the stage shook beneath our sneakers and the sweat and blood that baptized everything in the path of our thrashing.

And I can see Rob. Standing right there, stage left. Or seated behind his Pearl drumkit like an artillery captain locked and loaded. Like it was yesterday. Like time playing on a loop, that one drunk friend dropping in your favorite disc and hitting REPEAT for eternity.

But that's the thing, isn't it? They say time heals all wounds. So does music. Music is salvation. Music has the power to transform. It binds people together. It ignites and incites and invites. It unites. That's precisely what it did with Rob and anyone whoever shared music with him, whether onstage or off. Music makes memories.

  Photo credit David Scharenherg


And that's the beauty of memory. Memory is a path to immortality. As long as someone is remembered, they're never truly gone. And unless I'm very wrong, stories about Rob will trickle down for generations.

Speaking of, Rob was a storyteller too. Ask anyone who knew him. He told some of the best goddamned stories I've ever heard. Fiction and factual. Real jaw-droppers. He could tell a ghost story that would slush your blood. His jokes could make you laugh until you popped an ab. And some of the most impulsive off-the-cuff things that came out of his mouth still make me double over if I think of them today (most of which I can't repeat here, but ask me about them sometime). I'll be standing in line at the supermarket and remember one of Rob's one-offs and you should see the stares I get when the laughter bubbles up.

There's probably not much else I can relate here that hasn't already been said about Rob by people better than me. I'll finish by saying Rob was inspiring. Charismatic. Charming. He would have  risked bodily harm to defend his true friends (and did on more than one occasion). We may have drifted apart in later years, but the bond of true friendship remains. It always does once it forms, distance be damned. That goes behind friendship.

That's brotherhood.

Rest in peace, Rob.

You are missed. You are loved. You are my brother.

You are immortal.



Photo credit Samantha Schramer


Thursday, March 7, 2019

7 Steps to Completely Fix America



Hiya folks! I recently posted a snapshot of my views on death, so I thought I'd take the time to tackle another unpleasant subject: the mess we call America! Never in the longer than four decades I've inhabited space in the U.S. have I seen it this divided. Now look, I'm not going to get political here. I'm not blaming anyone in particular, nor any group in particular. Too often that's the easy way out. The cheap way. Nope, not going to do it here.

That said, I've identified 7 steps to begin correcting what most see as uncorrectable. Now it's going to take some compromise, but that's what our republic is built on, right? Compromise. So without further ado, let's begin.

1. Cut Her Up. That's right. Divide this big busty nation right smack down the middle along a longitudinal line. Let's say, for our purposes, the meridian 100° west (+/- 10°). The reason we'll go vertical this time instead of horizontal (as we did last time the nation was divided in the midst of the Civil War, for those of you unburdened with the knowledge of history), is because we'll want everyone to be able to live happily in whichever climate they choose, be it tropic or tundra. Now, you'll have to be willing to relocate, but believe me it will be worth it. (Choosing not to relocate is acceptable, but you will be required to abide by the new laws of your location.)

2. Build The Wall. That's right. In this scenario, the President gets his wall. Except it won't be along our southern border. No, it will be right along the dividing line between East and West. It can even be a big, beautiful wall. Make it impregnable from both sides. Do you see where this is going?



3. Pick Your Side. One side of the wall will be reserved for so-called "red states" and the other for "blue states." It doesn't matter which side is for whom (we can flip a coin for all I care), but it would seem intuitive that the east would become blue states and the west would become red. Sure, California would have to be ceded to the reds and Dixieland to the blues, but bear with me. We're getting to the good part.

4. Alaska And Hawaii Are Neutral. For those who do not wish to participate in this new separation, they can choose to live in a tropical paradise or the chilly wilds, whichever better suits their climatological tastes. These territories will be wholly neutral to either red or blue status and political fighting shall not be tolerated here. Lebanon, Kansas is also neutral, but we'll get to that shortly.

5. Everyone Now Lives In Utopia. Here's the fun part! Red states, you get all the guns you want and can carry them concealed or in the open. Gun-free zones are outlawed. You're free to fire at will anytime you wish with impunity. Revenue from unchecked firearm sales fund infrastructure upgrades. Your healthcare premiums remain morbidly high and deductibles higher, but you get to see any doctor or specialist your HMO covers. All abortion is instantly outlawed. Bibles become a staple of public school curriculum. There is not, nor ever will be, a Green New Deal and you power your homes and businesses with all the fossil fuels you can mine. Hell, I'm sure the blue states will even trade you all of theirs for all the kale you'll harvest in your new Californian territory. Electric cars DO NOT EXIST here and, in fact, leaded fuel makes a surprising comeback. Moonshine is 100% legal. President Trump can be retitled King Trump and hereditary rule will be instated to ensure his family succeeds him at the time of his demise. Las Vegas is named the red state capital, and is ruled from Trump Tower (natch), which is rebranded as Trump Palace. King Trump hires a private contractor to add his face to Mount Rushmore. MAGA hats (facial tattoos also allowed) are not only encouraged, but are soon required to be displayed in most public places, like casinos and churches. And casino-churches, which will be introduced in a pilot program which rolls out slots on the back of pews in place of hymnals.

Blue states, you get the free healthcare, housing, and education you desire. You can plant as many trees to hug as you wish. You also get guns, but with sensible laws in place. You implement solar, turbine, tidal, and geothermal power to provide sustainable energy. Church and state remain separate entities, though religious affiliations are now required to pay taxes which will fund universal healthcare, housing, and education. Megachurches earning more than a billion dollars annually will pay a steeper tax. High-speed rails are installed that will whisk passengers from Maine to Florida in under two hours, and pollution-producing commercial air flight is eradicated as a result. Solar roadways replace outmoded asphalt, creating thousands of new jobs and safer driving conditions. Washington D.C. is dissolved as the capital and the entire city is turned into the world's largest escape room, just for fun. New York is named the new capital and the Statue of Liberty's age-old visage is re-sculpted into an uncanny likeness of President Ocasio-Cortez (yes, I realize she's too young to serve as president under the current U.S. Constitution, but the Founding Mothers will draft a new constitution on the framework of the old one, only . . . you know, updated). Weed is legal and cheap.



6. If You Live In A Politically Divided Family Never Fear! The city of Lebanon, Kansas and the surrounding area (considered the exact center of the U.S.) will be used as a neutral meeting ground. Here, the wall will extend into a large cubicle formation where scheduled meetings of split families will take place. A variety of restaurants, parks, and events will be available within the Lebanon Free Zone and families can spend up to twenty-four hours at a time visiting and reminiscing about the good ol' days.

7. Free Trade Between The Divided States Is Encouraged But Not Expected. Sure, the states can trade if they wish. Delegates from each side of the wall will often meet in the neutral territories to discuss matters of policy and determine if there will ever be a reason to tear down the wall between the states. These talks, unfortunately, will not go far and ultimately both sides wind up heading home in a huff, both vowing to never return to the negotiating table. Also, all former U.S. military forces are divided equally and agreed upon to be solely used for defensive measures against potential invading foreign entities who view a divided nation as easy prey.

So that's it. This is how to fix the mess that is America. Anything you'd add? Subtract? Multiply? I'd include "Divide?" but we're all pretty well divided as it is.

Monday, March 4, 2019

The Only Certainty in Life is Death--So Why are We So Afraid of It?




I have for many years held quite different views on death than I believe many people hold. These views have come from many years of meditation and introspection, and I share them here so that if I should die—or, rather, when—those who read this document may better understand my state of mind.

The old adage says, "The only certainties in life are death and taxes." Nah. Taxes are fleeting; they will one day be long gone to the dustbin of history while death will remain the lone certainty.

Death is literally the only predictable aspect of any living thing's existence. Think about that. The only 100% guaranteed certainty. Until science says otherwise, at any rate. But as of this writing, every single man and woman understands that one day they will no longer exist in their current form. Many of us fear for when that day will come because there is 0% certainty of what happens afterward. Heavenly harps and halos? A wandering spirit, invisible to the living? A space ghost cruising the cosmos? Reincarnation? Complete obliteration of consciousness? No one knows. It's the greatest mystery humankind has ever faced.




Which is why it's pointless to fear it. It is going to happen, whether we wish it to or not. While I'm currently not ready for that day to come, I know its eventuality is inevitable.

And yet people are constantly shocked when someone they know passes. Shocked. As if they never saw it coming. As if they've completely forgotten that death may come for any of us, at any time, at any moment, of any day. Adds a pinch of spice to life, doesn't it?

And let's be real a moment. We treat death like the ultimate Bad Thing, the Thing To Avoid At All Costs. We stand in lines at the doctor's office or the pharmacy, hoping against hope to prolong our terms in these bone prisons as long as humanly possible. Like it's a race in reverse and the goal is to be the last to cross the finish line.

But listen. It all amounts to nothing. Naught. Zero. So you eat your pills and your kale and your gluten free muffins in an effort to live to be eighty or a hundred. Centenarian or bust! Why? Because of fear. We're terrified of what we might find behind door number one.

Speaking of doors, I liken death to letting my dogs outside. We have a back door and a screen door, just like you probably do. And each time I open that back door, my dogs shuffle forward until they realize there's a second door barring their way. They ought to know it's there, but they never do. That's like how most people are. They know death is waiting for them on the other side of the door, but they're always shocked to see it. It's a conundrum I've baffled myself through for years and still have not come to any conclusion as to the cause of this mass self-delusion.

And then I thought of something else. With a majority of mortal earthlings subscribing to some form of afterlife governed by a benevolent omniscient creator, why are they afraid of death at all? If anything, they should yearn to reach their divine paradise rather than stick around in a stinking meat mechanism. Those most certain of a divine reward are also those most reluctant to go to it. Again, baffling. Baffling, I tell you.

Yet, the same people terrified of their mortality happily and gleefully go on to create other people who will likely one day become terrified of their mortality. BAFFLING. We are a strange breed, we humans who bear the burden of being aware of our own demise.

The truth is, I don't process death the way I imagine most folks do. Sure, I go through the same five phases of grief everyone does, but they hit all at once, one after the other, and then it's done. No drawn out period of mourning, no existential suffering (or a reasonable facsimile thereof). This is neither good or bad; it simply is how I process death. You process how you do, I'll process how I do. No judgments here.

So. In the eventuality of my departure, please do not weep for my loss. People rarely weep for the departed, anyway. They weep for themselves. They weep for their loss, not the loss of the deceased. It's really quite selfish, but that's a quality many of us reserve the right to retain, and do so, happily in love with our misery.

I know everyone says, "When I die, I don't want anyone crying for me! Celebrate! Party! Have fun!" And of course no one ever honors that particular wish. But the point is, death is every bit a natural part of life as laughing and lovemaking and eating and excreting. Don't be shocked when I am gone. Don't be sad. Be happy I had a chance to check this place out. It's not bad, mostly. Could use more kindness and less hate. Less anger. Less fear. (I've got ideas on how to accomplish that, but we'll save that for another day.) My point is, ultimately, please do not mourn my loss, folks. 

And, hey, just maybe I'll see you on the other side.

Recommended reading: The Fall of Freddie the Leaf by Leo Buscaglia