December 03, 2008

December 2008, Vol. 7, Issue 12

Welcome back to the year-end issue of Truckin'.

1. The Last Christmas by Paul McGuire
I adore the way you look. But your mother disapproves. It's that black shoe polish you have on your lips. When I was your age, the only people who dressed like that were the whores who stood on corners down in the Mission.... More

2. I Remember Christmas by May B. Yesno
I looked down at my cup, lifted a hand to the waitress for another coffee and started looking around the joint, noting the yellow brown walls a glass could stick to, if you placed a glass on it, and listened to the Christmas music being piped in... More

3. American Half-Breed by David Peterson
It is bitter cold and everywhere around me is ice and dirty snow. At my side is one of my prized possessions, an American Standard Fender Precision Bass Guitar. I don't want to do what I'm about to do, but I've run out of options. I open the pawn shop door and feel a blast of heat and the smell of tobacco smoke and desperation... More

4. Of All The Bars In NYC by Betty Underground
You know when you see someone and maybe it is the job you do or the frequency you travel to the same places, but you sort of recognize them and for some reason you can't put them in the context of where you are right then... More

5. Corner of Hopelessness by Paul McGuire
I have this odd fear that I'm going to get shanked by a gangbanger with a spork or mugged by one of the homeless people who live behind the dumpster and feast on half-eaten Jumbo Jacks and pieces of raggedly yellow leaves that they pass off as lettuce... More

What a Long Strange Trip It's Been...

From the Editor's Laptop:

Thanks again for wasting your precious time with Truckin'. We have a special year-end issue with a couple of Christmas themed stories including a submission from David Peterson, who is making his Truckin' debut. Veteran writers Betty Underground and May B. Yesno returned with a couple of standouts. And I contributed two stories this issue; a piece of fiction I wrote about my neighborhood in L.A. and the other is a dramatic Christmas story about a dysfunctional family.

Truckin' needs your help with some grassroots promotion. Please tell your friends about your favorite Truckin' stories. The writers definitely appreciate your support, as do I. Spread the word on your blogs, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and whatever social networking sites that you are addicted to.

Also, please let me know if anyone is interested in being added to the mailing list.

Thanks to the writers for writing for free. They expose their guts, blood, and soul to the universe. For that, I'm eternally grateful. The dedication to their art inspires me and I hope it inspires you too.

Be good,

"It is difficult to keep quiet if you have nothing to do." - Arthur Schopenhauer

The Last Christmas

By Paul McGuire © 2008

Gertrude sat down at the head of the long table. A dozen of her family members slowly sat in the other seats. It was her eighty-fifth Christmas and the twelfth Christmas without her husband Harold. He used to sit at the head of the table in their old Victorian house in San Francisco. For almost a decade she left the seat vacant until one Easter Sunday lunch when she finally achieved a sense of closure and was ready to move on.

Gertrude's sight was impeccable for someone her age, however she was slowed down by a minor stroke and her hearing had deteriorated. She needed the assistance of a hearing aid. Most of her family bickered on holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas and she always had to sit through it. She coped by turning off her hearing aid to tune everyone out.

When Gertrude was younger and in her seventies, she would drink steadily throughout the day and evening in order to block out the dissonance of a dozen people that barely liked each other but somehow all shared the same blood. She stashed small airplane bottles of vodka around the house and would pour them into her orange juice when her relatives were not looking. After her second stroke, the doctor gave her a blood thinning medication that prevented her from drinking. She really didn't miss the booze as much as she desperately wanted to escape from her own family.

Turning off the hearing aid gave Gertrude the rare opportunity to carefully observe her family. They say that 90% of communication is non-verbal. Even though she was the mother of five children, nine grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren, she never really got to know them until she tuned everything out and watched every single one of them. Gertrude sat and stared for hours and hours over many family gatherings such as July 4th in Lake Tahoe or her grandson's college graduation or her great-granddaughter's second birthday party.

Gertrude's oldest daughter Beatrice tapped her on the arm. Gertrude slid in her hearing aid.

"I'm going to say grace now, Mother."

It took almost a minute for everyone to settle down. Beatrice closed her eyes and began a prayer. It lasted longer than Gertrude would have preferred and she slammed her hand down on the table. Beatrice was the most startled and Gertrude's grandson Dylan burst out laughing.

"This is my house. This is my table. This is my last Christmas. We will not be saying grace this year."

"Mother! We're not setting a good example for th--"

"Not another word from you, Beatrice. This is my last Christmas and I have a few things to say before I die."

"Mother, please, that's not the kind of thing we want to discuss around the children," pleaded her youngest daughter Iris.

"They are old enough. It's time that they learned the truth about life and this cruel world. Like that their Grandmother will die, just like their mother and father will someday as well each of each of them."

Gertrude stood up and pointed at her twin granddaughters. They were ten years old and adored their grandmother. They burst into tears when Gertrude told them she was going to die.

"Mother, look what you're doing!" screamed Iris as she rushed to her twins and quickly consoled them. "You're disturbing the children."

"That's what's wrong with the next generation in this country. They're too soft. You're all bad parents for protecting them too much. For hiding the truth from them. They won't respect you. They will seek out the truth elsewhere. From the TV or from newspapers or from the computer."

Gertrude turned to her granddaughter Ali. She had recently ended an Emo phase and was now heavily into Goth. Ali's purple hair and black lipstick amused Gertrude because she knew it pissed off Beatrice.

"How old are you Ali?"

"I turned twenty in September. Don't you remember? We went to the Japanese Tea Garden."

"Yes, I do remember and that was one of the best days I had this year. It seems that the older I get, I have less and less good days. This year? I had ten or twelve at the most. Last year, I had twenty. And the year before? Forty. I counted them. At the end of the day I walk over to the calendar in the kitchen and draw a circle around the date if it was a good day. I draw an X if it was a bad day. The older I get, the more Xs there are. I can't wait to die. You're twenty? It's hard to believe that I was your age in 1943. And do you know what I did on Christmas in 1943? I was crying my eyes out and tried to kill myself."

"Sounds just like Ali!" sniped Dylan. "Trying to slit her wrists while listening to Death Cab."

"Fuck you, tool!" screamed Ali.

"My first husband died in the Pacific. We got pregnant shortly before he shipped out, but I had a miscarriage. We were going to try again as soon as he returned but that never happened because the Japs killed him. Then we lost Sammy in 1968."

"Who's Sammy?" asked one of the twins.

"He was your uncle who, um..." Iris couldn't continue.

"Sammy was my son. He was your mother's brother. Your uncle. He was my favorite and he died in Vietnam. It took me the better part of two decades to find closure and accepting the fact that I lost the love of my life forever and he's never coming back. As soon as I made peace with my misery, then God took away one of my children. They way I see it, he still owes me. Twice. So I'll be dammed if we're going to sit and listen to Beatrice rambling on about his divine love."

"That's enough, Mother," muttered Phil.

"Finally, he speaks! My oldest son actually said something without first asking his wife."

Phil's wife Julia's jaw dropped.

"I'm sorry sweetie," said Gertrude as she frowned at her daughter-in-law. "I adore you like one of my own children. But Phil can't get out of bed in the morning without you telling him which way to go. He's been like that since he was a little boy. It's all my fault. I made him that way. And when I saw how he turned out, I vowed to raise the rest of my children differently. Are you happy Phil? I always wonder because you haven't lived a day in your life that you can call your own. That's not living, son. I wish I could say that I'm proud of what you've done, but I can't. Because you have created a life and a career that your wife wanted. I'm afraid that you'll never wake up and never escape the same trap that I fell into. My entire life was dictated by your father and when he died, I had not a clue how to live or what to live for."

Dylan dished out a couple of pieces of ham and started eating. Beatrice tried to stop him.

"Oh, let the boy eat! Look at him. He's skin and bones. You're not on drugs, are you Dylan? Is that why you are so skinny? Smoking the marijuana? Your Uncle Bradley was nothing but skin and bones. He starved himself when he was your age, but that was because he was gay."

"Mother!" screamed Beatrice and Iris in unison.

Bradley shrugged his shoulders. "She's right."

An eerie silence fell over the dining room as everyone turned to Bradley, who unleashed an elongated sigh of relief.

"But you were married," said Phil. "I was there. I was your best man."

"Twice! You were married twice!" added Beatrice.

"Yes. Two times too many. I have two ex-wives. I married the first one right after college because I felt pressure to be normal. It didn't work out and she left me. I knocked up the second one and that's why we got married. That one was doomed to fail. I never liked women. I barely like men."

"Wow, Uncle Bradley is gay? Way cool," said Dylan.

Ali pulled out her cell phone and twittered, "OMG. Just found out my uncle B iz gay! :o and my Grams is hella drunk!"

"But are you happy now, Bradley?" asked Gertrude as she sat down.

"Yes. Yes, I am Mother. For the first time in I can't remember," he said with a smile. Gertrude smiled back.

"I could tell. Just how you walk and talk. I'm proud of you. At least one of my children is happy. It took you forty or so years but you finally became a real man unlike your brother who can't scratch his ass without his wife's permission. I'm sorry, Julia. I adore you so much but you turned my oldest into a robot."

Gertrude took turns berating and chastising each of her children for their major character flaws and told them why their problems negatively affected her grandchildren.

"Beatrice, take a good look at your daughter. There's a reason she looks that way."

"You don't like how I look, Grams?"

"I adore the way you look. But your mother disapproves and it's a sad fact but society judges you on how you look. It's that black shoe polish you have on your lips. When I was your age, the only people who dressed like that were whores who stood on corners down in the Mission."

"I can't stand what she's done with herself. When are you going to act normal?" screamed Beatrice.

"Normal? Me? Have you looked in the mirror recently? You're a crazy Jesus freak! You go to church four times a week. Every other word is 'God this' and 'Jesus that'. There's a reason why Dad left you and you're madly in love with Father Fred. And I'm sorry, but he tried to touch my boobs a couple of times. He's a fuckin' pedophile!"

"See what you've done?" screamed Beatrice as she pointed at Gertrude.

"What I've done? That's your mess. Not mine. You're the one who ran to God in search of life's answers. You're hiding in the church instead of living in the real world. No wonder your daughter has rebelled. Just like Iris did."

"I'm sorry, Mother," said Iris.

"You don't have to apologize, Iris. After being exposed to all that flower power as a little girl, I knew it was inevitable that I'd lose you in the 1970s. But did you have to marry that loser?"

"Which one?" said Iris as the room erupted with laughter.

"The first, second, fourth, and fifth ones. I actually liked number three."

"Which one was that, Aunt Iris?" asked Ali.

"Yeah, I'm dying to know, Mom!" said Dylan.

"The bullfighter?" blurted out Bradley. "He was cute."

"Javier wasn't a bullfighter. He was from Spain and he tuned pianos. I dumped him after three weeks when I started dating the bass player from Cheap Trick."

Gertrude turned to the twins and said, "Your mother has the biggest heart in the world. But that's her problem. She loves too much. She shared her bed way too quickly with way too many men. Don't end up like your mother. It's my fault. We didn't give her enough love growing up. She had to seek validation in other ways through drugs and men. Too many men to count. She lost her power that way. Someday, you girls will learn that your power is between your legs."

One of the twins looked down and touched her crotch.

"Yes, darling. Your cookie. It's very important that you don't give it up right away to a man. It will be hard. But you have to make him earn it. You'll soon realize that you'll gain remarkable power over men by withholding your cookie. You'll get them to do whatever you want but when you give it up all the time, you'll lose all control. Take a few tips from your Aunt Julia. She has your Uncle Phil wrapped around her finger."

"Grams telling my twin cousins to not give up their cookies," twittered Ali.

"I don't like cookies," joked Bradley.

"And Dylan," said Gertrude as she shook her head. "You remind me of Sammy."

"The dead Uncle?"

"Dylan!" screamed Iris.

"What? He's dead. Right, Grams?"

"Yes, he is and you'll be dead too if you keep making mistakes like you've been doing. I never liked your name. Your mother was a hippie and she loved that Jew with the harmonica."

"Bob Dylan was Jewish?" asked Dylan.

Iris shrugged her shoulders.

"I know you got that girlfriend of yours pregnant," said Gertrude.

"Wait, um, how did you kn-," said Dylan.

"Let's stop right there," said Iris.

"I knew the second I met her. It was all over her face. Pregnant women glow. I'm happy that she had enough sense to get an abortion. The last thing you need right now is to have a child, because you are still a child yourself. Dylan, when your grandfather was your age, he was fighting Nazis in Europe. He was killing Germans with his bare hands in France. Before he died, your grandfather told me that when he was fighting in Holland, he bit off the nose of one Nazi and watched him bleed to death. Then your grandfather stole his watch which he later lost in a brothel in Paris. And God knows what sort of horrors my son Sammy endured when he was in Vietnam. He was your age when they dropped him off in the jungle. He never made it out alive. And you? Look at you. You need a haircut. You dress like one of the negroes from Oakland. Son, you're white. Your mother is too timid to tell you, so I will. It's time to grow up. You've had every possible advantage for a successful life. You had a life of privilege handed to you and what did you do? You impregnated the first girl who spread her legs for you. How stupid can you be, boy? Ask your mother. Ask your father. Ask your aunts and uncles and they will tell you the truth... that having children ruined their lives. It killed their passion."

Silence fell over the table for a couple of minutes.

"I brought Bradley, Philip, Iris, and Beatrice into this horrible world and destroyed any chance for me or for them to have a good and happy existence. By tainting their lives, I in turn tainted the lives of their offspring and so forth. I'm sorry that this curse has to continue. I'm the reason all of you are here today in this miserable world. Merry Christmas, everyone. If there is a just God, he'll make sure it's my last one."

Paul McGuire is a writer originally from New York City who sometimes lives in Los Angeles.

I Remember Christmas

By May B. Yesno © 2008

Ever read the arguments about how folks die at a higher rate during the last quarter of the year as compared to the rest of it?

Oh, I don't mean how they die, because as far as I know there is only one way to do it, and that's to stop living. I suppose I'm really talking about the rate at which they die. And why would I bring up people dying when I'm trying to tell a Christmas story? I think I'll say this to make you understand why I might bring up dying around Christmas time--have you ever heard "Jingle Bells," or maybe "Jingle Bell Rock," or "I Saw Mama Kissing Santa," or . . . well, you get the point. You either die, or live it down, one of which you'll surely do. As long as you don't think about next year, then you'll surely expire. Though this new thing called "the web" has us not listening to the radio as much as in the past. Or maybe technology, what with the "subscribe now" radio channels from space and all. But it's hard to escape the mind-numbing repetition.

What brought all this on?

The season somewhat. Yep. I was sitting in the cafe the other day, listening to some of that junk cheer the piped-in radio was producing while people-watching. It occurred to me to take a good look around the place--a thing I'd never really done before. Remarkable. I'd gotten to the point of puking about the life choices that had brought me to sitting in a place with walls sticky enough to hold a glass if you pressed one against it, paint the yellow brown of tobacco smoke and no tile on the floors. God, what would Momma say, seeing this?

Still, the coffee was fair, the price was right, and it was warm. Even so, you needed to wear your coat and hat to keep them from disappearing. Then an old boy came in. I'd seen him around, now and then, never in company, just having coffee, listening and watching the activities going on. He didn't seem to be a nut or anything, just an old man. I've often wondered about that; that being an old man thing. How'd you go about that? I mean, how'd you go about ending up in a run-down cafe and all?

I'd raised a finger the waitress's way for a refill just before the old man stumped his way in and was getting it when the old man looked my way and lifted an eyebrow. So I told the waitress to bring the old man a cup and, looking his way, waved toward an empty chair. He accepted and sat.

After a nod of greeting and some wiggling to get his coat unbuttoned and his hat pushed to the back of his head, he wrapped his hands around that handle-less cup, alternating one over the other. He had not been wearing gloves. After about the third switch of his hands and in time for a refill, we got to talking about football, the silly stuff going on at City Hall, and pot holes in the street when he asked if I'd noticed that it was a whole lot easier to hide in a city than out in a small town.

To say the conversation paused would be putting a point on it. I just looked at him staring at the salt shaker. Finally, he became aware, shook his head and said that it is very easy to exist without neighbor friends in a large town than it would be elsewhere, you know?

I nodded. It seemed to make some sense that a man would be able to hide in plain view in a city. With my nod, he asked where I was from and other mildly personal stuff. Me? I did much the same. Bonding sort of questions, I guess you'd say; though how you stay impersonal while trading personal information is an art. I don't suppose I'll forget the old man now.

We went back and forth some, when the old man asked about my Christmases, or some of them anyway. That was pushing my boundaries, so to speak, and the old man seemed to recognize that and started to speak of his family from long ago - to me, very long ago.

"One of the first Christmases I can remember," he said, "was way back. My grand-dad was a barber. At the time it wasn't frowned on for someone to live in the same building as their work place. So, grand-dad lived along side of and behind the shop."

The old man chuckled. "It was some time later I figured out that the whole place was a house with one room enlarged and converted to the barber shop. It only made sense, really. How much space do you need for a one-man barber shop anyway?"

I nodded some to indicate I was listening, and the old man picked it up again.

"I remember," he continued, "that this was the day before Christmas, or maybe a couple of days before-- I've never been really sure, being so young like. Though I am sure that the old man was sick from something. That particular day, Mother hauled me and my brother over to his place and told us to stay outdoors. Now, don't get the wrong idea. It was somewhere in California and it was warm, even though we wore light coats. So we stayed out. Mom had left the back door open though, so I could see inside. Could see the bedroom, leastwise, the bed where grand-dad was laying, the dining and kitchen area and off there to my right, the door to the bathroom.

Mom went in and seemed to be talking to grand-dad, then her voice went up a bit and she commenced ranting on him for making a mess of himself and his bed clothes and how much a pain he was in her life. I couldn't make out the words grand-dad answered.

I don't rightly remember the words she was using, other than they were some hurtful to me and I didn't know what she was talking about. Still, I saw her reach and jerk down grand-dads underpants, telling him how filthy he was. After a bit more jawing, she scooped him up and started carrying him toward the kitchen area, me thinking she was bringing him out, but she didn't. She turned toward the bathroom, him all scrawny and pasty white looking.

I knew looking at him with his head flopped across her shoulder (he stood over six foot four) and his dirty boxers dangling around his right ankle that he was bad sick. Well, anyway, she managed to get the bathroom door open and plopped him on the crapper. He was all limp and limber like spaghetti, drooling on a dirty T-Shirt. She told him she was leaving him there, so he'd have to make it back to bed himself. I ran away from the door as she turned out of the bathroom.

I didn't run so much as just turn my back, hiding behind a tree next to the door where I could still see.

I peeked around and watched Mama go back into the bedroom and pick up grand-dad's pants. I remember the belt hanging down like it was coming loose, but Momma rifled through the pockets, putting change and stuff into her pocket. Then she found his wallet, took a bunch of stuff from it, and put that into her purse, replacing the wallet. She threw the pants in the corner and started going through his personals box-- the cuff links and rings and things-- putting all that stuff in her pockets as well. Pretty soon she came to the yard and called us boys to come. We were leaving.

I don't remember where we spent Christmas that year, but in the next day or so, Momma told us that grand-dad had died and that we'd be attending his funeral next week. She did take me with her to the hospital when she identified the body down in the morgue and signed the papers.

Well, you can imagine my reaction to this story from the old man. I sat silent, watching as he stood and buttoned up his coat and set his hat straight.

He nodded, turned and left the cafe. I watched as he stopped outside the door, shrugged himself deeper into his coat, shoved his hands into coat pockets, looked up and down the sidewalk both ways, heaved a deep breath and started off to his right.

I looked down at my cup, lifted a hand to the waitress for another coffee and started looking around the joint, noting the yellow brown walls a glass could stick to, if you placed a glass on it, and listened to the Christmas music being piped in.

May B. Yesno is a writer from Fresno, CA.

American Half-Breed

By Dave Peterson © 2008

Ghosts of Christmas past.

Here's something I never told you before. It's 21 December 1991, I'm walking through a flat, gray day. It is bitter cold and everywhere around me is ice and dirty snow. At my side is one of my prized possessions, an American Standard Fender Precision Bass Guitar. I don't want to do what I'm about to do, but I've run out of options.

I open the pawn shop door and feel a blast of heat and the smell of tobacco smoke and desperation. There is a line of people this close to Christmas-- junkies, boozers, and people like me. Or maybe I'm like them. Sometimes the lines are blurred. A man with bad teeth asks me what I've got. The case is tattered but it's what's inside that counts. He barely hides his surprise when he flips the lid but in typical pawn broker fashion he tells me, "This is junk man, we can't use it."

It's a lie. It's a lie he tells all the time to thieves who have no idea what they possess. I know better though and he soon realizes this. He sees that I'm cold and I'm broke and scared at the thought of turning up for the family holiday empty-handed.

"Fifty bucks kid, highest I can go."

"FIFTY? this is an American Standard Fretless, when was the last time you saw one of these?"

"O.K., look it's Christmas, I'll go to a hundred."

$100 for a $1,500 classic instrument. A month to return with the original hundred plus interest or they keep it. Great. Fuck. I wonder if he was trying to do me a favor?

My engineer boots have steel toes and steel shanks in the sole. They magnify the cold on my feet. My leather jacket gets stiff with cold. I think about hopping on a bus but I'm too pissed off and I don't want to waste dough on a two mile ride. Instead, I go into a liquor store and buy a pack of smokes. I walk and I smoke alternating hands in pockets. It seems like everything is uphill, slippery, and barren.

The band has a gig on New Year's Eve which will be the next time I see any money. Perhaps the most interesting problem is I've just hocked the instrument I play on stage most of the time. I have an old upright bass, but as of yet I haven't really learned to play it. I've got problems. I need gifts for my family. I need some food and I'm beginning to worry about frostbite. The gifts were similar in nature. To my youngest brother, a pint of Jim Beam Rye whiskey and ten bucks. Merry Xmas bro! The others received things they liked. I did the best I could.

I spent the next few days in a frenzy, trying to learn to play the upright bass, wondering why the holidays always made me feel so alone. I mooched smokes, booze, and meals wherever and whenever I could. The musicians in Denver took care of each other in times like these. Marilyn, the hippie who owned the Mercury Cafe, was a total sucker for musicians. Anytime you were broke and torn up she'd be there with a hot bowl of soup and some homemade bread. Pete Nalty was always good for cheap gin and conversation.

On December 23rd, I was going slowly insane in my tiny apartment. It was on the ground floor and had radiator heat which meant it was always around ninety degrees inside. Opening a window at night or when I wasn't home was asking for trouble so I didn't dare. I had to get out. I had to do something.

It was a rare night when all of my friends were otherwise committed or out of touch. I made the five block walk to the Cricket. The band played there. I knew the bartender; my band paid this guys rent and we always took care of him. I knew he'd take care of me.

"Jeff, I've got ten bucks can you get me loaded for ten bucks?" It was a lie, I had fifteen, but I wanted a slice of pizza on the way home.

"For you? Yeah, man."

I forked over my ten dollar bill and Jeff put the money in the tip jar. He filled a glass with ice and whiskey. It burned on the way down. First thing I'd actually felt in days. The regulars were there. Might have been the only time I ever really talked to Denver Joe Vasquez. He was always friendly towards me but mainly by association to my brother. Joe loved my brother for reasons I didn't understand until much later in life.

Joe and I talked for a bit. Made fun of the college kids in the place and agreed that the band that night couldn't finish soon enough for either of us.

I had no idea how many drinks I had, but time passed and I went from feeling warm and mellow to wondering if I might pass out in the street on my walk home. I stumbled to the bathroom and puked violently. I came back to the bar and Jeff had switched my whiskey out for a beer. He nodded knowingly.

Just then as fate would have it, the booking agent for the Cricket walked in the door. His name was Rick and booking bands was really a second job for him. He also dealt blow and God knows what else.

"Rick, I got a fiver and I'm too fucked up to walk home, straighten me out will ya?"

"What? Dude, I got no idea what you're talking about."

"Come on Rick, I know."

As a rule, I didn't do drugs and the Denver music community knew this. Rick looked really surprised. Or maybe I was yelling.

A few minutes passed. I nursed my beer and swayed on my barstool struggling to stay awake.

"Hey Dave," Rick called. "Let's go back to the office and see when we can get you guys here in January and February."

I followed him to the back room and we actually made some dates for the band. With business concluded Rick says, "You got that fiver?" I pulled the crumpled bill from my pocket.

"I don't want you making a habit of this."

Fuckin' dealer preachin' at me. This was low.

I nodded as Rick tapped out two short lines on the desk. I felt disgusted with myself...for a minute anyway. This was just enough blow to put me back on my feet. I thanked my dealer and walked out of the office. I was fine, better than fine. I felt great.

With closing time came despair. I was wide awake and had nowhere to go but home. I paced in my apartment until well after sun up, when I finally threw caution to the wind and opened a window and went to sleep.

There is no hangover in the world like a coke hangover. I woke up as the sun was setting on Christmas Eve. Someone would be coming for me on Christmas morning to take me to my grandparents' house. The holiday would come and go. There would be commiseration and food and laughter. Somehow, no matter how dysfunctional my family was, Christmas always managed to be pretty good.

I never got the loot to get my bass out of hock. Gigs and money came and went. Shitty little jobs I picked up with good intentions never panned out.

That bass is out there somewhere. My blood, my sweat still on the instrument. I hope someone is playing it. Loving it more than I did.

David Peterson is an ex-soldier, musician, geek, degenerate, and a complete jackass hoping to one day get what's coming to him.

Of All The Bars In NYC

By Betty Underground © 2008

When in New York, pretending to be a New Yorker comes easy. I like that when I walk fast, no one asks, "Why you in such a hurry." That when I jaywalk, I am part of a crowd—I do not stand out like someone disrespecting the law. And when you go out at 11:30 p.m. on a Monday for a cocktail, no one judges you. In fact, you are an early bird.

We left the hotel and headed east to the Village. We didn't have any particular destination, but in New York, you don't need one.

We made it a few blocks before the wind chill factor had cut through our layers and we reverted back to whiny Californians. We were in search of a quiet place to drink and chill and the amber lights from the bar across the street looked warm and welcoming. That and the crowd was sparse enough so that we could actually sit. Close to empty was more like it.

Sparse was also how we described the service. We sat at the bar and waited. And waited. I saw movement in the small kitchen off the right side of the bar but couldn’t catch the guy's attention. There was a waitress out back having a smoke but other than that it was just the two of them.

The interior was decorated with what looked like a pile of garage sale cast offs. License plates. Bad art on the walls. Pictures that resembled the ones that come with the frame and some old photos you might see on a college dorm wall. A pair of antlers hung over the bar, slightly off center. I chuckled, I would have totally hung those antlers slightly off-center too. There was a jukebox and a rusty old gas station pump tucked in a corner. Eclectic. A wee bit cluttered too.

We gave it a little more time but got annoyed with waiting so we decided to duck into the place next door instead.

Reaching for the door handle, we heard a voice.

"Sorry to keep you waiting ladies, first round is on me."

My friend turned to me with an ear-to-ear grin and it was easy to see, we were willing to forgive and forget. We were easy to win back.

I turned around and approached the bar with my friend in tow.

You know when you see someone and maybe it is the job you do or the frequency you travel to the same places, but you sort of recognize them and for some reason you can't put them in the context of where you are right then? Like when I had trouble placing that totally hot guy in Chelsea yesterday so I stared until I realized it was noted fashion photographer, Nigel Barker from "America's Next Top Model." This was sort of like that, but this person wasn't famous. I was having a hard time getting a solid look at him as he restocked the liquor bottles behind and under the bar. Chatting us up, pulling our Blue Moons. Friendly enough bartender, but it was nagging at me. Who was he? My friend was talking to me and I was completely ignoring her, fixated on trying to get a head-on view of him.

Then he turned around, put the drinks in front of us and said "On me." He couldn't have been more spot-on. I proceeded to knock the entire beer in his direction. Yep, I do that sometimes when I am nervous, or a few seconds before I get nervous. I think at the same second he looked up at me, laughing at the beer streaming down his front, we both realized it. We knew each other.

He froze. I shook my head back and forth, half laughing, half wanting to shoot myself right there.

"Of all the bars in this city, did I seriously stumble into the one where you work?"



"I own this place. Mondays are usually slow so I give most my staff the night off. I work the bar and one of them takes the wait shift, but we close early so no one has to work too late. I used to just close up on Mondays but with football and all, I thought this was as good a place as any to watch the game and get a beer. Most my friends come in and hang out, but since the game is over, it has gotten quiet. I was just in the back putting away stock when you guys came in."

He was rambling. It is what he does when he gets nervous. Always the one with nerves of steel and here he was, drenched in beer, wearing his fingers down to the nubs trying to get a firm grip.

"I am going to run in the back and put on a fresh pair of jeans," and off he went.

I sat there, rather dumbfounded. I thought about leaving, but curiosity kept me there. That’s when I was struck by one of the pictures behind the bar. It was a guy in motorcycle leathers hugging a girl. He was facing the camera looking down as if he was listening to what she was whispering to him. All you could see was her back.

The waitress came around the bar. "Let me get you a fresh beer. He should be right back, he just lives upstairs."

She poured the beer and asked how I knew the bartender. My friend answered, "We don't, do we?" She was puzzled at my odd behavior.

"I know him."

"Really?" the waitress asked.

"I am the girl in that picture," I pointed.

"You guys must go way back. That was taken years ago."

"We do."

That cold December wind had blown me in to his bar. The Reason. The reason I came to New York so many years ago.

Now, he was upstairs changing and the only thought in my head was remembering how he used to go commando, sans underwear, and that he was just upstairs probably standing butt naked digging around in the clean laundry pile for a fresh pair of jeans. He never hung up the laundry--just left it in a pile and dug out the day’s clothes as he needed them.

My friend brought me back to the present when she asked how I knew him.

"I was engaged to him."

"That is him?"

"Seems like it is."

I heard his steps down the back stairs. Those heavy steel-toed boots. When he entered the room, he came around the bar to give me a hug. Like an old habit, my hands slid up under his t-shirt onto his bare back. "Your hands are freezing," he said, but didn't flinch. He just squeezed me tighter. My chin strained to rest on his shoulder. He was just a stitch too tall, so I tucked my gaze into the curve of his neck, and inhaled. Irish Spring®, just like I remembered. He joked that he showered with it to try and wash away being a Scotsman around my mildly disapproving Irish father.

I moved away from his neck, "Don't let go yet," he whispered. I pushed the tips of my fingers into his back. Arms wrapped tightly around him. The nerves rushed out of my body and I felt exhausted. His hair, blonde with those waves barely contained in a red rubber banded ponytail. I could have fell asleep, right there in the curve of his neck with the beat of his heart thumping against mine.

I felt a gust of wind and when I looked up, my friend was at the door, smiling. "I think I will head back to the hotel. I didn't realize how exhausted I was."

There was a couple at the end of the bar, him trying to convince her to come home with him and she caved. They left. It was a quarter past midnight. He followed them to the door and locked it behind them. The waitress went about her closing duties and he finished restocking the bar. I chugged my beer and asked for a refill and a side of whiskey. He poured two, neat. Our glasses raised, clinked together and the toast was a silent glare we shared. Squinting a bit at each other with an acknowledged nod. Like old friends with a history.

He was in and out of the back. Doing whatever you do when you close down a bar for the night. We exchanged no words, only looks each time he poured another shot, always two. His waitress turned the stools up on the bar to mop.

"No need to do that. I will take care of it. You can head out."

She said it was nice to meet me and although I never got her name, something told me she knew mine.

She went out the back and he pulled the bar stools around me back down. Pulled one up next to me, held his glass and waited for me. Our glasses met and hovered together for what seemed like forever.

"Here's to the wind," he finally said.

He told me a little about what he had been up to in the five years since we had seen each other. I shared a few of my own tales. He was holding my hands, playing with the ring on my right hand, snapping and unsnapping the leather band around my wrist. He was completely attentive. Actively listening and engaging and yet slightly distracted. Fidgety. I wiggled the tip of my finger in a hole on the knee of his jean and alternated that with spinning the silver ring around his thumb. He scratched my ring finger and felt the void that his engagement ring once filled. He took my hand in his, stood up and led me off the bar stool. I followed behind him, both his hands wrapped around mine, through the kitchen where he paused to turn off all the lights, and up the back stairs.

I hesitated. Anxiety. Panic. Resolve.

Betty Underground is a writer who currently resides in Montana.

Corner of Hopelessness

By Paul McGuire © 2008

I'm the only soul in Los Angeles who walks anywhere. The relentless California sunshine has warped the brains of the locals who are mercilessly addicted to their metal coffins on wheels sputtering about on the surface streets and congested freeways. The only people you actually see walking around the city are the poor schmucks who couldn't find an ideal parking spot or were too cheap to valet their vehicles so they had to park a block or two away.

If I can walk to my intended destination, I will do so even if I have a car. That's the New Yorker in me. My girlfriend was out of town on business and I had the apartment and her car all to myself. It was Friday afternoon and instead of driving, I opted to walk to Jack in the Box. The hippies would be proud that I was reducing my carbon imprint and getting some exercise in the process.

I craved a big ass iced tea. I loathed all forms of fast food including a disdain for the appalling crap that Jack in the Box passed off as food. However, they serve tasty and very strong iced tea in a massive plastic cup which holds well over a few hours. The iced tea is the perfect drink to set aside during a writing binge. That afternoon, I wanted to settle in and watch an NBA doubleheader on ESPN. The undefeated Lakers were taking on the Detroit Pistons and I didn't want to miss out on the action. NBA, bong hits, and iced tea. The iced tea was the missing ingredient.

I left our apartment in the slums of Beverly Hills and glanced at the lush Hollywood Hills. I walked away from them down our empty palm tree lined street towards Pico Boulevard. It was like a ghost town aside from one or two SUVs that whizzed by me. The Jack in the Box was located on the corner across the street from a somewhat infamous Chinese restaurant. If we lived on the fringe of Beverly Hills, well that corner was on the fringe of the fringe.

The Twin Dragon was a dive in every sense of the world. It’s the kind of place where drug fiends might engage in a shady coke deal in the parking lot or where a capricious married forty-something executive would hand off blackmail money to a fling on the side that went awry. A friend of mine who used to work in the music industry told me he scheduled a couple of secret meetings at the Twin Dragon because that would be the last place anyone would find him.

A collection of older cars sits bout a half of a block away from the Twin Dragon. Each of them was parked with the windows wide open and included a sleeping Chinese guy in the passenger seat. I have seen that random sight many times before. Sometimes the guys were fast asleep. Other times they were reading copies of various Chinese print newspapers like Sing Tao.

That afternoon, I spotted three guys sleeping in their cars. One of them had the back door wide open as he slept with a windbreaker pulled over his torso. Another guy was slumped over a small pillow with the passenger door ajar. He was barefoot and his shoes and socks sat on the grass next to his car. The last car was so cluttered with junk that I suspected that guy actually lived in his vehicle.

I deduced that the sleeping guys were either delivery drivers or kitchen workers slaving away at the Twin Dragon. They were on a break and used their free time wisely to take a nap. It was a dead hour for most restaurants -- way past the lunch rush and not quite dinner time. I wondered how much the cooks were getting paid. Since it was the ever-sketchy Twin Dragon, I'm guessing a buck or two below minimum wage. Maybe some of these guys were working more than one job and the only time they had to sleep was during the lull in between lunch and dinner.

I sidestepped the guys sleeping in cars and wandered inside the bleak Jack in the Box. In my estimation, Jack in the Box is the lowest rung on the fast food food chain. In & Out Burger, Subway, and Wendy's sit near the top, the omnipresent Burger King, McDonalds, and Taco Bell are in the middle, followed by KFC, Popeye’s, and then the repugnant Jack in the Box chain bringing up the rear.

As soon as I opened the door, the aroma of desperation mixed together with days-old grease from the deep fryers attacked my senses. The floors were dirty and slippery; a lawsuit waiting to happen. Garbage and empty ketchup packets from previous customers cluttered the tables. I would never eat there because I didn't want to catch E. Coli.

It was supposed to be a quick trip. Get in and get out. No harm. No foul. Alas, no such luck. Like the majority of fast food chains in America, "fast" was replaced by "pathetically mediocre."

For some reason, I'm always on alert when I walk inside that particular Jack in the Box location. Even during the daylight hours I have this odd fear that I'm going to get shanked by a gangbanger with a spork or mugged by one of the homeless people who live behind the dumpster and feast on half-eaten Jumbo Jacks and pieces of raggedly yellow leaves that they pass off as lettuce.

I expected slow service, but man, the cashier moved slower than a snail on Valium. There was a single line with five or six customers ahead of me. The line never moved and several minutes later, it grew longer. I anxiously stood in line awaiting an empty cup. That's all I was buying. An empty cup. The soda machines and a tank of iced tea were situated next to the cashier's counter. Once you paid for your order, they handed you a cup and you poured your own drinks.

I should have saved a cup from my last visit and pulled a sneaky self-service move. I don't think anyone would have noticed or even cared if I walked in off the street and poured myself a new batch of iced tea. After all, that's the scam that down-trodden customers regularly pulled. They asked for a water cup, which was free of charge and was supposed to be used for the tap water that ran out of the self-service beverage machine. But of course, the aggressive ones bucked the system and used the water cups for Coke and other drinks. The angle-shooters took full advantage of the opportunity to scam free drinks because the dumb-witted fast food workers were not going to enforce the rules.

As I contemplated a future scam, a young child banged into my leg. I glanced down and the boy could not have been more than two years old. I assumed that he belonged to someone standing behind me. I whirled around to see who spawned the wee one. One middle-aged lady that looked like J. Lo's thugged-out sister loudly spoke on her cell phone. I assumed that she was the guardian of the rogue child.

The little boy walked up to the counter and began crying for his mommy. I kept glancing over my shoulder towards the woman on the phone. She rambled on with her conversation as her kid aimlessly wandered around one of the most unsafe fast food eateries in L.A. County.

The kid pointed up at a display of toys which accompanied various kiddie happy meals. He pointed and screamed and pointed and cried and pointed and wailed. I understood the kid's tantrum. He wanted a toy and I wanted an iced tea. I almost burst into tears, too.

"Momma! Momma!" he cried as he pointed at a pieces of plastic junk most likely thrown together in an unventilated sweat shop in the Philippines by child workers only a few years older than him.

A young girl about five years old darted over to the crying kid and shoved a pacifier in his mouth. He stopped crying for the moment as she took his hand and led him over to a booth with a couple of coloring books and several broken crayons on the table. The little girl sat down and scribbled for a few seconds before the kid yanked the pacifier out of his mouth and dropped it on the ground. He immediately ran towards the counter shouting, "Momma! Momma!"

I gave the woman on the cell phone the evil eye, something that self-righteous people without kids give to despicable people whom we deemed bad parents. Thugged-out J. Lo didn't even break stride in her conversation. Perhaps the kids were not hers. If not hers, then whose? I sized up the other people standing in line. The kids looked Hispanic with jet black hair. The people in line were white, black, and Asian. I could not find a match.

"Where's Momma?" I started to wonder.

The moment finally arrived and I stood next in line ready to order my empty cup. That's when the kid cut in front of me and slapped his hand on the counter. He could barely reach the counter and screamed, "Momma! Momma!"

That's when it all made sense. The kid's mother was the cashier. She couldn't answer his pleas because she was working. In an attempt to soothe her child, she poured him a small cup of orange soda. He took a small sip on the straw and darted back to the booth. His older sister sat in silence and focused on her coloring books. As I slowly digested the desperate sight, a bit of melancholy fell over me.

The woman behind the counter was six months pregnant and looked like she was not even old enough to vote, let alone have two kids. My mind raced with questions. How old was she? Did she always bring her kids to work with her? Or did her babysitter bail on her at the last minute?

Although I initially wanted to chastise the mother, a wave of sympathy overwhelmed me as I discovered her plight. A tinge of humility and embarrassment erased my initial thoughts. She instantly impressed me with her courage and strength trying to support two little ones (along with another bun in the oven) by humping a crappy McJob. Then again, she controlled her own destiny. A three-pack of condoms costs the same as a Sourdough Jack.

I grabbed my empty cup and filled it up so quickly that I spilled iced tea all over the counter. I didn't bother cleaning it up and rushed out the door. A wave of depression attacked me up and I glanced up at the houses that speckled the Hollywood Hills. Vain movie stars and strung-out musicians and other Hollyweird types were the only ones who could afford those majestic homes in the hills. Meanwhile on the streets below, illegal Chinese immigrants slept in their cars and a pregnant teenage mom stuffed her kids into a dirty booth in a fast food joint where she earned a measly $8 an hour slinging curly fries and kangaroo burgers.

Next time, I'm driving.

Paul McGuire is a writer who splits time between New York City and Los Angeles.