Missing spoons

Author’s note: This is an excerpt from a work in progress. It did not happen. Except for the part about a missing prostitute, a corrupt police department, and an inexplicable disparity between my forks and spoons (forks: 24, spoons: 3). Did I just not notice losing the spoons? What the fuck?


What happened?

I sit on the edge of the bed, staring at my hands. There used to be a thick callous, the size of a dime, at the base of my right index finger. Now it’s gone.

All the scrapes and cuts, the grease under my fingernails, burns on my wrists and forearms — all gone.

On the dresser, a clean pair of pants, a polo shirt (a fucking polo shirt?) and socks, solid black without a single pale-orange bleach spot.

My knife-bag is gone from the door. Instead, there’s a laptop case. There’s a stack of files – city contracts and FOIA requests – and three slim notebooks full of names and places, quotes with dates and initials.

One blessed note of familiarity: I’m hung over. So there’s that.

Also, a bizarre quirk: in the silverware drawer, a good half of the spoons are missing and there are twice as many forks as any two-person household could conceivably use.

Maybe that’s why I’ve put on twenty pounds — too many goddamn forks.

*

I’m sitting in a bottle shop downtown and there’s a young guy sitting across from me. He’s wearing a boxy suit, the kind people buy when they’re only going to wear it three times a year: weddings, funerals, and court. Today it’s court.

It’s ten-thirty in the morning, most restaurants aren’t open yet and the dives won’t open until the evening. But the bottle-shop opens early, so cops come here for a morning nightcap before they head home, pull the shades against the sun, and try to sleep. Third-shift beat cops, vice and narcotics detectives, overnight dispatch.

He holds up his pint glass, a dark ESB.

“I’m so tired of IPAs. It’s like everyone is going eight or nine fucking percent,” he says. “I drink one and I’m half drunk and I feel bloated.”

He takes a swig and sets his glass town.

“Plus I read an article, they give you man tits.”

I sigh.

“I think I read the same thing.”

This is what we talk about — craft beer culture, the threat of man tits, the weather – while we drink a beer together, and then another. He’s got to be in court in an hour. I’m technically off today, but I’m working.

Working, but not getting anywhere.

The young man wants to tell me something. It has to do with a human trafficking case that went sideways a few years ago. A prostitute went missing, a cop got shot, a police van got vandalized – lit on fire one spring morning. A lot of people got reassigned, a couple of detectives had to ride out their last years behind desks. But that was the extent of it. TV did their sixty seconds, but it didn’t have legs. It never went viral so, really, it never happened.

“No one knows how bad it was,” he says, looking at his phone, not at me.

It catches me off guard.

“How bad was it?” I ask after a moment.

“Bad,” he says. “That’s why they torched the van. Too messy to clean up.”

“They?”

He just stares into his beer. The paper I work for, it doesn’t use anonymous sources. We both know he’s not going to go on the record. We both know what that would mean for him. Worse than getting stuck with desk duty.

“I can never sleep when I go home,” he says, “unless I’ve had a few. If I sleep too long, I wake up confused, like I can’t remember what day it is. Like I’m someone else. Like I woke up in some other poor shit’s life.”

He says it like it’s a joke, but he does’t laugh.

“Go to the Times,” I tell him.

“They won’t touch it,” he says. “They don’t want to dig up old shit.”

“Why not?”

He looks at me, just shy of baleful.

So that’s it. We finish our beers. He goes to court in his boxy suit. I wash my face in the bottle shop bathroom and take a walk before driving back to the office, empty handed.

*

Some other poor shit’s life.

I think about those early mornings in the kitchen, alone. The first pot of batch of coffee percolating, the radio blaring. Peeling, dicing, julienning. Burning the inside of my forearm pulling an over-laden sheet tray out of the lower oven. Knicking off the corner  of my thumbnail with a cleaver.

At noon, I’d step out back, walk into the wooded area behind the restaurant, smoke a joint, drink a mason jar of the beer I was using to braise pork-belly or short ribs.

At night, too wired to sleep, I’d sit up and write. Passable fictions, I thought. Made up stories about hard luck losers who occasionally got it right, or at least occasionally got away with it. I’d occasionally apply for other jobs, writing gigs, teaching gigs, something respectable so I could call the folks and brag a little.

I’d get my hopes up, get ’em dashed. Truth was, I was good in the kitchen, and it was starting to feel like where I was meant to be. Where I’d spend the rest of my life.

Then one day I came home, passed out on top of the covers with my greasy chef’s coat half-unbuttoned.

I woke up a year later in clean clothes, holding a reporter’s notepad to my chest.

That’s how it goes. A year passes, you don’t even recognize yourself in the mirror, but you can’t remember how it happened, when it changed.

I think about the missing girl. The years slipping away. A Ziploc bag with a bloody clump of skin and hair, in the basement of the county building. A charred police van. A defective memory card from a body cam. A strangled cry, a dull echo in the woods where no one who didn’t want to would hear it.

The fuck did I know about hard luck, or getting away with it.

*

I pull myself together, write up a local restaurant opening. I still know a lot of the local chefs, it just took a text message. Easy piece – the same old ‘farm to table’ shuck and jive, some tasteful food porn, a couple of quirky quotes from the owner.

The piece will sit nicely in the newsletter. People can only read so much crime, there’s a saturation point. But a new taco place? They’ll read it every day.

I must look like shit, because no one talks to me. I don’t mind. I file my story in peace and close my laptop.

“How’d your meeting go?” My editor asks as I’m packing up.

“It went fine.”

“He won’t talk? Or he’s full of shit?”

“One or the other.  Maybe both.”

My editor nods.

“Was worth a shot,” he says. “Shame. It’d be nice to bury them.”

I shrug, pick up my laptop bag, and walk out.

Bury them. His go-to euphemism, but an odd choice when you think about it. What – in this goddamn town – wasn’t already buried?

*

My wife is drifting off to sleep but I’m still tweaking the headlines newsletter for tomorrow. She doesn’t care if I’m a line cook or an editor, she says. I believe her. I think if we’re not homeless, and I’m happy, she’ll be happy.

That’s a hell of a thing.

She rolls over.

“Are you happy?”

Who gets to be happy? is what I want to say. Maybe stoned line cooks who are working too hard, too many hours a day, to run the risk of caring about what’s going on in the city around them. Was I happy, when that was me. I take a long drink of bourbon. I can’t remember. Maybe I was.

I set the glass down with a thud. She looks at the glass, at me.

“We can leave, get away from this. We could leave tomorrow. Go to the mountains. We could sell the car. Move to Iceland,” she says. “What do we really need? You and me.”

I lean over and kiss her.

“I’m serious. I’ll follow you anywhere, “she says.

She rolls over, turns off the lamp on her side of the bed. I stare at the newsletter layout, willing the typos and dead links to show themselves. They don’t. Instead, the screen starts to swim. Too much to drink. I set my alarm for six; I’ll fix it in the morning.

I turn off my lamp, try to tuck my body tightly against my wife’s. She takes my arm and holds it against her.

She knows we can’t leave. Or, rather, she knows I won’t leave. But she doesn’t say it. She kisses the knuckles on my hand and laughs quietly.

“I wish I knew what happened to our fucking spoons,” she says quietly.

 

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Cartoons. Or, Putting all that goddamn authorial angst aside for minute and having some fun.

Writers are a dour bunch, they more or less have to be — that’s the part you play. But musicians – though they have their tortured moments – get to have quite a bit for more fun. This video was one of the most fun things we’ve done as a band.

 

I mean, it’s hard to take yourself seriously when you’re literally being cartoonish.

The idea was all Jeremy Roberts, who – in addition to being a really good bass player – has also pretty much taken the reins of our artistic direction (i.e. making videos). For the last couple of years he’s been working on his Master’s degree in digital animation and this was a chance for him to put some of that knowledge to use.

The live-action video was shot around Wilmington but the animation took place at a basement lab at NC State. That’s where Jeremy worked on his degree and that’s where the magic happened.

We took a day and drove up to Raleigh where we were rigged up in motion capture devices. It was a little surreal to see ourselves translated into 3D computer figures in real time and a little tricky to get the hang of, but we had a good time.

IMG_0754

A repeating glitch caused our right feet to become glued to the virtual floor. One attempt to fix the glitch severed the digital foot and caused us to (virtually) float away. Apparently that was the gravity foot.

What you won’t see in the finished video are a series of computer glitches, including one that caused our singer Pete’s digital avatar to break free of gravity – except his right foot, which stayed anchored to the virtual floor.  Pete performed the entire song while slowly being raptured into the digital heavens.

Another glitch forced flipped horizontal and vertical axes — which is how I ended up laying on the floor, playing air-guitar on a metal pole.

Also: you also won’t see how tightly the motion-capture units were strapped around our groins. But I assure, those fuckers were strapped on tight.

IMG_0759

Pete, strapped in but good.

This video was Jeremy’s baby and, ever the perfectionist, he probably would have worked for another month – or five or six – on it until he got it the way he wanted. But the rest of us, well, we were all pretty happy with it.

A special thanks to Julie Lineberry, Hilary Smith, Monica Nguyen and Nat Sumpunkulpak and the faculty at NC State for making the video possible — and for dealing with our incredibly juvenile behavior during the process.

Puppet rock (new EML video for ‘Love Control’)

Cementing his new role in our band, Jeremy Roberts did a lot (i.e. most) of the work for this video (along with his wife, who did the outfits).

puppets

Puppets? Puppets.

To shoot this video we had to spend hours on our knees, hunched over at weird angles. The attic where we filmed got warm – and then hot – and we were a sweaty mess the whole time. When it was over, we were a little drunk and slightly stoned and totally exhausted.

Ben (crouched over in pain), Pete (smiling, delirious), Steve (naked) and Jeremy (too close to the camera for his own good.)

Ben (crouched over in pain), Pete (smiling, delirious), Steve (naked) and Jeremy (too close to the camera for his own good.)

But it was well worth it.

Check it out:

Last man blows the bridge

last man blows the bridge

A funny thing happened on the way to the co-op.

About three weeks ago, at the suggestion of our Kayla, our drummer’s girlfriend, I put in an application to be a reporter at a local online newspaper. I didn’t much think about it at the time — while I look good on paper I’ve increasingly come to think of myself as a well-educated dirtbag.

Then the editor of the newspaper called to interview me. Then his boss. Then another interview.

I’ve finagled my way into a half-dozen restaurant jobs by lying  and then working very hard, very fast, to make that lie true. “Have you ever broken down whole grouper?””Do you have much experience with Catalan cuisine?” “Can you hold down expo tonight?”

But with these interviews I told the truth. I have little experience in journalism, aside from getting into – and promptly walking away from – the J-school at Rutgers, nearly 20 years ago.

But I can write – passably, at least – and I know this town.  And I’m used to working 60 hour weeks. That’s what I told them, expecting them to thank me for my time. But I kept getting moved through to the next interview.

I spent a few days reading the paper. It was definitely under new management, in the past six months it had changed. The writing was a little better, the stories less dull. Still, it was the underdog paper – not Star, the local print paper, not the local Fox affiliate news website. I hadn’t been able to see myself as a reporter for a big paper, but an underdog, trying to fight uphill against the local New York Times affiliate and two TV news networks? That sounded about right.

I was mostly too busy to daydream but, at night, my wife and I did indulge ourselves. A little bit.

Then in the morning, back to the grind. For a week, I heard nothing.

Then one day, I was standing over Sloppy’s grave, smoking a the battered joint one of my employees had left for me. I sipped a beer and checked my email.

I got the job.

Did I want it?

Cooking had become such a part of me. A place where I could be myself, unreserved and unfiltered. I could joke, swear, drink and smoke. And it was honest work — a cliche if ever there was one, I know. But making food by hand, it was fucking satisfying. It was real, and when it was done, you could wash your hands and go home.

But it had taken a toll. Fifteen years. Scars, a bum ankle, arthritic cramps in my hand.

Other things, harder to see.

I looked around at the kitchen. I’d gone as far as I could. I’d held the line as long as I could. Up before dawn, working till dusk, trying to keep laziness and cheapness at bay. I wasn’t sleeping well, my jaw ached from biting my tongue, I was drinking at work, more and more. I knew I running out of resolve.

The Copelands were gone, Sloppy was dead. I’d put up a good fight.

It was time. Blow the bridge.

But I didn’t have to. There was a young cook, a kid named Wes. He didn’t know shit about cooking, but he did at least care. We’d spent many hours talking, about guitars and music, drugs and our mutual aversion to normalcy.  He didn’t care about the co-op, he just needed a job. All he really wanted to do was to play music.  I could respect that.

But he told me, “even if I have to be a janitor, I guess I’ll try to be the best janitor I can be. Try to figure out all the right ways to do it.”

I knew he’d step up, try to shoulder the weight, try to keep the bastards from ruining what I’d built with the Copelands.

I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

I walked out on the last day, and took off my chef coat. Fifteen years. In good times and bad, all the way through grad school, I’d always had a cooking job. It seemed more real, more an actual part of my life than teaching or taking classes or anything else.

I’d forgive someone for not wanting to leave that behind. And I admitted, I wanted to stay too.

I poured a beer out for Sloppy, for the Copelands, and for myself. I threw my chef coat in the dumpster. I walked to the road and didn’t look back.

I wasn’t a cook anymore. Now it was someone else’s story.

The Olive Garden, Live in Concert

Author’s note: This story is fiction. It is a made-up story about a fictional version of a real fake version of a real band. Any similarities between this fiction and reality, or any of the iterations of fakeness, replication or simulacra in between fiction and reality, are purely coincidental. Olive Garden, on the other hand, is both real and fake, so good luck sorting that out.

“Christ on fire it’s hot,” Fake Bon Jovi says, more or less to himself.

The sun hangs low in the sky, the air over the parking lot blacktop waves like cartoon squiggles.

Fake Bon Jovi hangs back, leaving his band to soundcheck, adjusting spiny frosted-tip spears of hair around his balding crown. He removes his sunglasses, quickly and cautiously, and checks his make-up. His cheeks are sallow, bags hanging in overlapping folds beneath his bloodshot eyes.

Slippery When Wet – the ‘premier’ Bon Jovi cover band – has just wrapped up a fortnight at sea, a residency on Royal Caribbean Pearl of the Seas. Fake Bon Jovi is barely holding it together: it’s a thick, still, sopping wet hot outside, and he’s recovering from the bowel-rending ravages of some nautical disaster: Noro or E. Coli, the ultimate result of cramming that many people together on a floating shopping mall.

Now he’s trying to get his land-legs back (the platform heels and skin-tight pleather are not helping), and on top of that Jason – yes, that’s the real name of Fake John Francis Bongiovi – has already had too many luke-warm Landsharks from the Igloo cooler behind the stage.

Huddled around the cooler, a local band attacks the free beer with the gusto of people unaccustomed to free booze. They’re scraggly, harried, showing up with girlfriends and wives who help them carry their own gear. Fake Richie Sambora is taking nips from a bottle of rotgut bourbon with the local band’s guitarist, who looks like the kind of guy who would perpetually have a bottle of cheap liquor within reach. Fake Richie Sambora holds up his guitar, presents it for inspection like some fearsome Scottish Claymore. The local guy laughs, shakes his head, picks up the guitar, smiles.

Fake Bon Jovi doesn’t approve, wishes the Slippery When Wet guys would stay in character. Take their drummer, Fake Tico Torres; his soul patch is a sloppy rhombus of hair, not like Real Tico’s flawless Clovis Point. And Fake Tico put on like fifteen pounds on the cruise. Who gets fat eating sushi? Fake Fucking Tico.

Fake Bon Jovi spits out a mouthful of warm beer. And hamming it up with the local guys, Jesus. These dirtbags barely have one set of gear between them, cabinets all torn up, showing up in work clothes. Jesus. Fake Sambora is busting out the talk box. The local guys are howling. Worse than mockery, they’re actually into it. Fake Sambora is trying to show him up; he’s trying to pull a Real Sambora. But Bon Jovi isn’t a rock’n’roll band, it’s the Jon Bon Jovi show. Any Sambora knows that. Jesus.

Now the local band’s singer comes over to Fake Bon Jovi, smiling nervously.

“Thanks, man, for – uh – having us, I guess. We’re really excited to play. So, thanks.”

Fake Bon Jovi keeps his hands tucked in his armpits, sweat already soaking through his denim jacket. Why does Fake Sambora get to play in a sleeveless T? Mindy, their costume designer. That’s why. Frigid bitch. Fake Bon Jovi lets it drop. He looks past the local singer, sighing, and says:

“Yeah. Well, this was an unplanned stop. Kind of shit venue.”

The local singer glances at the stage, the rows of monitors, the heavy PA speakers, and looks back at Fake Bon Jovi.

“It’s a nice set-up, good sound,” the local guy says.

“Our drummer’s from here,” Fake Bon Jovi says, “so he wanted to play here. Stupid. We’re playing in Germany next.”

“That’s fucking cool,” says the local singer.

“Yeah,” Fake Bon Jovi rolls his eyes. “Cool. We’re a big deal in Germany.”

The local singer nods, takes his cue, and walks away. Fake Bon Jovi looks at his watch. Ten minutes to vocal check. Then he can finally get out of this fucking Apocalypse Now swelter and back to the hotel, maybe get a blowjob from the escort girl. Maybe not. She’ll probably want some of his coke, but Fake Bon Jovi has already torn through the eightball he scored at Myrtle Beach. Fake Tico was supposed to score some from one of his idiot hometown buddies. Fat chance. Real Tico would have had Real Bon Jovi hip-deep in blow, stat, no questions asked.

The sound guy shouts to Fake Bon Jovi and nods; Fake Bon Jovi pushes quickly through the crowd in the VIP area and jumps up on stage.

“Just fucking use the levels from last time, it’s the same — ” Fake Bon Jovi gets cut off, the sound guy winces and holds up an Apple tablet, shrugging. Fake Tico’s playing the whole kit behind him, like he’s fucking Fake Neil Peart. Oh, and now Fake Sambora’s got his goddamned talk-box going. Woaow-woaow! Whoa-whoa-whoa! The fucking noise eats up the whole bandwidth, it’s all you can hear. Fake Sambora has to blow the vowel-sounds into a tube next to his backing-vocal mic, and then it feeds into one of his little guitar pedals. He’s way too into it, Fake Bon Jovi thinks, it’s gross. Like he’s almost sucking on it. God. Can’t he just use a wah-wah pedal?

Finally, full band check with vocals. Fake Bon Jovi clears his throat and belts it out, looking out across the empty parking lot and up at the restaurants and bars, the patios and porches of apartment buildings down the block. He swings for the fences. From three blocks away you can hear people sing along, cheering, screaming. The band stops, already a crowd starts to gather.

“We’ll see you in a few hours folks,” Fake Bon Jovi says, speaking up over the small crowd that’s gathered. The crowd stays, curious. It’s a free show, and it’s too early to start drinking full on.

The sound guy nods to the local band and they start lugging their equipment on stage, laughing and joking. Amateurs.

“Sounded good,” the local singer says as he passes Fake Bon Jovi.

“Yeah,” Fake Bon Jovi says, nodding at the crowd, “they’re here for us.”

As Fake Bon Jovi heads for the enveloping cool of the hotel lobby bar, he hears the local band start to play. Some song no one’s ever heard before, one most won’t ever hear again. It’s not what people want, Fake Bon Jovi thinks. They want what they know, a chorus they can sing along to. This band, too herky-jerky. Some weird key, too much noodling, feedback. Amateurish or experimental, it doesn’t matter.

People don’t want that shit. They want Olive Garden, nothing weird, nothing unexpected.

But then he hears it. Fake Bon Jovi stops, turns slightly.

There’s actually a small crowd, gathered in front of the stage. They’re singing along. All the Whos down in Whoville, they’re actually fucking singing.

Something tugs at Fake Bon Jovi. He was young, once, a kid named Jason from a small town with a girlfriend he’d known since high school. He’d been in a band, played local bars — played his heart out for a dozen people. Loved every second of it.

But it didn’t matter; it didn’t pay.

Fake Bon Jovi remembers he tucked a bump away in the toe of his other pair of boots. He glances one more time at the locals, soaked in sweat, dancing to strange songs.

“Fuck this town,” Fake Bon Jovi says.

 

 

Brothers and Sisters: Sketches of Imaginary People I Once Knew

A bone once broken heals stronger, not so the mind.

No, brothers and sisters: when it breaks, it breaks hard, it shatters.

Just a warning.

*

A friend of mine recently posted some lyrics to a song he sang years ago – a song he still sings – when I was in a band with him. I can see him, to my left, over the headstock of my bass: half bent at the waist with the effort, microphone cord around his neck, tendons shredding out of his skin. Through the drugs and the liquor I can just make out that his eyes are closed. Out in the audience, the eyes are open in astonishment.

I had the lyrics wrong, all these years. And maybe we didn’t know each other very well at all. My hell, his hell, not different rungs on some inverted ladder, but different mansions in our father’s house. A book jacket glance at each other, a motel room with the mirror ripped off the wall and laid on the bed, spilling guts, swapping stories. Two things are true: I know him better than I know most people; I don’t know him at all.

But a man doesn’t scream those things – the things I thought he’d screamed, the things he was actually trying to say, things in between – and not like that, not for fun. He seems better these days. I’m sure I do too.

The doctors left the bullet in you, too close to all those vitals, all that precious wiring. It sings when you’re standing under the high tension wires. It sings all the time.

*

And the preacher’s oldest son, out there like a country song, a different dive bar every night. He’s quit more jobs than I’ve had, and he’s been better than me at every one of them. Same with women, more than likely. Most men lay awake praying – to someone, to everyone – that their house won’t burn down, that the sky stays sealed up for one more day. He’s burnt his own house down, with his head high and his heart full of song, and he’s done it more than once. He makes it look honorable, glorious, like a good fucking time.

It isn’t, it’s hard work. But prodigality ain’t a weekend in Vegas, now is it? You can’t simply drink yourself down onto your knees, crawl into the nearest marsh and die. No. An inheritance isn’t something you can smash with a hammer, not something you can burn down with a Molotov cocktail or two. You’ve got to be disciplined about it. You’ve got to take it apart brick by brick.

Your father, my father. In a way they understand, as all fathers understand. We get some of the very best of what our fathers are. We get some of the best and all of the worst.

*

Then there’s her, eyes on the window, the door, any and every exit, ready to OD again on wanderlust.

By the time you’re good at something you’re taken for granted, you’re machinery, you’re fucking furniture. By the time you’re good at something, it’s boring. And boredom is what death feels like, and there’ll be plenty of time for that, soon enough.

But it’s not as simple as that, because she hates to leave, agonizes over it every time. On travel shows, where the world-weary, jetlagged, hung-over host limps through another exotic city, stopping briefly and mournfully to share a bite to eat with some village chef, making beautiful food – simple and pure – there is a moment, the host and the chef, standing side by side. The chef spends his life over some little cast-iron range, the host forever on stand-by at the airport, in buses and trains and cabs. The chef can name every person who eats at his restaurant, except the host, who can’t remember anyone’s name.

And, watching this, her heart goes out – pours out – not to the host, who is kind of a prick anyway, but to the chef. The person who stays, who could not be compelled to leave, who in the ashcan of history makes a home, a home just the same. A beautiful thing in a bloody world miserably lacking in beauty.

Parents want their children to grow up and explore the world, and they want them safe at home. They want both, they can stand neither. We pull up anchor, hands off the rudder, let the sails fill, let the tides decide, let the wind be our answer, let fate obey itself.

You cry, a little, and then change the channel, finish packing your bags.

*

And then there’s Pilot. The space cadet. He looks like you, looks like me. But he does the thing we didn’t do – the things that were right, the things that were wrong – a test pilot, a fistful of drugs and a pint of liquor, up there at Yeager altitude, head on fire, falling through the sky, to see if its possible.

He hits the ground, mangled, burnt, and walks away.

It’s possible.

Our father is the sky, all we can do is fall away from it. All we can do is climb back up towards it.

*

They’re out there, years after I dreamed them, sketches that only mocked me: timid, near-sighted, young. There’s more to them than there is to me, my brothers and sisters. I can’t remember, sometimes, what is real and what isn’t. But I know they’re out there.

Hang in there, hold on to yourselves. Bend if you must, but don’t break. Your time is coming,