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.

 

 

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Long Year City

Last year was a dark year, a year of the old gods. We fought the good fight and lost. The war ground on. Attrition. A slow and unstauchable bleeding. At work, we tried to hold the line, for good food, for good people, losing ground all the time.

Then our work casloppy ript Sloppy died, drowned in a weeklong deluge. We had, over the the year, earned her trust. Brought her from her nervous perch in the forest to the edge of our kitchen, fed her, and even petted her, once or twice. But Sloppy was a wild animal and would not – perhaps could not – be changed. She came as close as she did to teach her sole surviving kitten that we could be trusted. Her kitten – Biscuits – was trusting and friendly, allowing us to pick him up, play with him, take him to the vet, and eventually our baker adopted him.

It was the last thing Sloppy did, her final and instinctively devoted sacrifice. We found her body and buried her. Pete and I dug the grave. Christopher sang ‘The Pipes are Calling.’ It’s you must go, and I must bide. We poured out our liquor. And we went our separate ways that day, knowing it was over for us. When the gods cast their judgement, they cast it deep in your heart. You just know.

After that, it was just a matter of time. Some quit, some got fired. I stayed behind, to fight the lonely fight, the war against callow mediocrity and bloodless corporate cheapness. I stayed, but not heroically. I stayed out of necessity, and stubbornness, and blindedness. I stayed because my heart was too broken to move on.

Heartbroken, because last year our best friend died.

I’m just now almost able to talk about it. ‘Almost,’ meaning I can joke about it: awful, cruel jokes. But hurling hurt back at the world is not the same as coming to terms with it. My wife is getting a tattoo – the first, last, only portrait I think she’ll get – and our longtime artist could barely make it through the sketch without crying. I doubt either of them will fare better during the actual session. Tattooing – the time, the pain, the process – is often about catharsis. I hope it will be for my wife.

As for me, I’ll be getting the same portrait, in a few months when the money’s saved up and our artist has recovered. But I need something more. For three months, I’ve needed to scream and had no mouth. The death of my friend wrecked me. I woke up early, long before the sun, everyday. I woke up and I just stood in the empty kitchen, staring at the empty living room. He wasn’t there. My hands felt like numbed stumps. I walked, alone, around the collecting pond near my apartment. The gravel crunched, ospreys cried out in the trees. I picked up my guitar, strummed an old chord progression, and felt nothing. I stared at blank screens, cursor blinking, ticking away time, ticking away nothing. I tried: wrote a few weak false starts.

I was writing pointless sentences, playing boring chords, cooking meager food. All I wanted to do was sleep and I was developing chronic insomnia.

I’d stare at my ceiling, stare at the woods, stare at the road. I’d remember his face.

It’s hard. It is very hard to make yourself accountable for the grief of a dead dog. For many people, I did not try. What words could close that chasm? They’d have to be there, with me, to be me, as I stood there, in the quiet little room at the veterinary hospital, pushed the plunger on the syringe, and felt my best friend slip away in my arms. Every day for ten years, for the entirety of my marriage, the entirety of my adult life, I have woken up to his face and fallen asleep to it. Now it just a memory: his eyes, growing heavy, for the last time.

I have a picture, that I will not show you here, of his tired, swollen face. My face is pale and tired, my wife’s face is bruised from crying. A ruptured cancer in his stomach caused him to bleed out. His heart was so strong that he survived for a over a week; most dogs would have died instantly. When my wife and I adopted him, his heart was so weak he was not allowed to play, or walk more than a block. But he was, in the end, the strongest living creature I ever met. In the picture, you can see what that strength granted him: grace and dignity. He didn’t die in his sleep, or in the back room on a metal table. He waited, until we were there, to see him off. In the picture you see it, in his eyes, through the drugs: resignation, peace. He was ready to say goodbye.

He was ready, I was not.

I am still not.

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unnamed

Maximilian Caesar Bear, 2003-2015

It is so hard to make yourself accountable to people. Dogsgrief. That should be a word. It should mean, to the lucky, to the uninitiated, a kind of secondhand mourning, a minor injury. And, to the unlucky, to those who have lost a best friend, it would mean something else. A dog is not a human, though so often my friend seemed like a human in a dog suit. They are something else, an alien intelligence, a kind martian: wiser and dumber and different than us, but no less worth our love – and thus, our grief – in their time with us.

We lost a lot in 2015, too much by far. It was dark for nearly half the year.

But Bear, my best friend, hated sadness. He would not tolerate crying or moping. He would press his face into yours, on the verge of speech, trying to cheer you up. He would be annoyed and ashamed at me, for the fallow months that have followed his death. A pitiful thanks for the years he gave me, the joy, the heart.

And so, 2016. My heart still feels broken, like a black meteorite stuck in my chest. But I cannot wallow any longer. Bear would be pawing at the floor, pressing his muzzle to my face, nipping at my hands, barking at the door. Bear would want rock’n’roll, and stories, and food, and adventure.

And he shall have them.

The gods be damned, he shall have them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

12 Ways to Massacre Your Enemies on Valentine’s Day

Last month I promised several things, and – unlike the pizza guy in a mild dusting of Carolina snow – I am here to deliver, goddammit.

*

First, Short Work. ‘Mystery’ went live earlier this month at the Eckleburg Review (and, if you dig that, the Eckleburg folks had me back to talk about the writing of the piece, here). Also, I’ve added links to two stories you aren’t likely to find in your local bookstore: the novelette ‘Dear Penthouse’ – about a model struggling with mental illness, from the Conium Review – and ‘The House of the Dogs’ – about fine dining and war crimes, from Confingo, across the pond. Yes, I said ‘novelette,’ and yes, that is a thing. A good thing.

Stay tuned for two more shorts, coming in early March: ‘A Prayer for War’ delayed but most certainly coming, from Bloodstone, and ‘Horizon’ from PIF Magazine. (‘Horizon,’ is by far the most NSFW thing I’ve had published, so if you’re never been to HR for the ‘uses and practices’ lecture, make sure to read that one at work).

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Next, Rock’n’Roll. Exploding Math Lab has an EP, and you can listen to it. Like Radiohead, we’ll let you pay whatever you want for it (including nothing). Unlike Radiohead, we won’t be mopey, pretentious pricks about it. Check it out: https://explodingmathlab.bandcamp.com/releases – I don’t write our lyrics, but I did write our track notes. Thought I’d put the English degree to good use.

And, of course, we’re playing all over this tiny Carolina town, so if you’re passing through, show up, and we’ll buy you a beer and break your eardrums. Lovingly, of course.

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New Project(s). It’s happening, but it’s top fucking secret (that’s one step above top secret).

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Finally: Twelve Ways to Massacre Your Enemies of Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s Day is the Normandy Invasion for an Italian restaurant in a town without too many fine dining options. Unfortunately for me, in this metaphor, the cooks are the hapless Wehrmacht regulars, given the impossible task of holding off the relentless Americans and their corn-fed optimism, while our cowardly Nazi superiors scamper off at the crucial moment to avoid death or capture.  Our latest chef, Oberstarzt Brian, quit a week before Valentine’s Day, after thinning our ranks with his incompetence and inexperience.  Our management seemed almost disinterested in the massive horde of hungry Americans gathering on the horizon. And, despite having no leadership, we were told we were in no position to make decisions for ourselves.  Outnumbered and underappreciated, we were hung out to dry.

Still, when the onslaught came, we gave it hell.

Why?

I can tell you this: it was not for the customers. We’re happy they had a good time, ate some good food, had a nice evening. But that has very little to do with it. We did it because no one was going to do a better job than us. Good food deserves to be made, regardless of who eats it. Once it leaves the window, we’re on to the next thing.

Now, cooking is not like playing music which is not like writing. But they share a few things. You don’t do it for the money, or the fame, or the glory. And you don’t do it for the audience. That sounds crude, and pretentious, and solipsistic, but it’s true. Ninety percent of the people who come into the restaurant want fettuccini alfredo or lasagna, not because it’s authentic or made with care, but because it’s a relatively inexpensive, because it’s two pounds of rich, fatty, carby, comfort. Ninety percent of people who like what’s on the radio, they like Nickleback’s new single, and Two and a Half Men, and 50 Shades of Grey because they think these things are edgy. It’s just helping after helping of alfredo, unlimited breadsticks, ranch dressing poured over everything.*

But this isn’t a rant about American unexceptionalism.  This isn’t what Kanye, in his stunningly inarticulate way, tried to say about Beck, or what Jonathan Franzen, in his dickishly eloquent way, tried to say about Jennifer Weiner.

Because the writers whose work I’m reading, the bands whose music I’m listening to, the chefs whose food I’m eating, they don’t give a shit what you call them. And they don’t care what other artists are doing wrong and whether the people are eating it up. They care about writing, and music, and food. They’re working their asses off, they’ve got blinders on, because they need that focus. But they aren’t doing it for me, for anyone else. We aren’t entitled to it. In all likelihood, we do not deserve it.

What I’m saying is, if I sit in traffic, listening to an awful song, that is on me. If I go to a crappy taco place – when there’s a legit Mexican joint across the street – that’s on me too. If I only pick up a book because it’s become a movie, and it bores me to tears, if I go to the movies and see some half-thought-out piece of Bruckheimer garbage, if I keep paying for cable ‘reality’ TV, all of that, that great big plate of alfredo and the slow, boring death that comes with it, that is all on me.

As an audience member, someone who loves good food, rock’n’roll, books and movies, it’s easy to blame the artists, to see them as the enemy, to see their greed and indifference as the driving force behind your own boredom. Why do we have this plastic culture? Because that’s the only one offered to us. It’s easy to wish a plague on the houses of Hollywood and Manhattan.

And, as an artist – as a cook, or a writer, or a musician – it’s easy to see the audience as the enemy, to wish them up against the wall. It’s tempting to see their laziness and complacency, their entitlement and ignorance, as the scapegoat for your shortcomings. Why have we not struck it rich? Because the audience is too stupid to understand what we’re doing.

But there are no enemies to massacre, except the ones in our heads. Laziness and greed, boredom and fear, and – the worst of the bunch – entitlement.

No one is owed anything. Not artists, not audiences.

We can go out and find the good shit, or we can make it ourselves, or we can take what they give us. We can go to our local bars and listen to live music, go to a new restaurant, go online and read something weird. Or we can go to fucking Olive Garden.

It’s on us.

 

*

Next time: ‘From the Vault’ – a true story I can’t stop telling even though I don’t remember it at all anymore.

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*Yes, I know I more or less stole this from Gaffigan’s “Mr Universe” special, but – in my defense – Jim Gaffigan is unlikely to read this blog, and if you the reader recognized the theft, then at least I know you’ve got good taste in comedy.

 

The Ballad of Tobin McAfee*

It’s been a month or more since I’ve posted here, so I apologize for the radio silence (hopefully no one was deeply concerned). Good news, I haven’t just been sitting on my ass. I’ve got a number of short stories coming out – one, in print, from the UK, and two online (check out the Short Work page for details and links) – and my band is in the process of recording our first EP (stay tuned for release information and clips).

But today, more than shamelessly plugging my authorial or musical endeavors, I want to tell you a short story – nonfiction, for a change – about the last month. One day, no doubt, the events on the last five weeks will show up in my fiction, a minor character, perhaps, but probably something more. There’s an epic poem to be written, the Aeneid of the kitchen world, heroes and heroines struggling against gods and nature and – most of all – the petty, slovenly evil of mortal men. Great works need great villains, and for the last month I have seen the great villainy, the very incarnation of sloth, indifference, gluttony, and deception.

Okay, a bit much, but just a bit.

In early October, the restaurant where I work hired a drug-addled scam-artist who boasted that he – amongst other things – spoke four languages, was close personal friends with several NFL coaches, bested the US Pastry Team by himself, held the position of chef de cuisine for the Hilton in NYC’s financial district in 2002 (when the restaurant was closed after 9/11), could break down a beef tenderloin in three minutes with 0% percent waste, and could get everyone in the restaurant – including the dish-washers – hefty raises during a recession, even though he was there to cut labor costs. These were all gross misrepresentations, which is to say, these were bald-faced lies. He could not cook (he set fire to every sauté pan I ever saw him touch), he had no original culinary ideas (and plenty of bad ones he borrowed, mostly from the 80s), his budgetary math was the product of coke-fueled hallucinations. He could not even run the salad station – he went down in flames and nearly took the rest of the line with him. He may have once been a passable cook – maybe even a human being – which is a sad thought, because by the time he came to us he was the apotheosis of every joke about kitchen nightmares, a myth made flesh, the worst boss I’ve ever had, a fucking clown. His name was Tobin McAfee, and if he comes to your restaurant in his shiny red VW Beetle, waste no time: kick him in the gut and throw him out.

The good news is that Tobin was brilliant material, a horrowshow of a human being, but further proof that real life can and will exceed satire, that those spectacular failures of reality TV fame are not always the products of scripts and clever editing. I’ll be dining out on stories of just how unbelievably awful this guy was, for months, if not years. He was a walking, talking, shit-packed novel of terribleness, and for that, I thank him. And, it’s worth pointing out, that Tobin brought some light with his darkness. The staff of the restaurant bonded together in ways I hadn’t expected, in the presence of Tobin’s inhuman and inhumane shittiness, we saw and treated each other as human being. We aspired to be better, in every way, in our every thought and deed; we found ourselves turning to Tobin as our negative Savior: what would Tobin not do? Tobin wouldn’t recook that burnt pizza, so we would. Tobin wouldn’t stay late to help the dishwasher close, so we would. Tobin wouldn’t work hard, tell the truth, or treat people decently. So we did. And, as our real chef struggled – to keep from murdering Tobin, to keep the food from suffering, to keep us all from quitting or drinking ourselves to death – we rallied around him. Outside of a platoon of soldiers or a brigade of firefighters, I’m not sure there is anything quite like a kitchen, like our kitchen, a family at war with a world of stupidity, laziness, and crass, generic, mediocrity.

It was enough – for a moment or two – to make me believe in mankind again, and it was worth suffering a month of Tobin for that.

 

*Yeah, that’s the motherfucker’s real name.

 

 

 

 

Would You Rather…

My wife and I play a game – sort of a sick game, I realize – when we don’t want to talk about what a mess the world is; essentially it’s ‘would you rather.’ Would you rather lose your arms or your legs? I say legs: I could get space-age titanium springs  and shave some time off my 10k. Would you rather lose your sight or your hearing? I say sight, because of music and books on tape. I’ve become fairly adept at rationalizing the best of the worst-case scenarios. But there’s one – my wife’s trump card – that always leaves me holding my head, groaning. Would you rather play music or write. She doesn’t enunciate it as a question because it’s not – it’s a fun way for her to watch me go crazy.

Of course, part of the question is ludicrous: it implies that I’ve ‘made it’ in one field or the other, and the demands of success preclude all other endeavors (plus, everyone’s suspicious of the cross-over hit: Jim Carroll is for me the exception that proves the rule). It’s hard, then, to feel bad for me – successful writer or rockstar – since I’m (hypothetically) living the dream, having succeeded in one of the two most overcrowded and economically Darwinian markets ever conceived. But – and my wife knows how quickly and violently this ‘but’ presents itself in my head – I can see myself, leaning against the tour bus, staring through the window at the new-release display of a Barnes and Noble. And I can see myself, sneaking away from the literati to an underground punk show, standing at the back in nice shoes and clean clothes. The look on my face, we’ve all seen before: the person you should’ve married, the job you should have taken, the life that should’ve been yours.

My wife knows this double bind will torture me; she smiles, gets up, pours me two – maybe three – fingers of bourbon and says, with a smile: well, for now you can do both.

And it’s true, provided I’m not terrifically successful at either, I can do both: play rock’n’roll and write fiction. I’m tremendously lucky that I have people in my life that will support the stubborn attempt to do these things (for very little if any money, and when I really ought to be doing more sensible things). So, that’s what this site is essentially about, what it’s for: a clearing house for my underground life: publications in literary magazines you haven’t heard about and rock shows at bars you’ve maybe driven by once or twice. And if I’m successful, if I finally have to chop off my left hand or my right, well then this will be the place to watch me go crazy.