Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Two First Dates (Part 2)

   I heard my mother begin to gather up my reluctant brother and sister in the living room next door. Off went the TV. Up went the howls of protest.   
   “Good luck with what?” asked my father. “What are you guys up to?”
   Dad had a little bit of glitter in his eyes, too. He still had a smile on his face from the lovely roast dinner and his Sunday night at home with the family. He’d been working long hours and hadn’t had much time for a home life, so tonight had been special. 
   I worked up my courage and replied, “I want to take a girl to the movies this Friday. I asked Mom and she says it’s okay with her if it’s okay with you.”
   “You what?”
   I took a deep breath and repeated myself word for word, adding in a rush, “I’m all caught up with my homework and I haven’t been late for curfew one night this week. Not once. You can ask Mom if you don’t believe me.”   
   “It’s okay.” Dad threw up his hands, as if I’d got the drop on him in one of his old Hoot Gibson movies. “Take it easy. I believe you.” 
   To my utter amazement, Dad didn’t have any objections to my going to the movies with a girl. Not if Mom didn’t. “I don’t see why not,” he concluded.
   I was amazed because lately Dad had been pretty strict with me. He thought a firm hand and careful watching would help me do better at school, where I was failing miserably. 
   Now he was showing a softer side. 
 “I remember my first date with your mother,” said Dad, absentmindedly twirling the empty coffee cup round his forefinger. He had the same sort of dreamy look on his face that Mom had had just a few minutes before, when she had stood with her back to the sink and talked about their first date. 
   “I was home on leave,” Dad said, his head cocked slightly to one side as he remembered, “just off the Halsey Powell, our old tin can. Back from Korea. We’d taken her through the canal with a skeleton crew and docked in New York. She’d been stripped down for possible decommissioning by then. The scuttlebutt was she was going to be mothballed.”
   “Who? Mom?” I asked. I hadn’t been paying complete attention, detecting as I did that a Navy story was coming on. It was an automatic reaction on my part. How my dad loves to dust off and tell an old Navy story, was what I was thinking, and here it comes.
   “No, no, no, not your Mom,” replied Dad quickly, trying to stay with his Navy story through thick and thin. It occurs to me that I inherited my literary tenacity from him. 
   “Ah!” quietly sighed Dad. “I remember.” He filled his lungs deeply and exhaled with satisfaction, as if the perfumed trade winds from some exotic South Seas Island were blowing through the kitchen. Dad had done two hitches in the United States Navy, joining up the first time when he was barely seventeen. (He’d lied about his age to get in. It occurs to me that I inherited my tendency to lie about my age from him, too.) He was from Texas, born twenty-thousand leagues from the sea in any direction, and he hadn’t been on a large craft since I was in swaddling clothes, unless you counted the ship that brought us to New Zealand. But one of Dad’s main characteristics, as far as I could tell (if a son of fifteen can really tell anything about his father) was that he was a sailor. A man of the sea. In another life he might have been a Columbus, or a Cook, or a Magellan. 
   “What a voyage that was!” he continued. “We’d been off the Korean coast lobbing shells at Commie installations, and hadn’t had any shore leave for more than three months. You can imagine how restless the crew was, and I mean restless! Well, the wild frontier port where we docked was known throughout the Seven Seas for it’s loose morals and tight ...”
   His eyes shone in the half-light of the kitchen as he began his tale. How he loved reliving his old Navy days, which, now that I think about it, might have been a difficult thing to do in New Zealand in 1968, there being so few Navy buddies around to relive them with. I quickly calculated that Dad didn’t have a single Navy buddy within six-thousand miles, unless there was one stationed at Tonga. 
   He smiled and said, more to himself than to me, “But I promised your mother I’d keep that one for later.”
   Too bad, that one sounded like it was going somewhere interesting. The first time I ever recollect feeling that way about one of Dad’s old Navy stories. 

   To be continued…

Monday, April 27, 2015

Two First Dates

(Part 1) 

   “Mom? Why is it so hard to talk to girls?”
   “Oh, I don’t know, honey,” she replied. “Let me think about it for a minute.” 
   It was after dinner and we stood at the sink together doing the dishes, just us two. The kitchen was dark except over the sink, where a single light allowed us to see what we were doing. Dad and my brother and sister were in the living room, watching TV. 
   I’d offered to help with the dishes so that we might have a word alone, me and Mom, not because I particularly like doing the dishes. 
   “Do you find it hard to talk to girls?” she asked.
   “Yeah,” I admitted. “I don’t know what to say.
   “Be yourself, that’s best. You’re funny and smart. I’m sure you’ll think of something to say.”
   “I really liked Ethne, Mom. She was different, you know?”
   (I’d met Ethne earlier that day, and had talked about her all through dinner. I might add that at the time of my story, I was fifteen years old, and we had been living in New Zealand about a year.)
   “Oh? I’m glad,” said my mother. “She sounded nice.”
   “Yeah,” I sighed, “she was nice.”
   We were silent for a bit as we worked together at the sink. Mom was washing. I was drying. I was wondering how to broach my next question, when my mother asked;
   “Did you plan on going to the movies this Friday, honey?”   
   “Yeah. How did you know?” I replied. “Would that be okay?”
   “A mother always knows, son,” she said with a smile. 
   I had heard her say this many times before. It was kind of a joke between us. A mother always knows. Joking or not, Mom liked to believe it. 
   You might have noticed that I’ve tended to believe it, too. 
   “About the movies,” I reminded her. “Is it okay if I go?”
   “I think so. You know we don’t mind you going to the movies if you stay out of trouble and keep up with your school work.”
   “Ah, Mom? I wanted to take Ethne to the movies. Do you think that would be okay?”
   “Oh? You didn’t mention that at dinner.” 
   “Uh, no, I didn’t, did I? Well, I couldn’t with Pammy and Andy listening. They’re just kids.”
   (Pammy and Andy are my sister and brother.)
   “Oh. I understand,” said Mom, suppressing a smile.
   “What would they know about love?” I insisted.  
   “You’ll have to ask them, I guess,” said my mother in her smooth southern drawl.
   Until then, I had always gone to the movies alone.
   “You know we’re trying to help you do better in school, don’t you, honey?” Mom asked gently. “This may not be exactly what your father has in mind, though.” 
   She thought for a minute. “Is your homework all caught up?”
   “Just about. I’ll finish tonight.”
   “Rusty,” she looked me square in the eye. “Are you sure you’ll finish tonight?”
   “Yeah, Mom. Promise.” I spoke the truth.
   “Okay, ask your father,” she smiled. “It’s okay with me if it’s okay with your Dad.”
   “Thanks, Mom.”
   Mom turned away from the sink and sighed. She still absentmindedly held a soapy platter in her hands. After a minute she spoke with a new, husky quality to her voice. 
   “Your Dad took me to the movies on our first date, too. It was in downtown Wichita Falls, at the old Alamo Theater. He bought me some chocolates that I spilled and it melted on my dress in the dark. Oh! Land Sakes!” (My mother’s worst swear words). “That chocolate stain! My mother just about tanned my hide when she saw my dress!” 
   “It was a hot summer’s night,” Mom continued dreamily. “The theatre was air-conditioned, that’s why we went there. The movie was fun. I remember we saw a black and white Cary Grant comedy with lots of kissing in it.” 
   Mom stopped and stared off into space, the platter in her hand dripping soapy drops. She was remembering her first date with Dad probably, or imagining Cary Grant with lots of kissing. “Your Dad looked so handsome in his Navy Uniform,” she continued (looks like it was Dad over Cary, in my mother’s heart of hearts). “He had a mustache then. It was red and crinkly. He was very respectful and kind, too, with a funny sense of humor that made me laugh. Don’t tell him I told you so, but your Dad used to smoke cigarettes back then.”
   “What?!” I exclaimed. “Dad? Smoking? With a mustache?”
   “Well, he didn’t use his mustache to smoke,” she laughed. “He stopped when I told him he tasted like an ashtray. That was later.”
   “Did you guys kiss?” I asked. Mom’s story was a gold mine. I was riveted.
   “What a question!” laughed my mother. “I’m not telling.”   
   “Not telling what?” said my father. 
   He had come into the kitchen to see if there was any more coffee. He stood expectantly in the middle of the half-lit room, with his empty coffee cup dangling on his forefinger.
   “Any more coffee?” he asked, then repeated, “Not telling what?”
   “Oh, we were just talking about the movies,” answered Mom. “Do you remember the old Alamo theater downtown?”
   “Back home in Texas? Wichita Falls? Sure I do! I used to sneak in there when I was a kid. Me and a little walleyed boy named Danny Sequoia, to see Hoot Gibson pictures! Shucks!” (My dad’s worst swear word.) “Why he snuck in I’ll never know, because his dad owned the place.”
   Mom and I laughed at Dad’s joke.
   “We had our first date there, didn’t we?” he asked Mom.
   “Yes, we did, honey.” I could see that my mother was pleased that Dad had remembered their first date. It would have been bad if the only thing he had remembered about the Alamo in downtown Wichita Falls had been sneaking in with Danny Sequoia. Mom smiled and her eyes glittered behind her glasses. 
   “I’d better get the children off to bed,” she added. “Excuse me.” Saying this, she went over and gave Dad a kiss on the cheek as she undid and removed her apron. She was wearing a summer dress and sandals. “I’ll make us a fresh pot of coffee when I’ve finished with the children,” she promised.
   “Fine,” said Dad.
   “Good luck,” she whispered to me conspiratorially, and ducked out.

   To be continued…

Friday, April 24, 2015

Quality vs Quantity

   I met my friend Kathy for a few beers the other night. 
   We met at a roadhouse on State Road 436 up by Casselberry, near where I live.
   We were just meeting for a drink, but I was going to stay on afterwards for something to eat. I like the fish and chips they serve. The fish is deep-fried just right and the chips are as thick as your finger. 
   But I hate the coleslaw that comes with it. 
   It’s too soggy. Like someone figured if a little bit of dressing was good then a whole lot must be better. 
   Like many things, good coleslaw is a matter of Quality vs Quantity. 
   When Kathy arrived we ordered a beer. We thought we’d try a couple of Shark Attacks, an IPA known for it’s body, and the fact that (to some) it tastes like shark’s piss.
   How they’d know what shark’s piss tastes like I couldn’t say… but a Shark Attack has a certain unique something that’s hard to deny. I’m just glad when they serve it nice and cold.
   To me, beer is also a matter of Quality vs Quantity.
  The server behind the bar, whose lowrider jeans revealed a flabby ass-crack whenever she bent down and reached under the counter, yawned and handed the Shark Attacks over. 
   “Thank you,” said Kathy politely.
   (Kathy can’t help being polite. She’s from Ohio.)
   “Yeah. Sure,” sniffed the server. “My boyfriend drinks that beer.” As she poured the beer I noticed her arms were covered in tattoos of all shapes and sizes. Dozens of them. I studied these tattoos for a moment with my artist’s eye. 
   I must say not all of them were very good pieces of art.
   Most of them looked more like pieces of something else.
   Those tattoos were another example of Quality vs Quantity. 
   Kathy and I used to discuss Quality vs Quantity all the time at Walt Disney Animation when we worked there in the 1990s. That’s where we met. She was the talented young professional artist just entering the animation game and I was the grizzled old assistant animator who’d been around and knew the ropes. We liked each other immediately and eventually worked closely together for many years. Millions of people have enjoyed our work on the silver screen, and delighted at the characters we helped bring to life.
  But these magnificent cartoons were expensive to produce. The bosses at Disney were always asking us to go faster. To produce more footage in the time allowed. To hurry it up!
   Animation is a very good example of Quality vs Quantity. 
   We called for two more beers. 
   (Aha, I thought. Maybe when our server bent down to get the beers I’d see her ass-crack again. Then I could quietly point it out to Kathy. Heh heh. Kathy would be embarrassed and her discomfort ought to be good for a laugh.)
   Alas! At the precise moment when we might have caught a cracky glimpse the server’s telephone rang and she crept away to answer it.
   Another server, with a nod from Lowrider, saw to our Shark Attacks. 
   (Rats! I cursed to myself. No ass-crack for Kathy.)
   Perhaps that’s just as well. 
   I’m pretty sure Kathy doesn’t like ass-crack with her Shark Attack.
   We sipped our beers and talked about her latest book illustration job. 
   She showed me some sketches and color studies on her smartphone.
   “Wow!” I said. “Looks great Kathy!” I like looking at Kathy’s work, you don’t have to lie to say it’s great. 
   “Thank you,” said Kathy. “I want to do it. It’s a lovely story and I like the style they want.” 
   But guess what?    
   It was Quality vs Quantity all over again.
   It was needed in a big rush, too, did we mention that? But it had better be good, the best you’ve ever done! 
   And of course, they wanted it cheap.
   Kathy and I laughed together as old friends do. 
   We laughed together at the folly of being an artist in this material world.
   Then I caught the eye of the lowrider wearing server. 
   She came over and I spoke.
      “Two more Ass Cracks, please.”

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Emperors and Bunnies

   “Goodbye!” I called. “Goodbye!” 
   I stood at the rail of the SS Oriana, waving goodbye to America. 
   My family was emigrating to New Zealand. It was 1967, and I was fourteen-years-old. 
   I thought of my impending departure to the other side of the world. I confess I was a little resentful about leaving America and afraid of my unknown, foreign future. Why was I afraid? It was a new feeling, to be afraid of something so intangible. Up until then, I’d only feared things like falling from a tree I’d climbed, or facing an impatient teacher, or a hypodermic needle in the arm at the doctor’s office when I got my booster shots.
   I leaned out a bit over the rail, closed my eyes and listened to the crowd on the pier below. There’s something about a sound in the ear that can put a thought in the mind, don’t you think?
   With my eyes closed I listened to the crowd. I began to imagine myself in Ancient Rome. I stood not at the rail of the ship, but high above in a golden palace. Below me, the admiring masses in their thousands turned out to cheer and bask in the splendor that was me. 
   For I, in my imagination, had become the adoring crowd’s Emperor. 
   The crowd mustn’t see the great Caesar hesitate or falter, I said to myself. It might injure their unprepared psyches to learn that even Caesar may sometimes stumble A Caesar must be brave enough for all. 
   And with Caesar’s bravery, came a little to me.
   “So long!” I called to the crowd below. “Goodbye!” 
   Smiling down at the crowd gathered on the pier, I mentally adjusted the imaginary laurel wreath gracing my godlike brow, and acknowledged with proper dignity the adoration of the crowd.
   The noise from the crowd on the pier came to me… and the great Caesar was gone. Vanished in the Roman sunshine of twenty centuries ago.
   I had a very active imagination when I was young. 
   Too much reading has spoiled his head said most people. I didn’t care. I knew it hadn’t spoiled my head, but had opened it up! Books had been my friends for as long as I could remember. I always had one in my hand.
   I was then reading Ian Fleming’s James Bond series.
   What would the suave James Bond do, if he were in my place, I wondered? 
   I became Bond, or rather a part of me became him, for I was still Rusty the little boy at the rail of the giant ship headed for the unknown, but I was James Bond the grownup sexy spy too. Now my cruel lips, between imaginary sips of sexy martini, sexily pouted out the sexy words, “Bon voyage, old chaps.”
   Boy! Was I suave and sophisticated. 
   My Walther PPK didn’t show beneath my Saville Row suit, but when I held the girls tightly they could feel it, cold and hard against their luscious, full breasts…
   “What a screwball! You took a wrong turn at Cucamonga!” 
   Now came the honking laughter of my cotton-tailed, cartoon-brained childhood hero, Bugs Bunny. He was never far away, but lived within me close to the surface. Nice timing, Bugs, I thought. Just when I was about to daydream about luscious breasts pressed against my… 
  “What a maroon!” Bugs admonished me. He called me that when he thought I was being stupid, which was more and more often lately. 
   As with books, movies played a big part in my life. Especially cartoons.
   Now that I was fourteen I publicly denied Bugs Bunny as too childish for anyone as mature as I. But behind closed doors inside my brain I still adored that crazy rabbit. Bugs Bunny, as great as any emperor, as smooth as any spy! Actor, singer, comedian, lover, adventurer, prankster, etc, etc. Deflater of the pompous and champion of the underdog. Antiauthoritarian sociopath. 
   My kind of rabbit.
   “A maroon? Who, me?” I asked. It was a cruel indictment. 
   Nobody wants to be a maroon.
   “Watch me paste this pointy-headed palooka with my patented, pernicious, pulverizing, pachydermic pitch!” answered Bugs.
   It was zen-like how he could sum things up like that. 
   I turned to Bond for help in deciphering Bugs’ advice. Surely the two knew each other and were friends, up there in my head? Ask Yosemite Sam, he’s up there too, isn’t he?
  Bond exhaled cigarette smoke from his flaring nostrils, looking bored with me and my little problems. With a witheringly nonchalant glance he uttered with almost ferocious suaveness, “Shaken, not stirred, Rusty old chap.”
  I hated it when he called me old chap. It sounded so condescending. Of course, Bond knew that, that’s why he did it. He was always trying to be cooler than everyone. That’s one side of him I couldn’t appreciate. He had it all, yet he still had to best you at every opportunity. He was a real competitive jerk. 
   He probably has tiny disfigured genitals, I figured, inside his Savile Row underpants and is just overcompensating with all his shallow womanizing, fast cars and world traveling.
   Oh, how I hated him! 
   Oh, how I wanted to be him! 
   (Except with better genitals, obviously.) 
   Why do we sometimes hate the things we love? 
  “Bon voyage, old chap,” Bond said quietly, and then he was gone. 
   I don’t know about the people in your head, but the visitors in mine can disappear as quickly as they come.
  “That’s all, folks!” laughed Bugs, and he was gone too.  
   Suddenly I was back at the rail of the SS Oriana, leaning out a bit and waving to the crowd on the pier below. I was alone. I was back in real life. My life.
   Immediately to depart America, bound for the unknown. 
   “Goodbye!” I called. “Goodbye-eye!”

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Slow Train Going

   Last week I met my friend John at the usual place for coffee. 
   We used to work together at Walt Disney Feature Animation, John and I, animating cute little characters loved the world over, until the executives came out from California and casually laid us all off, closing the Florida studio and throwing over three-hundred people out of work. 
   You know what they say: Managers go on forever, but artists only last a short time. 
   That was years ago, in 2004. 
   We’ve all passed a lot of water under the bridge since then. 
   Now John and I like to meet once a week or so, to stay in touch and encourage each other in our various artistic endeavors. I should say John’s various artistic endeavors, because artistically he is far-ranging, up to date, and never at rest. He’s always trying something new. Sculpting, drawing, painting, animating, teaching, he can do it all.
   Me? I’ve been doing the same thing for the last four years; trying to write a 100,000 word novel filled with humanity and humor and maybe some cosmic truth.
   Who knew it would be so difficult to write a book? 
   Not me.
   John and I went to the counter to order our coffees. To my surprise, there was a different person behind the counter today. The disinterested guy who was always texting and getting our orders wrong, with the tattoo of a cartoon superhero on his neck, was gone. In his place stood a smiling young woman.
  “Hi,” she said. “What will you have?”
   Her cheerful efficiency threw me for a loop. I wasn’t expecting that. “Uh,” I said, “I don’t know. Hmm. A flat white, please.”
   To my surprise, that’s what I got. Usually I got whatever the disinterested young man gave me, whether I’d ordered it or not. Now, for a change, I had got what I ordered.
   You can’t rely on anything in this world. 
   We sat down at our usual table. “What are you and your wife fighting about these days?” asked John with a smile. He knew fighting with the missus was one of my favorite subjects. Had been for years. 
   “Bob Dylan,” I answered.
   “You’re fighting about Bob Dylan? How’s that?”
   “We’d been fighting for a few days, I don’t remember what about. I think it was about her potted begonia plants. They’re everywhere, and sometimes it gets on my nerves. Plus she keeps moving them around, you never know where they’ll pop up. So I kinda feel like they’re always sneaking up on me. Anyway, to get out of the house and away from the fighting, I was going to visit my pals Tim and Aileen down in Kissimmee and have a few beers.”
   “Yeah?” says John. “What happened next?”
   “Well,” I answered. “Hearing this, she insists she’s going too. ‘What?’ says I, ‘if you think I’m going to sit in a car with you for forty-five minutes when we’re fighting like cats and dogs, forget it! Someone could get killed!’”
    “Meaning you could get killed,” laughed John. 
    “Yeah,” I agreed. “So she jumps in my car and slammed the door. ‘I’m going!’ she says, folding her arms and adding a few oaths. ‘And you can’t stop me!’ 
   “‘Oh yeah?’ I said. ‘What about me being such a grandpa driver? You hate the way I drive. Now you can’t wait to go with me!’ So I get out of my car. I just left her there. I needed to cool off. What else was I going to do?”
   “I don’t know,” answered John. “You’re telling the story.”
   “I thought it over for a minute and decided maybe we can do it. Maybe we can manage to sit next to each other for three-quarters of an hour without fighting. Who knows? Miracles can happen, can’t they? So I take a few deep breaths to relax and then I get back into my car. Looking at her though, I see it’s useless. She’s good and angry by now!
   “‘Ha! Ha!’ she laughs. ‘So you changed your mind, did you? You’re such a weak bastard! And if you think I’m going to listen to Bob Dylan on the way, you can forget it!’ Then she pulled the CD out of the player and threw it out the freaking car window!
   “Man, was I pissed off!” I added. “And we hadn’t even left the garage!”
   “Well,” says John. “It’s better to be pissed off than pissed upon, isn’t it?”
   “Sure,” I agreed. “I know that. Only she was trying to piss me off, you know? What’s the good of that?”
   John just nodded. He’s married too, so he would probably know.
   “It was okay, though,” I conceded. “She threw out Slow Train Coming*, So the joke was on her!”

* Columbia Records (1979)

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

“All Ashore That’s Going Ashore!”

   “Goodbye!” I called. “Goodbye-eye!” 
   I stood at the rail of the SS Oriana, waving goodbye to America. 
   It was 1967, and I was fourteen-years-old. 
   My family and I were emigrating to New Zealand. 
   I kept waving as I idly scanned the crowd gathered on the pier. I didn’t expect to see anyone I knew. The people who had come to see us off had left long ago. 
   The giant ship would be departing soon. Departing Long Beach bound for Hawaii, Fiji, Tonga, New Zealand. The names both allured and frightened me. I confess I was a little resentful about leaving America, and frightened by the idea of living in a strange land on the other side of the world.
   “All ashore that’s going ashore!” 
   I heard the singsong command and turned from the ship’s rail to see a sailor in a white uniform ringing a brass bell the size of a pineapple, announcing the last call for going ashore.
   “All ashore that’s going ashore!” he repeated. 
   I recall him vividly because as he approached me shaking and clanging his bell, I chanced to hear between clangs the stiff, starched legs of his spotless sailor pants brush against each other with a dull, clapping sound. Clap, clap, clap. A clap with each step he took. It was a small thing that probably nobody else would even notice, but I found it delightfully amusing. Clap, clap, clap went his pants, and I was enchanted. I looked up from the sailor’s musical trousers and into his face.
   I wanted to share my delight in his pants by offering him a big, bright smile. 
   To my complete astonishment, he gave me a look of reproach and hatred. 
   It was a look that said, “What are you grinning at, you stupid boy?” 
   My eyes fell from his face to the ship’s deck. The decking looked like planks of gold in the California sunlight. 
   I was afraid to look up into the sailor’s face. And for this I hated him, for we hate the things we fear. I let my mind wander down a gruesome vein, drawing on scenes from my beloved books and movies to invent magnificent comeuppance for the sailor. 
   Yes, I thought, he would issue that look to the wrong boy one day. Then he’d be sorry! He’d wake up dead in an Opium den down by the docks with a dozen stab wounds in his starchy body. A dozen stab wounds made from a dozen different all-seeing knives! To fall clutching his murderers, not like noble Caesar clutching Brutus in the Senate described by Shakespeare, but like Janet Leigh in the Bates Motel clutching the shower curtain in the movie Psycho envisioned by Hitchcock. A horrible, surprising, lonely death! Ha! Ha! His pants would clap, clap, clap as he twitched in agony! Then to be buried in a nameless pauper’s grave in a cemetery outside the ancient, crumbling city walls. It would be raining dismally, the Monsoon season having begun that day but it wouldn’t matter because no one would come. No one to mourn him, the infidel foreigner in a foreign port. His aged mother back home, alone and forlorn in her rocking chair by the fire, forever haunted by her son’s unknown fate…
   Clap, clap, clap. The sailor’s pants were getting closer!
   Clang! Clang! I heard the bell ring out!
  “ALL ASHORE THAT’S GOING ASHORE!” came the lusty cry!
  Gathering my strength I looked up from the deck of golden planks. I wanted him to see that I wasn’t afraid. I didn’t want to be the little boy he had scared shitless with his sneer. I wanted to meet his eyes head-on! 
   Too late, for he had passed. 
   Passed without a backwards glance. It was as if he didn't even know I was there.  
   With growing relief I watched the sailor march away, the clapping of his pants growing fainter with each step.
   “All ashore that’s going ashore!”

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Twenty to a Pack

   From Orlando to Honolulu via Los Angeles is a long way. 
   By the time we’d sorted ourselves out at the airport we didn't arrive at our Waikiki hotel until 11PM. We were kindly received and shown to our room. Saucy Boy (a nickname for my wife) quickly unpacked and put away her things. 
   “I don’t like people touching my things,” she said as she unpacked.
   “That’s not what you said last night!” I boasted. 
   “You!” she laughed. “Don’t you ever think of anything else?”
   Believe me, with Saucy Boy, it’s difficult not to. 
   “Good!” she answered, and we embraced.
   Then she made us gin and tonics. Within minutes Saucy Boy can work miracles in any kitchen. And a good gin and tonic is a miracle of sorts, don’t you think? Her eyes sparkled as she handed me the drink. She loves to travel. It’s when she’s happiest. 
   With our stuff put away and drinks in our hands, we felt at home on our travels.
   Ah, those gins hit the spot and eased out some of the kinks! 
   We stepped through the sliding door. The night was warm. I bumped my head against a tree limb that overhung the patio, and we laughed. We sat in chairs beside the pool and spoke of things we hadn’t spoken of in a long time. After awhile we dropped into a comfortable silence, both of us staring into the shimmering black water of the hotel swimming pool. 
   It was well after 2am. They had turned off the pool lights hours ago. I lifted my tired eyes from the water. 
   “I need some sleep,” I said. 
   Saucy Boy did too. Her sparkling eyes had dimmed and were slowly closing.
   “C’mon,” she said. 
   We returned to our room, undressed and fell into bed.
   “What the…?” I asked.
   “Ice-maker,” explained Saucy Boy.
   “KA-BOING!” The ice-making machine next to our room was making ice. “KA-THUMP!” it groaned. I lay awake and listened to it. Where does all that ice go, I wondered? “KA-TWANG!” it croaked. Saucy Boy had closed her eyes and looked to be asleep. What had they done to cool their libations in times before ice machines, I wondered? “KA-BOOM!” it crashed. Saucy Boy didn’t move. Once she was asleep she could sleep through anything. “KA-PHOOEY!” it sputtered. What is it about some machinery that it must be loud to get the job done?
   Ha! Ha! We humans are often guilty of that. 
   “KA-THUMP!” it coughed. It continued to rattle and sputter and crash through the night.
   Somehow, I fell asleep…

   I was awake before daylight thinking about breakfast.
   But before food, a smoke. 
   You cannot smoke within and around buildings in Hawaii, so I got up and threw on some clothes and went out. Saucy Boy was asleep so I left her in bed. The ice machine was silent, so I left it there too. Within a few minutes I was puffing contentedly along as I ambled toward the all-night Denny’s. 
   A pair of drunken young men lurched up from the opposite direction. 
   “Got a spare smoke?” asked one. 
   I was startled and without thinking I answered “No.” Which was pretty stupid considering I was smoking at the time. My answer also surprised me. Why had I refused?
   Why is it so difficult to be a kind person all the time, or even most of the time, or even more than barely some of the time? 
   “There’s twenty to a pack, asshole!” said his friend. He was very intoxicated and slurred out his words with a grand gesture more to the street and the towering hotels all around us, rather than at me, the actual asshole.
   How bitter this retort rang in my ears! 
   “Hey guys,” I answered. “Hold on a minute.”
   We stood together and shared a smoke. Extracting one for later, I handed over the packet, telling them to keep it.
   “Mahalo plenty, man,” they said as they walked on. 
   Mahalo means thank you in Hawaiian.
   “Sure,” I answered. “Aloha!” 
   They waved and turned back on their way. 
   I watched them go with a smile on my face. Phew, I thought, that was a close one! I had almost been that worst of bastards, a cheapskate bastard. Funny how life throws up these cosmic moments. You’re walking down the street minding your own business when suddenly wham! 
   Hey You! To be or not to be! Are you a decent human being capable of sharing, or are you something else? Time to choose! 
   “Show us what you’re made of!” demand the gods, and they lean in, ready for a laugh.
   For a moment my soul balanced on the edge.
   Then the wise man said, “There’s twenty to a pack, asshole!”
   Bringing me back to my senses.

   That day Saucy Boy and I sunbathed on the beach in front of the Royal Hawaiian. That’s a hotel, not a person, by the way. The ocean was warm and clean. We splashed and played in the surf. Later, we ambled up the beach and stopped for a beer to cool off. On the ground by some giant bamboo I found a small, overturned bird’s nest and gave it to Saucy Boy. 
   (She brought it home carefully wrapped in her luggage and has it to this day.) 
   At sunset, sitting together under a Banyan tree with a wonderful view of Diamond Head, we sipped $15 Mai-Tais and watched the waves rolling in. It was very romantic, but we couldn't drink long at those prices, so we left to walk the beach hand in hand. 
   As darkness fell we were on the beach, watching Venus rise out of the crashing ocean. A sliver of moon hung in the sky over our shoulders.
  Later we swam in the hotel pool together. Petals fell in graceful arcs from the nearby plumeria trees. Some of the petals landed in the water. One of them stuck to Saucy Boy’s shoulder, perfect and pink against her smooth brown skin.
   After swimming we went to our room. 
   There we kissed and made love. 
   Soon afterwards we fell asleep, not hearing a sound from our mechanical ice-making neighbor, as if it understood that tonight, right next door, the night was young and the stars were old. 
   Shhhh, nighty-night, little tourists. 

Friday, April 10, 2015

Rusty Reads Aloud

Rusty Reads Aloud

   I met my friend Trooper at Stardust Cafe in Winter Park the other night.
   He used to be a student of mine when I taught animation at Full Sail University. He’s called Trooper, by the way, because he works so hard. It’s a show business tradition to call someone a trooper if they can be relied upon to try their best and never give up.
   Now he’s my go-getting wanna be creative director, and I’m the one being taught. 
   Life’s funny, isn't it?
   He arrived early, setting up his camera equipment to record me when I read one of my stories at the open-mic, on stage in front of some of my writer friends.
   I was nervous, but the Fireball Bourbon I was sipping was helping a bit. I kept looking out for Oola Goodens, the gorgeous blonde sex goddess I like to be seen with on these occasions. She’d said she might make it. Rusty has to look smooth and a beautiful girl on your arm is certainly that.
   Oola never showed up but sent me a text message telling me to break a leg.
   Oola has shapely brown legs, I was thinking when Trooper spoke. 
   “Don’t worry,” he said. “You’ll be fine.”
   “If you say so,” I said, hoping they wouldn't announce me until I’d finished another Fireball.
   “Better take it easy on the Fireballs,” suggested Trooper. “How many’s that? You don’t want to fall down on your way up to the stage like you did last time.”
   “I blame my eye patch for that!” I answered defensively. “I had it on the wrong eye.” 
   Did I mention that another of Rusty’s ideas about looking good is to look something like a grinning deviant half-drunk pirate?
   “Don’t forget to put this camera on the table behind you and point it at the audience,” reminded Trooper, handing me a camera. “And don’t scratch your crotch if you can help it!”
   “Sure,” said I, taking one last sip of my Fireball. “That’s easy for you to say.”
   “And now... for all you Rusty fans!" called the DJ Chet and for a moment I thought I was in Vegas. "Open your toolboxes and reach inside... because I give you … RUSTY PLIERS!” 
   I heard applause as my mind went blank and I started for the stage.
   “Thank you,” I stammered into the mic. “I’m Rusty Pliers.”
   I cleared my throat and began speaking.

Nocturnal Events 

   My family emigrated to New Zealand in 1967, when I was fourteen-years-old. 
   I was a gawky, introspective kind of kid who didn't adapt very well to my new country. I especially found school difficult. My parents, trying to be helpful, said that I should ‘buckle down’ and try harder. 
   They kept insisting a boy with my talents could do better. 
   Much better.
   I told them I was doing my best, but I don’t think they were falling for it.
   So during the week on schooldays, my usual nighttime occupation was homework. My parents insisted on that, too. “Better hit those books, son,” ordered my dad every night. Studying History, Math, Geography, English. Not very exciting nocturnal events. 
   However, not every nocturnal event that year was unexciting.
   Sometimes there came to me unbidden in the night while I slept, realistic visions of an extremely sensuous nature.
   Unfortunately, rather than enjoy these wonderfully erotic dreams for what they were, the morning found me covered in shame and the sheets spotted in semen.   
   I’m sure I’m not the first person that that has happened to, awaking to shame and semen, but that didn't make it any less disturbing when it was happening to me, especially the first few times.
   I did my best to hide my shame and my sheets. 
   Naturally, my mother discovered my secret almost immediately.
   “You’d better talk to your father about this,” she said, blushing a little. She wasn't disgusted, as I feared she would be. That made me feel a lot better.
   “It’s a natural thing that comes to every growing boy,” she added. She had been a nurse and I figured she knew what she was talking about. Also, my mother could never tell a lie so I knew I would get the truth, and even a fourteen-year-old boy knows that truth sheds light and light dispels fear and shame.
   “And,” she said, “being part of nature, it’s not unhealthy, do you see?”
   “I think so,” I said.
   “So don’t be worried or ashamed, honey.” 
   I felt relieved, but questions flooded my mind.
   “Yeah,” I started. “But what about when my…”
   “Your dad will explain everything,” she hastily promised, anticipating me and dismissing the subject. 
   And explain dad did. 
   I think he was more nervous than I was, as we sat down to talk. After the first hour, my head was dizzy, my innards were knotted, my faith was crumbling. After a few hours more we had to halt for an intermission and call for sustenance. Mom, bringing in the tea and cookies, glanced nervously at us and departed in silence. After another hour Dad’s voice grew horse and he resorted, as I suspected he had planned all along, to diagrams. Being an artist, I believe he felt himself on firmer ground with a pencil in his hand. Try as he might though, Dad’s explanation was vague and more dismissed the subject than elucidated it. Maybe it was me, although I’m usually not so dumb about a subject I’m interested in. 
   I wish I’d taken notes, because this particular man-to-man talk between a father and son, with its confusing mix of science, religion and voodoo, could never be realistically captured all these years later by a writer of my, shall we say, modest endowments. 
   Yes, I said modest endowments and a pun was intended there. After all, I’m a humorist and I’ve got to grab them when I can. 
( To those of you looking for a joke about grabbing endowments, I salute you!)
   Odd, but I remember that our epic ‘Birds and the Bees’ tete-a-tete, covering human history and the sciences from the dawn of man to the present time and lasting more than four hours according to the kitchen clock, had not one mention of sex, or bird, or bee. 
   Mom later said, as the hours passed and we had not emerged, that she was getting ready to call in the marines, although how in the heck they could have helped I have no idea.

   I stopped reading.
   I heard applause.
   It was over. 
   Incredibly nobody had thrown rotten fruit or empty bottles at me as I read.
   “Thanks for listening,” I said as I left the little stage. “I’m Rusty Pliers. 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Art Directors

   Terri was the only true American who lived at the apartment on Seventh Avenue.  
   In 1987 a bunch of us stayed there. A South African, a couple of New Zealanders, a Thai, an Englishman, an Irishman, an Argentinian and Terri, the American. 
   Every one of us was an artist of some type.  
   She was tall, well-built and outgoing, like you’d think an American would be. Truth was she came from some underpopulated state in the Midwest, but she told everybody she was from Texas. She attended acting school and had been in a couple of local TV commercials.
   I’d been in New York a couple of months and I hadn't found any animation work yet, so money was tight.
   Nowadays, I like to laugh and call this time of my life my Starving Artist Period. 
   In those days, however, it didn’t seem quite so funny.
   Odd how time distorts things. Or does it remember them better?
  Terri understood about show business. How you had to keep plugging away and hope for a lucky break. And keep laughing! We would often get together and laugh at the crazy business of making TV commercials. 
   “You know art directors!” she said as she rolled her lustrous eyes. “Well hon, I’ve got an art director story for you.” Terri was the first American I got to know in New York. She confirmed my opinion that Americans were honest and smart and funny, and had the world on a string.
   “It was on a breakfast cereal commercial,” she continued. “They kept us waiting on the set for the whole day,” Terri remembered, “while two art directors argued over whether the product was crispy or whether it was crunchy.” Terri sighed with impatience. She wanted to be a movie star and these small jobs on the way to stardom were something she endured, as the princess of legend must sometimes endure the pea under her mattress.
   As an out of work animator I’d have settled for one-tenth of a 30 second commercial, crispy or crunchy or pan fried.  
   “We all got double the union rate for it because it was so cold in that warehouse,” said Terri. “I was goose pimples all over!” She shivered with remembrance, while I pictured Terri in a large bowl of cereal and  milk with goose pimples all over. 
   “And I mean all over!” she repeated. “My nipples were sticking out to here!” Terri was the happy possessor of a near complete lack of modesty regarding her body. And she had every reason to be proud of it. She had a magnificent figure.  
   “While we were waiting around, the damn assistant director made a grab for my ass and I had to break his arm. Jerk! He was married, too, the little toad! Imagine that!” Terri laughed at the folly of men. I suppose every pretty girl in the world learns that trick. “His wife used to pick him up with the kids in the car after work!” she continued. “It was a blasted STATION WAGON! Hahaha!”
   She laughed a dazzling laugh, her perfect American teeth sparkling in my eyes, before adding, “We get along okay now. He just had to find out that I’m not that kind of girl, you know? His arm healed fine. He has almost complete use of it again. 
   “Remember Sugar,” she added, her big movie-star eyes aglow, “You have to be careful how you treat the little people on the way up in this business.” 
   Terri knew she was on the way up. It was just a matter of time.
   She was probably joking about breaking the art director’s arm, but just to be sure I nodded agreeably. I didn’t always know when to believe what Terri was saying or not. It’s a problem I still have with pretty girls today. I didn’t care if Terri spoke Swahili, she sparkled like a diamond.
   With Terri, the world was her stage.
  “Okay,” I answered. “Settle back and let old Rusty tell you all about art directors.” 
   She leaned back in her chair and said with a cheeky smile, “Tell me all about it, Rusty.”
   “It’ll be a pleasure, my dear,” answered I. “In this story the art director wanted to make a slight costume change. After the fact.”  
   I told Terri my art director story. 
   I’d produced a 30 second TV commercial for peanut butter, which starred, naturally enough in the animation business, a talking peanut. It was during post production, when the work is complete and being transferred from 35 mm negative to broadcast quality 2 inch tape. We were in a video editing room costing thousands of dollars per hour. The transfer was going well. Everyone was happy. 
   The art director, after arriving late, leaned in over the editor’s shoulder, spilling some of his coffee on the editing equipment. “Oops,” he laughed. “Someone please get me some more coffee.” Then he pointed at the main character on the screen, asking, “Can we lose his hat? It makes him look too… upper class.” He cocked his head and stared at the little peanut on the screen, adding, “I’m not sure he relates well enough to the common man.” 
   He was one of those art directors who didn’t know much about art, and wasn’t very familiar with directing, either.
   I looked at the translucent coppery film negative threaded thru the glistening editing machine, winding this way and that, and thought of all the hard work that went into the making of that 30 second commercial. Forty-five feet of film. Seven hundred and fifty video frames. Over 600 animation drawings, individually drawn, copied, inked, painted, punched. A dozen layouts corrected, backgrounds painted, cels cleaned, photographed painstakingly one frame at a time, sound effects added, negatives cut. 
   Imbecile, I thought. It took me twelve weeks of hard work to make that commercial, including, as usual with animation, some all-nighters. Now it was done. Of course I couldn’t just take off his bloody hat! 
   I had animated the company logo, the creature to be seen on all the company product, a suave little peanut with a top hat and cane. It looked just like him, only this one could talk. Maybe it was the monocle he was wearing that made him look imperious and out of touch with the common man, I wanted to suggest, or the silver-tipped cane he carried, or the white gloves covering his three-fingered hands, or the spats he wore upon his cartoon feet. Or maybe it was simply because he was a talking peanut. 
   I also wanted to suggest that the art director jump in the lake. 
   Instead I laughingly said sure, I could remove his hat. If they had enough time and money, I could do anything.
   “Oh. Well,” said he, adding magnanimously, “We’ll leave it as it is, then.” 
   We aired the commercial like it was. Everybody loved it. I even got a note from the art director, telling me how pleased he was with it. Personally signed on his monogrammed card.
   I wasn’t paid for months.