Friday, December 21, 2007

Why Fi?

All the more reason to investigate graduate school in Syracuse (which is what I am, in fact, doing): the entire city appears to be Wi-Fi enabled, and I can use my iPhone anywhere in town, it appears. Which is cool, even though I get full-strength AT&T, too, something I never recall ever getting here with Verizon Wireless or Nextel.

Thursday Thousand

Today, I am blogging live from the bar at the Syracuse University Sheraton. This week's "Thursday Thousand" (a day late and a dollar short) is a more or less stream-of-consciousness short story (which needs help desperately, though I like the basic idea) inspired by another magazine writing contest. This time, the prompt was that the first line of the story had to be "The plane had landed, but." So I give you...
“Baggage Claim”

The plane had landed, but his stomach was still circling over Lake Michigan, the descent had been that abrupt. It still scared him a bit, even though over the years had had racked up enough frequent flyer miles to circumnavigate the Earth three times, all on the airlines’ collective dime, and then take a round trip to the Moon, should a major carrier add it to their route at some point.

“That was a hell of a descent,” he said to the person sitting next to him as the plane roared to a stop. “Waldo Pepper must be the pilot.”

His row-mate smiled humorlessly at him.

The plane had stopped and now was just sitting on the runway.

“We are waiting for a gate to open,” came the captain’s voice over the intercom, “so we’ll be sitting here for about 10 or 15 more minutes. We apologize for the delay.”

He sighed heavily. “You know, this happens every time. It’s like these arriving flights take airports by surprise. I’ve known about this flight for at least two months and yet it always seems like as far as the airports are concerned, a couple hundred strangers have just dropped in unannounced.”

He took the opportunity to turn on his cellphone and check voicemail.

His row-mate looked at him with an expression that seemed to say “I need to get an iPod.”

After the usual wait for a gate, the plane trundled over to the jetway, docked, and the passengers began the long endless exiting process. He trudged down the jetway and across the gate past the rows of vinyl settees, and into the terminal at O’Hare. He had a three-hour layover, and he always chose one particular airline for the sole reason that there was one bar in this one terminal he liked above all others. It was a tad out of the way (to the extent that anything can be out of the way in an airport terminal—save, of course for the gate for one’s connecting flight) and was always uncrowded. No mean feat in O’Hare Airport.

He sat at the bar and ordered his usual (Coors Light), took a deep, satisfying pull on the bottle, and checked his cellphone messages again.

The bar was indeed uncrowded—but then it was 10 a.m., so perhaps that wasn’t that surprising. True, in an airport, conventional measures of time have no meaning, as travelers from different time zones have utterly disoriented their biological clocks, but it seems most travelers seem to at least pay lip service to one’s normal circadian rhythms, especially when it comes to the liquids that pass through their lips (coffee in the morning, alcohol in the evening). Not so our guy, who was on his second Coors Light before he had even finished checking his voicemail messages. And it was Sunday morning.

A woman approached the bar. She was in her late 30s, attractive, he thought as he looked over at her, and dressed as if she had come from the East Coast (it was January). She caught the bartender’s eye.

“Yes, miss, what can I get you?”

“What do you have that’s blue?” she asked.

The bartender was somewhat taken aback, this not being the kind of question he was used to being asked.

“Blue?” he repeated.


“Well,” he thought for a moment. “I could do you a Blue Hawaii.”

“Oh, like the Elvis song. What’s in it?”

“Let’s, blue Curacao, creme de coconut, and pineapple juice.”

“That sounds lovely. I’ll give that a try. The night is young and so are we.”

He leaned over as the bartender mixed her drink.

“You’re an Elvis fan?”

“Well, who isn’t, really?” she said. “If one could rewind the tape of life and have it play again, keeping all of evolution and the development of human culture the same, with the sole exception being that there was no Elvis, I dare say the world would be completely different and the worse for it.” She paused for a moment. “But then one could quite easily think of examples of people who never existed to begin with that the world has missed.”

She paused.

“I’ve never been a big fan, no. I’m just in a blue mood.”

He tried to be sympathetic. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“No, I don’t mean ‘blue’ as in ‘sad.’ To me, ‘blue’ is inseparable from the azure blue off the ocean in the Caribbean. Or, indeed, Hawaii. I’ve come from the Northeast, so I’m definitely imagining ‘blue’ right now. I am constant in opal.”

“Where are you headed?” he asked.

“Somewhere near Los Angeles. My nephew is appearing in his school play so I’m on my way to see him.”

“Wow. You must be a close family if you’d fly three thousand miles to see your nephew in a school play.”

“We try to be.”

He gestured to the bartender to get another Coors Light.

“You’re in Chicago," she said. "How can you drink Coors Light? Goose Island is where it’s at. I insist.” She beckoned to the bartender. “Garçon, a Goose Island for monsieur.”

The bartender obliged and he took a sip. “Very bitter. And strong.”

“You’re probably not used to real beer.”

They sat in silence a while.

“I’m actually on my way to L.A.,” he said.


“Well, I live there.”

“Willingly?” she repeated.

“Well, yes, I suppose. Although, I travel so much I’m never actually there. I was in Boston for a week and I’ll get a whole two days at home before I have to go to Dallas, and then on to Orlando. I may never see home again.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. I suppose it’s a job-dictated itinerary.”

“What else? I’m the national sales manager for the Shur-Grip Stapler Company.”

She looked at him blankly. “You sell staplers?”


“What needs to be sold about them at this point? Doesn’t, like, 99% of the human race know what a stapler does? Well, maybe with the exception of the Kalahari Bushmen, but I wouldn’t imagine they have all that many things to staple. Does there need to be any reason to actually kill yourself trying to sell them?”

“Well, you’d be surprised...”

“I have no doubt.”

He took no small amount of umbrage at her attitude. “Well, what do you do for a living?”

She shrugged. “Nothing, really. I’m a painter, but I make it a point not to make a living at it. Nothing destroys the idea of art more than trying to anticipate the needs of the market.”

“So, basically, you do nothing.”

She shrugged again. “I wouldn’t say that.”

“What would you say?” He was being defensive now.

She paused for a moment, then took a hefty swig of her blue drink. “I spent 10 years on the treadmill to oblivion. You say you spend most of your life traveling. Well, what do you think I did for a decade? I eventually became senior VP for a software company. I traveled all over the place, constantly. North America, Europe, Asia. You name it. The only thing close to a relationship I ever had was with lonely guys in hotel bars, same as me. I dedicated my entire life to one thing, and that was the company I worked for. And then, I heard that my mother had been diagnosed with ALS—amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Lou Gehrig’s disease, basically. I tried to visit when I could, but that turned out to be fairly seldom. They don’t tell you that ALS can progress very fast. I thought I had all the time in the world; I kept thinking, if I can just make it to the next milestone, I’ll slow down and pay attention other things that are happening in the world.”

She took a sip of her drink.

“That doesn’t happen. It’s funny. When you drink too much or take drugs or even have sex too much—basically, anything fun—they tell you that you have an addiction and need to stop. But when you work too much, they tell you that you are an extremely productive member of society, that you are an inspiration, that you are what America is all about, even though your life can get just as wrecked, if not more so.” She paused again and took another drink. “I will never forget this. I was in a meeting. It wasn’t even a particularly important meeting. But my cellphone buzzed and I saw that it was from my father...and I sent it through to voicemail.” She paused again. “I sent it through to voicemail. When I checked my messages, I found out my mother had died. That was it. I missed her entire last years. You know, I was too wracked with guilt to even want to go to the funeral, but our CEO was a decent guy and he said, ‘Rachel, if you don’t go, you will regret it for the rest of your life.’ So I took a leave of absence...and never went back. I resolved at that point that the people in my life would be more important than anything, that enjoying life would take precedent over the pointless treadmill of accomplishing something. That I would pursue a dream rather than live a nightmare. So I moved in with my father, and we bonded in a way we never had before. I started to pursue my true love, painting, and when I need money I do some freelance illustration, or graphic design, or writing, and then stop when I’ve had enough.”

She took another sip of her blue drink as he watched her. “And here I am. I am on my way to see my nephew in a school play, I’m drinking something blue in an airport bar at 8:30 on a Sunday morning, and for the first time in my life, I can say, ‘Life is good.’”

She finished up her drink.

“Anyway, I have a connection soon, and I’m starving. It’s 8:30 in the morning, so I’m thinking...steak dinner.”

He smiled. “How would you like some company?”


They left the bar. She looked back at the bar and stopped him.

“You forgot your cellphone on the bar,” she said.

“No, I didn’t.”

And they walked out into the terminal.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Mass Medea

One of the last shows I ever remember watching regularly (or as regularly as I can manage) in prime time was the late great "Sports Night" (1998-2000), created and almost entirely written by Aaron Sorkin, who later created "The West Wing" and, decidedly less successfully, "Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip." Anyway, I think he's a great screenwriter and at some point (after watching the "Sports Night" DVDs about 80 times) I started developing a low-rent version of his dialogue style, which isn't necessarily realistic, but I like it a lot.

At any rate, one of my experiments in this vein was a comedy-drama feature-length screenplay called Mass Medea, a tale of the rise and fall of a technology magazine during the Internet boom. Since it's 130 pages, I'll only post bits of it at a time so as to not give Blogger a nervous breakdown.

"Mass Medea"
An Original Screenplay



As TITLES run, various shots of the skyline of San Francisco. As TITLES end,




JANICE FRANKEN, 22, lives in a small, two-bedroom apartment. It has that certain appealingly disheveled just-graduated-from-college look to it. It is about 6 a.m. The TELEVISION is on, tuned to CNBC.
(on TV)
...Could the Dow hit 20,000--or even higher—sometime during 1999? That’s the contention of a new book, Dow 36,000, co-written by James Glassman, economics columnist for the Washington Post.
Janice pads out of the bedroom wearing a ratty bathrobe and a pair of slippers. She has obviously not slept much of the night.
(on TV)
The basic argument of the book is that in this new economy, stocks are no riskier than bonds in the long term and should be priced accordingly...
As she passes the front door on her way to the kitchen, it opens and her roommate, CAROL, 22, enters. She is just getting home from work.
Why is there half a mouse on the doormat?

Another love offering from Chuck and Bob’s cat is my guess.

Jesus, it’s nature red in tooth and claw in here.

Are you just getting in?

Whatever gave you that idea?
Carol shuts the door.
Give me a break. I got exactly one hour of sleep last night.

Why? Did Wild Kingdom out there keep you up?

I’m starting a new job today.

Really? I could never have guessed, especially given how you’ve been obsessing about it all week.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. It took forever for me to get this job. I’m nervous about it.

What magazine is it again? Dork Monthly?

Bite me.

We’re in the middle of the biggest economic boom in the history of this country, we’re living right in the epicenter of it, and leave it to you to be the only person in San Francisco who takes six months to find a job.

Hey, that guy on Market Street last night didn’t have a job.

Well, that’s because he couldn’t go five minutes without yelling at the top of his lungs about impending Armageddon. You didn’t do that on any of your job interviews, did you?

Damn! That’s why the job hunt took so long.


Traffic is backed up and unmoving on the Bay Bridge. Among the traffic is a silver Lexus.


The driver of the silver Lexus is NEAL MOSLEY, 38. He is talking on a cellphone.
(on phone)
Yes, I know I shouldn’t be talking while driving but I’m not driving. I’m sitting. A truck filled with garlic overturned. The Bay Bridge is blocked by five tons of garlic bulbs. It’s like an Emeril fantasy out here...I told you, I have to go to Oakland to pick up some scans. We have to get the issue to the printer today...if I ever get off this goddamn bridge!...No, honey, sorry. You know how I get when I’m stuck in traffic....No, that road rage incident was a complete fluke. Who knew that guy could read lips?....No, I won’t be home for dinner. I’ll probably be in the office until late. You know the drill.
(He cranes his neck to see up the road.)
Actually, it’s entirely possible I’ll be stuck on this bridge until late...


George lives in a Tales of the City-like apartment house. Lots of stairs, lots of vegetation.



The apartment is only slightly more upscale than Janice’s. The bedroom is that of a 20-something single male. GEORGE STEIN, 25, is sound asleep in bed, despite the fact that a boombox next to the bed is blaring LOUD MUSIC (Spock’s Beard’s “Day for Night.”) There is a THUD on the ceiling above him that is just barely audible above the music, but it wakes George nonetheless.
Not again...
He gets up and walks out to the kitchen.


There is a full pot of coffee already brewed on he counter. George pours himself a mug and stands at the kitchen sink staring into space blankly. He catches a glimpse of the clock, which says “8:27.” He starts and does a spit-take.


CARL HOGARTH, 42, is sitting on a moderately crowded Caltrain train as it RUMBLES down the track. Next to him is a very-early-20-something man on a cellphone. Carl tries to read a book, but ANNOYING CELLPHONE MAN’s conversation keeps distracting him.
(on phone)
What does Victor think? Can we get Pullman to kick in the VC money we need?...But that’s crazy...No, look, I want to IPO by...I don’t care how unreasonable you think that is, I think it makes perfect sense. The infrastructure is nearly in place, the servers are humming, and aside from that one software glitch, which Rohit fixed, we have no problems. The spinning logo looks great, the animation is dynamic, and the site design is top-notch. I think we’re cooking with Crisco here....
Carl, trying to read his book, has been growing ever more visibly frustrated. The “Crisco” comment elicits a bemused/confused expression.
(on phone)
What’s the latest on the UPS question?...Well, where is she? Why isn’t...This should have been resolved last week...I mean, if we’re going to get off the ground, I need to know how much UPS will charge us to ship a couch....
Carl is unable to stifle a laugh, which attracts the attention of Annoying Cellphone Man. Carl pretends it was something he read, despite the fact that the book he’s reading is “The Complete Techie’s Guide to Red Hat Linux.”

The train stops, and accepts and discharges a complement of passengers. One of the boarding passengers is a HOMELESS GUY, with long greasy grayish black hair and a thick beard. Annoying Cellphone Man dials a new number.
(on phone—and loudly)
Carol! It’s Martin! Look I need the UPS question answered now!
Carl stands and offers Homeless Guy his seat. Homeless Man sits down. Annoying Cellphone Man wrinkles his nose, and looks over at Homeless Guy. Carl smiles mischievously as he walks to the other end of the train.



The Cool Gadgets building is a not especially new building in San Francisco’s SOMA district.



BRIAN MORSE, 44, is sitting at his desk. He is talking to ED over a speakerphone.
Ed, Brian.

(O.C., on speakerphone)
Good morning, Brian. What’s new on the Left Coast?

Not much...yet. We’re shipping the issue to the printer tonight, so it’ll be a long day.

(O.C., on speakerphone)
Thanks for reminding me. I’ll make it a point not to call Neal today.

That would be advisable. Ed, I just wanted to let you know that Katz Software is having a press event at the Hilton in Midtown. Once again, they forgot to put you on the list, but I cleared your credentials with Jackie. So if you just show up you’ll be fine.

(O.C., on speakerphone)
Well, I’ve only been your East Coast editor for a year, and Katz’s PR guy is dumber than a bag full of hammers. What time?

2:00 your time.

(O.C., on speakerphone)
I’ll be there. Katz always hires the best caterers.


(O.C., on speakerphone)
By the way, I’m having e-mail problems this morning, so if you need me, the phone is the best option.

(suddenly remembers something)
Oh, shit!

(O.C., on speakerphone)
It’s not my fault. Blame Bell Atlantic.

No, I forgot to fix the server before Neal gets in. Gotta go.

(O.C., on speakerphone)
I hear you. Ciao.
Brian clicks off the speakerphone and dashes out of his office.


The Cool Gadgets reception area is opposite the elevator, which opens, and Janice exits. She is dressed formally. She walks through a set of glass doors to the reception area, which looks clean, sterile, and corporate. Behind the reception desk on the wall is a large framed poster of the debut issue of the magazine, and elsewhere on the walls are various framed magazine covers, interior pages, and so forth. On the reception desk are several loose copies of the latest issue. As Janice approaches the tall reception desk, she can’t see anyone behind it.
The phone rings and the as-yet-unseen Terri answers it. She is very polite, and her voice sounds like that of a professional receptionist.
(O.C., on phone)
Good morning, Cool Gadgets....Circulation? One moment, please.
TERRI, 19, stands up. She has fluorescent pink hair, a variety of piercings (ear, nose, lip, and tongue), and wears a white tank top that shows off her many tattoos, the most prominent of which reads “Michelle” in a large heart. She startles Janice—in a variety of ways.
(yelling off to her left)
Dave, dog! Line 1!
Terri looks at Janice.
May I help you?

Um, yes. I’m Janice Franken. I’m looking for Neal Mosley. I’m his new...

TERRI’re the new meat.

From the left comes DAVE, who looks to be the male counterpart of Terri—he is also in his late teens, but has vibrant blue hair. He has no piercings, but his cutoff shorts display an array of tattoos on his legs.
That guy was pissed because his issue was a day late. Like I can control the fucking Post Office.

Dave, this is Janice, Neal’s new victim. Janice, this is Dave, the circulation director.

You’re working for Neal? Man, you have my sympathy.

I’m Terri, by the way.

Hi. Um, what happened to Neal’s previous assistant?

Just cracked up. The guys in white coats had to come get him. Last I heard he’s in some nuthouse down the coast.
Janice begins to catch on that he’s joking and smiles nervously.
Seriously, though, good luck.

Thanks. Where is...

(pointing to the left)
The newsroom? Head that way, take your first left and then the next left. You can’t miss it.

Janice heads right.


Cool Gadgets magazine’s main editorial and production newsroom is a large open room, the back of which is lined with three adjacent offices. There is a large round table in the center of the room, which at the moment, is piled high with papers, magazines, random pieces of computer hardware, and boxes of software. Off the left side of the newsroom is Brian’s office. On the far right is one of those Staples-like pre-fab computer desks atop which sits a computer—the company’s server. The newsroom is a bit shabby and run-down—“lived in” might be a better term—in contrast to the slick cleanliness of the reception area.

Brian’s legs protrude from under the server desk. His head and torso cannot be seen. He is noodling with cables.

Janice enters from the right and walks past Brian. No one else is around, and she looks around confusedly. She walks over to Brian’s office, pokes her head inside, sees no one, and walks back through the room. She spies Brian’s legs and stops.
Excuse me…
Brian starts and loudly bumps his head on the underside of the computer table.
Shit! Ow!
Brian emerges and struggles to his feet, rubbing his head.
Oh, Mr. Morse, I’m so sorry. This isn’t a very auspicious way to begin my first day.

The first thing I’m going to do is put a bell around your neck.
He goes straight to the computer and begins clicking the mouse.
Aha! The network is back. Neal will be so happy.
Janice watches him, unsure of what to do or say next.
(turning to her)
Janice, right?

Yes, I-

You’re the new editorial assistant Neal just hired.

Well, I don’t know for how much longer…

(rubbing his head)
Ah, don’t worry about that.
(He extends his hand.)
Brian Morse, publisher of Cool Gadgets magazine.

(shaking his hand)
Janice Franken, editorial assistant.

Yes, I know.
(He turns back to the computer and starts clicking the mouse again. They speak as he works.)
Sorry for being so distracted, but if the network isn’t working by the time Neal gets in he’ll kill me.
(He clicks some more.)
So…are you new to San Francisco?

Pretty new. I’m from Perth.

Perth? Australia?

New York. It’s a very small town in upstate New York. Near Albany. I went to school in Albany.

I don’t know if I’ve ever been to Albany. I’ve been to—what’s that city that’s the capital of New York?

That would be Albany.



You’re sure about that?

Extremely sure, yes.

Syracuse! I thought it was Syracuse.

It’s not.


The signs in Albany that say “Capital Buildings Next Exit” are a pretty good clue.

(Brian turns to face her and gives a faint smile.)

Sassing the publisher already, are you? And after you make him smack his head on a computer desk, too.

I’m sorry, I didn’t…

Relax. You’ve got attitude—-you’ll need that around here. I don’t know that we’ve found you a desk yet. Here--
(He motions to the round table)
I guess we could put you here for the time being. I’ll just clear away some of this crap.
He begins stacking things under the table.

George enters. He trudges slowly and is not quite awake.
Today is not going to be a good day.

Good morning, George.

Bite me hard.

Rough night?

I got exactly two hours of sleep, thanks to my horrible upstairs neighbors.

Ah, the Dutch couple.

You have a Dutch couple living above you?

I assume they’re Dutch.

You heard them speaking Dutch?

Oh, boy….

Wooden shoes!

What a great set up!

(not laughing)
Yeah, yeah, yeah.

(a bit embarrassed, but amused nonetheless)
I take it they’re loud?

Not only are they, by the sound of it, world-champion clog dancers, but last night—all night—they were practicing for what I can only assume to be the finals in the large metallic orb dropping competition.

Orb dropping?

It would have to be! I laid there for hours trying to think of what in the world they could possibly be doing, and that was all I could come up with.

Orb dropping.

Metallic orb dropping.

I see.

So today’s going to be a complete blow-off.

We do have to get the issue done by midnight. If I remember correctly, you still have that interview with Camilla Dane from Webcorp to get into Neal.

Shit, you’re right. Can I punt?

Hey, I’m happy to sell another ad and put it there, but Neal might have something to say about it. Unless I’m mistaken, he’s playing up the interview on the cover.

Yeah, it’s big juju. She never talks to anyone, preferring to live some kind of Howard Hughes-like existence. He might want me to finish it.

By the way, this is Janice. Neal’s new assistant.

Oh, right, glad to meet you. Welcome to the jungle.
(He shakes her hand, then turns and shambles over to his office.)
Is there coffee?

Is the Pope Catholic?

(dropping his backpack on his desk and returning to the center of the room)
That’s always been my assumption but I can’t say anything for certain at the moment.
George exits. Neal enters hurriedly.
Sorry I’m late.

Neal, you were here until 1:30 last night. I’m going to complain because you come in at 9:20?
Neal darts into his office, drops his briefcase on his chair, and straightens his tie. He returns to the center of the room.
I had to pick up a CD-ROM with some scans from a service bureau in Oakland and naturally traffic was backed up on the Bay Bridge.
(to Janice)
You must be Janice.

Yes, um, good morning.

Right. As soon as I get settled I’ll show you what I need you to do this morning. Brian, what’s the network situation? Do we have our DSL back up?

All systems go.

Fine, thank you.
Neal disappears back into his office.
(to Janice)
I’ll leave you to it, then. Good luck.

(somewhat nervously)
Brian retires to his office. Janice finishes clearing off the table that is to be her desk. George ambles back in holding a large mug of coffee.
Is this where Neal is putting you?

I guess so. That’s what Brian said.

We’ll get you a real desk before long. This is a hectic time of month.

That must explain why Neal seems so…

Psycho? Nah, he’s always like that.

(now even more nervous)
That’s reassuring.

Don’t be nervous. Neal’s a good a guy. He just takes some getting used to.
Neal emerges from his office.
We have got to get a new messenger service. I called them at 8:30 to pick this up and they said they couldn’t get out to Oakland until noon. That’s completely unacceptable.
Oh, dear, has there been another problem with Quicksilver Messengers?

They’ve got mercury poisoning, apparently.

Aren’t we the wit this morning?

You’ve been complaining about the messenger service?

If Jesus Christ were alive, he would complain about the messenger service. Now, I’m going to get final text for the Tech Update department by 10 o’clock, right?


And are the scans for the PDA feature on the production server?

I put them there last night. And you’ll also get first-pass pages back in 15 minutes.

That’s what I like to hear.
Helen continues on to her office.
I like that. Quick, decisive action.

Where’s my Webcorp story?

(spins toward his office)
On the editorial server in 20 minutes.
George heads to his desk.
(points to Janice)
Now, Janice, what I’m going to have you do is proofread pages.

Neal looks at the table that Janice had been clearing.
Where did they go?


(starting to freak out)
They were on this table. Helen had printed them out last night. They were right here. Where did everything that was on this table go?

Brian was clearing a place for me to sit.

(sighs heavily)
Jesus fucking Christ, this place—Could people leave things where I put them. The more I try to keep things organized, the more chaotic it gets.
Janice is now completely terrified, and looks down at one of the piles that Brian had put on the floor. She picks them up.
These look like page proofs.

(grabbing them)
Ah, yes. Great.
(He puts them on the table in front of her.)
Now, these are pages from the issue were working on. Read through them and mark any typos, misspellings, punctuation errors, things like that When you’re done, please give them to Helen.


Oh, and they need to be done—

In 15 minutes?

Right. Thanks.
He heads to his office and sits at his computer, his back to the door. Janice sits down and looks at the pages in front of her. She seems confident and starts making marks.


JEAN ROSSI, 41, enters hurriedly. She is holding a sheet of paper. She KNOCKS on Neal’s door. Their exchange is mock-combative—with Neal a tad less mock than Jean.

(spinning around)
Jean...Shit, don’t tell me...

Don’t freak out...

Don’t fucking tell me...

I have a change to the run-up. Page 38--

Not again.

Page 38--

Jean, the point of giving me a run-up a week before production begins is so that I know how many ad pages there are and how many editorial pages I can have.

Yes, having been a managing editor for almost 10 years, I’m vaguely aware of how the magazine publishing process works.

If you’re going to change the run-up less than 12 hours before we go to press, why do we bother with it in the first place?

And why do people drive yellow cars?

(shakes his head, bewildered)

There are many questions that defy easy answers. Anyway, page 38 now has a half-page horizontal ad.

So I lose 500 words of Mark’s feature.

Apparently, yes.

And that page was done, too. I love doing the same thing 50 times.

Just think how good you’ll be at it.

You’re going to be no help at all today, are you?

When am I ever?

Good point. Let me go repair the damage you’ve inflicted.
Neal dashes out of his office and into George’s.

George, I need you to go into the Edited Text folder and cut 500 words from Mark’s feature. Let Helen know when you’re done.

Neal dashes into Helen’s office. Jean follows him.

Helen, page 38 is now a half page.

FPO image is on the ad server. File is called “New Horizon.”


We’re going to be 500 words long on Mark’s feature. George is cutting it. Please add our “Web Extra” box at the end of the article. You can pick it up from page 56 of last month’s issue.

No problem.

(to JEAN)
See? You think you can screw up my magazine? Hah!
Jean sticks her tongue out at him.
Can you people go away now?
They all disperse to their respective offices.


Carl enters and walks into Brian’s office.


Carl sits own on a chair in front of Brian’s desk and watches Brian have a phone conversation. Carl is holding a camera. As Brian talks, Carl is playing with the camera, examining its features, etc.
(on phone)
What does the rate card say?... Well, then why are you…Did you point out that we have a circ of--?...I know exactly what Modern Electronics has, and we’re ahead of them…Yes, again, look at your rate card! That little pie chart that Helen spent two hours making? That tells you exactly who our readership is…. Tom! If you’re not going to bother looking at the sales materials we give you, I don’t know what else I can do.... We’ve had a very good relationship with MediaBus, and when I met Miriam at the HP party two months ago she said they would definitely sign in July. This is July…. Look, Tom, I’ve got Carl in my office right now. Just get MediaBus in the next issue, all right? One more full-page ad and we can go up to 104 pages in September…. Bye.
He SLAMS down the phone.
(to Carl)
This is getting ridiculous.

Tom Braxton?

You know what his biggest problem as a salesman is?

He can’t sell?

He can’t sell! The man couldn’t sell space heaters to Eskimos.

Well, that would be hard sell.

The man can’t sell!

You can’t put a space heater in an igloo.


You can’t put a space heater in an igloo.

Why not?

You’d melt the igloo. And then you’d just have a bunch of homeless Eskimos. And no one wants that.

I don’t care about homeless Eskimos.

You heartless bastard.

What did you come in here for, anyway?

(holds up the camera)
The latest in digital photography.
Brian takes the camera and examines it.
We’re reviewing this?

Indeed we are. Six megapixels, SLR design, built-in histogram, uncompressed TIFF file format, 128 megabyte PC card, Carl Zeiss lens. I’m quite impressed.

How many stars?

Now, you know—


You know I hate star ratings.

I know you do, but Neal loves them, the manufacturers love them, and the readers love them, so guess what? We use them. How many stars?

I find whole-star increments far too limiting. Even half-star increments I find very hard to work with.

I know you do. But I remember when you gave something 3 and 13/68ths of a star. I remember how Neal reacted, and none of us wants that again.

It’s impossible to sum up all the pluses and minuses of a product in a single rating. I mean, not all pluses are pluses for everyone, and—

Yes, yes, I get it. We’ve had this conversation more than a few times. Take it up with Neal.

You seem to be giving more and more of the decisions to Neal.

Neal’s the editor. When he does things I disagree with, I let him know it, but Neal’s damn good at what he does. Unlike some other employees we’ve got.

Like Tom Braxton.

Like Tom Braxton.

Maybe you should fire him.


To coin a phrase, “he can’t sell.”

I can’t fire Tom.

I know you can’t.

Tom and I go way back, to Antares Systems days. I introduced him to his wife, for crying out loud. When Xerox let him go, I was the only one willing to hire him.

And now you know why.

I guess I just keep hoping he’ll turn around. I mean, MediaBus should be cake.

Oh, like Miriam is going to do anything to make your life easy after—

We did not end bitterly!

Any relationship that lasts in its entirety over the course of a week-long trade show can’t possibly not end bitterly.

Look, that was a long time ago…

What about asking Marv to go out on sales calls with Tom? Marv is a great sales guy; half the book are Marv’s accounts. Maybe he can teach Tom a thing or two.

It’s worth thinking about. Unfortunately, Marv is in New York and Tom is in L.A.

As an expert on modern technology, I should point out that they have airplanes now.

Shouldn’t you be working?

All my stuff is filed. I’m just waiting for either Helen or Neal to need me to help with production.

(O.C., bellowing)

His master’s voice.
Carl rises.
Think about the Marv and Tom thing. You can’t fire Tom.

I know. I will. Thanks.

Neal stands in the doorway to his office.
You bellowed?

Yes. I put two technology reports in your folder on the editorial server. I need you to do a quick technical edit, and then put them in Helen’s production folder ASAP.

You got it.
Carl exits.
Neal runs into Helen’s office.

What is it?

(holding up the pages Janice gave her)
What the hell is this?

I don’t know, what the hell is that?

Your new assistant decided to rewrite the page one stories rather than just proofread them. Please inform her that rewriting is not done at this stage, unless she thinks she has too much blood in her body.

Sorry, she’s new.

I know. That’s why I’m yelling at you.

I’ll talk to her.

NEAL walks over to Janice’s table.
Janice, about the pages...

I know. I heard.

You heard?

This isn’t a very big office.

Ah. Please go back through these pages and mark “stet” next to everything that isn’t a typo.

Sure. Sorry.
George comes out of his office.
George, Webcorp story?

Ready and waiting for you.

Excellent. Thank you.
Neal dashes back into his office.
(to George, pointing to the page proof with her pen)
I have a question. Should there be a capital letter right in the middle of a word?

Sadly, yes. It’s called “intercapping.” Computer companies like to strew capital letters randomly throughout company and product names. I think they do it to drive proofreaders nuts.

That’s pretty weird.

They’re computer companies. They’re run by people who got beat up a lot in high school and this is part of their vengeance on the world.

That would explain any computer program I’ve ever used.
They exchange warm smiles.
(bellowing from his office)
George! Leave Janice alone!

Well, I’ll leave you to it, then.

If you must.
George walks back to his office, Janice stares after him, pauses, lost in thought for a moment, then returns to rereading her pages.
To be continued...

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Stories So Far

For my own reference as much as anyone's, here is a directory of the stuff I have posted in the past two weeks:
"Bossy," a stream-of-consciously-written short story about a talking cow.
"Don Boing: Beneath the Music," an anachronistic comic essay about one of the "legends" of modern music. or something.
Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 of a comic, pseudo-Tolkeinesque novel tentatively titled Jewel Box.
Part 1 and Part 2 (of three parts) of a serialized short story about death (a comedy) called "The Life of Death."
Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 of a science-fiction novel tentatively titled Living Ghost.
Tomorrow: a screenplay!

More Ghost

Here is Chapter 2 of the Philip K. Dick/insomnia-inspired/perspired novel tentatively titled Living Ghost. Chapter 1 is here.

“Was that Graves?” asked Marv after Cliff had hung up the phone.

“Yeah,” said Cliff, still not quite sure what to make of the conversation he just had.

Marv dropped a spiral-bound set of printouts on Cliff’s desk.

“Did he get the revised Section 6 tables I e-mailed him?”

Cliff was still a bit distracted. “The what? No, I don’t think so. He’s been having some…problems. Computer problems. He thinks the earthquake did some damage.”

That earthquake? What, does he live in a house made out of tissue paper?”
Marv sat down on an old torn faux leather chair in front of Cliff’s desk. He was breathing heavily.

Cliff looked at him. “If you’re going to have a heart attack, could it wait until this project is done?”

“We need an elevator. I’m getting too old for those stairs.”

“Think of how bad a shape you’d be in if you haven’t had to go up and down those stairs for the past 12 years.” Marv had been the primary data processor for the company for 15 years. They’ve only been in their current location for 12 years.

“Carol is going to want to see at least a preliminary draft of Section 3 by this afternoon,” said Marv.

“That’s what Carol said?”

“Cliff, come on. You know only Sally passes in or out of The Cocoon. It’s what Sally said.”

Carol Hendricks was the president and owner of Data Pros Inc. Most of the people who started working for the company were at first puzzled, then increasingly bemused by the fact that she had absolutely no contact with anyone but her administrative assistant. Even the oldest veterans of the company—like Marv—had really only met her once. Cliff, who had been with the company only a scant four years, had never met her at all. Some 10 years earlier, Marv had coined the term “The Cocoon” to refer to Carol’s impenetrable office—a term which stuck. No one knows if Carol had ever heard and/or was amused by it. Of course, in less charitable moments, Marv has been known to refer to Carol herself as “The Larva.” “Someday, she’s going to emerge from her chrysalis as a beautiful butterfly,” he once said, to which Cliff immediately added, “Or Mothra, the giant mutant moth creature that destroyed Tokyo.” Then again, most of the staff was quick to admit that it was the generally hands- and eyes-off approach of Carol that made Data Pros such a satisfying place to work. No meetings, no micromanagement, no B.S. Just an environment where work can get done and get done well. It was not lost on the staff that the fact that The Larva was taking such an involved role in the current project (well, involved for her) meant that the project was of no small consequence.

“Well, Section 3 is not going to be done today,” said Cliff. “I can’t fix Tom’s computer problems. Tell Sally we’re keeping to the schedule we had agreed on six months ago when this whole thing began.”

You tell me,” came a voice from the doorway.

“How do you do that” asked Cliff.

“Do what?” asked Sally, adjusting the massive sheaf of papers she was carrying.

“Just appear like that. I never hear or see you coming. I just look up and you’re there.”

“I’m stealthy,” she said with a smile.

“Is that what they teach at those Ivy League schools, how to slink around offices wraithlike?” asked Marv.

“Is that what they teach at two-year junior colleges, how to incorporate words like ‘wraithlike’ into normal conversation?”

“You bet your ass.”

“Anyway, getting back to the original point,” Sally said, “I completely agree that we should keep to the original schedule, but you know The Lar— Carol is not going to be happy.”

Marv and Cliff laughed. “Whoo! We got you doing it!” said Cliff, high-fiving Marv.

Sally smiled sheepishly. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Anyway, I’ll deal with Carol, but that means there can be absolutely no slippage whatsoever from the schedule. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you this is a big project. It can make or break us, and the clients are getting antsy. And when the clients get antsy, we get antsy.”

“We understand,” said Cliff.

“I’m surprised this is even an issue. Tom is always early with stuff. I’m shocked he’s not now.”

“He’s having…computer problems,” said Cliff.

Sally shrugged. “I remember when his entire hard drive got corrupted at the same time he had to replace the logic board in his computer and he still delivered a 200-page report a day early.”

“Sometimes even the mighty fall,” said Marv.

“So we should go easy on him right now,” said Cliff. “He’s always come through, and I have no doubt he will this time.”

Sally looked at him quizzically. “I never said he wouldn’t come through. I just said I was surprised, is all. Is everything all right with Tom?”

“Everything’s fine. The earthquake just freaked him out.”

“He’s from the East Coast—you know how they are,” added Marv. “He still hasn’t gotten his ‘earthquake legs’ yet.”

“I wouldn’t worry about Tom,” said Cliff.


“I’m worried about Tom,” said Cliff.

Cliff carefully lifted a ring of onion with his fork and shifted it to the perimeter of his salad bowl, adding it to the collection of other onion slices he had been building.

“Why?” asked Ally, watching her husband's careful dissection of his salad.

Given both of their wacky work schedules, they very rarely got to have lunch in real restaurants—let alone with each other—and she was hoping they wouldn’t spend the whole time talking about Tom Graves.

“He called me this morning. He said he was in Syracuse.” He added a cherry tomato to the ring of onions.

“That’s a bit strange,” said Ally, “but nothing to worry about. Tom is a strange guy. We’ve known him for eight years and I still don’t know anything about him. Now, you: After we had been dating a week I felt like I knew everything there was to know about you.”

“Well, you kind of did.”

“That’s true. There’s not much to you. There’s the penis and the schoolboy insouciance, and that’s about it.”

“Hey!” He said, mock-insulted. “‘Insouciance.” I like that.”

“You have no idea what it means, do you?”

“Nope. And I like that I don’t. I can have it mean whatever I want it to mean and I don’t have to care if it was meant as an insult or not.”

She watched as he moved an olive to the outer edge of the salad bowl.

“Why don’t you just tell the waiter that you don’t like onions, tomatoes, or olives?” said Ally.

“I don’t like to seem picky.”

Cliff and Ally had been married for six-and-a-half years and his pickiness about food never ceased to amuse her. Ally would eat just about anything that was put in front of her, while Cliff was very particular, and every meal that he didn’t cook (which was damn nearly every meal he ate) involved the near-surgical removal of any or all of the following: mushrooms, tomatoes, onions, peppers, olives, chives, celery, and carrots. To him, the perfect salad was lettuce and chickpeas. “Even dressing is optional,” he once told Ally. “In fact, I’d prefer it if you didn’t dress for dinner, either,” he once said with a leer.

So for his 40th birthday, she had the owner of the local bakery (and a friend of hers) bake him a cake in the shape of a mushroom, covered with bits of colored frosting shaped into tomatoes, onions, peppers, etc. He laughed hysterically, but out of habit had picked them all off anyway.

“Getting back to Tom…”

“Do we have to?” she asked.

“You should hear the story he told me. Do you know how he said he got to Syracuse?”

“Stagecoach? Mule barge? Strapped to the wing of a Cessna?”

“Even stranger. He says he ‘appeared’ there.”

“Appeared there?”

“Yeah. He says he fell asleep in Redondo and woke up in some girl’s dorm room at SU.”

“Wow. That’s bizarre.”

“That’s what I’ve been saying,” said Cliff.

“I mean, to think that Tom would be in any girl’s room at all is pretty weird.”

“Ally, now cut that out. I’m sure he dates...or something.”

“Are you sure it’s women, though?”

“I am 99.999 percent sure that Tom is not gay. I even had my brother check him out and he insists he not, too.”

“Oh, like your brother could tell. His ‘gaydar’ is always picking up interference from weather balloons.”

Cliff scowled. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Anyway, about Tom’s ‘teleportation’ story…”

“I think he’s pulling your leg. Besides, he was in town yesterday. Why would he fly to Syracuse overnight—and then turn right around and come back? It’s not exactly a short hop. Even if it is some kind of romantic dalliance, he’d probably be too jetlagged to actually do anything.”

“Oh, you’d be surprised what the male body is capable of.”

“Yes, I frequently am. And often horrified, too. But are you sure he’s not just having a midlife crisis or a nervous breakdown or something?”

“I hadn’t thought about that, but it’s entirely possible. But I would have thought you’d have to have a life to have a mid-life crisis.”

“Jeez, Cliff. And you say I rag on Tom. He’s your best friend.

“He is, but he doesn’t always make it easy. It’s like Pink Floyd The Wall with him sometimes.”

“He doesn’t have copulating flowers in his garden, I hope.”

“I would seriously doubt that. I mean, he’s smart, he’s fun to hang out with, he’s always there when I need anything…like when my wife is driving me up the wall—”

“Bite me.”

“But you try to get close to him and you get to this point where it’s like he’s barricaded himself in his own head and there’s some kind of standoff with the FBI, who are about to start lobbing in tear gas.”

“That’s a pretty creative analogy for you,” she said.

“Actually, I stole it from Marv.”

He finished the last of what he had intended to eat of his salad.

“Maybe it’s just this camera project,” said Ally. “Wait till it’s over and you all can relax. Then sit down with Tom and make sure everything is OK.”

“Yeah, you’re right.”

Ally looked down at his still mostly-full salad bowl. “You done with that?”

He handed it to her. “All yours.”

She started eating what he left behind. “What did you order for lunch?”

“Chicken cacciatore,” he said.

“That should take a while.”

Monday, December 17, 2007

More Death

Here is Part 2 of "The Life of Death" short story. Part 1 is here.
The Life of Death (Part 2 of 3)

I was sitting on the couch, thumbing through a magazine. The 11:00 news was on in the background, and I was half listening to it. Until one report caught my ear.

“Hospitals around the country are reporting what seems like the best news one could ever hear: there have been no recorded deaths in the last four days. For the story, we go live to Mary Feldstone at Mt. Sinai.”

“Here at Mt. Sinai,” said who I presume was Mary Feldstone, “doctors and patients alike are baffled yet cautiously elated by the sheer dearth of deaths. This hospital, which reports an average of 27 deaths a day, has literally had none in four days.”

The report went on to say that at every hospital polled, no one has died. Morgues and mortuaries have, for four days, been devoid of new business.

I didn’t quite know what to make of that. My first inclination was that it was a coincidence. Surely…no, it couldn’t be. These things just don’t happen.

The following day, things got even more surreal. I found a roach in my bathtub that morning and squished it with a magazine. Completely flattened, its guts strewn across the enamel, it nonetheless moved. In fact, it dashed down the drain of its own accord. This was not only odd, but defied all the known laws of biology. I may not be an expert in the life sciences, but I at least know that when an organism has the guts squashed out of it, it tends to slow down a bit.

That evening on the news, the lack-of-death count was expanded to report on the increasing roach, rat, and other vermin problems that were plaguing the city. It wasn’t just the humans; nothing was dying. Call it stubbornness on my part, but I still refused to believe that Dave’s “encounter” with “Death” had anything to do with it.


I was sitting on the couch watching Live at Five when my apartment door opened. In walked Dave, dressed in a black cloak and carrying a scythe. He threw the scythe noisily to the floor.

“I can’t do it,” he said. “I can’t kill things. Myself, yes. Other things, no.”

“Say what?” I asked, knowing I was going to regret it.

“Before Death vanished, he said that I was now ‘in charge.’”

“In charge of what?”

“Dying. The whole not living business.”

My head hurt.

“Haven’t you noticed that nothing is dying? That hospitals are reporting record numbers of non-deaths and that the city is overcome with vermin?”

“Yes, but I just assumed it was one of those freakish things…”

“Yes! Yes, it is one of those freakish things—only it’s far more freakish than you could have imagined! I just can’t kill things. It’s all my fault.…”

This is perhaps the first time I had ever heard of someone who was sorry that he couldn’t kill anything.

“Okay,” I said. “Assuming for the moment that I believe you, that Death bailed on his job and left you in charge of visiting final perdition on everyone and everything…but the roaches, Dave? Surely you could bring yourself to kill them.”

“You’d think that, wouldn’t you? But still, they’re living things.” He stared at me.

“You have to do it.”

“Say what?”

“You have to kill things.”

“Me? Are you high? I didn’t kill Death—”

“Or whatever.”

“Or whatever. I mean, this isn’t really my problem.”

“Oh, spoken like a true New Yorker.”

“You’re forgetting the essential point here, which is that I am not Death!”

“Fine, be that way.”

“What way?”


I growled. “Well, where did Death go, anyway? Can we find him? He can’t have much money. I mean, would a preternatural entity have a nest egg of some kind? Surely he hasn’t gotten far.”

“Leave it to you to reduce the basic points of existence to money.”

“That’s because I live in the real world rather than exist in some metaphysical half-life. And call me a Philistine if you must, but at least I haven’t upset the basic laws of existence.”

“Fine, fine, fine,” said Dave, getting increasingly flustered. “What am I going to do?”

“Well, how specifically are you supposed to, um, kill? Just wave your scythe over them, or is it more ‘hands on’?”

“As Death explained it to me, when the signal comes in on the Mortaloscope— Oh, go ahead and say it…”


“There’s a more technical name for it, but Death actually does have a sense of humor. Essentially it’s a large crystal.”

He reached into the pocket of the cloak and withdrew a large green glowing rock. It was pulsating quite rapidly.

“And it’s pulsating so rapidly because I’m very behind.”

“Oh,” I said, “so it’s like an answering machine. The speed of the flashing indicates how many messages there are.”

“Exactly. What’s really annoying is that it also has a vibrate mode, which is getting quite painful.”

He rubbed his thigh.

“OK, so when someone or something dies, your rock starts flashing.”

“Yes, and then the scythe allows me to- what are you laughing at?”

“Nothing. Go on. Please.”

“And the scythe allows me to triangulate on the exact location of the deceased and
then, using the scythe, I am supposed to remove the life force from the deceadent.”


“That’s what they’re called, yes.”

“It all sounds amazingly organized.”

“What, do you think death just happens?” he asked me.

“Yes, I kind of thought it did.”

“Well, it doesn’t.”

I really didn’t know quite how much to believe him, but I swear I’ve never seen Dave this earnest—or this worked up about anything. So I decided: I’d do as he asked. After all, since I didn’t even know if it was true—and it likely wasn’t (I mean, who kills Death and then has to cover for him?)—what did I have to lose? So I put on the black cloak, grabbed the scythe, and felt like I was on my way to a Halloween party. I took his pulsating green rock.

“All right. How does this purportedly work?” I asked, feeling like a complete dork.

“Now, you’re probably going to be very busy for a while.”

“So I gathered.”

“Hold the Mortaloscope in your left hand,” he said, and I did. “Extend your left hand, and extend your right hand, which is holding the scythe.” Now I really felt like a complete snickerdoodle. “Now, slowly—slowly—bring the blade of the scythe into contact with the Mortaloscope.”

I did, and as the blade of the scythe touched the rock, the room went dark. I was suddenly not in my apartment anymore. I was—I wasn’t quite sure....

To be continued...

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Road Worrier

Sorry, other things have kept me distracted for the past couple of days, so I kind of got off my posting schedule, but I hope to get back into the swing of things.

At any rate, herewith Chapter 2 of what is currently called Jewel Box (I'm not wild about that title). Chapter 1 is here, for your reference.
Chapter 2: The Road Worrier

The rain stopped at precisely 8:47 am. Carol Munch knew that because she had been perched in front of the window, staring out at the pouring rain, a clock on the window sill next to her. She would be extremely late for work, but she absolutely refused to drive when it was raining. For some reason, was her thinking, Southern California drivers were incapable of comprehending the concept of water falling from the sky and the freeways became free-for-alls and were even more nightmarish than they normally were.

So for the past three hours, Carol had sat in front of the window, silently cursing singer/songwriter Albert Hammond, whose 1973 top five smash “It Never Rains in Southern California” was one of the things that had drawn Carol and her husband to the South Bay town of Mall Beach nine years earlier. After the first year, when much of the month of December made a liar out of Hammond, Carol’s then-husband Edward simply shrugged and said “I guess songs can be wrong. Who knew?”

But by then Edward had been completely absorbed in his work. A comparative zoologist by training, he had accepted a professorship at Mall State, a small Southern California college located in downtown Mall Beach.

As the rain ended, Carol quickly began getting ready for work. As she bustled about her bedroom, she grabbed a locket from her dressing table. A gift from her sister back east, it had come in the mail only a day earlier and had been sent to celebrate what would have been Carol and Edward’s 15th anniversary. Within the locket was a picture of Edward. It wasn’t actually a photograph; Edward actually hated to have his picture taken, so all anyone in the family had to remember him by was a caricature that had been drawn one Friday night on the Santa Monica pier. In the picture, a big-headed Edward wore a bib, had a knife in one raised hand, a fork in the other, and, with a huge goofy smile, was about to dig into a large supine lizard reclining on a bed of salad greens.

The caricature was a playful reference to Edward’s chosen field of study.

Dr. Edward Munch (no relation to the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch) had been a pioneer of—and, in fact, the inventor of and, well, sole researcher in—the field of gustatory taxonomy. Dissatisfied with the system of classifying animals and plants that had been devised by Carolus Linnaeus in the 18th century (grouping animals and plants with similar physiological characteristics into phyla, classes, orders, families, genera, and species), Dr. Munch sought instead to classify animals and plants according to how they tasted. Ultimately, he desired to answer a question that had been eating him (as it were) his entire scientific career: how many animals actually do taste like chicken?

Needless to say, such a system required a not insubstantial amount of empirical evidence—which is to say, eating. So, for several years, Dr. Munch traveled the globe, sampling as many creatures as he could, and his life’s work—the immense A Concordance of World Organisms: Encyclopedia and Cookbook—was coming together nicely. His monograph, “Functional Morphology of H. hydrochaeris With and Without Pork Gravy,” was a smash hit at that year’s National Zoological Conference and had even led to his helping found a new cable channel, a joint venture between the Discovery Channel and the Food Network.

But, alas, it was all to end too soon. While in the Amazon rain forest, he had no sooner taken a bite out of a large, brightly colored—and, unbeknownst to Dr. Munch, poisonous—tree frog, than he uttered what were to be his last words (“needs paprika”) and, according to one witness at the scene, did a remarkable imitation of his Norwegian namesake’s most famous painting. He then fell face first onto the frog, and a brilliant scientific career ended just as it had begun: with Dr. Munch wearing a lobster bib.

As Carol continued to be haunted by the loss of the one great love of her life (especially after she had finally forced him to accept that she would pick the romantic dinners) she smiled forlornly. She clasped the locket around her neck and reflected on what was the great irony: at the same time that Edward was digging into his fatal frog, back in Mall Beach, his research assistant Claude Linguette had just perfected the LickMaster 3000 Electronic Tongue which could analyze the taste of any object placed in it and correlate that taste with a database of more than 180,000 individual flavors.

The rain gone and the sun finally muscling its way through the cloud cover, Carol turned the light off in her bedroom, padded out to the kitchen, and grabbed her car keys from the counter. Distracted as she was by the terror of the thought of having to drive for 90 minutes on the 405 Freeway, she didn’t get a good grip on keys and they fell to the floor. She looked down and stared at the keyring on the floor. She had five keys, her car key was in the middle and it was so much larger than the other keys that it looked to her like her keyring was giving her the finger. Figures, she thought. And that pretty much summed up the way she perceived the act of driving in L.A.

She picked up her obscene keys, took her umbrella from a coatrack by the front door, opened the door, and stared outside at her car in the driveway. She took a deep breath, and out she went.

It should be noted, in the event it hasn’t been made apparent, that Carol hated driving. Well, not so much driving per se, but rather other drivers.

The town of Mall Beach, California, had been founded in 1773 by a Jesuit priest by the name of Father Carmelo Jello (pronounced “Hay-yo,” it should be noted). One of the original Spanish missionaries to settle in the area, the town, like so many in California, was originally centered around Father Jello’s mission, named San Serrif, notable for a peculiar unadorned style of architecture. The mission was distinguished from others of the period by Father Jello’s policy of not exterminating the indigenous peoples if they failed to wholeheartedly accept Church dogma. In fact, Father Jello was known as quite the humanitarian, and even after his passing and the mission was abandoned, he remained quite the hero and the remains of the mission had remained intact for over 200 years. In the 1960s, it was converted into a shrine to a period in pre-colonial history that people weren’t actually ashamed of. Unfortunately, in the early 1990s, the mission was torn down to make room for a shopping mall—indeed, the mall that gave Mall Beach half its name.

The other half wasn’t really a beach per se; the town fought with the county and neighboring towns to give San Serrif at least some oceanfront. It was Southern California, after all. The others relented, and it was agreed to redraw San Serrif’s borders so that a one-inch-wide strip of land was allowed to stretch from landlocked San Serrif through five miles of coastal Flako del Mar, and reach the Pacific Ocean. And thus it was that San Serrif changed its name to Mall Beach, hoping to lure tourists as well as local Southern Californians to take advantage of its immense mall as well as its “exclusive” oceanfront property, although taking advantage of Mall Beach’s beach was only possible if you were no larger than a small tree frog.

Carol pulled out of her driveway onto Beech Street and made an immediate left onto Beech Road, which merged onto Beach Drive and intersected Beach Boulevard two lights down. She had just missed the green left turn arrow and sat back and waited the 20 minutes it would take for the seemingly endless series of light permutations to cycle back to her lane. In a way, she was glad. She was in no hurry to hit the freeway. Her boss would probably be mad that she was so late, but tough. It was the company’s own damn fault for moving. When the company had been located two blocks from Carol’s house, she walked to work and was early or at the latest on time every day. When they decided to move the company 90 miles south to Rancho Bastardo, she was upset—for reasons you can pretty much fathom by now.

The left-turn arrow finally turning green, she turned left into Beach Boulevard and headed north toward the 405 Freeway. Traffic was still heavy, even at this relatively late hour, and she inched her way toward the freeway on ramp. She pulled up to the metering light and, as it turned green, she closed her eyes and gunned the engine. Pulling onto the freeway always reminded her of a airplane taking off. The surge of the engine, the g-forces pushing her back in her seat, her heart in her throat, he knuckles white with terror. She successfully merged into the freeway without much incident. Now, she had to get over a lane or two as the rightmost lane would abruptly vanish one exit later—a phenomenon that took her completely by surprise the first time she had ever driven this route, since there was no warning that the lane was going to do any such thing.

Traffic remained heavy, yet everyone was cruising at about 75 or 80. Naturally, everyone tailgated. She clutched wheel tightly in her hands, and went with the flow. In her rearview mirror, she saw a pair of SUVs pinballing from lane to lane on opposite sides of the highway. Exploiting the slightest opening between cars—be it two car lengths or one Ǻngstrom—they shot forward like it was the Indy 500. As they both simultaneously loomed up quickly in the rearview mirror, Carol knew for sure they were going to hit her. She couldn’t imagine how they could not—but, miraculously, they shot by. (Unbeknownst to Carol, 10 miles up the road they would miscalculate their trajectories and collide with each other, eliciting an inappropriate yet satisfying round of applause from many of the other drivers who had been terrified by them.)

As she espied more hellbent drivers approaching at multiwarp speeds behind her, Carol could feel her heart pounding in her chest. Oddly, it was accompanied by the sensation of some other object—hopefully not an internal organ—pounding on her chest. Whatever it was, it was radiating some kind of heat—not a searing, painful heat, but rather a calm, soothing heat. She was too busy being terrified of the traffic to pay much attention to this strange sensation, and as she saw a sports car shoot over four lanes and attach itself, leechlike, to her tail, a very strange thing happened. Her car started to rise.

“What the hell?!” she exclaimed, as, indeed, her car moved vertically, until she was moving at the same forward speed, but only 100 feet above the freeway.

Now her heart was really going, but the other pounding sensation, and the accompanying heat, had abated. Now she had to deal with the fact that she was also terrified of heights. There was what sounded like a sigh that came from her chest, and the heat and external pounding started again. Her car descended and she landed in a clear spot of freeway. At the same time, every other car on the freeway rose 100 feet above the road surface. They all stayed in their lanes, and they all followed the curve of the highway and it wended its way southeast. In fact, all the cars behaved exactly the way they would if they had been on the ground—the only difference being that they weren’t. Carol was surprised—to say the least—but she was happy. There were now no cars around her to terrify the life out of her and for the first time in her life, she enjoyed the drive to work.

When she pulled off the freeway 65 miles later, all the other cars were restored to the road surface.

True, her boss berated her for being late, but she didn’t mind—and soon, no one else minded her lateness. Given how happy her mood was, they all felt that whatever the reason for her lateness, it was worth it.

Carol didn’t ask questions, like how it happened, but she was inordinately happy to discover, when she started her trek homeward at 5:00, the same thing happened.
When she read the L.A. Times the following morning, she discovered that Steve Harvey’s “Only in LA” column was entirely devoted to the incident.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


A couple years ago, a consequence perhaps of a combination of reading too many Philip K. Dick novels back to back and insomnia, I sat down at the computer at 3 a.m. and in one marathon session, turned out 50 pages of the beginning of a science-fiction novel about a normal guy suddenly finding himself in the midst of odd, supernatural forces. Every now and then I come back to it and add a few things, but was never able to recapture the original momentum, although I think I'm finally getting a handle on where it's going. It doesn't really have a title, but the Word file is called "Living Ghost" so I guess that's what I originally wanted to call it.

So anyway, here is the first chapter of Living Ghost.

As was his usual habit when he worked late into the night, Tom Graves fell asleep in medias res. He always fell asleep at the computer and would invariably awake several hours later with an impression of the keyboard stamped into his face and 200 Microsoft Word pages containing the letter “g.” He feared that some morning, the impression of the keys wouldn’t rub out and he would end up walking around looking like the Human Keyboard Face. Or even worse, that he’d drool into the keyboard and electrocute himself in his sleep. True, to solve the problem, he could buy a new computer, one that used voice-recognition input technology. After all, keyboards were pretty quaint anachronisms these days. But as a professional writer, Tom Graves found it easier to work through the tactile act of typing rather than speaking.

He awoke with a start. He groggily lifted his head and his hand went automatically to his cheek to begin de-keying his flesh. He was mildly surprised to find that his cheek was perfectly smooth. He felt the other cheek, then his chin, then his forehead. None of the usual bumps. He shrugged, assuming he had somehow broke with tradition.

He looked down at the desk. That was the reason why he didn’t have keyboard marks on his face: there was no keyboard there. Where was his keyboard? There was a small, 10x10x4-inch silver box in the corner of the desk. He recognized the prominently-located holes of the sound input mike on the front of the unit. The flexible roll-up display mounted on the wall above the desk used the wireless monitor connection that Cliff was always going on about. This was a new computer—certainly not his old ungainly tower unit that, at eight years old, was certainly showing its age.

He looked down and realized that this wasn’t even his desk—rather than the old falling-apart balsa-wood desk he had been using for the past decade, this was a gleaming new Hi-Strength Polymer desk—one of those desks that is incredibly light and portable yet can support up to 500 pounds. Even the chair he found himself in was of the latest design he had seen touted in office furniture catalogs, but certainly didn’t own. What the hell was going on?

He cast his gaze around the room. It was later than he thought: the digital alarm clock next to the bed read “10:13.”

Wait: why was there a bed in his office?

He looked around some more: this was not his home office. In fact, it wasn’t his house. It wasn’t even his work office. Where was he? And how did he get there? Tom didn’t drink and he never had any history of somnambulism, so he couldn’t think of any reason why he would mysteriously wake up someplace other than where he remembered falling sleep.

As he took in the décor, he could only conclude that he was in a college dormitory room. A girl’s dormitory room. Why he would be in a girl’s—or really any—college dorm room was a damn good question.

Whatever the explanation, he knew it would have to wait. His first order of business should be to get the hell out of there, and quick.

The scream that came from the door was what gave him the impression that it was too late.

“Who are you?” said the girl, obviously terrified. She stood in the doorway, dressed in an orange sweatshirt and matching sweatpants, carrying a bookbag slung over her shoulder. “What are you doing in my room? Get the hell out of my room!”

“Look, I’m sorry, I don’t—”

“Who are you?”

“My name is Tom Graves—where am I?”

“How did you get in here? What do you want? I’m calling Security.” She removed her cell unit from the holder clipped to the front of her sweatshirt.

“No, wait. Look, I’m not going to hurt you. I just…woke up here. I have no idea how or why. Just tell me where I am and I’ll leave.”

“Mel, is everything all right?” asked a male voice that was approaching from the corridor.

“There’s some weird guy in my room.”

A young male came into view behind her. He looked into the room. He also wore an orange sweatshirt, as well as a pair of baggy jeans.

“Dude, what’s your problem?” he asked.

“My problem is that I have no idea where I am or how I got here.”

“I locked that door when I went to my 8:30,” said the girl, holding up and staring at her keycard. “Unless Kyoko didn’t lock it when she left. If she didn’t, I’ll kill her.”

“Didn’t you just unlock the door?” asked the boy.

“Yeah, but he could have locked it after he got in.”

“I didn’t get in through the door, that I know of,” said Tom, realizing too late that that was probably wasn’t the best thing to say.

“We’re on the fifth floor, man. What—did you just crawl up the outside of the building like Spider Man?”

“That’s a damn good question. Another damn good question, which I’d really like to answer is, Where am I?”

“Room 503,” said the girl impatiently.

“Of what?”

“Brewster Hall,” said the boy.

“Keep going…”

The boy and girl looked at each other. “Uh…Syracuse University?” said the boy.

Tom sat back in the chair, even more confused.

“Syracuse University? As in Syracuse, New York?”

They looked at each other again. “Uh, yeah. You have to have heard of it. We won the NCAA basketball championship two—”

“Mark, could you please not talk sports with creepy guys who turn up in my dorm room?”

“I know where Syracuse University is,” said Tom. “I spent four years there. Here. Whatever. Anyway, that was more than 20 years ago. As of 1:30 this morning, I was in Redondo Beach, California, which is where, by all rights, I should be right now.” He looked out the window. That was Downtown Syracuse all right. Even after 20 years he could still identify the MONY towers—if they were even called that anymore. “I know it was 1:30 because I made a call to a colleague’s voicemail.” His cellphone was still clipped to his belt. He flipped it open and checked the Dialed Calls log. “Yes. Here it is. ‘Cliff at Work, 1:28 a.m., 10/2.’ It is October 2, right?”

Both Mark and Mel nodded, gradually getting more confused.

“Where’d you get that phone—an antique store?” asked Mark.

He snapped the phone shut. “So if it was 1:28 a.m. California time, it would have been 4:28 a.m. Eastern time. If it’s 10:13 now, even if I had somehow gotten on a plane, it’s at least a six-hour flight from L.A. and I’m assuming there are no flights directly to Syracuse anyway. So how would I even have had time to get here?”

“Wow—that’d be like a great question to put on the SATs,” offered Mark.

Mel slapped his arm. “Could you be serious even for one second?”

“You have to admit that this is pretty fucked up,” said Mark.

“Well, yeah,” said Mel. “But I’d feel a lot better about it if he had turned up in someone else’s room.” She checked her watch. “Look, I have class in 20 minutes, so get out.”

“With pleasure,” said Tom. “Now I just have to figure out how to get back to L.A.”

“Need a ride to the airport?” asked Mark.

Mel slapped his arm again. “What’s the matter with you?”

“See? I was right. The quickest flight from Syracuse to L.A. is nine hours and 45 minutes, with two stops.” They had logged onto InstaRez from the computer in Mark’s dorm room just down the hall. He felt self-conscious speaking all the commands, but he had to admit pointing and scrolling on screen using his index finger was a lot more convenient than using a mouse. He could probably get used to this…

“And most flights take more than 10 hours,” he continued. “I would imagine the same would be the case for flights to Syracuse. Wow—it’s cheaper to buy a round trip ticket and just not use the return than to buy one way.”

He made reservations for the 1:45 p.m. flight. A frisson of terror shot down his spine. “Damn!” he instinctively yelled.

“What?” asked Mark.

Tom’s hand went to his back pocket. The fear abated. He sighed contentedly.

“I’ve still got my wallet. I’m glad I fell asleep with it still in my pocket. That’s a relief. I don’t know how I’d get home without it—no money, credit cards, I.D….”

“Credit cards? Why don’t you just get a Flash ID chip for your cell.” He unclipped his cell unit from his shirt and flipped open the top. “See? Picture ID displays on the screen, or I can beam credit account info to the checkout kiosks they have at most stores now. And they finally fixed the interface problem with the Flash ID chip and the USB 4.0 ports on most computers so you can actually use it to buy shit online.”

“Yes, I am aware of Flash IDs,” he said with a touch of irritation. “I’ve just always used credit cards and photo IDs and I haven’t gotten around to upgrading yet.”

Tom finished up his online transaction and logged off.

“You know, Mark, I can’t thank you enough, for your help. I mean, a strange guy turns up in your girlfriend’s dorm room going on about how he doesn’t know how he got there. That’s pretty unusual—and, as she put it, ‘creepy.’ If it was my girlfriend, I’d probably be pissed as hell.”

“Nah, Melinda’s not my girlfriend. My girlfriend lives up in Flint. Mel’s just a friend. You know, completely platonic.”

“I know very well.”

“Come on, I’ll give you a ride to the airport. I just remembered I’ve got a Psych test at noon.”

As they headed down the hallway toward the elevator, Tom looked around. “You know, I think I lived in this dorm my freshman year.”

“Twenty years ago you said, right?” said Mark.

“Yeah.” He paused thoughtfully. “Tempus fugit.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

Tom smiles. “Or, as they say in Brooklyn, tempus fuggeddaboutit.”

“Yeah,” said Mark.

“No one ever laughs at that.”

“And for good reason.”

“What’s that smell?” asked Tom as he and Mark hurtled up I-81 toward the airport in what appeared to be an ancient sedan. It was still entirely terrestrial and seemed to even date from a time before magnetic lane adjusters were standard auto features. It even had an old gas-hybrid engine. Mark didn’t appear to have the latest and greatest of everything.

“That’s a good question. Cindy asked me the same thing last night. I think it’s under the back seat but I’m not sure. It could be leftover pizza mixed with gym socks.” He shrugged. “Could be anything really.”

Tom grimaced. “I’m sorry I asked.”

“I get that a lot.”

“So you live in L.A., huh? Are you like in the movie or streaming business? I’m thinking of transferring into Newhouse next year and maybe taking streaming video production or something.”

“It may surprise you to learn that not everyone who lives in Los Angeles is in The Industry. No, I’m market researcher. I work for a company that conducts surveys on a variety of consumer technologies. We analyze past and present usage, determine current trends, and project where the market is headed five, seven, sometimes 10 years down the road.”


Well, Tom had to admit, it doesn’t sound very exciting—certainly not to an 18-year-old who dreams of being in show business.

“It’s really not as dull as it sounds," he lied. "For example, I’m currently working on a big market survey report on the future of holographic cameras. We’ve surveyed several thousand consumers and we don’t see a great future market for them.”

“Dude, I could have told you that. Everyone I know uses the holo chip built into the new cell units.”

“Well, the companies that commissioned the study like to see a tad more quantitative data to back that up.”

“So basically you have to provide evidence to show what everyone already knows.”

“That’s my entire career in a nutshell, but yes.”

They drove in silence for a while.

“So you just woke up in Mel’s room?”

Tom thought for a moment. “Yeah.”

Mark shook his head and smiled. “That is like so totally whacked. It’s like the Twilight Zone or something. What do you think happened?”

“I have absolutely no idea. It defies basic logic.”

“Maybe someone’s playing a joke on you. Trying to freak you out.”

“Playing a joke on me?”

“Yeah, like a few weekends ago, this guy on our floor—Jeff—scored an invite to a Delta Tau Delta party. While he was out, me and his roommate turned everything on his side of the room upside down. He was pretty fucked up when he got back and he freaked. So maybe someone’s doing that to you.”

“How would someone even do this? I mean, we’re talking basic violations of the space-time continuum here.”

“Don’t know, man, but there’s got to be an explanation. Unless you’re just making all this shit up.”

Tom did have to concede that point.

Mark dropped him off at the terminal. Tom again thanked him effusively, and watched as Mark sped off. Tom wasn’t entirely certain if Mark was just a kind-hearted kid by nature or if the circumstances surrounding his abrupt appearance in Syracuse appealed to some innate sense of adventure. Tom had to admit, if he were Mark, the most likely conclusion he would draw was that he was in fact “making all this shit up.” But he got the sense that Mark took everything at face value and got wrapped up in the mystery of it all.

Suddenly realizing that, temperature-wise, October was very different in Syracuse than Los Angeles (and he was dressed for the latter), he dashed into the terminal.
After he checked in at the ticket counter, he unclasped his cellphone and called Cliff.

“You’ll never guess where I am,” he said.

“The beach?”

“No, I’m—” he paused a moment. “Why would you immediately say ‘the beach’?”

“Well, the way you asked the question, I assumed it would be the last place I’d expect you to be.”

“And that would be the beach?”



“Tom, you’ve lived in Southern California for eight years, and at least as long as I’ve known you—which is, oh, about eight years—you’ve never been to the beach.”

“I see.”

“You’re the only guy I know who can live in L.A. and still keep a fishbelly-white complexion.”


“I mean, even I get to the beach once in a while, and I tend to burn like a son-of-a-bitch.”


“Even Ally—”

“Cliff! Stop talking now!”

“Right. Sorry. Your original question. Where are you?”

“I’m in Syracuse.”



“As in New York?”


“Why are you in Syracuse, New York? When I last spoke to you—at 5:30 yesterday—you were at home in Redondo and were planning to get Section 3 of the camera study done by this morning. You said nothing about going to Syracuse. Is it Homecoming Weekend or something?”

“No, it’s not… Well, I don’t know. I don’t think it is. Wait, it’s Tuesday. So, no, it’s not Homecoming Weekend.”

“Which brings me back to my original question.”

Tom paused for a moment. “You’re not going to believe this.”

“I don’t believe half the things you tell me, but go ahead.”

“I appeared here.”

“You what?”

“I appeared here. Mysteriously. I fell asleep at my computer in Redondo last night sometime after 1:30 and when I woke up this morning I was in a college dorm room in Syracuse.”

“Coed dorm?”

It would figure that would be the first thing on Cliff’s mind.

“As it happens, yes. It was.”

Cliff erupted in a kind of fratboy whooping. “Tommy, Tommy, Tommy. Whatever did you get yourself involved in? This is so unlike you. I’m glad to see you’re finally coming out of your shell—and at age 41. But better late than never, I suppose. Who is she?”

“Stop that. It wasn’t anything like that at all. I have no idea who she was, and she seemed quite horrified by my abrupt presence in her dorm room. And I can’t say that I blame her.”

Tom spent some time carefully describing the situation to Cliff. It took some effort, but eventually Cliff came to accept the mystery of it all.

“Wow, it’s like an adventure,” said Cliff. “It’s kind of cool when you think about it objectively. Don’t these kinds of things happen to other people?”

“Cliff, these kinds of things don’t happen to anybody.”

“That’s a fair point.”

“I mean, I’d like to be caught up in the adventure of it all, but it’s really more of an irritation. Not only is this little brush with the supernatural wasting an entire day, but it’s costing me $700 in airfare!”

“$700 from Syracuse to L.A? Round trip? That’s a pretty good rate.”


“Sorry. Anyway, when are you going to be back?”

“The flight gets in at 8:56 p.m.”

“I suppose you’re going to ask…”

“If it’s no trouble.”

“It’s no trouble. I’ll pick you up. And remember we have that meeting with Tony’s people first thing tomorrow morning. Where do we stand with Section 3?”

“I had most of the charts and tables done. When I get back tonight I’ll whip up some commentary so it should be in decent shape by morning.”

“Assuming your flight’s on time, you probably won’t get home til 10, and you’ll probably be jetlagged as hell. That’s cutting it pretty close.”

“Well, that’s the best I can do. Whatever supernatural force hurled me 3,000 miles neglected to transport my computer with me.”

“Well, don’t let The Larva hear about that. Sally says she’s going to want to see a final section, if not at least a preliminary run-through of Section 4. Tell Sally you had computer problems, or a family crisis—or, hey, Duh. Blame it on the earthquake.”


“Yeah. Last night, about quarter of two. Nothing major, but it woke me and Ally up. Didn’t you feel it?”

“No, I—” He paused for a long while.

“Tom? You still there?”


“I thought you cell lost reception.”

“No, I was just wondering if the earthquake had something to do with my…experience.”

“Tom, I’ve heard of earthquakes moving furniture maybe a few inches or even a few feet, but never moving people 3,000 miles.”


“Anyway, I have to go. Marv just walked into my office and he doesn’t look pretty. Not that he ever does, of course.”

“I’ll see you at 8:56 tonight.”

“Thanks, Cliff.”

He clicked the End button slowly and headed toward the gate.