Sunday, 24 January 2010

Some Choices Are Not Really Choices

This week’s sentence was taken from Alan Paton’s desperate message from apartheid-era South Africa, ‘Cry, The Beloved Country’.

It was:
‘Jarvis sat a long time smoking, he did not read any more.’

Some Choices Are Not Really Choices

Sunset, sliced by venetian blinds slashed stripes across the room, slithered over Mackinson and slipped across his desk, slid down the wall and slunk off across the carpet into the corner, painting a pot plant in shades of burnt amber.
Smoke curled and writhed, playing lazily in the bars of sunlight. Dust danced. The only movement.
Down the hall someone was playing a Miles Davis LP. Mackinson recognised Moon Dreams from Birth of the Cool. He smiled.

An old room. He liked it that way. High ceilings. Art Deco, tiger-striped maple wainscoting, green glass shades, chevrons zig-zagging across faded silk on sagging sofas.
The walls wore a stylish set of sepia photos: 1930s Manhattan. Long, low, dark-framed, panoramic skylines taken from the water: Chrysler, Empire State, Liberty; Brooklyn Bridge; the classics.
The desk bare but for a reading lamp, a bottle of good scotch, two cut-glass tumblers and the gun. The lamp stand was bronze, shaped like a dancer from the Folies, shiny in patches where he liked to rub it for luck. The revolver a 38 snub-nose police special laying next to Mackinson's hand on a thick towel which could be instantly wrapped around it as an improvised silencer.

Mackinson waited patiently, perfectly still, nonchalant, seemingly relaxed but deceptively so, in the same way a tiger might crouch and watch his prey.
His prey, a City Councilman named Jarvis, sat sweating, sucking on a cigarette as he read through the pages on his lap; face flushed, florid under a bad wig, forehead slick with the sheen of having walked up too many flights of stairs to get here. A big man unused to exercise, unused to pressure, unused to the tight knot of fear that now gripped his stomach. His rumpled suit displayed dark patches under the arms, his lank tie awry. Jowly. The Councilman looked a little like Dick Nixon might have if someone had landed a good one on that ski-ramp of a nose.
Leaning forward he gulped down a half-tumbler of scotch. Mackinson didn't refill his glass; Mackinson didn't move a muscle; he simply stared.
A crackle as Jarvis turned a page, eyes panicked, lower lip trembling. Rivulets of sweat ran down from his temples over a flabby neck, staining his shirt collar.

The gun was mostly for show but he would happily use it. He would equally happily not. The man was weak. Spineless. Loathsome. A stony stare kept him cowed. Much as he despised his victim Mackinson would gladly let Jarvis live. The mess and stink of cutting up and disposing of the body would put him off dinner tonight. Besides, he was just the messenger, Bartleby had laid it all out clear as day on those few terrible pages.

Jarvis sat a long time smoking, he did not read any more. Mackinson watched him carefully, searching his face for clues.
Eventually time, like his cigarette, ran out. Jarvis shuddered, took a deep, trembling breath and raised his wet eyes to meet Mackinson's.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Things Become Interesting For Otto

This week's sentence was taken from John Steinbeck's 'Cannery Row.'

It was:
'It was not so interesting driving at night.'

Things Become Interesting For Otto

Absently flicking through radio stations Otto at last settled on one that might annoy him slightly less than the others and headed south out of Mechelen on the E19. He was dragging a container-load of patio furniture to Évora for no readily apparent reason, but a job's a job and Otto drove trucks and that's all there was to it. Why the Portuguese wanted Belgian patio furniture was not something he was going to waste his life pondering; neither would he muse much on the whys and wherefores of the boxes of glazed tiles he would be towing on his return.
It was not so interesting driving at night. On the rare occasions he got to drive in daylight there was a whole world of colour and shapes, of fields and forests, buildings, cars, oh, and pretty girls of course.
But at night? Unless he drove through a town everything outside of his headlight beams might as well not exist. And these days with most places by-passed he could drive clean across Europe and not see a single town or city until he reached his destination.
Mostly Otto drove at night so it was just him and the dark. The living world was reduced to a glow on the horizon or swarms of tiny amber lights swimming in the big black. Otto existed in his own personal pool of light; a hundred yards of floodlit asphalt surrounded by a whole universe of nothingness, his sole relief being the headlights of oncoming cars and the tail-lights of those who passed him.
Daytimes he would sleep in his cab, waking at sunset to blink in the garish glare of over-lit service areas. A greenish world of artificial light. Bright halogen on shiny plastic. Conflicting shadows. Endless cloned cafés, endless bitter coffees, microwaved factory food and the stink of urinal cake. His fellow denizens of the night hunched, anonymous figures scattered sparsely across the tables; uncommunicative, avoiding eye contact; the occasional nod or grunt and then alone again and back out into the void, driving caffeinated at the blackness. Visual stimulus restricted to the patch of asphalt rushing at the front of his truck, Otto's universe contracted until his thoughts roamed no further than the insides of his own skull. Not that there was a whole lot in there to keep him entertained.
About five miles outside of Lille he suddenly caught sight of something at the side of the road. His headlights picked it out clear as day but in the few seconds it took his brain to register what he was seeing he had almost passed it. He slammed on the brakes as hard as he dared, concentrating on not jack-knifing his trailer. A rush of airbrakes and squealing tyres and then all was silent except for the ticking of the cooling engine.
"Holy shit!"
Otto took a deep breath, his heart pounding.
What the hell was THAT doing there?
Then, slowly, he reached for the door handle.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Lines On The 75th Birthday Of Elvis Aaron Presley

This week’s sentence was taken from Garrison Keillor’s lovely ‘Radio Romance.’

The sentence was: ‘So what happened to Hoyt Buford?'

Lines On The 75th Birthday Of Elvis Aaron Presley

The dressing room was the size of a toilet cubicle but not so luxuriously appointed. It stank of stale sweat, stale beer, stale farts and boredom.
'So what happened to Hoyt Buford?'
We'd been reminiscing between sets.
'Hoyt Buford?' He'd thrown me for a second.
'You remember. He married that Chrissie girl.'
The penny dropped, 'Oh, shit: you mean Adrian!'
'Adrian?' He laughed beer out his nose and sputtered, 'Hoyt was an Adrian? You're fucking kidding.'
'No, it's true; I played with them for a while. He wanted to be this big country singer and figured Adrian Wilkins didn't give him enough "Yeehah" value. Jeez, that must be 25 years ago; I'd forgotten all about him. What the hell brought that up?'
'Reason I ask: I was digging through some crap in the attic today and came across one of their old tapes. Man, that Chrissie could sing.'
'Yeah, she had the voice. He should've stayed with her.'
'So what happened?'
'Jeez, we were getting some good gigs and then one day he just came screaming out of the closet and ran away to Canada with the bass player.'
His mouth gaped, dribbling beer down his chin.
'Lionel Whatsisface?’
I nodded and his eyes widened.
'Fuck! Chrissie must have been devastated.'
'For about five minutes, yeah.'
'Jee-zuz! Let me get my head round this. Lionel was the guy drove that crappy little three-wheeler van, right?'
'Yup, that was him. Stuffed it to bursting with Marshall stacks 'til the axle broke. Liked to call himself Slim.’
‘Hoyt and Slim. Holy crap. They really went to Canada?’
‘Yeah, clean across the Atlantic, way out to some bumfuck town on the prairie where they could play country music to real cowboys, and where the Mountie always gets his man. By all accounts they did okay. Last I heard they were opening for The Reclines, lucky bastards.’
‘Shit, I love kd.’
‘Yeah, me too. Hoyt got lucky. S’pose that’s what happens when you take that shot and follow your dream. Perhaps I should have gone with them.’
‘What,’ he laughed, ‘And leave all this behind?’
I chuckled and took another swig.
‘Ah, the glamour and the glitz.’ I waved my beer bottle to encompass the filthy glory of the dressing room. ‘Who the fuck would be a musician? Look where it’s got us: two desperate old farts in our fifties living out of a trailer, playing three sets a night for peanuts, backing an Elvis impersonator and a fire-eating stripper. Neither of us has got laid for years. What kind of a fucking life is that?'
‘We’ve had our moments.’
‘Yeah, but they were decades ago.’
We sighed and nodded.
'Jeez. Elvis would have been 75 this week.'
I checked my watch.
'We're due on stage. C'mon, let's make a racket for The King.'
He leaned across and clinked his beer bottle against mine.
'This one's for Hoyt.'
I nodded.
'Here's to you, old buddy, wherever the hell you are now.'
'Absent friends.'

Ah, the glamour and the glitz.

This week's story is not so much a story as a mélange of memories.
Adrian, Christine and Lionel are real people from way back in my past when I was in school and they lured me into their country band with the promise of filthy lucre (they'd heard me playing Frank Zappa covers and somewhat bizarrely felt I would make a good country picker … even more bizarrely they were right).

It was Adrian who insisted on being called 'Slim' as Adrian didn't give him enough "Yeehah" value, and that made me give him the 'Hoyt Buford' character as it would make a great name for a country singer.
He lived with Christine who really did have a killer voice.
Lionel really did run away to Canada (though not Adrian) but nothing was ever heard from him again. Perhaps he got lucky, perhaps not. He really did drive a crappy little three-wheeler van which he stuffed full of Marshall stacks until the back axle broke on the way home from a gig one icy night.
Christine and 'Slim' didn't last.
Christine was not devastated, not even for five minutes.
I got out quick, despite the huge money in country music around here. Country fans are truly scary people.
I'd forgotten all about them until I was digging through some crap in the attic and came across an old tape of theirs. Man, that Chrissie could sing.
In my time I have also backed an Elvis impersonator (a rather good one) and a fire-eating stripper (a rather bad one).
Life? What the fuck's that all about?