stories

Top Men

[This is the beginning of a story which is available for purchase on Amazon.]

Lee stared at the checkerboard tiles of the coffee shop floor until they grew crisp and unnatural and he didn’t really see them, every thought draining out of the bleakness in head. A long-forgotten cup sat cold beside him. A pair of legs appeared. He followed them up, and found Mike looking down at him. He managed a little laugh and a rueful grin.

“Good morning,” he said. “Come to stare into the abyss with me?”

“You do look lost. What’s wrong?”

Lee gestured to the seat beside him and pushed a copy of Variety across the table.

“Coup de grâce,” he said, tapping his fingers on a headline.

Mike sat and read, “Stoltz Signs On Two More Future Pix”.

“Oh, man,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m sorry, Lee, really. But you knew it was coming.”

“It should have been ours. It was ours, just for the taking. They wanted Michael,” he said, bringing his hand down on the table in a series of little karate chops marking off the path to his undoing. “Michael wanted them.” Another chop. “Life is bright and beautiful.”

“Lee…”

“Gary won’t let Michael out of Family Ties. Chance of a lifetime, goodbye.”

“Lee…” Mike tried once more, but knew he was going to hear it all again.

“They go with Stoltz. I get sick of the whole mess and take off for two weeks in a little cabin in the woods. Bob leaves messages. Michael leaves messages. My idiot call service can’t put two and two together and figure out they should call me.”

“You could have left better instructions…” Mike murmured, knowing it would just get swept under the flood.

“I come back, I return calls. Bob was trying one last time. He was willing to scrap it all and start over if there was any chance Michael could do it. They were willing to throw away millions if they could have him. Michael, meanwhile, is calling to say Baxter’s coming back to the show, and he’s going to have time if I can get him any side projects.”

“I know, I know…”

“Too late then! They were too far in with Stoltz. Damn it, I could have made that deal,” he said, the whole hand coming down flat this time, the sound too loud in the almost-empty shop. “If he had to work 24/7, if he had to live on NoDoz and adrenaline, Michael would have done it. Now he’s moved on to new management — can you blame him? He could have had the biggest thing since Star Wars, and all I got him this year was Teen Wolf. Back to the Future mopped up the whole Summer, Stoltz’s face is on every magazine, and I’m the town joke.”

He looked up hopelessly at Mike, realized how long he’d been talking, and softened.

“I went Captain Exposition again?”

“Little bit.”

“Sorry…” he said, sinking back in his chair. “I just don’t know if you understand how bad this is. I was on my way with Michael… and a few smaller clients. I was making a name for myself, a solid reputation in the business. Now I’m poison. I’d be in Carson’s monologue if it wasn’t so Inside Baseball. I couldn’t get a fourth grader in a school play. I don’t see how I ever claw my way out of this.”

“You’re blowing it up. It’s just a setback, Lee, it could happen to any of us. It could be me tomorrow, it’s not like I have tenure. You’ve just got to take time to regroup and get back in there.”

“It could be you? How? Unless you blow up a chem lab, you’re never going to be the kind of pariah I am. You’ve got security. Me, I’ve got to… Wait, speaking of that, shouldn’t you be teaching?”

“I took a sick day.”

“A sick day? You look fine.”

“I am.”

Lee looked at him closely, and a smile spread across his face.

“Mike… ? Mikey, playing hooky? My world is upside down.”

“Something came up, something important.”

“It would have to be.”

“I could use your help. I am sorry about all this, really I am, but right now we have worse problems than career troubles. Much, much worse.”

“Oh, that’s perfect. How did you guess? I could use worse. Worse is just what I was hoping for.”

“Can you come with me? I’ll have to show you something.”

“Why should I? Where were you all those times I wanted to cut classes?”

“Where were you when any of your cool friends came around?”

“Mike, I was a stupid kid. We’ve been through that a…”

“Right. So just come on. Just give me a couple of hours of your time. Please.”

He thought it over. Mike looked earnest, but then, Mike always looked earnest. Still, what was the alternative? Go to his office and listen to the phone not ring all day? He shrugged, and got up and went with him.

Mike drove into the hills and up side roads that made Lee more uneasy with each twist and climb. They came to a dead end alongside a set of railroad tracks which led onto a trestle bending around a canyon dropping far below. They got out, and Mike got a couple of things from the trunk.

“What’s here?” Lee asked.

“Nothing,” Mike said, “it’s just out of the way. This line ran to a mine that was abandoned years ago. No one will be around to see us.”

“To see us doing what? And… why the pumpkin?”

Mike was holding an impressive specimen of the species under one arm.

“Come on, I’ll show you,” he said, starting for the bridge.

Lee stiffened and held back.

“Um, no, you go ahead. I’ll watch.”

“You can watch out there with me, you’ll see better.”

“No, I’m fine here. Really. I can see.”

“Look, it’ll just take a minute…”

“No!” Lee shouted.

Mike stared at him. Lee held his gaze for a minute, then looked at the ground, red with embarrassment.

“You’ve got the wrong guy,” he said. “I have to call somebody to get on a chair to change a light bulb. I can’t get anywhere near that, unless you want to drive me to the E.R. with a heart attack.”

“What? When did this start?”

“Oh… Around the time I was born, I guess.”

“We’ve been friends since grade school. Why am I just learning this now?”

“You remember grade school? And high school? Would you want it to get around?”

“No,” Mike said, thoughtfully. “I guess not. At least not with that crowd you ran with.” He looked at Lee, then down the tracks. “This may be a problem. Ok, just watch from here for now. And I mean watch. Don’t take your eyes off this pumpkin for a moment.”

He said it with a gravity that almost stifled Lee’s spontaneous laugher, then reinforced it and shoved it out in a snort. Mike glared. Lee tried to straighten himself and look apologetic, then wondered what he was feeling sorry about. I mean, come on.

Mike sat the pumpkin on the ground and squatted down to attach the other thing he’d gotten out of the trunk. Lee eyed it curiously. It was a small device like a Walkman, but not much bigger than a deck of cards. It had a couple of dials on the front and a switch on top, but was otherwise unremarkable. A metallic silver belt was fastened to the back of it, and Mike used this to secure it around the pumpkin. He twisted the dials and flipped the switch, and a red light started blinking on and off in the upper right corner.

Mike stood up with the pumpkin, and said, “Lee, I’m serious, you’ve got to watch what happens next. It’s important that you believe it.”

Lee thought he shouldn’t worry. Whatever was going on, he had his attention now.

Mike walked alongside the tracks until he came to the trestle and stepped on the narrow walking platform. He went almost halfway down the span, then turned and held the pumpkin over the edge. He looked back at Lee, who nodded and inched forward just enough to have a clear view of where it would land, next to the creek far below.

Mike opened his hands, and down it went, faster and faster, the little red light blinking at Lee all the way down. It reached the spot where Lee had predicted it would hit, and smashed into the ground.

Lee stood for a moment with his brows knit, like someone trying to work out a magic trick. What was he supposed to have seen? He couldn’t see a single thing out of the…

Then his body jerked to a start and he felt like something was crawling all over his skin. Mike was coming back to him now.

“Why didn’t I hear it hit?” he asked, and, looking down again, “And why is it black?”

Mike nodded. “Come on,” he said, and started down the side of the ravine.

Lee only fought with himself for a moment, curiosity overwhelming his instinctive fear, and carefully made his much-slower way after him.

The pumpkin was in a tidy pile. Instead of scattering pulp and seeds in every direction, it had left the ground around it untouched, and had fallen inward in a dark, gooey mess. Mike grabbed a bottom edge and lifted it, showing Lee that, where it contacted the ground, it was still intact, and just a paler shade of orange than it was before it fell.

“Ok,” Lee asked, “So what’s the riddle?”

“It’s rotted.”

“Rotted? Since you let go of it up there?”

“No. Since it landed here. It’s been sitting and rotting for a month.”

“Oh, ok,” Lee said. “Sure. And Arnold Schwarzenegger’s the governor.”

“Look… Come sit down,” Mike said, walking towards a couple of rocks nearby. They sat, and Mike took a long breath.

“Last year, when you were trying to make a deal with Zemeckis and company, they mentioned that they needed a technical consultant to punch up their time travel mumbo-jumbo. You passed my name along, and I gave them a couple of pages to work with.”

“Sure. At least one of us got something out of that deal. They used it almost line for line, they were really happy with it.”

“They should have been, they got a lot more than they payed for. They wanted something that sounded vaguely plausible, so I based it on some real research I’d done for my dissertation. Some real research that turned out to be too real. It kept coming back to my mind after I saw the movie. I got out my old papers and sat down with them for a few days and… It works. Lee, it actually works.”

“Mike…”

“Not all of it, it’s mixed in with what they already had, but if you keep going down the same logical path, you get to something that really checks out, all the way down the line.”

“But how? You’re not talking about building a better boombox here, or even a flying car.”

“It’s simpler than you think. It’s not that different from what was in the movie, only instead of forward motion, it has to be motion downward. Gravity plays a part. And you don’t have to hit a specific speed, you just have to travel a minimum distance. Anything 64 meters or over, and the effect is triggered at the bottom.”

“And you don’t go splat because…”

“Because you never actually land, at least not in the now. It’s like those graphs we plotted in high school. You remember how you’d get nearer and nearer to an axis, but never actually touch it? Same thing. You get closer and closer and closer to the ground, but somewhere in that infinity of not reaching it, you slide back in time. Or forward. The momentum you’ve built here doesn’t exist there. Er, then. You just settle to Earth, like when your muscles let go at night and you sink into the bed.”

Lee cocked his head and stared a long beat.

“That crap in the movie was more convincing.”

Mike silently pointed to the mass of pulp laying a few yards from them.

“Right, right…” Lee said, now dazed, his mind racing. He reached over and squeezed Mike’s leg. “You made good, Mike. More than… But what about the rotation of the Earth? Its movement around the sun? Why didn’t the pumpkin pop out one twelfth of the way back around the orbit?”

“That’s all handled in the theory,” Mike said impatiently, hurrying on now that he’d established what he needed Lee to see. “We don’t have time to draw diagrams in the dirt all day. We’ve got to jump on this thing, now. Don’t you see, Lee? This thing makes all the missiles in the U.S.S.R. look like firecrackers. I’m not the smartest guy on the block. If I could figure this out, it’s only a matter of time before someone else notices it, too. Universal’s given this a million times more distribution than Scientific American ever could. I made that thing in my garage. Anybody with just a common knowledge of physics could put one together, strap it on, and wipe out a whole nation with a single shot at its founder. Or bump off Gutenberg before anything rolls off his press. Put the Third Reich back on its thousand-year plan.”

“Pass an Algebra exam he forgot to study for…”

“I’m serious. Once this gets out, we’ve got no way to control it, no way to police it. How’d you like to not wake up tomorrow because somebody stepped on the first fish crawling out of the ocean?”

Lee nodded.

“You’re right,” he said, “This is heavy.”

“Lee…”

“Ok, ok… So we’re sitting on Armageddon here. So what do we do?”

“We go back. We stop this before it starts. We stop ourselves from ever going down this road. And by ‘We’, I mean you.”

“Me? I’m your idea of an action hero?”

“You’re someone I trust. And you don’t have to be James Bond for this.”

Lee shook his head. “Hollywood agent saves the world? Who’s going to root for that? Terrible casting. Besides, why me? You’re more qualified. You’re the only one who’s qualified.”

“Because I’m absolutely sure it will work, sure I’ve worked it out to the last detail, but… Being sure is never a promise of being right. Produce is one thing. It’s never been tried by a person.”

Lee took this in.

“Your mission,” he said, “should you choose to accept it… And you’ve got two kids expecting you to pick them up after school today.”

“It’s not just that. I’ll go back if I have to. Unless someone straightens this out, they’re not going to have a future in any event, with or without me. But if something goes wrong, and I’m not here…”

“Oh, right.” He looked up at the platform towering far above them. “If I step off there, and you see me snap my spine here, or I’ve been laying here rotting like a pumpkin for months…”

Mike nodded.

“I have to be here to know, so I can try again. Because sooner or later, someone has to succeed. Lee, you’ve been my best friend for a long, long time. I trust you more than anyone I know. I wouldn’t ask you to do this, but… I wouldn’t ask anyone else.”

Lee considered puncturing this bit of ego-stroking, but since it was in a good cause, he made a sudden, probably misguided decision, locking himself in before his rational side could start screaming objections.

“Let’s hope you won’t have to,” he said. “I don’t want you to entrust the fate of the world to your second-best friend.”

Mike smiled, and squeezed Lee’s leg in return.

He went to the pile of goo and started hunting through it. He swished it back and forth, probing it here and there. He felt around carefully, then more vigorously, then stopped, and the blood drained from his face. He padded both his palms all over it. He picked up the bottom of the shell and held it sideways, spilling the guts on the ground. He shifted them around with his foot, then gave them a field goal kick, splattering bits over Lee. They stared at one another, and Mike ran to the creek.

Lee ran after him, saying, “It’s just some kid. Some kid came along and picked it up, thinking it was a toy. He couldn’t get it to work, and he’s thrown it away by now.”

“Or he’s stuck it in a drawer,” Mike said, quickly washing his hands, “where someone will find it in ten years. Or he’s shown it to his uncle, who works for Lawrence Livermore. Or it gets passed around until it gets to someone who can take it apart and figure it out.”

He stood up, wiping his hands on his jeans.

“I didn’t think anybody would be out here. Dammit, Mike, why not a cucumber and three days?”

He rushed back up the hillside, Lee chasing after him.

“We’ve got to get you back, now. The clock’s ticking. The longer we let this play out, the bigger the chance that all hell breaks loose.”


The rest of the story is available for purchase on Amazon, and can be read on a wide variety of devices and in their Web viewer. I wanted to make it available for $0.25, but the least they’ll allow anyone to charge is $0.99. :-\

Please take a look at it here.

Thanks, I hope you enjoy it!

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reviews

Wisecracker: The Life and Times of William Haines, Hollywood’s First Openly Gay Star

Wisecracker cover

(This is a copy of a Goodreads review.)

An encouraging bit of Pride Month reading of the “Nice to know we’ve always been here” variety. “Openly gay” in the context of the 1920s held a different meaning than today, not an affirmation, but a refusal to lie, evading direct questions with clever evasions (making Haines the “Wisecracker” of the title). That’s bad for the author, leaving him with a lack of primary sources and the need to offer what evidence he can gather to support educated guesses or outright speculation about many important events. Still, he was able to speak with many who where there, and to build a portrait of the vibrant gay social scene in the Hollywood of the 1920s (almost rivaling the one in Berlin in the same period) and how it changed in the face of the more reactionary 1930s.

There’s a lot of name dropping and Hollywood gossip to titillate, but at its heart, it’s a portrait of a good, honest, and much-loved man who lived a life of integrity for more than 50 years before Stonewall and whose 47-year relationship with his partner put all his straight friends and Beverly Hills neighbors to shame. Not essential, but well worth the time. I’m putting the author’s more general survey of Gay Hollywood on my reading list.

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Uncategorized

Kaleidoscope

School picture

The first high school I attended closed at the end of my sophomore year. The rector videotaped events — and many non-events — throughout the year, and made copies for anyone who wanted them to take home. I digitized my copy a few years ago and posted a few clips from it. Now that YouTube allows long videos and upload speeds are reasonable, I’ve posted the entire thing, to commemorate what would have been my class’s 25th anniversary:

This is a 2010 digital transfer of a 1987 copy of a copy of a VHS tape from a 1980s camcorder, so… expect what you should expect. It’s the 80s, so beware the hair, beware the fashions, beware the music. It’s long, it’s slow, it’s fuzzy, it’s muffled, it’s repetitive… but it’s a cherished document of some great friendships.

If you always wanted eight hours of this, it’s yours for the binging!

Enjoy.

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family

More Covey home movies

Grandpa at wedding

While moving our father out of his apartment, we found a DVD labeled “Angevine Video”, which turned out to be more home movies from the 1960s. It must have been a gift to him from my Aunt Pearline’s family. I don’t know whether he’s seen them; I’ll show them to him the next time I’m with him.

There’s a lot of footage of my grandfather and his family at home (and at the mine and cemetery) in Rachel, some of what we think is Bob Hartzell’s wedding, and a brief glimpse of our family in Mannington (15:50). What else can you spot?

I’ve never seen my grandfather in motion before. Many, many thanks to whomever put this together. 🙂

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reviews

The Days of Anna Madrigal

The Days of Anna Madrigal book cover

(This is a copy of a Goodreads review.)

Three stars for this one, four for the whole series. If you’ve been thinking of dipping your toe into the world of Barbary Lane, this is what I’d suggest (with the caveat that I’m relying on memories of when I read some of these years ago):

If you haven’t read Tales of the City, you should. It’s wonderful. If you’ve read Tales of the City, you have to read More Tales of the City, which pays off storylines from the first book.

Further Tales of the City is our intrepid band of friends off on more adventures. If you’ve really gotten into it, read it. If not, you can get by on reading a Wikipedia summary.

Read the opening of Babycakes. After that, the rest of it and all of Significant Others are just more of the same. Fun, but non-essential. Read summaries if you like.

Read Sure of You. It’s wonderfully written and brings the opening of the first book full circle in a way that’s devastating, but real and honest and true to the characters.

Then take a break and let it soak in and pretend you thought that was the end of it and waited twenty years like the rest of us. Then read Michael Tolliver Lives. It’s a joy, and reading the truth (or one of the truths) about what happened at the end of Sure of You was the second time the books had me weeping.

Read Mary Ann in Autumn. It beautifully finishes the work of cleaning up the mess left behind by the original series, including tying up plotlines from the very first book.

If you’ve come this far, read The Days of Anna Madrigal. It’s fitting that Anna should get the final spotlight, though the rest of the cast didn’t need to be pushed to the sidelines quite so cavalierly. Mary Ann, in particular, the one we loved so much so many decades ago, should have Maupin in Family Court on charges of neglect. Anna’s story is strong and worthy of her, but the rest is like being at a party where you see your oldest and dearest friends on the other side of the room, but the host ties you the whole time to a few new acquaintances.

I’m glad he’s had the integrity to close the story here despite apparently being tempted to continue writing more about the new characters (who are not nearly so compelling as the old). I wish we had a more satisfying conclusion for all the Barbary Lane residents together, but the graceful benediction of Anna is gift and satisfaction and happiness enough.

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reviews

Two Spirits

Two Spirits

When I saw Little Big Man years ago, I had mixed feelings. I almost wished Dustin Hoffman wasn’t in it. I thought it was one of his worse performances, bouncing between clownish and Capital-A Actory, and his character took up most of the time while being the least interesting part of the story. When you removed him and all the paint-by-numbers scenes in the White community, though, I thought that what was left was a marvelously nuanced, human, and warm-hearted depiction of one Indian society, with both pathos and a lot of good humor. Chief Dan George was unforgettable, and the rest of the Indian cast fleshed out a captivating vision of Cheyenne life that was not so much better or worse than White culture than it was just wonderfully different, and tragic in its loss. It was like Things Fall Apart for the Plains.

Of natural interest to me was the inclusion of a gay character who was understood and respected and given a place of honor in his tribe. It was my first introduction to the history of LGBT people in pre-Columbian American societies. When the Supreme Court ruled on DOMA last year, I thought back to this, and wondered whether marriage equality was truly something new on this continent, or if we were just returning to a status quo that had existed before the European invasion. After just a little Googling, I found some articles documenting that gay couples had indeed been happily married members of their communities right on this spot, centuries before Stonewall. I also found links to a documentary about contemporary LGBT Indians and their attempts to reclaim a past which, like much that was good in traditional cultures, was wiped out of memory by missionaries and boarding schools. I just got a notification that it’s streaming on Amazon Prime, and watched it today.

Two Spirits bears a lot of similarities to The New Black, which came out last week. Both are one-hour documentaries distributed by PBS, both deal with the status of gay people within minority communities, and both use a specific current event as their framework. That’s a convenient narrative device, but I was again left wanting more, wanting a longer-form piece with time to take a broader view and tell more stories. In this case, I would gladly have spent another hour getting to know the leaders of the Two Spirit movement, learning about their backgrounds and the response to their activism.

I’d also have liked to have heard more about the legacy of European cultural assimilation. In the African-American community, one of the great undiscussed ironies is that Europeans kidnapped Africans, indoctrinated them with Christianity, and used it as the justification for why they should accept their status as sub-human property, and now their descendants have adopted Christianity and are using it to justify treating their own brothers and sisters and sons and daughters as undeserving of equal rights. The New Black never touched on this. Two Spirits talked about the European conquerors’ violent reactions to gay-inclusive Indian societies and touched very briefly on homophobia among contemporary Fundamentalist Christian Indians, but there’s a lot more to be told about how White prejudices replaced traditional acceptance and how contemporary gay Indians have had to rediscover and reclaim their heritage.

I don’t mean to belittle this effort. It’s an important start, and I hope it will be a catalyst for more ambitious work in this area. It’s definitely worth a look if you want something short to round out your Pride Month viewing.

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