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THE TRAVELLER

6 Aug

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 A LIFE LESS TRODDEN…

“There’s a code, not a lot of people know that, they just think that homelessness is about not having a roof over your head. There’s that of course, but there’s so much more to it than just that. It’s a little like thinking that fishing is about threading a worm onto a hook and casting a line into some murky pool in the hope of getting that Kodak comment with a slime covered fish and a grainy photo on the back page of the Evening Press. If that were the case then why would people do it — why do people do anything? Is it about pitting your wits, the thrill of the chase, the chance encounter with that which will enlarge the mundane and make for fireside-tellings and beer soaked half-truths all the more enduring? Nobody really wants to get out of bed at dark o’clock and sit in some stinking mud pit whilst chewing on cheese and onion sandwiches  —  filthy nails digging into pure white bread — and sipping on over sugared tepid tea. Bollocks is what it is, yet thousands, no I would think billions, head to the waterside every weekend to indulge in pseudo riparianism. So what are they running from — or too for that matter — all those silent, solitary, static figures? A chance to be alone, to think, to peruse and plumb the depths of ones psyche and weigh one’s soul against a pocket sized Feather of Maat — to see if one is wanting in the getting enough out of life stakes. A trip down memory lane, a troll through consciousness — simply being at one with oneself. You can’t tell me that the hordes of camouflaged enthusiasts waiting in the reeds, like Rourke’s Drift Zulus, are thinking about fishing? A chance at the big time perhaps, a reprieve from quotidian Colditz tunnel digging and the journey towards the light at the end of it? The smell of corruption and the ache of bone chilling cold in preference to domestic bliss-ter and heated conversation? Course not, they’re a million miles away on the other side of the universe traversing interstellar highways in personalized time-discontiuums. Hence it’s like homelessness, exactly like homelessness because one has nothing to do with the other, or itself, and that’s where you strike the parallel — the fact that both states have absolutely zero in common with their supposed activity. It’s all about escape, running away — social if not moral cowardice wrapped up in fuzzy weekend activity or a none participatory societal state. The anglers of the world are abject cowards; the fish can probably see their yellow spines through the murk of filth through which they submarine.

Likewise the homeless with that unwashed well-worn bravado who epitomize misguided declarations of what it is to be free — a slap in the face to paycheck wage slaves living the nightmare of two up two downs, thirty year mortgages and the unrequited love of their 1.7 children. We’ve all seen my colleagues, and I do use the term loosely, down on the corner banging their drums, waving the flags, playing their three string guitars and juggling as though their lives depended on it. Strange really that a folk so interested in shunning society are so eager to make their presence felt and engender contact with those whom they despise — as though rotting teeth, tussled hair and an urgent need of a bath is going to enjoin the right kinds of social intercourse! There we sit with our mangy dogs and our even mangier women, surrounded by brown bagged sausage-roll sustenance and empty cider bottles. Hardly an advertisement to those contemplating a similar lifestyle — not exactly a recruiting campaign to join the legion of the idle or the regiment of the damned.

But I digress.

There’s a code. Not one where we face the East on our knees or exchange bodily fluids in freshly slashed pressed flesh, but a code all the same. The code is to never take more than you need, never be a burden and never beg. If you choose to dismiss the first two then one must insure that the third statute is upheld. I’ve seen them myself and they disgust me, able bodied teens — sturdy beggars — sitting on the pavement, heads down with palms outstretched. Nothing wrong with the buggers, there just suffering from that malodorous affliction called self-induced idleness. What they really need to do is get off their arses and go and find something that would actually allow them to finance whatever addiction it is they are trying support via the misguided benevolence of the passing public. The freedom they were looking for, the Romany lifestyle all be it sans caravan, is probably more effort than they’d envisioned. Being homeless isn’t easy, there’s the constant hassle from the pigs, the queue at the soup kitchen, the inevitable Mary and Joseph moment where one discovers after five rain soaked hours that there really is no room at the inn.

It’s hard bloody work.

When ones wardrobe consists of a puke stained jacket from Dumpster and Sons and pair of third party, gently-used piss-stained jeans that barely button, one can hardly expect to excel at the interviews. Sure you may have your shit together, the lies may cascade from your tongue and your eloquence effervesce however, the fact that the prospective employer can’t stand to be in the same room as you because of the way you smell is hardly conducive to a symbiotic working relationship. Being homeless means acceptance of oneself and one’s own created reality. It’s a choice; it’s something you want to do. One chooses to travel, to peruse life from the other side and to experience a life less trodden. There’s no romance, you can leave that to the scribblers and the poets. A life on the road isn’t for the feint of heart, where every moment is an adventure, every day an accomplishment. To be at odds with human nature, an observer of the real world isn’t everybody’s luke warm cup of tea. Nobody asked or forced me, it was something I chose to do.

I may be a work shy cunt but I’ll never beg!”

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FREELANCE BABY…

19 May

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SHAKESPEARE IN THE VALLEY OF THE SUN – A free-lance piece for the Arizona Magazine

(The surprising popularity of Shakespeare’s plays in a desert landscape.) 

An investigation into the popularity and influence of Shakespeare’s writings in 21st century Phoenix.

By Colin James 

            Margery fusses with her wig and quickly applies another coating of grease-paint. She can feel the swell of voices beyond the curtain — sense their expectation. An audience that’s wined and dined and who now expect to be entertained; after all they’ve paid their $15!
            The Pebble Creek Players have rehearsed for months, in fact the best part of a year. If they haven’t got it down by now they never will. They’re word perfect, and perfectly practiced. It wasn’t easy; a passage of trial and tribulation — long afternoons fortified with iced whatever’s. But tonight’s the night, the moment her amateur thespians will eke out their lives as shadows and poor players as they pace the boards of the Pebble Creek community center.
            Margery adjusts the prosthesis underneath her shirt, looks across the void, and smiles nervously at one of her fellow cast members hidden in the shadows. Slowly she ambles to center stage; difficult to do with one leg in Plaster of Paris however, assisted by crutches she does her best. Suddenly there’s a hush, the only voice that of the compere. “Ladies and Gentleman welcome to this evenings performance.” The voice is a mumble, the words barely audible through the thick curtain that separates the performers from the audience, or rather the Christians from the lions. “Ladies and Gentleman I give you The Greys, Pebble Creek’s answer to Shaftsbury Avenue and Broadway.” Applause. The curtain is lifted.

*

            Arizona sunshine beats down on black top as Snow-birds and visitors from colder states caper nimbly in newly acquired tennis sneakers defending their own side of the net. The laughter and mirth generated by an afternoon of tennis is palpable in contrast to the intensity of a small but dedicated “band of brothers” that while away the hours in rehearsal and recitation of a Shakespeare play in a private home across the street. Pebble creek, a Robson Retirement community on the west side of Phoenix, caters to those lucky enough to have left the work place far behind; an active adult retirement resort where no matter your flavor of distraction, it can be found behind it’s secure stucco walls. 

          Wendy Jackson, 65, a native of Madison Wisconsin and grandmother to six, holds a copy of Spark’s Notes “No fear Shakespeare” in her hand and reads aloud to the assembled mixture of silver haired ladies and gents who sit comfortably in a semi-circle around her. The text is Henry the V, the notebook a study guide for those introducing themselves to the works of Shakespeare. The Greys, the Pebble Creek Players is an erudite bunch who intend to perform the play later this year. The “happy few”, with drinks in hand, listen intently to Mrs. Jackson as she enunciates; sipping gratefully from freshly made iced-tea. 

            “Theater has always been in our blood,” explained Wendy, “My mother was a dancer and my father, during his military service, worked for a glee-platoon that put on productions for the troops. Although my father was often a little embarrassed of his service, he often spoke of his wonderful-war, entertaining front line soldiers. My father had been a painter and decorator before the war, so when they came looking for volunteers he was a shoe-in, as they needed someone to paint and construct the sets. I guess you might say that the grease paint and limelight was spooned into me as a child. Shakespeare came later for me, probably around the time I went to college.” 

            Wendy looks wistful as she relates her amateur dramatic experience. “Of course it all started in high school with the Christmas show and the annual production the drama society would perform for the parents and students. Once bitten by the bug, I never really lost touch with the stage, and the discovery of a deeper more thoughtful production developed in me with my first taste of Shakespeare. I remember it was Twelfth Night and I was lucky enough to get the part of the maid. Quite an undertaking however, clearly my director saw something in me that, looking back now, was probably a turning point. I’ve been involved in amateur dramatics, and in particular Shakespearian productions, even when pregnant with my two boys ever since. There is something in the language that is so enduring and meaningful. As my old director would say there is ‘cadence on the tongue and music in the ears’ when his plays are performed.” 

            But how much enthusiasm can there be for the Bard in a retirement community on the far edge of Phoenix? Is there really a market for a 16th century play-wright in the Valley of the Sun? 

            Wendy laughs, “You’d be surprised. Of course there’s always enthusiasm for the golden oldies,” as she calls the more popular Broadway productions, “but there’s always a lot of interest in Shakespeare. You’d be surprised how many people have made it to retirement, who only now are listening to, and enjoying his plays. She shakes her head and smiles, “Seems like a waste to me, but better late than never.” 

            The Pebble Creek Players have to date performed 3 sold out productions of William Shakespeare’s plays and alongside their theatrics have created both a reading club and a study group. “A lot of the residents,” explains Wendy, “can’t seem to get enough, and we’re always being approached by new people interested in joining our various groups.” 

            There is no age limit, or statute of limitations that makes the plays popular. When one thinks of Shakespeare penning his prose and performing his plays for the mob in London, clearly it wasn’t sunbaked Arizona that he had in mind. 

            It’s Friday night and a group of around 10 teenagers sit on a stage beneath florescent lighting at Saint Luke’s Church on the corner of 19th Avenue and Camelback road, a location popular on Sunday mornings with a largely Hispanic congregation. The group of young enthusiasts waits eagerly, chatting and browsing on their smart-phones. The teens have volunteered to participate in a Shakespeare workshop run by the Brelby Theater Company on the West side of Phoenix in Glendale. This older, less in vogue area of town, has suffered the effects of economic malaise. During the 16th century, when Shakespeare’s plays were being performed for a half-penny a time for the groundlings in Southwark, on the south bank of the Thames in London, The Globe Theater hardly had an address to boast of either. Glendale is now populated by lower income families, with a large Hispanic demographic. At least half of the kids waiting for Geoff Shelby, the organizer of the workshop and one of the principals of the theater, are the children of Latino immigrants and not all of them are legal. 

            Geoff a tall, gangly, salt and peppered veteran of the theater calls the kids to order and hands out copies of this evening’s texts. Romeo and Juliet; the balcony scene. 

            “Something they all know about even if they don’t realize it yet.” Geoff throws me and infectious grin and launches into Romeo, oh Romeo. 

            “Alright then who’s heard that before?” asks Geoff. A couple of hands go up in the air. “Who’s heard of Romeo and Juliet?” Several more hands appear. “You guys have been holding out on me. Seems you’ve have already heard of this Shakespeare character.” Laughter ripples through the small group that’s excited to get down to business. 

            “Shakespeare,” Geoff tells me, “is as relevant today as he ever was. It’s simply a case of getting young people’s attention. With so many distractions and sources of instant gratification one has to bring the plays to the fore, sit the kids down, and show them what they’re missing. It’s amazing to see the transformation from disinterest to over-the-top enthusiasm; their pride in being able to recite and remember tracts of text. You literally see the kids grow as they stand on stage and recite for their parents at the end of the course. 

            The Brelby company has been a feature of the Phoenix theater scene for well over 15 years and was formed by Geoff Shelby and fellow thespian Anita Rodriquez . 

            “At the time,” says Geoff, “there was no real theater. Sure there were movies but it wasn’t the same thing. Live theater grabs an audience by the throat and forces their senses into the action without the distraction of popcorn and product placement. We originally formed the company to perform one play however, since then we’ve done over forty. Shakespeare has always been a main-stay of our revue, an evergreen that audiences don’t seem to grow tired of.” 

            The Brelby, a not-for-profit organization, has benefitted from Arizona for the Arts funding, hence their community give back. “Ticket sales,” says Geoff, “ are unfortunately only half the story, and alongside our theatrical work we all hold regular jobs. Theater is our passion, unfortunately not our profession.” The look on Geoff’s face at the interaction of the kids is worth the million dollars the Brelby Theater Company truly deserves. He believes that keeping Arizona’s kids on the stage and off the streets is money and time well spent.

*

            Arizona is a keenly diversified state where one can ski Flagstaff in the morning and bathe in Phoenix sunshine in the afternoon; a state known more for copper, cattle and cotton than Elizabethan English theater. One can rodeo-ride in Buckeye or sling six-shooters in old-town Tucson, but one can also find the theater in all its diversified forms throughout the state, and surprisingly that of William Shakespeare. There is a ground swell of enthusiasts and over 20 independent theater companies, private individuals and interest groups, who devote their time to either studying his works or performing his plays.

*

            In the heart of downtown Mesa a very different atmosphere can be found from that at Saint Luke’s, although their intent is the same. The Desert Rose Theater, “The best theater you’ve never seen,” as they advertise themselves, are in the throes of final preparation. Unlike the Pebble Creek Players who were surrounded by garden furniture and cooling beverages there is a sense of urgency, a heated atmosphere of needs-to-be-done; a group in excess of 30 people, swarm around the theater building preparing for an opening night that is only a week away. The posters are printed, the blurb gone to the local press, and ticket sales haven’t been too shabby either. They intend to perform William Shakespeare Midsummer Night’s Dream and Kathryn Stewart, the director of the theater, is in no mood for half-measures, and even less time for anybody not directly related to the play. 

            With tousled brown hair and eye-glasses pushed up on her fore head, Kathryn is the epitome of efficiency. She continuously shuffles papers through her hands while we talk, and despite the interview, is keen to engage several people in conversation at any one time. In between her directions for stage management and interjections between actors, I discover her passion for the plays. 

            “I finished college in Washington, and joined a theater group directly afterward. With a liberal arts education and a passion for the stage, much to the disappointment of my parents, I took to the road. For me it’s always been Shakespeare. I’ve worked with other companies in the past, but it’s always a welcome return home when I go back to doing what I love best.” 

            Kathryn has trod the boards for the past 30 years and is clearly a devotee to her art. But why Phoenix? Why Arizona? 

            “The Rose Theater first came to Phoenix in ‘92.  At the time we performed mainly for schools and colleges. Now, much to my distress, the study of Shakespeare and his works has nearly disappeared from the curriculum and so we’ve had to make ourselves more affable to the public. This has meant more elaborate stage craft and a sense of utter professionalism in order to attract paying audiences. Although we’re a volunteer organization we do employ several professionals and very often contract actors for our leading roles. This allows us to take our plays on the road, and during any given year we cover most of Arizona. Our season is generally made up of four plays two of which are always Shakespearian in nature whether Shakespeare, Marlow or Johnson for example.” 

            Judging by the amount of people involved and the projected two weeks of four performance plus matinees, Kathryn has her hands full. I leave her to her work and head for my final Shakespearian experience.

*

            My destination is the aluminum and glass edifice of the Mesa Arts Center, An opulent, outwardly expensive monument to the theater and performance art. The center features art, dance and music, and is home to the Southwest Shakespeare Company, the most auspicious of all the Shakespearian players within Phoenix’s city-limits. I step into a polished steel elevator and wend my way to the office of Margaret Monroe, the current publicity director for the company. As expected Ms. Monroe is dressed in impeccable business attire and exudes and air of supreme confidence. A total contrast from Geoff Shelby and his make shift accommodation in Glendale. 

            “You have to understand that Shakespeare can be performed in many different ways,” she explains, “and have been on many different occasions. The fact that we’ve this beautiful facility and the ability to hire top notch actors doesn’t detract from the work being performed by others. You have to remember that during Elizabethan times there was also a differentiation between those who paid pennies to stand and watch performances in the rain, and those who sat on cushions in the balconies. Shakespeare is for everybody and in order to proliferate his works we offer a first class location with a first class experience.” 

            Although the company does receive some arts-council funding, it is a self-sufficient organization and turns a profit. When not performing in Phoenix, they take their plays on the road and even internationally. “Phoenix is a great base for us,” explains Margaret, “as everybody here is from somewhere else. Many residents have come from larger cities where they’ve enjoyed quality theater and so expect the same.” A classic case of the market will provide.

*

            Mrs. Menendez watches her teenage son as he leaves the house, walks down the garden path, turns, waves, and disappears into inky blackness. Menendez crosses herself; not in fear for her son but in thanks for a certain individual who’s come to town — a voice that will take her beloved boy off the street and keep him safe from harm. She knows exactly where Jose will be for the next two hours; in fact she knows where he’ll be every Tuesday and Thursday for the next two months. Secure and surrounded in the caring environment of the Brelby Theatre and Geoff Shelby; free from the scum who pollute the streets.
            So who is this masked man, the caped-crusader that has arrived to save the youth of Glendale? No man of steel, rather a man of words; a warrior poet whose plays and sonnets have brightened the planet for over 400 years; a writer who has chased away the shadows and illuminated the lives of millions. Parents of Glendale and Phoenix take heart. William Shakespeare abides in Arizona.

 

The End

Travelogue

14 May

 RIOTER

          

  When the first rock hit the windshield I was surprised. When the second hit I was terrified. I’d experienced situations like this on television; anxious protagonists pursued by crowds through cramped, white-washed, laundry-draped streets. But that was Hollywood, the stuff of fiction; something you’d pay ten dollars for to entertain yourself on a Saturday afternoon; a thrill ride of virtual terror accompanied by a soda and a tub of popcorn. Not so much on that street in Nablus. There was I, having arrived in the country less than an hour previous, with nothing on my mind but sleep, embroiled in civil unrest. 

The flight to Tel Aviv from Washington had been long, nearly eleven hours. I’d watched everything they’d provided, read my magazines and eaten the obligatory meals.

Fish or beef?” The litany of the stewards, as they struggled to push trolleys through an aircraft filled with restless people, anxious for their journey to end. The worst part of traveling, as every experienced back-packer will tell you, is traveling itself. The airports, the delays, the flights, the inconsideration all of those who don’t give a fig about your odyssey, amount to an extremely unpleasant experience. Gulled by glossy brochures, and photo shopped web-sites the average traveler has nothing on his mind but sun, sand, sea and a week away from the boss. The magazines never mentioned the overcrowding of cattle-class, or the flatulence of my new best friend who, slightly larger in the waist than most, was spilling into my seat. 

A week in Israel, how bad could it be? A final jaunt on the boss’s dime before I handed in my notice and went off to college. Having been with the company for a little over seven years, I deserved it. Heck they owed me! Of course I’d been to Israel before and so knew what to expect. I’d been promised top-notch accommodation at the King David, a very select hotel in the center of the beach-side tourist district of Tel Aviv. I’d booked the room the previous week and even though I wasn’t paying, had nearly choked on the price of $375 dollars a night. I had of course informed the boss who’d simply waved a hand telling me not to worry about it, as he smudged his signature onto my travel permission request. 

 “Israel is expensive. You know that?” he’d asked. Of course I knew that, but the best part of $400 a night, in a hotel frequented by the likes of Madonna and the rest of the pop-erazzi seemed excessive, especially when the same man would usually quibble over per-diem expenses. 

The purpose of the journey was to support colleagues struggling with a project; my allocation was for a seven days jaunt to Israel. As per usual everything was covered, accommodation, travel, food and this time, thanks to previous visits, I actually knew some people who lived in the country and so the acceptance of an invitation to somebodies back yard to eat grilled meat and choke down a few cold beers was inevitable. I wasn’t excited, more resigned. I had to go. 

C’est la vie! I kicked the wife, stroked the dog, and bid my children farewell. “Off to the Holy Land — see you in a week.”

Arriving at Tel-Aviv airport I should have recognized the signs. Normally the place is bustling, with soldiers and uniformed officials, merchants and fellow tourists; a melting pot of travelers and returners, a hive of industry – but not today. Getting off the plane we were met by the usual brown-uniformed, machine gun toting conscript. On previous visits we’d been collected by bus, and ushered into a receiving area where passports were checked and questions asked. The Israelis, for obvious reasons, take their security seriously, and so it’s not unusual to face a barrage of questions that can go on for at least half an hour. I know, I‘ve had to endure the inundation of where-are-you-goings and who-are-you-staying withs. Questions repeated over and over again, until one becomes so exasperated, one is willing to divulge the inner most secrets of the heart to receive a release and one’s passport returned from some dead-pan official’s sweaty palm — but not today.

I walked through the corridors of an airport bereft of people. An old Arab, pushing broom, nodded to me which was more recognition than the half- asleep passport official gave, who just waved me through. “What no questions?” I carried on, I knew where I was going, off to the rental car agency on the other side of the reception hall. Stepping outside into sticky humidity I mounted the escalator and whisked myself above the road to the office where Hertz keeps their brightest. A dower faced man in a crumpled suit who looked over my paper work, threw me a set of keys and pointed to the vehicle. 

“You fill up,” he said.

“What?” I asked.

“When you return, car is full. Gas!” Exasperated, he threw his hands into the air. 

 Nothing like customer service, and believe me fellow would-be travelers, outside of the good old U.S. of A there is nothing like customer service. Non-committal platitudes of, “Have a nice day,” and, “did you enjoy your stay?” Is anathema to all, but the 320 million who reside within America’s purple mountained majesty. 

Bags in the car, engine started, and map open on the front seat, I’m good to go. Haifa is about thirty minutes up the coast road, an old crusader town that has been inundated by Palestinians, Arabs, British, French, and more recently with German tourists. I gunned the engine, turned the wheel and squealed the tires of the rent-a-wreck out of the garage, and into the Mediterranean sunshine. Following directions I’d printed out, I simply pointed my nose, headed north along the E1, the main drag that goes from North to South along the coast; a pleasant drive with the Mediterranean on one side of me and the olive groves, and brown hills on the other. Nice enough, but a typical sand blown, fly bitten, Mediterranean country. Honestly, when you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Sure the cultures are different, but there is always a vista of unfinished grey concrete, lack of air conditioning and a pervasive smell of inner city garbage. 

The soldier at the checkpoint insisted something unintelligible and pointed to a road that diverted from the main drag. Instead of heading north I was now heading away from the sea in an easterly direction. With a dust plume reflected in my rear-view I drove for the best part of twenty minutes until I came to the town the soldier had indicated, and turned left. A pretty little village, the type you’ve seen on picture postcards, and posters welcoming one to Israel. The sort of place you want to get out of your car, walk around, meet the locals, and enjoy a glass of the local brew and perhaps some of that lamb you’ve imagined being turned slowly on a spit. To be honest I really thought my vacation was just beginning, an experience I was looking forward to having. 

I saw my first Hasidic Jew just ahead of me, a gentleman dressed in traditional garb; black flowing clothes and an oversized, wide-brimmed hat. He waived at me and I waved back. Friendlies obviously, and in complete ignorance drove on, rounded the corner, and came face to face with the parade. 

The smack from the rock instantly evaporated my reverie; the crack, spider webbing across the glass, urging me to rethink my touristic plans. The second rock bounced off the hood, before ricocheting into the wind screen, leaving a large, dull, opaque smudge, right in front of my eyes. Understanding immediately the urgency of the situation, I slammed the vehicle into reverse and raced back from whence I’d come. The old Jewish man still stood on the corner, but now instead of waving, he was pointing. I guess some things just don’t translate well, and did my best to grimace through broken glass, before returning to the main road. 

Unbeknownst to me I had landed in Israel on Haditha, a deeply religious festival that celebrates some pertinent event enjoyed by fundamentalist Jews. A national holiday also, which accounts for the ghost town of an airport I’d just walked through and the couldn’t-care-less attitude of the renter-car agent. The only idiot that didn’t know anything about it was me. Clearly I hadn’t done my research, and with a comfortable hotel room on my mind, had stumbled into the middle of one of the local festivals. Luckily for me, and with innate Indiana Jones dexterity, had extricated myself with consummate precision. 

I recommend going to Israel if you’ve never been; the high country to the North is probably the most picturesque you will ever see, the people relaxed and friendly. Just don’t go there on Haditha. Like me, you may just get more than you budgeted for.

PASTAWAY

23 Jan

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The machine gun barrel smoked, the restaurant echoed gunfire. It’d been over in a muzzle-flash, a full drum of thirty rounds pumped through the weapon in the general direction of the dead men who even now dripped scarlet on freshly laundered table cloths. Broken crystal reflected subdued lighting and a half shattered Champagne bottle leaked its last onto the polished wooden floor. A great neighborhood eatery, famous for its scaloppini and pasta, that after tonight  would be known for more than just its culinary excellence. The boss had warned them. There were no second chances. Capiche?

After the first few shots his killer instinct instinct kicked in – the screams and smoke culminating in a tableau of mayhem and death. He’d squeezed the trigger until the gun clicked – simple enough, nothing new. One clip had been sufficient, although ever the professional, he’d a spare magazine in his coat just in case. Lifting the muzzle Joey stared at the destruction he’d wrought.

He shouldered the weapon, drew his pistol and walked towards the shattered table. “No mistakes,” the boss had told him. “Dead men speak no tales.” Short and sharp the pistol cracked, a shot to the head of each of the dead men – a third eye blooming on their foreheads as the bullets found their mark. No screams this time, no pleas for mercy, just the report of the gun and the silence of the recently liquidated.

In this town you didn’t mess with the boss. There was no forgiveness. Sure you could buy a little time, but a little was never enough. The boss was right, “You have to command respect. No bastardo give you nothing.”

The instructions for the hit had been in his pigeon-hole in the hotel lobby, the names and photographs of the soon to be exterminated. Nothing out of the ordinary, no major planning necessary, and he’d enjoyed his bagel and coffee at Lew’s on 35th street while casually contemplating the job. It was straight forward. The nearly deceased would be at Toni Fratennilies restaurant on 69th, same way they always was on a Thursday night, enjoying the food and dividing up territory or whatever it was bosses did.

What did he know? He was small time, a pawn in very large game of chess, where if you didn’t stay one step ahead you’d wind up dead as these fishes laid across the table.

He kicked the chair of one of the unfortunates and sat down; a corpse slumped to the ground. What a fucking mess, there was pasta and spaghetti sauce all over the place but miraculously some of the table had survived. His prowess with the Thompson was legendary. Holding the gun at waist height he’d simply scythed his way through the diners, his bullets cutting them down at chest height. It was the crashing bodies and their urgent attempts to avoid the unavoidable – hands reaching for weapons, smashing through piled plates, toppling wine glasses – that had caused the table top devastation.

Holstering his pistol he removed his black leather gloves. He’d time before the cops showed up – the amount of money donated to police headquarters meant there was always time. Half the frigging city was on the boss’s payroll. With cash, girls and booze you could buy anybodyand that’s just what he’d done. 

A pasta-splashed bottle miraculously still stood in the middle of the table, corked and as fresh as the day it had left Naples. Chianti that had been pressed and bottled in Italian sunshine, a land he still remembered from his youth. He reached for it and poured wine into a glass. He sniffed, then quaffed.

Darn good stuff. Apperritifo wine is what the fellas would call it. Better than nothing, that’s for sure.

He swirled the dark liquid, coated the walls of the glass, watched the tannins skin its crystal surface.

Not bad, he thought, and poured himself another.

He looked around greedily, there was still salvageable food on the table, not quite the banquet there’d been before but enough to satisfy. He moved one of his victim’s hands from a silver tureen, wiped blood from a spoon, and scooped pasta onto a plate.

Bellissimo.

He could smell the olive oil, the spaghetti falling apart in individual strands across the plate. Al dente, perfect – just the way he liked it. He’d heard about Toni’s before the contract. When this mess had blown over and they’d cleaned the place up he’d come again, maybe bring the old lady or one of the dancers from the cabaret – the red head perhaps?

Picking through the detritus he selected what appeared to be veal scaloppini. A flower from a vase that had obviously been on the table before being blown to smithereens sat in the middle of the dish giving it a festive look. He removed the greenery and poured the meat and sauce over the pasta. Fantastic smells emanated from his plate; basil, garlic, oregano – thick edible aromas that indused instant salivation.

He was back in his mother’s kitchen on Sicily, the lady standing before her range, hour after hour, creating plate sized pieces of heaven for her husband and eight children and whoever else might appear at the table. Memorable times when the house had been filled with laughter and music, happy days when the term family hadn’t referred to the outfit he was with, but rather the company he loved. He spooned food into his mouth and was immediately transferred to Tuscan hills and orange groves, warm Italian sunshine and mountain fresh air – a taste of the old country, the essence of Italia. He could hear them all – see their smiling faces, the checkered table cloth, the wisp of curtain in the afternoon breeze. Looking around the table at his brothers and sisters he felt a belonging, a oneness, a sense of famiglia. Village life and home town remembrance washed across his tongue. The voice of loved ones ringing in his ears, young girls in summer dresses, wrinkled older couples, who’d lived and laughed forever, dancing slowly on terracotta tile.

Delizioso

Finishing his bite, and finding himself back in a restaurant populated by death, his thoughts quickly returned to reality. He could hear police sirens somewhere in the distance, it was time to go. Grabbing his gun and pocketing his gloves he moved swiftly through the restaurant, through the kitchen, and into the back alley where a car was waiting for him. Splashing through puddles, his shoes clicking on cobbles, he opened the door and sank into the leather passenger seat.

The driver smiled nervously, hands clutching the wheel, “How did it go?”

Joey shrugged.

A look of panic crossed the driver’s face and he pointed at Joey’s shoulder. “You get hit? You ok?”

Joey looked at the driver and then his shirt – redness oozed through white cotton.

Joey smiled, swiped his finger through the wound and stuck his finger in his mouth. “Spaghetti sauce! Damn good as well.”

“Yeah I heard about that place,” said the driver putting his fingers to his lips and making a kissing sound. “Besta pasta on the east side.”

Joey looked up at the sign hanging above the door of the restaurant.

Fratennilies – he’d be back.

The car drove off into the night.

FAST

17 Jan

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Bill ran.

Fear drove him forward, blood thundered in his ears, long stalks swept past his body, cutting and scratching he floundered through a sea of grass. Hot breath seared his throat, pulse raced, sweat oozed, heart pounding in his chest, throbbing at his temple. He’d never run before, he’d always stood his ground, defended his corner, but not today – today he was fleeing for his life. Tired legs fought through thick mud, wet earth sucked at aching limbs, pulled at his boots. The sky, the earth, the green, the cacophony of lung burning terror – Bill ran.

Then he stopped.

A cool breeze blew through the meadow, the welcome relief of rain as it fell on his face and shoulders. Standing in fading light he tilted his head, focused every sinew, every synapse – attempting to capture each scintilla of sound.

“Perhaps he’d escaped? They’d probably lost him – lost his scent?”

Bill heard the dogs.

Faint at first, but with a terrible bone-chilling nearness that froze him to the core. Exhausted, he couldn’t go any further, had to get away. Ignoring the physical agony of marrow-sapping fatigue he pushed on, desperate to stay ahead of his pursuers.

Bill ran.

Stumbling through the last of the grass he reached the edge of the field, caught the fence wire with his boot and fell headlong into a water filled ditch – foul smelling mud coated his body. Wiping his hands across his face he cleared his eyes then his mind. The terror of the hunt had sharpened his senses. Bill was acutely aware of the danger he faced.

The dogs were close. He could hear them barking, hear the helicopter, the shouts and curses of their handlers as they fought to control excited charges. The aircraft was directly overhead the whirr of its rotors crashed above him as he cowered in the shadows, blades shaking the ground, searchlights piercing the darkness. Without hesitation he ducked beneath the primordial slime of the ditch. Caked in filth he pushed himself along its length.

Just in time.

Suddenly the glade was filled with officious urgency – the eagerness of his pursuers palpable. Peering between unkempt reeds he saw the officers, their slung weapons gleaming – reflections of tin badges in flash-lit darkness. The hounds, eyes obsidian bright with bared fangs and dripping saliva barked up a storm. With heart palpitating, his breath came hot and fetid, the stench of the ditch water all pervading. Perfect stillness was his only chance of escape. Bathed in the muck of the ditch he was undetectable, only his imagination betrayed his presence in the blackness of the weeds.

Radios squawked.

Dogs foraged restlessly through bankside bushes. The scent was gone, the trail cold, but their prey was nearby they could taste it, feel it, wanted it so badly. Adrenaline filled and ready for action, armed black-clad officers stood eager and ready for confrontation – the highlight of otherwise mundane careers, an experience that could be related time and again over beer and barbeque.

“Where was the murdering bastard? He was here, they knew it.”

Although his would be captors were blind to his whereabouts there appeared to be no escape. They were systematic bastards, Bill knew that from past experience, and it wouldn’t take them long before someone organized a search party to gridline the area to flush him out. Like a badger caught in its holt he could sense his pursuers shoveling through the thin layer of dirt that stood between him and death. Any second now electric light would illuminate his hiding place and the slashing teeth of dogs would tear him to pieces.

It was time for action – an attempt to escape injustice and execution, a last desperate bid for freedom. He felt in his pocket for the make shift blade. The shank that’d  seemed adequate back at the prison now utterly puny in his hand. He’d nothing else. There was no going back – he wasn’t going back.

Radios buzzed, a shout went up, the police began to move away.

“He’s over here. They’ve picked up his tracks.” The helicopter faded into the distance, dogs and officers disappeared into the night.

Waiting for them to go Bill pulled himself from the mud, a dripping, stinking specter – half human, half beast. Spitting ditch water he skulked amongst the bushes. In the distance the sounds of the search went on, the enthusiasm for his capture unrelenting.

Bill got to his feet, took one last look in the direction of flashing torches.

Bill ran.

Rex mortuus est…

15 Jan

 

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Max looked out of his office window and down into the courtyard where a small but eager crowd was starting to gather. Just as he’d promised his students it was a brilliant, sunny day – a perfect day for graduation. Good old Nevada, she’d never failed him. There were so many advantages to living in the desert, but surely the cascade of continuous sunshine was the ultimate. There was something about blue cloudless skies and UV-rays beating down on one’s skin that induced a zest for life. Theirs was a state populated by positive can-do attitudes.

There was no such thing as a Nevadan as they’d been eradicated by the fledgling U.S. government of the previous century and everybody there was from somewhere else. Runaways and escapees; bad weather jail-breakers, who could no longer endure the perpetual cold and ice-scraping numbness – the quotidian excavation of snow-covered front porches. Nevadans were all born-again humans. Thankful for their release and blessed with a second start they were not unlike the thousands who flocked to worship plaster saints on Sundays and holy days. Rather than saving their devotions for the weekend, sun worshippers went down on their knees every day to be anointed with copious amounts of vitamin D. Not for them the devotional buffet of dry crackers and cheap red wine but a smorgasbord of glorious rays that transformed their grey lives into terrestrial paradises – a solar miracle. What did the Christians think that disc was behind the head of their Christ in all those Icons, a halo? Max smiled, he thought not.

They’d started the course with a class of forty two and were graduating a class of twenty one. The usual attrition one would expect from such a high seat of learning. There was nothing wrong in reaching for the stars, PER ADUA AD ASTRA after all, but one had to realize one had to learn to flap ones wings first before performing aerial acrobatics. A Greek tragedy of epic proportion, the only consolation being  the none refunability of the student’s fees.

A proud moment all the same and he never failed to recognize the gravitas of the occasion. Hadn’t he himself dared to be different, hadn’t he stood where the recently qualified would shortly be decorated with faux parchment degrees? He looked at his own coffee stained accolade hanging behind cracked glass above his desk. Class of ’87. The student had become the teacher, left the monastery and returned to cast pebbles for future candidates. His journey had been long and arduous and yet he’d attained the dizzying heights of his profession, performed for kings and queens, demonstrated his art for the rich and famous, connected with the well-connected, a legend in his own lifetime. His success had bought him fame and fortune and after accumulating moderate wealth and a couple of ex-wives on the way, he wanted to give back, share the secrets of his success with those willing to pay the college fees plus administration costs. It was necessary to fill the void, after all what would the world be if there was no one to take over the roles in society left by expiring peers? No, like surf hitting a beach, there had to be continuity. Time marched on but the legend had to survive. When the first wave left the landing craft to be mown down by unappreciative audiences there had to be  reinforcements to fill the gap -men to carry the standard, to tell the stories, to spread the word.

Happy day indeed!

Opening up his closet he reached for his ceremonial garb, the clothing that would distinguish him as faculty, as one of the teachers who’d groomed and honed those proud individuals who even now milled around amongst the crowd below. Obvious in their graduation costumes he could see them chatting excitedly to friend s and relatives, striking poses for cameras and even singing for the gathered crowds who, judging by the applause, were lapping it up.The silver gown, black leather boots and dark sunglasses set him aside from the others. He was the spitting image, or at least had been, until FatherTime had taken his requisite fee. Now, although still jet-black, his thinning hair reflected the later years rather than the younger. Dressed to impress, and with a final groin thrust to the mirror, he adjusted his jacket, ran his fingers through his hair and made for the podium. It was stage time, the green light was blinking and although self-reflection was not out of place on such a momentous occasion, it was time to congratulate his students. They’d paid the price both physically and financially and with their generous proceeds Max had managed to furnish himself a beautiful up-town home. Thanks where thanks were due. It was time to recognize fellow artists – men whom he was proud to call colleagues and fellow alumni.

*

Max stood on the podium, the audience before him. Tapping the microphone to insure he could be heard above Las Vegas rush-hour traffic, he launched into his practiced speech.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” he screamed, “welcome to our fifth graduation ceremony here at the Elvis Aron Presley College for Professional Impersonators.”

The crowd went wild. Somebody hit play on the boom box and the Legend joined the invited.

“I said one for the money, two for the show,” warbled The King over cracked speakers.

Behind him the graduates all dressed in jump suits and star spangled cloaks broke into their carefully rehearsed routine. Every one, although not exactly personifying the great man, resembled the King in their own unique fashion. Max couldn’t help but smile his bleached, capped teeth dazzled as he grinned broadly at his successful students. The latest and greatest Elvis impersonators had entered the building of performance art. His legend and the King’s would live forever.

Waiting for the song to finish and the hub-bub to die down, Max took the microphone and looked at his graduates with sincerity and watery eyes.

“Thank you. Thank you very much and I do mean that most sincerely.” Despite his Moroccan heritage Max was ever the southern Gentleman.

AUX PRINTEMPS

9 Oct

 

Contemplating the vista below, Bill fished inside his jacket for his pipe, tapped it into his hand, and then stuck it between his teeth. Leaning on a shovel, he watched as dawn broke, the lights of the town gradually extinguishing to reveal blackened chimney stacks and dilapidated rooftops.  For the inhabitants, warm showers and corn-flakes would be the order of the hour before another day of toil and struggle demanded their presence on factory floors.  A city slowly coming back to life; a magical now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t moment. What just minutes before had been a sea of lights and flood-lit streets, returned to daytime normality.

He packed the pipe with tobacco and reached into his trousers for his matches.“Damn it,” he thought,” where were his bloody matches?” He turned around. “Hey Jim, you got a light? I can’t find me frigging matches.”

Jim cursed; stopped work, fumbled in his pockets, and after a quick shuffle came up with a lighter. ”Are you going to help me out you lazy old bugger, or do I have to finish this all by my bleeding self?  He demanded.  

Bill smiled, told him to go fiddle with himself, and lit his pipe. Smoke billowed around him, the sweet scent of caramel filled the forest glade. “It was a beautiful spot alright,” thought Bill. “What was the word? Pristine, that’s what it was.”

 It was good to be out in the fresh air, at one with nature. He looked back at his son who was shoulders deep in the trench shoveling dirt for all he was worth. Father and boy, sons of the soil, unified in a common purpose – there was nothing like a bit of hard graft to unite and repair passed differences. It hadn’t been easy raising the lad – memories of a never satisfied wife who’d left them both in the lurch for what she thought was bigger meal ticket.

“Shame the meal ticket had left her for a younger pair of tits – life’s a bitch aint it?”

With record unemployment, miner’s strikes, and industrial austerity the effort it’d taken to put food on the table hadn’t always been easy. The list of cock-ups and myriad difficulties that’d gotten in the way of raising the boy right had often seemed insurmountable. He hadn’t done badly though, and the strapping man who was digging his way to Australia was a credit to him; all the fellas down the pub had told him so.

Ever since he and Jimmy had gone into business together, their fortunes had taken a dramatic turn for the better and life had suddenly become a lot more tolerable. No longer the two-up-two-down on Isambard Kingdom Brunel Terrace but a couple of semi-detacheds in leafy suburbia complete with P.V.C. windows and indoor plumbing. Finally they were moving up in the world.

The figure in the hole grunted and swore, the sound of a shovel flung high into the air thumped onto the ground. “For fuck’s sake dad, give me a hand will you? We’ll be here all bloody day.”

The sun climbed higher in the sky and the coastline along the south side of the town began to take shape; the boats in the harbor and the rock-ridden beaches all coming into view. Tilting his head to one side Bill imagined he could hear the voices of the men unloading freshly caught fish but it was more than likely just the tinnitus playing havoc with his eardrums. A brief spell with the artillery during national service, lobbing shells across desolate moorlands at imaginary communist hoards and practicing the defense of the indefensible, had put his piano playing days to bed for good, at least that would have been the case had he have ever played the instrument. Eighteen months of pure bull-shit, but at least he’d managed to wangle a trip to Germany. A smile spread across his craggy face as he remembered dirndl-dressed frauleins at the bier fests he and his mates would frequent on the weekends. It hadn’t been all bad.

Jimmy was starting to get angry. “Move your wrinkled arse you old git. I’m sweating my bollocks off over here.”

But that was a long time ago, a different epoch, life had moved on since then. Partnering with his son had probably been his best move; it was definitely his most lucrative. They should have done it years ago, but reconciliation is never on a time table, and after Jimmy’s release from nick it hadn’t been easy to pick up where they’d left off.

Bill watched as Jimmy climbed out of the hole and walked back to where they’d parked the car. He was a good lad. All it’d taken for him to realize it was a thirty year pain-in-the-arse and a short, sharp, injection of capital. He drew smoke into his lungs satisfied with his lot, happy with his circumstances. Turning his back on the view, he sauntered over to where Jimmy stood impatiently waiting.

The boot was open. “Give me a hand here, this bastard weighs a ton,”complained Jimmy.

Sucking on his pipe Bill looked into the boot,turned away, and then wretched, “Bloody hell boy, the bugger’s starting to stink!”

“No shit Sherlock, we need to get him out of there and then burn this bloody thing.”

Grabbing the corpse by the shoulders Bill and Jimmy heaved the body out of the car and dropped it onto the grass. Their latest post office extravaganza had gone slightly array and instead of making their usual clean getaway they ended up in a gun fight on the pavement outside. Bill was certain he’d taken out the guard; he’d watched him drop to the ground after unloading on him. He hadn’t seen the second man though, and as Jimmy jumped into the car the glass on the driver’s side had splintered, the bullets ripping through the interior and killing Danny their getaway driver. Luckily Jimmy had the sense to jump behind the wheel, and with a screech of rubber and a couple of backward shots for good measure, they’d headed for the hills. It would’ve been a little awkward to drop Danny at a hospital – too many bloody questions!

They dragged Danny by his legs and pushed him into the hole. Gasping from their exertions both men stared at the man in the woodland grave.

“Alright dad, you finish covering him over and I’ll do the car.”

“Lazy little bastard,” thought Bill, he always got the shitty-end of the stick. He stabbed the shovel into the heaped earth and scooped it over the body. The exploding car and ensuing fireball illuminated the corpse, giving Danny a final, if slightly macabre vitality before his face disappeared under the dirt.

Burning upholstery crackled as dense, acrid smoke from smoldering tires blotted out the town below and filled the clearing. Bill took one last look, stuck his pipe back into his pocket, and concentrated on the job at hand.