A Day Going Here and There

I love the trams. The metro is all right, it’s efficient and everything, but I love the trams. The network is complicated; even the natives don’t know where all the trams go, but they go everywhere. For less than it would cost you to drive you can get where you want to go, and there’s no worry about parking when you get there. As you trundle along you see the city.

Just like any city, Prague has its good parts and its bad parts. Graffiti is everywhere. There’s a section on the route of tram 26 where it passes through a grim concrete junction and there the art spraypainted on the concrete is welcome. Other places it is simple defacement.

Riding home from my czech lesson today (we introduced numbers and plurals in the nominative and accusative forms for inanimate masculine, feminine, and neutral nouns with hard, soft and other ending consonants, and the corresponding changes to possessive pronouns and adjectives. Plurals for masculine animate nouns will have to wait.), the pilot of tram seven could ring his bell like he was playing guitar. The bell is a distinctive sound and the Czechs are wise to leave it be as they upgrade the trams.

You get a feel for your driver – some of them are patient, others put the hammer down and woe to anyone who gets in their way. I love standing at the back, watching out the window as the city falls behind, carefree, knowing where I’m heading but letting someone else do the work.

I went to a wine tasting tonight; Tram 26 got me there with no problems, and when the dude poured me the first of thirteen glasses I said to my self, “I’m glad I’m taking the tram home.” I was doubly glad when after the thirteen rounds were over that Petr, my new best friend, ‘captured’ a few more bottles of wine for us to drink. Some of the wine was pretty good, others, well, not so much.

I was there with Andrea. She got pretty toasted. Not sloppy drunk, not even ‘I love you guys’ drunk, but she’d had enough. She rode on 26 part of the way home with me, and I’m reasonably confident she knew how to connect with other stuff to get home. I offered to accompany her the rest of the way, but honestly I didn’t have much to contribute.

Some time after that, I offered up a prayer to any deity that might be listening. I promised everything I have for any sort of bump or lurch of the tram that would fling the girl hanging casually to the pole in front of me into my lap. I’ve been on many a tram filled with pretty women, and I am not ordinarily a praying man, but tonight she forced me to make an exception. No deities responded, the tram carried on as the trams always do, and no one fell in my lap. Some might take that as a sign that there are no deities, but I think it is more just proof any and all gods out there are not interested in anything I have.

There is a politeness on the trams – seats are limited but the punker-anarchist will give up his seat to an elderly person. I expect it’s one of those moments you never forget, the first time someone offers you their seat on the tram. I don’t have any facts or anything like that to back this up, but I expect among a certain age group that has to be a topic of conversation.

Now I am home, safe and sound, the amount I paid less than what I paid to insure my car for a day in California, let alone gas it up. I saw people, I saw the city, I did some in-head writing. This, friends, is how it’s supposed to work.

Easter

Around the Anděl Metro station is a shopping Mecca to rival any. The square there is always filled with people, but last week it was nuts. There was a long row of little portable shops doing a rousing business selling Easter crap. Prominent among the crap shops were people selling switches woven from tree branches and decorated with ribbons. The tradition, it seems, is that on the Monday holiday overtime the boys are supposed to whack the girls with sticks, and in return the girls give the boys eggs.

Yes, it strikes me as a little one-sided as well. Iveta explained that if the boys didn’t whack the girls, the girls would get “bugs”, which I translate as cooties.

The following day, today, girls are able to get revenge by dousing the boys with water.

Apparently in the not-too-far-distant past, there was a greater deterrent to the whacking of a girl with a stick. Back in the day, a stick whack would be followed by having dinner with the girl’s parents. Do not strike whimsically, for you will have a father asking you your intentions. Now there’s something to stay your hand.

Hell-Cricket

I have a piece over at Piker Press this week. I was looking for something different in tone and I got it, by jing. I intentionally didn’t over-edit the piece, so it’s a little rough, but it works OK.

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Google me this, Google me that

Happy Easter! It’s a day for not working, which means it’s a Google Day! (Actually, these are quite a bit of work now, which makes it all the more mysterious why I do them.) This episode is dedicated to the sisters.

Note that with this episode I have returned to my obfuscational ways, inserting spaces were I don’t want to distract the search engines from the original.

  • squirrel master half baked picture – linked to the explanation page
  • drink your beer song – could have linked to any number of places, but Google chose this deceptively titled one about the Anti-Jerry
  • guest poems linked to the guest poems, of course
  • x-ray gogs explained – in a great recursive cause and effect ring, searchers no longer go to the page I first mentioned x-ray gogs while describing Rose, but to Google episodes like this one.
  • getting a life – who would have thought I’d have an episode named that? I mean sure, I know eggs, but life?
  • The Secrets of the Last Eunuch – if my blog didn’t already have a name, this would be it. Linked to a sappy Amy episode.
  • things to do while you wait for toast to pop up – I don’t know why, but I like the way this seeker thinks.
  • “poodle” birthday girl message party ideas – I just cut and paste, kids.
  • cover friggin sestry – attracted to punk rock with accordion and uppity frou-frou canines
  • crap filled crepes – I don’t know what they were looking for, but I like the way they think.
  • half of page blank in comcast start page – maybe they should ask comcast about that rather than google.
  • ivanka praha hair – it funny how many hair searches I get.
  • fire eel with a twitch – sometimes therapy helps
  • mopar tits – linked to a google episode like this one, but that search linked to this juicy episode
  • crazy countertop height bar stools – it was the word “crazy” that put the Bars Tour category page at the top of the search results
  • Motorcycle Partys Show those puppies
  • star named beauty – you know, I don’t know crap about anything like that, but it sure is nice to know someone is searching for it. And in the end, they could have done worse than end up here.
  • pardubice photos hejduk – an up-to-date hockey fan is sadly disappointed.
  • elk poop description picture – hit on two other episodes like this one, but the picture (for what it’s worth) is here. You know what’s crazy? These guys really want to see pictures of elk poop.
  • talent show ideas – at this moment, I’m number four at Yahoo for that search. And now that I think about it, I do have a few ideas that would be memorable…
  • anti-squirrels – I had thought we mentioned them only in the comments, but no, they made it to the top level in an episode like this one from long ago.
  • definition fern bar – I’ve been in a few, but I never defined one. I’m thinking, though, that the guy who searches the Web for the definition probably belongs in one.
  • arabic legend stories of Cassiopeia – this site scored high strictly on the weight of the word story. But heck, I really want to know…
  • Pictures of Dead Bison in Yellowstone – obviously a pent-up need as this episode came up on the 6th page of results.
  • “sunday bloody sunday” explanation – linked to a morning after episode that includes the B i l l y I d o l Incident.
  • “i was trapped” naked “my clothes” “my shoes” – linked to the Stories category page
  • aftermath nicole – I guess I’m not the only one who’s met her.
  • squirrel safety path – this was a Japanese search, so I can’t help but suspect the path was to protect the squirrels rather than protect us from the squirrels, but let’s face it, if the squirrels are in the cult, they’re not looking for safety
  • squirrel pants
  • “explosive welding” – scored pretty high. I guess not that many people talk about this very fun way to join two materials. Linked to an episode about trumpet bells.
  • m o o n l i g h t s o n a t a steam – not sure what steam has to do with it, but it put me right at the top. A more mature version of the story is in the Piker Press Archives

It’s the Easter season, so there’s been a surge in H u n k y J e s u s and Indulgence searches. P o s i t i v e D r i n k i n g is big these days, and it leads to an episode that starts slow but really gets rolling. Fryers are back with a vengeance, accounting for about 50% of visitors on the weekends. One episode like this one, called V e n i, V i d i, G o o g l i gets a lot of hits from Italians.

Episode 13: The Cat’s Claws – Conclusion

Note: To read the entire story from the beginning click here.

I had barely seen the motion on the far side of the warehouse when the .45 detonated with a roar right next to me. I turned in time to see a man flopping over backwards, arms flailing, his hat doing cart-wheels through the air. It was hard to tell in the low light, but it looked like part of his face was missing.

Lola Fanutti held the smoking pistol with confidence as she scanned the shadows for more of them.

“I hope that wasn’t a friend,” I said.

“If he knew me, he would have known to say something before stepping out like that.” She touched the chest of her dead friend, over his heart, next to his empty holster. She stood. “We need to get out of here.”

“I know a place we can go,” I said.

I reached the side door as she said, “Not the back room at Jake’s. Nothing personal, Mr. Lowell, but it is very easy to find you.”

I started trying to think of another place. “Up to now I’ve wanted to be found.” I flexed my aching legs and tried the door. It wasn’t locked. “Wait here,” I said, and stepped out into the alley. Over my head the sky was getting lighter. In the distance there was a siren; I couldn’t tell if it was heading this way or not. I stuck my head back in and was looking into the unblinking eye of a gun. I’m glad she hesitated a little longer this time before firing. “Let’s go,” I said.

We walked a few blocks and caught a cab, changed cabs, got out and walked a few more blocks to one of the little dive motels on the East Side. On the way over Lola handed me a respectable wad of cash.

The guy at the front desk didn’t bat an eye when we checked in. I signed the register with someone else’s name and we headed up the stairs. The room was small; the twin beds and the tiny writing desk took up almost all the floor space, making us walk sideways over the tattered rug. It was the kind of room used by unsavory people to do unsavory things. Hookers, junkies, and fugutives. Lola crinkled her nose at the musty smell that told stories of sex, blood, and vomit. It was already uncomfortably warm in there, residual heat left over from the previous day. If today was as hot as yesterday had been, it was going to be unbearable in that room. I tried the window but it was jammed or nailed shut. The bathroom was like the rest of the place but worse in every way.

Lola took the only chair in the room and sat heavily. I sat on the edge of one bed. Looking at the chair I wouldn’t have trusted it with my bulk anyway. She laid her bag on the desk with a heavy thud. That was a big chunk of iron she was handling so casually. As she allowed herself to relax fatigue overtook her and she sagged visibly. She rubbed her eyes and seemed to shed Lola Fanutti like a skin, somehow becoming smaller. She was Meredith from Kentucky once more. This dame changed personalities the way I change shirts. “Now what?” she asked.

“We’ll be safe here for a little while,” I said. “It’ll take them time to check all the hotels. By then we need to change the way you look. Different clothes, different hair. Alice can help.”

“What if they follow her? Can you trust her?”

I didn’t bother with the second question. “This won’t be the first time she’s done field work for me. There’s a phone on the corner. I’ll knock one-two-three, one-two when I get back. Any other knock, start shooting.” I didn’t think I needed to tell her that part.

I slid a dime into the phone and dialed the office. Alice picked up on the first ring. “Charles Lowell, Detective,” she said professionally.

“It’s me. Listen, doll, I don’t have much time—”

“Boss!”

“Right. Listen—”

“I was worried last night. And then I heard about some shootings—”

She’d missed her calling, that was for sure. She scooped all the papers on a daily basis. “I’m fine. Meredith and I have to lay low for a while—”

“Who’s Meredith?”

“Mrs. Fanutti. Our new employer. I need you to get some things—”

“You call her Meredith?”

“You’ll meet her soon enough. We need a new dress for her, something that won’t stand out too much.”

“What size?”

“I don’t know. About the same as you, I guess. Maybe a little more…” I stopped myself.

Alice’s tone got a little icier. “More what?”

“Taller. We need some hair coloring, too. We need to turn a brunette into a blonde.”

“It’ll look fake.”

“As long as it looks different I’ll take it. I’m just hoping she can pass the first-glance test. If anyone really looks they’ll recognize her anyway.”

“Why is that?”

“Never mind. You know our emergency meeting place?”

“Sure.”

“Go in the front, out the back and meet me where I knocked that guy’s tooth out.”

“How am I supposed to buy this stuff with no money?”

“Can you borrow any? I have cash now.”

“I’ll try. I’ll bring one of my dresses. They don’t stand out too much, apparently.”

“That’s a good girl. I’ll meet you in two hours.”

I hung up and looked around. The street was quiet; what traffic there was not acting suspiciously.

* * *

The guy at the desk snorted and shook his head when we came in. Alice glared at him. I had my hands full with the bags she had brought, but I managed to haul her up the stairs.

I knocked three and two and after a few moments the door unlatched and opened a crack. When she saw who it was she opened it further and we squeezed into the room. She set the gun back down on the table and turned to face us. The two women sized each other up. Meredith had been sleeping, it looked like. Her hair was wild and a few strands clung to her moist face and neck. Her dress was partly unbuttoned; she was holding it together with slender fingers. Her eyes still carried the dark circles of exhaustion. Meredith’s perfume was mingling with the other smells now, a strange combination of life and decay.

“You must be Alice,” she said and extended the hand that had held her dress closed. I studiously looked anywhere but there, but I was aware of pale skin and black lace. “Charles speaks highly of you.”

“Thank you. I’ve been with Mr. Lowell for a long time.” Alice was looking daggers at me. “He told me you needed clothes.”

“Yes, I need something plainer. Charles told me you were loaning me one of your dresses. I can’t thank you enough. I’ll reimburse you, of course.”

Dames. I moved to keep things businesslike before the claws came out. I opened up one of the bags and pulled out a navy blue number. “we don’t have all day,” I said.

“Let’s start with the hair,” Alice said. Meredith nodded and began to unbutton her dress further. While Alice tried to turn her toward the bathroom door I suddenly realized it was almost noon and I hadn’t had a drink yet. Now seemed like a good time for one.

“Where are you going?” Meredith asked. I had to climb over the bed to avoid squeezing past the two women.

“I’ve got some other business to take care of.”

“What if they come here while you’re gone?” She asked in a tiny voice. “I’m frightened.” She had more to worry about from Alice at that moment than all the crooks in the city. My secretary forcefully turned her and marched her into the bathroom. “Mr. Lowell will make sure you’re safe,” she said as the bathroom door slammed shut. It would be close quarters in there; I only hoped two people came back out.

Meredith’s fancy dress lay on the floor where it had slid off her shoulders and down over her round hips. The image of stockings over long legs as she disappeared into the bathroom was seared into my retinas. I really needed that drink.

Tune in next time for: Year of the Rat!

Should be good for a giggle if you know czech, because I sure don’t.

Ryba

Sedím v stůl pro dva. Dva sklenicy potí se na jejich ubrouseky, sklenicy maji rozdíln?½ ½ tvar. Jeden, to sklenice s rt??~?
?nku na obruba, odpo?~D?~Mivuje <elegantly> naho?~E?~D?e dluh?~C½, p?~E¯vabn?~C½ stonek. Alcoholov?~C¡ [email protected]?tina s ?~E¡t?~C­hlou zelenou sl?~C¡mu pro <pistil>. Je mazan?
~C½ [email protected]?c, <conjugate skr?~C½t se> tv?~C©ho tmav?~C©ho ?~Cº?~D?~Mele vzadu sladký<-ness>, v?~E¯[email protected]?, a barva.

What the above is supposed to say:

I am sitting at a table for two. Two glasses are sweating onto their napkins, glasses of different shape. One, the one with lipstick on its rim, sits elegantly at the top of a long, graceful stem, an alcoholic flower with a slender green straw for a pistil. It is a cunning thing, hiding its dark purpose behind sweetness, perfume, and color.

Note: in moving from one database to another, the character encodings in this little episode did not fare so well. It’s just not worth fixing, I’m afraid.

Learning Czech

So I have very pleasant czech friend who is giving me lessons. Much of what we discuss is based on a textbook, but she’s now bringing in extra exercises to force me to speak in complete sentences. I’m getting better, if I have a long time to compose my sentences.

As an exercise for myself I started translating the first part of The Fish, which I’ll share as a blog entry when I get a few more sentences done. I think that story will translate well into czech, if the book by Ivan Klima is any indication. Quiet, introverted, and not terribly optimistic.

One thing I noticed yesterday is that even after several lessons I still don’t know how to say “I am going to the store.” I can say Kde je obchod? (“Where is the store?”) and I can say Jdu na procházku (“I am going for a walk.”). But I haven’t learned “to” yet. Why not? How can this important little pice of language be pushed back so far?

The answer lies in the nouns. Whereas learning czech on the street is about getting enough words that you can string together and be understood, the textbook has to defer “I am going to…” until you can say it correctly. That means using the genitive form of the noun, and I haven’t got there yet.

The translation of The Fish should be hilarious to czech speakers, if they can make sense of it at all. My little dictionary tends to the formal and sometimes even obsolete side of things, so it should have an old-fashioned feel to it. I’m sure some of the expressions will not translate either. In the end it will probably be more like Mock Czech than an actual language. It’s a damn slow process, since the rather floral language in the story is not well-reflected in my lessons. I have to look up each work, then look the translation in czech to make sure it translates back with something resembling the same meaning. I love it when the Czech word given as a translation doesn’t even appear in the other half of the dictionary. Finally I take a shot at conjugation and pluralization, take a whack at the preposition, and move on.

My plan is to keep on it though, and get feedback from my teacher. We’ll see what happens, anyway. I’ll post the first few sentences later today.

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A measure of loserment

When you’re sitting in a bar with your laptop, the flower girl doesn’t even glance your direction.

Monster News

Recently I went through the exercise of distilling a 500+ page novel down into an entertaining 20 double-spaced pages. Dang. It’s not a place for my ramblin’ style; it’s all about being to the point, moving along, yet still creating sympathy for at least one character and providing a good read. At the heart of it is the question, “If I could have written it in twenty pages, don’t you think I would have?”

But it has been a rewarding exercise. That came home tonight as I worked through the comments from people who provided feedback for the synopsis. The most magical moments were when I read comments that forced me to distill into a few words the key moments in the book. With that understanding I can look back on the big fat pile of prose and see where I missed opportunities, or simply didn’t articulate what I meant to say. There are now parts of the synopsis that serve as criticism of the larger work. When I am sure the distilled ideas of the synopsis are sharply represented in the novel, I’ll feel much better about the whole work.

I have read long, disjointed, incoherent works from established writers, and I wonder if the novel would have been different if the writer had been forced to write a synopsis. It’s a hell of a chore, and when I’m big-time and I don’t have to do it any more I’m sure I won’t. So please, when the third novel comes out with my name bigger than the title on the cover, but you read it and it kind of sucks, drop me an email and say, “maybe you should write a synopsis of the next one, and pass it around.”

Seeing the holes in the story I feel better about it than ever. I am filled with an arrogant self-deception, an optimism that says if I fix all the problems all that’s left is art. It’s a silly conceit when put that way, but the business is 90% perspiration, right?

One thing I’d like to ask the real writers is, “How do you keep the art through endless revisions?”

All right, I rambling now, in a muddled way, and it’s time to stop.

She Who Smiles Rarely smiled often

It started a couple of weeks ago with New York Guy. Man, what an asshole. We rolled our eyes together and I got a smile. When I came in tonight she was behind the bar and she gave a ghost of a smile as we exchanged the briefest of pleasantries before I headed for a table in the back.

It was She Who Smiles Rarely who took my order. “Steak zhuh kurzhitschkafrig,” I said.

“Steak z ku?ecího?”

“Ano, Steak z kurzhetsho”

That went back and forth a couple of times. She knew exactly what I wanted, and she was helping me learn to say it. Steak from chicken thing, A local delicacy. Finally I punted on the pronunciation and just said “Dvah nahtct awesome”. They write down the order by number anyway. With a smile she drilled me on the correct pronunciation of 28. We worked out that I also wanted rice and she was gone.

It was her next visit I really scored. My beer was perilously close to empty and she came by and asked “One more beer?” In English. I mentioned in a previous episode that if they spoke english here I didn’t want to know about it. I waved my hands in the negative while I said, “Je

Thoughts about Writing

I’m sitting here in Crazy Daisy, and it’s a fine Prague day. The sun is shining, the birds are singing (I didn’t miss them until they came back) and the world is generally a cheery place. A pretty girl went by in a miniskirt and naturally I thought about the art of writing essays.

It goes back to a comment my august sister left for another episode celebrating spring. Some pundit somewhere compared the essay to the miniskirt, saying it should cover the subject but nothing more, or something like that. It’s a nice quote, so you should go back through the comments and find it. Carol Anne had added to the famous quote by drawing a parallel to my comparison between miniskirts and bikinis. To which I simply added “It’s gotta have swish.” I think I just misquoted myself. Can you do that?

I didn’t state it so then, but while a bikini reveals, a miniskirt enhances. Women can probably make a similar analogy involving speedos and board shorts. In any case, it’s gotta have swish.

So what would I say if I was in front of a bunch of kids who are required to take a course in essay writing? I think first I would ask them the last time they wrote an essay, and I would point out that every email they send is an essay, every note they write is an essay, every message they leave on an answering machine is an essay. We will all agree that some people just have a knack for great messages, great emails, great signals across a room that you don’t forget. I have friends that can raise the most mundane thing to a cause of laughter or sorrow. I have a special note that my email program plays when I get a message from one of those people.

So what sets them apart? How much of that can be taught to a class of people who see writing essays as a chore?

In my not-so-humble opinion, there are two things that make a great essayist: they find their subject interesting and they write without fear. It’s important to differentiate between their subject is interesting and they find their subject interesting. I’ve read emails lately about things I care not one whit about, but the way they were written made me read the message more than once. Really I don’t care about baby poop, but when described passionately, with magical language, it resounds, and I’m thankful to hear about baby poop.

The only way to be passionate is to write without fear. So really the two things that make a great essay boil down to one. Write without fear. Talk about things that matter to you and put your balls on the anvil.

I don’t know how many times on my travels I was sitting listening to the person on the next stool spin a great yarn. Usually autobiographical. Holy cow, the stories I’ve heard. Then I would tell them I’m a writer (I love saying that). My co-drinker’s eyes would get wide. Why? They had just run out a better essay without thinking than I could do with blood. They were telling a story to a guy in a bar. There was no fear.

We are taught somewhere along the line that there are three (I think it was three) sorts of essays. Those Essay Nazis are really into numbers. Fives and threes. Three reasons to write an essay, my ass. I bet if you asked the author of an essay you really liked, “Why did you write that?” they might at first cite some social or political reasons but in the end they would just say “I needed to say it.” They’re not writing for a defined purpose, they’re writing to write. Certainly they will hope that the articulate expression of their experience will affect the world, but fundamentally they’re stringing words together to make concrete something that before was only in their head, and they’re doing it for themselves.

I suppose that’s the corollary to writing without fear. Write for yourself. Be yourself in everything. When my faithful laptop makes the plunk-choing sound I know I have something worth reading that will be an intimate reflection of the sender. I will be reading a great essay about baby poop, or Little League, or it will be a long unpunctuated ramble with almost frightening enthusiasm. If you’ve ever been to a poetry slam you’ll know that it is really an essay contest.

Which brings me to the karaoke semi-simile (kind of like) I used in the title. On karaoke night you will remember two singers, the best and the worst, the two most fearless of all the participants. Attitude the same, results different, both remembered, both walking off the stage with head held high. If I were to grade essays, there would be points for all the technical stuff, because you always want their courage to be as effective as possible. There would be style points, asking whether the writer is finding their own voice, their own way of expressing things. But there would also be a courage score. There’s gotta be points for laying it on the line. There’s gotta room to acknowledge art when you see it, whether it’s dismantling the modern power structure or discussing toilet water splashing back up onto your butthole.

It’s my only advice to anyone who wants to write. Write without fear. If you’re in school, screw the grade. There’s nothing wrong with technical ability, in fact, you’ll find that all that grammar and crap ultimately gives you a much faster car to drive into the brick wall. To really be great you need the technical skill, but all the skill in the world will never replace passion. And everyone has the passion. Everyone. You just gotta let it show.

Loud Phones

You know, modern phones know with great precision exactly where they are. (Which means they know where you are.) So why can’t they just make it so phones change ring mode by location? In a theater? No ring. In a restaurant? Quiet ring or no ring, the restaurant’s decision.

That would be cool.

Hollywood Nights in Prague

Today began the shooting on fuego’s Top Secret movie project. They didn’t mention to fuego at the start the Top Secretness of the movie, which led to an ugly moment for the wayward Second AD, but now things are safely under wraps again and you can rest assured that none of the details of the film will be revealed herein.

There will be a few details about the kickoff party, to which fuego graciously invited me. I met lots of cool film people, mostly on the production side, and I enjoyed myself quite a bit. When we first arrived a very pretty girl greeted fuego warmly, and when her hints went completely ignored there was no ruboff on me whatsoever. It was only a matter of moments before she was being groped by the director and the director’s brother. The director, who I believe fuego now refers to as “Barbara” (rhymes with knee-high sloth), had his name on the back of his t-shirt and I think the shirt had his picture on the front but I may be wrong about that. It was dark and beer was free.

After Barbara (rhymes with knee-high sloth) and the girl disappeared for a while the director returned and came over and sat where fuego and I were hanging with some other folks. Actually, he didn’t sit, there was a couch along one side of the table and he sacked out on it. Maybe sacked out isn’t the right word, either — his posture wasn’t sleepy but he was very relaxed. He didn’t sit, he didn’t sack out, what he did was lounge, and he did a damn fine job of it. We talked for a bit and he seemed like a good guy, considering his name is Barbara (no offense, Mom). He even seemed genuinely interested when I said I was a writer, but his interest waned when I could cite no major publishing credits. By then he’d partially opened his fly and had his hand down his pants, making extensive and protracted adjustments. I found it difficult to converse in those circumstances.

I met another girl who fuego told me was the girlfriend of another friend of his. I’m guessing that won’t be the case much longer, although I suppose that depends on the sort of relationship they have. At one point, briefly, I thought she was hitting on me. I convinced myself that couldn’t be the case and at any rate I wouldn’t do something that could put fuego in a bad spot with his buddy. When she started hitting on the other guy there was no doubt. Sorry, Mortimer (rhymes with hairy).

This pseudonym thing is fun!

My mistake was going to Roma while I waited for fuego to finish work. It’s not that I had very many beers at Roma, and I didn’t have that many at the party, but combined, it was just too much. As far as I know I only made a complete ass of myself with one other person, but the potential number of people who are now saying, “I like fuego (rhymes with pill) but his brother (rhymes with dairy) is a jerk” is pretty large. I think for the most part I was fine, but that one chick was annoyed, if not downright cheesed. We won’t go into it. Other people were still smiling at me at the end of the evening, and at least I kept my hand out of my pants. And everyone else’s pants, for that matter.

Luckily it was about two and a half kilometers home from the second bar; a walk through the cool predawn air was just what I needed.

1

Rumble, Rumble

The “big” supermarket is a long tromp from my house, so I was very happy to discover a place closer to home that could serve all my needs. It’s impossible (for me) to tell just what a store is going to be like when I look at it from the outside. This looked like just another closet-sized convenience store from the outside, but when I walked in I found it was a very large closet.

It’s a real grocery store, with little carts and everything. I grabbed a cart (no deposit required) and pushed it toward the extremely narrow entry gate. Its wheels roared as we trundled across the entryway. I thought of turning back and grabbing another cart, but I pushed on.

Once in, I saw a remarkably spacious store. The reason: it was too narrow for two aisles. Along one side is the meat and cheese counter, where you must ask for what you want. Along the other was staples. That section gave way to another room where there were two aisles. I left my cart and went in there on foot.

The place was filled with sound, but there was little talking. All around me was the rumble of little carts. A man came in and he knew where he was going, pushing his cart ahead of him with a mind-splitting roar. A little old lady was using her cart as a walker while it grumbled along. When people were racing for position in the checkout line it sounded like NASCAR.

There was a freezer section with opaque lids. I have no idea what’s in there. I was hoping someone would lift a lid while I was in position to see, but it never worked out that way. In the back was another room, separated by the beer section, with refrigerated stuff. Finally it was time to take on the meat and cheese counter.

Service there apparently goes by age. As long as there was someone there older than I was, they were served, but even when there were several people obviously younger than I was, I got the attention of the attendant. The extra time was more than welcome, as the options were dizzying. I indicated some sliced sausage and the woman asked “how much?” I’m sure that’s what she asked, but I had no idea what to answer. I don’t know fractions in czech, and honestly I don’t know what a kilogram of sliced sausage looks like. I held up my hands to indicate 1.5 handfuls and accepted what I was given. After a similar ritual with the bacon I was ready to go. I thanked the meat lady for her patience and with her smile I rumbled on, the sound of my wheels lost in the roar of two new arrivals.

It’s my new favorite grocery store.

It’s a Living

I awoke slowly, my eyes gritty and my mouth dry. The sun was painfully bright even through my clenched eyelids. I knew I wasn’t going to like what I saw when I opened them. One thing was for sure—I wasn’t in my apartment. The distant cry of an eagle floated through the hot, still air, confirming the worst. I wasn’t even on the same continent.

I raised my hands to my eyes and levered myself into a sitting position, fighting down nausea. I discovered a short beard on my chin. I wasn’t even in the same week. I looked around the bleak landscape and tried to piece together how I had got there.

The last I could remember I was sitting in one of the swankier bars in the city, chafing at the high price of beers. It not the sort of bar I’m generally found in, but if someone wants to talk to me about giving me money I’ll meet them on the north pole.

It’s not that I’m broke, not really, and the prospect of working isn’t that attractive, but I have to put beans on the table. And sometimes a job comes along that actually sounds interesting. This was one of those jobs. Challenging yet marvelously undefined.

I had not met my new employer yet; we had only spoken by telephone. His voice had been reserved and upper-crust English, and he was not one for idle conversation. “We wish you to do some research for us,” he had said in clipped syllables. “Your Professor Grayson thought your unique combination of talents might serve us well.”

“That’s a generous way to say it,” I said. It was a very kind way to describe my inability to stick to anything. When people asked me “what I did”, the inevitable question when you meet someone in a society that defines who you are by what you do for a living, I usually just said, “a little of this, a little of that.”

I hadn’t seen the good professor in many years, and while we got along well enough I was surprised to hear he would recommend me for a job. He had thought of me as a waste of potential, or so he told me over beers. I pointed out to him that once the boulder uses its gravitational potential and rolls down the hill, it takes a lot of work to get it back up to the top for another roll. Better to wait for the right moment to roll in the first place. He thought human potential might be different than potential energy, but that’s what anyone at the bottom of the hill is going to say. He had come to rest in a nice place, a secure university job, respected worldwide by his peers, head of a close and loving family, and he had no wish to be dragged up to the top of the hill for another go.

My boulder still teetered at the top, waiting for the right moment to start rolling. Or so I told myself.

“This job is going to be a delicate one,” my potential employer told me. “We have made a discovery and we wish to have your help in understanding it. The assignment will require diplomacy and tact, as well as your documented abilities in archaeology, anthropology, and particle physics.”

Tact I thought maybe I could do. Diplomacy was a long shot. “No problem,” I said.

“Good. It is likely this conversation is being monitored by others interested in what we have found. You may assume that henceforth all your communications will be similarly monitored, and all your Internet activity will be closely watched as well. For that reason I wish to meet with you in person this evening.” He told me the name of the place.

“What’s going to keep them from having someone at the next table?”

“That is a problem for me to solve, Mr. Nolan.”

“All right then. I’ll see you there. I’ll be wearing a red carnation.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“That’s a joke. It’s something people on blind dates do.”

“I know what you look like, Mr. Nolan. I’ll see you there.” He hung up.

Julie was going to be pissed. I dialed her number as delicately as I could, already thinking of ways to placate her. “Hi, sweetie,” I said when she answered.

There was a pause. “You’re standing me up tonight, aren’t you?”

“But Pookie, it’s for a job. A really good job.”

“Laying tile for a twelve-pack again?” She never let me live that one down.

“No, hunny-bunny, a real job. For real money.”

“But it’s my birthday.”

“I know. I’m real sorry. I’ll make it up to you.”

“I knew something like this was going to happen. I just knew it. Any time I make plans you come up with some excuse to get out of them. How long have we been going out?”

She knew the answer. “Two years,” I said.

“Two years. And you still haven’t met my friends. They think I’m making you up. Gloria thinks I should find someone else I have more in common with. Maybe she’s right.”

I bit my tongue. Gloria was one of Julie’s friends I had met. The last time her name came up I had said, “Gloria is a bitter woman who wants no one to be happy if she can’t be happy.” It did not go over well. Julie knew the truth about the other woman, but she was loyal to her friend. I can’t fault her for that; if she was less tolerant we would have split up long ago.

Diplomacy and Tact. “Listen, this job is different. It’s a research job.”

“What sort of research?”

“I’m not so sure, yet, that’s why I have to meet him tonight.”

“But it’s my birthday.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

“Couldn’t you have met with him tomorrow?”

Probably I could have. I was not unhappy about having an excuse to avoid the party. I’m not so good in crowds, and when I finally met her friends it was going to be all the worse for the delay and the stories I’m sure Gloria was spreading. “They’re in a big hurry. They only called me a few minutes ago but they want to get started.”

“I told everyone that today would finally be the day. None of them believed me, but I swore it would be. You swore it would be.”

“Look, I don’t know how long the meeting will be. I’ll come by as soon as it’s over.”

“When?”

“I don’t know.”

“Call me by nine and tell me how it’s going.”

“I’ll try.”

“Call me or it’s over.”

“I may not be able to call. There’s a lot of secrecy—”

“Call me or it’s over.”

“All right.”

“They’re all going to be laughing at me tonight.”

“No they won’t.”

“They all think I’m stupid for staying with you.”

I had to admit to myself that they were probably right. Maybe that’s why I didn’t want to meet them. “I’ll make it up to you, I promise. Once I get this job it’ll be different. Not just the money, but you’ll be able to tell your friends you were right about me.” I hoped that was true.

“It’s my birthday.”

“I know, honey. I’m sorry.”

“I just—hold on. There’s someone at the door.”

Great, I thought. Gloria was there early to help set the party up. The rest of the conversation would have her sniping in from the background. I waited, listening to distant voices. Finally Julie picked up the phone again.

“Oh, my God, Honey, they’re beautiful,” she said.

“Uh…”

“You’ve never sent me flowers before, ever.”

That was true enough.

“They must have cost a fortune,” she continued. “I’ve never even seen some of these flowers before. What are they?”

“I, uh, don’t know, really. I didn’t pick them out. In fact—”

“I’m sorry, sweetie. I know it’s more important in the long run that you finally found a good job. I’m excited for you. For us. You know what you wrote on the card?” She suddenly turned shy. “I feel the same way.”

It was not without some misgivings that I approached the bar that evening. Flowers don’t just drop from the sky. Either my new employers had predicted with uncanny accuracy my difficulty or they had been listening to the conversation and were able to get a bunch of exotic flowers to Julie’s place in minutes. Or something else. It was unsettling to say the least.

I got to the bar early, figuring to establish a little space and watch people come and go. I nursed my beer and tolerated the faint disapproval radiating from the bartender. I’m not a formal man at the best of times. I had had enough time to become afraid of all the patrons. As each came in they would look at me appraisingly, and in my head they all became spies for some hostile power. In retrospect, I may have been right.

At the appointed minute a slender, elegantly dressed man with a bowler hat entered and left his umbrella and coat by the door. Without even glancing around he walked over to me, his gait royal. “Mr. Nolan,” he said as he reached me. He offered his hand.

His withered hand was still strong as I shook it. “Nice to meet you,” I said. That was the last thing I could remember before waking up here.

I was thirsty. My hand was still running over my fuzzy cheeks, and I found that my beard was neatly trimmed. I looked at my hand, and then at my clothes. What I had been wearing was out of place at a nice bar, but now I was in silk. I had never owned tailored clothes, but these sure fit me well.
A shadow fell over me. I turned to see a mountain of a man, also immaculately dressed but not as dusty, standing over me.

“Well,” he said with a gravelly voice, “it looks like sleeping beauty is finally awake.”