The Writing Wombat

An American Marsupial in Fiction Land

Month: February, 2015

Beach Road, Part Three

Again, I am continuing a story started by others. This time, I am writing part three. Go ahead and read part one, written by Paul Willet, here, and part two, by Peter MacDonald, here.

And here’s my part three:

The battle was farther away than it seemed. She walked over the pockmarked roads and muddy fields that were the mark of this new world. As the sun started to wane on her right, she was finally able to see some of the carnage in front of her.

If the sun was setting, how far had she walked? Distance was hard to judge without GPS on cellphones. Or road signs, for that matter. Was she in National City now? Chula Vista? Hell, Tijuana? She felt like she was definitely south of San Diego, but shouldn’t she have passed through some wrecked out urban landscape to get here? It was disease that had wiped out the world, not nuclear war. Other cities she had seen were abandoned, not missing.

But Southern California geography left her mind as she passed the first smoldering bush, indicating the outskirts of the helicopter’s reign of fire. Heat still swept across her path, although not as unbearable as it must have been an hour earlier.

For not the first time, she thought back to her initial goal. The Coronado Bridge. Get across it, and the land would be easier to defend. What was she doing, being diverted by a helicopter attacking the ground? Curiosity and the cat, she reminded herself, and this cat should be safely digging in her well-defended island litterbox.

Tomorrow, she promised herself. Tonight, she would investigate then find a secure place to spend the night. By midday tomorrow, she’d be playing her own version of Crossy Road.

A hint of azure caught her eye from the road beneath her. Unnatural colors stuck out in this post-world. Dirt, sky, ocean, and mostly-dead grass – these were the hues of the Plague. A powder blue halfway between a Caribbean lagoon and a Vail slope jumped out, even in the failing light of dusk.

The pattern inside the blue was even more unnatural, and downright frightening. A yellow lightning bolt haloed in white. The mark of the San Diego Chargers, a virulent bands of marauders.  She had heard terrified whispers of hapless wanderers being hacked to pieces for roaming into the wrong territory of town, unable to respond to the scathing screams of, “Show us your lightning bolt!”

At least it verified her location. The Chargers and had gone on the defensive in recent years, so any road markings would have to be in San Diego proper.

So perhaps the entire conflagration was nothing more than a simple turf war.  Even better, since the remnants of the blue-and-gold had clearly lost this engagement, there must still be some swag to scavenge. She breathed a sigh of relief at both the turn of events and the confirmation that she wasn’t losing her instinct.

She continued to climb over divots and pockmarks, made even craggier by the helicopter attack. With the sun finally set and the only light source coming from dwindling fires, she came upon the focal point of the damage. On the precipice of a giant crater, she was faced with yet another decision. Climb in and scavenge or wait until morning? Whoever was behind the attack would surely be here by morning. There might even be some Chargers under shelter right now, waiting to counterattack. She needed to get in and out before any group materialized. The way an individual made it this far was by avoiding groups. Any groups, but particularly groups as strong as the Chargers. A group able to rout the Chargers? She shuddered.

So over the lip of the crater she crept, leaving the amber glow of the surface behind. Waiting for her eyes to adjust to the starlight twinkling down, she remembered the night the lights didn’t come on. Before that night, every town she entered still had people trying to make do, convinced that they would persevere through dwindling numbers, believing that society would overcome the obstacles, that humanity’s progress would triumph. Even if the population of each town was halved by the time she left.

The lights going out ended that underlying hope. Yet, looking up at the sky as her ancestors once had, as she was doing again right now, gave a new sense of the future. The stars and the moon illuminated just enough to get by. All it took was adjusting to the new world. By scavenging, by defending, and, for some people, by joining gangs like the Chargers.

Like most nights, she looked up at the first stars of night, and thought back on the before and the after. The things that were unnoticed and background before, but so desperately vital now.

An unnatural sound broke her out of her reverie. A click. One she knew too well. Then another. And another.

A bright white, a color she might once have called fluorescent, spread out over her section of the Earth. The first shadows she saw in the floodlight were the muzzles of AK-47s trained over the lip of the crater. She was blinded, disoriented, and they had the high ground.

Shit, shit, shit!

“Hands up!” came a booming voice through a sound system.

She looked for a way out through squinting eyes. No cover at the bottom of the crater. Guns pointing down from eight directions, covering every spot on the compass. These guys were good.

“We knew the helicopter would get you here,” the voice came from the southern lip. She turned back to him, finally seeing beyond the muzzle. He, and his companions, were not wearing Charger gear. They were all in black, body armor from the look of it, with faces covered by a modernized World War I gasmask.

“This doesn’t have to end badly,” he changed tact. “We just want to talk to you. Study you. Just put your hands in the air, Typhoid Mary.”

One more decision. Fight or flight? Reluctantly, she let the tension leave her body and followed his instructions. Hands in the air.

“Sir,” the man turned to report behind him. “The mission is a success. We have Patient Zero in custody.”

Outdoor Hockey

I went to the outdoor hockey game between the Sharks and Kings this weekend. It was played at the new Levi’s Stadium, home of the 49ers.

I’m going to let that one seek in for a little bit. There was an outdoor hockey game in the Bay Area of California.

Evidently Phoenix in July was booked?

I know the weather in Northern California isn’t as warm as Southern California, but… wait, what? They had a game at Dodger Stadium last year?

Seriously, Phoenix Coyotes, what’s the hold up?

When rumors of the Sharks game came out last summer, the conventional wisdom was the game would be at SBC/PacBell/AT&T/NamelessConglomerate Park, where the San Francisco Giants play. It seemed a long shot that the Niners would allow their brand-spanking new stadium to be tainted by the taints of 70,000 hockey fans. But the mighty dollar sign won out. Especially that number 70,000, because the baseball stadium can only fit about 40,000.

I was going back and forth about whether I wanted to go to the game. One of my friends went to that game at Dodger Stadium last year. He told me that, as cool as the idea of outdoor hockey sounds, and as cool as it looks on TV, the structure of stadiums vs. arenas means you’re much farther away from the action. He said it was difficult to follow the puck at Dodger Stadium.

There really aren’t any bad seats at the SAP Center, where the Sharks play. There are only 17,000 seats and they pretty much go straight up from the ice. But a hockey rink is smaller than a football field (see below), so you’ve got a lot of real estate between the ice and the first seats. I would actually estimate that the best seat at Levi’s Stadium was farther away from the rink than the worst seat at SAP Center.

For this reason, I was hoping they would stick with AT&T Park. While I have issues with a number of things about seeing baseball games there, it is at least very cozy. If the action was far away at Dodger Stadium, how bad would it be at the monstrosity that is Levi’s Stadium?

But another issue had me interested in seeing the game. I mean, aside from the whole “I was there” aspect of seeing outdoor hockey.  I wanted to see Levi’s Stadium and didn’t have an extra $20,000 lying around to buy a Personal Seat License to see a 49ers game. I figured the price for a hockey game would be much more reasonable. Otherwise how would they get 70,000 hockey fans to come to the game?

To be assured of getting tickets, you had to sign up for a Sharks ticket package. Or Niners, because of that whole “Personal Seat License.” Or, surprisingly, the Los Angeles Kings. I opted for Sharks.

I’ve always enjoyed going to games, and every year when the schedule comes out, my wife and I “hmm and huh” about which games we should go to, and what does our schedule look like, and should we see if so-and-so wants to go to a game this year? Then March rolls around and we’re like, “Crap, we didn’t make it to a hockey game this year. Let’s see what stubhub wants for the playoffs. Um, yeah, no, let’s definitely hit a game next year.”

So with the added incentive of getting first crack at the outdoor game, I decided to bite the bullet on a 10-pack of games. Now I’ve gone through six months of “hmm’s and huh’s” about who is willing to schlepp all the way to San Jose with me, and can we secure a babysitter, and holy shit, what time will we finally get back home after that Wednesday night game? Turns out that while I love seeing hockey games, I really hate the ten-hour ordeal of getting to and from San Jose. My wife and friends fall into this boat even more. Maybe that’s why we were only making it to one game a year.

But after plunking down the $1,200 to buy two 10-packs, I was permitted to purchase tickets to the outdoor game. Only two, of course, unless I wanted to buy more 10-packs. This was also the point that I saw the prices for the first time. Holy crap. That whole “they’ll have to lower the price to sell 70,000” mentality was not shared by the front office. The cheapest tickets were $100. The entire lower deck of the stadium was running $400 a seat. Bear in mind these are as far away from the action as a $40 seat to a normal game.

Then we discovered what game time would be. All the outdoor games I had seen on TV were day games. Usually on New Year’s Day, opposite major college bowl games, but hey, if the NHL weren’t crappy at promoting its product, it wouldn’t be the NHL.

But I forgot most of those games were in winter locations. The very first Winter Classic, which started some of the mysticism, featured a light snow falling on the Buffalo Sabres. Majestic.

The Sharks game was at night. Understandable, since the high probably topped 70 degrees Saturday.  In fact, one of the hockey players being interviewed after the second period talked about how hot it was, a fact us Californians scoffed at as we bundled up in the 55-degree “frost.”

Being a night game meant another early morning return home. It also removed some of the public transportation options, which is important because Levi’s Stadium was built with virtually no parking. I f you opt to drive there, it’ll cost you $55 and it’ll take you an hour to get out of the parking lot.

But whatever. One time experience, right? So I ponied up the $200 to buy two tickets, then spent the next six months fully prepared to disapprove of the game.

The result? Not bad. Did the players look like ants? Certainly. But I was able to see the puck and follow most of the action. It was, as one might expect, similar to seeing an NFL game live. Then again, there’s a reason football is a made-for-TV sport. Here was the view from my seat:

Sharks Outside

Second row. Damn, those 10-packs paid off!

The thing that surprised me the most was the sound. In retrospect, it shouldn’t have been a surprise, because, again, nobody ever talks about the sounds of a football game unless a wide receiver is miked up on TV.  But hockey is usually a loud game. Not just the hits and the slapshots, but the actual skates cutting the ice make an ambient roar that’s missing at the outdoor game.

They put a few microphones around the rink, but coming over the loudspeakers sounded artificial. Depending on how far the action was from the mike, the time delay was almost comical. Plus some shots were very loud, while others sounded distant. Plus that sound of skates on ice didn’t come through.

It reminded me of a music video with the music taken out. I think this was the main reason that the crowd wasn’t that into it. Well, that and the fact that a number of Niner fans were at their first hockey game (I’m talking to you, lady next to me who kept stomping “DE-FENSE” when the Kings crossed the blue line). This might also account for the fact that only four of the fifteen outdoor games that the NHL has played over the past decade have been won by the home team.

The musical guests seemed a bit odd. Hockey intermissions are usually only twenty minutes, but these seemed to be extended by five or ten, so they could have ten-minute long mini-concerts from Bay Area musicians. Completely unnecessary, but whatever. The first intermission featured John Fogerty, who played nothing post-Credence Clearwater Revival. I thought nothing could be less suited for hockey than “Born on the Bayou.”

Then the second intermission came.

Melissa Etheridge came out with her acoustic 12-string guitar as if this was a 70,000-seat coffeehouse. I don’t think she was wearing an earpiece and it showed. It felt like she was screaming to hear herself in a cavernous stadium she’s not used to playing. Her rendition of “Come to My Window” wasn’t bad, but she finished with “Piece of My Heart,” a tribute to Janis Joplin. If by “tribute,” she meant “make people really wish the other person was here instead of you,” she nailed it. I’ve heard karaoke versions better

If you’re going to waste our time with musical guests,  I guess I understand the desire to find Bay Area people, but was this the best available? Was Green Day on tour? Couldn’t they have brought Steve Perry up to lip-sync “Don’t Stop Believin’” like he does at Giants games? I probably would have been more entertained by the corpse of Jerry Garcia.

But all in all it was a good night. The stadium was nice, the remaining public transportation options weren’t bad, and who else in the country can say they saw an outdoor hockey game in a light sweatshirt? I don’t know that I’d spend the $100 (or $400) if they tried it again next year, but I’m glad I’ve had the experience as a once-in-a-lifetime thing.

Even if the ass-dragging that ensued Sunday pushed me beyond my Monday blog deadline. Meh, it’s hockey. Let’s just call this Tuesday post “overtime.”

Murder Unannounced, Part Two

As I mentioned last week, the flash fiction challenge right now is about continuing other people’s stories. I chose to continue a murder mystery started by CJ, which can be found on her blog here: http://imagination.cjreader.com/ (second story down, as of now)

Here is me trying to advance the story…

TWO

Two steps inside the apartment, Mailie already knew something was wrong. The oppressive heat was bad, but expected. The open windows and lived-in feeling of the front room, however, were unexpected. She scanned the room but didn’t see her nosy roommate. Just the open window and an empty couch. An empty couch with a sweaty divot in the middle, and on the table right in front of it, next to Mailie’s cellphone, sat a laptop.

“Dammit, Tina,” Mailie muttered under her breath.

Everything had to go right today, and now Mailie’s worthless roommate was throwing a wrench into the mechane.  At this time on a Saturday morning, Tina should still be sleeping. What time had she stumbled in last night? It had to be past 3:00. Mailie had been in her dark room, listening for the telltale signs, then snuck out as soon as her roommate passed out.

Given normal patterns, Mailie should have had a good ten hours to do what needed to get done. Tina would sleep until noon. That would have given Mailie the time she needed to finish her work. She still had the murder weapon. She had the cash, much more cash than she had been led to believe the couple would have on hand. Thank God for Honeymooners.  And, of course, the envelope. If the blessed couple hadn’t been trying to smuggle that particular item out of the country, they’d probably be sipping mai-tais right now.

The extra cash and the ring had been the cause of Mailie’s early-morning sojourn. In addition to her normal laundering conduit, she needed to check on the viability of hawking the diamond.  But now that the second-hand jeweler had been secured, there was a new wrinkle in her plans.

Mailie had needed to be back, playing the vapid coquette persona she had worked so hard to establish, when her roommate woke up. There would be a half-hour of Tina whining about finding her muse and staring at a blank screen before she packed up and headed to Starbucks for the afternoon, under the guise of distraction-free writing, but really just to chase some of last night’s booze away.  All Mailie needed to do was say, “Oh, Emm, Jee, Tina. Pete was such an asshole last night. I might just cry in my room all day. How’s your writing coming? Hey, when you come back from ‘Bucks, can you bring me a white mocha?” but she hadn’t made it back in time.

Mailie went over to the coffee table to pick up her phone grabbed her phone from the table. She had left it here because she damn-well knew the boss used it to track her. He needed to know the job was done. He did not need to know about the bonus cash and jewelry.

When she grabbed the phone, however, that faint instinct that something was amiss grew. The phone was warm, meaning it had been illuminated recently. Had the boss called early? Shit, what time was it?

Mailie’s panic increased as she double-tapped and swiped the phone.  The little “missed call” icon was nowhere to be seen. She frantically swiped from the side and the top looking for the call log.

“Why the fuck do they make it so hard to find a missed call?” She said out loud, not realizing her transition from internal monologue to verbalization.

She finally found it and the feeling erupted into a certain knowledge of catastrophe. Seven minutes ago, a call had come in. Unknown Number. Didn’t matter, it was the boss. But it was listed, not as missed but as incoming. The phone had been answered.

“Dammit, Tina!”

She turned to march on her roommate’s room when she noticed the door to her own room. It was open, and her room was clearly visible. She diverted her trajectory until she was standing in her own doorway, trying desperately to assess the damage and run through contingency plans.

But she could not focus. All she could do was move her eyes from problem to problem. The window she had crawled out of in the dark pre-dawn hours was back open.  Her dresser drawers were open, her clothes tossed on the ground. The silk scarf she had used to transport and store the murder weapon was unraveled on top of the drawer and lying there, on top of the clothes, the bloody knife proudly announced itself to the world. The manila envelope had fallen to the floor, the file it contained partly spilled out.

Mailie picked the easiest, and most pressing, problem to deal with first, grabbing the envelope and file off the ground. As she went to put the file back in, she noticed how thin, how empty, the manila container was. The ring was not there.

“The bitch stole it!”

Mailie ran to the window, looked out at the alleyway. It was precisely the way she had left it in the dark. She had moved the trashcan in front of the gate. There was no way Tina could have answered the phone that recently and escaped out the window without moving some items. So she was still inside.

She ran back to the front room and spoke in a loud, clear voice. Not a shout, but enough to be heard through the thin walls. No need to alert the entire neighborhood through the open windows.

“Tina, I don’t know what you think you saw, and I don’t know what you’re planning, but you need to listen to me. Some very bad things are going to happen if we don’t-“

Mailie was cut off by the unmistakable brzz, brzz of a phone vibrating on a table. The illuminated screen shone across the living room like a spotlight. Unknown Number.

I’m sexy and I know it…”

Dishonest Abe

In honor of President’s Day, here comes the Writing Wombat again to shatter everyone’s historical myths.

I’m just going to throw it out there early: Abraham Lincoln was not a very good president.

I know, I know. Then how did he get on the penny and the $5 bill? And a Memorial built to him?

Remember when we used to celebrate both Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays this month? It used to be two days off, one for each. Then we fused two together to just make it President’s Day, and instead of putting it in the middle, we put it as close to Lincoln’s birthday as possible. Some schools still throw a second day off in there, either making it two 3-day weekends in a row, or taking Friday off to make it a 4-day weekend. They will often call the extra day off Washington’s Birthday (to distinguish from the REAL President),  even though it’s nowhere near poor George’s birthday. This year, if a school took the Friday off and pretended it was “Washington’s birthday,” it was actually on February 12, ten days before Washington’s birthday. One day after Lincoln’s.

To be fair, Washington wasn’t all that great of a President, either.  I don’t think he was bad, there just wasn’t a lot of political strife to deal with at the time. Shoot, nobody even ran against him for his second term.  It wasn’t until John Adams came along that most Americans even became aware you could dislike the President. Washington was a popular figurehead in charge of unifying the new country while the real stuff was being done by those policy wonks (Hamilton, Jefferson, and Randolph) behind the scenes .

So Washington wasn’t great, but he was fine. But Lincoln? Let me amend my earlier statement. It’s not just that he was not a very good president. Lincoln was a BAD president.

Historically, he is helped by the fact that, even as a bad president, the guys before and after him were worse. James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce were quite possibly the two worst Presidents we’ve ever had. Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, was the only President to ever be impeached before Newt Gingrich decided that Slick Willie’s mistress wasn’t as cool as his own. Then again, Lincoln dumped his first Vice President to give the job to Andrew Johnson, so if Johnson was a bad President, that’s still on Lincoln. Had Lincoln stuck with his first VP, we would’ve had President Hannibal Hamlin after Lincoln died. I don’t know if he would’ve been any good, but how cool would it be to have had President Hannibal? After Johnson, there were a slew of bad to mediocre presidents – Grant, Hayes, Garfield.

All you have to know about how bad these guys were is the fact that Grover Cleveland was President, lost the race for re-election, then beat the guy that replaced him four years later. Imagine if we brought back Carter or Bush, Sr. four years later. I know, I know – different party structure and nomination/campaigning process, and blah, blah, blah. But to have a President be so bad that you bring back the guy you couldn’t stand four years ago? Even Mitt Romney thinks that’s crazy.

So a large portion of the Abraham Lincoln myth might stem from this time period. An American in 1890 looking back over the ten presidents of the previous forty years would have fixated on Lincoln as the least shitty. Much like a stage-four cancer patient might wistfully recall that minor bout of syphilis he had in his twenties.

The other source of the myth comes from historians and laity wrongfully assigning actions and motives to Lincoln, in either an honest or calculated desire to create a hero. The biggest lie of them all, of course, is that Lincoln freed the slaves. Of course, slaves were a constitutional issue, so only a constitutional amendment could free them.  So the Emancipation Proclamation was just the first in a long line of executive actions that said, “Constitution? HAHAHA!” Had it actually freed some slaves, it certainly would have been thrown out by the Supreme Court.

Fortunately the Emancipation Proclamation had absolutely nothing to do with freeing any slaves. In fact, its purpose was the exact opposite: to allow states to keep their slaves. Issued in September, 1862, after the first major Union victory at Antietam, it stated that any slaves in any state that was still rebelling as of January 1, 1863, would be freed. In other words, if you stop fighting us before the new year, you can keep your slaves. But if you keep fighting us and we conquer you, we’re taking your slaves just like every invading army in history.

The slave states already in the Union, like Kentucky and Maryland? They got to keep their slaves. Lincoln’s hope in issuing the order was that states like Louisiana and Virginia would decide their slaves were more important than their namby-pamby Confederacy. It didn’t work, so when January, 1863, rolled around, the Civil War became about freeing the slaves. Or at least freeing some slaves.

Of course, the war was two years old by that point. But hey, making up the cause of the war as you go along is the stalwart of many a great wartime leader. Like George W. Bush. I’m sure they’re planning on carving his face into a mountain any day now, right?

The similarities don’t end there. In many ways, Abraham Lincoln was the George W. Bush of the nineteenth century. Almost losing a war where you had a 4-to-1 population advantage? Check. As well as being more advanced in technology and industry? Check. How about refusing constitutional protections to American citizens who may or may not be helping the enemy? Shoot, Lincoln wrote the book on that shit.

The wars themselves even had some similarities. In 2003, most of the Iraqis were just minding their own business, wanting to be left alone. But there was an American president with an ego and an army. Bush needed to outdo his father, who he felt  had let Hussein off the hook in the first Gulf War. Ironically, Bush, Sr. could have easily knocked off Hussein in 1991. But as a former CIA Director and a man who believed in silly ideas like diplomacy and allies, Daddy Bush realized that might be a bad idea. Too bad W. was coked out during all of those family dinner conversations about sectarian violence.

In Lincoln’s case, the metaphorical father he was chasing was a mild-mannered little English bloke named George III. Okay, maybe he wasn’t all that mild-mannered. But how nice would you be if you were known as the king that lost the American colonies? Nobody wants to be the guy in charge when half the country bolts. So when one Jefferson (Davis) evoked another Jefferson (Thomas), Lincoln dug deep within his inner tyrant and let out a grandiose, “Oh, HELL no!”

So he picked up what was left of the army after all the Southerners bolted and invaded those bastards who had the audacity to besmirch his place in history. Then he spent the next two years getting his ass kicked (“Whoa, Texans are better with guns than Vermonters?”) and stumbling about for a reason why the war was just. A reason the Northerners, many of whom had the “just let them go” mentality, could rally behind.

Visit most political blogs, on both sides of the aisle, today and you’ll find a similar sentiment.  How much better would my half of the country be if those [Rednecks/Hippes] were in another country?

Although it’s nice to not have to exchange money when we want to go look at Mardi Gras titties. Just as our forefathers dreamed.

And we have one man to thank for that. No wonder we get two days off for the guy. Abraham Lincoln saved the Mardi Gras titties!

Never mind, I’m back on board. Greatest President ever!

And I didn’t even have to go into his stellar vampire hunting skills.

Story Part I

Trying to get back into the flash fiction game a bit. This week’s prompt was to write the first quarter of a story. In the coming weeks, I might continue another writer’s story, and hopefully someone will take up the mantle of poor Cyrus…

Spoiled Bacon

Cyrus silently cursed IKEA as the Allen wrench twisted through his fingers and fell to the ground again. Not that this creation was made of flimsy Swedish wood. This was the result of years of research, experimentation, and trial. But every time that damned L-shaped hex key spun too fast or too slow for the screw, he found himself using the furniture store’s name in vain.

“Straightedge and Phillips did fucking fine before those Aryan SOBs showed up in every neighborhood,” he exclaimed before wetting his raw fingers in his mouth.

Three more rightie-tighties, accompanied by one more tiny-tool projectile, and he stepped back to look at his masterpiece.

The time machine. His time machine.

It didn’t look too impressive in the dingy motel room off of Interstate 64. No light came in through the thick curtains drawn over the window that they had probably hung in front of since 1950. The faint illumination came from an incandescent light bulb that might as well have still had Thomas Edison’s initials on it, peeking out from underneath a lamp shade made from that same curtain cloth.

But he had to be here in the 21st century. Because what Cyrus had created was a time machine, not a time and space machine, a fact which had become all too clear on his test run. He went back a week. What could go wrong? Until he missed materializing inside a late-model Buick by a manner of inches.

So it was back to the drawing board. Kept most of the time elements intact, but allowing for objects which might exist in that spot in the past. Cyrus didn’t expect to find any Buicks in 1676, but who knew how the riverbank had grown or moved over the last three-and-a-half centuries.

Regardless, Cyrus needed to be here in Virginia when he went back, because it would be a hell of a lot harder to get to Jamestown back then. No Interstates, no satellites to guide the GPS on his phone. To say nothing of the Native Americans. Or Indians, as he was going to have to get used to calling them.

As he left the dingy motel in the direction of the Historic Jamestown Settlement, his thought shifted from the where of his destination to the when. Seven years after Cyrus, the naïve college senior, proclaimed the election of Barack Obama signaled a new age in race relations, little had changed. They might have gotten worse. Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. And on a more personal note to Cyrus, the constant skeptical glances, the “Affirmative Action” quips,  at a smart, college-educated black man.

Racism was embedded in America. The only way to change that was to go back to the source. His first thought had been stopping Lincoln’s assassination, but that might be too late. Would an extra three years of “be nice to the south” Reconstruction have made that much of a difference? Segregation and an intrinsic belief of inferiority of the former slaves would still reign.

So maybe he could go all the way to the beginning. Literally. The first black slave coming to America, right here in Jamestown, one year before the Pilgrims even arrived. But what good could he do then? Kill a few slave traders. Then what? The slaves he freed wouldn’t even survive the conditions, probably. And a few months later, the next ship would arrive.

So not too early in race relations, and not too late, he finally decided to split the difference and arrived like a racial Goldilocks and the just-right spot, precisely one hundred years before the hypocritical Declaration of Independence. Bacon’s Rebellion, the great schism between white indentured servants and black slaves. If those two groups could be kept together with common goals, the permanent racial divide might never emerge.

Standing over the back channel of the James River, Cyrus took one last breath of 21st century air and flipped the switch. The machine whirred and whooshed as it attempted to pierce the ether of time, like a 1994 modem making the painstaking connection to AOL. Cyrus wondered about what sight would greet him on the other side, in order to avoid focusing on the vertigo about to hit. Traveling across one week had been bad enough. How nauseating would three hundred years feel?

Then it came, much worse than before, and he no longer cared about what he would see. Only that he would survive.

As Cyrus fought to keep his breakfast and every other meal he had ever eaten down, another stray thought ran across his mind. A suppressed query. When he revamped the space element on the machine, had he re-checked the time component? Before the test run, he had configured and reconfigured every step with time as the only variable. He had triple-checked his math, dotted every imaginary i, crossed every theoretical t.

Had he done that this time? Had he rechecked the time components after fixing the spatial variable? As the world started to shift, as his body began to stretch and condense through time, his mind kept returning to the vague iron-left-on-at-home feeling that something had been overlooked.

Then the constriction of his abdomen stopped all tangential thoughts.

“Definitely gonna hurl.”

Cyrus lurched out of the time vortex onto all fours as heat spewed from his bowels onto the hard forest soil. Twice. A third time before he could even inhale. Stomach still convulsing, he focused on the hard-packed dirt still wobbling under spittle hanging from his mouth like taffy.  The world, reality itself, transitioned from a shake to a swoon as sobriety and sanity fought for control.

After what could have been a minute or could have been a week – what is time, really? – Cyrus pulled his right hand off the ground to wipe his mouth. Then his forehead. He slowly raised his eyes off the vomit-splattered dirt to take in his surroundings.

“Shit,” he muttered.

This was not 1676 Virginia.

The Dukes of NorCal

Just the Good ol’ Boys
Never meanin’ no harm

Then maybe they should’ve used a little lube. Because after a few days of the Good Ol’ Boys tearing through my neighborhood, I’m a bit chaffed. To them, it’s just a little “straightenin’ the curves, flattenin’ the hills,” but I’m going to be walking funny for weeks.

My wife and I have been looking to upgrayedd (“upgrade” for you non-Idiocracy fans) our 1,400-square-foot, two-bedroom house ever since baby made three.  It was already tad small for two grown adults who waited until our mid-thirties to cohabitate, thereby accumulating two full sets of household appliances, furniture, and animals. When baby came along, I realized that not being able to park in the garage was one thing. When the man cave becomes the nursery, something’s gotta give.

Fortunately, there are some new developments being built nearby, so back in October, we decided to go check out the models the day after a phase was released. We weren’t sure we wanted to buy new, but as soon as we heard things like tankless water heater, solar lighting, and granite countertops, we stopped looking at the decade old hand-me-downs.

The kicker, when we returned the next day, was that we would be the first name on the priority list for the next phase, meaning we would have our choice of which lot we wanted. So on the list our name went. That was a rather whirlwind 36-hour period for the two of us, both of whom tend to be more methodical and analytical. Hell, we knew each other for five years before we finally decided to go out on a date. But when you see what you want, you’ve gotta grab it, right?

Silly Wombat, nothing ever falls in line that perfectly. That elation and ease of that 36-hour period found its equal-and-opposite reaction this past weekend.

In the four months since our name went first on that list, we’ve been up to the models countless times. Our daughter is a bit of a celebrity in the sales office, and I’m pretty sure she could give a tour herself. Sure, the tourers would have to pick her up off the ground continuously, and hold her pacifier when she spoke, but it could happen.

We walked the locations of the lots, too, and quickly knew which lot we wanted. An ample sized lot at the end of a cul-de-sac. We knew there would be a lot premium for it, but based on what similar lots had gone for in the previous releases, we felt we could budget for it. And being first on the priority list, the lot premium was really the only variable we were looking at. So the other three lots that our model would be on never truly entered the equation.

Can you good English students sense some foreshadowing here?

Last weekend, we again visited the models. Some of the foundations were starting to be laid. The next release seemed imminent.

“We’re still first on the priority list, right?”

“Of course.”

“Do you know what the lot premium for Lot 66 will be yet?”

“We can’t divulge.”

“Fine, fine. No biggie. As long as it’s under $<REDACTED>, that’s the one we’ll take.”

On Tuesday, three days later, we got the e-mail. The next phase was being released. Our lot premium was actually a couple thousand under what we were budgeting for. Woo-Hoo!

The e-mail had instructions: “If you are first on the priority list, send us your choice, if you are second, give us your top two choices, and so on. Send your requests to us before 2:00 this Saturday, then come in after 3:00 with your $<REDACTED> deposit check.“

We could not respond fast enough. “Give us Lot 66. Let us know if you want us there right at 3:00 or at a later time, depending on how busy things are likely to get.”

No response from them on Tuesday night or Wednesday. Thursday comes and goes, nothing back. No biggie,they’re busy. We’ll just show up at 3:00 Saturday with our check.

Wife wanted me to double-check. Fortunately, I was home from work on Friday because our tour-guide baby has Hand-Foot-and-Mouth Disease, which has to be one of the dumbest reasons to not be allowed to go to daycare. It is literally just a rash around the mouth and some blisters on the feet and hands, yet it requires the child to be out of daycare for a week and requires a doctor’s note to let them back. I understand that it’s highly contagious, but the symptoms are all cosmetic and temporary. Ugh.

In fact, the absurdity of Hand-Foot-and-Mouth disease might very well have been the topic of this week’s blog entry if the Good Ol’ Boys network hadn’t taken this time to spin the General Lee in donuts all over precious Lot 66.

“Yeah, so sorry about what happened,” the sales lady said as I stepped inside, before I could even pose question number one about how the next day would go.

“What do you mean?”

My face looked perplexed, and her face slowly changed from confusion to something approaching guilt-shame. As surprised as I was that there was bad news coming equaled her surprise that I was unaware of it.

“Didn’t you get the e-mail?”

She then goes into a convoluted explanation that her assistant was supposed to e-mail, nay telephone, nay deliver via teleportation device the news. And, of course, said assistant will receive a very stern talking to, nay hand slapping, nay crucifixion. I fully expected the sales lady to bust into a Monty Python-esque “Bad Zoot, bad, bad Zoot” and require a spanking.

It turns out we can’t have the lot for which we were first. Why? Well, you see, there’s a priority list and then there’s a list of people they really like. The denizens of this latter list include employees of the company and friends of the owner. And anyone on this super-secret list can jump to the front of the line at any time they wish, including between Tuesday, when the list of available lots was published, and Friday, when I walked in to a mock-mortified realtor.

So, unbeknownst to us, we should have been working on a back-up plan. Kind of like, I assume, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers should be preparing their number one draft pick with the assumption that both Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota are already off the board. Because the morning of the draft, the owners of the New York Jets might call up Roger Goodell and say they are better friends than the Tampa Bay owners. Or that they get better TV ratings. No, wait a second, giving the best draft picks to the more popular teams is the NBA’s strategy.

“So yeah, sorry,” the sales lady says, ”a friend of the owner decided to trump you some time in the last 48 hours, and my assistant was supposed to call you, but hey, now that you’re here, why don’t we take a look at these other wonderful lots you can choose from. And if you could please kinda hurry on this, because you’re now rudely holding up the line for the second and third people on the priority list, who now might have to settle for their third and fourth picks, respectively. And the fourth guy? Well, there are only three of this model available now, so fuck him.”

So here came my options. I could move across the cul-de-sac from our first choice. This would not only have the benefit of being on a lot about half the size of the house we wanted, but would also be right across the street from it, too! Oh joy!  So every day for the next twenty years, I can pull out of my postage-stamp sized lot and stare across at the house I actually wanted. At least I could flip off the assholes who stole it.

Option number two was on a larger lot. Eight feet of side yard instead of the five feet on option one. Back yard a little bit deeper as well. The drawback of this lot was its location right across from the models. Sure, the models are only likely to be there for the next couple of years, but who wants to have to put pants on every time he walks out of his house? The road was also the main entryway to the neighborhood, so the amount and speed of traffic would continue to be a drawback even after the models close. Two cats would be problem enough, but I also have a future toddler that might cause issues with the 50-MPH jackass tearing through the neighborhood.

The third option was on a triangle-shaped lot formed by the arcing of a side-street. The house would be placed at the corner of the short side and the hypotenuse, right at the front of the lot. This house would therefore have very little back yard, but a long, oddly-configured side yard. The main problems with this lot were not its size, though, but its location vis-à-vis the neighbors. First, that long-side of the triangle forms our back and side yard, and it touches no fewer than five other back yards. Second, this house is lower than all of those neighbors. Our current house is at the low-water mark on our street and every time there is rain, or if people are watering their lawns, we get a wonderful coagulation of stagnant water.  So we would be adding to that joy the fact that our many neighbors could look out of their bedroom windows right down into our backyard. Dammit, now I have to wear pants in the back yard, too?

The kicker of this final house is that the neighbor on the short side of the triangle is the house we wanted. So every day, they can look down on us, both literally and figuratively. Oh, and then maybe they can water their back yard and have it trickle down onto our porch. Awesome. And I can’t even throw burning feces over their fence. Too high. And they’d know which direction it’s coming from. I’d have to go all the way around the front and burn the feces on their front doorstep. Just as soon as I find some pants.

So the sales lady asks which one I want, right there on the spot, five minutes after I learned that I have to choose. Yeah, that’s not going to happen. First I have to inform my wife. Then I have to talk my wife off the ledge. Then we have to confer and spend a full night without sleeping at all. Plus find some time to slash the tires of every orange Dodge Charger I can find.

So I walked out the door with an admonishment that I have until 2:00 the following day to pick my second choice. Because darnit, the other people on the priority list are waiting to find out what lots are available to them. How rude of me to keep them waiting.

The next morning found the two of us trudging through the mud of each of these lots, working out the calculations and permutations of each. Which one could we get our minds around in the next six months as it’s being built? Was it just too raw right now, and would we get over it soon? Or would the bitterness grow to make us already hate the house by the time we moved in? I tried to determine which choice I would regret the most a year from now, but had trouble distancing myself from the emotion. I’m sure the owners were secretly hoping we’d walk away, because then the others in line would never know what happened. Maybe one small consolation is that if we picked right, and the second person now had to settle for their third choice, we’d have more neighbors to hate the company and those A-holes in Lot 66 when we moved in. Or maybe they’ll just hate us like we hate those Good Ol’ Boys.

In the end, we chose the triangular lot at the low point. We’ll just need to make sure we put some good drainage in and grow some trees to ward off nosy neighbors. I wonder if I can trim one particular tree in the shape of a middle finger.

But on further review, maybe we should’ve taken the one across the street from the models. I could forget those pants and just hang out in my front yard all day long in my holey boxers and a stained wife-beater, sunning myself on some plastic chaise lounge purchased from a Motel 6. That would do wonders for the company’s sales going forward.

Beside me would be my toddler, wearing only a saggy, very full diaper.

Does anyone know where I can get some diapers with a confederate flag on the butt?

Amber Alert Abuse

I missed a week. Oh, well. Life happens. Can’t make it two misses in a row or else I’ll be missing a whole lot more.  Time to get back on that whore.

Wait, it’s horse? Really? Well that just doesn’t sound nearly as… alright, fine.

But nothing like a little vitriol to get me back in the game. And boy, there’s a guy I’m really pissed at these days.

At least I assume it’s just one guy. In truth it’s probably a committee or some other buck-passing groupthink anomaly. But I like to think of it as one guy, sitting behind a Wizard-of-Oz curtain inside the deep reaches of the Department of Transportation Safety or the Highway Patrol, feverishly rubbing his hands, plotting the next move in his Faustian gambit for bureaucracy domination, right before his SEIU-mandated 64-minute lunch break

It is Faustian, right? Maybe Machiavellian is what I meant. Pavlovian? Lovecraftian? Whatever, the dude’s a dick.

In California we have signs on the side of the freeway that are ostensibly used for Amber Alert. Most of the time they are blank, but when a child is abducted, the name and description of the child and/or abductor and/or car immediately go up around the state. Makes sense, especially when the license plate of the car is given. A hell of a lot less intrusive than the time every electronic device in the house went off at 3:00 in the morning for an Amber Alert.  That only happened once. I think I wasn’t the only one to complain about it.

There are a few other times the Amber Alert signs spring to life that I don’t have a problem with. If there is an accident ahead or some other hazard that I should be on the lookout for, it’s nice to know ahead of time.  In some of the more congested areas of the state, they can be used to tell you what traffic is like on alternate routes. And if there are no alternate routes, well then at least they can tell you just how fucked your commute is going to be.

Then Baron von Lunch Break gets involved.

“Gosh,” he says to himself, “there haven’t been nearly enough child abductions lately. What good is my job if I can’t call mommy and ask if she saw my message on her way to bingo?”

So he busts out his old VHS copy of L.A. Story, because BetaMax is SO last century, and is inspired by the traffic sign that saves Steve Martin’s life. Maybe he can use his power for good and save people’s lives. Or at the very least he can touch Sarah Jessica Parker’s boob.

The first non-emergency messages I remember seeing on the Amber Alert signs were about drinking and driving. Things like “Don’t drink and drive” or “Report drunk drivers” or “Buzzed driving is drunk driving.” And even if, legally speaking, that last one might not be accurate, who can really fault the guy for trying to cut down on the DUI problem?

Just not after noon on a Friday because, you know, that’s effectively the weekend.

Evidently he got an extra special “good job” stamp in his personnel file at his annual review. I doubt he was actually commended for his abuse of the Amber Alert system. Instead, I assume he brought it up and his political appointee boss waved her hand and said, “yeah, yeah, that sounds great,” before signing off on his 2.375% Cost of Living Adjustment, about which he enjoys dropping the COLA acronym into casual conversation as if he’s on the inside of some secret club that you just can’t be a part of.

But something must have happened, because over the past year, he’s gone into overdrive. Now scarcely a week goes by without a pithy new warning or admonishment emanating from the electronic billboards.

“It’s safe teen driving week.”

“Watch out for motorcyclists.”

“One text or call could wreck it all.”

Of course, the irony of all three of those statements is that they are berating us for not paying attention while we drive. And what better way to make people be aware of how important it is to keep their eyes on the road than by distracting them with a flashing electronic sign off to the side? Particularly a sign that we’ve been indoctrinated to check for missing children. Because distracted driving while checking your phone is bad, but distracted driving to read some Cubicle Casanova justifying his job in light of cutbacks is perfectly acceptable.

Last week, he topped himself.

The Central Valley of California gets some pretty dense fog. It’s called Tule fog for some reason that I could probably google.  I grew up in Southern California, and what I called fog in my youth would be mocked and bullied by this Tule shit. Even San Francisco, which is world famous for fog, is scoffed at by the Central Valley. San Francisco fog still billows and has the fluffy white appearance of a high school drama department’s fog machine.

The Central Valley fog, on the other hand, just sits. It’s as heavy as an above-ground bog. It clings to the ground like napalm. Dare I go for the simile threesome? It’s as thick as… as… fog! Nailed it! Boo-yah!

Over the past couple weeks, that Tule fog has hit the region with a vengeance.  I’ve heard it referenced as quarter-mile visibility, but even that is stretching the word visible rather thin. What visibility usually means is that you can see the faint glimmer of the taillights of the car in front of you, and you hope that they can see the taillights of the car in front of them. If you lose sight of that, you’re in an ethereal, suffocating, moonlike landscape. Seriously, go do a google image search for Tule fog. It’s otherworldly.

So here I was, hands locked in a death-grip upon the steering wheel at the proper ten-and-two positions, leaning forward as if that might help, when out of the corner of my eye, I see it. A faint auburn glow coming through the fog a half-mile ahead. Oh shit, the Amber Alert sign is on. It looks like multiple lines of text. I don’t know how much good I’ll do in find a late-model white Celica in these conditions, but I’m trying to be a good citizen.

So I take my eyes off the ten yards of visibility to look toward the sign. Still just the faint indication of light. Back to the road, some taillights, then back up. Definitely some words there, but way too blurry to read. Three more cycles and the blurs finally coalesce into words. There are three of them, one per line.

Caution:

Dense

Fog

Wow, really? Thanks for that. I’m sure we wouldn’t have been able to figure that out without the sign telling us. What better use of my tax dollars than to take my eyes off of the extremely dangerous driving conditions to tell me that the driving conditions are, indeed, dangerous.

Oh, and ignore the crashing metal and glass sounds underneath said sign. I’m sure those are just coincidental.