Posts Tagged ‘The Comic Toolbox’

On The Road Again (Again)

Sunday, August 5th, 2012

Well, Campers, I haven’t been overseas in almost 8 months and that’s kind of a record for — oops, I forgot my trip to Oslo in April. Okay, I haven’t been overseas in almost 4 months, which is no kind of record at all. This time I’m bound for Sao Paolo, Brazil, and I’m excited about this trip because this will add both a new country and a new continent to my resume. I will now have worked in 29 countries on 5, count ’em 5, continents. Ya-hey!

This is also an unusual trip because I’m going to do a job I’ve never done before: I’m tasked to breathe life into a cartoon mascot for a food company (can’t tell you more — would have to kill you). Well, I haven’t worked the advertising side of the street since I was 25, so this will be a real change of pace. Nor have I ever done exactly this sort of creative consulting gig before. So it’ll be “making it up as I go along” as usual. Doesn’t scare me. That’s how I roll.

As usual, I’ll be flying blind, arriving in a city I know virtually nothing about. A quick image scan on Google seems to indicate that the houses are pretty…

but the land is mostly magenta…

And covered with tall buildings.

But, one way or another, I imagine I’ll stumble along. I’ll only be there for 6 days, so no chance to chase my usual buzz of ultimate frisbee in foreign climes, and probably not poker as well. Ah, well. I’m hoping to get a little sight-seeing in, but frankly I won’t work too hard to arrange that. When you’re completely new to a place, everything is a sight to see, and even the most prosaic walk can be eye-opening. Well, I’m bringing my camera, so my prosaic walk can be eye-opening for you, too.

More later, -jv

From Cold to Stupid Cold

Saturday, January 28th, 2012

Well, after last week’s snowluge (that’s a snow-deluge, where the snow gets too deep even for a luge), the inevitable Siberian cold front has moved in and the temperature has plummeted from reasonable single digits (on the centigrade scale) to ridiculous numbers like -10 and -27. See, this is my big problem with the centigrade scale; it makes everything MUCH colder than it has to be. Okay, in fairness, blaming centigrade is truly just killing the messenger, so I’ll let that go. But I’m here to tell you that I have neither the clothing nor the temperament for snot-freezes-in-your-nostrils cold, which is where we’ve arrived at today.

I felt it in the air yesterday when I took my latest sightseeing stroll around Sofia. Highlights included the Natural History Museum, where I encountered this intriguing theory about the origin of the Cyclops myth: It turns out that the bones of extinct elephants littered the ancient Mediterranean world, which, if you didn’t know better (and how could you, since you’ve never seen a live elephant?) you would think the skeletons resembled a hugely over-sized man — a giant. It turns out that elephant skulls don’t have much in the way of eye-sockets, but do have a big, gaping trunk-socket — which, again, could look very much like a single eye hole to a primitive person trying to glean meaning from old bones. One thing leads to an other and voila, you’ve got yourself a cyclops myth. Why those bones should add up to a cranky blacksmith, I don’t know, but then again I’ve never gotten how those random stars of Ursa Major add up to the shape of a bear. Maybe it has something to do with ancient alkaloids.

I did some brief, frigid shopping at the flea market of Soviet-era flotsam, but somehow couldn’t bring myself to load up on looted Nazi swords or medals, be they real or reproduction. Magnifying glasses. I bought some nifty magnifying glasses. I’m exactly that kind of nerd.

High point of the stroll was the exhibit of relic religious art in the crypt of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Here are some shots from there.

As you can see, even after hundreds of years, the colors are still quite vivid. So is, er, the imagery.

That shot was taken from “the Life of St. George,” who, as you can readily judge, had a hard one. I guess once you’ve slain the dragon, it’s pretty much all downhill from there.

Finally I leave you with this proof that time travel exists; how else does one explain the presence of the Bee Gees in 18th century religious iconography?

Rock on, Christ Pantocrator, rock on.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go outside and freeze some bodily fluids. Good times!

More later, -jv

Snow Far, Snow Good

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

I know, I know, more noise about snow. But seriously. I mean… seriously. It just snowed for 36 hours, and you can see the story in this photo essay of the tree outside my window at work.

Okay, maybe it doesn’t seem like such a much to you, but believe me, it’s impressive when you’re out in it. And to think people have historically fought wars in this weather. I don’t even want to walk to the car.

It’s a big deal, this snow. Apparently right now Bulgaria is on Orange Alert, which, I don’t know, maybe means that the snow is about to turn orange. The border with Romania is closed, though I don’t hear anyone complaining about that. You know, I mean, this country is also right next door to Greece, and when I think of Greece, I think of beaches and topless Swedish girls (funny, when I think of many things I think of… never mind). I do not think of snow. No. Not at all. But here it is, in all its gory glory.

I mean, it’s really pretty pretty, so long as you can view it in a dispassionate, super-graphic sort of way (which is much easier to do from behind plate glass or from another continent altogether). But I’m digging it, I am. Mostly because I know I get to leave it in a week or so, so yay. Back to Southern California, where our idea of a brutal winter is a rainstorm big enough to float a trash can or two. My only concern is that the weather may impact my weekend travel plans. I had hoped to check out the Kukeri, Bulgarian carnival celebrations that go back to pagan times. I don’t imagine it’ll be like Mardi Gras (too damn cold to show one’s naughty bits for beads) but it certainly seems worth checking out. On the other hand, I have heard horror stories of being stuck for 12 hours in stopped traffic behind accidents on snowy mountain roads, and I am certainly not up for that.

What I am up for is… chalga! This is Bulgaria’s pop-folk music, mostly limned by women in skimpy outfits and blasted out at 250 beats per minute or some such. Tonight, in the company of local hosts who will (presumably) keep me out of trouble, I shall be venturing into my first so-called “folk club.” I’ve been thinking Bob Dylan. I’ve been told that my thinking is way, way wrong.

Need some chalga? Check it out.

Okay, I’ll close the post with this lovely piece of found art, entitled, “One of these things is not like the other.”

Awesome, innit?

More later,  -jv

Did I Go to Starbucks?

Saturday, January 14th, 2012

Of course I went to Starbucks. I went at the first opportunity — which opportunity didn’t present itself until late Saturday afternoon, when I finally got a chance to walk around Sofia in the daylight. Map in hand, I boldly set a course for… well… home. I had my heart set on adding to my collection of Starbucks storefronts in languages other than English. I fondly remembered (well, remembered) this one from Moscow.

And since the Bulgarian language uses the same Cyrillic alphabet, I imagined I would find something similar. So here’s a picture of that.

[THIS SPACE INTENTIONALLY LEFT BLANK]

It seems that since I last traveled to this part of the world, the Starbucks corporate overlords have decided that the countries of the world have gone on long enough using quaint little “languages” of their own, and from now on everything — all signage at least — will be in English. This is how we conquer the world, my American friends: one coffee shop at a time.

Still, it was pleasant to step in out of the cold and into the friendly confines of a place I know so well. Charming barristas, free wifi, comfy seats, strong joe… what more can the idle expatriot ask? This would have been a perfect opportunity to strike up a local conversation and soak up some local culture. Meet some new friends. Take their pictures. Here’s a picture of one of my new friends.

[THIS SPACE INTENTIONALLY LEFT BLANK]

Hey, it’s not that Bulgarians are not friendly (they are; very much so). And it’ s not that they don’t speak English (enough do that you expect it.) And it’s not that I’m particularly anti-social (I like to say sdrawei — hello — as much as the next man.) It’s just that I had my stupid iPhone with me — and did I mention the free wifi? — so instead of being present in my world, I was absent in my device.

That thing is really starting to get on my nerves.

Because it’s so damn entertaining, with it’s web browser and kindle and stupid, pointless, mind-numbing games, and apps, apps, apps, apps, apps. It’s like having your head buried in a good book, except the book is fully multi-media and goes off in a thousand directions at once. At one point I looked up at all the people and thought, they’re just like the images on my iPhone, except in 3-d. I found this strange.

Finally, in self-disgust, I shut off my phone (after checking my email one last time) and headed back out into the cold.

Into the not-too-cold, I’m happy to say. Those of you who followed my Moscow winter adventures will perhaps remember my sliding (as in sliding on a sheet of ice) scale of cold: cold; really cold; stupid cold; ridiculously cold; and “are you freakin’ kidding me?” So far, Sofia has presented only cold and really cold, with just a hint of stupid cold, and for this I am grateful.

I walked in a big, awkward circle through the streets around my hotel, filling in my mental map, acquiring not just the Starbucks, but the local Greek restaurant, one or two casinos where one might play poker (though why that interested me, I cannot imagine) plus various shops and stores, malls, underground passages and random Russian churches. Truth is, I’m less interested in seeing the sights than I am in just filling in that map. I want to feel like I know where things are, so when I walk, it’s a mapping mission. After this afternoon, I think I know my way around.

I am, of course, almost totally wrong. But in a world where Starbucks insists on English-as-the-only-language, I guess one more arrogant American does not rock the balance.

I will say this about Sofia, and from my heart: The city really works for me. After Bucharest, which was a challenge, and Moscow, which made Bucharest look like Moscow, Idaho, it is great to be in a place of civil size. Sofia contains 1.1 million people, I’m told; the country tops out at under 9 million — about the same as Los Angeles County. Downtown is walkable. The streets and roads handle a decent amount of cars. Rush hour — trust me — is nothing. Seriously, Sofia rush hour compares favorably to Moscow (where rush-hour never really ends), Bucharest, even Managua. You can get around. It’s lovely.

Tomorrow is an off-day, then Monday brings me right back to the exciting grind of making television in a place I’ve never made it before. Fact is, I suffer Sunday. It’s nice to have time off (time for more mapquesting) but the truth is I can’t wait for Monday. And who can ask more from a job than that?

The report from the front, then, is that I’m happy in my work, happy with the geography, even happy with the weather (for now, though I know this will change).

So far, Sofia.

More later, -jv

An Excerpt From My New Sitcom Book

Sunday, December 4th, 2011

world premiering here and now…

What is Comedy?

Maybe I shouldn’t have waited so long to say it, but comedy is cruelty. A thing isn’t funny to the person it’s happening to. It’s funny to the rest of us watching. Tell me you haven’t been funny a thousand times by making yourself the butt of your own joke. “I’m so stupid I couldn’t pass a blood test.” That’s you being cruel to you for the benefit of others. Seriously, that’s really all you need to know about writing comedy. Find a character. Put him in a bad situation. And then make the bad situation worse. So then –

Wait, wait, hang on. I’m just sitting here wondering why comedy is cruelty and you know, I can’t think of a good reason. I did, though, think of a joke.

In the years before World War II, in a little Polish village, a learned rabbi used to teach his students, “Life is like the ocean.” And they would nod and respond, “Yes, life is like the ocean.” One young student was particularly taken with this philosophy, and he carried it with him through the long years of the war, which he barely survived. Later becoming a rabbi in his own right, he moved to Philadelphia, and taught all his eager young students, “Life is like the ocean.” Year after year, “Life is like the ocean.” And they would nod and respond, “Yes, life is like the ocean.” One year, though, a student asked, “But Rabbi, why is life like the ocean?” And the rabbi had no answer. Why is life like the ocean? The question haunted him. It plagued him so much that eventually he returned to his home village, hoping against hope to find his teacher still alive. Incredibly, the rabbi had survived the war, though now was quite old and in fact lay on his death bed when the young man arrived. He knelt by the old rabbi’s side and entreated, “Rabbi, Rabbi, why is life like the ocean?” The old man looked at him through watery eyes and replied, “Okay, so life isn’t like the ocean.”

Now, who’s getting the cruelty here? Is it the hapless young rabbi who invests his life’s work in an empty premise? Or is it the reader, who expects some sort of significant payoff and gets a smirky slap in the face instead? Actually, it’s both. They’re two sides of a certain coin. The young rabbi gets an unpleasant surprise, while the audience gets a startling defeat of expectation.

I’ll tell you one more joke to illustrate the point.

These three ducks walk into a bar. They go up to the bartender and order drinks. The bartender says to the first duck, “What’s your name?”

“I’m Huey.”

“Yeah? How’s it going, Huey?”

“Not too bad, you know. Into puddles, out of puddles, into puddles, out of puddles all day long. Not a bad day for a duck.”

Huey goes off to the bathroom. The bartender goes to the second duck and says, “What’s your name?”

“I’m Dewey.”

“Yeah? How’s it going, Dewey?”

“Not too bad, you know. Into puddles, out of puddles, into puddles, out of puddles all day long. Not a bad day for a duck.”

Dewey goes off to the bathroom. The bartender goes down to the third duck and says, “I suppose you’re Louie.”

“No,” says the duck, “I’m Puddles.”

I’ll bet you did not see that coming. So the punchline defeated your expectation, but that’s not why the joke works. The joke works because of poor Puddles. We feel his pain. And since it’s his pain, not our pain, we can go ahead and laugh. Poor Puddles.

Now here’s how this plays out in sitcom. (Notice I still haven’t said why comedy is cruelty. Maybe I’m hoping you’ll just let that slide.) To delight our audience, we consistently make our characters miserable, and to make our characters miserable, we just invent other characters designed to give them the worst possible time. Let’s have a peek at Big Bang Theory’s Leonard. Who makes his life hell? For sure you’re going to say Sheldon, whose idiosyncrasies, phobias and Roommate Agreement daily drive Leonard up the wall. You should also say Penny, for while she’s never intentionally cruel to Leonard, she is the object of his unrequited love, and her very presence in his world gives him grief of the deepest kind, because it destabilizes his worldview that “the nerds are alright.” I don’t think Howard really makes Leonard miserable – but look who makes Howard miserable: that’s right, his unseen mom. You could profitably go around from character to character in that sitcom, or any successful sitcom, and make a list of who makes them miserable and how.

Notice that these lines of cruelty run in much the same directions as the lines of conflict we discussed earlier. That’s not by accident. The same things that drive the narrative drive the comedy. If you have a story with lots and lots of problems for your main character, you also have a story with lots and lots of jokes, because each one of those problems will make that character suffer and comedy is cruelty, so there you go.

I don’t want to go too deep into this (I’m well over my head already) but not only do comedy and story line up together here, so does theme. This is because the truth is revealed under pressure, and no character will move from denial to acceptance of the theme – admit the truth, that is – without sufficient pressure forcing him to do so. That pressure moves the story along. And it generates the jokes. And it drives the character to new understanding. That’s some triple-duty pressure there. It’s pretty marvelous stuff.

Are you worried about being cruel to your characters? Don’t be. They’re characters in a story. They don’t really exist and you can’t really hurt them. If you ever find yourself holding back, it could be a case of conflict avoidance. Many writers are conflict avoiders in their real lives. I am. You might be, too. I can’t say from here, and sure don’t want to get in a fight over it, but I do know that to make real people laugh, you have to make fake people ache. So if you’re averse to cruelty, you’d better get over that, or you’ll never be sufficiently funny on the page. Comedy is cruelty. If you want to be funny, you’d better be cruel.

So, are you still waiting for me to tell you why comedy is cruelty? Hey, I’m a knowledgeable guy, I should be able to pull that off. Maybe I’ve studied the world’s great humorists: Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Twain. Maybe I’ve peered into the depths of my own soul and sought the answer there. Maybe I have found out why life is like the ocean. But you know what?

The exercise is left to the reader, ha!

More later,  -jv

Another Albuquerque Excerpt

5          HOW MANY SOLIPSISTS

If your father walked out on you when you were eight years old, how much of him would you remember? Of Woody I remembered much. The way he always smelled of Old Spice and the panatelas he smoked. The hand magic he could do, like making a quarter disappear (and then not giving it back, to teach me a lesson in credulity). The frequent, unexplained absences, which I realized long after the fact were either undercover stints on the snuke or time in jail. And then the final big disappearance, which he made worse, I think, by perpetrating the false hope of his imminent return. This he did with a string of postcards that, as a sort of running gag, bore portmanteau photographs of that mythical western critter, the jackalope, all furry haunches and grafted antlers. They often contained handwritten riddles like –

Q: How many solipsists does it take to change a light bulb?

A: Who wants to know?

– and were all signed the same way, “Yours, Woody.” Not “love,” note. My father could lie the creases off a co-ed’s culottes, but the useful fiction of affection escaped him. He knew he couldn’t sell it, so he didn’t try. Nor had I any illusions. My mother and I were never more than appendages in his life, of that we were sure. And appendages break. The postcard flow dwindled over time, then petered altogether out.

Later, when I started on the snuke, word of his adventures occasionally reached me by roundabout means. I’d meet a grifter who knew a grifter who’d worked a government grants thing with him, or a Jake who’d note a resemblance and say, “You’re not that son of a bitch’s son, are you?” I often wondered if word of my exploits ever reached him. Was he proud that his son had followed in his roguish footsteps? Or could he not give a rat’s ass? I tried to track him down once, just for drill, but apart from the aggrieved screeds of several women who’d discovered themselves to be his coetaneous wives, I didn’t get close. When you’re a master of the vanishing act, it’s no trick to stay lost. As to how he’d found me, I didn’t bother to wonder. The way I’d been lighting up the media with my name and picture, I was practically on MapQuest.

“Ouch, shit!” That’s me savaging my thumb with a hammer instead of hitting the little wooden dowels that connect the kickboard bracket of the Reåd shelving system to the left and right support struts. And that’s because I’m thinking more about my father than about hammers and dowels – and lying to Allie with my silence, which is making me edgier than I let on.

I don’t know why I didn’t just come right out and tell her. Maybe I thought she wouldn’t believe me, would just tab the revelation as “intrigue for the sake of intrigue.” Or if she did believe me, what then? She’s supposed to welcome my biggest inspiration and worst influence with open arms, just when we’re clinging to so frail a valence of normalcy? She didn’t know my father. Okay, hell, I didn’t know my father, either, but it seemed unlikely that he’d pack a whole big mess of normal in his Gladstone. That’s not how he rolled.

Plus let’s not forget he was wearing a dress.

But the alternative, I realized as I sucked the sting out of my thumb, was to deny Allie critical information about the goings-on inside my head. Not quite in the class of an alcoholic sneaking a drink, but sneakiness of a sort just the same. I figured if I was so unwilling to clue in my beloved to the sudden strange appearance of my own flesh and blood, this in itself was a sign that I’d better come clean.

So I did. I was really afraid she’d see it as a setup of some kind, another Hoverlander effort to scrub Operation Citizen, but all she said was, “We’ll have to invite him to dinner.”

“Not a good idea,” I said.

“What, you don’t think he’ll like me?”

“Did you not hear the part about the dress?”

“So he’s trans. I’m not gonna hold that against him.”

“He’s not trans.”

“How do you know?”

How indeed? After all, after all these years, my dad could not have been much more than a shadow in my mind, the sum of my recollections and his reputation. Still, there are some things you know in your gut. I didn’t know Woody, but I knew him. Or let’s say that if the apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree, then the apple can learn much about the tree just by considering itself. Had I come to town looking for me, so garish a lady costume would not be transvestite plumage.

It would be camouflage.

Because the thing is, when most people look at you, they don’t really see you at all. They judge a book by its cover absolutely. Grifters know this, which is why you so often meet them in costumes of one sort or another. Business suits. Coveralls with nametags. Uniforms. Whatever helps them sell what they want you to buy. Most people looking at my dad in a dress would reach the cursory conclusion I’d first reached: this is one serious frump. Then they’d look away, which would be exactly his goal. How do you hide in plain sight? You thwart the urge to seek.

From this I surmised that Woody was being sought. Not so huge a leap. Even from my dim and distant childhood, I could remember instances of him working very hard to deflect the attention of one irate mark or another, which need will arise from time to time when a grift slides sideways. One whole summer he never ventured out of the house without carefully cloaking himself in the fatigues and demeanor of a disabled Vietnam veteran, right on down to the shrapnel limp and loud colloquies with the voices in his head. I thought it was cool: Daddy plays dress-up. But the strategy was sound, for whoever might be after him would take one look at the post-traumatic stress victim, think, well that sad casualty’s not him, and turn their searching eye elsewhere.

“So we’ve got dad on the lam,” I said. “From whom and for what we currently have no clue, but he’s working the shade and fade damn hard.”

“Why is he even on the street at all?” asked Allie. “Wouldn’t it be safer just to lie low?”

“Safer, sure, but a trap of a different sort. You know this, honey. Once you lose your freedom of movement, you lose your options. Holing up just puts you in a hole.”

“True,” she nodded. She settled down onto the living room couch and I paced nearby, each of us doing what a grifter does when presented with a puzzle like this, mentally teasing the pieces into place. Presently, Allie said, “Since he’s not lying low, he must really want to see you.”

“Not want. Stronger than want.”

“How so?”

“We’ve been estranged forever. Now he gets wind of me on the six o’clock news or wherever, and maybe this sparks some father/son nostalgia in his mind. He can’t know how I’ll react to seeing him. If he has the time, he tests the water first. Email, phone call, maybe a jackalope postcard.”

“What kind of postcard?”

“Nothing. Never mind. All I’m saying is, no test, ergo, no time.”

“Does he know how good you are?”

“Let’s say he does.”

“Then he needs help.”

“And rates me as the Red Cross.”

“So, how do you feel about that?”

“Allie, I don’t know. I know I’m supposed to be carrying all these abandonment resentments, and maybe I do and just don’t know it. But knowing what I know about him and about me, I figure that to hate him is to hate me. As far as I can tell, we’re chips off the same block.” Boy ambled in from the kitchen and taunted me with the tennis ball in his mouth. This particular slobbery brand of tug-of-war, where Boy chomped his ball in a death grip and Allie or I tried to pry it free, had emerged as one of his favorite games. He’d play it as long as our patience would last. He usually won, too, since the only way to get the ball out was misdirection, and Boy’s elemental brain did not respond too quickly to trickery. He was like a certain stripe of mook: too dumb to fool. I grabbed the ball and yanked to no particular avail. We growled at each other. It was fun. “Part of me is flattered,” I said. “My dad was always kind of legendary, you know? I mean, highly regarded in his circles. The two words you mostly heard were ‘creative’ and ‘fearless.’ I guess if he’s coming to me for help…”

“Then that’s acceptance.”

“Acceptance, yeah. But trouble, too.” Allie’s arched eyebrow encouraged me to continue. No doubt she’d already formed her own hypothesis about what kind of trouble a runaway Hoverlander could cause, but she wanted to hear it from me. “We’re supposed to be going straight, right? I have no idea what direction Woody is headed, but I’ll bet my bankroll that straight isn’t it.”

Allie mulled this for a moment, then asked, “What’s that stupid thing I’ve heard you say? ‘Make the latest possible decision based on the best available information?’”

“Oh, that’s stupid, is it?”

“A little, yeah. But why don’t we do that? Wait awhile. See what happens. After all, he may not even contact you. Maybe he just wanted you to know he’s out there.”

“Maybe he just wanted a bunk bed.”

I deked Boy with disinterest. He let down his guard, the ball came free in my hand, and I’d won another round of How Dumb is a Dog? This, however, left me holding a soggy tennis ball, so who’s to say who won? I threw the ball and Boy bolted after it with a dog’s abandon, scuttling across the hardwood floor and banging sidelong into the far wall. Then Allie took up the game and I returned to my Reåd. By midnight, I’d wrestled the bookshelf into shape, and it stood upright in the middle of the room. On a handiness scale of ten, I’d rate myself a six; there were pieces left over. But Allie cast approval on my effort. We were just discussing placement options when a knock at the door startled us both.

It was Vic, as nine and a half times out of ten it would be, and he waltzed in with no thought to the hour, for Mirplovian logic held that if he was awake, then everyone was.

“It’s not like I didn’t check the lights,” he said. “My only concern was you two randy rabbits might be screwing, and who wants to see that?” At this point he noticed the bookshelf. “I like it,” he said, appraising it critically. “Very nice. Very conceptual.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“The installation.”

“Vic, it’s a bookshelf.”

“Against the wall it’s a bookshelf. In the middle of the room it’s art. You should drape it. Drapes are big right now.” Then, executing a deft conversational pivot, he said, “Hey, check it out,” and rolled up his left shirt sleeve to reveal on his arm a paisley shaped teardrop with a hole in the middle, like the eye on a curvy sperm.

“Vic,” marveled Allie, “you got ink!”

“Yeah, I did,” he said proudly.

I didn’t bother asking why, for clearly this was the next iteration of his artist presentment. See what I mean about costumes? Meanwhile, I thought I recognized the image, but… “Vic,” I asked, “where’s the rest of it?”

“What rest? That’s it. A yin. Half a yin-yang. Totally conceptual.”

“Hurt that bad, huh?”

“Like a motherfuck. I couldn’t even finish. I thought I was gonna pass out.” He cast an admiring glance at his own shoulder. “It is conceptual, though.”

“It is,” I said. “I’ll grant you that. Have you named it?”

“Named? Ooh, no, I hadn’t thought of that.”

“I suggest Half Wit.”

“Ha-ha,” drawled Vic, then pirouetted once again across topics. “By the way, who’s the dude?”

“What dude?”

“The guy across the street. If he’s trying to not be seen, he’s doing a lame-ass job.” Vic snickered. “About as lame as his drag.”

I didn’t bother looking out a window to confirm this, for even a Mirplo at his most conceptual couldn’t conjure a cross-dressing lurker out of thin imagination. Then again, just how off my game was I that Vic caught on to the gaff quicker than I had? This business of going straight had its downside in terms of staying sharp. I turned to Allie. “New information, doll. Now what?”

Before Allie could reply, the doorbell rang. Allie shrugged. “Now?” she said. “Now we answer the door.”

pay too much for signed copies here

A Free Read

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

Want to score a free copy of THE ALBUQUERQUE TURKEY? Just click below.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Albuquerque Turkey (Hardcover) by John Vorhaus

The Albuquerque Turkey

by John Vorhaus

Giveaway ends February 23, 2011.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

The Albuquerque Turkey: Excerpt

The Albuquerque Turkey
by John Vorhaus

1      BOY

It all started with a dog, a biggish one loping down the sidewalk with that weird canter that some dogs have, the front legs syncopating and the rear legs slewing sidewise in tandem. He must’ve been running from something specific, because even while scampering forward he looked back, which resulted in him not seeing, and therefore barreling into, me. He hit me square in the knees and knocked me to the ground. This startled us equally, and for a second we both sat still, locked eye to eye down there at dog level.

I vibe dogs. I do. Or let’s say that I prize them: their unconditional love is a love you can trust. I’d rolled with one or two in my time, but the highly migratory life of a con artist didn’t really lend itself to long-term canine commitments, so I mostly just admired dogs from afar. Up close, this one was tough to admire, a mixed bag of black Lab and unknown provenance. One ear stood up like a German shepherd’s. The other… wasn’t there. Looking at the bitten-off stub, I couldn’t help wondering how a dog’s ear tastes to another dog. He bore other wounds as well, evidence of many fights – maybe not fair fights, for I thought I detected a human hand in some of his scars and mars. I saw it also in his eyes. He feared me. That made me sad. I reached out a hand to comfort him, and he flipped over in submission position, manifesting what every dog dreads and hopes when it submits: dread that it will be kicked; hope it’ll be scratched. I opted to scratch, and immediately made a (man’s best) friend.

“Get up, boy,” I said as I stood. “I’m not the boss of you.” The dog – in my mind I was already calling him Boy – obediently rose to his feet. I didn’t know if he was that well trained or just felt like following my lead. He wore no collar, only a weathered, knotted rope that trailed away to a frayed end. Something told me this was a dog in transition, and that whoever had been the boss of him was boss no more. Probably if I wanted to I could keep him, the thought of which tickled me. I pictured me presenting him to my girlfriend, Allie, who had lately shown such determination that we be normal. “Look what followed me home,” I’d tell her. “Can we keep it?” If that didn’t say normal, I don’t know what would.

First, though, there was the matter of making sure I was right. I mean, I couldn’t just kidnap him – dognap him – so I started back in the direction he’d come, determined to take a stab, at least, at finding his owner. The dog cowered, reluctant to follow. “It’s okay,” I said, “I got your back.” He still wouldn’t budge, so I knelt, rubbed his grizzled muzzle for a moment, then took the scraggly end of the rope and walked him down the street. I could tell he still wasn’t too keen on the idea, but now he was a dog on a leash, and they have no free will.

I had just turned the corner when I heard the first shouts.

I thought they came from the courtyard of some garden apartments just down the street, but with the way the sound bounced around off those Santa Fe adobe walls, I couldn’t be sure. There was a pickup truck parked in front of the courtyard, and its whole grungy aspect seemed linked to the courtyard noises. Bald tires, primer spots and dents, cracked windshield; a trailer trash ride, or I’m no judge of trucks. The tailgate was missing, and I could see in the cargo bed a litter of empty cans, both beer and oil, plus fast food wrappers and crumpled cigarette packs.

And, tethered to a tie-down, a severed rope, mate to the noose around Boy’s neck.

Boy recognized the truck. He whimpered fearfully as we approached, causing a picture to form in my mind: Enraged driver pulls up to the curb, anger burning so hot that he upsets his dog, who strains against his restraint – and snaps the tired line! Dog is off and running, but driver doesn’t care. All his anger’s focused on whoever’s in that courtyard.

More shouts now, and I could hear two voices, no, three: a man and a woman exchanging heated words, and a little girl playing hapless and ineffectual peacemaker. To me it added up to domestic dispute.

Boy wanted to leave and, boy, so did I. After all, there’s two kinds of problems in this world, right? My problem and not my problem. But there was a lot going on in my head. There was Allie’s need for the two of us to be citizens (and did not, in some sense, citizen equal Samaritan?) and also Boy, for if I left things like they were, he’d likely end up tied back up in that truck, the thought of which grieved me deeply. The kicker was the little girl’s voice. I could see the black hole of human trauma forming in the center of her universe. I knew that Allie came from such a troubled vortex, where mom and dad never got along and routinely inflicted horrible damage on anyone within range. I couldn’t go back in time and salve Allie’s pain. It was likewise probably too late to save the little girl from hers – these things start young – but maybe I could douse the present blaze.

And just perhaps talk my way into a dog.

I moved toward the courtyard. Boy resisted, but I patted his head in reassurance, trying to communicate that whatever I planned to sell, it wasn’t him out. I guess I got my point across, for he fell more comfortably in step beside me. I paused to gather myself before entering the courtyard. I didn’t know what, specifically, I was about to walk into, but it didn’t much matter. A top grifter gets good at improvising successfully across a wide variety of situations.

Even ones with guns.

I didn’t see the gun at first, just the man at the base of a short set of steps, looking dirty as his pickup truck in tired jeans and sneakers, a stained tank top, and a polyester cap with some kind of racing logo. The woman stood on the top step with the girl tucked in behind her. They wore matching mother/daughter flower print shifts. In other circumstances you’d say they looked cute. Now they just looked scared, but the mother was playing the defiance card hard – a card I could tell she didn’t really hold, but that’s what they call bluffing.

“Andy, now, clear out,” she said. “You know you’re not allowed here. The judge – ”

“Screw the judge,” said Andy. “I want Sophie. I want my little girl.”

“No, Andy. Not when you’ve been drinking and God knows what else.”

“Oh, and you’re such a saint?” Andy practically vibrated with rage.

“That’s not the point. I have custody.” The way she said custody damn near broke my heart. Like it had magic power, but I knew it would cast the opposite spell.

It did. It brought the gun up, a Browning MK II Hi Power. Some of them have hair triggers. Andy leveled it at – as I gathered from context – his ex-wife and child. “Sophie,” Andy told the girl, his voice gone cold, “go get in the truck. I swear if you don’t, I’ll shoot you both right now.”

The moment froze. I was afraid to speak. I didn’t want to spook Andy, not while he had the gun up. I guess Boy felt the same way. I could sense him repressing a growl. Then… the girl moved. She disengaged herself from her mother’s clutching hands and edged warily down the stairs. I knew what she was walking into, could foresee it in an instant. Let’s say she survived the next hour, day, week, month, year. Let’s say she made it all the way into womanhood. Where would that find her? Turning tricks at a truck stop? Up in some spike house with a needle in her arm? Living with a man who beat her just like daddy did? Talk about your human sacrifice. It may have been the bravest thing I’d ever seen in my life.

I couldn’t let it stand.

“Hey, mister,” I piped up, applying my most innocent bystander gloss, “do you know whose dog this is?” Three heads swiveled toward me. The gun swiveled, too, but I ignored it, for part of running a good con is shaping the reality around you. Or denying it, as the case may be. By disregarding the gun, I momentarily neutralized it, for what kind of fool doesn’t see the obvious? It’s destabilizing to people. They don’t know how to react, so mostly they just do nothing, which buys you some time to make your next move. At that point I don’t know if I felt supremely courageous or just dumb-ass dumb. Both, probably. But one thing you learn on the razzle is that once a con starts, the worst thing you can do is break it off. Then you’re just twisting in the wind. “Because, um, I found her down the street and she seems to be lost.”

“Ain’t a she,” said Andy.

“No? I didn’t look.” I bent down to check out Boy’s underside. “Hey, you’re right, it’s a boy. Anyway, used to be.” I smiled broadly and started walking Boy forward.

Andy aimed the gun. “Stop,” he said.

“Oh, look, I’m not trying to get in the middle of a thing here. I’m just trying to return this dog. Is he yours?”

“Just let him go.”

Well, I thought I knew what would happen if I did that. Boy would take off running, and probably none of us would ever see him again. I weighed my own selfishness – I wanted that dog – against his need and safety, and dropped the rope. Boy surprised me. He plopped down at my feet, content, apparently, to let me run the show to whatever outcome I could achieve. You gotta love that about dogs. When they trust you, they trust you all the way.

“Now clear out,” said Andy.

Here’s where my play got dicey. Make or break time. “Hang on,” I said, bleeding avid enthusiasm into my voice. “What kind of gun is that?”

“What?”

“Because it looks like a 1980s Hi Power. Is it?”

“The hell should I know?”

I squinted at the gun, straining to see detail, which I didn’t really need to do, since one of the many things you learn about in my line of work is guns, in detail. “Ambidextrous thumb safeties, nylon grip, three-dot sights. Yep, that’s a Mark II. Bet it’s got the throated barrel and everything.”

“Get the fuck out of here.”

“The thing is,” I said, “I’m kind of a collector. Any chance I could buy it off you?” This was the heart of my play, based explicitly on what the mother had said about drinking and God knows what else. I knew what else. Crank. Crystal meth. I could see it in Andy’s dilated pupils, his scrunge-brown teeth, and his generally tweaky demeanor. A guy like that’s not likely to be long on cash, and addiction is a voice that never shuts up. He might could want to quell it for a while. Very slowly, again not to spook him, I reached into my back pocket and pulled out my bankroll.

Funny. For someone complicit with Allie in getting off the razzle, I still kept my cash in a grifter’s roll, big bills out the outside, small bills within. I held the roll lengthwise, between my thumb and first finger, so that Andy could see its Ben Franklin veneer. “I think I have a grand here,” I lied easily. “If that’s not enough, we could hit my ATM.”

Andy licked his lips, imperfectly processing my offer. “Maybe I’ll just take it,” he said.

Oops. I hadn’t considered that. “Sure, yeah, whatever,” I vamped. “You could do that. But what kind of example does that set for your little girl?” This was pure bafflegab – nonsense – and I knew it, but that didn’t halt my improv. “Look,” I continued, “like I said, I’m not trying to get in the middle of a thing, but it looks like you guys have a problem. If you take my money by force, the problem gets worse. If you start shooting, it gets way worse, right?” I looked at the mother for confirmation, silently encouraging her to nod, which she did. “On the other hand, you sell me your gun, you’ve got a little scratch, you can take your girl out for ice cream, come back later, everybody’s calm, you can all work out your business.” I knew he’d take take your girl out for ice cream to mean go score, and hoped his need was such that he’d opt for the line of least resistance.

He seemed to be leaning that way. I could see him mentally converting a thousand dollars into chunks of scud. “What’s in it for you?” he asked.

“I told you, I’m a collector. I’ve got the Mark I and the Mark III, but the Mark II, boy, those are rare.” (Well, measured in millions.) I dared a step forward, arm outstretched, dangling my bankroll like bait. “What do you say? Deal?”

The ladies and I held our breath. Maybe Boy did, too.

“I’m keeping the bullets,” said Andy at last.

“That’s fine,” I said. “Who collects bullets?”

Then, so slowly it made my teeth ache, Andy lowered the gun, pressed the slide release, and dropped the magazine into his hand. Still manifesting my goofy enthusiasm, I strode over and made the exchange, then stepped back quickly before he could change his mind. “Oh, man,” I said, “wait’ll the guys in the gun club see this.”

The next sound you hear will be Andy saying, “What the fuck?” when he finds out what a grifter’s roll is.

“What the fuck?” said Andy. He threw down the roll and took a menacing step toward me.

“Funny thing, though,” I said, raising the gun, “didn’t you chamber a round?” Andy stopped. I let my voice go hard. “Go on, get out of here.” He turned back to grab Sophie, but, “Oh, no,” I said. “No.” Then he looked at his dog. “Not him, either,” I said. “Get.”

Andy got.

Was there a round in the chamber? Did it matter? You can bluff with the best hand, too.

The truck rumbled off. I’d memorized the license plate, and would soon be dropping a dime, for there’s no way that guy wasn’t holding. Meantime, I encouraged Sophie and her mother to clear out to a shelter somewhere, which they thought was a pretty damn good idea. We agreed that Boy would stay with me.

So happy ending, right? Sure, except for one thing. Completely unbeknownst to us, someone in one of the adjacent apartments had cell-phone videoed the whole thing through a window. It was on YouTube by dusk.

It didn’t really matter that thousands of people saw Radar Hoverlander in action.

But it sure as hell mattered that one person did.

pay too much for signed copies here


Enough to Make a Man go Meatless

Saturday, July 31st, 2010

In fairness, the beef was not the problem. It’s what was in the beef that was the problem, and no, I’m not talking about unwanted critters of the e. coli persuasion. I’m talking about ingredients – stuff put in there by the chef on purpose. Actually just one ingredient caused all the trouble… well, two if you count my ego.

We had just arrived in Las Vegas, Maxx and I, to celebrate her birthday. This is not a picture of the two of us.

We had made our way to the Skybox, one of the new restaurants at one of the new resorts in Las Vegas, the Aria. The following menu item caught my eye: “Firecracker Burger: 8 oz patty blended with Bhut Jolokia chili pepper, rated the world hottest chili pepper in 2007.” Well, I had never heard of that pepper, but I’d also never heard of a pepper I couldn’t handily defeat, even at the cost of a few extra napkins to sop up the inevitable sweat on my head. So, of course, I gave it a try.

Here’s the “before” picture. So far, all is well.

You want to know how hot this pepper is? Twelve hours later, it makes my head sweat just to think about it. There in the moment, I knew from the first bite that I had a tiger by the tail. The heat from the thing instantly made my lips go numb (the body’s natural reaction to searing pain, I suppose). My tongue swelled up. The roof of my mouth seemed painted with fire, and that fire traveled all the way down my throat to my belly, where it bloomed.

Are we having fun yet?

Folks, I generally consider hot foods to be my manna-nirvana. And generally scoff at what others find hot. When I order buffalo wings at my local joint, for example, I challenge the prep chef to make them too hot too eat, and he always fails. I once drank a bottle of Tabasco sauce on a bet. I love hot food. I think there’s something wrong with my system. (I know there’s something wrong with my brain.) But hot food and I just agree with each other.

This Bhut Jolokia burger, though, it didn’t just disagree with me. It vehemently opposed me and violently argued with me. It wrestled me to the floor and pinned me there. Not to put too fine a point on it, I was defeated. I fought my way through half the burger and then, as the saying goes, “stick a fork in it, it won.” Viz:

Fortunately, life in Las Vegas is not all heartburn heaven and thunderstruck intestines. There’s also poker, and a whole damn lot of it, plus shops, restaurants (with saner menus one hopes), and tomorrow’s highlight event, a visit to the Pinball Hall of Fame. It’s nice to have a respite in so crazy a place before returning to Managua (so crazy a place) to spend the next month there working on The Blue Door. That’s a tropical place, Managua. They have plenty of hot food. People gawk at what I eat and call tame. But now I know I’ve met my match. Bhut Jolokia, my (sweat drenched) hat is off to you. You are the boss of me.

More later, -jv

In fairness, the beef was not the problem. It’s what was in the beef that was the problem, and no, I’m not talking about unwanted critters of the e. coli persuasion. I’m talking about ingredients – stuff put in there by the chef on purpose. Actually just one ingredient caused all the trouble… well, two if you count my ego.

Maxx and I were dining at the Skybox, one of the new restaurants at one of the new resorts in Las Vegas, the Aria. The following menu item caught my eye: “Firecracker Burger: 8 oz patty blended with Bhut Jolokia chili pepper, rated the world hottest chili pepper in 2007.” Well, I had never heard of that pepper, but I’d also never heard of a pepper I couldn’t handily defeat, even at the cost of a few extra napkins to sop up the inevitable sweat on my head. So, of course, I gave it a try.

Here’s the “before” picture. So far, all is well.

You want to know how hot this pepper is? Twelve hours later, it makes my head sweat just to think about it. There in the moment, I knew from the first bite that I had a tiger by the tail. The heat from the thing instantly made my lips go numb (the body’s natural reaction to searing pain, I suppose). My tongue swelled up. The roof of my mouth seemed painted with fire, and that fire traveled all the way down my throat to my belly, where it bloomed.

Are we having fun yet?

Folks, I generally consider hot foods to be my manna-nirvana. And generally scoff at what others find hot. When I order buffalo wings at my local joint, for example, I challenge the prep chef to make them too hot too eat, and he always fails. I once drank a bottle of Tabasco sauce on a bet. I love hot food. I think there’s something wrong with my system. (I know there’s something wrong with my brain.) But hot food and I just agree with each other.

This Bhut Jolokia burger, though, it didn’t just disagree with me. It vehemently opposed me and violently argued with me. It wrestled me to the floor and pinned me there. Not to put too fine a point on it, I was defeated. I fought my way through half the burger and then, as the saying goes, “stick a fork in it, it won.” Viz:

For No Reason I Can Think Of

Saturday, June 19th, 2010

… I woke up early this morning thinking about an essay I wrote in 1995 on the organization of the brain. Since I’m a digital pack rat of the first water, it was a matter of mere moments to dredge the essay from the depths of my hard drive archive. To glimpse what was on my mind about my mind some fifteen years ago, just click here.

More later, -jv