Short Story Of the Day (flash fiction) – Senior Smackdown by Bill Chance

“The older I grow, the more I distrust the familiar doctrine that age brings wisdom.”
― H.L. Mencken

B-17 Nose Art, Commemorative Air Force

I have been feeling in a deep hopeless rut lately, and I’m sure a lot of you have too. After writing another Sunday Snippet I decided to set an ambitious goal for myself. I’ll write a short piece of fiction every day and put it up here. Obviously, quality will vary – you get what you get. Length too – I’ll have to write something short on busy days. They will be raw first drafts and full of errors.

I’m not sure how long I can keep it up… I do write quickly, but coming up with an idea every day will be a difficult challenge. So far so good. Maybe a hundred in a row might be a good, achievable, and tough goal.

Here’s another one for today (#91) Almost There! What do you think? Any comments, criticism, insults, ideas, prompts, abuse … anything is welcome. Feel free to comment or contact me.

Thanks for reading.


Senior Smackdown

It was so hot that the air conditioning in the clunky old radio station van couldn’t keep up and Emily had to keep daubing the sweat off her face. Bernard, the assistant sound engineer kept giving her a hard time.

“Man, you’re sweating like a stuck pig… good thing this is radio,” Bernard said.

“Shut up Bernard.”

She was getting sick of doing all the crap assignments, and today was the worst of all. It was Tuesday afternoon and it was time for a new bit, something called “Senior Smackdown.” It was one of the bits that came down from corporate – they said they had focus-grouped the whole thing and it was super-fun and popular for their target demographic – the urban teen and tween girls that spent the most money at their sponsor’s stores. To Emily, it was just another humiliation she had to endure.

“OK, Bernard, enough of this crap. Remind me again, what are we supposed to be doing? What is this ‘Senior Smackdown’?”

“Simple enough Emily,” said the assistant sound engineer, “We drive out to this old folks home, we’ve got their permission, and they set us up with some old geezer. We’re supposed to get somebody really old and kinda crazy, someone that doesn’t really know what’s going on. You ask them some questions – the station will send suggestions in on your device, keep an eye on it – and we broadcast the hilarity.”

They pulled off onto a loop driveway and parked in front of a long, low, dingy gray building. A sign said, “Lazy Acres,” in peeling paint. Bernard unloaded his remote broadcast gear and checked it out.

They walked in past a clump of old people sitting around staring into space. Emily didn’t like how they looked at her or how the inside of the Lazy Acres smelt.

“This place smells like pee,” she said as they walked up to the head nurse’s station at the intersection of two long halls.

“Get used to it,” said the nurse, glaring at Emily.

“Oh, Hi,” said Emily, pulling up her best fake smile and a little giggle, “We’re from KKDA and we’re here to…”

“I know why you’re here,” said the nurse. Her voice dripped poison. You’re late, Helena is waiting for you.

“Helena?”

“Yea, Helena. I chose her for you myself. She’s ninety five years old. No family, never been married. She really looks forward to any visitor she can get, not that she gets any.” The nurse paused and looked Emily up and down. “I think she is just what you need.”

“Well, good,” said Emily while she did a little eye-flutter that she knew would aggravate the nurse. “Let’s get this over with.”

They walked down the hallway and the nurse opened a door without knocking. “Helena, the radio people are here.”

There was an ancient old woman sitting in a simple desk chair. There was a comfortable padded lounger facing her for Emily to sit in. She smiled eagerly as Emily and Bernard entered and the engineer began to set his equipment up.

“Can she hear me?” Emily asked the nurse.

“I can hear fine,” the old woman answered. “My name’s Helena,” she said in a clear and strong voice. It’s so nice to have someone young and pretty like you come to see me. I’m so sick of the old people in this place.”

“Helena, this is Emily,” the nurse said. “I’ll leave you to it now.”

Bernard managed to get the remote humming and started his sound checks while Emily and Helena sat quiet, staring at each other. Emily felt the sweat running down the side of her face.

“Here, honey,” Helena said, “have my handkerchief. They do keep it warm in here.”

Emily felt like screaming. Finally Bernard tapped her on her shoulder and gave her the two minute sign. In her ear she could hear the intro bump music for Senior Smackdown and the guffaws of the two disc jockeys back at the station.

“Ok, now Jane, it’s time for a new segment, Senior Smackdown!” said Bruce.

“That sounds like fun Bruce!” Jane shouted back at the station. Jane then launched into one of her famous laughing fits, her voice booming out in rough guffaws while Bruce tittered in the background. This was the signature of the two afternoon jockeys – this constant laughing. They could vary it from simple giggles to obscene snorts and sniggles all the way to booming shrieks of hilarity. The focus groups indicated that their listeners loved this.

“And on the scene is our very own roving reporter, Emily Lighthouse, to talk to one of the city’s oldest senior citizens, Helena. Emily, ask Helena if she has ever been married.”

And that was her cue.

“Helena, have you ever been married?”

“No Emily, I’ve been single all my life.” Helena suddenly became silent. Her face became calm, reflective. It looked for a moment like she had forgotten about Emily sitting there.

Emily felt a moment of panic and glanced down at the handheld device. It flashed a lurid single word, “LEZBO!” in bright flashing letters. She was relieved when Helena spoke first.

“Well, Emily, I haven’t been single by choice. I was engaged once. It was back in nineteen forty one. I was engaged to a boy named Ralph and was so much, so deeply in love. We were so young. After that, I couldn’t find it again. I remember when he joined the Navy. We were to be married at his station on Hawaii. I was going to fly out on the Clipper for New Year’s. I went to San Diego to watch him set sail on the Arizona. They were, all the boys, a thousand of them, all lined up on the rail in their dress whites. It was such a sight to see. I remember it like it was yesterday.”

“Well, what happened?”

“I said, he sailed to Hawaii on the Arizona. Nineteen forty one.”

“And?” Emily asked. Helena suddenly stared at Emily with eyes as clear as spring water, her face as sad as a dream denied. Emily felt that she had disappointed Helena somehow.

“He died at Pearl Harbor.”

“Oh… and you never married?”

“No, I’ve already told you that. Well, I did have some chances, I was asked. But I always thought of Ralph, and those other boys. It just didn’t seem right.”

“Well, then, how did you get by, back then, by yourself.”

“Oh, I know you probably find this hard to believe, but I was a professional tennis player. I was pretty darn good too. I toured the world. I was a real up-and-comer. It was all there, all in front of me.”

“So you played tennis? What tournaments…”

Helena kept on, ignoring Emily. “I had it all. Well, that is, until I go the Polio.”

“Polio?”

“Yes, honey. You don’t know anything about that, I’m sure. Thank God. You’ve probably never seen an iron lung. Probably never had any of your pretty friends going to a dance with braces on her legs.”

Emily glanced down at her device. It was flashing, “THIS ISN’T FUNNY” Emily didn’t know what to do. This isn’t what it was supposed to be like. That nurse had set her up. She was supposed to be interviewing some doddering old fool, someone she could make fun of, someone the radio audience could laugh at.

Helena was no doddering old fool. She was still talking, about polio, about some guy named Salk. She was talking about how hard it was to get by as a single crippled woman and about how it felt to have your dreams taken away from you. She then talked about how she had found strength and how, now, looking back, she could not imagine wishing it to be any different.

“Umm… what did you do?”

“I was a school teacher, a teacher for fifty years, eighth grade English. I taught Kindergarten for one year – kind of tapering off when my mother got sick.”

“You said earlier that you are sick of old people.”

“I look around at these women here and think about whether I would want to be married to any of them, if I was a man, and I think, no. They line up like a bunch of old crows at the front windows waiting to see who comes to visit, I’m not like that, I like to talk to folks, but if nobody comes I’m happy to get back to my room.”

“Ummm, uhhh, like, what else do you want to say?”

“There’s been a few highlights in my life – I saw the president, Kennedy, in his car ’bout twenty minutes before they blew his head off – that was a highlight… if you can call it that.”

“You were there?”

“Lived in Dallas all my life. I guess I’ve had a pretty ordinary life – never did anything much – I probably would have if I hadn’t got the polio.”

Emily glanced at her device, it said, “CUT IT OFF NOW!”

And that was the end of this week’s Senior Smackdown. Emily couldn’t even make eye contact with Helena while Bernard packed up his equipment. She heard Bernard thanking Helena and asking her if she needed anything while she fled the room looking for the head nurse. She wanted to give that bitch a piece of her mind, but she was nowhere to be found.

All the way back to the station Bernard couldn’t stop talking about Helena.

“Wasn’t that the most amazing shit you’ve ever heard? Think of it. Pearl Harbor. Polio. Can you imagine what it was like to be a professional female athlete, a tennis player, in the nineteen forties? ”

“Oh, shut up, Bernard.”

“I mean it. I’m going to go back there and tape her some more for myself. Can you imagine the stories she can tell? What an amazing life. Jeez, she was there when Kennedy was shot.”

But Emily wasn’t listening. She felt another rivulet of sweat course down her temple and mopped at it. She realized that she still had Helena’s handkerchief. She took one last swipe at the sweat, rolled the widow down and threw it out into the breeze.

Tempt Us To Destroy

“People are always shouting they want to create a better future. It’s not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past.”
― Milan Kundera

Deep Ellum, Dallas, Texas

JFK

The life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction in the life of the nation, is very close to the center of a nation’s purpose – and it is the test of the quality of a nation’s civilization
—-John Fitzgerald Kennedy

Mural on a liquor store, Lamar Street south of downtown, Dallas, Texas.

(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)

I saw this from the window of a train travelling south through the city and returned a week later to get a closer look. And a photograph or two.

George Bannerman Dealey

“The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery.”
― Anaïs Nin

Statue of George Bannerman Dealey
Dealey Plaza
Dallas, Texas

George Dealey Dealey Plaza Dallas, Texas

George Dealey
Dealey Plaza
Dallas, Texas

“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.”
― Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles

Oswald Tour

Lee Harvey's

Lee Harvey’s

I’m not really sure why – it was a spur of the moment “that sounds like fun” kind of thing – but I bought tickets for Candy and I to go on a bus tour of Dallas spots that are associated with Lee Harvey Oswald‘s crime and last days.

The 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination is this November and Dallas is bracing for the event. When you live in Dallas, the assassination is an odd thing. It is the most famous historical event that has occurred here and it is what most people still think about when they think about Dallas. When the television show became wildly popular back in the day the people here were relieved because they figured that people would associate Dallas with J. R. Ewing, rather than the assassination. Same thing when the Cowboys are winning.

But those things have faded and with the half-century mark coming up, it’s time to live in infamy again. Dallas and most of the people that live here wish that the memory that horrible event occurred here – well, we wish that would be forgotten.

Everyone my age or older remembers where they were when they found out about the assassination. I was in third grade, in New York (state, a little up the Hudson from the city) and I remember going out to catch the bus home, and the bus was not there. I guess we were sent home from school early. We were waiting with our teacher with us and someone came up to talk to her, both women were very upset. We didn’t know what was going on and all I heard was “shot and killed.”

At that age, the world looks different. I put the phrase “shot and killed” together with our missing bus and assumed that our bus driver had been murdered. Later, when I found out it was the president, I was sort-of relieved. I knew my bus driver personally, after all.

At any rate, the tour was inexpensive and looked like fun – I am always up for learning about my city – so we signed up. It started, not surprisingly, at Lee Harvey’s – a beer garden/restaurant/live music spot/dive bar – in the Cedars. We met there, piled into an air-conditioned coach, and set off.

Our first stop was Dealey Plaza. There are always a lot of tourists there, and a lot of tours, guides and sellers of conspiracy theory books and materials. Our guide was really good. He was Jerry Dealey, the great grand-nephew of George Dealey – the guy that Dealey Plaza was named after. He said he was from the poor branch of the family.

Our tour in front of the Texas School Book Depository

Our tour in front of the Texas School Book Depository

Our tour in Dealey Plaza.

Our tour in Dealey Plaza.

What was nice was that he gave a “fair” tour – as far as all the conspiracy theories go. He said something that makes sense to me, “We will never know for certain exactly what happened, and anyone that thinks they know is wrong.” So he covered a lot of the more well-known theories… but also did point out those that are clearly completely impossible or flat out wrong (many having to do with Oliver Stone’s film).

For a rare moment, the area cleared. This is the spot of the fatal shot, marked by the X. Abraham Zapruder was standing on that white concrete pillar in the foreground when he made his famous film.

For a rare moment, the area cleared. This is the spot of the fatal shot, marked by the X. Abraham Zapruder was standing on that white concrete pillar in the foreground when he made his famous film.

I have, of course, been to Dealey Plaza many times – even went there before dawn to take photos of the sunrise.

I remember when I first moved to Dallas, I lived in Oak Cliff and worked downtown. My bus would go through Dealey Plaza twice a day – it was a month before I realized that was the assassination site.

The Texas School Book Depository from Dealey Plaza.

The Texas School Book Depository from Dealey Plaza.

Then we drove over to Oak Cliff to see where Oswald lived, then visited the site where Officer Tippit was murdered, and then on to the Texas Theater where Oswald was arrested (for shooting Tippit). That was surreal, because I spend so much time in Oak Cliff, especially on my bicycle, that I am very familiar with the streets and hadn’t really thought about the web of history that is overlain on such familiar turf. I have ridden my bike past Oswald’s rooming house, for example, a dozen times in the last few months, without knowing its infamy.

Then we headed out west, to Fort Worth to visit Oswald’s grave. It’s a fairly isolated spot, and hard to find (the cemetery will not give directions or help locating it). We parked the bus on a side street and then trudged over to the grave. It was more interesting than you would think… not because of Oswald per se. It’s especially interesting because of the mystery of NICK BEEF.

Oswald and NICK BEEF

Oswald and NICK BEEF

Lee Harvey Oswald’s original tombstone was stolen and replaced with a simple marker that says, “Oswald.” Then, in 1997, right next to his grave appeared a mysterious stone, the same size and type that said, simply, “NICK BEEF.”

Of course, that mysterious stone supplied fodder for all sorts of wild stories. It wasn’t until this year that the New York Times finally was able to run it to ground. No wild conspiracy, simply an eccentric New Yorker – nonperforming performance artist with a morbid artistic sensibility – that as a child saw Kennedy at Carswell Air Force Base the day before he died. It left a lifelong impression and when he found out that nobody wanted to buy the plot next to Oswald… well, NICK BEEF was, umm born.

We headed back to Dallas to see some spots related to Jack Ruby and his killing of Oswald. Then we returned to Lee Harvey’s for a couple beers and hamburgers.

It was a fun day. They are going to do some more tours – a Haunted Dallas tour around Halloween, a “Dirty Dallas” about the history of the city’s seamy side, and (the one that I am really interested in) a Bonnie and Clyde tour.

Sounds like a plan.

There was a famous person on our tour. They announced that the music artist/rapper MC 900 Ft Jesus was a member of the company. They wouldn’t say which person he was, but… after a bit of looking and thinking, I figured it out.

Dallashenge from the triple underpass in Dealey Plaza. This is an HDR image - three shots taken at different exposures and combined with software.

Dallashenge from the triple underpass in Dealey Plaza. This is an HDR image – three shots taken at different exposures and combined with software.

Test Shots for a Morning Dallashenge

Last year I went into downtown Dallas at sunset for Dallashenge.

Dallashenge

Dallashenge

Dallashenge, for those that never read or can’t remember my entries from over a year ago, is the date when the sun sets directly down one of the vast glittering canyons formed by the reflecting glass-clad rows of skyscrapers lining the streets. It is derived (by me) from the more famous Manhattanhenge, from New York.

Dallas and New York are interesting because their central business district streets don’t run on a direct east-west grid. Those that do, such as Chicago, will have their ‘henge dates on the summer and winter solstices… plus their morning and evening ‘henges will be on the same day. For a city on the bias, you have to calculate the henge dates – luckily the website Suncalc makes all that very easy.

So, last year, I calculated the evening Dallashenge as February 15th, took some test shots, and then went down there at sunset and made some photos. I don’t know if the photos do justice, but it was a fun exercise in research, travel, and photography anyway. It was fun answering questions about why I was running out into a crosswalk with a camera on a tripod at sunset.

I have been thinking about a morning voyage to a Dallashenge. Other than the sheer laziness in avoiding getting up that early, I have put it off because I didn’t have a good spot. I was thinking about a parking garage at the city jail – but it wasn’t perfect and I wasn’t sure if photography would be welcome. Then, one day I was riding the DART line to the Convention Center and as the train crossed over the famous triple underpass I realized that there was a walkway along the rail lines. The sight line went straight down Main street and would be perfect for a morning Dallashenge.

During a downtown bike ride I decided to head over to that end of downtown and do some test shots. The spot turned out to be a perfect view down the street, plus it’s a well known spot – you enter the railroad overpass from the infamous “grassy knoll” and look out over the area where the Kennedy Assassination took place almost fifty years ago.

The morning Dallashenge date will be April 19, with the sun rising at six fifty-three in the morning. Now, I have to get up enough gumption to get up that early and head down to get some photos.

The view east down Main Street from the Triple Underpass. The sun will rise right down the middle of the street on April 19, morning Dallashenge.

The view east down Main Street from the Triple Underpass. The sun will rise right down the middle of the street on April 19, morning Dallashenge.

This is the walkway along the rail tracks over the underpass, with the Dallas Hyatt Regency and Reunion Tower in the background.

This is the walkway along the rail tracks over the underpass, with the Dallas Hyatt Regency and Reunion Tower in the background.

The view a little to the left of Main Street. That's the curve of Elm Street. The grassy knoll is on the left, the Texas Schoolbook Depository is the lighter brick building over the trees. The assassination site is right in front of the two cars coming down the road.

The view a little to the left of Main Street. That’s the curve of Elm Street. The grassy knoll is on the left, the Texas Schoolbook Depository is the lighter brick building over the trees. The assassination site is right in front of the two cars coming down the road.