Get the Whiskey

So has everybody. Shit happens. Get the whiskey.

—-Bad Times at the El Royale

Bad Times at the El Royale

 

There is nothing better to make the time go by on an airplane than watching a movie on the little screen on the headrest of the seat in front of you. It’s even better than reading – I have trouble reading on the airplane – there are too many interruptions and I can’t really read when I’m that uncomfortable.

On the way out to Boston, all I wanted to do was sleep – so I chose Aquaman. That did the trick, I kept nodding off.

But on the way back I put a little more thought into it. There were some excellent movies to choose from – some I had wanted to see. But I didn’t really want to see those on the little tiny screen with the wonky headphone jack that I had to push on the wire a certain way to get the sound.

I wanted something that wasn’t bad… but wasn’t too good. Something entertaining without having to think too much.

I chose Bad Times at the El Royale.

I chose well.

I remember when that movie came out – it looked very interesting – and was surprised at its lack of box office. It came and went in a flash without leaving much of a trace. Sometimes these can be hidden gens when they make it to streaming. Bad Times at the El Royale isn’t a gem, not by a long shot, but it is an enjoyable way to kill a few miles between La Guardia and DFW.

It’s one of those retro, noir-y thrillers with a simple story made complex by careful manipulation of point-of-view, time-shifting, and vital information not made available to the audience until the proper amount of confusion is generated. There are twists and turns a-plenty and plenty of unexpected, sudden violence. The good guys aren’t going to win in the end because there aren’t really any good guys (well, maybe one). There are listening devices, hidden corridors with one-way mirrors and a big bag of cash hidden in a most clever way.

It all takes place in the El Royale, an almost bankrupt fleabag hotel/motel located right on the border between two states – you can choose a room in the Nevada wing or the California. A cast of misfits check in and are ultimately faced with a fatal game of roulette with the most handsome Manson-like cult leader of all time (a very buff Chris Hemsworth). I read that Matthew McConaughey was originally going to play that part – that might have catapulted the film into greatness.

As it is, greatness isn’t catapulted into – but it is a fun bit of diversion. Especially for someone trapped in a crowded metal tube hurtling along at unimaginable speed thousands of feet in the air.

 

Short Story of the Day, “Sea Change” by Nancy M. Michael

But those in the mix know what blood tastes like.

—-Nancy M. Michael, Sea Change

Approaching Storm, Dallas, Texas

I used to take a month each year to comment on and link to short stories published online.

Short Story Months:

Day One 2013

Day One 2015

Day One 2017

I haven’t done that for a while, but have been thinking about it. That doesn’t keep me from reviewing them one at a time. Last year, I wrote about Driven Snow by Nancy M. Mitchel. The author commented on my blog entry (with the surprising revelation that the story was true and the woman survived). She mentioned that she had another story on the Akashic book website, Sea Change.

Go read it – a short, pithy read. Then you can come back and read the rest of what I wrote.

It’s of an interesting construction in that the protagonist isn’t directly involved in the action. Stories like that are cool because there are two stories – the main, observed action… and the reaction of the observer. It’s quite a feat to accomplish this in so few words.

 

Short Story of the Day – “Driven Snow” by Nancy M. Michael

“Life is a bucket of shit with a barbed wire handle.”
― Jim Thompson

Crepe Myrtle trunk in the snow

I read a lot of short stories. I read A LOT of short stories. In most cases I read pretty much a short story a day. I like to read them, I don’t have much time for long novels, and I like to write them.I have learned that it is best that I read what I am writing.

Over time, I have spent months where I review and online short story each day –

Short Story Months:
Day One 2013

Day One 2015

Day One 2017

Instead of doing an entire month, I think I’ll put up stories I enjoy one at a time.

There is a fantastic independent publishing house, Akashic Books. From their website:

Akashic Books is a Brooklyn-based independent company dedicated to publishing urban literary fiction and political nonfiction by authors who are either ignored by the mainstream, or who have no interest in working within the ever-consolidating ranks of the major corporate publishers.

In particular, I enjoy their Noir series – each book consisting of a group of savage short stories based in a particular city. I have written about their Noir books based on the two cities I am most familiar with: Dallas Noir and New Orleans Noir.

They have a tasty extensive list of short and flash fiction available online.

Today I have a free online short story put out by Akashic Books. It’s a warped little romantic tale about how a relationship handles a snowstorm on I70 in Colorado. The flash fiction piece is a lot of fun – though it seems to have one obvious little error (Isn’t it nights in WHITE satin?).

Driven Snow by Nancy M. Michael – Loveland Pass, Colorado

Like the city-themed Noir books, fiction, especially thrillers or horror, is always more fun when it is set somewhere that you are familiar with. I am somewhat familiar with I70 through the mountains, Loveland Pass and Ski Basin, the scenic route off the Interstate to A Basin, and the feeling of snow whiteout conditions.

I remember jockeying down that stretch of highway in a blinding blizzard with a tiny Datsun jockying with a string of monstrous snowplows going 80 miles an hour inches off my bumper and looking bigger than the surrounding Rocky Mountains.

Whew! just the memory makes me feel frozen and sweaty at the same time.

So take a few minutes to go read the story and while you are there – check out Akashic Books and their other offerings. They deserve our support.

Dallas Noir

Dallas-Noir

About a year and a half ago, I read a book called New Orleans Noir – which I enjoyed a lot. It was a collection of DARK short stories all set in a city I love very much… and a city, despite all its frivolity and fun, that has plenty of opportunities for that side of the human spirit.

The book was part of a series of noir short stories tied to individual cities. After reading it, I had a thought, “I wish they would do one of these on Dallas – but they never will.” I was wrong.

I missed it when the book was published or I would have gone to some of the events. I didn’t find out about the book until it made the rounds on social media. When the publication of Dallas Noir popped up in my facebook feed I was really excited. And in this day of ebooks and instant gratification, fifteen seconds later I was looking at the table of contents.

What was even cooler is that I have personally met two of the authors – I read their stories first.

David Haynes is an Associate Professor and Director of Creative Writing at SMU. About a decade ago I took a couple of classes in fiction writing from him through the Writer’s Garrett. I’ve always been amazed at how much more I learned from these than from my college writing classes (which set my writing back over a quarter-century – it’s my college writing classes that are responsible for me being a chemist).

His story, “Big Things Happening Here,” Oak Lawn, was more than excellent. Unique, subtle, very “literary” – it tells the story of two men that witness someone being abducted in a tony suburb and are drawn into a vast conspiracy… or maybe not. A thought provoking tale of the possibility of a secret undercurrent of modern life – an illustration of the adage, “Simply because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they are not out to get you.”

Next I read a story by Catherine Cuellar, “Dog Sitter,” Love Field. I have met her a number of times at events in the Arts District and bike rides. Her contribution was on the more civilized edge of the noir genre – a story of a domestic worker that kills a passerby by accident. It’s a finely characterized tale which captures the delicate and difficult life led by those right under our noses, yet right outside of the mainstream of society.

After those two I cranked through the collection in order. I was familiar with many of the writers – I’ve been reading Ben Fountain and Harry Hunsiker for a while. There was a wide variety in all the stories – which made it as enjoyable as a box of chocolates – but the locations were all familiar. They did a good enough job of inserting locations and people that any Dallasite will recognize to give me the creeps as I ride/drive/move around town and see things that remind me of the stories.

The last story was by Jonathan Woods, “Swingers Anonymous,” M Streets. I enjoyed his collection, Bad Juju & Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem – driving down to the Pearl Cup on Henderson to hear him read one night. I’ve always admired his writing – because he doesn’t fuck around. He writes like a truck wreck… the story comes at you two hundred proof and on fire. True to form, his story in Dallas Noir has a classic “grab your attention” opening line:

We all went over to Pauline’s to admire her breasts.

How can you not finish a story that starts like that?

Dallas Jail complex with the Margaret Hunt Hill bridge in the background. (click to enlarge)

Dallas Jail complex with the Margaret Hunt Hill bridge in the background.
(click to enlarge)

The Best American Noir of the Century

The Kindle is like crack. Every day I get an email with the “Deal of the Day,” and every day I need to figure out how I am going to resist. It isn’t the money – these books go from ninety nine cents up to, say four bucks. It isn’t the space, either. My Kindle can hold a small library in its memory and what it won’t hold Amazon will store out in the clouds. It’s simply time. There are too many books and life is too short and time is running out too fast.

Sometimes, though, I can’t resist. I buy and I read.

One temptation given in to was a big book that came in for a one-day sale… I think it was $1.99 or so.

I love big, thick anthologies of short stories. Especially with time so short and life so mixed-up and confusing, the ability to scrape up a few spare minutes and read a whole story – complete in and of itself – no remembering galaxies of characters, confused clusters of settings, and subtle plot threads that weave and waft through the delicate tapestry of a novel… one shot, simple, fast, powerful. Give me a tome with twenty or thirty or more of these miniature jewels and I’m a happy camper.

The buck ninety-nine deal came in over the ether for purchase of the Best American Noir of the Century. Couldn’t resist – hit the “buy with one click” button and it was mine.

Reading it took a little longer. It had 39 stories, so it took a few days to plow through. The stories covered about 83 years and were in chronological order. Noir isn’t really a genre, more like an attitude, and you could feel how the stories changed over time.

The book is 800 pages… which made me glad that it was only some bits stored in the Kindle memory. That’s a lot lighter.

There is a lot of criticism of this anthology… mostly concerning the meaning of the term Noir. A lot of folks take Noir to be a hardboiled detective novel. They are disappointed because, although there are some classics in the collection, it takes a broader view of Noir and includes some stories with supernatural elements and other borderline tales.

That’s fine with me. I was surprised to find that I liked some of the more offbeat, longer, and modern riffs. I recommend the anthology highly… it’s the kind of thing you will like if you like that kind of thing.

Like any group of thirty nine tales, the offerings can be a little uneven. Some folks will like stories I didn’t… but here are a few that stood out in my mind:

Harlan Ellison: 1993: Mefisto in Onyx – Harlan Ellison, not surprisingly, comes up with a loose, weird, caterwauling tale that isn’t what it seems to be and then it turns out not to be that either. Surprising and entertaining.

Ed Gorman: 1995: Out There in the Darkness – Inspired the book and film, “The Poker Club.” The opposite of Mefisto in Onyx… a tale of four ordinary guys, folks you know and love trapped in a cycle of escalating violence.

Elmore Leonard: 2002: When The Women Come Out to Dance – Fantastic tale about a relationship between two women that turns out to be the opposite of what it seems.

Christopher Coake: 2003: All Through the House – One of the best stories I’ve read in a while. A unique structure, told in a series of short, clear scenes in reverse chronological order. Despite it descending into the past, every new section brings an unknown revelation. At the end, you are left devastated by what you know will come to destroy the innocent doomed characters.

Steve Fisher: 1938 You’ll Always Remember Me – Probably my favorite of the older works. A classic Noir.

Joyce Carol Oates: 1997: Faithless – A dark tale that, not surprisingly, reads like the best literature.

Oh, and there is a lot more, famous authors: James M. Cain, Mickey Spillane, Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith, James Ellroy, James Lee Burke. Each story is prefaced with a biography of the author – these can be as great a revelation as the fiction.

It makes me want to read more from some of these folks. Thats more like heroin.

Sunday Snippet – The Red Tail

A quick first draft I hammered out on a break from work. There may be something here, but I’m not sure what.

Walter ran through the corn. It was higher than his head and he knew he was invisible. The stalks stood thick, but there was room to run between the rows. He realized he still had the gun in his hand and that it was slowing him down, affecting his gait. He raised the gun to his face and realized that it was giving off a burned smell and that the barrel was hot.

He threw the gun away into the corn.

He wanted to start running again, but Walter had lost his way. The high corn hid him but made it impossible to see where he was going. The noon sun was directly overhead and he realized he didn’t even know what direction he had come from.

So he just ran.


When he was a child, Walter Skopsky’s father gave him a gift. He didn’t know it at the time but that moment was to shape the rest of his life. His father was a struggling alcoholic insurance underwriter and was hunched over his desk balancing the family’s meager bank accounts late one evening – trying to finish so he could reach for his second bottle. Walter was out of paper for his school work and was pestering his father for a sheet or two when the old man reached into a drawer and fell upon a pad of graph paper. He threw it and told his son to leave him alone for the rest of the night.

Walter still remembers the cool, green color of the pad, the thick blue and fine red lines crisscrossing in a grid of such heavenly precision – the repeating pattern of the axis implying an infinite steadiness and surety reaching out past the edges of the sheets into infinity to the left and right, back from the past and forward into the future.

It was the most beautiful thing Walter had ever seen.

A shy, nervous, and delicate boy, Walter took refuge in his graph paper. Once he committed something to the Cartesian Predictability on the single plane he felt he had the world under his control.

He was terrified of the long drives his family would take every holiday to West Virgina – to spend time with his mother’s large, diffuse and complex, intertwined family. The visit was a blur of loud and unpleasant confusion to Walter, but the drive up there and back was horrifying. Walter did not have access to accurate statistics on driving fatalities, but he watched the evening news and read the paper. He knew that a lot of people were meeting a gruesome end on the roads. Walter made guesses as to the percentages of deaths per thousand miles of driving and would graph the family voyage along with his estimate of his odds of dying in a fiery crash.

During the trip he would look from the back seat of the car over his father’s shoulder at the odometer and would then retreat and mark their progress on his graph and reduce his estimate of fatality until, pulling into the weed-infested gravel driveway of his aunt’s doublewide, the two lines would move to zero and he could breath easier until it was time for the trip back.

As the years went by Walter became increasingly unsatisfied with his simple linear graphs. The world was getting too complicated. That was when, on a whim, he fished the teacher’s guide to a set of standardized progress tests given out to his entire grade level out of a classroom trash can. He slipped the guide into his notebook and surreptitiously sneaked it home like it was a set of state secrets. That night he removed the clear cellophane from the unread thin pamphlet and devoured it cover to cover. There, he discovered, for the first time, the concept of the bell curve.

The simple curve resonated with Walter and he felt, finally, that he had learned a concept that explained the world to him. At first the librarian dismissed him, but he kept bugging the woman until she led him to an introductory statistics textbook that had a long chapter on the normal distribution. The mathematics were above him, but Walter began to understand the curve itself in its graphical form, with the large number of “normal” points arranged around the center and the two, rare, special, “tails” extended out to either side.

Walter copied the curve onto an entire pad of graph paper and then began to fill in the areas with highlight markers, so he could still see the lines underneath. He used the most common yellow markers on the vast territory of the center hump of the curve. The top one percent of the tail, he colored green and the bottom one, he colored red.

He stared at that upper green tail and swore he would always be in there, no matter what it took. If he couldn’t make it there – he would move on. He entered into a long period of studying. He would graph his test scores and his mid-semester and final grades – making sure he was in that top one percent. Anything less would be represented by a big blotch in that vast yellow mediocrity of the curve and Walter would be up late at night, sweating in his bed, and staring at that mark of self shame.

In English class one day, they read Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” and Walter wrote a long heart-felt essay about how the two roads led to the left and right areas of his beloved bell curve, and the “Road Less Traveled” led to the right-handed, green tail. He even stapled one of his beloved graphs to the back of the paper, carefully labeled with sections of the poem. He let slip a rare grin of self-satisfaction as he handed in his paper, sure that the teacher would be impressed by his understanding of the relationship between statistics and literature.

Walter was mortified when the paper was returned with a “C-” and the notations, “Well written, but does not make sense,” and, “Does not follow instructions.” Tears welled up in his eyes as he made a mark slightly to the left of center in the vast hated yellow land of the bell curve.

He kept staring at that graph… as time and again he kept ending up in that yellow center. It was horribly frustrating and he became more and more discouraged. Walter needed to be there in that green tail – the top one percent. But, try as hard as he could, he kept falling short. Slowly, inevitably, he began to think about the other end of the graph, the red end. The bottom one percent. What would life be like down there?

It was about that time that Walter’s father fell asleep in his car in the garage with the engine running. There was a lot of talk about whether he had done himself in or had simply made another drunken mistake… his last one. Walter didn’t think it made much difference either way.

In the confusion after his father’s death Walter was able to sneak into his parent’s bedroom and find the black plastic case hidden under the shoe stand. Walter’s father had proudly taught his son how to use the snub nose revolver and the two of them had spent some time out in the country, target shooting at whiskey bottles stuck between strands of barbed wire.

The gun was the only possession of his father’s that Walter cared about. He was able to keep it hidden away under his mattress. Nobody ever payed much attention to his room and after his mother disappeared and he was sent to live with his aunt in West Virginia nobody payed any attention to him at all.

Walter had grown into a tall, lanky, quiet youth. He wasn’t too quick, but he was fast, and he had some stamina. At first, he did well in math, which made his teachers like him and the other kids stay even further away.

He was still making his graphs, and his bell curves, but he had stopped coloring in the green tail on the right hand side. His mind began thinking more and more about the red end to the left and began to rejoice as his marks were drifting lower and lower, moving in that direction.

Finally, one summer he decided to take the plunge. He began thinking more and more about a little gas station out on the highway. A dirt road ran to the east from his aunt’s trailer and was separated from the gas station by a wide, flat, corn field. He was tall, fast, and though it was wide he knew he could run across that field in less than five minutes.

A girl from his high school worked out there on the weekends. Her parents owned the place. She was a senior and a cheerleader and everybody knew who she was though Walter was sure she had no idea who he was.

All Walter had to do was wait until the corn had grown higher than his head.


He didn’t know where he was going, but Walter still ran through the corn. His pockets were stuffed with cash which seemed heavier than it should have been.

Walter realized that this must be what it felt like to be down in the red tail of the bell curve. Lost, running, desperate. This wasn’t what he expected but he wasn’t sure if it was what he wanted. He did know that now he was there, down in the red tail, that he was there for good.

Got Pupusa?

It was Thursday and time for the second of the Patio Sessions down at Sammons Park in front of the Winspear Opera House. Last week I took a lot of photographs (here, here, and here) and didn’t feel like doing that again. Viewing life through a viewfinder is not the best way to see things.

I did take my camera, just in case, but I loaded my Kindle, Moleskine, and selected a vacuum filler Parker “51” with a fine nib and Parker Quink black ink (my best note-taking combination – the “51” has an amazingly smooth fine nib, perfect for the Moleskine) and decided ahead of time I’d get something to eat from a food truck, commandeer a table, and relax – read and write a little.

I left work and caught the DART train downtown from the station near my office. The weather was cloudy and windy, but overall not too bad for Texas. I was happy when I saw they had a food truck that, not only had I never eaten at before – but it was also one I had wanted to check out. I was glad I at least brought my camera… have to get photos of food trucks.

It was Dos Paisano’s – a fairly new truck that promised Salvadorian fare. I’m a big fan because it is food that is similar to what I ate in High School in Nicaragua (I love banana-wrapped tamals)… plus pupusas.

Jacob Metcalf opened with a mellow acoustic set. The sound system is such that the music can be heard clearly from anywhere under the massive Winspear sunscreen so I went ahead and bought a pupusa plate and a bottle of water and settled down on a table, listening to the music and reading, just as I had planned. The food was very good. Now I need to track that truck down and try their plantains, yucca, and tamals.

The second musical act was The O’s – a neo-country duo singing upbeat folksy music using a banjo, a slide guitar, a foot pounded bass drum, and a bit of a goofy-corny sense of humor. I enjoyed them a lot though they had to deal with the pealing church bells, just like last week.

The crowd was quite a bit bigger than last week and the concert was sort of impaired by a large group of little kids that kept running around the reflecting pool, yelling and splashing. I know I shouldn’t complain – my kids were as big a pain as anyone’s – but I know how it works. To a parent there is nothing as attractive as their own children and nothing as amusing as their antics. You could see the proud mothers and fathers smiling broadly at the edges of the reflecting pool, out for an evening with their blankets, plastic wine glasses, and massive strollers. What is tough to do is to constantly remind yourself that not everybody thinks the way you do – as a matter of fact, nobody else thinks your kids are cute. You’re the only ones.

The Patio Sessions are not too long, at seven thirty everything was over. I gathered up my stuff and caught the train back home.

I have been working through this huge ebook of noir short stories, The Best American Noir of the Century. I kept reading on the train, coursing through a fascinating bit of fiction by Harlan Ellison called Mefisto in Onyx. Even with Ellison’s occasional overwrought chunk of prose here and there it’s a crackerjack story and sucked me in enough to have me look up and realize I had gone a stop too far. I had to get off the train and wait for another southbound to get me back to where my car was. I don’t like waiting around on a dark train station platform that I’m not familiar with… but there was some illumination from a streetlight and at least I was able to finish the harrowing story.

And it was very good.

The Dos Paisano's Salvadorian/Mexican fusion food truck. Look for it in your neighborhood.

Got Pupusa?

Ordering food from the Dos Paisano's Truck.

My pupusa order with a lot of red and (spicy) green sauce.

Also in the photo is my Kindle and its custom made case.

The top half of the Dos Paisano's Menu.

The bottom half of the menu. I'm going to have to go back.

I like that this song mentions Tietze Park – a Dallas sort of place. My bus drove by there on the way to work for years. I would look for its signature bent over tree  (I think it’s a “kneeling” bois d’ arc )every day. It was voted the best place to break up in the city. There’s even a song about it  by the band Elkhart- video performed at the Belmont, of course.

The amazing view of Downtown Dallas from the Belmont.