Thursday, December 26, 2013

Gazed In Wide Wonder



There’s a break in the cornfields off highway 57 that is filled with pre-fab apartments, car dealerships, and run down strip malls.  Five lanes of traffic chaotically battle in a race with no finish line.  Potholed streets lined with weeds lead to a myriad of driveways where cars anchor in a sea of asphalt.  Just shy of a half-mile from the freeway is the grandest of these driveways flowing into a vast, grey landscape in front of a low-slung cinderblock mall.  There are countless flower pots scattered near the main entrance, which is a large white stucco structure with a sizeable Frank Lloyd Wright inspired decoration above the doors.  As you enter, there is a jewelry store and a candy shop.  Continue to the right until you find the electronic store where I’m standing in the window.

I’m reorganizing the cell phone display, again, per instructions from headquarters.  The store is a cluttered cavern of diodes, adapters, and transistors in stark contrast to the other sleek, white retailers.  The store manager watches porn on his tablet as he runs reports and gets his marching orders from corporate; the same faceless entity that tells me to rearrange the shelves.  Rows and rows, columns and columns of cheap products with high margins.  Low-quality plastic molded into every shape and color.  A variety of brands all manufactured at the same sweatshop.

On the other side of the window is a young woman.  Her face is pressed against the glass and she’s dressed in black.  She waves at me excitedly.  It’s Anabelle and she runs in to give me a hug.  I feign a smile as I stand surrounded by merchandise waiting to be shelved.  I’m silent as she babbles about everything at once.  She always looks up and to her left, avoiding eye contact, when she talks. My hands are in the pockets of my boring uniform khakis and I glance toward the ground.  I’m engulfed in plastic goods destined for the landfill in the near future.

“Whatcha doin’ workin’ here?  I’d think ya’d hate bein’ inna place like this,” Anabelle states while looking around like she’s hoping to find an answer somewhere.

“Well, I gotta pay da bills somehow, right?”  Anabelle just stares at me as I lightly tap a charger with my foot.

“Yer not payin’ any bills with this job.  Do ya even make eight an hour?  Hmm?  Didn’t think so.  Yer comin’ with me ta get lunch: my treat.  ‘Nd leave that ugly shirt here.”  She skips to the food court as I toss the polo shirt onto the pile of junk and follow her.  We grab a couple slices from a stand - a red neon bordello of grease.  Spoiled fat kids gluttonously cram pizza into their sauce-covered mouths.

“Where da hell are we?” Anabelle asks.  Strange question since I followed her here.

“Uh…  Da mall.” I reply sounding a bit confused.

“I know that.  I mean, is there anythin’ here that’s unique ‘nd tells ya what city we’re in?  Or that we’re even in da Midwest?”  It just seems like a normal mall to me.

“Umm…  Whatcha lookin’ fer?”  I’m still trying to figure out the question.

“This looks like every damn mall I’ve ever been ta.  It could be New York or Mississippi.  Or it could be Georgia or California.  If ya were blindfolded ‘nd brought only ta malls ‘cross ‘merica, I bet ya never be able ta tell where ya were.  Do ya see anythin’ ya’d only find in this miserable town?”  I see chain stores in beige boxes.  There are elderly people slowly passing fake plants.  The same teenagers you see everywhere stand around a kiosk pimping sunglasses.  But, I can’t find anything to indicate my specific location on mother earth. 

“Hmm…” I think for a bit, “I never noticed that before.  We really could be anywhere right now.”

“Or nowhere,” she retorts as she dumps a tray of garbage.  We wonder down the sterile corridors passing shops tended by bored adolescents on smartphones.  Every square inch of sales floor is intensely lit.  A group from a nursing home speed by on power scooters.  There’s an occasional uncomfortable bench in the middle of the hallway.  We are stuck behind people walking so slowly that we barely move.  We are impatient to get around them even though we have no place to go.

Anabelle grabs my arm suddenly and stops.  I look to see what’s wrong.  Staring intently toward the atrium, she blurts out, “Oh.  My.  God!  We gotta see what’s goin’ on over there!”  In front of the boxy fountain that looks like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, are two middle-aged men in Hawaiian shirts.  The skinny guy is jamming on his acoustic as if he is Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock.  The large gentleman pounds on his keyboard and emotionally serenades a Kenny Loggin’s song or something.  Everyone walks by as if we are the only people who can see them.

Anabelle starts dancing when they play Elvis’ Jailhouse Rock.  She’s probably the first person to gyrate her hips in this uptight suburb.  Unsuccessfully, Anabelle invites me to dance with her.  She dances as if everybody is looking at her and they are.  The song ends and Anabelle runs up to the smiling musicians.  There’s some discussion, flirting, and somehow she ends up with their microphone.

“I’M DA SEXY SPIRIT OF DA CLEARANCE RACK!” Anabelle bellows followed by laughter and a bluesy beat on bass.  The collar on her worn leather coat is flipped and her black jeans look like they commute regularly to hell and back.  I watch the shoppers as they gather at the developing spectacle.  What is she thinking?  Proving she doesn’t care what anyone thinks, her raspy little voice begins to wale:

“On da day I was born
Da nurses gathered 'round
‘Nd they gazed in wide wonder
At da joy they had found
Da head nurse spoke up
Said ‘leave this one ‘lone’
She could tell right ‘way
That I was bad ta da bone”

Anabelle fell to her knees and was gradually working into a rage.  Her voice becoming louder and more graveled.  “’Nd when I walk da streets, kings ‘nd queens step aside!”  The mall’s complete attention is on Anabelle as she crashes onto her back.  “B-B-B Bad!  Bad ta da bone!”  She winds-up motionless on the dingy white tile to a smattering of surprised applause.  George Thorogood’s soul was in that mall courtyard. 

Anabelle raises her hand and I walk over to pull her off the ground.  She gives the mic to the keyboardist, “Thanks guys.  That was a lotta fun.  See ya!”

“Nice singin’,” I tease.  “What made ya do that?”

“Aww, thanks.  Just thought one interestin’ thing had ta happen here today.  Let’s get outta here.”

“Didja do whatcha came out here fer?”  I never asked her why she was at the mall in the first place.  Anabelle usually makes all her purchases as garage sales, consignment shops, and thrift stores.

“Nah, but I did somethin’ better.”  I’ll accept that answer and head for the exit.





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Saturday, December 21, 2013

For Mr. Spector


By Elizabeth Dunphey

You have the most gorgeous voice I have ever heard, this man told me once, as he was walking up the steps of his apartment, groceries in hand.

His name was Jason Kerrigan, music lawyer. 

It was 1978, and I was standing outside my stoop with three or four of my seventeen year old friends, humming a few chords from Neil Young’s  “Lotta Love.”   It was an atypical choice.  My stunning raven haired Spanish friends all liked disco.

 But to hear this smooth and easy pop 1970’s number off my bee stung lips shocked Jason.  I was his girl. 


I often played a Motown song in my room, and fervently dreamed of meeting Phil Spector on a big break.  Phil Spector liked classy types.

The first girl was Ronnie, and the second girl was Lana.  The two poles of light and dark.  Lana Clarkson was the blonde.  That came later, in the 90’s though. That vibrant, posh looking, honey hair, the bright blue eyes and perfect teeth.  Miss America, basically.   

As for Ronnie Spector?  She was pure East Coast: just listen to “Be My Baby.”  She wore this thick jet mascara and her dark hair, Cherokee in origin, rippled down her back.   I loved her coolness. 

Ron loved Phil.  Her boy genius, with his glasses and studio.  And Phil loved her, deeply, maybe because of her voice, or her beauty, but he did, in a way that only pain could express at the end.
Back to 1978, Harlem.

Jason Kerrigan was half besotted when he asked my name.

“Bianca, huh?”  He wiped his eyeglasses. I noticed his eyes at once. Brown eyes.  I liked them.  “Like Bianca Jagger?”

“I wish!” I cooed.  “I’m just plain old Bianca Marcella, from Spanish Harlem.”

“You’re prettier.  How old are you?”

“Eighteen.”

Then I turned on my booted heels and ran away.  I just ran.  I fled from the feelings I could feel at once for him.  Despite his paunch, the glasses, the hair a touch salt n’ pepper.  I felt something.  And that mattered.

Maybe I’ll give you a contract!  Jason cried cheerfully to my receding figure.  The spring light glowed amber over the skyscrapers.

Right. I’ve got community dance tomorrow!  I shouted calmly back, running to my home, next door.

So, this community dance.  
This is how I got ready for the prom held in a hotel in midtown: hours.

I took a hot iron and flattened waves of my ebony hair to my hips.   It was silk.  Then I slipped on a green faux Halston, and under that Diane Ross style lingerie, straight out of Mahogany.  I hoped they played the Bee Gees that night.  And SOS Band.  Andrea True Love.  And maybe even a few folky choices, like Todd Rundgren.  I doubted that though.

As for the boy who took me, he was nobody and I felt nothing.  He was doing his duty.
Iago, I hissed.  We stood on the 6 train subway, and I leaned against his shoulder. He loved me a bit more, than I liked him.   In the car, I could see a reflection of us and our youthful Latin perfection.  Iago Lucio in a beige suit with a red bow tie.  And my slithery green dress with an orange yellow flower in my lush raven hair.
 
Later that night, after the dancing, the friends, the drinks, and the platonic kiss on the cheek, I raced home to her apartment to tell Jason.

Jason was waiting outside on the stoop. Waiting for me.  Waiting for us.

It was 11:00 pm at night.  I supposed he wanted to see my filmy beautiful prom dress.  He was dressed very 1970’S sleazy lawyer, in a silky disco button down blue shirt and amber cordoroys.  No eye glasses.
“Hey you” I crowed, spinning in a circle before him.  “Take a look!”

I was blushing.

“Say, Bianca, would you care to join me for a cocktail in Westchester.  I have a home there.  Well, Diane does.”

“Sure,” I gulped, not thinking, putting my house key back in my jean purse.

“Mind if I wear this dress?”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Jason  brought me back to Westchester, to his wife's pad.  They were always, always  fighting.  She was like ice to me though, on the occasions I had seen her.  Be it stress or gene pool, she had matured.

The place was a mansion actually, and the scent of that frosty WASPiness permeated everywhere.  From pictures, the lady -- Diane Brett -- was a rich English woman, and quite good looking, in that cold way.

Drink bourbon, he sighed.  You must.  Do it!

He played some songs on his piano all throughout the balmy spring night.  I let the strap of my green gown slip.  My dusky olive skin exposed at the shoulder, and he clearly noticed. It was an arresting difference in skin tone and I felt hot with the love Ronnie Spector had for Phil.  This moment was mine.

Halston, he said.  I recognize that from Diane’s closet.

And I smiled, saucy:

It's a fake Halston.

Oh, for you, my darling, only the best.  Perhaps, more to drink?

Stop plying me! I winced.

Sorry. He shrugged and said: I hate to seem so creepy older man.

We kissed in the light of a dim song by the Stones, and I rested my black maned head in his lap. I felt his love for me.  And I felt so in love with the moment I could die.  On his wooden wall was a poster of a model, with wavy blonde hair. 

Who’s that?

My first wife, Ali.  She was a model.  Midwestern girl.  Making a name for herself now.

It was nearly the 80's, when that look would rule and end the regime of Son of Sam stalked brunettes on the street.  The ethnic De Niro movies would die.  The street would simply fade.  It would end, all like this sultry warm night in June.

Goodbye, honey, he said to me, reaching to push back my damp hair.  I guess I’d like to take you home -- but I’m a bit drunk.

I tried not to look sad.
I can do it, I told him.  

I boarded the train from Westchester.  It was mostly isolated with a homeless lush on board.  I stood up firmly, when the spot hit the right destination.  Nobody was gonna mess with me.  My mascara was running.  I would have something to tell the girls.  I, the prettiest girl in the hood, had scored.

And yet I had to keep mute.

Walking against the blaze of skyscraper lights, I hummed the last tunes to Neil Young, and knew this was part of some electrifying memory, in the constellation of my life, one night at a time, somehow forever.


Elizabeth has modeled, written stories forever, and loves winter.  Read more of her in the Eunioa Review and Milk.


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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Just Don't See It



I slowly turn the handle of the back door and give it a gentle push.  It’s unlocked and it painfully creaks open.  The dark kitchen of this bungalow is wallpapered in flowers with the counter covered in fancy beer bottles.  It smells like marinara sauce and potatoes.  I see the dining room table is layered with dirty laundry and the TV is on mute.  There are a lot of consumer electronics.  I hear the tapping of plastic.  As I round the corner, there’s a large man built like a defensive end.  He’s in pleated khaki pants and a short-sleeved plaid shirt.  So focused on combing his short hair that he doesn’t notice me.  “Hey Paul, just droppin’ off yer car.”

“Oh, hey man.  Thanks!”  Paul maintains eye contact with himself in the mirror.  “Everythin’ go awright?”

Thank you fer loanin’ me yer car!” I reply.  He loves his car and I’m honored just to be trusted enough to drive it.  “It went as well as it could of.  Whatcha doin’?”

“Getting’ ready fer a date.”

“A date?!?  Good thin’ I returned yer car.  Anyone I know?”

“Jonathan from church.”

“Short, skinny guy with dark hair?”

“Yeah.”  He elongates his reply with a sense of victorious joy.

“First date?” 

“Yep.  ‘Nd we’re goin’ ta da Riverside fer dinner.”

“Then I’ll take off since yer busy.”

“Nah, I’ve gotta coupla hours.  Grab somethin’ from da fridge.”  So, I get some microbrews and crash on the couch.  Last night’s hockey game is replaying on the screen.  I can’t even tell you how many hours I’ve filled playing video games and shooting the shit with Paul over the years.   We met in high school not long after his dad died and was figuring out who he was.  I was an outsider for the reason my parents couldn’t afford brand name clothes.  With a little conditioning, both of us gained mean dispositions.  Our mutual angst brought us together and “safety in numbers” made us inseparable.  Paul fell into the recliner and asked, “Are ya happy ta be back home?”

“Well…  I didn’t really plan on it.  So, I really haven’t thought ‘bout it.” I said.  My sole goal as a kid was to get out of this town and here I am.

“Oh, you’ll like it.  So much has changed.”  Paul talks about this redneck town as if it were Paris.  “Lots of great new places.”

“Yeah, saw they bulldozed much of da main drag when I got inta town.”

“See!  This place is completely dif’rent than it useta be.  Do ya see it?  Most people ‘round here don’t.  Act like nothin’ changed.  That it’s da same town.  But, it’s not.  All da old stores are in new places.  ‘Nd we have coffee shops ‘stead of just old people diners.  Everythin’ that was old is gone.  But, people just don’t see it.”

“Maybe they just don’t see it as ‘change’ or better than before.”

“Whadya mean?”

“I dunno.  I mean, maybe things haven’t improved fer people here.  Ya go ta school ‘nd learn ta be obedient, loyal, ‘nd unquestionin.’  Ya follow da rules, do as yer told; yer suppose ta get ahead.  So, ya start yer life ‘nd da ugly ol’ factory is gone.  So are da good payin’ jobs yer parents ‘nd grandparents had.  What’s on the ol’ factory site?  Just a cell phone store ‘nd a coupla chain restaurants with less-than-minimum wage jobs and no benefits.  ‘Nd who profits from that?  So, ta just get a mediocre job where all ya do is push papers, ya hafta go ta college.  That means student loans ‘nd who profits from that?  So, ya graduate with tons of debt ‘nd are lucky if ya get a job yer overqualified fer.  Most likely underpaid ‘nd work like a dog ta make ends meet.  Who profits from that?  Ya need ta get a home ‘cause da landlord keeps jackin’ up da rent fer a tiny rundown apartment.  So, ya getta mortgage ‘nd who profits from that?  So, da company ya work fer wants better highways, airports, schools, ‘nd so on.  But, they don’t wanna pay fer it.  In fact, they threaten ta leave if we don’t giv’em tax breaks and subsidies just ta stay.  None of this is free.  So, how do they pay fer it?  By raisin’ taxes and fees on regular people that hafta pay from their shitty jobs.  ‘Nd who profits from that?  At da end of da month, ya have no money ‘nd ya hafta put groceries onna credit card payin’ 17% interest.  ‘Nd who profits from that?  ‘Nd that’s if it all goes well.  If ya have a car accident or health issue, well yer more valuable dead than alive.  ‘Nd we all know da only reason ya could be poor is yer stupid, right?  ‘Nd who profits from that?  In yer “golden years,” ya’d like ta retire.  But, yer pension was eliminated ‘nd Social Security keeps gettin’ cut.  So, just ta stay in yer home ‘nd not burden yer family, ya end up as a store greeter until yer body gives out.  ‘Nd who profits from that.  At least all yer hard work will better yer kids’ lives, right?  Well, hold on.  All them loans and credit card debts need ta be paid first.  If ya end up inna nursin’ home, how much of yer nest egg will be left after paying $6,500+ a month?  Certainly nothin’ fer da children ta inherit.  So, I can see why people don’t understand things are gettin’ better ‘cause da question really is: better fer who?”

“Nah, that ain’t it.  People just like ta complain.  This place is great ‘nd they just don’t see it.”  Who knows?  Maybe he’s right.

“Hey Paul, I’m gonna take off since yer date’s ‘bout ta arrive.  Good luck!”

“Okay man.  Thanks fer comin’ over ‘nd droppin’ off da car.”  I wondered down Hume Avenue heading toward the river.  Just a shadow on the street with nothing to do and nowhere to go.


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Saturday, November 9, 2013

Ramblin' Man



It took 20 minutes of sitting in an abandoned store to decide to come to this crummy town.  The only remarkable thing about this place is that people still live here.  Nothing but dollar stores and cookie cutter sprawl.  I turned down a road that is a labyrinth of identical houses on cul-de-sacs.  The only way to reach your destination is to remember to take the second street on the left and count four houses on the right.  A real residential “House of Mirrors.”  I pulled into a driveway and eventually knocked on the plastic door.  A disheveled, thin, old man answered the door in a tattered baby blue bathrobe.  He’s sickly and held onto everything for balance.  I tried to appear positive and failed when I said, “Hey Gran’pa.”

He’s alone.  Grandma been dead for quite a while.  A child of the Depression, he grinded himself into the ground at the factory to put his children through college.  It was that hard labor that exposed him to the carcinogens that gave him the kidney cancer he was diagnosed with two months ago.  He raised me and always seemed to know what he was doing.  It’s why I’m here.  It’s why it’s so difficult to realize there is no cure.

“How ya doin,’ pa?”  He stubbornly pushed me away when I tried to help him to his recliner. 

“Not bad.  Just threw up.  You?”  And, he honestly meant that he was doing alright.  “Find any work yet?”

“Eh.  I’ve had some leads, but nothin’ that’s panned out yet.”

“Ya need ta pound the pavement ‘nd knock on some doors.”

“It doesn’t work that way.  Ya hafta submit yer resume online ‘nd hope that yers gets selected instead of da hundreds of other chumps that apply.  ‘Nd, ya gotta hope that no one gets special treatment ‘cause they’re da bosses’ kid or friend too.”

“That’s why ya gotta get in their face.  Make ‘em tellya ‘no’ in person.”

“Alright.  Anyway, how are yer treatments?”  I changed the subject since he hasn’t applied for a job in over a half century.

“All dem goddamn pills make me sicker than a dog.  Can’t hold nothin’ down.  Not even soup.”  I looked over at the coffee table and it’s been transformed into a pharmacy. 

“Anythin’ I can help ya with?”

“Na.  Just havin’ company is good.  How’s that girl of yers doin?”

“Ah…  Alright, I guess.”  His head tilted forward with an inquisitive stare.

“Alright?  It’s never good when ya say it’s ‘alright.’”

“It’s fine.  Nothin’ ta bother ya with.”

“Bother?  What da hell else am I doin’?  What, ya got inta a fight?  Do somethin’ dumb?”

“Uh…  Yeah…  We kinda just broke up.”  Grandpa’s head leaned back in the chair.

“Sorry ‘bout that.  Sure ya don’t wanta go inta details.”  He always gets the same look in his eyes when something doesn’t work out for me.  It’s sympathy; not disappointment (which may be worse).  “So, where ya livin’ then?”

“I can probably stay on a friends couch ‘til I get a place.  Call in some favors.”

“So, ya don’t have anywhere ta go?  Where’s yer stuff?  Take one of my extra rooms.”

“Oh, I can’t do that?”

“Why not?  I ain’t usin’ ‘em.  ‘Nd it’s not gonna be pleasant with me fumblin’ ‘round the place.”

“Are ya sure?  How much doya want fer rent?”

“Be quiet.  I’m no landlord.”

“Well, I’ll do all da chores ‘nd all then.”

“No worries.  I gotta nurse fer that.”

“Then she can focus on taking care of ya instead of doin’ da dishes.”

“Ah…”  He dismissively waves his right hand at me.  “So, where’s yer junk?”

“In da car.”

“Go get it ‘nd bring it in while I go take my medicine.”  He got up, again refused assistance, and headed to the kitchen with pockets full of drugs.

In-and-out of the house.  Box after box stacked into the spare room until it looked like a storage unit.  I took a seat on the twin bed with its old plaid comforter.  It’s been a while since I’ve stayed in this room.  The dresser top is still full of knickknacks that span several decades.  The desk is dusty with a few reference books neatly aligned in the right corner.  There’s nothing on the crème colored walls.  The room would look like a set of an old movie if it weren’t for all my crap.

As I glanced out the window, a doe and two fawn emerged from the bushes.  The doe chewed on some flowers while the spotted fawn chased each other around.  I blankly stared at them darting around.  Where do they live?  There aren’t any woods or anything else natural for miles.  Ostracized by speeding traffic, barking dogs, and high fences.  How do they survive in this hostile environment?  They don’t belong here, but where else can they go?  And, as quickly as they appeared, they vanished.

Anyway, everything was unloaded and I was finished daydreaming.  I had to drop off the car.  As I passed the living room, I saw my grandpa sleeping in his chair.  I left him a note that said, “Thanks for letting me stay.  Dropping off the car.  Back in a while.  –Luke.”



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