Microsoft Rewards – Your Story Matters

If you use Bing as a search engine, you accrue what are called “Microsoft Points” — get enough, and you can redeem them for gift cards, things like that. Recently, I got a prompt from Microsoft:

“Your story matters to us. We love getting to know our fans! Just click in the section that’s most relevant to your favorite Microsoft story, and tell us all about it. To thank you for sharing, we’ll award you 500 bonus points!”

Never one to turn down an opportunity, I decided to take part. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a good Microsoft story, so I wrote this one instead:

Once I went down to the dog pound to find a dog to bring home with me as a gift to my young son, who wanted nothing more in the world than a dog of his own to cuddle and play with. I found the right dog on the second floor of what can only be called an enormous doggie prison, where so many poor animals were crammed together in tiny cages, the weakest shivering in the back corners while the strongest and proudest rattled the bars and nuzzled small, dented metal cups ahead of them, waiting for the smallest charity.

I saw my son’s future friend in the last cage I visited, huddled with two doggie friends and communicating in hurried and desperate doggie whispers. “Woof,” they whispered. “Woof woof woof…” Their eyes flitted to and fro, and I knew that this was no normal doggie whispering, that I had, in fact, stumbled upon a doggie prison break.

Well, my own father had been a corrections officer, and he’d been stabbed to death during an attempted prison break, and I never forgot the look in my mother’s eyes when she heard the terrible news. “No…” she mouthed, as tears ran down her porcelain cheeks.

Cruel memory causing me the deepest pain, I dropped to my knees, shouted “NO! NEVER AGAIN!” and pointed right at the ringleader. “THIS IS THE DOG! THIS ONE! I SHALL ADOPT THIS ONE!” That dog turned toward me, horrified, then looked back at his fellows. They all froze, caught. My sneer pulled up into a smile of triumph. One of the guards came over, opened the door, and wrestled that treacherous pooch out of the cage. His friends were too weak to put up much of a struggle, and I was assured that they would both be put down within the week, leaving them no real time to pull together a new plan, particularly without the smart one to help them along.

My son loved that dog, but the dog never warmed to him. It even bit him once, and while my son hoped that I would have mercy, the truth was that I never trusted that damn dog, anyway. He was bitter in a way that good dogs just aren’t. I drove him up the highway one night, and left him in the woods. As I opened the door to my car and slipped behind the wheel, a flash of lightning illuminated a grizzly bear as it loomed over that dog. I heard a yelp, and I knew that nature had solved the problem for me.

Anyway, I used a Microsoft computer to look up the address of that pound. And my son used a Microsoft computer to post on message boards about his missing dog.

Walt Disney of the Amphetamine Age

I had reached a point in my fame at which party attendance was no longer mandatory to sustain my mystique. It was a strange position. After years of cocktails and small, empty talk with would-be artists about the maddening circular logic of the world, all that was left for me was to sit in the dusty corners of my studio, dreaming of projects that would never be.

Once, I picked up a newspaper, and I read that there would be a party at the Statue of Liberty. Intrigued, I began to dress, but midway through my preparations, I received word from the gossip sites that I was already there. My presence already confirmed, there was nothing to do but get back to work, and so my evening jacket slid from my shoulders and before it hit the ground I was sitting in front of a canvas that would remain blank for the rest of my days.

Sometime later, I was alerted to an exhibition of my work at one of the small, hip galleries that had begun to dot the downtown landscape: sad, white spaces filled with cardboard boxes painted lavender and repurposed sewer grates and rain gutters sprayed chrome silver that glinted in harsh fluorescent light. It seemed odd that my simple paintings would be of interest to the half-mad proprietors of these over-hyped storage spaces, but what was even more perplexing was that the work on display was advertised as brand new, when, in fact, every last bit of it had been completed and shown a decade before. As I stood before the open door and scratched my head at the “ooh”s and “aah”s of the growing crowd, someone tapped my shoulder. I turned and faced an art critic who’d interviewed me a number of times over the years.

“Isn’t it wonderful,” he asked, “that this work would debut here? That after all his success, he’s still willing to work with small galleries? The man is a treasure.”

I smiled and nodded, and as the critic pushed his way into the tiny space, I looked over my right shoulder at a sandwich board next to the door, which prominently featured my face.

I returned to my studio, to find a message left for me — a note thanking me for my contribution to a charity auction, and declaring that surely a new piece by someone of my stature would bring in a great deal of money for the foundation. Enclosed with the note was a photograph of the man who’d sent it, standing next to the first piece I’d ever sold, a piece that I’d long thought lost, hung as it had been on the walls of an old Tudor destroyed in a terrible storm. I called the number at the top of the letterhead, confused, and I asked to speak to the gentleman.

When I identified myself, I was told that it was quite impossible for me to be me, as I was already there, in the office, speaking to the man I wished to speak to. The voice at the other end of the line wished me a good day and hung up.

Quite impossible though it may have been, I made my way down to the foundation to confront myself. The foundation in my sights, I squared my shoulders and marched to the door. As I entered, I glanced, casually, at one of the television screens in the lobby, which was turned to a cable news station. Breaking News was announced in large, red letters. It seems I had died, the victim of a sudden cardiac event. I felt sweat along my brow; I couldn’t remember the last time I’d experienced that sensation, and my knees felt weak, and suddenly the light through the glass panes that lined the office was very bright. I sat in one of the lobby chairs, sank into the cushion, and wiped my brow.

A man in shirtsleeves and a red vest noticed me from his position behind the information desk, and came to check on me.

“Are you all right, sir?”

I looked at the television screen, and then I looked at him and said, “To tell you the truth, I’m not certain.”

He looked at the television screen, too, and then returned his attention to me. “Yes, it’s a shame when a man like that dies. It’s difficult to process that even someone so influential is ultimately just a person.”

A recently photo of me flashed across the screen. The man in the vest asked, “Did you know him? Or were you a fan?”

“A little of both,” I said.

I undid the top button of my shirt. “I’m feeling a bit peckish. Can you bring me a glass of water?”

“I already have, sir,” he replied. “It’s on the table next to you.”

I looked at the table. The glass was there, but it was nearly empty. I lifted my fingers to my lips. They were moist, though I didn’t recall licking them. The news announced a memorial service in my honor.

Bad-Dream Bogarts on the Far Ledge of Existence

Six thick shots ran through the trunk of the man, and Harlan fell over like he’d stumbled, toppled and spilled his guts all over the linoleum, his mouth leaking his last words—”Johnny, it was Johnny”—before the light went out in his pale blue eyes, not blue anymore, but gray, gray as the metal along the edge of his scuffed revolver. The gun lay unused at the corner of small poker table to the side of the room.

“Boom,” Larpoll mouthed. The plosive bounced lightly from the back wall. The hallway was dark and cavernous, and Larpoll sighed, relieved that there was, inevitably, an end.

The day had been long, and it stank of final exertions. Larpoll had watched the final, desperate actions of four separate men; each one had reached for him at the last moment, each one further from him than the previous one until he might as well have been killing them via remote.

Every bloated, wheezing corpse had fallen across his path like a soft, fetid brick, aging Chinese take-out and the huff of poor circulation choking life’s cool, clean breeze. Larpoll stepped around Harlan and walked further into the guts of the dusty house, empty but for the rustle and skitter of beetles along the cellar floor. And underneath them? Maybe the real prize.

He hadn’t been in the seeking game long; just a few days before, he’d been content to work odd jobs and eke out an existence prize-free. But then the dame was on him, and his mouth was dry and the sweat slithered down his back and he had no other choice.

“She’s gonna turn on me,” he thought, and not without cause; the first thing she’d said to him when they lay beaded and still was “I left Billy by the side of the road,” and while Larpoll was hooked on the adrenaline, he for damn sure wasn’t dumb. She talked about that basement long and descriptive enough for him to build the scene in his mind: he was crouched over a trap door with an ornate latch decorated with the devil’s grin, and he lifted it, and whatever was inside glowed bright, bright enough to illuminate the cellar, the walls hung with memories—diplomas, awards, photos of lighter times—, and then behind him he heard a pistol cock, and “I’m sorry it has to be this way, Stu,” and she looked him hard in the eyes and even though he was convinced there was some love there, the money was hers, and he braced himself for the exit wound.

Instead, she’d taken one right between the eyes and the back of her head disappeared, and so there was only Larpoll, moving inexorably forward, playing out the beats of a story that had no end, each killing preordained and strangely colorless, the grue faded under the dim light of obligation.

But Larpoll had come to the house armed with more than just his sidearm; he’d also brought along hope—the hope that there rested, just out of the reach of the Reaper’s fingers, the salvation of wealth; that ultimately, once he’d bagged her forgotten prize, he’d be free of this mess and be able to move on, to the next town, to the next dame, to the next score—to a proper ending.

The cellar was too dim for him to be certain it was as he’d pictured it, but the walls were not bare—he could tell that much, though whether they were decorated with glory or shame was anyone’s guess. The air was stale, and sound didn’t carry. The further he traveled, the deeper the black became, until he was on his hands and knees, groping at the floorboards, sweeping scores of insects aside with his hands.

At the back of the room, Larpoll saw a single shard of light, and he dragged himself toward it. The latch sparkled, and it lifted much more easily than he’d anticipated. The real struggle had been hers, and with her gone, all that remained was to lift the trap door. A smirk hanged his mouth; he was ready for his prize.

There was no glow, and no promise. It was just another deep, black hole.

Forrest’s Last Call

Forrest’s motorcycle roared to attention with the same force it did every morning, 5am, on the nose. He kept his machine in top shape, spent every evening tweaking it, oiling it, finding any little thing that was out of place and making it right. The motorcycle was his pride, sure and powerful—the one thing in his life that remained dependable.

He patted the deep red casing and winced; his neck was stiff, and pain shot up his legs, legs he’d tried so often and for so long to build into the mighty trunks he’d envisioned as a younger man. He’d finally given up. He forced the corners of his lips—wince to smile.

“The Lord ain’t gave me the raw material to be a strong-legged man,” he’d say. And he moved faster on that bike of his than he ever could on thicker legs, that’s for damn sure.

He worked himself onto the seat, slowly. He had trouble lifting his legs as high as he needed to, the joints of his hips rusty, neglected, without a full range of comfortable motion. His back groaned something unholy as he settled his ass into the new upholstery. He pulled a red handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped the chill morning dew from the side-views.

Forrest’s bones lay unsettled, rattled beneath the bike’s strong breath. He’d been pushing himself to adapt to this new sensation—jes’ gettin’ old, get used to it like anything else—but a couple weeks had passed, and it felt just as jarring as it had the first day.

Forrest had called up Doc Snyder, refused to give his name, but asked about the next available appointment.

“Dr. Snyder won’t be back in the office until next Tuesday. I can get you in to see Dr. Reginald tomorrow morning, if you’d like.”

“Shitfire and hellstones,” Forrest muttered. “No, that ain’t necessary. I’ll wait for Snyder next week I guess…”

“Is this Mr. Forrest?” the receptionist asked. “Mr. Forrest, do—“

Forrest hung up. Reginald was an officious little shit with no bedside manner. Forrest refused to see him. And every goddamned time he called in for Snyder, which wasn’t that often, mind—I’m gettin’ damn old but I ain’t infirm—, the man was on vacation. “I got ten fuckin’ years on Snyder, maybe more, and I don’t take vacation but once in three years, if that.”

Forrest’s weakening legs screamed again, and he tried to massage good intentions back into the flesh with his gnarled, rocky hands. He settled on tying his handkerchief around his thigh—no easy task through waves of arthritis—and hoping the pressure would still the pain by the time he reached the mill.

He sped down the road full tilt, speed limit a distant memory. Forrest had no illusions about the danger; he courted it openly. He held tight to the bars and leaned forward, the pain in his leg a deep throb pushed further down by blazing speed. The years peeled back. In the glint of the side-view, Forrest caught a glimpse of his darkening hair. His wiry eyebrows found self-control.

Faster, he thought, I can move faster, I can move… His legs grew, muscles swelled, his jeans burst; heavier now, his legs couldn’t help but apply speed… he almost floated over the curves that softened the ragged landscape. Forrest’s blood slid through his body, crab’s blood over a pot of organs, and his heart no longer beat, it sprouted wings and fluttered through his chest, hummingbird speed.

A ray of sun peeked through the cluster of trees that loomed over him, twisted like his old bones, no, not his, the bones of an older Forrest, one who ached for heights that he could no longer attain. This Forrest, motorcycle sprouting from his crotch, knew no such limitations. The crack in the trees widened. The sky was bright. Branched shadows raked Forrest’s face, one last grasp before they disappeared into the coming light of day. In the distance, but near enough to rattle his bones one final time, Forrest heard the sound of steel through the trees and watched as broken embers floated ever upward.

A Quick Note On Kobe Bryant

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Photo credit: Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times

I moved to Los Angeles late in the summer of 2001, and I chose to place my basketball fandom in the hand of the Lakers. At the time, the Clippers were perennially terrible, they were owned by a disgusting lizard man, and I felt perfectly comfortable accepting the shouts of “bandwagon!” that would inevitably come my way once I’d hitched my trailer to a team that had just won two straight championships and was marching toward its third. It was during this period that I came to love Shaq and Kobe, came to really appreciate Phil Jackson, and also won money from some moron who thought the Jason Kidd–led New Jersey Nets could win a game against the Laker juggernaut.

I’ve been a consistent Laker supporter since, and Kobe was the constant. Shaq left, Karl Malone and Gary Payton came and went, Pau Gasol came and went, Phil went and came back and went again, and I even got to experience The Immortal Smush Parker, punchline of the stars.

I was at a bar in Hollywood last night, watching Kobe Bryant’s final game, when Smush himself came in wearing a finely tailored grey suit, a tasteful wristwatch, and dark-brown alligator shoes. The only stool open at the bar was next to me. Smush sat down, set his briefcase on the bar, and motioned for the bartender.

“Martini, please. Gin.” He slid an American Express black card across the bar. “And keep ’em coming.” He sighed, and turned toward the television screen.

I took a pull off my lime and soda. I’d been on the wagon for six years, and even a celebratory occasion like Kobe Bryant’s final game wasn’t enough to force me off. But I liked the ambiance of the bar, and the food was good.

Kobe hit a weird, off-balance floater over two defenders. Smush chuckled.

“Man, that one takes me back,” he said. I don’t know that he was talking to anyone in particular. He sucked down his first martini. There was another waiting for him. “I hate that sonuva bitch, but some of the shit he makes is just fuckin’ unreal.” He looked at me. “You ever been to China?”

I told him I hadn’t.

“Well, I just got back from China, on business. Balled over there a bit, too. In China, they love Kobe Bryant. I don’t know what it is. What’s Kobe Bryant got to do with China? But they love him.” He took down half of his second martini. “Look, I made my peace with this a long time ago. Or I thought I did. But I guess… some things you never quite get over.”

“You stay in touch with any of the old NBA guys?” I asked. I wasn’t sure where to take the conversation. I chose not to out myself as a Laker fan.

“Some, yeah. Marbury’s a big star in China now. Big star. Down to earth guy. More humble than you’d expect. We play cards when I’m over there. He owes me, but I’m not lookin’ to collect. It’s all friendly.” The martini in his hand was full again, suddenly.

Kobe missed a 3-point attempt. Smush nodded, and smirked.

“You look like you’re doing pretty well. Why even worry about it?” I asked.

“I’m doing well now. There was a time I wasn’t. I mean, I was in the NBA, so yeah, I was doing all right, but it’s tough going from a place where you’re one of the best to a place where you’re… not.” He swirled his drink around the glass. “Kobe kinda kicked me while I was down. He didn’t need to do that.” He popped an olive in his mouth and took another sip. “There’s never any good reason to be rude.”

Kobe calmly nailed another shot. What I’d assumed would be a shitty game surrounded by a giant, cheesy lovefest was turning into something a lot more fun. Smush brushed some dust from his briefcase, which had clearly cost him a pretty penny. He looked great. But he also looked a little drained, and empty. We didn’t talk much after that. We just watched.

Kobe finished the game with 60 points on 50 shots. It was the perfect Kobe game—a microcosm of his career.

After the game, the bar emptied out. Smush and I stayed and watched the post-game festivities. The sound on the television remained off. As Kobe mouthed his farewell address, Smush turned to me.

“People are going to talk about this for years. There’ll be arguments. People who love Kobe, people who hate Kobe… they’ll each stake out their territory. ‘He scored 60 points!’ ‘It took 50 shots!’ ‘Yeah, but they won!’ ‘The game was meaningless!’ It’ll go back and forth, forever. It’ll give a lot of people a charge.”

Smush drained his final martini of the night. He’d had more than a few, but he looked stone cold sober to me.

“But me?” he said. “I hope I never have to hear about it again.” He took his briefcase off the bar and left.

I stuck around and read the subtitles on the screen. “Mamba out,” Kobe said. I motioned to the bartender, and almost ordered a gin martini. Instead, I just closed out my tab.

Skulls in the Strangest Places

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Photo copyright Manuel Chavarria, 2016.

 

I took a train up to North Hollywood today to visit my barber, who cuts hair out of her house, because the sheer force of her personality cannot be contained by any mere salon or barber shop. In addition to working as a freelance barber, she works on movie sets, and is very much into horror. The walls of her apartment are covered in horror art and special effects masks, and so when I sit in her barber’s chair, I have trouble keeping my head straight, because what I really want to do is gawk at the weird faces and look at her book shelf. Even the bathroom features a plaque with a prosthetic mouth that has been sewn shut on it.

I’m used to that being my world when I’m in Kelly’s barber chair, but what I’m not used to is that world bleeding out into the area outside of her building, which is primarily quiet and residential and not at all tinged with Kelly’s predilections. Today, however, before I made the turn onto her street, I saw a giant skull lying in a small, fenced-off area.

The area bound by the fence could not have been more than 8ft x 8ft. My questions weren’t limited to the origins of the skull; what purpose could this tiny, fenced-off parcel of land serve? Is it specifically a strange altar for this smiling, jowly pink skull? Or was it to be a small park before it was usurped by the forces of darkness?

I didn’t have much time before my appointment, but I had to know, so I hopped the fence and looked down into the deep purple eyes of the skull. It was probably a leftover from Day of the Dead, but why was it still there?

“Why are you still here?” I asked the skull. A curious dog had wandered to the fence, a schnauzer, and it let out a small bark as I moved closer to the death’s head. Dogs, we’ve all been told, react adversely to the presence of the supernatural, but besides the bark, the schnauzer barely moved, simply tilting its head and watching me as I crouched, and my hand moved across the surprisingly smooth and warm forehead of the skull, and the eyes of the thing held mine, and its jaw seemed to loosen and I knew it was about to reveal its secrets to me. I leaned in, my ear close to the blood-red teeth. A fetid odor rose around me, and the schnauzer was on its hind legs, forelegs up on the fence, black eyes sparkling.

My phone rang. Kelly wanted to know if I’d gotten lost.

“No.” I cleared my throat. “I just stopped to pet a dog.”

I stood up and hopped back over the fence. I scratched the schnauzer behind the ears, and it licked my hand. It barked a cheerful bark, looked at the skull once more, then trotted away.

When Kelly opened her door, she looked paler than usual, and her eyes were sunken and red.

“I didn’t get much sleep,” she said. “It’s been real hot in here some nights. And smelly, sometimes. And one of my masks is missing. But it doesn’t look like anyone broke in.”

An empty plaque stood out on the wall.

“What’s with that skull out there?” I asked. “The one that’s fenced off. I don’t remember seeing that before.”

“It’s new. I just noticed it the other day. City’s been talking about putting one of those ‘take a book, leave a book’ libraries in that space, but it never happens. I have some books I want to get rid of.” She handed me a copy of J.-K. Huysmans’s Là-bas. “Want one?”

I stuck the book in my jacket pocket. “Sure.” Then I took my jacket off and sat down. Kelly coughed, and opened her blinds. Sunlight poured into the room and glinted pink along the edge of her barber’s shears. I could not see her eyes.

Tall Neighbor

Just after the Dallas Mavericks win the 2011 NBA Championship, Mavericks center Tyson Chandler—a friendly, gregarious sort, large and good-natured—moves to the suburbs with his wife and three young children to live out his days in relative peace after a 10-year professional basketball career. Upon arriving at his new home in suburban Dallas, he learns, much to his surprise and delight, that his next-door neighbor is his former Mavericks coach, Rick Carlisle. Carlisle is whip-smart and hard-nosed, a good man, though an inveterate curmudgeon—very much Chandler’s opposite.

This is the premise of Tall Neighbor, a sadly underrated sitcom that ran for three, 10-episode seasons on the ABC Network in the early 2010s. Every Thursday night, a small but dedicated audience tuned in to see in what hilarious ways Tall Neighbor would irritate Grumpy Coach that week, before the two men retired to the Rec Room to parse out the ways in which their daily struggles compared to the court. In the end, it seems, basketball was simply preparation for life.