From time to time, as a mental exercise or as a torch to ignite the bonfires of creativity, I sit down with a pen and notebook, let my mind go blank and just write. No plan, merely open the flood gates and let the stream of consciousness flow wherever it will, write down whatever comes to mind. I use pen and notebook because I could never type fast enough to keep up with my brain in overdrive.
Maybe John Lennon had the right idea, as he so often did.
From Tomorrow Never Knows: ‘Relax, turn off your mind and float downstream…’
And from Across The Universe: ‘Thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letter box. They tumble blindly as they make their way across the universe…’
With most people those ‘tumbling thoughts’ can quickly crash into a wall and expire. The stream of consciousness might dry up faster than the L.A. River in an August drought. But with a novelist used to turning out manuscripts that can run to more than 100,000 words, a daydream believer blessed with a vivid imagination and a passion for language, that stream of consciousness can easily turn into a swelling tsunami. The dam bursts, the doors of perception fly open and the page is suddenly filled with words. Sometimes the exercise doesn’t amount to much more than cute and clever wordplay or unusable gibberish.
At other times, however, the meandering thoughts coalesce into something else altogether and entire small worlds are created in the process. These three unconventional short stories—“At The Scorpion Motel”, “Sunset & Alvarado” and “Down By The River On Sunday Night”—grew out of that process: just write and see where the journey takes you. Go free form and full improv, like Coltrane, Mingus or Jaco. Occasionally it leads to pretty strange places; places like the Scorpion Motel in the Mojave Desert, the seedy Hotel Deveroux in Los Angeles or the Paradyce Club down by the river.
I’ve been asked: where do the places and people in these stories come from? How do you conjure them up? Who knows? Creativity is a mysterious and magical process, probably influenced subconsciously by everything from life experience, memory and cultural iconography to TV, music and literature and in my case by a long-held fascination with photography and cinematography. I visualize these places and characters in my mind and subsequently they appear on the page, like film negatives developed in a darkroom, scenes gradually coming into clear focus. Writing fiction of any kind is akin to a factory operation: raw materials come in from all over, are processed and synthesized, and finished product is created and exported. The pay isn’t very good but you can’t beat the benefits.
So dive into the stream, and try to keep your head above water…
Lil’ Bo-Peep is not particularly deep, no intellectual is she. But when she doffs her clothes and dances at the club—well, well, says Uncle Joe no relation—there’s the rub. Like a rooster crowing on a bright Easter morning or a distant early warning of the nuclear blast to come. Bo-Peep looks in the mirror on this morning and feels suitably impressed. Looks again, looks more closely, and is clinically depressed. Boo hoo and out the door with you. One foot in front of the other, as advised by mother. Mommy was a roundheels but served a square meal, taught Peep to borrow but never to steal.
The club is the Paradyce down by the waterfront, formerly the nautically-themed Up Periscope! and said to be a front, for the Russian mob or maybe the Armenians. Peter Paradyce your gruff but loveable host, some of the dancers ‘recruited’ from the Adriatic coast. Peter P a man of uncertain age and ethnicity, talks a good game though with a noticeable lack of specificity.
Bo Peep is no foreigner, no sir, but wholesome, all-American and the girl next-door, archetype of the sort for which besotted men have fought wars throughout recorded history. Welcome to The Peep Show: our superstar is certified Yankee doodle dandy, by far the favorite of every Tom, Dick and Randy and of the lesbian crew as well. If Bo-Peep leans one way or the other she isn’t one to kiss and tell.
The regulars are in attendance, sipping their usual drinks, exchanging subtle smirks and a series of coded winks. Smedley the writer occupies his familiar corner, surveying the joint with author eyes. Looks rather smug and superior but can’t avert his gaze from Lil’ Bo-Peep’s perfect lil’posterior. Lauded for his alcohol-recovery memoir “The Conquered Grape”, largely fictional, a cynical take. Smedley rarely imbibes anything stronger than iced tea. But if there’s a buck to be made and praise to be had, he’ll claim to have stumbled along skid row in the embrace of Old Grand-Dad. Dazzles one and all with his smooth talk, charm and extensive vocabulary. His shady side and tendency to lie keeps him one step ahead of the local constabulary.
Smedley dedicates unpublished novels to Bo-Peep and pretends to cry in his beer. She consoles him and wipes away his tears. They spend time together doing what god only knows. Smedley considers her inspiration and muse for his ‘lyrical’ prose. He knows this, or at least dreamed that it was fact: Einstein dug strippers and studied the relativity of their every pose. Picasso painted Bardot in states of undress and repose, Belmondo and Delon looking on, chain smoking Gitanes, New Wave comrades if romantic foes. Smedley pens poetry about clean girls with dirty feet and somehow wins acclaim. Advises the aspiring: only write about what you know, stake out familiar terrain.
There’s a warm-up act, coolly received: a stand-up comic in a wheelchair named Milton Burlap accompanied by two hand puppets—‘Pepe’ and ‘Paprika’—and a suitcase full of props. The customers yawn and sigh and fall ever deeper into the hops. The dancers take introductory bows in a group—there’s Bo Peep, Tawni and Exotica, Good N’ Plenty, TayNi$ha and Retro Ruth. The all-female house band Askenazy Caboose launches into “Bad Moon Rising” and the show begins, just as Reverend Wright arrives blub-blub-blubbering about the wages of sin.
He’s a man of the cloth of ambiguous denomination but resolute in his determination to sanctify and to bore; every man a satyr, every woman a whore. The nation in disarray, “like the lipstick of a drunken harlot with palsied hand, collective head buried in the sand.” His published works include “The Once and Future Virgin: Rise of the Fallen Angels”, “Don’t Let Coitus Interrupt Us” and “Beware Satan’s Serpent: Swallowing the Big Gay Lie”. Provocative tomes that a surprising cross-section of readers buy, and buy into. The reverend known as well as the John Brown of the anti-circumcision debate: “America’s males,” he sermonizes, “should be allowed to live and love in their natural state.” Fiery at the pulpit, nostrils flared, sweat pouring from brow, teeth bared.
Reverend Wright holds sway over a hardcore flock of angry birds wielding torches of outrage on the rural fringe further down the river. The reverend hot-flashes and shiver-shakes and orders a ‘Surely Temple’ while gap-mouthing and eye-googling the tendered loins on stage. Apoplexy and rage would be expected but the Reverend is not that way and won’t play the shame game. His working credo: “Love the sinner, hate the sin, for when God is forsook, indecent liberties are took.” Bo-Peep is his pet project—she’s young and impressionable and perhaps has daddy issues: invoking Our Father who art in heaven might just do the trick. Before the poor girl starts turning tricks like others of her ilk at the Motel 7, that john and junkie heaven just a stone’s throw from the club and only too convenient.
The music throbs and heads bob and the tips are tucked here and there. The dancers work up a sweat, any potential threat quickly thwarted by security with ax handles and bats. Mr. Muckler has the old battle-ax at home; 46 years of wedded bliss has led to this: Sunday night at the Paradyce, licking his lips and shelling out the tips…well worth a fiver or two to see these young ladies—no Auntie Bodies here–bare and smiling, because who doesn’t like to be naked at 22, fresh as the first sip of Mountain Dew fortified with a dash of schnapps. Even Muckler and the missis skinny dipped in the reservoir once upon a time, before the dead child and the rheumatoid arthritis, before the mini stroke and the Dance of St. Vitus.
Bo-Peep is indeed 22. Her friend Smedley has quite a few on her age-wise though their emotional maturity is on par: below sea level with a Category 5 hurricane closing in. Peep enjoys long rides in his ‘89 LeBaron. He could afford a new Mercedes, BMW or Jeep but that’s not the way to impress Miss Bo-Peep. Convertible top down on the country lanes, out there where it smells sweet and possibility lingers like manure in the air and the chickens are plump and free range. There are real horses and cows and farmers on tractors, and once a rainbow bridged the sky, natural beauty that no amount of tip money could buy. Sometimes when she dances Bo Peep pretends she’s out there in the country, wind in her hair, the smoke and liquor and leering somewhere far away, in another galaxy, in a previous life.
Smedley knows better. He might be a romantic at heart but he’s a city kid, street smart, semi-jaded and paid to pretend. Yet and still, the fountain of youth is intoxicating, best sipped and savored with a friend. Sometimes he sees things in Peep’s eyes and in her actions that remind him of better times, that lead him to ponder time and the river and to worry about time closing in, closing time who knows when.
So the men ogle and the reverend preaches and the dancers do their thing. Peter Paradyce counts the greenbacks, cash only if you please. The bouncers slap their ax handles and survey the scene. A sign on the wall cautions:
There are things we must not touch,
things that shall remain out of reach.
Violators will be treated to an ocean spray
of cranberry juice, tabasco and bleach.
Should you need to get a grip on yourself:
Remember, this is not the place.
Think of God, Mother and country.
Think of the warden at county prison,
and the welcoming smile on his face…
The beer taps leak and the whisky speaks, with a forked tongue and tangled sin-tax. We have traveling salesmen and dock workers laid off, sailors on shore leave and a blind man named Goff, who always sits by the door, white-tipped cane bojanglin’ on the floor. Goff’s sad eyed service dog Samantha chews contentedly on one of Morris Burlap the comic’s hand puppets—is it ‘Pepe’ or ‘Paprika’?
Young white college boys eager to see what it’s all about, struggling to keep their arousal at bay. Mature black men who have seen it all before but refuse to blink, and can’t look away. The lawyer, the trucker, the homicide cop and the podiatry intern. The airline pilot and the tugboat captain, the bank teller, the former priest and the Navajo chief. Two Serbian socialists and one American Nazi. Dixie Dan and his confederate battle flag now banned, stuck in the double wide playing a lonely game of Yahtzee and watching Birth of a Nation one more time, when being a hero in a hood was a calling not a crime.
Here’s the ad agency copywriter who can’t stop texting on his phone, there the guilty single father who has left his children at home. Chinese businessmen in bespoke suits, sipping Chivas and Johnnie Walker Black. Mexican day laborers in dusty work clothes—Modelo Negra ice cold, tequila shots tossed back. Emaciated Marine veteran with an oxygen tank. The odoriferous 400-pound obsessive-compulsive known as Rank Frank. The sociology professor who opines that the appeal of the dancers and club is ‘largely subtextual’. The twice-married man who tells himself that his ‘duties’ for Colonel Hardwick in the service—and the ‘incident’ with the supermarket box boy—don’t add up to ‘homosexual’.
All whiling away the empty hours in the valley that separates the weekend and the week to come. Dull the fear with alcohol, banish the boredom with jiggling breasts and bared ass, with wishful sinful fantasies that will never come to pass.
Down, down, down, past the interstate and the cheap motels, past the truck terminal and tank farm and abandoned warehouses. Across the railroad tracks where a freight train lurches by like an arthritic old man, like something from a minor blues song once heard and now forgotten. Down the alley dark and damp, redolent of cigarettes and stale beer and the accumulated detritus of futility. See the blood on the wall where heads are banged and fists slammed, so much anger along the river where what once was will never be again. Where both commodities and people are bought and sold and even the kids look tired and old.
You can smell the river and the slimy moorings where rusting boats are tethered, and the nameless chemicals that haunt the night like poisonous and invisible ghosts, killing people slowly, softly, the cancer coming for them, inexorable. Smell the chocolate cooking, bubbling in vast copper vats, at the cocoa processing plant and smile, a child once again, with a candy bar in your pocket and a quarter to spare. Mom and Dad footing the bills and you without a care.
Hear the dark thunder of the outlaw Harleys, hear animals howling at the moon. Hear the raucous wake for another one gone too soon. Hear sirens in the distance, relieved that they’re not coming for you, not this time. A channel marker clanging on the river in a wind up from the south and across the petrol-slicked pond, up from the bay and the sleeping Atlantic beyond.
Across the street the Decency Brigade continues their 24/7 vigil. They believe what they believe but manage to keep the discourse civil. Presently represented by Miss Dot Keener and her beau Arthur G. Pace—they’ve been dating for seven years but have proudly remained chaste. With lighted candles and clasped hands they chant their singsong mantra:
Put on your pants and don an appropriate brassiere
Cover up your ta-ta’s and your exposed rear
For those who indulge in pleasures of the flesh
Are destined to burn up like David Koresh…
The dancers appreciate their interest and bake for them homemade pies. The patrons go about their business; some roll their eyes. Smedley interviews them to see what makes them tick. Peter Paradyce calls the lawyer to see what charges if any might stick.
Despite their best efforts the habitués stumble over the razor wire and fall inevitably into the minefield of rumination and regret, suddenly the protagonist of their very own country song, “Lost Another Bet”. Here comes George Jones and Gentleman Jim Reeves, cue the fiddle and weep along with the pedal steel guitar. The bills keep coming, they’re all overdue. They’ll cut off the power and the cable and there’ll be nothing to do, except sit in the dark and think about battles that you’ll never win, your life relegated to a thin, yellowing file in some bureaucrat’s bin. When the anesthetic of denial wears off you real-eyes: you pay for what you get but you don’t always get what you pay for. The overpriced bubbly of Now is served with a bittersweet chaser of Then. The swizzle sticks stir up things best left behind, never mind the who, what, why, where or when.
Maybe it was a mistake to veer off your chosen path and maybe you should’ve married that nice Katie McGrath. Everything seems clearer in the rearview mirror. Avenues and individuals: did we choose them or them us, or was fate involved somehow, timing, a roll of the dice? Choices made, words spoken and not, people we should have treated better and vice versa. People that are gone, time wasted on the way. Lovers that became strangers and strangers who became friends. The blink of the mind’s eye. No matter where you go there you are. So you drink and smile and you hum along with that familiar tune, the world reduced to the action in this room. Microcosm and metaphor: there’s a door over there with a lighted EXIT sign but shame on you if you believe that light is benign.
It all seems both surreal and so real, like a dream that recurs in a half-woke state. But it’s only Sunday night in America, in a club down by the river. The music drifts downwind and it sounds just like a calliope, a merry go round in an amusement park.
Scores of men—and women—approach Bo-Peep to broach the same old offers, the same tired lines. If spouting clichés was a crime, they’d all be doing twenty to life, 90 days in the hole thrown in for good measure. Peep is disinterested and unimpressed though she takes it all in stride. But then Smedley leans down and whispers in her ear and suddenly she visualizes the fields and the cows and the farmer on his John Deere, and she feels the wind in her hair. “Round and round we go,” Smedley says, “circus animals on the carousel, squeaking and squawking and wagging our tails. Until the whip cracks and the air turns thin and we submerge it all in another tonic and gin.”
He smiles at Bo-Peep and she at him, two more people trying to assuage the loneliness and stave off reality’s hard grip, looking to fit in, somewhere, somehow. Searching for any measure of redemption and solace to be found, down by the river on Sunday night…