An Amalgamation of Emotions

Picture of graves decorated with flags at Arli...

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A Reflection by Zoltan James — May 31, 2011

Like me, on this Memorial Day, I’d guess many of you will be relaxin’ and rememberin’.  Maybe you’re out playing golf, fishing, shopping, waxing the car, having friends over for burgers on the grill, or maybe you’re on your hands and knees getting the yard and garden ready for summer. Or, maybe you’re lounging on the back porch reading a good book.

If it weren’t for holidays like today, I would most likely go about my day doing what I usually do, not thinking of things or people past, but focused on looming deadlines of business and the daily chores around the house. But, an amalgamation of emotions floods my heart and mind this Memorial Day of 2011. Emotions stirred up by thoughts of war and the loss of parents and loved ones.

Perhaps my emotions are rawer today because my mother passed away about a year ago in Kansas. She lived to be 90. And, so I hold a little envy for those who still live in the hometowns of their youth where they can still visit the graves of elders and loved ones. I live an entire state away from my hometown and must be content with letting my mind transport me to the foot of the graves of my parents and grandparents to pay my respects.

As cemeteries go, this one is not outstanding in terms of beauty of where one would think to park for an hour of respite and reflection. I’ve attended more funerals there than I would like and stopped by often on visits home. The grounds carry a gentle slope with a few trees.  At the top of the hill, near the entrance, stands a memorial to James Naismith, the inventor of the game of basketball. I can see it from my parents’ graves. Behind mom and dad lie Maurice and Eda Tate, good friends who taught them how to speak and read English after we emigrated from Hungary by way of Germany in 1949. There’s something poetically appropriate that they should rest here together. And, down the lane and around the bend lies my good friend Roger, who passed away suddenly at the age of 50 from a massive stroke. He was a beloved high school counselor, brother, son and recent husband, just hitting his stride. Many other folks that I knew are buried there, too. Over the years, these hallowed few acres have become, for me, the final garden for a few good souls.

Whenever I visited my mother, she would cajole me to drive her out to the cemetery.  This was always a half-hearted venture for me.  Part of me felt obligated to go and pay my respects, but the other part wanted nothing to do with hanging around dead people.  What I really wanted to do was go downtown and revisit old haunts, meet old friends, and have a few beers. But, I always gave in to the part that felt obligated.

Mom would bring along with her a basket of flowers, twine, grass clippers and a hand broom.  I’d watch as she lovingly cleaned the headstones of my father and grandparents, clipping the edges to clear away the encroaching crabgrass.  We would collect water from the nearby spigot to water her fresh flowers.  Then, satisfied with the result, mom would stand back, bow her head, and fold her hands where dirt had etched dark lines into her wrinkled and gnarled fingers. I would stand a few feet behind and watched solemnly as she said a silent prayer. Her face grim and lips held tight. Sometimes she would get teary, and sometimes not.  Later on, the flowers became bouquets of silk because she feared if she left real flowers they would be robbed. Then, as she got older and frailer, mom would stand by leaning on her walker as I knelt and did the work and she watched, or more truthfully, gave directions on how to properly perform the task.

On these last few visits as I helped her back to the car, she would muse aloud, I’m sure so that I could hear, wondering if anyone would bother to come around to tend to her grave after she was gone.

Since my grandparents are buried next to my father and mother, each visit also reminded me of the day my grandfather gave me his wallet before he died. Inside, he left a handwritten note intoned with his usual sense of humor asking that I remember to bring a glass of water to his grave to slake his thirst.

And, so today from hundreds of miles away, my mind flies there with a basket of flowers and clippers in hand along with a glass of water. I bend over the headstones, clear the grass away to reveal the sharp edges, and whisper a prayer.

Farther north and east, I allow my mind to fly to my mother-in-law’s grave in Flint, Michigan.  She passed away a couple of years ago after living her last years with us. I allow my mind to hover there as I pay my respects.  In contrast to where my parents are buried, this cemetery is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, not that I’ve seen all that many mind you, nor care to.  Her grave sits on a high hill surrounded by old and plentiful trees. And, the lush manicured grounds are dotted with life-sized bronze sculptures of children playing crack the whip, of young boys with jumping puppies, or of adults sitting on benches in perpetual poses of peaceful reflection.  As you drive past these graceful works of art, you cannot help but smile.

As I pull back, I find myself reflecting today also of good friends here in Denver who, just this week, lost their mother. Her death was unexpected and swift. Visiting from California to attend her granddaughter’s school advancement ceremony, she got up from the dinner table on a Tuesday evening, had an aneurysm and a series of strokes, and passed away on Thursday. We had the pleasure of seeing her and her husband when they visited, the last time just this past Christmas.  We laughed together over brunch, marveled at stories of their travels, and never once talked or thought of the specter of death.

It seems the thread of life runs long and thin amongst us.  Another friend, who lives in the foothills above Denver, told me last week that her boyfriend’s young son died suddenly a couple of weeks ago.  Another friend who lives in New Mexico, wrote on Facebook that her cousin, a well-known aerobatic performer, died recently at an air show.  She was vibrant and pretty. Gone too soon. But, then aren’t they all gone before we’re ready for them to leave.

I guess we all hold our own thoughts this day about loved ones who’ve gone before us, or of those who died far to young fighting in foreign fields and deserts, giving up the ultimate sacrifice for our country.

Whether you’re standing at the gates of a cemetery or the gates of your own garden, I hope that wherever you are on this Memorial Day, that your day is filled with peace and reflection.

Remember. Make every hour your happy hour.



Filed under Books On Writing That I Like

New Reviews Are In


by Zoltan James

“This is unforgettable.  Every time I water my elephant, I think of this blog.” – Sarah Groon.

“You’ll never feel like a lonesome pigeon when you’re curled up in bed with this blog.” – Lawrence McNurly

“When my friend, Humboldt, told me about this blog, it was like a gift.” – Solomon Bellicose

“When I was a kid, my old man took me out to the sea and told me that someday a blog like this would come along.  He was right.”  – Ernesto Wayhemmedin.

“You read some blogs and you might as well let them blow away with the wind.  Not this one. I told my butler, this one’s worth a ‘damn.'” – Maggie Mitchum

Remember: Make Every Hour Your Happy Hour


Filed under Books On Writing That I Like

My Life in the Orchestra

Serpent in the V&A Museum, London.

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by Zoltan James

PROLOGUE — The faster I move up the actuarial charts, the more inclined I am to divulge parts of my life, hitherto untold, lest I fade away into obscurity before my friends know who I really was, am, or is.

I’m not sure what drives this need other than the urge to get these stories off my chest and onto “the divine record.”  If nothing else, by purging my soul, I might then have the chance to live the rest of my days in peace.  Perhaps, I might even enjoy a more relaxed and intentional state of mind, one which would allow me to fulfill my life-long dreams of winning the Pulitzer Prize, bowling the “perfect game” and shooting a “hole-in-one” – all on the same day!

My friend, you may well be the only one who reads this tale.  If so . . . then . . . so be it.  This episode shall lie in the dustbin of history known only to you and me.  But, if you get the urge, feel free to pass this along to anyone whom you think has the heart, or time of day, or both, to hear this.  Just spell my name right, okay?

I have no delusions of grandeur that this story might someday fill the big screen.  It’s not like some Hollywood mogul, wearing a white suede dinner jacket with a paisley ascot, thin legs crossed at the knee, sits in his white arm chair looking down on the lights of L.A. from his hilltop manse of glass,  wiling the night away reading my spellbinding story on his electronic tablet.  Got that picture?

Good.  Okay, let’s assume he is suddenly overcome with a grand vision and such a sense of golly-glee that he spills his dirty Manhattan onto his white plush carpet. He jumps from his chair, looks wild eyed at his skinny starlet of the month, (who, by the way, is young enough to be his niece from Omaha).  Understandably, she is more focused on the poodle puppy slobbering in her crooked arm, than him. Anyway, suddenly and inexplicably, he leaps from his chair and exclaims, “Oh. My. God. Roxie! We’ve got to do this story!  It has blockbuster written all over it!”

Seriously now, I can’t imagine him forgetting his toppled drink, or ignoring the stained carpet, or him feverishly dialing up his attorney, never mind that it’s two in the morning, and spittling into the phone, “Stephen, my good man, ring up this ‘Zoltan’ character.  Make him an offer.  Draw up a contract.  Post haste, or sooner!  We’re doing his story!”

“Huh,” moans Stephen. “Who is this?”

“Dammit, Stephen. Wake up. It’s me, Frank!” Only he pronounces it as, “Fronk.”

The effervescent Roxie, chomping on lime Orbit gum, leans over the mogul’s shoulder. For a moment, he’s intoxicated by the perfume of her hair which drapes his forehead.  It smells of something sweet, like papaya and cranberry. And, she yells into the phone, with a sultry Midwestern twang, “Yea-ah. It’s, like, Fronk!”

Of course, this is merely a pipe dream.  A fantasy.  It ain’t gonna happen, and that ain’t why I’m sharing this story with you.  Truth is, this is just a slice of my life I thought you might find amusing when you’ve tired of watching another Seinfeld rerun and are casting about in your pajamas for something useful to do.  I believe there’s the hint of a Groucho Marx-like joke lurking in that last sentence, but we’ll act like it doesn’t exist and forge on.

With all that said, here it is.  Finally.  At last. The train has pulled into the station.  Grab a hot bologna and cheese sandwich and a cold beer. Sit back and enjoy. You, my friend, are the first to hear the untold story of – drum roll, please – My Life in the Orchestra.

Believe it or not, I once played in the Benton Harbor Town Symphony Orchestra. We were little known and probably just as well.  In those days, the instrument I played was the serpent (no jokes, please).  Basically, it’s a lip-vibrated bass wind contraption that is a distant and somewhat ugly relative of the tuba.  (See photo above) It has a serpentine shape, ergo the name.  When you lay it flat and look down upon it, you’ll notice it resembles the curvature of the Amazon River, or a not-so-romantic, discarded shoelace.

Needless to say, I played First Serpent in the Benton Harbor Town Symphony Orchestra, as I was also the only serpent player in our fractured and dysfunctional assemblage.

Most of our troubles, and there were many, began long before we ever played a note in public.  For example, our new public announcer came to us mysteriously by way of the Southeast Berlin Symphony. His name, which I later learned was not his real name, and which I shall disclose here shortly, was Herr Joerg (pronounced:YORG) Schicklgruber. He was a handsome, self-assured gent and presented an imposing figure when he strode onto the stage in his long black tails and white bowtie. His mere presence sent a hush through the audience.  When he arrived at mid stage, he would click his heels and bow to the conductor. Fortunately, the audience never saw the pained expression on his face, which to us, in the orchestra, signaled he might soon pass gas. Then, he offered a semi-circular bent, left to right, to the entire ménage of instrumentalists.

Sadie Treblehorn, the freelance culture and city hall reporter, for the Benton Harbor Herald Palladium, once reported that, “When the orchestra members returned Herr Schicklgruber’s bow it was a noisy affair exemplified by a half-hearted, unsyncopated crouch from their seats that resembled an anemic fan wave at a Detroit Lions’ game.”

Nevertheless, Schicklgruber was renowned for his announcing style which we, behind his back, dubbed the “glockenspiel.”  You see, prior to making his first announcements to the audience about the evening’s performance, he would produce a loaded Glock from his tuxedo jacket. We knew it was loaded for it once misfired during rehearsal and the bullet punctured a sound baffle which hung from the auditorium’s ceiling. The retort scared off a family of pigeons, a swarm of swallows, and a battalion of bats who had all made themselves comfortably at home in the rafters.

The concert hall became aflutter with birds and bats flying recklessly hitherto and fro. Some of the old timers in our orchestra said it reminded them of the Bombing of Berlin. In fact, many a winged creature let loose their own form of “bombs” upon us that day.  This sent some of the musicians, most notably the ones who had graduated from Berkley, in retreat to the restrooms; while our three sousaphone players, famous for their beehive hairdos, dove head first into the tuba section. We assumed they were seeking protection from the bats, who, of course, had no intention of nesting in such low-rent districts.

On the nights of our performances, when Schicklgruber’s gun appeared, gasps would trickle through the orchestra and the crowd as though a large balloon were exhaling.  With his arm held high in the air, he waved the pistol like he was trying to knock down some of the pigeons swooping through the hall.

Now that he held the audience’s rapt attention, he presented his Spiel about the evening’s orchestral selections with a commanding basso voice. As though the sight of his gun weren’t enough, his clipped German accent gave us all a chill.  Finished with his announcements, he stood straight as a silent sentinel while our patrons hurriedly fumbled to click off their cellphones. Not a soul in the crowd dared challenge him for fear of getting shot.  Satisfied that everyone had complied, he would pocket the gun, bow, click his heels, and hulk from the stage like a vampire in need of a transfusion.

After he disappeared from view, a sigh of relief whooshed around the auditorium followed by nervous applause. On stage, an odd clickety-clack of sound surged through the orchestra as my colleagues and I sat back in our chairs in great relief to know that, once again, no fowl or mammal had been harmed.

One Saturday evening, prior to our much-heralded American premier devoted to Gaetano Farinelli’s little-known composition, Adagio for Steel Guitar, Herr Joerg failed to appear.  It was both a shock and a relief.  He never did again perform his terrifying “glockenspiel.” His absence left a disharmonious note on the evening, not to mention an embarrassing beginning to a promising performance.

Rumor had it that he was a double agent for Russia and Germany. We learned later that the Bundesnachrichtendienst (The German Federal Intelligence Service, commonly known as BND), nabbed him in the wings while the orchestra struggled on stage with our second number, The Flight of the Bumblebee.

The next day, our symphony board acted quickly and chose to fill the announcer void with the vitriolic Viola Longstemmer, our erstwhile orchestra conductor. At first, she balked at this additional responsibility but when the board capitulated and offered her free season parking at the auditorium, under the adjacent Burger King sign, she graciously accepted.

Viola was, herself, an imposing figure and soon made the audience forget Schicklgruber.  Her persona was old school, with emphasis on “old.”  It was no secret that our Viola had long since passed her prime. The local joke was that she had held the position of conductor since Benton Harbor was a boy.

When she spoke, she pointed her chin high in an arrogant stance which caused the auditorium spotlights to bounce off her round John Lennon glasses. This gave her eyes an eerie opacity to complement her falsetto register.  Meanwhile, her taste for fashion, while consistent, left much to be desired. No matter when or where we performed, she always appeared in a black silk pants suit with matching orthopedic shoes.

The town’s local fashion editor, Hedda Treaklemock, once described Viola as “doing a chic impression of Cinderella’s fugly godmother.”  On another occasion, Hedda wrote, “Viola’s Darth Vader black ensemble was offset this evening by rouge lipstick, the kind that is so riotously red it can send impressionable young men to war.”

Oddly, the fashion reviews resulted in an uptick in attendance. It was plain to see that our patrons, came more to snicker and gossip at Viola’s wardrobe and makeup, than to appreciate our musical virtuosity.

Meanwhile, for those of us in the orchestra who were forced to follow her stern stare and menacing baton, we were well aware of the stress the job caused her. She was strung tighter than a … well, you get the idea.  Despite her advanced age, she stood ramrod straight, had the stamina of Artemis, and suffered no fools.  Interestingly, our orchestra was infested with fools who held varying degrees of dubious musical skills and even far less social skills.

As you might imagine, in this adult camp for the musically and socially challenged, Viola faced a myriad of personnel issues, inflated egos, and embarrassing concert glitches such as the far-too-occasional quickened tempo from the radical oboes, or the errant honk of a clarinet.

Adding fuel to the fire was the ongoing animosity between our haughty string section and the bombastic horns.  The strings were comprised of men and women with Ivy League degrees, or had survived stringent fellowships from European conservatories. They complained aloud that “the horns were not truly qualified to be called musicians.”

While the members of the horn section, mostly from west coast schools, and college marching bands, proposed that the strings had become eunuchs due to sniffing too much bow rosin.  And, nearly everyone in the orchestra held the opinion that the percussionists were simply long-haired beatniks who had never grown up.

One disconcerting and distracting situation involved a feisty love triangle among our hippy-dippy timpanist; our anorexic, but fat-fingered pianist; and the mousey-but-curvaceous French horn player.

The affair had turned so overt and rambunctious that it spilled over into our performances.  It was not uncommon for the timpanist or pianist, or both, to try and intimidate the other by tossing glaring stares and threatening gestures.  When the hormones heated up one or the other might strike his mark or hit his notes with exuberant passion when the score called for just the opposite, such as “pianissimo” or “adagio” rather than “capriccio.” Such childish acts would evoke the God-awful lightening-bolt-stare from Viola as though Thor himself was conducting.  I don’t think the audience ever caught on, but when the jealous emotions flared between timpani and piano, it often resulted in one or more of us swerving onto an unannounced chord change, or a flurry of screeches from the violin section.

This affair all came to a crescendo when Mick Murdock, the timpanist, got wind of Leonard Finklefish, the pianist, getting “aggressivo” as Mick called it, with Lin Su Stin Ki, the horny and spicy Frenchist (as the saxophone section referred to her).  As an aside, it was widely rumored, amongst the male members of the orchestra, that Lin Su was quite the kisser.  Whenever she put her lips to the mouthpiece of her French horn, it invariably set off a jackhammering of rapid leg syndrome down the row of saxophones.

In an attempt to restore order to the orchestra and to resolve the public distraction, Viola decided to take drastic measures.  At the Monday rehearsal, following a pitiful Sunday matinee, she strode forcefully to her conductor’s platform. Her eyes were dark and the way her orthopedic shoes squeaked it foreshadowed a brewing tempest.

A staccato of gulps made its rounds through my colleagues.

She pointed her baton at Mick, “I will no longer tolerate this disregard for the heritage of our music, the ruination of our reputation, and the disruption of performances.  This childish and boorish behavior will cease immediately.”  She wagged her baton at the timpanist and shrilly told him “to beat it.  But do leave the drums.”

She then aimed the point of her baton at Leonard who was nervously cracking his knuckles at the Steinway.  She forbade him to let his fingers touch Lin Su’s valves or she would stop the orchestra in mid-note and personally rap his fingers. Upon hearing this threat, Leonard sat still as a store-front manikin.  And, then, like the turret on a tank, Viola scanned her baton in Lin Su’s direction.  She pointed as though she might shoot off a round. She threatened Lin Su with bodily harm if she didn’t keep her mouthpiece on her mouthpiece.

This set off another episode of rapid leg syndrome that clattered loudly down the row of saxophones.

For a short while, after this dressing down, most seemed to settle back into a normal rhythm, if you will. But, there was mixed reaction among the other orchestra members, as we were now without a timpanist. Viola said it didn’t matter that Mick was gone since he tended to regard the musical signature more as a suggestion than direction and was prone to hammer away on the big, deep drums when silence was called for.

“Perhaps,” she intoned with nasal authority, “We can all move on and improve our collective lot for the good of our orchestra.”  She tried to hit the right note by asking Charlotte Cockburn, our blonde and busty bells and chimes player, to double on the timpani.  After all, it was a mere matter of sliding the short five feet between instruments.  “It’s no big deal.  They both involve the act of striking,” Viola chirped.  “Are you up to the task, Miss Cockburn?”

Charlotte’s eyes flitted around the orchestra. We watched her with great anticipation.  She shrugged and said, “Uh, yeah. Sure.”  This was not the level of confidence we were hoping to hear.

The mistake of this solution was borne out in the next day’s rehearsal when we struggled to master Mozart’s Éine kleine Nachtmusik.”  In German, this means “a little serenade,” and is more inaccurately known as “a little night music,” which is more akin to how our orchestra performed. Inaccurately and in the dark.

As Charlotte turned quickly to her left for the slide to strike the timpani, her mighty breasts accidentally jangled against the hanging chimes. An oblique exaltation of clanking, reminiscent of some bad Chinese jazz, and spilled utensils, sent atonal shock waves across the stage.

Viola’s incessant baton tapping on her music stand braked the orchestra to a halt in mid note, which was ignominiously punctuated by the freakish snapping of the high G-string on the zither, followed by an ill-timed tuba fart.

The supernatural sound set off by Charlotte’s bazooms, accompanied by the zither and tuba, let loose peals of laughter from the usually snotty violins, and a waterfall of drools from the oversexed saxophone section, all of whom were murmuring, “Bunga, bunga.”

Again, Viola swung her baton down hard on the music holder.  This time it landed with the force of a machete chopping at chicken.

As Charlotte screeched to a stop in front of the set of big drums, she stared at Viola with a frighten face of confusion, a deer-in-headlights-look.

“What is the matter, Miss Cockburn,” Viola hissed through gritted teeth. “Why are we stopping?”

Charlotte twirled her massive pig tails, and squeaked, “Well, I’ve been reading up on the timpani, but, I’m not sure if I should use the French or German grip on the mallets.”

This set off a round of snickers from the bespectacled twin harpists, Molly and Dolly Applepickering.

Charlotte dug her forefinger into her cute chin cleft, “And, I’m, like, not sure which of the four drums I should, like, strike first.”

“Oh, for the love of Ludwig,” Viola spat a jawbation that blew the long black hair of the Chilean bassoonist sitting in front of me into such a horizontal fright that I nearly went blind.  “I don’t really care Miss Cockburn! Mozart wouldn’t give a flippin’ Heineken, and the audience, sure as hell, wouldn’t have a clue if you used a sugar spoon or a sledge hammer!”

Silence fell upon the orchestra.  No one dared move or breathe.  I focused ahead on my sheet music and tried to discern if the black spot on the scale was an f-flat or a resting fly.

“Just use the German grip and strike the drums left to right when called for!” Viola said.

“Okay, Miss Longstemmer,” Charlotte said. “I can do that.”

We thought the situation was resolved and we all sat back with a collective sigh of relief.  Viola shuffled through her music sheets.  “Now, where were we?”

But, then Big Clyde Glinka, the bass player, who wore dark sunglasses just to look cool, and who rarely spoke two words in a row, decided this once to be helpful.  For some reason, he thought this an opportune moment to assist by informing Viola that, “Charlotte could also consider handling the mallets with either the American or the Amsterdam grip.”

The three cellists, whom we called Curly, Moe, and Larry, because they were never funny, threw back their heads in barking guffaws.  They fell out of their chairs in a garboil of infectious laughter, like they had been shot.  The laughter rippled through the orchestra like a toppled shelf of canned corn at Gristle’s FoodKart.  It was as though a virus of cackle flu passed through us.  We were collectively destroyed in hysterics.  Most of us, me included, were writhing on the floor, laughing so hard that we could barely breathe.  Frankly, it was a miracle no instruments were damaged.

This was the straw that broke Viola’s back.  She snapped her baton in half.  Her conductor’s music stand wobbled and threatened to topple when she jumped from her platform and fled up the center aisle.

The uptight ladies in the string section just rolled their eyes, while the guys in the horn section seemingly appreciated her exit.

Sally Hunkafeller, our first violinist and concertmaster, stood and announced in a baritone voice, which we always found unnerving, that we “should all take five.”  The sound of her manly voice sent another wave of doubled-over laughter round the horn.

The letting go of Mick and now Charlotte’s confusion over mallet grip choices caused great consternation in the orchestra.  It was beginning to feel like we were all losing our grip. Soon after, a loose confederation of musicians in our group threatened to strike. The two flautists, the mellophone guy, and the newest member, Charlotte, who now resented her forced double duty, called themselves “The Union of Musicologists,” and joined forces as a branch of the Benton Harbor postal workers union, which, parenthetically and enthusiastically, supported the strike threat with its full stamp of approval.

Others in the orchestra harped openly about the kerfuffle.  The trombone section played it cool and let the whole matter slide.  Meanwhile, the guitarist fretted for he didn’t know which side to pick; and the horn section, feeling mellow from a marijuana break, just blew it off.  Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed and we opted to stick it out, one for all, all for one.  Unfortunately, however, our new-found commitment “to team” didn’t improve on stage.

Our next performance was a comedy of errors, as if this were the first, which, sadly, it was not. The pressure to play good spoiled our enjoyment of the music, and the evening, I might add, for many audience members.

For some reason, Viola chose to avoid familiar classical works for this particular concert.  Her logic was, “We need to showcase our ‘hip side’ and attract a broader audience.”

In the week’s rehearsals leading up to that evening, she challenged us to attack the ever-popular, “76 Trombones,” but with a bluesy tone; followed by “Muskrat Love;” and the toe-taping finale, the raucous but bemusing, “Piccicata Polka.”

Surprisingly, Charlotte bravely made it through the evening and miraculously hit all the right plinkiplonks and thumpitydumps.

While the audience reaction fell short of breathtaking, the reviews were not very kind.  Sadie Treblehorn, wrote us up as “a collection of dreadful entertainers . . . a shambolic, chivvy, and ragged performance,” she said.  She also pointed out how our contrabassoon was a beautiful instrument when played in the right hands. “Unfortunately, those hands were missing from this orchestra.”  And, finally, she reported how, “Her plumbing, when stressed, produced better sounds than our horn section.”

Collectively, we felt this to be a mortal blow.

Following this concert, our loyal symphony patrons began to drop off (not only in attendance numbers) but during the actual performances.  Other times, fisticuffs would break out among the hoity-toity crowd, as some of the old timers’ snoring unceremoniously drowned out the ferocious sawing of our passionate violinists.  Then, the nouveau riche jeans-and-blazer-crowd, who liked to sneak in Grande cups of vanilla lattes, couldn’t figure out how to applaud with hot cups of special coffee in hand.  As you can imagine, this exuberant show of appreciation resulted in an eruption of foam and the launching of plastic lids which turned into sticky rivers of prime Columbian spillage and little white boats that flowed unchecked and merrily down the floor of the premium orchestral center seats.

Treblehorn reported that while our “orchestra flirted with margins of acceptability, the evenings most interesting performance happened in the audience.”

Ticket sales lagged soon after and before long the symphony board was faced with unpopular decisions to cut costs. To save on expenses, Viola was fired.  The board calculated that with the savings from her inflated salary and benefits, they could siphon off two or three euphonium and triangle players from third-tier orchestras to round out our own, and that the rest of us could rotate conducting responsibilities.  Our union members once again threatened to strike.

At Viola’s farewell tea and cakes party, which was billed as a command performance for all orchestra members under the threat of having our bus passes revoked, we reluctantly attended en masse to pay our respects.

The board chair and town socialite, Ophelia Benton Gutterhammer, the great-great-great-granddaughter of the city’s founder, gushed in praise for Viola’s creative leadership and longevity.  On behalf of her board, she expressed deep sorrow at Viola’s leaving and hoped with all sincerity that she would understand the extreme circumstances which precipitated this action.

Viola remained stoic and offered a faint smile when presented with a rhinestone encrusted baton and a burnished walnut pendulum timekeeper.  For a second, we thought she might strike Ophelia with her new weapons.

The four trombonists and two oboists applauded obsequiously. The clarinets clucked their approval. The rest cowered silently around the chips and dips, while the guitarist and I nonchalantly passed around Big Clyde’s flask.

Two weeks later, after the dust had settled, and Viola had moved to Key West with her two cats, Bartok and Bernstein, the board acted swiftly and decisively.  In a final, desperate attempt to save money, the symphony leaders hired the number one conductor away from Union Pacific.

Niles Upanishad, the erudite editor of the Benton Harbor Herald Palladium, opined in his Sunday column that the bold move just might be what the symphony needed to get back on track.



Announcer Joerg Schicklgruber was sentenced to life in prison in Oppsendorfer, Germany for passing state secrets.  He took full advantage of his basso voice and passed his time playing DJ, spinning jazz albums and reading liner notes on the prison’s closed loop radio station, under the handle of “Daddio.”  His real name was Harold von Hundhausen.

Mick Murdock, the timpanist, cut his hair, moved to Montana, and took a job teaching music at Flat Hills High School, where his jazz bands won perennial state championships.  He eventually married Maggie Mae Doubledribble, the perky gym teacher, who, oddly enough pulled a “hammie” while performing the somersault at their wedding reception.  The act became a YouTube sensation.

Leonard Finklefish, the pianist, finally won the hand of Lin Su Stin Ki, the French horn player.  After the symphony disbanded, the couple moved to Dubuque, Iowa and opened a Dairy Queen franchise. Thanks to a steady diet of hamburgers and ice cream, Leonard put on much-needed weight. For grins, he continued to play cocktail piano at the Elks Club on Saturday nights.  Sadly, Lin Su died of brain freeze, one hot July afternoon, while rapidly consuming a Georgia Mud Fudge Blizzard.

Charlotte Cockburn moved to Hollywood and for a few years made a handsome living playing supporting roles in B-films.  Later, when calls from her agent sagged, along with her assets, she reluctantly retired. She moved inland to Pasadena and lived off her residuals, as well as from fees earned from occasional appearances at dental conventions, where she also sold her calendars in which she posed in suggestive bikinis behind sets of timpani drums.

Big Clyde Glinka moved to Chicago and started a jazz trio, “Big Clyde and the Double Slide.”  He produced numerous award-winning CDs featuring his group’s unique hot-house sound.  Clyde married, Ginger Wannamaker, a sultry hostess, whom he met while flying on Virgin Airlines. After she bore him six children, Clyde gave up the night club life and became a part-time Pentecostal minister, but preached behind his trademark sunglasses. To this day, no one, not even Ginger, has yet to see his eyes.

Five years later, Viola Longstemmer passed away peacefully in her sleep at the age of 99 at her Key West cottage.  When the authorities found her, many days later, she was sprawled on the divan, wearing a colorful Japanese kimono, and a smile. Ironically, her body had decomposed. A vodka tonic sat on a side table, and the CD player revealed she had been listening to the “Greatest Hits of Meredith Wilson.” Her cats were never found.

And, me?  I gave up the serpent and joined the Merchant Marine, but that’s another story.

Remember.  Make every hour your happy hour.

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More Confessions from an Ordinary Guy

No Brain Required

Image by Mike_tn via Flickr

by Zoltan James

I had a strange dream last night in which I parachuted into a country where all the folks had no heads or arms.  Just a torso and very good looking legs.  The majority of this population was employed as part-time manikins in department stores, or as tackling dummies for football teams.

The neighboring country to the east was comprised of brainiacs, people who only had heads.  No bodies.  Just handsome and very smart heads. This country was mostly comprised of global warming scientists and television pundits, or “talking heads.”

Sadly, the torsos and the heads did not get along.  In fact, the torsos and the heads were on the verge of war.

The leader of the first country, the head torso, (or the head headless torso to be more accurate) wanted to lead a “call for arms,” but no one knew how to respond.  They couldn’t pound their fists or gnash their teeth.  This led to a national day of frustration in which bodies filled the streets and public squares.  According to news reports, much nervous twisting and toe-twiddling was observed.

Meanwhile, across the border to the east, the head brainiac implored his people to invade the torsos.  “We must face our enemy.  Now is the time to run them over,” he yelled to his legion of heads.  But his cry fell on deaf ears.  No one knew how to respond to this call to action. This resulted in a great frustration among the body-less politic. Evening news reports showed a mass of heads sitting in the streets nervously blinking, twitching and flicking their tongues.

Eventually, due to the inability and lack of will on both countries to enact a kinetic military action, a truce was signed.  No one could vouch for how a signatory action might have taken place, nonetheless, both the heads and bodies agreed it was in their best interests not to wage war against one another. And, so great peace came upon these neighboring countries.

But, then, to the north and to everyone’s surprise, the land of arms (people with no heads or torsos – just very strong arms) declared war and easily defeated the heads and torsos in hand-to-hand combat. The arms were merciless.  The bodies ran for the hills and heads rolled.

The moral of this story (or dream, to be exact) is if you’re going to go to war, it’s far better to be armed than smart and good looking.

Then, I awoke because my right arm was asleep, my left leg had a cramp, and my head hurt from drinking too much wine the night before.  But, boy was I glad to see my ugly mug in the mirror and know that I was in one piece.

# # #

Remember: Make Every Hour Your Happy Hour


Filed under Books On Writing That I Like

The Interrogation

6 - Darin, Bobby - Bobby Darin Story - US - 19...

Image by Affendaddy via Flickr

by Zoltan James

Ladies and Gentlemen. The story you are about to read is true. None of the names have been changed and hardly anyone is innocent.

Early Monday, a loud banging on my apartment door woke me from a deep sleep. I jumped into my jeans and pulled on the first T-shirt I could find in the pile on the floor. It was black with white lettering which read, “You Non-Conformists Are Alike.”

I looked out the window as I shuffled to the door.  The morning looked uncharacteristically gray for Los Angeles.

Another loud bang.

“Yeah. I’m coming.” What I saw through the peep hole was the face of a serious suit wearing slick black hair.  Another suit stood behind him.

When I opened the door the first serious suit stuck a badge in my face. It read “Detective” and the number “714.”

“Mr. Cassotto?” he said.

“Yes.  That’s me.  Is there a problem?”

He and his pal walked past me into my apartment.

“Hey, don’t you need a warrant, or something?”  I was beginning to question if I was really awake.

“I’m Sergeant Joe Friday.” He waved a hand toward the other suit who was gawking around.  “This is my partner, “Frank Smith. Mind if we come in?”

“Well, you already are.  How can I help you?”

He looked around the room like he was memorizing every item in it. “We just have a few questions.  Won’t take long.”

“Yeah,” his partner Smith chimed in with a ready grin. He looked at his watch.  “We gotta another appointment at the donut shop in fifteen.”  As he laughed, the shoulders of his suit flopped up and down like they didn’t know where to settle. Smith slapped me on the shoulder.  “Relax.  It’s a joke.”

Sgt. Friday gave him a deadpan look.

I laughed until I saw Friday’s serious stare. Then it dawned on me.  They were already playing the “good cop bad cop” schtick.

Sgt. Friday flipped open a little notepad and pulled a pen from his shirt pocket.  “Mr. Cassotto, we’re here because your landlord and your neighbors complained last weekend about a very loud party on your premises.  So, let’s start at the beginning.  All we want are the facts, son.”

I motioned them in further to the living room. They sat.  I stood.

“What’s your full name, son?”

“Walden Robert Cassotto.”

“Mind if I call you, Walden?”

“I prefer, Robert.”

“Before we begin, Robert, I need you to empty your pockets.  You’re not carrying are you?”

“No,” I said.  Then, I realized I still had my switchblade in my front right pocket. I pulled it out slow and sat it down.

Friday picked it up and turned it over.  “Where’d you get this?”

“A guy named Mack the Knife, down on the sidewalk, don’t you know, over on the boulevard. He’s got a stand, sells knives. I got a good deal on this beauty.”

Smith put a hand on my shoulder and pushed me down to sit. He sneered into my face, “So, old Mackie’s back in town, eh?”  I smelled a hint of Columbian black and jelly-fill on his breath.

He turned his pug nose up to Friday.  “Five’ll get you ten, Mackie’s back.”

Friday took quick notes and then pointed his pen at my chest.  “Want some advice?  You look like a nice kid.  Stay away from his shark teeth.  You see someone sneakin’ round the corner, it could be Mack the Knife.”

“Yeah, sure,” I said.

“So, tell me Robert, when was this party?”

“It happened on about a Saturday night.”

He looked up, deadpan.  “On about?”

“It was Saturday night. Last Saturday night, to be exact.”

“What were you doing at about eight o’clock?”

“I was takin’ a bath.”

I saw him exchange looks with Smith.  They both raised eyebrows.  “Takin’ a bath, eh?  That all?” Friday said.

“Yeah. I was just relaxin’ in the tub, and pretty much thinkin’ everythin’ was alright.”

Still with the deadpan, bulldog expression, he asked, “You always talk in rhyme?”

I laughed.  “Sorry. I’m a songwriter. It creeps into my brain at times.”

Friday serious as a skillet.  “Yeah.  It is kinda creepy.  So, then what?”

“I heard the doorbell ring, which I thought was odd, because I wasn’t expecting anyone.  Well, I stepped out of the tub, put my feet on the floor – .”  I threw up my hands. “Sorry. Sometimes I can’t help it.”

“Don’t be nervous.  Keep going, rhyme all you want,” Friday said.

“Well, I wrapped a towel around me and I opened the door.”


“And then a-splish, splash, I jumped back in the bath!”

“Why’d you do that?”

“Well, how was I to know there was a party goin’ on?”

“A party, eh?  Who showed up for this unannounced party?”

I rubbed my forehead trying to recreate the wild scene in my mind.  Then, bing, bang, it came to me. “I saw the whole gang.”

Sgt. Friday perked up.  He shot a look at Smith.  “Gang?”

“Yeah.  They were dancin’ on my living room rug, yeah.  Right here, where we’re sittin.’

They both looked down.  Maybe they were hopin’ to see footprints.

“Tell me, son.  What was this gang doing?”

“Flip, flop, they was doin’ the bop. They all had their dancin’ shoes on.”

“So, this gang was dancing, eh?  Who’d you recognize in this gang?  This is real important, son.”

“Why is that?  Is this some sort of police dragnet, Sgt. Friday?”

His eyes flicked toward Smith who was now nosin’ around my place, stealth-like, behind my back.  They exchanged glances, almost like some kind of signal. Friday said, “No, son, just trying to understand what happened here.”

From behind me, Smith said, “Think real hard.  Do you remember any names in this gang?”

“Oh, sure.  There was Lollipop with a-Peggy Sue, and good golly, Miss Molly was-a even there, too.”

“You said, ‘there.’  Did you mean, ‘here?’”

“Uh, yeah. They were here.”

“Who is Lollipop? That a code name for one of the gangsters?”

“Oh, no.  Lollipop is just a girl.  Sometimes she sings with The Chordettes.”

“Oh,” he said.  “How about Peggy Sue and this, Miss Molly.  Who were they with?”

“Let me see,” I racked my brain.  “Peggy Sue was with Charles Holly, and Miss Molly, was with Richard Penniman.”

“These friends of yours?”

“I’ve met them a few times.”

Friday spoke while he took notes.  “Anyone else we need to know about?”

“Uh, yeah. I suppose.  There was a gal named Suzie, who I didn’t know and she was with a guy named Reginald Dwight.”

“What were they doing?”

“They were doing a thing called the Crocodile Rock.

Friday looked up from his notes and spoke to Smith.  “You heard of that, Frank?”

Smith shrugged.  His suit shoulders flopped again.  “Don’t think so. I’ve heard of the Alligator, though.”

Friday sighed. “So, son.  There was a party going on here and you’re standing around with a towel on your waist. You some kind of pervert?”

“Yeah, well, no sir.  It’s just that everyone was having such a good time, I forgot about the bath and went and put my dancin’ shoes on.”

Friday deadpanned me with the flat voice.  “So, why do you suppose all these friends of yours show up unannounced and start partying in your apartment, Robert?”

I fought back the lump building in my throat.  “I just broke up with my girl and I think they wanted to cheer me up.”

Sgt. Friday’s eyes seemed to soften at the edges.  “This girl got a name?”

“Yeah. Alexandra Zuck.”

“Tough luck,” Smith said, not realizing he’d made a rhyme.

Friday stood and nodded to Smith. They both walked to the door. Friday said, “I think we’re done here.  Sorry about your gal, son.  You got good friends. And, hey, good luck with the songwriting career.  Maybe, I’ll see you on the charts.”  For the first time that morning, he smiled.

“Yeah.  Maybe,” I said.

Smith opened the door and they walked through to the outside.  A soft sun was trying to break through the morning fog.  Friday turned back and with his deadpan look said, “And, keep it down next time you have a party.  I’d hate to see you have to do the Jailhouse Rock.”

He laughed.  I smiled.  Behind him Smith was pointing and tapping at his watch, indicating they were probably late for donuts.

As they waved goodbye, they left me a reelin’ with the feelin’, rollin’ and a-strollin.’ Splish, splash. Yeah.  And, I sat down to write new lyrics.

# # #

Author’s Notes:

With the exception of Reginald Dwight and Richard Penniman, everyone else in this story is dead.

Reginald Kenneth Dwight became Elton John (1947 – ).  Crocodile Rock was his first #1 hit. Today, Elton John is 64.

Richard Wayne Penniman, (1932 – ) became Little Richard, who claims to be “the architect of rock ‘n roll.”  Good Golly Miss Molly was first recorded in 1958. A group called The Valiants also recorded the song and released it first, but Little Richard’s version was the hit. Today, Little Richard is 79.

Jack Webb, (1920- 1982) produced the hit TV series, Dragnet, and starred as Sergeant Joe Friday. The original Dragnet starring Jack Webb ran on radio from June 3, 1949, to February 26, 1957; and on television from December 16, 1951, to August 23, 1959; and from January 12, 1967, to April 16, 1970. NBC‘s radio and television networks carried all three series.  On a personal note, Webb had a Jewish father who left home before he was born.  He was raised Roman Catholic by an Irish-Indian mother.  He died of a heart attack at the age of 62.

Officer Frank Smith was last played by Ben Alexander on both television and radio. Webb’s first partner on radio, and on TV was Sgt. Ben Romero, played by Barton Yarborough, who died of a heart attack after only three episodes were filmed. The Romero character (who also died of a heart attack, as acknowledged on the December 27, 1951 radio episode, “The Big Sorrow”) was replaced first by Detective Sergeant Ed Jacobs (Barney Phillips), and then by Officer Frank Smith. Smith was first played by Herb Ellis. After four episodes, Alexander took over the role.

Charles Hardin Holly (1936 – 1959) was most famously known as Buddy Holly.  His song Peggy Sue was first recorded and released in July 1957 and is ranked as the #100 best song of all time by Acclaimed Music.  The song was originally called Cindy Lou for Buddy’s niece, the daughter of his sister, Pat Holley Kaiter. The title was later changed to Peggy Sue in reference to Crickets drummer Jerry Allison‘s girlfriend (and future wife), Peggy Sue Gerron, with whom he had recently had a temporary breakup.

Buddy Holly’s musical style was influenced by Elvis Presley after he saw him perform in Lubbock, Texas.  Buddy Holly, in turn, was a major influence on The Beatles. Interestingly, The Beatles chose their band name partly in homage to Holly’s band, The Crickets. Furthermore, John Lennon recorded a cover version of Peggy Sue on his 1975 album Rock ‘n’ Roll. Paul McCartney owns the publishing rights to Holly’s song catalogue.

And, Elton John began wearing eyeglasses when he performed because of the influence of Buddy Holly.

Holly’s career was short-lived.  It lasted a year-and-a half and he only released three albums before he died at the age of 23 in the famous airplane crash on February 3, 1959 in a field near Clear Lake, Iowa.

Also killed in the crash were Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and the pilot Roger Peterson.  The crash influenced the song American Pie, The Day the Music Died by Don McLean. There are other interesting sidebars involving famous musicians related to Buddy Holly’s tour and the events leading up to the crash.  If you’re interested, look at “The Day the Music Died” on the web.

Alexandra Zuck (1942- 2005), was more famously known as Sandra Dee. She was a model and an award-winning actress. She married singer Bobby Darin in 1960 and they divorced in 1967.  She was best known for her film roles in Gidget and A Summer Place. One of the popular songs of the Broadway musical and 1978 movie Grease is “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee.”  Throughout her life, she struggled with anorexia, drugs and alcohol problems.  She died of renal failure.

Walden Robert Cassotto (1936 – 1973) was better known as singer and actor Bobby Darin.

His singing style easily crossed over from rock ‘n roll to big band, pop, folk and jazz.  Darin co-wrote the song Splish Splash on a bet by his co-author Murray Kaufman who didn’t think Darin could write a song that began with the words “Splish Splash, I was takin’ a bath.”  In 1958, the song reached #3 on the U.S. pop singles charts and mentions several characters from other songs of the period including Lollipop, Peggy Sue and Good Golly Miss Molly.

In 1967-68 Darin suffered three personal blows: (1) He and actress Sandra Dee divorced after seven years; (2) After Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination, he suffered prolonged depression. He was with Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles the night he was murdered; and (3). Back in 1936, the stigma of unmarried pregnancy had overwhelmed his family, and for 31 years they kept a dark mega-secret from Bobby. In 1967, they revealed a life-altering bombshell that devastated him. He learned his “sister” Nina was really his mother, and his “mother” Polly was his grandmother!

He died at the age of 37 following six hours of open heart surgery to repair two artificial heart valves from a previous surgery.

Here is Bobby Darin’s last performance of Splish Splash:

After his summer TV show was canceled, he performed one last time at the Las Vegas Hilton. This video is presumably from that concert.

Remember: Make Every Hour Your Happy Hour



Filed under Books On Writing That I Like

Hardboiled and Usual-2

An RKO publicity still of Astaire and Rogers d...

Image via Wikipedia


By Zoltan James

Rosie’s little diner was now filling up as a second wave of misfits filed in. I liked to file this species under the general subject of misanthropes, and sub-filed them in my mind as madams, magistrates, magi, Mafioso, millionaires, and the generally moonstruck, misbegotten and misbehaved.  Oddly enough, I knew most of the mish-mash.

Coming through the door hand-in-hand was Dora the Fedora and her androgynous gal pal, Sal. Dora was handsome for a girl. She always wore a suit and tie, and hid her slinky yellow hair under her iconic mustard brown hat. I knew Sal in high school when we all thought she was a boy named Pat. With heavy make-up and a flouncy dress, Sal had become a decent looking. . . person.

Following behind them was Fastidious Floyd the philanthropist.  Floyd was the perpetual playboy bachelor and always looked like he had just stepped out of a Fred Astaire movie.  Sauve, debonair, slicked-back hair, pencil-neat moustache, and a smile so thin I bet if you sucked the cheese off a Dorito it wouldn’t fit into his mouth.  It was rumored he had more money than Rockefeller. The man was a walking ATM always doling out money to whomever he deemed needy. And that was the bane of his existence. Poor Floyd was followed by more needy dames than a horse has flies. I noticed Rosie pouring him coffee before he even sat down.

Another regular couple included Jackie the Barber, although she preferred to be referred to as a “tonsorial artist.” She was seated with boyfriend Bob the Boner, which always drew a laugh that he didn’t appreciate.  He worked for Maddox Grocery over on Main de-boning chicken and other poultry. Between the ever present herring-bone pattern of someone else’s clipped hair that adorned whatever Jackie was wearing that day and Bob’s farm-fresh smell of bleached game, they presented the picture of working Americana.

Sitting over in the dark corner, by herself, was Katie the Phlebotomist. Her face was pleasant but pasty white. She wore long, straight black hair, black lipstick and painted her nails black, like an aging Cher. She drew blood at the hospital but we joked amongst ourselves that she was really a vampire. Considering her looks and the length of her canines, there were times we thought maybe it wasn’t a joke.

Everyone in the joint had a sordid story, including me. We all lived on the edge of danger. Call it what you want.  It might be bankruptcy, foreclosure, divorce, laid off from a lousy job, and quite possibly a heartbeat away from getting run over by a UPS truck making a right turn.

By the time Rosie brought me breakfast, I was hungry as a junk-yard dog. But, I decided to hold back and eat slow. Something didn’t sit right and it wasn’t my scrambled eggs. So I masticated like a camel and pretended I had time to kill.

Three stools down along the counter the cockroach hunched over his food. He put me on edge.  He ate his huevos so slow I thought sprouts might spiral out of his beans. He forked his food without letting his elbows leave the counter. When he wasn’t forking, he stared either straight ahead at the two short order cooks in the kitchen or seemed preoccupied with counting the rice kernels on his plate.

After my third cup of coffee, I decided the cockroach was not likely a threat. He just looked that way. Besides, I figured it best to return to my trailer and to whatshername.  I remembered hearing it once last night as we practiced the mattress mambo. I racked the balls in my brain. I was certain her name started with an “A.”  Abby, Amy, Alex, Angela, Adrienne. Alex. Yeah, Alex. That was it. I was pretty sure it was Alex. The flash of memory lifted my mood.

I signaled Rosie for my check.  She sauntered over, smiled and tipped her head slightly sideways in the direction of the cockroach. “Your new friend took care of your fare,” she said.

I tried not to look surprised.

Rosie popped a bubble the size of a basketball from her gum. “Feel free to leave a tip if you like, sugar.”

I dug a five spot out of my pocket, smoothed it into a long “V” and held it out to her between my fingers.

She fluttered her long lashes and parted her red lips ever so slightly. She slid her warm right hand along mine. Electricity surged up my arm. She took the bill, folded it neatly with her fingers and hid it somewhere deep into her bra.  She winked. “Thought I might let it collect interest. What do you say?”

“Maybe. Maybe not.”

She huffed, spun on her black wedges, and let loose her charms on her next victim.

As I headed for the door, I passed the cockroach and mumbled, “Thanks for the breakfast stranger.  My treat if I see you again.”

He spun in his seat to face me and grabbed my left wrist. I tried to jerk it free, but he was too damn strong. He spoke in a baritone that sounded like it came from the bottom of an oil drum. “Play your cards right, Chaser, and we won’t need a next time.”

I took my right thumb and dug it hard into the “V” between his thumb and forefinger. It’s one of the most sensitive nerves on your body. He released my wrist like he’d picked up a hot branding iron by the wrong end.

“What do you mean?” I hissed, so only he could hear.

He rubbed his hand and the tears from his eyes. He leaned in and put his nose almost on mine. The bill of his cap bumped my forehead.  I could smell the greasy beans and eggs on his breath. “Stay away from my wife,” he growled.

“Who the hell is your wife?” I shot back.

“The one you just left in your trailer.”

He looked at me like I was supposed to blurt her name out loud so he could nod in agreement, assured that I understood his meaning.

“You mean. . .” I stalled hoping he would fill in, but he didn’t. There was a long draw of silence. I met his stare.  Finally, I said, “You mean, Alex?”

He sat up straight on his stool. “Who the hell is Alex?”

“Isn’t that your wife’s name?  Although, I gotta say she never let on she was married.”

“Her name is Starrla. Two ‘r’s’.”

I must have looked surprised, because then he added, “Blonde hair. Blue eyes. The name “Harley” tattooed on her right bum.  That her?”

I felt flummoxed, like I’d been hit in the stomach. I sat hard on the stool next to him.  I leaned on the counter. “Yeah. That’s her. But I never figured her to be the Harley type.”

“She ain’t. That’s my name.”

“Your name? Sorry stranger. Never got your handle.”

“That’s right.” He nodded.


“The name’s Handel, as in the Messiah. Harley Handel. With an “e-l” not an “l-e.”  He offered a big paw to shake, but no smile. His big, black curious eyes bore into the back of my brain.

“Well, my apologies, Harley,” I said. “I had no idea Starrla was married.”

“Technically, she was my third wife.”

“Was, you say?”

“I’m onto number seven now, so me and Starrla aren’t officially married anymore.”

“Then, what’s your beef?”

“I’m here to warn you, Chaser.  She’s trouble. Stay away. Far away.”

# # #

To be continued when next the sun rises, or the dark lets go, or soon as I grab lunch.

Remember. Make every hour your happy hour.


Filed under Books On Writing That I Like, Literary Links

Hardboiled and Usual

Cover of "L.A. Confidential (Snap Case)"

Cover of L.A. Confidential (Snap Case)

By Zoltan James

Short Order Noir

As you read this, think hardboiled crime fiction. Think Mickey Spillane. Philip Marlowe. Think Maltese Falcon or LA Confidential. Think tight, tough writing, with a twist of dark humor. Read this with your lights off, you’ll see what I mean.  Think to yourself, “Hey, this is good stuff.  I’m coming back for more.”  Yeah. Think that long and hard.

And, while you’re thinking, think of this as Part One.  Don’t know how many parts there will be as I’m making this up as I go – one wonderful word, one stunning sentence, one perspiration-inducing paragraph, one pint of parody, at a time. So, strap on your hat, buckle your seat belt, and let’s ride.


The name’s Rocky.  Rocky Chaser.  Private Eye.  This is a true story.  Believe it or hit the road.

It was a Saturday morning. Early. The sun was still thinking about rising. The dark didn’t want to let go. Like your lover who’s lost her sheets and wants to crawl inside your skin to keep warm.  That kind of not let go. The birds outside hadn’t even begun to chirp. And, I was hungry.

I needed coffee to clear my brain and open my drain, if you catch my drift. So, I crawled out of my toasty bed and covered my lover with sheets.  For some reason she was shivering. With luck, I figured by the time I returned, I would remember her name.

My ’75 green Volvo with the red driver’s door was dead in the parking lot. My brother Mike, the mechanic, said I needed a new engine. But that was a non starter for me since that would cost more than the heap was worth. Mike had car skills like Einstein had equations. Mike was sharp as a syringe filled with Red Bull, but, he also had a knack for making people uneasy. Long ago, when he was starting in the business, a car jack slipped and took his right forefinger. So, instead of pointing for emphasis he used his thumb. He might argue a point against you but with his thumb stuck in the air it looked like he was being agreeable. That’s exactly how he looked when he said I needed a new engine.

At any rate, it was obvious my old beater was not going to run today and I wasn’t either. So, I walked the two blocks from my trailer to Rosie Rosita’s Diner.

When I arrived, the place was already half full. I could have told you the joint was half empty, but that ain’t me. I’m an optimist and I like to win. I always get the bad guy. Always get the girl.  And, when I’m lucky, I get paid.

Ever the optimist, I’m also ever cautious. You only have to be shot twice, knocked unconscious three, your trailer robbed five, identity stolen twice, and your wallet lifted at the rodeo four, to feel suspicious of mankind. So, I scanned Rosie’s before I entered, always on the lookout for trouble. Every shadow and every corner was my enemy.

The tables in the diner were filled with the usual suspects; hard-working, blue collar studs who make America hum. Most were just getting off the night shift like Big Maggie, the 911 operator, over there in the middle, who was holding court at her table with a couple of cops. Maggie had the kind of sultry voice that when you called her with an emergency you immediately forgot that you had just ran over your neighbor with a backhoe. Her meal of choice was the “Triple Bypass,” a bountiful offering of biscuits and gravy, three stacks, three eggs, hash browns, and a side of chicken apple sausages.

Next table over, sat Pete, the UPS driver. He was Marine clean and no matter the weather, always appeared in stiffly ironed brown shorts, and forever chiseled like Mr. Universe.  He chose the tidy bowl of granola and coffee with cream.

Rosie once leaned across the counter and said to me conspiratorially that she liked Pete’s package.

I said, “You mean the kind he delivers?”

She blew a bubble from her gum and snapped it. “Maybe.  Maybe not,” she said in her usual cryptic way.

Then there was Jake, the Roto-Rooter guy, who always sat by himself in the back corner, with his usual crusty and dusty dungarees. We could always tell if he had had a busy night based on how blue or brown his jeans looked. Today, they looked septic brown. He wore his greasy hair long and tucked under an old St. Louis Cardinals cap that had seen redder days. He had cracks in his hands big enough to hold small rocks. When Jake finished his meal and left, no one dared sit in that toxic spot.  Even newcomers were shooed away.

I stepped across the threshold, nodded round the room, and took the stool at the end of the counter. My usual. From my vantage point I could tell immediately if it was opportunity or danger walking through the door. I blew Rosie a kiss.  She brought me coffee. Black.

Rosie is as pretty as her name and for a short-order cook, who’s medium built, she was a tough cookie. I think she liked me. She greeted me with her usual, “Usual?”

“Yeah. Hardboiled.”

She sat the pot of hot coffee on the counter. The brown liquid sloshed side to side. She laughed, low and tough, “Funny. That’s how I like my dicks.”

My right eyebrow raised a centimeter, barely enough to be noticed. “You’re talkin’ P.I.’s, right?”

“Maybe.  Maybe not.”  I saw the hint of a smile.

“Then, I’ve changed my mind. Make it scrambled,” I said. “That’s how I like my chicks.”

She drummed her fingers on the counter.  Her nails were red as catsup.  “You’re talkin’ women, right?”

“Maybe.  Maybe not,” I said.

She leaned over the counter and kissed me on the cheek. “Nice to have you back.”  Her lips were warm. With her thumb, she smudged the lipstick off.  She threw me a wink and then moved down the counter sliding her pot along as she went. It left a trail of steaming condensation, which matched my thoughts. As she walked her hips swayed in unison with the sloshing coffee. I craved a refill.

Then I saw danger walk through the door.

He was a tall drink of cockroach, someone whom I’d not seen before. His face was pimply and pock marked like someone had used his head for a dartboard. His eyes were black as eight balls. He wore a beat up cap that said, “Jesus is coming. Look busy.” He also wore a tattered hoodie and a brown ponytail that slung over and down to his waist. When he threw his leg over the counter stool, like he was mounting a bicycle, is when I saw the words etched in Century Gothic script on his well-worn belt. They declared, “I don’t give a fig, you sycophant.”

I shuddered. I’d seen those words before. Where?

Rosie greeted the stranger with a thin smile and a raised pot of coffee as if ready to pour and said, “Usual?”

“Naw,” he grumbled. “Tall glass of milk.”

# # #

To be continued when next the sun rises, the dark lets go, or soon as I finish breakfast.

Remember. Make every hour your happy hour.


Filed under Books On Writing That I Like, Literary Links