Excerpt: “Smoke and Ink”

I describe the black smoke that had bubbled from between the buttons of my shirt, and Reema sits patiently, waiting for her turn to speak.

“I think you need to get out of here,” she says.

“Reema, you know I wouldn’t lie about something like that.”

“And that’s the scary part,” she says. “I know you’re telling the truth about what you think you saw, but I’m not sure why you think you saw it at all. Maybe you should take a drug test or something.”

“I’m clean,” I say, crossing my arms. I wasn’t expecting her to bring that up. Reema, of all people, knew how hard I had worked to get beyond that dark spot in my past.

“You think you’re clean,” she says. “Who knows what those psychos you’ve been covering would do to get someone to believe them. You said you had coffee with them: They could have slipped you something or –”

She has a point, and I uncross my arms to show that I’m willing to acknowledge it. As I draw my hands away from my chest, my jacket pulls back a bit and I see Reema’s expression change into one of surprise and horror. Looking down, I pull the lapels away.

I’ve left my gel pen uncapped in my pocket, and black ink has soaked into my shirt.

“Or maybe that’s it,” she says, grimace turning into a half-smile that’s half sweet, half mischievous. “I still think you should take a drug test, though. Hallucinations take more than a visual trigger.”

Then I hear it: eight piano keys crashing in a single chord and filling every corner of my head with noise. I look for the culprit, but there’s not a piano in the room. Not a stereo, speaker, radio or even windchime. But the sound — a chord struck just barely off from the rest of the song, continues, and it snaps the string of words in my head so they go skittering off like plastic beads across tile.

“Yeah,” I feel like I’m shouting over the din. The only words or Reema’s response that break through are “wait in your office” and “get the building medic.”

I inch down the stairs, each step muffled by the endless piano chord reverberating in my head. Once in my office, I close the door behind me and remove the pen from my pocket. I whip it at the wall so hard that it cracks completely in half and bleeds a matching stain into the rug.

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Writespiration: Takashi Murakami’s “Kansei Korin Gold”

Living in Chicago means you can see something spectacular on any given weeknight. Tuesday night was the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Takashi Murakami exhibit. For a casual art lover and music fiend like myself, the main attractions were the work he did for Kanye West’s “Graduation” album (see below); the multiple recreations of D.O.B., his twisted Mickey-Mouse-esque mascot (also below); and his full-wall murals that combine elements of traditional Japanese artists like Hokusai with modern creators like Hayao Miyazaki and Jim Henson in complex cities of activity.

But, as was probably intended by the curators, I left with a far different impression of the avant-garde Japanese artist’s work — and a new favorite that’s still got me thinking a day later.

Takashi Murakami's "Kensei Korin Gold," a circular screenprint with multicolored leaves and flowers.

Takashi Murakami’s “Kensei Korin Gold,” as seen at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.

“Kensei Korin Gold” (above) is is far more spectacular in person than in a photo. The gold leaf background is textured with blobbish smiling skulls, and the black waves sparkle with orange glitter, as if Murakami colored them in with one of the Glitter Crayolas from my childhood. Each flower has a slightly different facial expression such as joy, dismay, sluggishness, shock, etc., which turn this from a standard ornamental Japanese print to something with fantasy and personality.

That’s the kind of detail, diversity and dichotomy I try to inject into my own work. Instead of screenprinting, I use screenwriting (and prose-writing, poem-writing, etc.) to try to create things that are, like “Kensei Korin Gold,” attractive from afar and downright mesmerizing up-close. Seeing how easily Murakami does this is both challenging and inspiring.

Takashi Murakami's art for Kanye West's "Graduation" album

Murakami’s cover art for Kanye West’s “Graduation” album. That small image glowing on my iPhone screen is nothing compared to the glossy original currently hanging at the MCA.

"Tan Tan Bo" by Takashi Murakami

“Tan Tan Bo” by Takashi Murakami — A version of his mascot, D.O.B., who is a visual combustion of Japanese and American animation.

Excerpt: “Day 290” (from “Honeymoon”)

Although they had both passed under the signs pointing “To Ground Transportation” before, they had never been received by so many cameras. Neither had they received a police escort through Terminal 3 of O’Hare Airport. To two people who had just survived 278 days on an island bereft of healthy human life, there was only one word to describe it.

Lonely.

“We can do this,” Thom’s hand reassured as it squeezed hers.

“I don’t know,” Anna’s hand squeezed back.

“You killed that many zombies, and you’re scared of a few reporters?” his hip laughed as it bumped into hers.

“Hardly the same threat,” her eyes flashed in a side-glance.

The bottom step of the escalator came quicker than either of them wanted, and they were immediately surrounded. The two officers who stood in front of them were pushing the cameras back as the two behind them moved to their sides and shepherded them past the crowd as more flashes and questions blinded them.

“Did you know each other before?”

“How many did you kill?”

“Who are you going to visit first now that you’re home?”

“What did you eat on the island?”

“Will you ever go on an island vacation again?”

“What’s it like being home?”

“How many did you kill?”

“What thought kept you fighting?”

“How many did you kill?”

“How many did you kill?”

They had been instructed not to answer any questions and to keep their faces down. No looking at each other because it would connote a relationship that would land on People Magazine’s cover. No displays of affection, not even a look at each other, because it would become US Weekly’s money shot. But hold hands because it shows solidarity and fortitude. A handholding picture would be on Time or Vanity Fair with a tasteful cutline.

So they had exited the plane, walked through the terminal, descended the escalator and now were standing next to a coffee kiosk besieged by photographers climbing on the counters to get a better angle — all while hand-in-hand with their heads bowed.

The crowd pressed against the four soldiers and five airport personnel who had come to the rescue. Overhead, announcements and security reminders barely cut through the camera clicks and questions being hurled.

“Has this affected your stance on vaccination rights?”

“How many did you kill?”

Anna and Thom surveyed the crowd, looking for the thinnest layer. Just like old times — meaning just 12 days before — Anna squeezed Thom’s hand when she saw a spot in the surrounding melee that was only two bodies deep. He squeezed back to signal he had seen it, too, then again to say he was ready. She squeezed back one more time before Thom raised his other arm over his face, leaning in to cut through the middle of four reporters and cameramen huddled together.

Outside was a black SUV usually reserved for high-ranking politicians and visiting celebrities. The driver, a Secret Service veteran, was supposed to take Anna and Thom straight to her old condo, where another team of agents would stave off the press.

Instead, they ran past it and into the taxi column, where they jumped into the nearest white-and-teal cab.

“119 West Randolph Street,” barked Thom, sliding a stack of bills onto the driver’s armrest before ducking down to join Anna, who had already crouched onto the floor.

“That was remarkably easy,” she said. “Almost too easy.”

“You’re confusing ‘easy’ with ‘bloodless,’” Thom said.

She kissed him with smiling lips as the cab pulled into crawling traffic. Only when they felt the car get up to speed on the expressway did they sit back into the seats. Anna played with the diamond on her left hand, letting the light catch it and flash at her like the cameras had in the airport terminal. Somewhere in the haze of normal life, she had dreamed of being so important that reporters and cameras met her at the airport when she returned from some major economic summit or peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. Instead, she was one of two surviving warriors returning home from a nine-month zombie uprising that no one even knew about until three weeks before.

Meanwhile, Thom watched the light glint off the diamond and thought about the day he had gotten it for her. The cut on his hand had scabbed over, but it still itched. It was all worth it, he thought as his eyes traveled from the ring to Anna’s downturned face.

Forty minutes later, the cab slowed.

“119 West Randolph,” the driver said. Thom worried about how quiet he had been during the drive, but didn’t dwell on it — they had gotten where they wanted to go, and no police, news crews or military seemed to be waiting for them at their destination.

He handed over another $20 before joining Anna on the sidewalk. They looked through the handful of usual protesters to the marble interior shielded by bulletproof glass walls. Anna took his hand again and gave it another squeeze. He returned it. They walked in together.

“Hi,” Anna said to the clerk at the front desk. “Can you point us toward the marriage and civil union court?”

This is the first chapter of a larger project, Honeymoon, that I started over National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) 2015.

Short Story: “Smartass at a Coffee Shop”

She’s sitting in the next booth, reading a Jackie Collins book and just generally pissing me off.

Maybe it’s the fluorescent pink hardback she’s holding open so wide that my spine feels like it’s being cracked, too. Maybe it’s the perfect manicure that’s gripping the shiny dust jacket, or the way her Prada eyewear frames her eyes, which flit across the pages in a way that suggests she’s only interested in two or three words of each paragraph.

Or maybe its because my life is nowhere near as perfect as hers, as I can’t just sit and read while Drummer For A Fiona Apple Cover Band Serena serves me endless $5 lattes and High Schooler Just Doing This Because It Looks Good on College Applications Ethan wipes down my table every couple of minutes to get a glance at the surgically perfect cleavage peeping out of my shirt.

Instead I’m here, peering over my laptop screen while Barista Who Foolishly Bought the Bankrupt Co-Owner’s Shares Walter gives me the fisheye for ordering a single small green tea. I learned long ago to take advantage of free hot water refills so I can continue to steep my brought-from-home tea bags. My chewed nails still have last week’s self-applied polish clinging on for dear life, and the last book I read was the owner’s manual to my new, but already outdated, Macbook.

There are only a few words typed out on the glaring white Word page: my name and the date, written like it would appear on a pretentious wedding invitation. “January the Fourteenth, Two-Thousand and Six” takes up more room than “Jan. 14, 2006.”

Now she’s paying her bill with a platinum credit card that catches the light as she holds it out to Serena. She’s probably charging fifty bucks of coffee and milk to her company’s account just because she can and wants the rest of the world to know it. As she clacks out of the restaurant in thousand-dollar shoes, I can only imagine she works for some high-profile PR agency or couture fashion house, which makes me hate her even more.

My editor calls me two minutes after the Jackie Collins reader walks out. He’s pissed because my second chapter is too short, or my first chapter is too long, and I’m not following the plot structure I’m contracted to observe in everything I write for Rose Throne Publishing, Ltd., a decades-old peddler of ripped bodices and oiled pecs. My editor likes balance, and I suppose I can’t blame him. After all, it’s because of him my books get published — and straight to paperbacks sold for pocket change to vacationers and rebellious teenage weirdos about to hide the lurid lasciviousness among ignored copies of Catcher in the Rye.

He also points out, and rightfully so, that I’m almost a week late with the third chapter. The problematic truth is that I didn’t plan on a Chapter Three because I was hoping to move on from this shit job by the time Chapters One and Two ended up on his desk. I was just lucky that a good enough plot presented itself to me for Chapter Two after I found that life would continue like usual after finishing Chapter One.

That’s why I don’t care or blame him for not liking the route the story is taking. This story wasn’t even meant to leave the parking lot.

Another patron walks into the café and orders a macchiato. He’s tall, dark and handsome, and the nightclub stamp fading on the back of his hand on this chilly Wednesday morning tells me all I care to know about his social habits.

He winks at me, and I return the favor by staring back at the glare of an empty Word document.

I’m down to the last tea bag in the box I brought from home, so I ask for a to-go cup as I pack up my laptop and notebooks. I’m too busy shooting a saccharine smile at Walter as he hands me the cardboard cup to notice that my phone’s still on the table.

The Nightclubber doesn’t even try to hide the full-body scan he’s performing with his eyes when he asks me how my day is going. I don’t give him the satisfaction of answering before breaking out into the freezing wind tunnel of Jackson Boulevard.

The beautiful thing about Chicago is that it’s freezing in the winter and sweltering in the summer. There’s no in-between. The most accurate bumper sticker I’ve ever seen says “Chicago’s Four Seasons: Almost Winter, Winter, Still Winter, Construction.”

And I love it.

In the middle of January, it’s impossible to catch a cab. Overhead, the El rushes past. Tourists cover their ears from the sound. It’s really not that bad. Lake Michigan’s up ahead, where the wind makes everything colder. It’s a God-send in July, but a Devil’s advocate in January.

Jackie Collins Reader is visible a block ahead, walking in her fabulous shoes toward Michigan Avenue.

My editor probably tries to call me again, but I can’t answer because I don’t have a phone. I guess he’ll just have to wait, or talk to Busboy With A PhD in South American History Ricardo, whose Spanish, Italian and Portuguese are perfect, but whose English is limited to phrases like “More coffee?” and “Have a nice day.”

Or maybe the Nightclubber has got my phone and is adding every saved female contact with a 312 area code to his list of viable dates. The joke’s on him: Half the women in there are married or over 40, as they’re all my relatives or people at the publishing company.

As I cross the street against the light, I’m not thinking about this because I’m trying not to get killed by oncoming cars. When they honk at me, I trick myself into thinking it’s because I look stellar in my $20 jeans and Nordstrom Rack parka. The slip-on loafers can’t hurt, either.

When I head up to my apartment three stories above a 7-Eleven with a perpetually broken slurpee machine, the red light on my answering machine is blinking. It’s Walter, the angry barista who was pissed about me taking up space and paying the bare minimum for heated tap water and a single bag of dead leaves.

“Hello, this is Walter from Kayama. I’m just calling to let you know that we found your cellphone at the table you occupied this afternoon. Please come by to pick it up by the end of the day. We close at half-past four.”

“Or what?” I talk back to the recording. The clock reads 4:23.

When I walk into Kayama the next morning, Walter is wearing the same annoyed puckers look he probably had when leaving the message, and I wonder if he went home to his two pugs with that expression on his face. I know I could make it up to him by ordering a $7 double-grande frappucino and $10 ham-and-gruyere tart the size and consistency of a Little Debbie cupcake, but I don’t have that kind of money. Just my phone and a small tea to go, please.

The bell above the door jingles while Walter is begrudgingly filling a cup with hot water. Click-clacking announces the arrival of Jackie Collins’ biggest fan. Today she’s reading Chelsea Handler, as she’s done skimming her read from yesterday.

She orders a $6 cup of Joe this time, and I walk out with my tea clasped in one hand and my phone in the other. Check Kayama off of my hangouts list. I don’t like cafes seeped in animosity and echoing with the heel-clacking of shoes worth more than my rent payment.

Screen Shot 2017-08-14 at 10.52.34 PM

Taken this weekend at Third Coast, an excellent Chicago brunch place that isn’t half-owned by an annoying barista named Walter. If you go, try the stuffed French toast.

Poem: New Age Resolutions

In the icing on my birthday cake
I wrote a list.
I titled it

“New Age Resolutions.”

Chocolate frosting collected under my nail
As my finger wove between candles and candies,
Tracing:

Start something new.
Finish something old.
Then finish that something new, too.

Be more humble,
But post more selfies.
And videos.
And projects.
And writing.
And update LinkedIn.

Read before bed
And meditate in the morning,
But don’t fear sleeping in sometimes,
And don’t stay up too late on a school night
(Unless for a good reason,
Like a concert
Or one more chapter
Or a friend in need
Or being in need of a friend.)

Run more
But always toward things
Never away.

Don’t regret past mistakes,
But don’t dwell on them, either.
Stop thinking of him when tongue tastes tequila.
Stop thinking of the other him when nose detects a lit Camel Light.
Stop thinking of the other other him when ears catch that song,
Because you never danced to it together anyway.

In fact, go dancing.
Find someone to dance with,
Even if it’s the 1- and 3-count
(You’re Caucasian, after all)
And a reluctantly sipped Corona missing the lime.

Drink less.
Cook more.
Tweet less.
March more.
Swear less.
Kiss more.

Eat more cake.

I took my own advice,
So I ran out of space.
And I signed the contract with myself
By licking the frosting off my finger
With a champagne cork “pop.”

Music of the Write: “Gangsta’s Paradise” arranged by Position Music

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets hits theaters today, and it’s the newest scifi escape by Fifth Element and Lucy director Luc Besson. Regardless of whether the movie is good, it did us the favor of presenting a heart-pounding orchestral remix of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” in the final trailer. Then again, I’m a sucker for musical scores based on unexpected popular songs. Just wait until I start posting about Ramin Djwadi’s Westworld score.

 

Writespiration: Two mummies from 1942 found in a Swiss glacier

Marcelin and Francine Dumoulin left to hike in the Alps on a summer day in 1942, never to be seen again for 75 years when a worker on a ski lift noticed two mummified bodies in the melting ice.

Today NPR published a story about the two bodies dressed in WWII-era clothing and discovered last Friday within the shrinking Tsanfleuron glacier. The story itself didn’t captivate me nearly as much as the photo: Eerie without being overly graphic.

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GLACIER 3000/Keystone via AP

The Dumoulin’s youngest daughter, now in her 70s, said the discovery gave her a sense of relief, but I can’t imagine how she feels seeing the photos. She’s not the only one to experience finding a long-lost loved one in shrinking glaciers: NPR listed a few other cases, including three brothers who disappeared in 1926 and found in 2012 on the Valais’ Aletsch glacier; two Japanese climbers who disappeared in 1970 and found at the foot of the Valais’ Matterhorn glacier in 2015; and a German skier missing since 1963 and found in the Graubunden’s Morteratsch glacier just last year.

Centuries-old glaciers begin to disappear and decades-old bodies reappear: As climate change threatens our future, it’s also helping us connect with our past.

Sounds like a good theme for a story.