Scene of the Write: Observations on a train to St. Louis

The following are observations made from a late June train trip from Chicago to St. Louis.

Just outside of Chicago: A boat graveyard, shells of old hulls and schloops tagged with graffiti inside a barbed-wire playpen. A shredded down comforter dangles from the wire, grayish-white stuffing droopy like mid-February snow drifts.

About an hour later, we’re stopped because they “have an issue on the train” they need to deal with. Anti-masker, perhaps — we just picked up some people in Joliet — but my brain is concocting a number of Mission: Impossible scenarios. Just outside the window is a country road flanked by stone pillars. The inscription is too small to read from here, but it’s fun watching as the drivers of cars are getting out and socializing while they wait for us to move out. There’s a man in a white sedan taking selfies, and a white limo with a driver dressed to the nines, taking his chances on getting out into the humid air.

On the way to Bloomington we pass a barn that looks like a drunk giant stepped into it, splintering half the roof and one wall down while the belfry still stands, weathered but intact.

Shortly after 5:15, the man sitting next to me — the one in bright green Chuck Taylor high-tops, with a copy of Reza Aslan’s Zealot that he’s halfway through, with a kid on the way and a weekend at the Cards game with some friends before he becomes a dad (all of which I learned by eavesdropping on his phone call for the first two hours of the trip) — offers me a shot of Bulleit Bourbon from a sealed bottle. I decline and watch as he proceeds to make a bourbon and coke in a thermos mug.

It’s happy hour on a Friday in the tiny towns we pass, too. A group sits in lawn chairs next to an above-ground pool in Macoupin County, a couple igloo coolers warming in the low evening sun. It makes me wonder what would be different about me if I had grown up in a town with a grain silo next door and Amtrak route cutting through my subdivision. Or if I’d be one of those people knocking back a Bud in the summer evening, watching the train from Chicago click-clack past, wondering what life would be like if I was on it.

I see you shiver with antici…

Tim Curry wakes me up with that line some mornings. It’s just tucked into the folds of my brain, in that rolling enunciation he has:

“I see you shiver with antici—

—pation.”

I’ve seen Rocky Horror Picture Show maybe twice in my life, thought a midnight dress-up show is on my bucket list. But there’s something about that line: About the onomatopoetic joke that combines a creative sense of word play with Curry’s incomparable delivery.

I can’t even say it wakes me up on mornings where something big’s happening. It didn’t wake me up this morning, but I’m thinking about it tonight as I’m waiting for something really wonderful to happen in just a couple hours. I’d say more but…this isn’t that kind of blog. Winky-face emoji.

Instead of shivering with anticipation, here’s the scene, written out as the biggest cheat of a blog post I think I’ve ever written:

Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure album is spinning on the turntable. The cheap Victrola suitcase player doesn’t do justice to the depth of this album‘s production value, but after months of searching and waiting for Best Buy, then Amazon, to cancel my order of a vinyl copy, I finally got the album from a tiny record shop in Chicago. Buy local, buy indie. The song that’s playing is “Step Into My Life.” Every song on this album is good, though. This and Rina Sawayama’s SAWAYAMA kept me sane during Summer of My Suburban Pandemic.

A candle from Burke & Hare Co. is burning. It’s the Nevermore scent — tobacco, teakwood, vanilla and black pepper, like a high-line cologne that covers up the smell of the brownies I baked earlier.

Instead of reading the biography on Gypsy Rose Lee that’s waiting for me on my bedside table or watching the third episode of Halston on Netflix or god forbid doing more online shopping, I’m waiting for Sims 4 to finish updating so I can build a house and bulldoze it. That’s what I do now, I’ve learned. Sims isn’t fun as an adult: The excitement of building a person, giving them a house, finding them a job, make friends when you’re a barely a teenager completely dulls when you realize that your little virtual person is just as damn tired as you are, juggling the house, the job, the friends. So now I just build and demolish, like a kid constructing sandcastles at the beach.

I told a friend last night that I didn’t know what to do with myself now that my beta reader team has a copy of the first half of my novel: The logical thing would be to start the second half, but I’m far from logical with a can of Dark Horse wine in my system. He suggested I put on music and dance around the apartment.

Jessie Ware just started singing “Mirage (Don’t Stop).” Seems as good a time as ever to get on my my groove.

Vignette: The Tinkerer

The bell above the entrance tinkled its chime — two back-and-forths of the tiny bauble, then the clink of the whole ornament against the glass as the door shut. Malfi looked down the row and saw a middle-aged woman in a periwinkle knit sweater set standing at the entrance, clutching a jewelry case that was too big for a bracelet but too small for a necklace.

“Back here,” Malfi called, hardly looking up from the porcelain duck she was fixing. She had to hold the beak to its head for no less than 30 seconds for the glue to dry, and she had just rounded on the fourteenth.

The woman looked down the aisle with trepidation, as if unsure she had arrived in the right place despite the bold gold lettering on the door announcing it as Icarus Antiquities and Repairs. Deciding she was better off by the door, she decided to stay put and shout her wishes across the cluttered shop floor.

“I need something prepared,” she announced.

“Back here,” Malfi repeated.

“I was told the owner can help.”

“That’s me, but I you have to come to the back of the shop,” Malfi said. Twenty-two seconds.

The linoleum tiles overlaying dull wood flooring groaned as the customer began her journey toward the back of the shop, dodging the chandeliers and braziers hanging from the ceiling like a jungle explorer ducking vines. Malfi’s 30 seconds were up long before the woman reached the back desk.

“I have an old pocket watch that needs fixing,” the woman said, not even acknowledging the broken ducktail that Malfi was now trying to match with the back of its glossy cream body. “I was told the owner could help.”

Malfi put the ducktail back onto the purple cushion where the other broken pieces sat.

“Let’s take a look,” she said, deftly sliding a drawer under the counter open so she could retrieve her jeweler’s glass.

The woman clutched the box to her chest as if Malfi had insulted the watch she had not yet seen.

“I was told the owner could help,” she said.

Malfi flashed her a disingenuously wide smile, as she all too familiar with this comment. At 28 years old, with jet black hair, a gold bar threaded through her left eyebrow, and a miniature version of Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Holfernes tattooed on her right forearm, she wasn’t the person most people expected as the proprietor of a high-end antique resale and repair shop. The truth was that even she didn’t believe it some days, but leave it to that reclusive Uncle Pius to bequeath the shop to her — provided she allow keep the staff on in his absence.

“Ma’am, I am the owner of this shop,” she said. “If you’re looking for Pius Brown, he died a year ago. I’m his great-niece, and I would love to help you with your pocket watch. But first you need to take it out of the box.”

You’re the Tinkerer?”

Malfi was surprised to hear someone mention the Tinkerer by name.

“I’m not, but may I ask how you know them? A friend, perhaps?”

“My neighbor said they fixed their mantel clock,” the woman said. “I was hoping they could help me with my great-grandfather’s pocket watch. He found it in the war, see, and I want to give it to my son for his high school graduation gift.”

Malfi nodded and pushed the duck aside. She held out her hand for the box. Before the woman could hand it to her, however, the trap door behind the counter swung up and open with a bang that knocked the newly glued duck’s beak right off its face.

“Damn,” Malfi swore as she caught the porcelain piece just as it was about to hit the ground.

“I heard my name,” said the person now emerging from the cellar under the shop. “Did someone ask for the Tinkerer?”

“This lady’s got a pocket watch that needs repairing,” Malfi said. “Says you fixed her neighbor’s mantel clock.”

The Tinkerer emerged all the way out from their subterranean workshop, and Malfi got to enjoy yet again the expression on the face of any customer who had never yet met the shop’s star repair expert. Six-foot-seven with a feathery shock of white-blond hair, the Tinkerer was almost 80 years old but had failed to shrink in their old age. In fact, they seemed to have failed to age at all. The only sign of dilapidation on him was the inch-thick lenses they wore in his glasses, though Malfi had been told that they had always needed that strong a prescription. The Tinkerer’s daily uniform consisted of black pants faded to gray, a thick canvas-like button down that was yellowing around the cuffs and armpits, and a worn leather apron that caught all manner of soot, glue, metal shavings, threads, cotton fillings, straw, staples and more.

“Let’s have a look,” they said. A warm smile to the woman, and whether she wanted to or not, she was handing the pocket watch box over to them.

The Tinkerer opened the box and drew the watch out by its chain. It swung like the paper lanterns hanging above the counter, catching their light.

“Good casing. A few scratches but nothing that can’t be buffed out.” The Tinkerer opened the watch and examined its face. “Ah, but it has most definitely stopped ticking. We can get that fixed pretty easily — a lot of times these old watches just need a little cleaning and TLC. That means ‘tender loving care,'” they said, peering over their lenses at the woman, who stood transfixed. Her gaze was locked on the Tinkerer’s hair, which had a holographic effect that reminded Malfi of a plastic unicorn’s mane.

When the Tinkerer’s eyes fell back to the watch, they spotted something that even its owner hadn’t noticed. Malfi handed her jeweler’s glass to the Tinkerer, who then replaced their glasses with it.

“There seems to be some odd staining here, right above the 6 numeral,” the Tinkerer said, leaning even closer to it so that the jeweler’s glass in their eye almost collided with the watch face.

Malfi and the customer only saw the brow and cheek squeezing to hold the jeweler’s glass in place as the Tinkerer examined the watch. They didn’t see the horrors that were passing through the lens into the Tinkerer’s mind. Palm trees on fire. An ashen thatched roof blowing in the wind caused by a bomb blast close enough to raise the temperature in the tiny village. A skeletal child running through dirt streets crying for her mother, clutching the gold chain in her hand as the watch dragged across the pavement. A dying man pulling himself along the ground behind the watch, reaching for it in his last living breath, and disappearing as his fingers brushed the metal.

With a gasp, the Tinkerer pulled away and dropped the watch on the table. They ripped the jeweler’s glass from their eye and put the watch back in the box. The customer, unsurprisingly, looked concerned.

“I’ll need at least six weeks,” the Tinkerer said, trying to compose themself as they slipped the box into their oversized apron pocket.

“That’s not acceptable,” the woman said, the concern wearing down to annoyance. “My son’s graduation is in two weeks and I want to give it to him at his party that night.”

“Get him a keg and a laptop,” the Tinkerer said, their whimsical charm gone. “They’re better presence for an 18-year-old. Especially considering that if you give him this watch, he’ll be dead before he can get to college.”

Vignette: Gran’s rattling secret

When they pulled him out of the ravine, he was in suspiciously good shape. A couple zits on his face, a sprained thumb, a torn earlobe shiny with pus — clearly not a recent injury, but a festering infection. And breathing, thank god, despite his insistence that his inhaler was still down there somewhere. The paramedic had a spare in the ambulance.

“Why?” asked the detective, the wind tearing through the back of her Oxford shirt.

“Why is my inhaler in the ravine? I dunno, probably fell out of the car.”

“I mean, why did you drive into the ravine?”

“Oh, that,” he scratched his head, wincing as his damaged thumb caught in the tangle of his hair. “Saw it in a movie,” he shrugged.

She wasn’t buying it, he could tell. But it’s hard to tell your sister, a private detective, why you decided to pull off the road and into the airy abyss hanging over Settlers Gorge late on a sunny Tuesday afternoon with an inhaler of albuterol in one pocket and your great uncle’s silver baby rattle in the other. He patted the fabric surreptitiously: Yep, it was still there. The secret their Gran had bestowed on him upon her abrupt move to Wisconsin dairy country was still safe from her eldest granddaughter, and he intended to keep it that way from his gumshoe sibling.

#CampNaNoWriMo Vignette: “Homo sapien bitterus”

The first thing I see when I walk in is two construction workers sitting and chatting with Kris, the bartender. Shortly after I silently slip onto the stool, Kris approaches with an empty pint glass in hand, detouring briefly at the tap to pour the darkest stout on the menu before placing it in front of me.

“You’re a little early today,” she says.

“You’re a little heady today,” I reply, eying the two inches of foam filling the top of the glass.

One of the construction workers spins a pack of cigarettes between two fingers like a hyperactive watermill, and I feel my mouth itch. It’s been two years, seven month and nine days since my last cigarette, and although I can now run a mile without keeling over, the cravings haven’t gotten better.

The construction worker’s pal notices me trying not to stare at the pack of cigarettes.

“What do you want?” he asks, as if he doesn’t know.

“I quit, and I’m regretting it,” I say, nodding to the Marlboroughs once they’re face down on the bar.

“Sorry,” the smoker says, picking up the pack as if hiding it from me will make me forget how much my lips itch. “I tried a while ago, and I couldn’t do it. Girlfriend even threatened to leave, and I couldn’t stop.”

“She was a bitch,” shrugs his friend, sipping his bear. “A black lung is better than blue balls.”

His friend laughs, but it’s fake. I can tell that he’s still hurting from his girlfriend leaving, and he blames himself, his parents, his friend, the tobacco industry, even Marlborough Man Tom fucking Selleck himself, judging from the way he manhandles the crinkled box of cigarettes as he pushes them back into his workpants pocket.

The two of them go back to talking about something a guy named Ed did while sitting in his pansy-ass air conditioned trailer, and I go back to contemplating the now-thinned head on my beer. Behind the bar is a mirror hazed with time and tobacco, but I can see people walking past the bar and looking in at the urban zoo exhibit and its inhabitants. Morgan’s should have a plaque outside the door: “Species: Homo sapien bitterus. Diet: Alcohol, tobacco, regret. Habitat: Dive bars, construction sites, newsrooms. Thrive best in climates of sarcasm, self-pity and loathing.”

Scene of the write: Flight to a viral zone

Every passenger walked on with a TSA-approved packet of Clorox wipes and as many 3.4-liter containers of hand sanitizer they could fit in a quart-sized ziplock. Stand too close to someone and they’re a cleared throat away from punching you in the mouth before finishing their march up the aisle to their assigned seat — any one but the middle one. In fact, almost every middle seat is empty on this United flight to Seattle-Tacoma. When was the last time you could say that?

The same tray tables they once leaned their arms and head on as they snoozed; the same entertainment screens they tapped, hypnotized by the amount of movies and TV options they weren’t interested in; the same buttons they used to lean their seat back or call a flight attendant — they’re now dripping in disinfectant, and still off-limits.

Every cough that was once merely annoying is now a death threat. Every sneeze is eyed with suspicion. “If I wake up dead, it’ll be your fault,” you can hear people think as you sniffle, try not to touch your face. Wait, is my throat suddenly scratchy? Is my head getting hot? Or is it just because I haven’t taken off the three layers of clothing that are guarding me against a certain demise?

Flight attendants gingerly hand over full cans of soda so as not to contaminate the top, but it doesn’t stop people from spit-shining the rim before cracking one open. Better the germs you know, right?

Four and three-quarter hours later, we land in the viral zone. Another person has died since we took off, and the terminal is empty for a Tuesday at 7 p.m. A handful of mask-wearing employees hustle past with an older woman in a wheelchair. And then I see it: The true sign that Armageddon is upon us, and that I’ve landed at Ground Zero for humankind’s extinction.

The Starbucks is closed.

London calling: Another, but far different, airport scene

I’m sitting in the American Airlines Flagship Lounge at O’Hare and it’s a definite departure from the last time I blogged at Chicago’s international air hub. No corned beef and red wine for $20 this time. Now it’s free self-serve champagne (and harder, if you want); a buffet of free sushi, salads, pork loin, you name it; and a PA that announces the next boarding flight when you need to hear it.

What hasn’t changed? The people watching is still spectacular. 

A group of legging-clad women just left after only putting their phones down to doulbe-fist champagne and coconut water. One of them said something about “If she really wants to be a rich-bitch, sure,” and I couldn’t help but think how money can’t buy self-awareness.

An older couple took their spot and tried to decypher their kid’s text mesage to them warning them not to eat too much of the sushi in the buffet. I think the “LOL” threw them off.

And now I’m anxiously awaiting the announcement that my flight to London is boarding so I can get my A1 seat in business class. I sold my soul to corporate almost four years ago, and today I don’t particularly regret it.

But a note: While I’m in London, I’m going to try my hardest to post once a day, either a “scene of the write” or a part of the book I’m working on in between running a senior leadership meeting, touring one of our company’s factories, and trying not to get lost on the Bakerloo line. Thought what could be better than hearing Helen Mirren announce that you’re on a subway line called “Bakerloo?”

#NaNoWriMo2018 Day 11: Scene of the Write at Rootstock

For my birthday this year, the Man with Time on His Arm gave me a chef’s notebook that lies flat and has waterproof stone pages that are perforated and half-lined, half-blank. I carry it everywhere with me — just like I have my past, far less high-line Moleskines — but I’m naturally more inclined to use it. 

When I’m waiting for someone at a restaurant, come up with something during work, or face the 15-minute Lyft ride between my apartment and the Man with Time on His Arm, I reflexively take it out of my bag. Sometimes there’s not even an idea in my head, but I know I want to get something on the page, which is why I describe my surroundings.

That’s why I’m introducing this new category, Scene of the Write, for whenever I find myself in a place that is more like a character than a setting. Here’s one from August:

The bar was like a time machine. No, a snow globe. No, a capsule — a perfect linoleum-floored diorama with John Lennon’s solo career on audio display, courtesy of the vinyl record player hidden somewhere. It had to be vinyl. Anything else would be like a crucifix hanging in an arcade: Totally out of place.

The arm chairs were no longer stuffed, just reupholstered over and over again until the chintz, velour, suede, corduroy, tweed and polyester layered themselves into padding. They surrounded a table that was too low for their regal height and rickety despite the folded menus acting as a shim beneath one of its feet.

I inhaled the smell of decades of sloshed wine and overfilled pint glasses that had soaked into the wood of the bar and ornate tables. And shoe polish! There was a hint of shoe polish under it all, though the source was unclear. Both the patrons and staff walked around in dull brown Birkenstocks and faded Puma sneakers that let them imagine they were still in high school, just old enough to drink and stay out on a weeknight. Maybe the shoe polish smell was my own imagination at play. I’m not even sure if I know what shoe polish smells like, come to think of it.