April 25, 20152 Comments

Fiction in a Minute: Dude, Part 4

Editor's note: you can read Part 3 here.

The smell of diesel fuel and exhaust hit Neil’s nose, then gave way to the disinfectant and alcohol smell of the emergency room.

Last time Neil was in an emergency room, his mother was still alive, a cut on her head needing stitches on Christmas Day. They weren’t at this particular emergency room, but something about these waiting rooms made them all the same. Slow, tense places serving as holding pens for the big show behind closed doors.  About thirty people sat in clusters of two and three, in straight-backed chairs designed with cheapness not aesthetics in mind. Fear and worry thickened the air.

Melly picked up the handset of an old-fashioned push button phone, the kind of phone his parents had before the ubiquitousness of “cordless” technology. She kept her back to him while she spoke, and he saw her nodding her head.

“They said we should go to the fifth floor waiting area,” she said to him.

Unmarked doors, name badges, long white corridors, the shell-shocked faces of other families, a man with a face like a mouse slowly mopping the floor. A nurse in pink scrubs met them at the elevator.

“You’re here for Mr. Deguerra?” she asked in a matter-of-fact way, clipboard at her side.

“Yes,” Melly said. Neil waited to be asked if he was family, but apparently this nurse wasn’t going to bother.

“He’s in pre-op,” she said. “Why don’t you go in for a few minutes?”

Pre-op sounded to Neil like serious family time. He couldn’t imagine Linus would want him in there -- what if he had important, deathbed kind of things to say to Melly? Surely this would be where they parted ways.

Melly smoothed her hand over her hair and he felt her hand clamp his forearm and squeeze gently. The nurse marched ahead of them down the hall without looking back.

“Please come,” Melly said. “I don’t think I can do this alone.”

The pre-op room was the size of a small theater, divided into twelve compartments by drapes hanging from ceiling tracks. They walked down the well-lit aisle, dark eyes following them from the occupied beds.

Linus laid in the furthest bed, his head propped up and his eyes dull with pain. His hospital gown drooped, exposing his right shoulder, making him seem small and old.

“You came,” he said, his lips lifting into the beginnings of a smile. “Perfect.”

Melly crooked her hand around his, her knuckles pressing into the white sheet. Tears spilt onto his arm.

“No, no,” he said. “No crying, for everything is going to be all right, Melly.”

“You saved my life again,” she said, a sob shuddering through her thin frame.

“You don’t know that,” Linus said. He blinked and refocused, this time on Neil. “Maybe this dude here saved both our lives.”

I didn’t save anyone’s life, Neil thought. If anything, me and Linus surprised the robber and that made him shoot. If we hadn’t walked in, maybe it would have never got violent. Maybe the man would have taken the money and left Melly, shaken but unhurtWho could say whether our appearance was a good thing or a bad thing? It just was.

“It was nothing, man. Now you’ve got to relax and let the doctors do their work,” Neil said.

“But I need to tell you why I brought you there,” Linus said.

“You wanted me to play for Melly,” Neil said.

“This is going to sound weird,” Linus said. “Because, to be honest, I’ve forgotten your name--”

“Neil.”

“Okay, Neil. Well, it’s still going to sound weird, but listen, if I don’t make it out of here, I need you to know this.”

“You’re going to make it out of here,” Melly said.

Neil chimed in. “Definitely.”

“I want you to get Melly pregnant,” Linus said.

“Linus!” Melly dropped his hand and covered her mouth. “Not now.”

Neil had no words to respond. “Err, um...”

“Look, I wasn’t going to spring this on you like this. We were going to warm you up to it. Get to know you. We wanted a musician, and you’re good-looking and you got talent. That’s the truth of it.”

“You’re freaking him out,” Melly said to Linus before turning to Neil.

Her blue eyes pleaded for his understanding. “I didn’t know he was going to do this,” she said. “That’s not why I asked you to come.”

“No, it’s perfect, though, babe, don’t you see that?” Linus said. “He feels the connection. He’s a good man, see?”

Neil shifted his weight and slipped his hand into his pocket. The cool plastic of his phone reminded him of Ray and his invitation, and he wished he were there now blasting a joint, strumming his guitar.

“I don’t have a job,” he said. A stupid thing to say, but all he could think of. Me a father? I can barely make my half of the rent most months.

“We’d take care of the baby,” Linus said. “We just need your sperm. My equipment doesn’t work.”

The nurse in pink scrubs appeared. “We’re going to take you in now, Mr. Deguerra.” She grabbed a handful of the white and blue curtain and yanked it open.

“Think about it,” he said.

“Yeah,” Neil said, thinking that he was sure he’d do little else. What an awkward, unexpected proposal -- a man potentially on his deathbed asking for him to get his wife, girlfriend, whatever, pregnant.

“I love you,” Melly said, holding Linus’s hand again and walking alongside the gurney.

Editor's note: you can read Part 5 here.

April 24, 20152 Comments

Fiction in a Minute: Dude, Part 3

Editor's note: You can read part 2 here.

Still in shock, Neil found himself walking ten blocks back to his car, a dark green Toyota mini-pickup, not sure how it had come to be that he would to take Melly to the hospital. There’d been some confusion after Linus was shot, during which the ambulance left without her, sirens screaming.  And she’d stood there, in the middle of the bar, arms folded over her chest and her face puffy and wet from crying. “I’m too upset to drive,” she said. It also turned out that she and Linus didn’t have a car.

The sun was too bright, and the others on the sidewalk were too cheerful. The saline, fishy smell of the ocean bit at his nose. A paperback mystery novel he had once enjoyed sprang to his mind, its dark comedy of murder and death set in the sleepy beauty of the Florida Keys striking him as horrible now that he had witnessed in person a violent crime. There really was nothing funny about being shot.

His T-shirt was as damp as if he had ran two miles, and the cool sea breeze made him shiver. The sound of laughter pealed out of a juice and smoothie cafe. His phone buzzed in his pocket, and irrationally he thought it was Melly or Linus, calling to see where he was, before realizing that of course neither had his mobile number.

The text on his phone was from his friend Ray. “Want to come over and jam?”

Neil thought about the last jam session he’d gone to at Ray’s; a kickback, marijuana-infused afternoon playing riffs and listening to Ray’s girlfriend come up with crazy lyrics to their impromptu songs. It sounded like the best possible antidote to the events of the day; the gunshot could become a story with edges dulled by distance and pot.

He put the phone on the seat without responding and five minutes later, he was parked in front of the Green Man bar. The urge to put the truck back in drive and keep going was strong. Why get involved in these peoples’ lives? They didn’t even know his last name. Surely they would not be surprised if he never showed up again, an afternoon ghost with a guitar on a day of tragic events.

But then Melly stepped onto the cracked sidewalk, her hand shading her eyes from the glare, and a green purse strapped around her body. She looked fragile and small, like a doll, standing there, so Neil tapped the horn -- one beep -- and with the faintest of smiles she walked toward him.

“I guess I could’ve taken the bus,” she said, settling into the truck’s bench seat as he slid the phone back in his jeans pocket. “Thanks for coming to get me.”

Neil saw she’d pulled her blonde and grey hair into a thin ponytail, revealing a sharp jawbone and hollow cheeks. Good-looking, for an older woman.

“No worries,” he said. But she’d already turned her head to look out of the window while he drove, her long fingers knitted together and resting on her lap.

They drove in silence for a long time, down Washington Boulevard to Lincoln, stopping and going and stopping in the usual beach area traffic.

“Linus owns the Green Man,” she said, out of the blue. “He likes to tell people I do, but it’s not true.”

“Are you two married?” Neil didn’t know what else to ask her, and even this venture seemed intrusive, odd. The kind of question that served only to highlight how little he knew about both of them.  He was a stranger thrust upon them in a tragedy.

She just shook her head. “Lived together a long time,” she said.

“Common law marriage, then,” he said, not sure why he was pressing her on this. She shrugged and kept looking out the window.

Neil drove through the enormous intersection of Lincoln Boulevard and the Marina Freeway, the white buildings of Daniel Freeman Hospital shining like a beacon against a bright blue sky. A day for taking pictures. He pulled into the driveway, following a sign that said emergency services drop-off. I’ll drop her off then head over to Ray’s. Duty done.

She closed her eyes and sat still as a mannequin. Neil held his breath, worried she would never get out. He realized that it would not be so simple for him as to be able to drop her off at the emergency room and then go about his life, chalking the whole experience up to a weird life lesson about not going off with strangers. He resigned himself to taking care of this woman, who had just witnessed her lover's shooting, and been at gunpoint herself. Let’s not be such a selfish bastard today, he thought.

“He’s saved my life five times,” she said, trembling slightly and Neil saw the tears brimming over her lashes and spilling on to her cheeks.

“Why don’t I park the truck and we’ll go in together?” he said.

She nodded and opened her eyes so he could see the gratitude outshining sadness briefly in their blue depths.

Editor's note: You can read part 4 here

April 17, 20152 Comments

Fiction in a minute: Dude, Part 2

[Editor's note: you can read part 1 here.]

Feeling some trepidation at following a stranger to an unknown location, Neil trailed behind Linus, his guitar case banging against his thigh. The other man carried Neil's mini-amp in one hand, the extension cord draped around his neck like a thin, black snake.  They crossed the street and headed north on Main. They walked for blocks in silence, until gluten-free pie bakeries and forty-dollar T-shirt stores gave way to liquor stores and apartment buildings begging for fresh paint.

Neil cleared his throat. “So, are we almost there yet?”

“Almost there,” Linus said without turning to face him.

“Longer walk than I expected,” Neil said, and when Linus didn’t respond to that, Neil felt a prickling along the back of his neck. What made him go off and start following this strange du-u-ude to a secret spot? He considered peeling off, claiming he had some pressing appointment he forgot about, but he didn’t want Linus to think he was some kind of pussy afraid of walking a few blocks. If it came to it, Neil could throw a punch.

At the next intersection, Linus turned right and ahead of them was a white stucco building, bars on its curtained windows. Someone had painted “Green Man” in shaky, uneven lettering above the open door.

It took a few moments for Neil’s eyes to adjust to the quiet darkness inside the bar. He first saw a jukebox on the far wall opposite the door, with red, green and yellow lights flashing. A thick man in dark clothes stood in profile to them, his left hand twitching at his side. Facing him was a tall blonde woman, who was pulling money out of the cash register with shaking hands.

“Melly,” Linus said. “You gotta hear this guy play.”

The man pivoted to the door. Neil didn’t see a gun, but he saw the flash of an explosion coming from the man’s right hand. The sound was deafening. He dropped the guitar case and then dove for the floor just as Linus was thrown backwards and on top of him.

“LINUS!” the woman shouted.

“The money!” the man said, his eyes darting from Linus and Neil to the door.

Neil’s throat closed over the coppery taste in his mouth. He saw dollar bills flutter to the floor like leaves, then scooped up by the man with shaking hands. Neil waited for the sound of the gun, but all he heard was heavy footsteps headed out the door.

He wiggled out from underneath Linus’s legs. Blood soaked the left shoulder of Linus’ shirt. Neil looked at the woman, who still stood frozen behind the bar, her hand clapped over her mouth.

“Call 911,” he said. “Now.”

She picked up the phone and he turned back to Linus, who was staring at the ceiling.

“Dude, we’re getting you some help,” Neil said. “You’re going to be all right.”

“Is that Melly?” Linus asked. The woman sobbed street names and numbers into the phone.

“She’s okay,” Neil said. “Just shaken up.”

“I wanted to bring you here for a reason,” Linus said.

“Yeah, my songs,” Neil said.

“More---” Linus said, then a coughing fit pulled his shoulders off of the floor. The bloodstain on his shirt spread to his chest. In the distance, Neil heard the sirens.

“Don’t---“ Linus said in between coughs.

“Lay back,” Neil said. “They’ll be here soon. Try to rest. You’ll be fine.”

“But---“

The sirens grew louder and louder until he heard the crunch of tires on gravel and doors opening and shutting outside. Two of LAPD’s finest came through the door with guns in hand, scanning the room before one kneeled next to Linus.

“Gunshot wound to the shoulder,” he said into his radio microphone. “Everyone else okay?”

Neil nodded, as did Melly.

“You shouldn’t---“

“Are you trying to tell me something about the shooter?” the police officer asked.

Linus shook his head, then slumped back on the floor, his eyes shutting. Neil watched his chest, relieved to see he was still breathing. Whatever he had to say to Neil, he’d have to do it when he was in better shape.

Editor's note: You can read part 3 here.

March 13, 20151 Comment

Fiction in a minute: Dude, Part 1

Neil crunched through the chords of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” on the corner of Hill Street and Main in Santa Monica, the mini-amplifier stealing power from the corporate coffee seller without gaining the attention of its many baristas. If the caffeine junkies sitting outside noticed the theft of electricity, they didn’t care. Nor did they care about Neil’s guitar playing. Two pairs of women talked non-stop, while the singles at the other tables stared into the abyss of whatever electronic device they brought with them.

A green striped polo shirt blocked Neil’s line of vision to the cars obeying the corner’s stop sign.

“All right, du-u-ude!” The man clapped his hands and whistled a long shrill note. A few coffee drinkers glanced up to see what the fuss was about, but no one else clapped.

“Come on, peeps! Give it up for this du-u-ude!”

Neil noticed the man had a way of drawing the word dude out as though it had three syllables, like a caricature of a laid-back beach bum in the eighties. He squinted into the sun and craned his neck to get a good luck at Dude’s face.

He was older than Neil expected, though maybe the old school “du-u-ude” should have been a clue. Deeply tanned skin hung in creases from his bony face, and a hot pink circle on his nose suggested a recent skin cancer intervention.

He extended his hand then curved long fingers around Neil’s outstretched palm in a loose, but not limp, shake.

“Linus,” he said, his left fist banging on his chest.

Neil introduced himself and thanked him for the applause in a low voice. The attention, though welcome, was a little embarrassing.

“Du-u-ude, you are awesome. You should be playing the Civic Center, not the street corner.”

“Yeah,” Neil said. “Tell my agent.”

Like he had an agent.

“You got any of your own songs?”

“Sure, but no one wants to hear those.”

“I do.” And with that, Linus folded like a penknife onto the low brick wall surrounding the coffee shop patio, drawing his knees up to his chin and bringing his worn flip-flops encasing surprisingly well-manicured toenails into view.

Why not? Neil thought. He pulled the amplifier cord out of the guitar and strummed a little.

“I’ve got this song I’ve been working on lately,” he said. “I don’t have a name for it yet, and only an idea for the chorus lyrics.”

“Lay it on me.”

Neil played the song, humming where he didn’t have the lyrics worked out. Linus was an attentive audience of one, his eyes trained on Neil’s fingers pressing and flicking over the guitar strings, a smile playing on his face throughout.

“That was epic, du-u-ude,” he said, rising from the brick wall to give his standing ovation. Neil couldn’t stop smiling.

“Come with me,” Linus said. “I want you to meet some people over at this pub. They’ll let you play there. Maybe even pay you.”

Neil glanced at the guitar case with its few crumpled dollar bills and loose change. He’d put half of the money in there himself, just to make it look like people were donating. The corner wasn’t working out so well, he thought. What did he have to lose?

Editor's note: You can read part 2 here.

October 31, 2010No Comments

Happy birthday, Johnny Marr!

He created the haunting, swampy guitar sound that made the Smiths' How Soon Is Now? the perfect anthem for all my teenage angst. Happy 47th birthday to our generation's signature guitarist.