Please explain what just happened.

Erika Rae: Which one–the weeping or the laughing?

Carissa Carter: The weeping might be me. I over-indulged on this new craving for kale that just won’t go away.

 

What is your earliest memory?

ER: Spiderman was creeping around all open-armed on our brown, plaid living room couches in the dark. Next, I found myself inexplicably stuffed in the kitchen pantry eating dried brown rice from a white bucket. I think it may have been a dream, but I’m not sure.

CC: I was sitting on the floor of my room in our new house stroking a 4×6” swatch of shag carpet from our old house.

Please explain what just happened.

Rob Mungle: I was wondering how it’s possible that Sbarro Pizza is still in business. I believe this proves the power of the Illuminati.

Slade Ham: I just watched a pair of fat kids ride with their fat parents down a sidewalk on Segways.  They’re probably going to Fuddruckers.  Holy shit.  America is so fat, my spell check recognized “Fuddruckers” as a word.

Ocean’s Banana

By Slade Ham

Humor

Texas is vast.  It is a sprawled out, multifaceted, cocky piece of real estate.  That swagger surfaces early, too, particularly if you’ve ever entered the state from the east.  A bright green sign proudly displays the distance to other cities.  Orange, Texas is four miles away and El Paso is 857, just in case you thought it was going to be a quick sprint from Louisiana to New Mexico.

“Howdy,” says Texas.  “This ain’t Rhode Island.”

As a comedian I have traveled the entire state.  Literally, border to border to border to border, there are very few cities that I haven’t heard of.  Tiny towns – villages really – dot the landscape, often little more than single traffic lights and a corner store set up to service the surrounding farms.  There are mid-sized cities too, with their Wal-Marts and community colleges, and there are larger ones yet, with real universities and more than one intersecting highway.   Then there are the Big Three.  Houston, Austin, and Dallas.

And we pretty much hate each other.  The three cities couldn’t be more different.  Houston is gritty and a little dirty, more Mexican than American it seems sometimes, like a Latino Darth Vader.  Dallas is shiny and pretentious; a rich but overweight cheerleader that nobody thinks is hot but her.  Then there’s Austin, immaculate because the hippies keep it that way.

The comedy scenes are quite different as well.  Houston was home to Bill Hicks, Sam Kinison, Brett Butler, Janeane Garofalo, Thea Vidale, and the legendary Outlaw Comics.  Austin arrested Mitch Hedburg.  Dallas, well, Dallas has never really done anything at all.

I was among the group of comics that set off that morning for a down and dirty, Houston themed one-nighter at Austin’s flagship comedy club.  Johnny, Rob, Andy, and I limped onto the freeway around noon, painfully early for people who do this sort of thing for a living.  Every one of us was a veteran comic, but none like Andy.  Andy was one of the original Outlaw Comics and had been doing comedy almost as long as the other three of us combined.  As we drove toward Austin, he told story after story and we happily listened to them all.

“So Kevin Spacey falls down some stairs coming out of this gay bar late one night in England,” Andy says.  His way of saying it is so matter-of-fact that you instantly trust it, even if you can’t confirm the source.  “People are snapping pictures of the injury and he knows it’s going to be all over the news.  He doesn’t like to discuss his sexuality publicly, so instantly he gets on the phone with his publicist and they concoct this whole story about how he was out walking his dog and slipped and fell.  I mean, sure, it was three o’clock in the morning, but he loves his dog that much.  That would be the story they decided.  People would buy that.

“So they set up this huge press conference for early in the morning so he can get in front of the controversy and explain that he was just out taking care of his furry little best friend.  Then Spacey calls his assistant.  Turns out his assistant at the time used to work for Madonna and Guy Ritchie, so this was barely on the radar for weird shit that he’s had to deal with, but still, it’s the middle of the night.  The assistant answered the phone all sleepy, and Spacey said…”  Andy paused for a second, giving it that flawless half-step that comes from thirty years of comedy.

“I’m going to need you to go buy me a dog.”

And so the entire trip went, four comics riffing in a car together all the way up Highway 71 and through La Grange.  After the show that night, Andy retired to the hotel, his hell-raising days behind him, while Johnny, Rob, and I ducked off with some people from the show to finish off the night.  Johnny’s friend Mike knew a bar a block from the comedy club and we ended up on the patio with some Austin locals.

Ninety percent of the 18-34 year old, male demographic in Austin looks exactly alike.  Striped V-neck tee (or a not striped, but with a picture of Che Guevara or a Nintendo controller), glasses (regardless of whether or not their vision is bad), knit cap (despite being summer in Texas), and skinny jeans (how do you get those on? Do you unscrew your foot before you put your leg through and then reattach it?).

I happened to be sitting next to their leader, who had replaced his Chris Martin-esque hat with a pair of sunglasses at 1:45 in the morning.  “I had them on when I got here, man,” he said, which meant he had to have gotten there at 7:00, which meant he either was lying or that he had been at a completely dead bar for seven hours, which meant that either way he was probably a complete loser.  As if to confirm my suspicions, he slid a business card across the table that had the words “The Poet of Funk” printed across a picture of him combing his hair while wearing his signature sunglasses.

“I do alternative hip hop,” he said.

“I don’t know how to talk to you,” I replied, and turned back around to my friends.

Rob was talking to the girl that ran the bar’s karaoke night, or rather was talking directly to her boobs, and Johnny was engrossed in another conversation… and next to them sat an eight-foot tall stuffed banana with a huge smiling face and dreadlocks.  Johnny isn’t a small guy, but the massive fruit dwarfed him.  I blinked a few disbelieving blinks, and when I opened my eyes again it was still there.  I glanced around for an explanation, but a round of shots came out before I could ask.

“That’s our mascot,” the bartender said as he set the drinks down.  “The Rasta Banana.”

“That’s some real shit, right there,” the Poet echoed, sipping his Pabst Blue Ribbon.  “It’s dope than a motherfucker.”

And I knew at that exact moment there was no way we were leaving without stealing that banana.

A heist is a difficult thing to orchestrate, particularly if you’ve never orchestrated a heist before.  Every plan that began to form dissolved just as quickly.  I was the Danny Ocean of the group, and I needed things if we were going to get away with something this big – things like a helicopter, a flatbed truck, and Pierce Bronson – and we had none of them.  “Gimme your keys,” I said to Mike.

“Why?  You’re not driving my car.”

“Of course not.  I just want to, um, look at them.”

“Oh.  Okay,” he said, and then flipped me his keys.

It didn’t matter that there was no way the banana was going to fit in his car with the rest of us.  That was a math problem.  I dropped out of college so that I wouldn’t have to do math, and I wasn’t about to take it back up again.  Getting it in the car was not my responsibility though.  I had bigger problems.  The patio was still full of beatnik kids and bar employees, and someone had to get them inside.  I slipped the key to Johnny and whispered some quick instructions.  He and Mike were going to be the extraction team.

Rob’s job was the girl.  I texted him from across the patio, and he glanced up at me to let me know he’d gotten the message.  Get karaoke chick out of here.  Instantly he stood up and headed out into the parking lot with her.  We didn’t see him until the next morning, but I was amazed at his efficiency.  No one had told him about the plan to steal the banana.  He just followed the order unquestioningly, like a Secret Service agent or one of Caesar Milan’s dogs.  It was perfect.  I can’t imagine what he said to her, but it worked.

“Hey!” I yelled suddenly to the remaining few hipsters.  “Shots on me at the bar.  You can tell me about your dope ass hip hop,” I said, and three skinny vegan rappers followed me inside.  Positioned strategically at the bar, I ordered four well whiskeys straight.  It was the rot gut stuff that no one drinks without a mixer, but I needed the extra time that their reaction would buy us.

I glanced over their shoulders as they looked hesitantly at their shot glasses.  The banana was slowly moving across the patio toward the exit.  Maneuvered from behind by Johnny, it jumped another jerky foot every second or so, like a big, yellow, stop-motion Gumby, and then suddenly it was gone, tucked miraculously into the back of Mike’s vehicle.  I dropped a twenty on the bar.  “Enjoy the shots!”

“Yo, check me out on Facebook!” the Poet tried, but I was already out the door.

We descended on Mike’s house like a swarm of drunken bees, each one of us recounting our part of the heist, toasting the banana, and flopping down on top of it like it was some huge, yellow Santa Claus.  It moved from the kitchen, to the living room, to the back patio, finally free of its counter-culture captors and in the company of (in our minds, anyway) giants.  I couldn’t tell you how many pictures were taken both of and with the banana that night, but I know that it was more than one, and that that was probably still too many.

The next morning found us incredibly puzzled as to what to do with it.  Andy just shook his head, happy that he had chosen to retire for the night.  “I’m too old for this shit,” he said, though we knew better.  Rob wasn’t exactly sold on the idea of tying it to the top of his car for the three hour trip back Houston, so we finally decided that we should just return it.  Not a creative return like in The Thomas Crown Affair, where we painted it to look like a Golden Tee machine, snuck it back into the bar, and then set off the sprinkler system, but a simple delivery of the mascot back to its rightful owners with an apology.

“We can’t brag about stealing it if we don’t return it first,” Johnny said, and we all agreed.  It was never about keeping it anyway, we realized.  This was a fraternity stunt, and we were in definitely in a fraternity of sorts.  It was one that went back generations, comedians roaming the countryside, both telling stories and creating them, and the stunt wasn’t worth pulling if we couldn’t talk about it later.  As enticing as the thought of a bar full of hipsters crying over their loss was, a good tale is always worth more to a comedian than any stuffed banana, eight-foot tall and Jamaican or not.

I’ve Been Busy

By Erika Rae

Memoir

The other day as I was standing in front of the mirror plucking my eyebrows, I was hit hard with a thought: I don’t have time for this.

I leaned back and stared hard at my twin in the mirror.

“I see you, Gemini,” I told her. “But you’re not on the schedule. Sorry.”

I put down the tweezers and walked away.

Now, before you judge me, ladies, I do realize that I need to make time for myself. As the end of my thirties approaches faster than a train filled with Gideon Bibles on the way to the Branson hotel circuit, I acknowledge that if I want to look presentable, I have to make an effort. I must wash and dry my hair. I must change my jeans every so often. I must wax certain places. I must not make a habit of replacing sex with homemade baked goods. If you’re a guy reading this, I can liken it to the necessity of brushing your teeth before you go on a date and thank you so much for reading a full five paragraphs of this post.

The thing is, I don’t have any time. I know a lot of people complain about this. As far as I can tell, this characteristic appears to have been carried on by natural selection, and particularly by those who carry large amounts of German and Scotch-Irish stock, plus the DNA from one illusive yet profoundly legendary Cherokee. That is to say, “lack of time for anything” appears to be one hell of a dominant trait. And lest you think I’m writing this to complain, let me stop you right there. I love it. I love being busy and having something to work toward.

Here is a snippet from my daily schedule, which I write religiously at the dawn of each day:

12:50-1:00 – Clean lunch dishes.
1:00-1:05 – Change “Ashtray Babyhead’s”* diaper. (Multitask challenge: count his toes – he’s falling behind in math)
1:05-1:10 – Make soy latte
1:10-1:15 – Put Ashtray to bed for nap (Multitask challenge: Set 4-year old to work writing the letter “H”)
1:15-1:25 – catch up on essential emails
1:25-1:45 – ISP/Billing
1:45-2:15 – Write 500+ words on memoir
2:15-2:45 – Edits to resume for client
2:45-3:00 – Edits to one Scree article
3:00-3:15 – Check in with publishers for TNB features
3:15-3:30 – Fold laundry
3:30-3:35 – Scrub bathroom sinks (Multitask challenge: come up with topic for next chapter)
3:35-4:05 – Work on book trailer for Devangelical
4:05-4:10 – Refill latte

I would have started the schedule earlier in the day, but it basically can be reduced to teaching my second grader history, language arts and science (we do online charter school), making breakfast and showering. Sometimes in between those things, I get crazy assignments that I have to tuck in here and there. A few weeks ago, I had set up the TNB feature for Oriana Small, author of the porn memoir, Girlvert. Perhaps you saw a picture of a girl with her fist stuck in her mouth on the TNB Headline banner. Yeah, so she was my feature. You’ve always wondered what we TNB editors actually do around here, haven’t you?

Problem was, her excerpt didn’t come in a format that I could just paste into the highly sophisticated TNB interface we TNBers have come to know and love, so I had to type it in word for word. So there I am, in between feeding Goldfish to my two youngest while frantically tapping in eight glorious pages of:

I took the piss into my open mouth with a smile. It was totally ridiculous. I was thinking, Okay, done. Now I’ve tried piss and I can say with truth and conviction whenever someone asks me about it: It’s not that big of a deal.

Then to the kids who are now pulling on my sleeve: What’s that sweetie? You need some more orange juice? OK, here you go. Now where’s your Cookie Monster dolly? Mommy needs to get back to work.

It’s a crazy life. And no, I don’t always finish the task I set out to do in a set time frame – the point is that I pay SOME attention to it during that time period, and then revisit later. After the children go to bed. After the husband gets attention and the dog gets fed. Maybe I’ve plucked my eyebrows by then. Hard to say.

But the MAIN reason for my conspicuous absence as of late (other than the fact that I’m ghostwriting a memoir for somebody…oh, that) is that I’m starting a magazine.

SCREE!

I’m really excited about it, in case you couldn’t tell. I have two partners: the lovely and talented graphic artiste, Carissa Carter, and my tech guru of a husband, Scott. We’ve been working hard at it for months now. The concept is the celebration of the scramble on the way to summiting your venture. Scree is the name climbers use for the loose rocks and boulders you have to cross before you reach the top of a high peak. It’s immense and it’s challenging. Just like my magazine. Just like my life.

We’ve got some incredible features lined up, including some of TNB’s own.

Slade Ham talks about what it’s like to be pushing toward his goals as a professional comic.

Joe Daly spotlights the next big front man in rock n’ roll in the band Dom.

Brin-Jonathan Butler discusses his push uphill as he creates a documentary about world champion Cuban boxer Guillermo Rigondeaux.

Kimberly Wetherell talks about being on the brink of successfully producing her first feature film, Lullaby.

Rich Ferguson writes about what it’s like to push toward that ever-illusive goal of actually becoming an urban legend (as well as his poem under the same name).

Nick Belardes even makes a brief appearance dressed like a Russian cosmonaut, excuse me, Commanaut.

There are many others, too. We’ve got an interview with a trending robotics company. A steam-punk electric tandem bicycle inventor. A fashion designer. An award winning photographer. And more. All people working toward the common goal of hitting the top of whatever it is they’re aiming for.  In a way, it’s like reading about next year’s super heroes before they hit it huge and are on the front page of Wired or Rolling Stone.

But it’s not about fame. It’s about the struggle. The push to be the best. The things that drive a person to keep going and make it all the way to their dream. It’s epic. And it’s just a little bit in all of us.

The really cool part is that we’ve finished design on the hard copy and have held the first proof in our hands. It’s a magazine. It’s real. It’s a real magazine. We’ve been working on this for so long now and we’re finally on the brink of letting it go. The web site is close behind the scenes, but to the public it currently looks like this:

http://scree.co

So, yeah. I’ve been busy.

But man, it feels good.

 

 

* And, no. My toddler is not actually named Ashtray Babyhead, thank you very much, Rich Ferguson, for naming him to the TNB community. (Sweet Wittle Ashtway.)

 

I live a charmed life.It wouldn’t work for most people I don’t think, but for me it is a skin tight glove, molded and designed to fit perfectly.My schedule is hectic.There are planes, and hotels, and stages, and radio stations, and studios, and rental cars, and so many different skylines that the whole world begins to bleed together like a chalk drawing in the rain.

I

We mad fly; we
Dream dry; we
Scribble drunk; we
Fake the funk; we
Keeps it real; we
Sly conceal; we
Royal hall; we
Southern drawl; we
Bleed tears; we
Clink cheers; we
Fling curves; we
Gnaw nerves; we
Break it down; we
Class clown; we
Write raw; we
Down by law.

It’s spring, and all of you sexy people out there know just what I mean when I say, mmm-mm. It’s time for the return of the sexy.

The sun is bouncing brightly off that freshly waxed chest in front of you where its owner is parked enjoying a delicious shot of wheatgrass. He’s working on his computer like he’s got a novel brewing. Or maybe he’s a writer for GQ. He’s just made eye contact with you as if to say candidly, “I see you watching me being sexy over here. I, too, acknowledge your sexy.”

Oh, yeah.

That’s right. It’s been a long, cold run up here in the mountains, and I am happy to report that spring is finally in the air. The birds are birding, the chipmunks are chipmunking; and the bees…are beeing sexy. Yesterday, I was at a giant garage sale for my kid’s school. Helping out because volunteering is sexy. I didn’t end up doing much, but I did walk away with a great deal on a purple and black corset, which just goes to show, economy is sexy, too.

A lot has happened this last year. Grandpa got married. He’s 90 and she’s 96, but neither of them are a day over sexy. Together they witnessed the rise and fall of the USSR, the coming of age of Barbie, and the invention of the chocolate chip cookie. Had a preacher man say some words over them without actually signing a marriage license so they could be sexy together without getting their families all riled up over mingling their bank accounts. Last I heard, they had moved back to their single rooms over at the independent living center. A little space is sexy, too—oh yeah.

It’s spring and it’s time to be sexy. Two weeks ago, Slade Ham, Megan DiLullo, Uche Ogbuji, Richard Cox and Sam Demaris came up to our house. It had snowed 8 inches of fresh powder, so it wasn’t very sexy. Even so, we laughed, told stories, ate donuts and drank a lot of very sexy whiskey. At one in the morning, we broke out the kickboxing gear and sparred in the living room. I got the wind just about knocked out of me by a well-placed punch to the side by Slade. Brought me to my knees it was so sexy. Even Scott just shook his head from behind the video camera and didn’t rush to my defense. Megan put on some headgear like she was going to jump in but was eventually pulled back to the sofa by a 90 proof magnet. Uche broke out into some def poetry while Sam called us a bunch of high schoolers. Richard played Tiffany. There is nothing sexy about Tiffany. Donuts are sexy, though. Especially if you’re a dude made out of fried bread. Oh, yeah.

But Spring is in the air now, and all of those kinks have been smoothed over. No excuse to not be sexy. Even Simon Smithson and Zara Potts and the rest of you living down under don’t have to stop being sexy even though it’s well into autumn now for you. Autumn is a sexy word for fall. You’re down there and we’re up here and we’re passing like two sexy ships in the night. Passing the baton of sexy.

Don’t worry, though. We’ll have enough sexy in the northern hemisphere to carry you over. Nathaniel Missildine in France. David S. Wills in China. Steve Sparshott and James Irwin in England. Irene Zion over in Belgium(?) and Judy Prince somewhere in between. We’re creating a mesh network of sexy and beaming it south. Down below the earth’s belt. Now that’s sexy.

That’s right, Spring is in the air and it’s time to be sexy so slip out of those shoes and curl your toes deep into some warm sand somewhere. Wear something that ends in an ‘ini’. Order something cold that comes in a pineapple or coconut shell because drinks that come in their own skin are sexy. You know it. But it’s spring, so don’t worry too much about having to try. In spring, just about everything is sexy. In spring, even Tiffany is sexy.

So, keep on keepin’ on, wheatgrass boy. You’ve got a spot of green in the corner of your mouth there.

There you go.

Oh, yeah.

It’s 2:00 in the afternoon somewhere just north of Mexico. I am leaned back in my chair, feet up on an old cable spool, holding my beer up to the light and watching the sweat drip off the bottle and onto my forehead. Mesquite trees punch out of the dirt like escaping zombies to block the sun, letting just enough blue sky through to make the day perfect. Sam and I are on tour in South Texas and today is almost good enough to make me forget yesterday.

This juxtaposition on the road is something I am familiar with. All too often a horrible day is followed by a surprisingly amazing one. You never know. You can’t predict it. Even when I return to places I’ve been before the experience is always different. I have walked into gigs in dive bars expecting the worst and had some of the best shows of my life. I have also driven places thinking that nothing could go wrong and had the world explode in front of me like a landmine.

You just never know.

I’ve done this run through the Rio Grande Valley before, and while I can never quiet nail down what the crowds may be like, I can always count on at least part of the trip to work out for the best. Isaac owns the theater downtown that I am playing tonight. One of the greatest perks to traveling like I do is that I’ve made friends in every corner of the world –happy souls in Africa and Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and Japan that I always attempt to spend time with when I make it their direction. The same holds true in the States, and even more so. I get to meet people I would never run into otherwise and sometimes those people work themselves into my circle. Isaac is one of those people.

We’re staying at his house while we’re in town. No half-star hotel room for these few days – his house in inviting and comfortable, eclectic and interesting. Mexican art hangs on every wall, some his, some other artists. Crosses dot the few empty spaces on the walls and skeletons and statues and sculptures sit on antique tables in every corner. The front door is carved ornately and looks a thousand years old. In every room the walls are one deep, rich color or another. It is not museum-like – projects sit half-finished if you stop to look. A sketch in progress. A pot on the stove. Instrument cables run to amplifiers from a makeshift jam session in the living room. The bench sits pulled out at the piano. A speaker stack is set up in the corner for no apparent reason at all. The place feels used, like a sports car that the owner actually drives.

Isaac is many things: a musician, an artist, a chef, a nightclub owner, and a complete free spirit. The first time I met him we sat on the patio at his restaurant and ate paella and fried cilantro, and after so many trips through this area he and I have become friends. That’s why we’re staying at his place this week. I need to press reset after the first night out here.

The Valley is basically just North Mexico. Violence hovers like a cloud at the border. I usually slip into Reynosa or Progresso for street tacos and a cheap beer while I’m down here, but not this time. I couldn’t even escape tension on our side of the river. After a surprise change in our itinerary, Sam and I showed up a day early for a last minute extra gig in a neighboring city. The hotel that the promoter booked for us was a crime scene. Literally. It was fairly evident that someone might have been killed there in the last few days. Denzel stayed in better hotels in The Book of Eli. I rarely walk barefoot in hotels to begin with; socks just seem safer. I kept my shoes on in this one.

The first key they gave me led to an already inhabited space, though the tenants were either dead or gone or both. Smoldering cigarettes in the ashtray filled the room with smoke, a hazy veil hanging in the air like an Ecuadorian forest, and on the other side of that fog could have been anything from a murdered body to an old Chinese man selling gremlins. Scattered clothes and toiletries littered the room. The space immediately downstairs was occupied by a dog, a German shepherd from the sounds of it, which barked incessantly. Throaty woofs and growls pierced the walls as I went back to trade in my key for another room, though the new one was no cleaner than the one with the missing people in it. It’s one night, I told myself. Just one night. Suck it up.

I awoke the next morning to a sound at my door. Growing up with three brothers has made me a light sleeper. A noise is an attack. I go from catatonic to alert instantly. My subconscious always seems to know when something is not right, and something was definitely not right. It wasn’t a knock at the door that woke me up, but something much more subtle. I slipped off the side of the bed and stole a glance around the corner. The door was open slightly, as far as the security latch would allow anyway, and a hand was reaching through attempting to flip that latch open. I took two quick steps and kicked the door violently and the hand crunched and popped loudly as someone on the other side screamed in pain. I held my foot in place as the fingers twitched.

“What the fuck are you doing?” I yelled, keeping my weight against the door.

“Housekeeping,” came the pained reply. I pulled my leg back, flipped the bolt and jerked the door open.

“Have you lost your fucking mind?” I said. The man pulled his hand in to his chest, cupping it like an injured bird with his good hand. His manager strode over, a cocky looking, Napoleonic half-man with a deep Indian complexion.

He ignored his employee with the injury like it was a battlefield casualty. “Checkout was at 11:00,” he said. “Why are you still here?”

“Checkout is at noon,” I shot back.

“No, it’s not.”

“It’s on the sign on the back of this door you fucking idiot. And it is 12:06 right now”

“Oh, well, that’s wrong.”

“So that’s why you’re breaking into my room?”

“We knocked and no one answered, so we assumed someone must be passed out in the room.” He was smug. He’d been called on this before and didn’t care. Call the police, his face said. I dare you.

“That was your immediate assumption? Why didn’t you call?”

“Your phone must be broken.”

“Like your friend’s hand?” I asked, and flung the door shut. “Give me a minute,” I yelled through the closed door.

Sam met me in the lobby, only to share his own story. He was in the shower when he noticed a shadow through the shower curtain. Another employee had bypassed his safety lock in a similar fashion and caught him off guard.

Sam left to pull the car around as I made my way around three of the owner’s friends that were trying to bar my exit. “What you wanna do bitch?” one of them asked, posturing in front of the other two while the owner stood by and watched. A single tear tattooed on the man’s face indicated that if things escalated this wouldn’t be his first violent altercation.

“Seriously?” I asked, and tried to limit myself to just that one word. There were three of them and I can be dumb sometimes when I’m angry. I walked to the car while they circled, expecting a punch to be thrown though one never came. They got louder as I got in the car, and I popped back out of the passenger seat to yell something in reply but was stopped by Sam. No one ever believes that he is the calmer of the two of us when we’re on the road. Looks are deceiving I suppose.

So now, I am better. Isaac’s girlfriend Ceci is cooking a homemade Mexican dinner for us back at the house. From inside the bar, far across this wide open back lot, some country song plays on the jukebox and the crack of pucks on the shuffleboard table float out of the open door and off into the air. Another round of beers comes out.

I mention the hotel story to Isaac. “That kind of thing is getting worse down here.” he says. “They buckled down on the gangs and cartels on the Mexico side so now they just bring it here. Happens all the time, too. That lady whose husband got killed on the jet ski on Falcon Lake? The investigator on the Mexican side got his head cut off. They’re ruthless. There was a guy down here that got in trouble with one of the cartels and they kidnapped his baby and fried it. Literally, like fried it.”

“You’re kidding,” I say.

“No. I wish I were. It’s bad bro.”

“They fried it.”

“I’m serious.”

“They don’t even do that at the fair. I mean, they’ll fry butter or Oreos…”

“You’re sick bro. You know that, yes?”

And I do know it, but it’s how I deal with things. I made a fried baby joke. I take a sip of my beer and think about that for a second. What kind of person does that? As I mull it over I hear Sam doing an impression of a mock Visa commercial.

“When you come to Mexico make sure you bring your Visa card, because they’ll take your baby… but they won’t take American Express.” I laugh harder than I should. This is what it’s like, like it or not. Yin and yang. Good and bad. They always talk about paying dues on the road, and while I have certainly paid my share – more than enough to not really have to deal with subpar accommodations anymore, much less gang-run hotels – when those moments do surface I have learned to take them in stride. That’s one of the costs of getting to stand in front of the bright lights on a concert stage and listen to a theater full of people applaud.

“That fried baby joke was fucked up, bro,” Isaac says, laughing.

“It’s good to see you again, too,” I reply, and we clink bottles, content to wash away the Valley with cold beer and camaraderie.

“It was kinda funny though,” I say. “Wasn’t it?”

Spurred on by Slade’s piece and Richard’s comment I cry Havoc! and let slip this one. I’d like to claim I knocked it off today but that would be a lie. I wrote it a couple of years ago.

I’m sitting in my workroom on a snowy day in the country, looking out the window at the woods, the creek, the dark-colored bank on the other side of the creek, where once I saw a weasel moving along dangerously.

Closer to me is the birdfeeder, which doesn’t have a tray underneath it. I bought one when I bought the feeder but when I went to assemble it I couldn’t find any machine screws and little hex nuts to attach it to the feeder and it seemed too much trouble to look through the jars of rusty hardware I’d brought to the country. So the seeds fell on the deck, where the cardinals and the dark-eyed juncos ate them. And the chipmunks did, too.

One year the chipmunks got to be a real problem. I didn’t care if they ate the dropped seeds. But then they started eating the cherry tomatoes, digging up pots of flowers and generally having their way with my deck. And of course with a good food supply they multiplied. Seemed as though every time I looked at the deck there were chipmunks scurrying around. Some of them jumped or fell off one side, into a large vat of water, and drowned. I didn’t find their bodies for a few days and then I threw them in the bushes. Too rotten for anybody to eat.

A hawk moved in and solved the chipmunk problem. Then she moved on and the chipmunks returned, but this time living in the crawl space and messing with my insulation. So, Havahart. Then what? Havahart plus pellet gun plus shovel.

I have no compunction about killing animals, even cute ones. You have to understand I grew up in a family where we killed things. We always ate them but I’m not going to eat chipmunk, so there’s a bit of a disjunction there.

No Disney hangups here. I shot a little red squirrel last year with my pellet gun, which is the only functional weaponry around here, except for my machete. Fucker was busting into the plastic tub of birdfood, the food I stored outside so I could fill the feeder more easily. Chewed right into the plastic. When I capped him he (well, maybe she) did a nice somersault.

I waved the body around to catch a crow’s attention. Pitched it out into the open, crow lunch. Effective recycling. The next one I offed because he attacked my wren house, climbed up in the cherry tree and into the wren house, mother and father wren doing their best to keep their eggs, or maybe there were little wrens by then. How could I not help them? Bang, see you later red motherfucker.

Red squirrels, according to Wikipedia, are aggressive, omnivorous, the scourge of nesting birds. I became the scourge of red squirrels, or at least those who came over to my place and caused trouble. Pretty soon word got around the red squirrel community and now they stay out in the woods or in the neighbor’s tree where I can see them from my bedroom window. Stay in your tree, Nutsy Squirrel, or die.

Then we have the raccoon, who dined at the bird feeder and the hummingbird feeder too. Rocky was a larger target but more stealthy. I threw my machete at one of them (there were a bunch of Rockies) but mostly what I did was move the feeders so they couldn’t climb on the railing and reach them.

There must be some size-personality calculus in operation. I was prepared to think of my Rockies as individuals with personalities in ways that I wasn’t prepared to for quick-moving jerky little creatures like the chipmunks and mean red squirrels.

The woodchucks, yes, mostly OK, happy to have them eat the clover and dandelions but then they zeroed in on my phlox. I was OK with their having the phlox that grew wild even though I could see it from the house, and it was very pretty in June before the woodchuck population grew, but then they started in on the ones I busted my ass planting.

I was OK with their digging dens out in the woods, not even any of my business, but when they dug one under the barn I was not OK with that especially since that put them in easy striking distance of my flowerbeds. Then they dug one under into my cellar, very uncool. Internet, UPS, Havahart (large size), fewer woodchucks.

So anyway, I think about this a lot. Am I one of those guys I don’t like? Kill everything, humans rule? I don’t think so.

What I think, and I’ve laid out my place accordingly, is that close to where I live is my territory and I share it with terrestrial creatures as I please, not as they please. In the house, we won’t even talk about the mice. They die. Just outside, or underneath, well, that’s mine too. No trespassers.

Farther out – and we’re talking 200 feet or a hundred yards – I don’t feel that way, and once we get out into my woods and down to the creek, hey, it’s all theirs. If I cut a path, it’s no problem for them. If I fell the occasional tree, OK, the same.

Sounds pretty good, no? Graded series, graduated responses. You might not agree but it’s a logical and defensible position.

The thing is, what about those birds? Can we come back to the birds? I invited the birds. The chipmunks died because of the birds, didn’t they? No seeds dropped, not many chipmunks, and not any on the deck eating tomatoes and messing with the pots. Or if the chickadees, nuthatches, and dark-eyed juncos were neater eaters, the chipmunk population wouldn’t have boomed. And the wrens were in a wren house I hung in the tree. Maybe Nutsy Squirrel would have gotten them somewhere else, but he went after them in the house I made for them.

Maybe I’m responsible for disrupting the predator-prey balance, not only inserting myself into the equation as top predator, but trying to control the others. When my hawk flew down from the barn to take a look at who was feeding at the birdfeeder I yelled at her – “No! Take the chipmunks, not the chickadees.” I believe I actually yelled “my little chickadees.”

So, Dear Reader, if you’re sensing some ambivalence on my part you’re onto something. Human interference with natural systems throw them out of whack and the human interferes even more. Or maybe it’s just bipeds versus quadrupeds. Back in the days before bird intelligence was well understood I was told something like “birds are stupid because they can fly.” But now we know that’s a gross overstatement. Birds are smart, although my pair of doves have always seemed like dimwits to me.

Back about that long ago there was no good evidence that birds were what’s left of the dinosaurs. Sure, it was an interesting idea, but didn’t have a lot to support it. Now it does, so OK, as a kid I liked dinosaurs and now I like birds.

Also I like Leda and the Swan (wait, how did that get in here?). My hawk’s beak is indifferent.

It’s a thin and spotty trail from bird-lover to Havaharts and pellet guns, but I guess it’s there. And I’ve been walking it.

The Dogs of War

By Slade Ham

Humor

Character is what we are in times of crisis or when no one’s watching or some other strange set of criteria. For the last week I have been plagued by visitors in the night, sent to attack me and me alone, determined, I believe, to watch me in action and see how I respond. It feels like a psychology experiment gone bad, like the Milgram Experiment or that Stanford Prison thing. Maybe not that bad, but I still feel as if I’m being toyed with.

I lay in bed at night and I hear them coming. Whispers and clicks in the dark, the invaders peer through the inky black and wait for exhaustion to drag me into an uneasy sleep. They organize and plot and look for the perfect opening, and then they come for my socks.

These fucking squirrels.

But it’s not just the squirrels. The entire animal kingdom seems out to get me. Whether it’s rabid cats, mercenary mosquitoes, or obnoxious birds, I’m like the opposite of Dr. Doolittle.

I moved in late summer to a garage apartment, a perfect little spot for a constant traveler. It’s big by apartment standards and comfortable. There’s a place for my car and my motorcycle and all of my stuff fits exactly as it should. My bookshelf is full of the volumes I’ve collected in the last year punctuated by a thousand trinkets and memories from my travels. My desk sits on one side of the living room, my dual monitors surrounded by speakers. This is a place I can get stuff done. My bedroom faces south so the sunlight is constant. I opted not put up blackout curtains so that it would jar me out of bed and into productivity on most mornings. My brilliant plan to surface at eight or nine has been preempted though.

My apartment sits isolated from my neighbors in the middle of four intersecting backyards and one of those backyards is home to a rooster. A rooster, a rooster, a ROOSTER, inside the loop in Houston, Texas.

It’s more elusive than one would expect a rooster to be, too. It is borderline ninja and I know this because I’ve tried to kill it. I have a really hard time contemplating hurting an animal. I’ve never been hunting and I’m a total sucker for the animals of any sort. I could cause harm to a human much more easily than I ever could an animal, but it’s not a human standing in the backyard cock-a-doodle-doo-ing at 5:00 am, seven days week.

The woman that owns that house is bat-shit crazy. She won’t answer her door for me or the police. For all I know she could be dead herself. The wooden fence around her yard is painted with bright red hearts and catchy little hippie phrases like Animals Are People Too! and One Planet, One Love. The sign on the door that I have beat on every morning for the last month reads I maintain this house for the comfort of my cats. If you can’t deal with that, you can’t deal with me. She places the welfare of these animals above my own, and for that I hate this woman. She is a hopeless PETA-head, and that is why I bought the slingshot.

I’ve collected a good number of small rocks (ball bearings would look too much like evidence) and from my bathroom window I can see into her backyard. The rooster prances up and down a particular path, hidden almost entirely behind the branches of a low-hanging tree. It knows it is safe, but that hasn’t stopped me from rifling pebble after pebble through the leaves in an attempt to hit him. He of course knows this, and waits until I have shut the window and given up. Then he runs up to the fence and lets out another mad cackle before darting back to the cover of the brush. THWOP, THWOP, THWOP. Three more rocks rip through the air and hit nothing. “Goddamn bird!” I yell. “I’m gonna shoot you in your little rooster face.”

I want to drag its carcass to the hippie’s doorstep and bang away until she’s forced to answer. “Looks like people can be animals, too!” I’ll say, with wild eyes and chicken blood running down my arms. What criminal mind houses a yard full of birds and a house full of cats with such disregard for others? Probably the kind of person that would raise an army of attack squirrels. I bet my invaders are the product of her animal friendly lifestyle as well. She probably hand fed them and took them in, and now that she has sixty-three cats they need a new place to hang out, hence the velvet rope and the bouncer outside the squirrel dance club that my attic has become.

And now I am not safe inside.

A few days ago I woke up to the morning crowing and stumbled into the kitchen to make coffee. Bleary-eyed and headachey, I poured my first cup. As I started to gain my focus I noticed a sock hanging out from under the counter. “Did something happen last night that I don’t remember?” I think to myself. “Why would I take my socks off in the kitchen? Did I try to put them in the cabinet? How drunk was I? This makes no sense.”

Pulling the sock out from the opening underneath the base board, I noticed that it had several holes in it. “Squirrels,” I growl. I’ve known they were here for a while. It’s an older place and there are plenty of openings that allow them into the attic. I hear them constantly but I’ve remained unconcerned. Once I knew that they weren’t mice or rats – the piles of nuts in the attic and the sight of actual squirrels hopping from the power lines onto my roof cinched that – I just resigned myself to being a winter refuge for the fuzzy little things.

But now they’re taunting me. They’re literally stealing my socks – as if my clothes dryer wasn’t already doing enough of that. They are strategic. To get my socks requires some investigation. While I will occasionally leave a pair lying in the living room (one of the perks of bachelorhood), they usually end up in my bedroom. None of my other clothes are touched, nor are the dish towels or the beanie I left laying on my desk or the bag of Cheetos Puffs on top of my microwave. They’re selective little creatures. I mean, it takes determination to say no to those Cheetos. Cheetos are delicious.

They seem content to only drag the socks as far as the holes under the cabinets too. They don’t take them all the way inside, but leave them hanging out just enough to let me know they were there. It’s a form of counting coup, I’m afraid, and this is why I feel I’m being experimented on. It’s as if they know that I am incapable of simply trapping them or killing them. They want to see how I’ll react.  They know that boredom will entice me to fight back. I have moved anything cloth-like to my bedroom now and I make sure the door is shut when I leave. Then I place one sock strategically in the middle of my dining room floor before I make my exit or turn in for the night. I have to know if they come, and come they do, but never when I can see them.

I sit on my couch and stare like a child waiting for Santa. Unable to stay awake, my eyes finally close, only briefly, and then snap open again to find the sock tucked neatly in its little cubbyhole under the sink. “How the hell did you do that?!?!” I yell. Somewhere a squirrel rolls around on the floor laughing and high-fiving his friends. I rip the sock out from the hole and throw it back on the floor. “I’m going to bed, you bastard!” I yell at nothing whatsoever. “Come get your stupid sock if you want it!” Then I wake up the next morning to find it sitting exactly where I left it. It’s no fun for them if I don’t care, it seems.

So I have to formulate a plan before I go out of town again. I have to get rid of them. I don’t know if I am up against one rogue animal or a hundred. In my mind, my walls and my attic are now one big Squirrel Kingdom. Buttons and thimbles and scores of socks line the halls of a Secret of NIMH world. Will taking one of these creatures out be enough? Should I trap one and leave it bound in the middle of my kitchen floor as a warning to other squirrels? Should I poison a sock? Buy an owl? I don’t know what to do exactly.

I know that the gauntlet has been thrown down though. They started this, this thing with the socks. “Cry Havoc,” I say, “and let slip the dogs of war!” And maybe that’s the answer – actual dogs. Or a fox. A fox would eat the squirrels and the rooster. I want to put on face paint and get a ghillie suit and hide with my slingshot. I want to set up a box and a stick with a string tied to one of my socks. I want a jet pack and some rocket skates and I want to paint a fake tunnel on my wall like Wile E. Coyote. I want to put the squirrels and the rooster and all their little friends in one big bag and toss it into the ocean – and then blow up the ocean.

I want to win.

Maybe I should focus on the flower child in the house behind me, maybe point my slingshot at her instead. Cut off the head and the monster dies, right? Maybe she’s like the Other Mother in Coraline. Who takes their animals that seriously? Seriously. These things are interrupting my lifestyle and her desire to protect them only makes me angrier. Now I want to cook steak with my windows open so she has to smell it. And I want a fur coat. And I want to beat a baby seal to death with an endangered penguin. Her “Save the animals” mission has clearly had the opposite effect on me.

But for now, I will continue to type, stopping every sentence or two to pause my music and glance into the kitchen and try to catch a glimpse of the cocky little rodent as it mocks me. Because right now I am clearly not winning. Right now I am losing.

And badly.

I can hear the squirrels flitting back and forth on the roof even now. I can hear the rooster too, cluck-cluck-clucking just feet outside of my apartment. I cut my eyes across the desk to the slingshot. “I could go outside and kill them all right this second,” I think.

And I would, too, if only I could find a pair of socks.

As you may know—but may not, because of my Scorpio predilection for Dick Cheney-level secrecy—I am a semi-professional astrologer.*For many months, I have been quietly collecting birth data from TNB contributors** whenever the topic came up on the comment boards, a sort of horoscopical scavenger hunt that netted quite a few charts for my burgeoning collection.

“So the Death Star is the woman?” Sam asked.

“Yes!Finally!Someone else finally gets it.I’ve been trying to say that for half an hour,” the stripper said.She had to be a stripper.I had been passively sitting at a table in the back room of the Laff Stop, sipping on a Jameson and watching this nuclear winter of a conversation for the past twenty minutes.




From August 16 – 20, Erika Rae, Megan DiLullo, and Slade Ham joined me in Tulsa, Oklahoma to film a documentary about the evolving state of literature and the arts. We also spent a lot of time goofing around like children.

In this short clip, we try to recall TNB authors from memory and struggle to pronounce their names properly. We hope you won’t be too offended if we missed yours. We were very tired. Plus, I was driving, so you can’t blame me.

Hard Eight

By Slade Ham

Memoir

Las Vegas would probably make my head explode.  I’ve been hiding in my hotel room as much as possible, huddled away safely distant from the blinking lights and the clanging bells of the casino floor beneath me.  I walked to the showroom earlier to see the layout, and then out to the pool to avoid the mile wide marketing ploys of my temporary employers, but now I have to go back down there.  I have a show tonight at one of the Choctaw Nation’s properties in Oklahoma.  The flashing neon flytrap I have to walk through to get to that show brings me mixed emotions.

Despite my own penchant for risky behavior, I am not a big gambler.  Blackjack amuses me because it offers the most control but poker is my only real temptation.  Even then, I prefer to stay out of the casino poker rooms and would much rather shuffle my chips amongst a group of friends.  It’s just such obviously orchestrated bullshit, the casino experience as a whole.  My job tonight is to make no bets at all.  Tell jokes, collect a check, soak in the hot tub, and go home.

It’s hard though.

Maddening patterns on the carpet floors keep your head up and moving.  Just when you focus on one thing, another thing blinks or pops out of the corner of your eye.  Look at this!  No this!  No that! Ancient, wrinkled women and men lie propped up, possibly deceased, against rows of slot machines.  The bars spin and stop, another loser.  Occasionally a distant bell signals a big winner, prolonging the myth of victory and encouraging the living dead to feed another twenty into the slot.  Somewhere a grandchild goes without college.

A man and woman pass me in hallway.  He is furious.  She is staring blankly ahead.  There aren’t enough lights in the world to distract her now, and even if they could, she has just cleaned out their bank account.  I know this because the man just said, “You realize that you cleaned out our entire motherfucking bank account, right?”  This poor guy.  God, have I been there.

He must be new at this.  He obviously hasn’t gone through it enough times yet to keep a separate, hidden account.  She still has access to his money.  You’re dating an obsessive gambler, I want to tell him.  You can’t share finances with her.  You have to hide your cash like Anne Frank at Oktoberfest, you dummy.  Believe me.  I know.

* * *

My ex was the queen of the casino.  Beaumont, Texas is a little city thirty minutes west of the Louisiana border.  Louisiana law makes it easy to gamble.  As long as a casino isn’t on actually land the government allows it so, scattered throughout the state are riverboats, perched inches away from shore and welcoming anyone that wants to lose a few dollars inside.

Table games are forced into the waterways but video poker is allowed everywhere.  There’s not a gas station or restaurant in the state that doesn’t have a series of eight-liners against one wall or another.  Brittany found them all.  She bet just to bet.  It was a compulsion.  She had VIP player’s cards at every one of the major casinos and the pit bosses all knew her by name.

I went with her for a while in the beginning, before I realized she had a problem.  I quit going the first time she bit me.  She had run out of money and thought she could somehow win back the six hundred dollars she had just blown – if I would only give her a twenty.  When I refused she leaned in and bit me, violently, then pickpocketed me while I inspected the wound.  She went on her own after that.

She would walk past security like the cast of Ocean’s Eleven.  I don’t remember if that ever happened in the movie or not, but I imagine it did, and encourage you to imagine it as well so my comparison will make sense.  Guards waved at her when she sauntered by and you could actually see wind blow through her hair in slow motion, even indoors.  Music played.  Employees greeted her by name.  She strode past the patrons at the five and ten dollar tables.  The common folk.  The riff raff.  Back to the high roller room, the casino staff practically carried her on their shoulders.  She wasn’t there to lose small amounts, dammit.  She was there to lose it all.

And this wasn’t a girl with a trust fund to squander or someone with a lawyer’s salary and a pricey vice.  Brittany was a waitress.  She took a week’s worth of tips and spun it into gold… before spinning it right back into nothing again.  It’s the gambler’s dilemma, not knowing when to stop.  Brittany was good.  Very good.  She just couldn’t quit while she was ahead.

My cell phone rang one morning at 8:00 am.  She had been gone for two days and was finally calling.  “I’m coming home,” she said.  “And you’re not going to believe this.”

She pulled up to the apartment in a shiny new black Chrysler Sebring.  “What happened to the Escort?” I asked.

“I left it at the dealership when I bought this one.’

“You bought a car?  At 8:00 am?”

“Yep.  Told the guy I’d give him a hundred bucks if he’d unlock the door and sell it to me.”

“So you won then?”

“Thirty-five thousand.  Blackjack.  It took a while and I’m tired.  I’m going to bed.  ‘Night.”

“Goodnight?  It’s morning,” I started to say, but she was already inside.

No wonder they loved her there.  She partied with reckless abandon, flinging hundred dollar chips around like quarters and almost certainly out-drinking and out-cussing everyone else at the table.  When she was on, she was on.  She never played it safe.  Blackjack, three card poker, craps, it didn’t matter.  Pass line?  No thanks.  Put it all on hard eight.

She fell asleep for a few hours and was back on the road to Louisiana almost immediately.  She shouldn’t have gone.  She should have quit.  Forever.  She had thirty-five thousand reasons to stop, yet twenty-four hours after her nap, she had not only lost every dollar from the day before, but an additional twenty thousand that the casino had given her as a marker.  She threw the money away like a crack head mother tossing out an unwanted baby.  It couldn’t have been gone faster if she’d put it directly into a dumpster.  It was staggering.

Casinos put signs up displaying a phone number to call if you have a gambling problem, but no one ever calls them.  It’s a drug, that feeling of victory.  Doubling down and getting your ten.  Splitting aces and watching them both hit.  Seeing the dealer draw to a bust.  It’s an incredible endorphin rush.  But it is still a drug.

Brittany would bet on just about anything.  That was almost the only way to get her to not go gambling – to bet her that she wouldn’t stay home.

* * *

So yes.  As I pass this girl in the hallway, I recognize the look.  The empty stare painted on the face of this now penniless zombie scares me a little bit.  It sends a ripple of goose bumps up my arm as I walk past.

“What are we going to do about Tommy?” she asks the pissed off guy walking ahead of her.

I don’t know who Tommy is, but I’m guessing he was relying on a portion of their bank account for something important.  He might be their son or her brother or a loan shark with an itchy trigger finger.

“Fuck Tommy,” says the man.  “We don’t even have enough gas to get home.”

As the two of them make their way down the hall to the exit, I turn my gaze to follow them.  Are they really just going to go stand outside by the car?  Maybe they’re going to walk home.  Maybe he will sell her into slavery for gas money.  I want to be sympathetic, but that guy has to learn his lesson sometime, doesn’t he?

Right now, I have my own set of problems.  I have to go into a room full of shattered financial dreams and empty wallets.  I have to stare at seats filled with broken souls taking advantage of a free show, probably the only thing they can still afford, and somehow figure out a way to make them laugh.

The casino wants the show clean, too.  I don’t work that dirty to begin with, but I still hate having the limitation thrown on my shoulders.  “Our customers have high moral values,” the manager tells me.  “They don’t use language like that.”  I laugh on the inside.

I can see them through the curtain from backstage.  The disappointment drips silently down their faces like frustrated molasses.  Arms crossed, they sit in the showroom, waiting.  We’re out of cash, their eyes tell me.  We’re beaten and we’re broke.  Now make us laugh, Chuckle Monkey.

Yeah, I’m pretty sure that even the holiest of these people have uttered the word “fuck” once or twice in the last few hours.

I don’t particularly want to walk out there right now but I have to.  My opening act just said goodnight and I’m about to be introduced.  The music is playing.  They can’t be that bad, right?  This show is going to be fine, I tell myself.

And then my subconscious answers me.  “Wanna bet?”


*While Lenore Zion found the retarded kind and Megan DiLullo stumbled upon the sexy type, I only got the violent one.*

I’ve been punched in the face a lot in my life.  My mouth has often made promises that my body wasn’t quite prepared to defend, but that my ego wouldn’t let me back out of either.  A dangerous grouping those three, the mouth, body, and ego.  They never seem to agree on anything.  Not mine anyway, hence that punching in the face part.

I have a list a mile long of things I’ve done that I shouldn’t have, and that list is only slightly longer than the one of stuff I still do that I shouldn’t.  None of the good stories have ever come from playing it safe.  Not one, which is why I’ve always been so quick to leap into the fray haphazardly.

But those are the actions of the young and invincible, I tell myself.  War should not be waged in the physical ways of my youth, but with intelligence and maturity now.  A cleverly crafted phrase, I try to convince myself, is far more effective than a strong right cross.

And yet somehow, despite the best of intentions, I can’t quite shake my former tendencies.

Like that one night, when I may or may not have beat up a midget.

In my defense, the midget did start it.  I was hanging out after a show late one Saturday night with my regular opening act on the road, a stocky black guy named Sam.  The clinking of ice signaled that we were empty, and we ordered another round of James and Jack and got change for another five.  He and I have had an ongoing competition for years now, feeding dollar after dollar into the mechanical punching bags that bars began installing once they realized that alcohol and testosterone were worth a fortune when combined.

Basically, for fifty cents, a little leather bag drops from the machine and registers how hard you punch it.  It is mindless fun and a matter of bragging rights amongst the guys.  With a healthy buzz, I fed another buck into the machine and swung.  As I connected, I heard a voice behind me say, “You hit like a bitch!”

I immediately turned around.  Maybe it was tunnel vision or maybe I simply didn’t look far enough down, but when I spun to look, no one was there.  I turned back around to swing again, and I was interrupted mid-stride by the same high pitched voice.  “You gonna hit it harder this time?  Pussy.”

That’s when I saw him.  Four foot tall on the dot, there stood the most confident midget I had ever seen in my life.  I leaned forward with my hands on my knees and I looked down at him, squinting at him like I was trying to make out fine print.

“What, bitch?” he said, and threw his arms out to the side.  The stubby limbs hung there, taunting me.  Beckoning me.  Challenging me.

“You can’t do it,” Sam said to me, shaking his head.

“Can’t what?”

“You can’t beat up a midget.  You won’t win.”

“You don’t think I can kick a midget’s ass?” I fired back.

“That’s not what I mean,” he said.  “It’s just that even if you do win… you still kinda lose, man.”

“Brilliant,” I replied, suddenly happy to have been saved from the embarrassment of beating up a midget.  “So what then?”

“You have to be the bigger man.”

“Did you seriously just say that?”

Sam laughed.  “C’mon, man.  Let’s go.”

As we turned for the door we pushed past the angry little dwarf, who wasn’t as content to let things slide as we were.  He pushed his little midget shoulder into my leg and threw down the gauntlet.  “Yeah, you better leave, motherfucker!” he yelled up at us.

“What?” I asked, cocking an eyebrow.

“You better leave before you get your ass kicked. Because- “

Now, this is probably where the night turned sideways.  I couldn’t even begin to guess what this little creature’s explanation was going to be for how he planned to hurt me.  His “because” seemed to hang in the air forever.  The only thing I could imagine was that he was going to suddenly pull back a curtain and reveal an entire midget army armed for battle; a thousand tiny goblin soldiers poised to attack with spikes on the tips of their boots and their teeth filed into fangs, while David Bowie sang about a baby.

“Because why?” I asked.

“Because I’m in the UFC,” the midget finally said.

“Unless they paint a number on your chest and the ring girls hold you over their heads between rounds, you’re not in the fucking UFC,” I shot back.

Now you’re allowed to fight him,” Sam said.

I lunged forward, and the midget shot for the door.  I don’t know if you know this or not, because few people do, but midgets are supernaturally fast and they click when they run.  Click click click click click.  Like a beetle.  Click click click.  You can Google it.

“He’s getting away!” I shouted, and pushed my way through the crowd after him.

“Throw your shoe at it!” Sam yelled to me.

“What?”

“Your shoe!  You never saw Leprechaun?”

“Huh?”

“The movie?  With Jennifer Aniston?  Whatever.  If you throw a shoe at a leprechaun, they have to stop and polish it.”

Ridiculous, I thought.  I wasn’t going to beat this thing with mythology.  I didn’t need rumor and folklore; I needed fact.  I had to find a way to do some real damage to this midget.

We made it out through the front door to find the little elf clicking off and away down the sidewalk.  I took off after him on what was, in my drunken mind anyway, a straight line, but was more than likely one of those Jeffy’s dotted line moments from Family Circus.  All I know for certain is that I eventually caught up with him.  As I drew near he turned around and growled at me, little midget juice dripping from its fangs.

“Rawr!”

The midget’s claim to have a background in mixed martial arts was at least partially true.  In MMA, when an attacker shoots in for a takedown, a standard defense is to “sprawl”, or flatten out forward so that your legs can’t be wrapped up and controlled.  As I got to the little creature, it did just that, except I was in no way actually attempting a takedown.  I just sort of stood there while he dove forward and landed on his bulbous skull like a weeble-wobble that didn’t make it all the way back up.

My gut told me to jump up and land on his head, because everyone knows if you do that gold coins come out.  I remember reading that as a child somewhere.  Maybe the Bible.  Then, I remembered how lopsided and misshapen midget heads can be and thought better of it, lest I turn my ankle.

There’s honestly not a lot you can do with a fallen midget.  It’s a sad truth, really.  You can either watch as they try to pick themselves up, which is like watching an upside down turtle struggle, or you can attack.  It seemed unfair to kick him so I dove on top, twisting his leg into an impossible lock.  A leg lock might not sound that impressive, but consider first how hard it is to actually locate a midget’s knee, and the degree of difficulty becomes much more apparent.

By this point, the bouncers had arrived and begun to pull me away.  As I turned to wrestle with them I saw Sam tee off with a vicious right uppercut to the side of the hobbit’s head, easily lifting him three feet off the ground and knocking him backwards.  He landed with a thud and then, beyond all explanation, popped right back up and ran off.

Click click click.

The only explanation is magic.  Midgets can do magic.  Sam’s punch would have knocked a rhinoceros unconscious.  A forty-eight inch man-child couldn’t have survived it, yet somehow he did.  And as that mystical little man clickety-clacked off into the night, my only recourse, since I could no longer reach him physically, was to throw a final verbal blow.

“I hope-” I yelled after him, “I hope you get eaten by an owl!”

Sam and I shook the dust off and made our way back inside.  “I can’t believe I let myself do that,” I said.

“What?  Get in a fight?” he asked.

“Yeah.  I thought I was grown up enough to walk away from it.”

“Well, look at it this way.  At least your last shot wasn’t a physical one.  You gotta start somewhere.”

“I didn’t think of it that way.  Baby steps, right?  Maybe I’m growing up after all.”

“Nah,” Sam said.  “You did just beat up a midget.”

“Shut up and give me a dollar,” I said.  “It’s my turn.”