Everybody has the right to be an artist

In the summer of 2004 I went to Northern Italy with Hubby D, a cousin, and my brother, After visiting our family villages in the Piemonte Region, we headed for the South of France, via the picturesque mountains and stopping roadside to lunch on the soft toma cheese of Piemonte, along with a loaf of crusty bread and a bottle of red wine. We drove a good five hours before reaching our destination: the medieval village of Vence, perched with quiet dignity above the hustle and bustle of the touristy French Riviera.

Our time in Vence was limited but well-spent, indulging ourselves with to-die-for French crepes and croissants washed down with carafes of French wine. While strolling through pedestrian cobblestone streets, we wandered in and out of various shops, eventually opting for the less pricey offerings of street vendors, where I bought a hand-painted bowl from one and a tapestry handbag from another, both brightly colored to reflect the sun-drenched Riviera. All that walking combined with all that looking soon evolved into tired feet and watery eyes. Break time. We settled onto the nearest bench and watched a few games of boules, the Italian version of bocce.

Of course, no trip to Vence would’ve been complete without visiting the museum of Henri Matisse. Other cultural venues, although we visited only a few, honored the many artists and authors of long ago, those who once called Vence their primary home or home away from home.

It was only by chance that June day, D, my brother, and I wandered into an amazing art studio located in Vence’s Old Town. There was no mistaking the owner and artist-in-residence—Brett Neal. Wiry and animated, Brett moved with the grace of an athlete. He wore his hair spiked, ear lobes decorated with unmatched earrings, clothes as funky as his painting and sculptures. Although born and raised in Thailand, he spoke with the British accent reflecting his nationality. A single word would’ve described him as charismatic.

I hadn’t planned on buying any artwork when I entered Brett’s studio, but then a particular piece displayed on the wall caught my eye. And perhaps my ear. Could it have been those two aproned women in the print calling to me, asking me to check them out? They were standing at a kitchen sink, creating a towering sculpture of pots and pans reflecting the images of their surroundings. How appropriate, the title of this work: ‘Everybody Has The Right To Be An Artist’. I bought #120 of 500 prints; my brother bought the next number. With the dollar against the euro so low in 2004, Brett even gave us a discount, a nice gesture I’d never considered requesting.

‘Everybody Has The Right To Be An Artist’ soon found its rightful place, framed and hanging on the brick wall above our kitchen fireplace, forever a reminder of its creator, Brett Neal. Sadly, I recently learned from his brother Boyd that 55-year-old Brett passed away last year, in Asia where he’d returned in 2006 to make his home. Boyd also said that ‘Everybody Has The Right To Be An Artist’ was one of the winning paintings in the Daily Mail’s ‘NOT The Turner Prize’ competition in May 2003, out of 10,000 entries. As Brett explained at the time “This picture pokes fun at the contemporary art scene. I’d seen a museum sculpture of welded and pans on sale for thousands of dollars, so I created a picture of ladies making their own pots and pans sculpture.”

Fortunately, Brett’s amazing art lives on and can be viewed here at the Brett Neal Studio.

‘Everybody Has The Right To Be An Artist’ image courtesy of Boyd Neal.

Some years after visiting Vence, I wrote a piece of short fiction entitled “Youthanasia.” One of the main characters happens to be a rather eccentric artist—wiry and animated, blessed with the grace of an athlete and the talent of viewing life from a different perspective. But that’s where any resemblance to Brett Neal or his amazing art ends.

If you’d like to read more about my fictional artist, I’m pleased to share a brief excerpt describing him and his studio located on an obscure street in Florence, Italy.

“Youthanasia” as told by middle-aged St. Louisan, Lidia Drago …

Tempo Principale the sign read in the gallery window. Simon glanced at his watch again before following me inside. We were greeted by a haphazard array of easels displaying visual renderings, the subjects so lifelike I wanted to run my fingers across their faces. The first, a young mother nursing her sleeping child, brought tears to my eyes. An ageless woman sitting in a lotus position reminded me of the yoga I gave up years before. A hunter kneeling with his gun and dog seemed to mesmerize Simon, as did the muscular athlete suspended in mid-air while kicking a soccer ball.

My shoulder rubbed against Simon’s; I felt his muscle twitch. “Forget the Ponte Vecchio gold,” I said. “These paintings are absolutely incredible.”

 He responded with an I-couldn’t-care-less shrug. Then I remembered: we didn’t have a wall on which to hang pictures anymore. Damn the fire that freed us of responsibilities but took away our home. Damn the fire that allowed us the trip of a lifetime but no place to relive our memories. Still, we shouldn’t deny ourselves some vicarious enjoyment. Simon thought otherwise.

 “I need some air.” He made a break for the door, stopped when a cough erupted from the maze of artwork.

 Between two easels emerged a mop of jet-black hair, followed by a small, wiry man, his skin free of wrinkles and dark eyes probing. He wore a roomy shirt, tight trousers, and ankle-length boots. “Please Signora, Signore. May I show you more?” He bowed from the waist, the shoulder-length mop flopping over his face until it fell back in place when he straightened up. “I am the proprietor, Peppe Valenti.”

 “And the artist?” I asked.

 “Alas, we are one in the same. Welcome to Tempo Principale.”

 He motioned us to follow him. Simon rolled his eyes but didn’t disappoint me. As with the illustrations we’d already seen, each one Peppe showed us told a personal story. I can still picture the returning soldier embracing his wife while two toddlers wait their turn, a septuagenarian blowing out birthday candles to the amusement of her daughter and granddaughter, an older man sitting in a rowboat, beaming as he pulled his catch from the water. I slipped my hand into Simon’s. His felt clammy in the warmth of mine.

Peppe smiled. “As you can see, I have captured my subjects in what they considered their prime. Perhaps the Signore and Signora would sit for me?”

Simon dropped my hand. He stepped back, showed both palms as if warding off an evil spirit. “Thanks for the offer, but we won’t be staying in Florence long enough to pose.”

“Actually, we’re looking for this place.” I showed Peppe the business card.

“A-ah, then fate has brought you to me. The pensione is footsteps away, two floors above my studio.”

“Then you must know Boswell,” Simon said.

“Si, he represents me occasionally.” Peppe waved his hand toward the door. “Please, the stairs are located outside, to the right of the gallery entrance. Just tell my nonna that Peppe sent you.”

“Then you are—”

He swept into another bow. “Si, I am also the landlord.”

End of excerpt.

“Youthanasia” first appeared in the 2006 November/December issue of Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine and later in the 2010 Spring/Summer issue of Allegory E-zine. It is currently available at various online distributors, as a single story or part of the full-length eBook entitled A Collection of Givers and Takers.




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Deceptions in 1930 Montana

Here’s one of my favorite scenes, from an area I researched in great detail, more like up close and personal. Pietro Rocca has left the wife he deceived and their two children back in Italy while he comes to terms with his new identity in America—that of Pete Montagna.

 Butte, Montana—1930

A distinctive blend of musty earth and ripe perspiration inundated the dry room of Anaconda Copper Mining’s premier facility as men from The Speculator’s first shift stripped off their silicone-laden blue overalls and dank long johns before jockeying for one of the eight shower positions. Pete Montagna stood under the hot water and worked a thick bar of Lava Soap into his ropey frame. With eyes squeezed to the showerhead, he let its unforgiving needles pound dust and grime from his tired muscles, and then turned to brace himself for a final assault before relinquishing the water to an impatient Pole.

“Gave up my real name, just like you probably did, and a lot of others,” the man told Pete when they first met. “Good names but too damn hard for these thick Americans to pronounce.”

Or, too damn revealing, Pete thought. He preferred the language of America unless he was in the company of Northern Italians. Most of them came to America before The Great War but still remembered Pete’s Piemontese dialect, a bastardization of French and Italian. “Speak the common language of the streets,” Leo had told him. “That way nobody can make a monkey outta you.” Not that Pete still counted on Leo’s advice.

While Pete was buttoning up his cropped union suit, Leo sauntered up to the washbasin, swiped one hand across the foggy mirror, and peered at his image, a face on the verge of losing its angular structure. With a snap of his trouser suspenders Leo said, “I got Lady Luck with me today.”

“Well I got second thoughts so count me out,” Pete replied, knotting a striped tie into his shirt collar.

“Honey, that’s what you need.”

“Honey can’t cure my problems.”

“What the hell, Pete. You did good last payday.”

“Yeah, but I gave it back on Wednesday.”

“So why work if you can’t play. We been busting our chops all week.”

“No, we been busting our chops three days,” Pete said, referring to the job sharing that kept the Butte miners working part time for daily wages of five dollars and forty-one cents.

“I gotta take a piss,” Leo said, “so don’t leave without me.”

Pete dawdled at the mirror, slicking back his hair and grooming a recently acquired mustache that covered the scar on his upper lip. Women still considered him handsome, or so they said.

A stocky man, his face sun-deprived from too many years underground, shuffled up to Pete and placed a gnarled hand on his shoulder. “How ‘bout coming home with me,” Tony Coronna said, projecting a broad smile under his droopy gray mustache. “My Donatella, she’s fixing spiedino and there’s some real good vino, straight from Meaderville.”

Wine from Meaderville sounded almost as good as wine from Faiallo, but Tony’s invitation came with a catch: a daughter twenty-four and ready for marriage. For a brief, delicious moment Pete pictured the Coronna kitchen: tantalizing strings of cheesy pasta simmering in beef broth, the scent of garlic softening in olive oil. Basta! He clutched his mid-section and feigned a painful cramp. “Grazie, Tony, but not today. I’m dealing with this stomach problem.”

Tony’s smile faded. “Sure, paesano, catch you next time.”

Pete grabbed his lunch bucket and tight roll of dungarees but before he could escape out the door, Leo yipped at his heels like some pesky mutt. They walked into a warm summer breeze caressing Butte’s summit and while Leo cupped his hand to light a cigarette, Pete surveyed the sprawling town below. Quiet from where they stood on The Hill. But down below Boisterous Butte never slept, thanks to revenue from an abundant supply of copper, silver, gold, lead, and manganese. Leo was on his third match when Pete lifted his head to the distant mountains. Their snow-covered peaks made a nice picture but Montana’s jewels couldn’t compare to his native Alps. A glow finally appeared at the end of Leo’s cigarette. He took a few drags and tipped his hat to The Spec’s head frame, a gallows supporting cables that raised and lowered men, equipment, dynamite, timbers, and ore cars three thousand feet into the unforgiving earth.

Pete fell into step with Leo and six other co-workers. They started the long downhill trek, passing the Little Minah and other mines intermingled with sooty, frame cottages and two-story flats perched above stonewalled streets. One by one the men drifted off until only Pete and Leo were left to trudge the unpaved portion of Main Street. At the modest white frame church of St. Lawrence O’Toole, Pete made the sign of the cross, a routine he’d begun with his first day on the job.

“You shoulda never started that,” Leo said.

“Bullshit, what are the odds?”

“No shit, just playing against the odds. Picture us in The Spec’s hellhole, slaving away on the day you forget to bless yourself.” He clashed an imaginary set of cymbals. “POW!”

“And what about you: saluting that damn head frame every time we leave.”

“It’s a habit, and nothing else.”

“The same goes for me,” Pete said. “One thing’s for sure: I ain’t superstitious.”

“Well, maybe you oughta be.”

“As if superstition ever brought you any luck.”

“I’m here, ain’t I?”

“So’m I, but luck didn’t get me here.”

“That’s right. It was me, Leo Arnetti.” He thumped his fingertips to his chest. “And don’t you forget it. What’s more, I got you this job, showed you how to talk like a real American.”

“How to lose like one too. And don’t get me started on America’s lousy economy.”

So far Pete’s luck had been nothing but bad, same as Leo’s, damn. When they weren’t mining copper or listening to old-timers extol the good old days—before The Company rid itself of the union—Leo talked him into panning for gold or taking chances on every conceivable game in Butte. And Pete seldom balked.

After they passed the Lexington, Leo brought up Tony Coronna. “You shoulda gone with him for some of that Meaderville wine, for some of Donatella too.”

“That ain’t funny Leo.”

“Ooh-h that Donatella. She’s got … whatchamacallit … the hots for you.”

“Basta! I’m a married man.”

“Not in America. Not to these people. Better they don’t know the real you. And don’t forget your godfather. Giovanni ain’t about to forgive or forget.”

“If God is good, Giovanni’s dead. And I’m going back home, just as soon as I get enough money.”

“Then what the hell are we waiting for, partner.” Leo draped his arm around Pete’s shoulder, pushing him where he didn’t need to go.

“First things first,” Pete said, moving away from Leo’s grip.

The two men took a right on Summit and dropped off their dirty clothes at Adie Turner’s aging three-story Victorian. Eight dollars a week bought them separate sleeping rooms, one bathroom shared with ten other men, laundry service, and three meals daily, including a full lunch bucket on workdays. Pete had tried rooming with Leo but that didn’t last. Not with Leo helping himself to Pete’s money and sneaking in floozies after dark.

As they continued down Main Street, commercial buildings outnumbered the houses and concrete replaced the dirt road. When the street traffic picked up, Pete moved onto the sidewalk and wiped dust from his leather high tops.

“Dammit, not now,” Leo said, kicking up more dust. “We only got a couple more blocks to go.” He stuck his hands in his trouser pockets, jiggled coins to accompany the beat of his footsteps.

Leo the Loser: all talk and no show. And Pete always wound up on the losing end. Getting out of Butte meant first getting rid of Leo.

When they neared Uptown Butte, Prohibition saloons passed as soft drink parlors and billiard parlors stacked hustlers against greenhorns, a lesson Pete had learned the hard way. “My stomach’s turning somersaults,” he said. “We shoulda grabbed a sandwich back at Adie’s.”

“As if I need one more glob of navy beans on stale bread,” Leo said. “Just you wait, tonight we’re gonna feast on thick, juicy steaks.”

They eased into the swelling ranks of businessmen, professionals, skilled craftsman, teamsters, laborers, uppity matrons, bored housewives, and all varieties of miners. Vehicles crowding the streets and threatening pedestrians prompted Leo to lift his middle finger to a Model T rolling through the stop sign. “A car, that’s what we need. Then we’d show those bastards a thing or two.”

Not with my winnings, Pete thought. His getaway money dried up after Leo needed a loan to repay old debts, a loan he had yet to repay. After they turned on Broadway the pace slowed down while Leo lit another cigarette. At Honey’s Soft Drink Parlor, Pete hesitated at the beveled glass door.

“Now what?” Leo asked.

“I ain’t exactly in a rush to throw my hard-earned money away.”

“In that case we drink first.” Leo reached around Pete and turned the sticky knob. “And then we play to win.”

### End of excerpt

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On the Great Wall

In another life I did climb the Great Wall of China, as indicated on the sweatshirt I bought that autumn day some twenty-five years ago. Of course, I didn’t climb the entire wall. To be more precise, I walked rather than climbed because the Great Wall is actually a stone road, big enough for two-way traffic with room to spare, at least that portion I traveled. The entire wall extends over 13,000 miles throughout China, its rolling landscape often bare and desolate. Still, my particular experience not far from Beijing involved significant climbing—up and down a never ending series of uneven stairs, also made of stone, worn with age and constant use. And for the most part, void of handrails. Accidents waiting to happen—the dream of every personal injury lawyer in America. Except this was China.

The wind whistled that day on The Wall, the weather ideal for tourists. The group I was traveling with consisted of fifteen or so Americans, our guide a charming young Chinese man who lived in Beijing and spoke what he referred to as The Queen’s English. I asked him the correct way to pronounce Beijing. It’s Bay-jing. Not Bay-shing. Perfect, as were the jeans and Nikes he wore every day. He planned on going to America in the near future, to attend college on a ping pong scholarship. No chance of his staying in America long term since the Chinese government would not allow his wife and child to accompany him.

In looking around The Wall that day, I soon realized there were no other Caucasian tourists. And much to my surprise and amusement, I, the only blonde, soon found myself surrounded by a group of teenage girls, dressed in school uniforms, and giggling with a series of hand gestures—our only way of communicating. It seems they wanted their picture taken with me.

Everybody smile. I was their oddity.


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Sequel to Chicago’s Headmistress Excerpt

Having fun with my current WIP (work in progress).

Chicago 1931.

Talk about luck of the draw. Matthew Pagano had been lucky enough to have snagged the best ma any fella could want. The best pa too. Had being the key word. Within months of each other, first Giorgio and then Emma Pagano had departed this world, leaving Matt to fend for himself. Damn. That’s what happens when people old enough to be grandparents become parents for the first time. An orphan at the age of twenty-two, Matt had expressed these feelings to no one but himself. Some fellas his age had already tied themselves down to a clinging wife; and if that wasn’t bad enough, a baby or two. Not that Matt had anything against a family, just not him acquiring one in the near future. For now, he was bent on finding a decent paying job. Okay, any job. That was going to take more than brains or good luck with the whole country in the throes of the Great Depression. Great, Matt’s ass. More like the Damn Depression.

At least his ma and pa had given Matt a good life, not in Chicago but in a distant suburb. They even went so far as to make sure he got through high school when most fellas were dropping out after a year or two. There was a time when he’d considered the religious life, maybe that of a parish priest. Then he got into a minor scrape and was told he didn’t meet the seminary’s high standards.

Two weeks after burying his ma, Matt had been going through his parents’ papers when he came across an official document, one that made him feel like he’d been punched in the gut. Too stunned at the time to follow up on the document, he waited another year before contacting the Holy Guardian Angels Children’s Home, seeking answers he still wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

“So pleased to finally meet you, young man,” Mother Superior Mary Joseph said with a slight smile as she motioned Matt to take a seat across the desk from where she sat. “We would have contacted you before now but due to an unfortunate fire some years ago, certain adoption records, including yours, were destroyed.” She paused, shaking her head. “And then there’s the State of Illinois with its stringent policy of sealing the official records. Such a pity.”

“As I told you over the phone,” Matt said, “both of my parents passed away last year, which is how I found out about the adoption.” Leaning forward, he gave Mother Superior the original envelope with the document contained inside, along with a baby blanket he’d found stapled to the envelope.

After reviewing the document, Mother Superior ran two fingers over an embroidered corner of the blue blanket. “Ah, yes. I recognize Beulah Lawson’s handiwork, her signature teddy bear. Such a dedicated midwife, although I’m not sure why she didn’t register this particular birth, which only added to the confusion later on.”

Matt leaned back and squared his shoulders against the dark oak chair. He considered lifting one ankle to the opposite knee but decided against such a relaxed position. Instead, he got right to the purpose of his visit. “I’d sure like to meet my real ma. I mean my birth mother. That is, if she’d like to meet me. Last thing I want is to cause any trouble. Hell, I … er … pardon my language.”

Mother Superior nodded with a pained expression that struck Matt as uncalled for. After all, he did ask her pardon; and it wasn’t like she’d never heard such language before. He waited for her okay to continue; but getting none, he forged ahead on his own. “Anyways, she’s probably married with kids who don’t know even know I exist. I hope we’ll all get along, me being raised as an only child and all. Not that I’m complaining, you understand. Far from it, I just …”

Mary Joseph (as he now thought of the mother superior) stopped his one-sided conversation with an authoritative show of her outstretched palm. “Before you go any further, I regret having to tell you this: your birth mother died last week. I’m so sorry, Matthew. If it’s any consolation, she searched many years for you. And wanted nothing more in life than for the two of you to be reunited.”

Matt resisted the urge to slump in his chair. Instead, he lowered his head and mouthed a damn, taking care not to let Mary Joseph read his lips. “I should’ve come sooner,” he said. “Maybe she would’ve liked me. I’m sure I would’ve liked her.”

He sat in silence for another minute, mentally trying to justify his actions, the guilt he felt for not having contacted the orphanage sooner. Finally, he cleared his throat and mustered the courage to ask, “What can you tell me about her?”

As if on cue, the door to Mary Joseph’s office opened and in walked a much younger nun, balancing a tray of sandwiches and a steaming pot of tea. The nun filled two teacups halfway, then left. As soon as the door clicked shut, Mary Joseph opened the lower drawer of her desk and removed a bottle of what appeared to be hooch.

“A gift from one of our generous benefactors,” she explained while opening it. She topped off both cups of tea, sending a pleasant aroma in Matt’s direction. “We all have our vices,” she continued. “Better to indulge those vices in small doses than let them get out of hand.” After lifting her cup to Matt, she sipped with controlled pleasure.

As did Matt, forcing himself to stop before emptying the entire cup with one gulp. Amen to vices, he thought. Better to indulge with fine whiskey from Canada than lousy hooch from a Chicago bathtub. Mary Joseph gestured to the sandwiches and Matt took two triangles of ham and cheese, savoring each bite of the first triangle before getting back to the purpose of his visit.

“About my mother,” he said.

“Yes, of course,” Mary Joseph replied. “Tell me, Matthew. Have you ever heard of Night School?”

“Who hasn’t,” Matt said with a shrug of broad shoulders. “Everybody knows Night School. At one time Chicago’s most popular … gentlemen’s club. Or most notorious, depending on which side of good and evil you happen to be on.”

Mary Joseph smiled with tight lips. She took another sip of tea, giving Matt the opportunity to attack his second triangle. While munching on it, he recalled his only visit to Night School. That would’ve been around five years ago, not too long after he turned eighteen. He’d sat through a brief but interesting chat with Headmistress Giulietta Bracca and thought her to be the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, her blonde hair and eyebrows arched over eyes as green as his own. What the hell, the woman went so far as to set up him and Pooch with a pair of hookers who specialized in first-timers.

“Obviously, the headmistress is no longer in charge,” Matt said for lack of anything better to say. Anyone with half a brain who read the local rag or followed scuttlebutt on the street would’ve known about Giulietta Bracca dying at the hands of a deranged brewmeister who then did away with himself.

“Yes, she died last week,” Mary Joseph said again.

It took another minute before those words registered with Matt, who’d been peering into his empty cup. “Hold on,” he said, setting the cup down. “Are you telling me …?”

The mother superior nodded. She poured less tea than before, topping it with more whiskey.

Manners be damned. Matt picked up the cup, drained its contents, and returned the cup to its saucer. The next words he spoke bordered on a whisper. “Why Giulietta Bracca? Why didn’t she want me?”

Mary Joseph cleared her throat. “Mrs. Bracca was hardly more than a child herself. And you were a sickly newborn, so weak the midwife didn’t bother registering your existence. But make no mistake about Mrs. Bracca’s feelings: she wanted nothing more than to mother you. She fell asleep cradling you in her arms, only to awake hours later and realize you were gone. Whisked away by your father, according to Mrs. Bracca. Unknown to her at the time, you were left outside the door of Holy Guardian Angels, which is where I found you. As I did a number of other infants during my early years here, before being transferred elsewhere. Six years ago I returned as Mother Superior and met Ms. Bracca shortly thereafter. God rest her soul. She was quite generous to Holy Guardian Angels.”

“And what about my father?”

“Mrs. Bracca was so devastated by his cruelty toward you, she ended their relationship shortly thereafter. He died years ago, or so I’ve been told.” The hallway clocked chimed twice, bringing the discussion to a sudden end. “More information regarding your parentage may be forthcoming from a discussion with Mrs. Bracca’s lawyer,” Mary Joseph said, pressing a business card in Matt’s hand. “Out of respect for her memory and generosity, I shall call ahead, as a way of introducing you and confirming our discussion.”

End of Excerpt ###

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Nice and Queasy

Looking for a fun, summertime read? One that will either amuse you or appall you? Or both? From my Collection of Givers and Takers

Sleazy paparazzo Lester Best is on the run from a New York loan shark when he hits his stride at Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks where a top celeb is camping out with her latest squeeze.

 The Big Shot

 On a Friday evening in late June, Lester Best eased his customized SUV across the wooden slats of a swinging bridge spanning the Auglaize Creek in the heart of Missouri’s Ozarks. He kicked up white gravel for another two miles before realizing he’d gone too far. Going too far best defined Les Best, that and an absurd name he regretted not having changed early in his career. Les turned around and retraced his powdery route until he found the campground entrance to the state park at Kaiser. He rattled along under the dense shade of canopied trees, dodging deep ruts and cruising past a hodgepodge of trailers and pop-up campers. After reaching the lakefront area jammed with more weekenders, he selected one of the few remaining primitive sites. No electricity, no water, and no flush toilet: the perfect retreat for a deadbeat fugitive nursing a matching set of splinted forefingers.

Les staked his tent as far away as possible from his nearest neighbors, two wannabe hill people who strolled over long enough for first-name introductions before returning to their beer and makeshift setup. Will, whose white beard overlapped his bib overalls, pressed a harmonica to his lips and played a haunting rendition of Ruby for his own Ruby. She wore yards of calico, chain-smoked, and complained non-stop from an aluminum lawn chair straining under her massive weight. After thirty minutes of the audio assault, Les stifled his urge to suggest that Will muzzle both Rubies, opting instead to utilize the earplugs he’d brought from his Lower East Side apartment.

Although Les Best lived and breathed New York, he’d grown up in Missouri, first in foster care and later on a boys’ ranch designed for discards and the wayward. Les qualified as both, then and now. His temporary return to the Show Me State was not out of nostalgia but to avoid settling a debt of ninety thousand dollars he’d incurred through a series of risky ventures. Joey Plastic, the New York mobster who held the note, had arranged for the dislocation of Les’s forefingers to induce an initial interest payment of five thousand bucks, but Les figured the bastard would never extend his pursuit into the fly-over boonies of mid-America. On that Les Best would’ve bet his mother’s life, if he’d ever had a mother. Still, he must’ve since his many enemies and few friends usually referred to him as ‘that sonofabitch’.


That night Les conked out in the back of his SUV. The next morning found him on the pea gravel beach, pushing a rented johnboat into the Grand Glaize Arm of Lake of the Ozarks. Splinters erect, he paddled from one cove to another until he located the ideal fishing spot, one deserted and edged with brush. By ten o’clock, water smooth as glass reflected the cocky blue of a clear sky and Les hadn’t caught a single crappie. At noon he peeled off his sweat-drenched shirt, dropped his knit shorts, and mooned a parade of skiers and speedboats stirring up the wake. “You can all go to hell!” he yelled, before sending his pricey rod and reel to sleep with the fishes.

Back at camp two Generation Xers had squeezed in between his site and the wannabes, who were making honeymoon racket in their tent—a conjured image amusing enough to make Les forget the fishing gear he regretted sinking. To the X couple, he returned an obligatory wave and howdy that seasoned campers felt compelled to offer each other. Still, he kept his distance, watching the Xers struggle with the pegs and canvas of new equipment. At last they stood back, arm in arm, to admire their saggy abode. It burped once and collapsed into a heap. Male X pushed back his red-orange feather cut and appealed to Les.

“What do you say, mister. How ‘bout some help?”

What the hell, Missouri know-it-alls, even those partially disabled, were supposed to be accommodating. Les ambled over. He offered a few practical suggestions and within five minutes the tent stood erect and operational. The sun-deprived stranger stuck out a soft hand accustomed to professional manicures.

“Much obliged. Sorry about those bum fingers,” X said with a grin of orthodontically enhanced teeth. “I’m Josh. Over there’s Betty Sue.”

Betty Sue, as in leggy and trim, nodded from a distance.

“No problem. Call me … Les.” Their encounter should’ve ended on the handshake but that’s when Les noticed Josh’s tattooed wrist: a pissing gargoyle with folded wings. As in the official logo for heavy metal’s Grotes and Gargs. As in Josh Nolan, lead drummer. The revelation prompted a closer look at Betty Sue, as in trying to fade into the background. No make-up, blonde pigtails, tee shirt and khaki shorts: typical back-to-nature but this chick was no typical camper. Les Best, master of deception, could spot a plain-Jane disguise in the most unlikely of locales.

Les didn’t linger with the Xers but Betty Sue hadn’t fooled him. That face and that body belonged to none other than Ivy Sinclair, last year’s nobody who shot up to become this year’s hottest glitz and glamour TV diva. When it suited Ivy Sinclair, the twenty-something preened for tinsel town’s red carpet. But when she wasn’t hustling the public, she kept her private life way too private: another ploy to fuel the fires of her clamoring fans. And before this weekend Josh Nolan had been nothing more than an unconfirmed rumor. Now the oblivious, sexy twosome belonged to Les, exclusively.

Never in a million years could he have plotted a better scenario: Les Best, New York paparazzo of uncensored privacy, tenting in Missouri next to La-La Land’s newest duo. Les had escaped from New York with his only cameras not in hock: the miniature spy and a Panasonic with 600mm zoom lens. From campsite to wooded area to man-made beach, he devoted every waking moment to cursing his splints and plying his craft. Ivy and Josh kissing, Ivy and Josh necking, Ivy and Josh rolling around—the usual predictable stuff. His best shot thus far: Ivy in a modest bikini, her trademark tattoo peeking out the underside. Nice, too nice: translation, boring.

By Sunday evening the primitive weekenders had packed up and returned to their mundane, air-conditioned lives. Only the wannabes, the celebs, and Les remained, bunched up like yesterday’s pioneers anticipating an Indian raid. Will’s musical switch from the melancholy Ruby to the melancholy Moon River again confirmed he hadn’t succumbed to the evils of pop culture. More Moon River prompted Les to throw out a scrap of unctuous chum to the celebs. “If you folks want to spread out closer to the water’s edge, I’ll help you break camp.”

“Nah, that’s OK,” Josh said. “We’re planning to move on day after tomorrow.”

Damn! Thirty-six hours didn’t leave Les much time. He needed a big shot, the shot to end all shots.


Monday morning brought a stir of gentle lake breezes that rustled the leaves in stately red oaks dominating every clump of trees. While a pot of coffee brewed over his pit fire, Les cracked four eggs into four pats of butter sizzling in the cast iron skillet. He added a can of corned beef hash, leaned back, and waited for it all to make sense. Licking his lips, he sucked in the artery-clogging, woodsy aromas and closed his eyes to savor the moment. Then Josh coughed. Photo op! Les grabbed his Panasonic. Snap, snap: Josh crawling from his tent. Snap, snap: Josh stumbling to the john. Les gambled with the next few minutes. He hurried to the celebs’ tent; the flap was open and Ivy, asleep. Damn, in an oversized T-shirt and on her back. He considered using a long stick to lift her shirt but didn’t want to blow his chance for something better. Instead he located her in his viewfinder and got off two shots before his ears detected a distant rattle from the men’s latrine. By the time Josh came shuffling back, Les was hunched over his fire, scraping burnt glob from the skillet.

He poured a cup of muddy coffee and waited with eyes never straying far from the neighboring tent. Finally, his lovely prey emerged from her shelter, still wearing the baggy tee.

Behold Ivy in the morning, an Ozark wood nymph splashing her face with Evian. Les snapped his mini. She stretched her toned arms overhead. Snap, snap. She jumped Josh, played kissy-face, and wrapped her legs around his lean body to reveal the trail of ivy from her bikini. Snap, snap. Ivy and Josh spun around, fell to the ground, and seeing Les, they giggled like love-struck teenagers. He acknowledged them with a lift of his coffee mug.

“Hey, Les, any idea where we can arrange for some horses?” Josh called out.

Les clenched his teeth. Didn’t these people ever think for themselves? In their showbiz realm agents and managers provided the brainpower. Out here the celebs had latched onto him. He forced a smile. “Check out the info packet you got at the welcome station.”

“Damn, now why didn’t I think of that,” Josh said, shaking dust from his hair. “Thanks, good buddy.”

While Josh and Ivy mulled over the park information with the intensity of first-timers planning a European adventure (snap, snap), Les formulated his own plan. After the celebs pulled away in their Navigator, he drove into Osage Beach, parked at a strip mall, and speed-dialed Emanuel Gold on his cell phone. “Manny, baby. What’s up?”

“Don’t what’s up me, you sonofabitch,” yelled the editor of MORE.

Manny being Manny. Les could almost feel the bastard’s spit blasting through the receiver.

“Where the hell you been?” Manny demanded.

“Something came up. I had to leave in a hurry.”

“You left me with garbage too tame for Mother Teresa’s newsletter.”

“Yeah, yeah, mia culpa. But I’ll make it up to you—a thousand times over. For the right price, that is.”

“You get nothing ‘til I see some skin.”

“How about some of Ivy Sinclair’s?”

“No way, you crazy sonofabitch!”

“Remember her in the February issue of SWEET: beach volleyball in a mini bikini, ivy wandering over those oh-so-firm cheeks. Well, I’m sleeping next to that same tattoo in the same location.”

“Ivy Sinclair dumped her latest squeeze for a sonofabitch like you?”

“Let’s just say the three of us are tighter than a virgin’s ass, if you get my drift. They’re splitting tomorrow but not before I get a piece of her.”

“Just make sure you get the real Ivy and not some pathetic knock-off. By the way, big shot, two scum bags have been inquiring as to your whereabouts, which leads me the obvious question.”

No way, Manny. Les hung up and went shopping for supplies. When he got back to camp, no one was around except a uniformed park employee. The dead ringer for the prison matron in Chicago was leaning against a tree, checking her clipboard. “How do,” he said in his resurrected Missouri twang. “Is there a problem, ma’am?”

“Just making my rounds,” she replied without looking up. “Dogging after the outsourcers hired to sanitize and equip our facilities.”

“As in odor-eaters and toilet paper?”

“You got it.”

“How often you empty them suckers?”

“End of the season, unless they fill up sooner.”

As soon as the latrine queen zipped away in her truck, Les opened up the back of his SUV. He removed a telescopic ladder folded to the size of a small suitcase and covered it with brush in the wooded area. The remainder of the day he spent reading entertainment rags and contemplating a triumphant return to New York, after he squared his debts.


By ten o’clock that night the temperature hovered around seventy degrees, and a star-filled sky and quarter moon provided the primitive area’s only light source. The wannabes finally stopped pitching beer cans, a precursor to ending Ruby’s steady harping and Will’s harmonica Ruby. But after he quieted down, she reverted to soft wailing. Any other night Les would’ve sailed his skillet in their direction, but not this night. Tonight he wanted no disruptions. The celebs were snuggled on a log near their low fire (snap, snap) and discussing some stellar configuration, probably basking in the glory of their own shining stars. For Les, the best was yet to come. After extinguishing his campfire with a pail of water and some dirt, he called out through a yawn, “G’night, folks.”

Inside his tent, Les stripped naked. He climbed into chest waders, donned a plastic rain jacket, and slipped a painter’s mask around his neck. Next, the construction hard hat, equipped with an attached light that Les couldn’t risk turning on too soon. As he crept into the dark woods, sweat beaded his skin and clunk to his eyelashes. He retrieved his ladder and headed to the women’s pit latrine where a swarm of buzzing flies greeted him when he opened the door. The almost tolerable odor evoked his whispered, “Thank you, latrine queen.”

Les flipped on his light, secured his mask. He twisted the toilet off its base, extended his ladder down the concrete container, and started his descent along the four-foot width. Five feet down, he stopped to slide the toilet back into the lip of the base. Six inches later he stepped into waste. At eight feet he bottomed out. Whoa! He reeled from the stench. Damn the latrine queen for only going so far with her chemicals. Unlike Les, she didn’t exceed certain limitations.

During his teenage years on the ranch when trucks hauled in cattle, Les usually got stuck with the grunt job of prodding reluctant animals from the trailers. He’d worked in ankle-deep shit then and vowed never again, but Les wasn’t one to keep his word, not even to himself. The greenbacks from these shots would get Joey Plastic off his back, his other cameras out of hock. Maybe garner him some insider celeb tips, a ringside table at some classy watering hole. Most of all, he’d gain the respect of every jerk who ever flipped him off.

Les took pride in catering to an insatiable public who demanded a piece of their adored celebs. Or untouchable royals, even the Queen of England had been fair game. For years the toilet seat she used in one of Chicago’s leading hotels had been displayed on its archive wall of notables. Small potatoes now compared to the recorded affairs of younger royals and the videotaped sex of entertainers and athletes. After tonight Les Best would rank with the best, the most innovative.

Ten minutes passed. Les heard the light crunch of twigs: Ivy, right on schedule. He killed his light, leaned into the splattered wall, and muffled a gag. The door opened, latched closed, and a low, pitiful moan filled the enclosure.

“Heads or tails, which one’s goin’ first,” Ruby said in a voice bordering on baritone. “Okay, lips, you win.”

Ruby’s eyes were squeezed tight as she centered her moon face overhead. That’s when Les directed his face to the wall. After five minutes of gasping and heaving, she turned and plopped her dimpled buns over the toilet, creating a suction that cut off the air supply below. Between her choked-up sobs and torrents of diarrhea, Ruby prayed. She groaned. She shuddered. She went silent.

Down below, Les had prayed too, for the first time in years. His head was spinning; his finger splints got tangled. He lost his grip and fell back into the waste. Still, he managed to hold his camera high. Ruby didn’t even stir when he sloshed to the ladder. Fighting for each breath, he struggled up the rungs. When he topped out, Les poked one splint into Ruby’s sealed posterior. He poked again, this time harder. Finally, Ruby shifted. She wiggled off the seat, allowing Les to fill his lungs before she left.

Les was ready to relinquish his dream for the big shot when he heard footsteps again. This time there was no mistaking Ivy. Her flashlight beam sought out despicable insects and a tidy toilet seat. She planted her sweet tush on the throne. Ever so gently Les switched on his light. The ivy trailing Ivy’s cheeks wiggled as she made a few adjustments. Les held his breath and snapped away, the camera shutter so quiet even he couldn’t hear it as he recorded such delightful anatomical shots: Les Best’s unique contribution to the science of exploitation. Toilet paper fluttered down.

As soon as Ivy lifted her buns, Les killed his light. But instead of the darkness he expected, another flash came from above. The bitch had stolen his image with her own camera.

“You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Lester Best.”

“You knew me before this weekend?”

“Let’s just say your reputation preceded you.”

“Could your turn off that flashlight, Ivy? I can’t see a thing.”

“Not before I get your camera. Just put it in the bucket I’m sending down by rope.”

Damn, she was smarter than he thought. Les had no choice but to part with his Panasonic.

“The film too.” She lowered the bucket again and he gave it up.

“We can make a deal,” he said. “Just you and me and the big shot. I’m not shitting you when I say Les Best has the absolute best connections.”

“Unfortunately, not as good as mine. In fact, my connection made me the star I am today. That’s why he asked me, and only me, to deliver an important message to you.”

Les could see her now, all too clearly—leaning over the opening, a flashlight in one hand and a revolver in the other. He opened his mouth to speak but the last words he would ever hear came from Ivy.

“For Les Best, Joey Plastic sends only his best.”


“The Big Shot” was first published in the 2007 Horror Anthology Damned in Dixie and later in the 2010 Winter issue of Allegory Ezine.



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Revisiting “The Furniture Whisperer”

I’ve written before about my passion for vintage Ethan Allen furniture, mostly notably in a blog from March 2012. And then there’s my penchant for discovering the occasional bargain on Craigslist. Put them both together and if the planets are in proper alignment, they might spell, “Be Still My Beating Heart.”

As was the case several weeks ago. While chilling out at our Lake of the Ozarks place, I came across four Ethan Allen dining chairs (two with arms, two sides), on Buyers-and-Sellers-Beware Craigslist at the bargain price of $25. Not for each chair but for all four. An exact match to six Ethan Allen finds from six years ago but unlike those shabby-chic, these were in pristine condition. Add these potential four to the seventeen Ethan Allen dining chairs I already have, plus the six decorated Hickory chairs, and Bingo! Twenty-seven people would be able to gather at our obscenely long table in compatible comfort. That is, as long as they didn’t talk politics or religion. Or, God forbid, make negative remarks about my cooking.

My initial contact with the St. Louis area seller soured before it got started. She’d changed her mind about selling the chairs that once belonged to her grandmother. But then after we messaged back and forth, Chair Lady changed her mind again, this time in my favor. Could I pick them up that afternoon? Since D and I were at the lake, that wasn’t possible. So, I contacted Offspring #2, who couldn’t get the chairs until the next day. Chair Lady agreed. But after more messaging between Chair Lady and #2, those arrangements fell through. Another round of messaging back and forth brought the total communications to around 15, including several phone calls. After three days of this, D and I finally arrived at Chair Lady’s home to finalize the purchase.

The chairs were as perfect as they appeared on Craigslist. I thanked Chair Lady and handed her an envelope containing the $25. She shook her head and said, “There’s no charge. I’m giving you the chairs. After talking to your son about your large family gatherings, I know my grandmother’s chairs are going to a good home.”

Oh, yeah. You bet they will.

Be still my beating heart.

As promised, here’s my original post about Ethan Allen furniture.

The Furniture Whisperer (Originally published March 2012)

D and I started out married life with two rooms of hand-me-downs along a new kitchen set, chrome and Formica—a well-meaning gift I never grew to love. Five years and three children later I discovered Ethan Allen furniture. Heirloom quality traditional designed for passing down from generation to generation, according to their high-end catalogues I regarded as my decorating bible. Over many years and two households, we acquired a decent Ethan Allen collection: floor samples, damaged returns, fire sales, and closeouts all—except for the special-order table that extends to seat twelve, a size which seemed reasonable for our family of seven plus grandparents or the occasional guest.

The grandparents are gone now, the children grown and with their own children. The immediate family has expanded to twenty-four and when we gather at our home for a meal, it’s around x-number of tables pushed together to make one extremely long one. No texting allowed; our family uses its outside voice. Hey, these times are precious few and nobody wants to sit at the kids’ table or eat standing up at the kitchen counter. What’s more, I set that humongous table with matching linens, china, and flatware. Don’t get me started on the clean-up. The assorted tables for extra seating have come and gone—one drop leaf oak originating in Germany, so old it sits lower than today’s standard; another drop leaf of indiscernible wood traded for my friend J’s mahogany table that folds into a tight package, a third drop leaf maple returned to its former owner.

Sure, I could make do: move the folding table from the garage; squeeze our everyday table through the dining room door; bang up our knuckles … ouch, that profanity didn’t come from my mouth.

Wait a minute, how about checking out Craigslist? What’s this, an Ethan Allen drop-leaf pine seating eight? For $75? I remember it well from those catalogues. This one looks okay. So okay that I would’ve bought it sight-unseen but the seller convinces me otherwise. I convince D to drive me twenty-five miles to inspect said table. It came from an estate sale, last used as a kids’ craft table—desecrated by paint, crayon, and adhesive backing stuck around the edges—so much for passing down a valued heirloom from one generation to another. We open the leaves, sturdier than any drop leaf we’ve used in the past. I rub my hand across the marred wood and the table speaks to me. D nods, good enough for a guy who doesn’t whisper to furniture. We seal the deal; pay an extra $25 to have the table delivered in two days.

Chairs, we could use some extra chairs. The following evening I peruse Craigslist again. What’s this, an Ethan Allen maple table and six matching chairs for a mere $40? Could use some TLC the ad says; but for $40 who cares. Another set I remember from the catalogues. Sure, the table is smaller than my special order but the chairs, a near match. They look … okay in the photo. Three telephone messages and one return call the next day makes the set mine, sight unseen. I thank the seller profusely. D borrows son P’s truck, gases it up for the ninety-mile round trip. We reach our destination and … yikes! What have we here? Gouges in the chair seats, some of them water-damaged to the bare wood, except for this one with a magazine cover embedded in its seat. Think decoupage. Add traces of food to the grooves of every chair. Did the family pet chew on this seat and that leg and that leg? Oops, missing arms from one of the captain’s chairs. D rolls his eyes; sets his jaw. The table’s okay; I hear the chairs talking to me.  It doesn’t matter what they’re saying; I want to slap them silly. Still, a deal’s a deal and their mine. Our ride home is too quiet, D the naysayer and me, the furniture whisperer.

That afternoon the drop leaf pine joins its adopted siblings in the garage. D and I slip our hands into vinyl gloves and tackle the dreaded projects. Over the next four hours he applies good ol’ WD-40© to the adhesive tape; I scrub everything in sight with Orange Glo©. After he finishes with the WD-40©, I work lemon oil into the pine table. Over and over I rub the wood, each stroke bringing us closer until it thanks me with a subtle sheen that almost makes me cry. As for the maple find, we call it a day, having removed every bit of crude, even the reluctant magazine cover. The next day we carry our pine treasure across the front lawn, through the entryway and into the el of our living/dining room where it looks like no other piece in either room. Character, I tell D, a conversation piece that keeps me returning for one more glance.

Back to the maple chairs. After D fills in those holes that once held the captain’s arms, he rubs a near-match stain into the wood of every chair. Amazing! From a distance all of the chairs look great. Close up, most of them quite acceptable; the rest … okay, when covered by any-size rear end. After the stain dries, a bit of 00000 steel wool and a good rub of lemon oil should stop this Ethan Allen madness once and forever. Maybe put them back on Craigslist, make a few bucks for all the hard work and aggravation.

What’s that I hear, the chairs whispering to me. I lean forward, run my hand over each fiddle-back top, and listen.

“Please let us stay.”

“All of us.”

“We promise to serve you well.”

“And never to buckle.”

“No matter how big the butt.”

“Or small the child.”

What else could I say but, “Yeah, okay … welcome to the family.”



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A Shout-out to Young Chefs

An okay cook would best describe my culinary skill level, one earned through no particular effort on my part, but rather a process of elimination, one born out of necessity eons ago—as in feeding five active offspring. Plus an equally active husband who worked six days a week and in his spare time, officiated sporting events. Cooking was never on his radar; nor did I ever think of looking for it there.

I did, however, make sure all the offspring knew how to survive on a few basics—scrambled eggs, hot dogs, hamburgers, French toast, mashed potatoes, sliced tomatoes and cottage cheese among others. As for desserts, Lucy’s Lemon Squares from the Peanuts Cookbook still reigns supreme at our empty-nest household. Over the years and with marginal help from me, said offspring increased their cooking repertoire to include roast turkey/dressing, grilled steaks, and pork loin roast. For the more ambitious—ravioli with a variety of fillings. And for the more adventurous who required no help from me—prime rib, lobster, beef tongue, venison, and elk.

All of which leads to my ongoing fascination with TV cooking competitions, especially those that have expanded to include young chefs. For example, MasterChef Junior. From all over the country, hundreds of kids between the age of 8 and 13 try out for a revered spot, one of 20, as I recall. Some of these courageous cooks are so short in stature, they have to stand on stools to comfortably access the counters and stoves. Many of them aspire to be restaurateurs when they grow up and consider MasterChef a stepping stone to achieve certain goals in the culinary world. Most of them started out with help from one or both parents. Even grandparents—it’s all about family, traditional or today’s version of modern.

The MasterChef Junior judges are led by producer Gordon Ramsey, along with Joe Bastianich, both known for their devastating critiques of adult cooks on other shows. On the softer side of the junior version is Christina Tosi, who specializes in pastries but knows all aspects of cooking. And on occasion, the affable Graham Elliot. Although he’s lost a ton of weight, this hasn’t compromised his love of good eats. Each week all of the judges excel in teaching these young chefs, critiquing their work, and most importantly, sending the losers home with gentle words of encouragement. Never one loser—at least two at a time, which makes the going easier. After turning in their aprons, these brave chefs leave with heads held high, hugging each other amidst the sincere applause and good wishes of peers who have survived to cook another week. Toss in a few understandable tears but no back-stabbing, no grumbling, no whining. And with the exception of only one chef destined to earn the coveted trophy and $25,000, what good losers all these kids eventually become—which make them all winners in my book.

Now I ask you: how can an 8-year-old possibly compete against a 13-year-old? Incredibly well, thank you. In fact, MasterChef Junior’s latest winner is a 9-year-old girl from Chicago. Who, in the finale, cooked a fantastic 3-course meal; as did the other two finalists—an 11-year-old boy and an 8-year-old girl. These were restaurant-quality meals, produced using techniques most home cooks wouldn’t even attempt.

Which brings me to the crux of my message. Teach your kids to cook. You won’t be sorry, I promise. Simple or complex, whatever it takes to get them started and to hold their interest. Even if it means first teaching yourself. Don’t have time? Sure you do. Just catch a few episodes of MasterChef, MasterChef Junior, Top Chef, Top Chef Junior, or Worst Cooks in America.


Posted in Cooking, Dining, Family, Food, Lifestyle, TV, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment