★ “Rime Of The Ancient Marinara” was originally published in 2005 in Volume 4 of Letter X, a quarterly creative writing anthology
★ Read more short stories
I’m sitting at my desk on post-election day, reviewing eight pages of aborted paragraphs I’ve scribbled in my notebook, wrestling with the desire to communicate and connect with you, to say something important or useful or — if all else fails — something clever or entertaining. The eight pages have come up short on all fronts. I got bupkis. Continue reading
They will lower me into the hole they’ve dug in my yard,
My casket lined with VHS tapes and Sharpies,
USB cables coiled around my chest,
And a rotary telephone held in each cold hand.
My mouth filled with keys to forgotten doors,
A 9-volt battery covering each eye,
Resting on a cushion of thrift store t-shirts
Cradling my sketchbook-stuffed corpse.
Balancing atop a shifting platform of scrap plywood,
Old books, rub-on lettering, and coffee mugs,
A choir of well-meaning friends will burst forth in joyful melody,
“Everything must go! Everything must go!”
And the mourners, bravely choking back their tears and regrets,
Will be required to take home a minimum of ten compact discs,
To be prominently displayed in their homes as a shrine
For the laughing dead man who never has to move again.
I am dreaming. I think about Lucinda Williams, and then I’m talking to her. I ask her if it’s difficult having such an unusual name. My sleeping brain constructs a dream-world where you need to possess a rock with your name written on it in order to have that name. There are name-rocks all over the place, but the polished Lucindas are rare gems, hard to find. If she ever lost her name-rock, she’d have a hell of a time trying to replace it, and might end up having to take a different name. I don’t have that problem. Toms are dull and common, about as rare as pigeons in a parking lot.
The cowboy is tired and a bit cranky.
“Whaaat?” asks the spaceman in disbelief. “No, it’s cool! Like a mascot!”
They sit in the rear booth of the Stop-N-Go Diner just off of Route 28. Two cups of coffee rest on the table, surrounded by breakfast debris. Above the din of ordering, smalltalk, and determined mastication rises the tinny sound of that accursed “Life Is A Highway” song. It leaks out of the diner’s table jukeboxes, thirty-odd speakers radiating unspeakable brain damage. The cowboy—normally more than willing to maintain a low profile in public—considers pulling out one of his revolvers so he can start pegging the quarter-only machines like it’s a goddamned carnival game. Instead, he opts to jab at the “LO” volume button on their booth’s juke for the tenth time, hoping against hope that this will somehow elicit a lower “LO.”
The little spaceman fidgets on his side of the booth, feet dangling over the edge of the seat, kicking along to some broken rhythm in his head. Next to him, a fiberglass clown head the size of a large beach ball sits quietly, its mouth smiling around a much-abused speaker grille. The clown head has seen better days: wind-scoured, sun-faded, graffitied. The ClownyBurger down the highway will open in another forty-five minutes. The morning crew will call the police shortly thereafter.
“We can glue it to the roof of the truck!” the spaceman continues. “C’mon, Cowboy! It’ll look awesommmmmme!” He points a gloved finger at the RENT: America! truck parked outside their booth window. “I think I’ve got…” He ponders the control panel on the front of his spacesuit. “…some…” He runs his hand across the small keypad. “…adhesivvvve…” He tries to recall the correct numerical shortcut. Spaceman has yet to admit to Cowboy that he has no idea how most of the functions on his suit work. “Yeah yeah yeah!” he declares. “Watch the salt shaker. I’ve totally got this structural adhesive bonding agent stuff. Space Agency grade stuff.” The cowboy drops his face into his hands as the spaceman points his pinky finger at the salt shaker. He punches a few numbers into the control panel, there is a momentary hum of electric discharge, and every jukebox in the diner gets louder.
“Awww, come on!” Cowboy cries, pounding his fist on the tabletop. Spoons jump.
The spaceman examines the small outlet tube mounted on the pinky of his glove. “Musta hit the wrong button.”
“Oh, musta,” the cowboy moans into his palms.
“Pardon me, gentlemen.” An Indian accent. Cowboy peeks through his fingers and spies a well-dressed man standing next to their table. Tweed suit. Bow tie. Fez. “Is that your rental lorry out there?”
“Yeah!” says the spaceman.
“Well, technically, no,” the spaceman admits. “It’s a rental.”
“No,” Cowboy reiterates. Then to the stranger: “No. Uh, our truck is parked around back. Moving Unlimited.” He gestures to the truck outside their window. “That there’s a RENT: America! truck. The little fella’s confused.” Cowboy slaps the little man’s glass dome. The spaceman, not quite comprehending the deceit, eyes the truck suspiciously. “What’s this about, mister…?”
“My name is Mister Manwani. I’m with The Brotherhood.” He leans in close and speaks quietly. “We’ve had reports of a vampire in the area. We’re hot on the trail.” He is already walking away. “Nothing to worry about, of course. Leave it to us.” He continues talking as he moves back towards the door. “I think I’ll take a quick look at that unattended vehicle. Bit suspicious, I think. Thank you, gentlemen. Good day.” Polite. Dismissive. He opens the door and a bell rings. He’s gone.
“Well, balls,” Cowboy growls, pulling a crumpled ball of dollar bills out of his pocket and slapping them on the table. He stands up and unholsters one of his big revolvers. “C’mon,” he grunts at Spaceman, followed by a pre-emptive “…and leave the clown head here.”
The jukeboxes play the opening notes to “We Built This City” at the new, higher volume and no one in the diner seems to mind. Cowboy checks the chambers of the gun as he stomps down the aisle. Loaded. He whirls around abruptly at the door, the spaceman almost tripping over him. “What is wrong with you people?” he accuses the room as he waves the gun over his head. A few people look up, amused. “Balls,” he growls again, already giving up on the half-formed speech in his head. He has other things to attend to. To the spaceman: “C’mon. Stick close. There’s probably more of ‘em out there staking the place out.”
“Ha. Staking. Good one. I get it.”
“Shut your face-hole.”
The cowboy gives a final condemning glare to the room full of chewers and swallowers. Everything he sees is coated with a greasy film of Starship. “Ungoddamnbelievable,” he mutters. Raising his gun to his cheek, he kicks the door open and bolts out into the parking lot. The spaceman sticks close.
There’s an insidious monster whispering in the ears of amateur illustrators and designers, haunting Twitter feeds and blogs and tumblrs across the web. It isn’t an art movement or anything, it’s an internet trend. I have come to refer to it in my head as Stunt Design.
Stunt Design, n. The phenomenon of designers & illustrators creating gimmicky graphics purely in the hopes of ‘going viral’ on pop culture/arts blogs.
Stunt Design is combining pop culture things with a seemingly incompatible design style. Or maybe just mixing up two pop culture things for the hell of it. The surface-y statement of purpose is usually something nebulous and meaningless like “juxtaposition” or “reimagining.” But if you scratch at the label with your fingernail, you find there’s not much underneath it. I think that the real goal is to create something that will appeal to the insatiable appetites of design and pop culture blogs, leading to exposure, name recognition, ad revenue, and/or selling digital prints.
Movie posters redone with minimalist design. Re-imagined hip-hop album covers. Swiss Modern design mixed with punk flyers. No context, no meaning, just juxtaposition for juxtaposition’s sake. Like a bad mashup based off of song title puns instead of something musical. Stunt design is empty decoration. And its proliferation begs the question: Why the fuck are these people making this stuff for public consumption? Feedback? Acknowledgement? Portfolio padding? Boredom coupled with an incredible amount of free time? Simply expressing a love for something? Painfully excruciatingly pointless design exercises? Some of these reasons are completely valid. Some of the work I’ve seen has technical merit. But the cynic in me sees the majority of this work and can’t help but think: Capitalism. Self-promotion. Website hits. Hunger to go viral. A desire to make a buck off of any and every goddamned franchise they can smash together.
And that hunger is fed by the enablers: The blogging community. There are countless design and general pop culture sites out there, and they all demand a constant flow of fresh design-related content to feed to their readers. They’re less concerned with the quality of the work being presented than they are with the general relevance of the content. And once a handful of these blogs start disseminating the work, it spreads quickly. From a purely marketing point of view, I’m impressed with the phenomenon. It’s a supply-and-demand situation that benefits the creators and the disseminators. It benefits everyone except the readers, of course, whose mental bar of what is good or interesting is continuously pushed lower. It’s crap in, crap out, because every day is a new day, and every new day needs new crap.
And that’s why I’m pleased to announce a new project I’m really excited about. A poster series mixing two of my greatest passions: the bold imagery of Russian Constructivism and classic retro 80’s television!
Check back for more! I’m available for freelance! 11″x17″ prints available soon (digital, of course! They’re so easy and disposable!). Please click on my banner advertising! Oh, man, do you think I should register a domain name? Ohhh! www.rodchenkoincharge.com is available!
★ read more essays on the short stories page
It’s a blustery New England morning on Main Street. I inhale a chilly lungful of Monday, smug in the knowledge that, unlike west coast writers, I get to use words like “blustery.” I step into SIP for a coffee and a bagel. I’m not sure if all-capping SIP is required, but I do it because I dig their sign, which is all-caps, which is successful branding. Continue reading
6:59—By the time I make it to the bleachers, it’s the end of the second inning. The Valley Blue Sox versus the North Adams Guys Wearing Black Shirts. I’ve decided to catch a collegiate league baseball game as an excuse to get out of the house on a nice summer evening. I’m out of my element here, trying my best to blend in. I wear my Red Sox hat, so no one will point and scream at me like a bodysnatched Donald Sutherland. I sit on the bleachers, keep my head down, and write. I’ll probably get beaned. See? “Beaned.” That’s a baseball word. I know stuff.
The crackling P.A. blasts some second-rate Foo Fighters ripoff, or maybe it’s just the Foo Fighters. Then announcer bellows something unintelligible about the “Sequel Gaps”. The North Adams Sequel Caps? The Clash’s “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” plays under a sponsored announcement about Pizza Hut. How does a Clash song end up here, in this place, with these people?
7:18—The North Adams TreacleCracks score in the third, but I’m distracted by sound effects broadcast over the P.A.: The Price Is Right sad music cue. A ‘boing’ sound with no apparent context. Over near the dugout, there are children’s activities involving frisbees and spare tires. Further down the left field line, there are food carts and a bouncy castle full of shrieking children. “LET’S GO, BLUE SOX! LET’S GO!” chants a row of Little Leaguers behind me. They taunt a North Adams player: “C’mon, Watermelon!” Shit, that sounds racist. Or are they mocking a funny last name? I squint at the batter. I don’t think he’s black. Am I racist for checking to see if he’s black? The kids are young and don’t seem malicious and they holler something about tighty-whiteys, so then I’m just confused.
Aww, man! A fly ball just hit a guy in the stands! He wasn’t paying attention and BAM right on the kneecap! I was right – I’m a target out here! Stay sharp or get beaned. I need to focus!
7:35—Okay, I needed to check out the food carts. Whew, that was a dry cheeseburger. Saw a guy with sausage and peppers and I was all like damn! But I’m cheap and the thing was $6.75 or something. What do I look like, a Rockefeller?
7:49—Back to the game. Concentrate, Tom! It’s the fifth inning, and I grab a bleacher seat right behind home base. It’s pretty cool seeing curve balls from this angle. I’da thought this would be a sought-after location, but there’s plenty of room here. Is this not a thing? A fly ball hits the chain link to my left. Wait, is that why no one’s sitting here? Did I just put myself in the goddamned crosshairs? Panic sets in.
8:10—Middle of the sixth. There’s an ice cream sandwich eating competition taking place near the dugout as the teams switch positions. The shrieking children from the bouncy castle have temporarily abandoned their inflatable stronghold to shriek at two kids pushing frozen milk past their teeth. Is this a passing amusement while the players rotate, or does the game actually pause so this event can take place? I can’t tell what’s being prioritized here.
8:14—A Blue Sox centerfielder attempts a valiant and commendable faceslide for a ball. Doesn’t work out. North Adams scores, and then scores again. And then, uhhh… score again. Is this how the game is supposed to work? 4-0. Where the hell is North Adams, anyways? It’s where Mass MoCA is, right? The North Adams Post-Conceptual Performance Artists are killing right now. LET’S GO, BLUE SOX! LET’S GO!
8:18—I heroically endure “Man In The Box” by Alice In Chains, followed by the Pac-Man ‘game over’ sound (apparently only 8-bit audio sounds good through these speakers). Does the seventh inning stretch come at the beginning or the end of the seventh? Wait… You’re supposed to say ‘top’ and ‘bottom.’ I remember this. Everybody claps but I miss why. Maybe someone ate some food really fast.
8:24—Jeez the sky’s beautiful, really beautiful. Bright orange clouds and slate blue shadows over the left field wall of local advertising. I think I just heard the announcer say a batter’s name is Bud Cort. A young lady accompanying a man in a wheelchair is showing an absurd amount of thong an—Wait! Something happened! A line drive? The crowd is all like YAAAHHH. I look around, bewildered. It’s the middle of the sixth, but the beginning. Y’know. Top of the bottom.
8:31—The Blue Sox score, and then they bounce a ball off a logo in the outfield and score again. 4-2. I’m trying to stay focused on the game, but there’s a woman typing on her phone in front of me and I’m half-reading her texts. She and Veronica don’t get along. The shrieks emanating from the bouncy castle have escalated to an alarming level, but the parents in attendance seem numb to it. Seventh inning came and went. Not much of a stretch. Someone threw t-shirts instead. Next to me, a lady receives camera tech support from her son’s friend. “How do you get it to focus?” Focus, Tom! Focus! The first baseman fumbles a catch, and a full two minutes later, Homer Simpson d’ohs over the P.A. There’s no acknowledgment of the irony.
8:35—Two men on, sacrifice bunt. I write this down because I hear a kid say it. He’s wearing a Little League uniform so I treat him with the respect reserved for wise authority figures. “PeopleCats”? The North Adams PeopleCats? How much could a couple of new speakers cost, really? A maintenance guy drives a golf cart full of garbage bags along the edge of the field and kids start cheering. Blue Sox pick up three in a blaze of sports-playing to tie 4-4! Everyone claps. I clap, too. It’s a good game.
8:41—Top of the eighth and my attention has irrevocably waned. It’s getting chilly and I’m having tragic visions of a gridlocked parking lot. I’m sated. Blue Sox up two, then three. They no longer require my ardent fan support. A stolen base is acknowledged with the General Lee horn. I fear the bouncy castle is about to burst open, and five million shrieking hornets are going to pour out like flying liquid hell and kill everyone. As I make my way towards the gate, the Ramones rock out of the accursed speakers, all treble, all crackle. Hey ho, let’s go.
Before he was even out of bed in the morning, one of the first things on Jon’s mind was his bamboo plant. Not because he particularly cared about it, but because it was right there, a few feet from the foot of the bed, waiting for the blinds to be raised so it could get a little sunshine.
The bamboo was almost four feet tall, quite a change from the eight inch stick he’d bought at an Ikea in Montreal a few years before. It had sat pleasantly on his desk for a couple of years, until it died. Jon took it outside and dumped it onto the compost pile in the backyard and forgotten about it. At the end of the summer, he’d noticed that it wasn’t dead after all. Lying on its side, roots partially exposed, it had been green and alive, fed by sun and rain and coffee grounds. He’d repotted it and brought it back in the house.
Because of this miraculous resurrection, Jon took the bamboo plant for granted. He watered it when he thought of it, but his office got very little sun. Didn’t matter. He treated the plant as if it was indestructible, which is generally a bad way to view a living thing. But his view was reinforced. The damned thing just kept on not-dying. Until a month ago, when it started re-dying.
“Oh, Bam-Bam,” Jon mumbled at the plant as he pulled up the window blind. He didn’t call it that out of affection, he just liked giving things nicknames. He ran a hand over the wilted plant, three long shoots of sagging bamboo, strapped to a stick with garbage bag twist-ties to keep it upright. The plant slumped against the wall, seeking support. He’d finally moved it into his bedroom last week because it was the sunniest room in the house. He’d also cut away a bunch of the dead yellow leaves, and what remained was a pitiful sight. It probably needed a bigger pot or something. He kept meaning to Google that. Jon grabbed the spray bottle off the floor and started strategically squirting his flaccid plant, careful to not overspray and hit the old wallpaper.
“You’re gonna dieeee, Bam-Bam,” he said in a mean but sweet tone. “You’re gonna die and no one’s gonna remember you. You’re gonna die and no one’s gonna notice you ever existed.” Jon wasn’t sure why he said that, but he did. He was still half-asleep, standing there in his boxers at 6:30 in the morning, holding a spray bottle and talking to a goddamned plant. He sighed a big sigh and rubbed his eyes.
“What is this day going to bring us, Bam-Bam? Satisfaction? Accolades? Eh?” He couldn’t think of a third thing to say, so he just said ‘Eh.’ He ran a thumb over a leaf, wiping away a light layer of dust. He assumed dust was probably bad. It probably clogged plant pores or something. Plants have pores, right? “Death,” he continued, undaunted. “Today will probably bring us death. Goodnight, Irene. Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road. Sweet Dreams, Aremade-O-These.” He was talking nonsense, feeling punchy, and wanted to go back to bed. He was self-employed. Why not?
The earth finally rotated just enough to reveal a sliver of the sun over his neighbor’s roof, allowing it to shine through the window onto Bam-Bam’s wet, still-green leaves. It made everything seem very alive and rainforest-y to Jon. It made him hopeful. Optimistic. Jon shifted his weight onto one leg and assessed the listing bundle of green and yellow vegetation.
“I’ll bring you some water, Bam-Bam.” He won’t. “Everything’s gonna turn out fucking great.” It won’t.
It was an average night at the dead mall: the elderly were pocketing ceramic bird figurines while children were buying things with handfuls of pennies. Unknown brand names lined the shelves. The blank cassette tapes, hair scrunchies, and Virgin Mary nightlights were selling briskly. I answered customer inquiries such as “How much is this?” and “Is this a dollar?” and “How much would two of these cost?” Continue reading