OWIF 6: Dart

On Wednesday, my wife left town for a business trip. OWIF is what she left in her wake.

Links to Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4, Part 5.

***

The room was bright, much brighter than you’d think if you had entered into it using the unlit rusty steel staircase underneath the Cage.  There was a large bank of lights along the ceiling, throwing an incredibly bright, sickly blue light over the room.

The room itself was about twenty feet on a side, with bare concrete walls that had several layers of white-ish primer painted over them.  The walls were sweating with moisture, as the humidity in the hot room condensed on the cool surface of the concrete.  When we stepped out of the staircase I had had to duck to avoid cracking my head open on the large control box that was attached to the wall.  It ticked, like the timer in a cheap children’s board game.  George had fought with his employees, at least the ones that had worked upstairs, over every little nickel and dime.  Even down here, where the stakes were higher, he used the most inexpensive solution possible.

When I had last been in here George has used a timer from a Christmas display to turn the lights on and off; he needed to make sure that there was exactly a twelve hour “daylight” and twelve hour “nighttime” cycle to each day down here, because the residents would sicken and possibly die without it.  After George, Echo, and I entered this time around, had opened the door on the control box and, sure enough, there was the Christmas timer: a plastic reindeer with a wry smile and that was cartoonishly ball-shaped.  His bright red noise served as the dial and you set one antler to “on” and one antler to “off” for the timing cycle.  Wires ran out of the back, carrying orders from their reindeer master to the lights.  I left the door open when I walked out, hoping that the ridiculous sight of the timer would at least make Echo laugh.

“Where did you go?” Echo asked me when I walked back in.  She was still standing near the door, where I had last left her.

“Hiding the car.” I tilted my head back and exhaled.  ”Echo, it’s been a long day for you.  George is going out to get food and said you can take a nap on the cot, if you like.  Now that the car is off the street, we can take some time and figure out exactly what we know.”  I pulled up a folding chair and motioned for her to sit on the cot, which George had placed down here as well as some extra large towels to be used as a blanket.  The blanket-towel was a mere formality; it was sweltering in here.

Echo sat down with a thud, still wearing the oversized coat and her knit hat.  She stared at me, occasionally darting her gaze at the other three or four hundred eyes that were looking at her and at me.

In the middle of the room was a rectangular grouping of fish tanks, big ones, stacked on metal shelves almost up to the ceiling lights.  Each tank was only partially filled with water, which a pile of sand and fake plastic trees filling the remainder of each tank.   Also in each tank were four or five dozen  small frogs, flecks of bright blue or orange or red that hopped around manically every time one of us moved.  All fully adult, they still had a wide-eyed cuteness to them when you leaned against the glass for a closer look.  They always stared back defiantly, as if they knew that the merest tiny amount of the poison that soaked their skins were enough to kill a full grown man.  An arrowhead raked across one of their backs would have enough toxin to drop a buffalo.

The room was normally filled with these tanks.  I recall having to suck my gut in to squeeze past the last time I was here, but since George’s legal troubles passed he’d tried to move his shipments in and out faster.  The person or persons who bought his last batch conveniently bought the tanks, too, giving us enough room to sit in here and set up a cot.

“I want to know what’s going on,” I said.  “Who is chasing you?  Where is your father?  Do you know?”  I asked as calmly as I could, but I felt the curl of a scowl cross my face.  “I checked the news while I was upstairs.  They’re reporting that a couple of cops were shot at the airport today, but that both are in good condition.  The suspect got away.”  Echo fidgeted.  “A guy had been shot in his car earlier in the day on his way to the airport.  They found him crashed into the median on the highway exit.”

“Did they catch anyone else?”  Echo asked flatly, staring at the buttons on my shirt.

“No,” I said.  “You said your father was with you at the airport.  Where would he go?  Would he go to the meeting place?  Do you remember anything about where it is?”

Echo looked up, suddenly smiling.  “Oh, thank goodness – no one caught my father!”

“I still don’t understand what’ve happening, Echo.  If you fill me in with some details, I’ll help you find him and find the meeting place.”  I took off my hat and scratched my head.  The heat and humidity in the room made my scalp sweat and beads of it ran down my temples.

Echo beamed, searching the pockets and pockets of the oversized coat. “Oh, don’t worry!” she chirped brightly.  She pulled out a metal cube, attached to a lanyard that stretched into the coat.  A small blue bulb on one of the faces of the cube glowed softly, even in the bright light of the terrarium room.

She stood up, holding the cube tightly in her hand.  “If they didn’t get him, my father will come looking for me.”

 

[End of Part 6]

OWIF 5: Smoke

On Wednesday, my wife left town for a business trip. OWIF is what she left in her wake.

Links to Part 1Part 2Part 3, Part 4.

***

The dark green car sped off, dropping pieces of cracked plastic and leaving a dark smear of rubber that stayed visible even through the light drizzle that came down.  Behind, the semi’s engine rumbled as it idled.  Too big to turn, the man had instead opted to brake after he had failed to crush the car and the two people inside it.

He was six foot four, or just a shade taller.  His muscles ached from the strain of the day; it had been years since a project had veered so far off the plan.  His thin, wiry frame was perspiring under his clothes, a heavy wool suit and black overcoat that seemed perfectly sensible for Chicago in the middle of autumn.

His had skin that was dry and grey, with a long face that didn’t grow a beard so much as grow hard.  When he was younger, his face would dull a razor blade in one sitting.  Now, grown and middle aged, he keeps keeps his razor blades sharp for reasons other than shaving.

The tall man turned back to the semi and walked up to it slowly.  He needed to know who was driving the girl and where they were going.  He closed his eyes and recalled the report he had been given that morning, the report that he read over and over until its details were burned into his memory.

Little girl, nine years old, wearing knit hat, light brown hair.  Flight 454 from Buffalo, New York, arrival at 8:34am.  Our Contact confirmed that she got on the flight and that the flight had taken off.   “One handler,” the Contact had stated. “Middle aged man, caucasian.  Five foot eight, 160 pounds.  Balding, dark brown hair.”

At the sound of sirens he snapped his eyes open.  The police were coming.  He needed to get off the road.  He whipped open the door to the cab of the semi and grabbed his satchel, a heavy nylon bag that caused him to grunt as he lifted its bulk off the floor.  He turned it over and inspected the bag.  A little blood from the previous driver had ended up on the bottom of the bag, but not so much that it was noticeable.  He wouldn’t attract attention with it, at least not until he could replace the satchel.

He jumped out and left the keys in the truck, engine running.  He couldn’t take the truck, as the shipping company that owned it and that employed the dearly departed driver would certainly have a GPS tracking chip on it.   He looked around the semi one time to make sure that he left nothing that could be traced to him, then sprinted for the edge of the highway.

There was a copse of trees beyond the chain link fence that marked off the interstate from the rest of the northwest side of the city.  Six, seven long steps and he was at the fence, climbing it with one smooth motion that barely broke his stride.  He was in the copse when the first police car arrived at the semi.  He crouched low in the trees, froze, and waited for the two cops to circle the truck, guns drawn and voices barking.

When he was sure that the copse of trees was not in the peripheral vision of either policeman, he made a beeline for the sidewalk.  He didn’t bother to run softly as he had been trained to do; the sound of the sirens swamped out any footfalls he made.  When he got to the sidewalk he slowed to an easy amble, taking care to mark anyone on the street that may have noticed him jump out from the trees.

The street was almost empty; the light rain had driven most people indoors.  When in Rome, he thought, as he pulled a free alternative music newspaper from a newsbox and held it over his head as most pedestrians would.  He also did his best to feign irritation at the rain, in case anyone in any of the storefronts saw.   As he walked, he kept his ears peeled to the sounds of police sirens heading to the now-empty truck.  He tried to clear his mind.

Contact says the handler has made arrangements for a driver to pick them up at O’Hare when the plane lands.  They have no luggage, so you must move fast to beat them to the driver.  Handler and girl have been told that the driver will be waiting for them a half hour before scheduled arrival to catch them in case the plane lands early.

He walked past an irritated young woman with a small lapdog.  Even in the rain, the dog sniffed at trees and benches, looking for a place to relieve itself.  The woman grumpily tugged at the dog’s leash. “Come on, Max, hurry up.”  The tall man discreetly covered his face with the newspaper as he passed her.  He needed a quiet place to make the phone connection.

After a block he passed a storefront without the lights on.  ”Taco Burrito King,” the sign said, dark and faded.  A large handwritten placard was in the window. “Pardon our dust!  We’re renovating and will be back soon!”

The tall man stepped back.  The front of the building was all glass, and there was still enough light seeping through the clouds to make the front room dangerous.  He peered in.  The kitchen was walled off from the dining room.  That would have to do.

He walked around to service alley of the burrito place, past a shoe repair store, and walked up to the rear delivery door.  It had a standard deadbolt.  The tall man reached into his front pants pocket.  He fished past the cell phone he carried pulled out a pair of metal rods, one of them bent into a ninety degree angle at the very end.  He worked the straight rod into the bottom of the deadbolt, then the bent rod.

It took him twenty seconds to pick the lock,  or at most, thirty.  The deadbolt slid open with a click and he slipped into the door and closed it softly behind him.

Handler has already passed the package to the girl, and may separate from her to check path to driver before allowing her and package outside.

The tall man moved to the back of the kitchen and kneeled on the floor, pulling the cell phone out of his pocket.  Small drops of rainwater rain ran off his overcoat onto the floor.  He turned the phone on, then punched in the sixteen digit code needed to unlock it.

Handler is unarmed and is carrying false identification.  Girl is also carrying false identification.

The phone flashed softly as it looked for a signal.  Satellite phones always took a while to connect, and he was inside a building of unknown age.  Older buildings sometimes shielded the signal worse than newer buildings.

Driver is mostly likely armed, and mostly likely trained.  Contact says that driver will be picking up handler and girl using car of rare color, make, and model to reduce chance of mistake, mostly likely a dark green Oldsmobile Aurora or similar GM car.

The phone connected, and the tall man shook the water off his hand and typed.  GIRL AND DRIVER GOT AWAY.  UNKNOWN IF WE HIT THE WRONG DRIVER EARLIER OR IF THERE WERE TWO DRIVERS SENT.

The response came back within a minute.  RECEIVED. POLICE CONNECTION HAS ID OF 2ND DRIVER LICENSE PLATE.

The tall man heard the sound of jangling keys on the other side of the rear door as well as the sound of two adult men laughing.  He jumped up and grabbed a carving knife from the stack of clean dishes and moved silently to the door as it opened.

The satellite phone flashed on the floor where the tall man left it. 2ND CAR REGISTERED TO MARK N——,  4713 NORTH WILMONT AVENUE, CHICAGO.

Ten minutes later the tall man shook the rain off his coat and picked the phone up off the floor.

[end of part 5]

OWIF 4: I know why the caged bird sings

On Wednesday, my wife left town for a business trip. OWIF is what she left in her wake.

Links to Part 1Part 2, Part 3.

***

The warehouse was different from how I remembered it; the laundry machines that had lined the walls were gone and the tables where the employees used to sort and fold the towels and sheets were also gone.  Large machines filled the center of the room and whirred rhythmically at some unknown task as we walked by.

“George?” I called out.  Echo has settled in behind me and looked around at the warehouse.  She didn’t flinch when one of the big engines sputtered (which they did every thirty seconds or so), but she glanced back nervously at the grey doors behind us once or twice. “George, it’s Mark.  I’ve got a favor to ask of ya.”

The room was about a hundred feet wide, and only slightly less deep.  The ceilings stretched up about twenty five feet above the floor, and the lazy spin of useless ceiling fans were the only other movement in the room other than the machines and Echo and I.  The only windows in the place were high up, a halo of frosted glass that let you know if it was daytime or nighttime outside but did absolutely nothing else; the light in the room came from sodium lights off the ceiling that has the weird effect of making everyone in the room seem jaundiced.  I often used to wonder if it made people who actually had jaundice look healthy.

I heard the scraping of chain links over concrete, and I knew that someone was coming out of the Cage.  That is what we used to call the little elevated half-office were George would sit, watching us fold and press airline towels, blankets, and pillow cases.  It was also were he kept his knife collection, since the Mrs. wouldn’t let him keep it in the house anymore, not after the last incident.

I heard the heavy wheezing and smell of cheap cigars that I knew all too well, and sure enough George poked his head around the forest of storage cabinets that had grown on the west side of the room.

“Ho-lee cow,” he said, scowling with his mouth and laughing with his eyes, “look who it is, come back to get his last fucking paycheck, probably.”  He was fat, but not a lazy, soft fat.  His bulk was tight under his skin, giving him the appearance of a billiard ball, albeit a billiard ball covered in grey body hair with the consistency of piano wire.

“How’s it going, George?  You’re looking the same as always, and for that you’ve got my sympathies,” I said, grinning.

“You’ve still got all the charm you always had, Mark, and that’s ’cause it’s not possible to have less than zero,” he barked, pulling a used cigar out of his breast pocket and relighting it.

I waited until he had the cigar going and had taken a big drag before I said, “George, I’ve got a problem and I’m not sure what to do at this point.”

He looked at me through the smoke of his cheap Dominican, popped it out of his mouth, then pointed at me with the ashy end. “Why I’m doing, fine, thanks.  Yes, it is interesting what I’ve done with the place,” he said, sweeping his arms out over the warehouse floor.  ”I am so much happier now that my employees are all automated, and not a single one of them bitches about my smoking.”

He turned back towards me and opened his mouth to say something else, but then his eyes darted to Echo.  ”Hey, girl,” he said, “you shouldn’t be listening to all this adult language.”  Echo, unlike her namesake, said nothing in reply.

“That’s what I’m here about, man,” I said, stepping aside so he could take a look at Echo.  ”This kid is in trouble, and I have no idea what to do.”

“What the hell, pardon my French, are you doing?  Just call the cops.”  He barked his words out with authority, boss to employee, which is what the majority of our relationship was, and not like a client to his lawyer.

“I would, but here’s the thing: she insists that I can’t call the cops and that I need to find the place she’s meeting her dad.”  Echo nodded when I said this, little head inside huge coat.

He took a puff of his cigar and said, “I don’t see why you came to me with this, just drive her to the meeting place.”

“George, someone shot up a bunch of cops and tried to run me off the road with a semi to get to this kid.  The dude who knew where the meeting spot was is dead, probably killed by the same guys who are chasing us, and I haven’t more than 2 minutes to think all day.  I need your help, and I need to store the kid and the car in the room under the cage.”

George’s eyes lit up, mostly with sympathy but rimmed with a small amount of malice.  ”Now I get it,” he said, flicking ash on the floor, “you want my, uh, special services.”

Echo looked at me with some concern, and looked at her with the same.  ”Yeah, I think we do need your help.  The full package.”

George slapped his belly with his free hand and gave it a scratch for good measure.  He grinned, cigar in mouth.  ”I gotcha, I gotcha.”  He let out a small laugh. “We’re clear after this, then?  I don’t owe you anything if I help you.  Our slates are clean, from now on.”

I fixed my eyes on him.  He was asking for a lot, but, then again, so was I. “Yeah.  Yeah,” I said, “we’re clear.  Even stevens.”

“All right, then!” he bellowed, suddenly animated.  ”I’ll start the preparations. You have to call my wife and tell her that we’re doing something legitimate, that you needed me to do some followup.”  I nodded.  He continued, “You’re lucky, I just cleared some merchandise out of there, and we’re not due for any more shipments for a couple of days.”

Echo looked at me as George climbed back up into the cage, keys jangling. “What is he going to do?”  What’s going to happen?”

I glanced down at her and shrugged.  ”He’s going to help us figure what to do.  What’s going to happen, that I’m not exactly sure.”

Echo stared at me for a minute, until a storage cabinet on the north wall shuddered, then slid to the right.  George came down out of the Cage with a ring of keys, a flashlight, and a satellite phone.

“Well, I guess I can tell you what I am sure about,” I said to Echo, my eyes fixed on George. “It’s going to get weird.”

[end of part 4]

OWIF part 3: Grey doors

On Wednesday, my wife left town for a business trip. OWIF is what she left in her wake.

Link to Part 1, Part 2.

***

I hit the gas pedal as hard as I could  and jerked the steering wheel to the right as the truck plowed into the back of the Oldsmobile.  The driver meant to run into me, that’s for sure, and I wanted to make sure that he didn’t also run through me.

The truck slammed into my back left as I turned the car rightward as fast as I could.  I glanced at the speedometer on my dashboard at the moment of impact.  87 miles per hour.  If I hadn’t been worried about turning into a pancake on I-90 I’d have been impressed at how fast that bastard managed to get a semi to move.

After the initial crush and pop and metal on metal squealing, I felt the car turn and the rear end circle around; the semi steamed past, air brakes hissing and whining as the driver watched us, his prey, recede in his side mirror.  The Oldsmobile stopped facing into oncoming traffic, had there been any oncoming traffic, and the truck wheezed and shuddered past until coming to a halt under an overpass.

I sat there, staring the wrong way down the highway, for what felt like ten minutes but what was probably more like 2 seconds before the kid screamed, “He’s coming!”

The driver had gotten out about 150 yards down the road, the momentum of his truck carrying him too far down the road for his liking and still way, way too close to us for my liking.  I looked down at the dashboard; every possible warning light was flashing.  The car and I, united in distress, needed to get moving.

I took my foot off the brake.  I didn’t remember braking, I didn’t remember anything, and the only thought in my head was that the tall man was running straight at us, one arm up in the air.  I punched the accelerator as hard as I could and the  rear wheels spun and spun until enough rubber had been burned into the asphalt to overcome our inertia, the tires gripped the road, and we took off.

In the rearview mirror I saw pieces of metal and plastic fly off the end of the car, like a ticker tape parade for a championship sports team, except the only person there was the tall man, and I saw him hiss and curse something that was the opposite of a celebration.

***

The car was limping, the rear left wheel making a gawd-awful noise with each rotation.  We needed to get off the road, and we were still facing the wrong way.

I spun the car 175 degrees onto the exit ramp at Peterson.  There were, mercifully, few cars on the street and I turned into an alley behind a bagel and bialy shop, some restaurants, and a Greek furniture store.  After a half block, I stopped.

“Where are we?” the girl asked.

“In an alley, in the rain, driving a busted car and being chased by a killer.  But, other than that, you know, mostly safe.”

I jumped out of the car and looked at the trunk, crunched and ruined.  The pins holding it shut had come loose, and the mass of paper towels and energy bars I kept there for emergencies had fallen out.

I heard the sound of sirens race down the highway in the direction of the semi, and I opened the driver’s door and looked at the little girl huddled into the passenger seat. “What’s your name, kid?”

“Echo.  My name is Echo,” she said.

“Echo, I’m Mark.  I don’t know whats going on, but we’ve got a problem because I only know two people on earth who’d help me hide a kid without asking too many questions.  One of them is in Atlanta, and the other one is an insane asshole.”

She looked around at the alley, grey and dark red and slick with rain.  The place smelled like a Chinese restaurant was dumping its garbage into the storm drain on the pavement, and most weekdays that was exactly what was going on.  Pieces of broken chairs were piled up against the walls of the alley and a garbage dumpster stood next to the chairs, its doors missing and its belly gathering rain. “What are we going to do, then?”she said.

I pointed at the grey loading bay behind the furniture store.  ”We’re going to ask the insane asshole for help.”

[end of part 3]

OWIF Part 2: Function over form

On Wednesday, my wife left town for a business trip. OWIF is what she left in her wake.

Link to Part 1.

***

The Oldsmobile Aurora squealed out in front of a pair of minivans as the POP POP of handguns erupted and faded behind us.  I stole a glance at the rearview mirror in time to see chaos, mass confusion, and people scattering in all directions.  A mass of police lights converged on the spot where the tall man and the cops had been standing, a fast convergence of red and blue and sirens, like the big bang played backwards through a movie reel.

I took my eyes off the mirror and put them back on the road.  My hands tightened over the steering wheel when I saw the mass of police lights in front of me; in my haze I wasn’t sure if it was the scene we had just left behind.  Had I circled around already?

It wasn’t; these police cars were parked and empty.  The cops that drove them there were gathered around a car on the shoulder, broken glass strewn all over the road and barricades.   The drivers side window was missing, but the driver wasn’t.  He was sitting in the front seat, slumped over the steering wheel.  I don’t know exactly what happened to him but the spray of blood all over the interior of the vehicle and the spider-shaped bullet holes on the windshield gave me a good guess.  The car was a dark green Oldsmobile Aurora, the identical twin of the car I was driving except that our car still had all its windows and I wasn’t carrying a pair of slugs in my head.

We cruised by, trying not to attract attention from the cops.  I don’t know why I ducked the cops; the proper thing to do would have been to pull over.  I didn’t know this kid, and I sure as hell didn’t want to be accused of kidnapping or being a part of whatever happened back there.

The girl was staring at my face, intent.  She watched my grimace as I stared at the police and emergency vehicles and must have picked up on my vibe. “Don’t stop here, I can’t stop here.”  Her voice was unsteady, but her stare wasn’t.

“We should stop, kid; these guys can help you.  They can take you back to your parents and keep you safe from that man with the gun.”

“No, they can’t.  No one can, anymore.”

I didn’t stop.  I drove for a couple of miles, brow as furrowed as could me.  I can’t stand silences, so I broke it.

“What do you want me to do, then?  Leave you at the CTA stop? I don’t have a gun and I don’t have a badge, kid.  You’re not safe with me.”

She had been looking out the window at the cold Chicago fall, and kept right on looking as she spoke. “I’m not safe anywhere.”

I felt drunk, which is odd because normally I’d feel scared or nervous, what with the gun fight and all.  ”How old are you?  Nine?  Where should I take you?”

She sniffed, wiped her nose, and said, “I’m ten.  And my dad said that you’d take me to the meeting place.”

I turned the radio down, asked her to repeat what she said.  After she had, I said, “Dude, I don’t know your dad, and I don’t know what the meeting place is.”

She looked at me, startled. “But.  But.  Why did you pick me up?”

“I didn’t, you jumped in and then the bullets told me I should probably hit the gas.”

Tears started to well up under her eyes, but never quite formed fully. “I don’t understand, I don’t understand, I was supposed to go to the green Oldsmobile…”

“Yeah, probably,” I said, my hands fumbling for a cigarette I didn’t own for a smoke I’ve never had.  ”And I’m guessing that the dude doing his best swiss cheese impression in the Oldsmobile we passed on the way out here was your ride.”

Now the tears started for real, great heaving sobs as we coasted down I-90 past the tire factories and industrial bakeries. She shuddered under her great oversized coat, and I I could do was offer her some napkins from a fast food joint I keep in the glove box.  She took them and blew her nose.  Damnation.  If my wife was here she’s know what to say; comforting the afflicted was always her thing.  I tried to dial her, but it went straight to voicemail.  She was still on the plane.

“Listen, kid,” I was going to say, “I’ll take you to the police station.  They’ll figure out what’s going on, and they’ll help you find you dad.”  I was going to say that, but I didn’t.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw, in the side mirror, a flash of light.  Not the insistent authority of a police car, but the light of a semi with its brights on, going way too fast.

“Oh crap,” was what actually came out of my mouth, as the red-and-rust Mack truck barreled down the right lane of the highway, past the surprised SUVs and sedans, and right into my car.

[end of part 2]

OWIF Part 1: Concrete movement

On Wednesday, my wife left town for a business trip. OWIF is what she left in her wake.

***

I dropped my wife off at the airport; the acid smell of jet fuel and coffee and travel drifted into the car as I watched her walk into the terminal.  She was wearing a coral-colored coat and towing a grey suitcase behind her.  As the electric door closed I realized I only know what the hell color “Coral” is because of her; without her it’s all just a faded orange.

I shifted the car, a dark green Oldsmobile Aurora, into gear, slid backward to avoid a Korean family saying their tearful goodbyes – talk soon, call when you arrive, let’s Skype, blah blah.  In this day and age there is no permanent goodbyes, no dock-of-Belfast, last-call-to-Ellis-Island, only a “we’ll video call when you get back home.”   They’ll talk soon, but when is the next time we’ll touch?  When I’ll smell your cologne, your perfume?

I turned on the radio, took a sip of coffee and started to list the day, the soft imperfect planning of everything I’m supposed to do for the day, a list that will be the standard by which I jusdge the worth of my day that night.  Did I pick up the dry cleaning?  Did I get that work done?  Did I finish the grading? The car moved forward past a rental company bus, dark green and covered in soot, when a bright blue flash caused me to slam the breaks and spill my coffee.

She was a kid, about eight or nine years old, and she dashed in front of the bus just as it was pulling out and avoiding getting hit just in time to slam into the right side of my car.  She was wearing a winter hat, grey and hand-knitted, and an coat that was so big on her I thought she didn’t have arms at first.  It was a mens coat, a blue coat from one of those companies that sells camping gear to city folk that plan to go camping but never do.  I was so startled I squeezed my coffee cup, leaving hot coffee all over my steering wheel.

It turns out she had arms, and she used them to cushion her as she ran into my passenger side door.  Her face was pale, like the blood had run out of it, and she stood there, frozen, staring into my car as the rental truck pulled away, the driving cursing at us.  It’s not my fault, I wanted to signal to the driver, I don’t know her.  I didn’t know enough sign language to convey such a complex thought, so I just flicked him off.

The girl, still stuck in time, stared into the car as the bus pulled away.  Behind the bus was a man in a large black trenchcoat, short cropped hair and arms so long they extended past the sleeves of his coat by three or four inches.  He was tall, about six foot three or so, and as he looked in our direction he furrowed his brow, confused, for just a split second.

In his left hand he pulled up a walkie-talkie, and barked angrily into it.  I couldn’t make out what he said, as the windows were up and the radio was on, but by the expression on his face I could tell that he heard something back that he didn’t want to hear. He pulled his right hand out of his pocket; in it was a small pistol, like the kind that are often lighters and picked up as novelties by people in Las Vegas.

He pointed the pistol at me, no, no, not at me, at the kid, and yelled something in a language I don’t know, but the internal rosetta stone told me that he was yelling “Stop.”

The little girl turned around towards him, huge coat dangling off her like an poorly planned halloween costume.  They faced each other for what felt like, what, five seconds?  A minute?  Then the airport police started yelling.

There were four or five of them, running out of the terminal.  Shouting by airport cops is not unusual; it is in fact more weird to see an airport cop calming smiling.  These guys were not calmly doing anything – they were in full sprint towards the tall man.  As he turned he head to look at them the girl whirled around, pulled enough of the sleeves of her coat up to expose a little hand, then opened the car door and jumped in.

I confess I didn’t know what to say or do.  When unusual things happen we freeze, not necessarily out of cowardice but often out of confusion.  There is a buffering time when you put a new DVD into a player, or when you load a new video from the internet.  That was me; I was buffering.

“Drive,” she said, “please drive.”  Control-Alt-Delete.

I drove.  The sound of gunshots trailed off behind us.

 

[end of part 1]

[link to part 2]

Born to Run: Why Political Candidates Roll Out the Rockers at Election Time

Bruce Springsteen Campaigning for Barack Obama

Bruce Springsteen Campaigning for Barack Obama

This is a guest post by the always awesome Kyle Schmitt. He can be reached by emailing the moderator of this blog here.

Running neck-and-neck with Governor Mitt Romney just days before the 2012 election, President Barack Obama brought out the big guns for his final campaign rallies. To help make the case for a second term, the Commander-in-Chief turned to the Boss.

Obama campaigned with Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews and other musicians during the campaign’s final week. These artists performed their songs in front of thousands of the President’s supporters in the crucial swing states that decided the election. Running to unseat Obama, Romney enlisted Kid Rock, Lee Greenwood, and the Marshall Tucker Band to play his closing campaign events.

Romney and Meatloaf: Both flavorless

Romney and Meatloaf: Both flavorless

But why campaign with a bunch of long-hairs when you’re running for leader of the free world? Why would Obama and Romney choose musicians as their advocates instead of business moguls like Warren Buffett or Donald Trump, superstar athletes, or even other entertainers with pop culture appeal? It’s only rock ‘n’ roll, as the Rolling Stones have reminded us for almost 40 years. But not only do voters like it, they may cast their votes based on their favorite singers’ support for their candidates of choice. This devotion led to numerous musicians being welcomed onstage to boost rally attendance and fire up the candidates’ supporters ahead of an election that appeared too close to call until the very end. Here’s how the recording artists who appeared with Obama and Romney helped rock the vote.

’Cause I’m Proud to be an American – The right campaign song can serve as the perfect theme for a candidate’s vision, as well as the American attributes they claim as their own. Springsteen’s anthem “We Take Care of Our Own” provides a powerful defense of the social welfare system and Obama’s oft-repeated Twitter statement that, “We’re all in this together.” Over a pounding drumbeat and triumphant guitar, he challenges the nation to stand up for those he believes have been left defenseless and destroyed by the recession. These lyrics provide implicit support not only for specific measures such as the President’s call to extend unemployment benefits, but his campaign’s cornerstone promise to serve as a champion for the country’s middle-class.

On the Republican side, Romney supporter Trace Adkins promoted a more libertarian viewpoint when performing “Tough People Do”. This defiant country song contains the lyric, “Tough people pull themselves up by the bootstraps when they hit hard luck”, and can be read as a conservative indictment of the government-funded bailouts and other perceived Washington excesses of the past five years. Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” and Kid Rock’s song “Born Free” make use of religious and patriotic imagery, with Rock vowing, “I will bow to the shining sea / and celebrate God’s grace on thee.” These songs touched a chord with the Republican base, which is heavily Christian and places a premium on love of country.

Wilco, with President Obama for scale.

Wilco, with President Obama for scale.

Reaching out, touching me… – Associating with the right musicians can also boost candidates’ appeal to voters they need to win an election, a truth demonstrated in Obama’s choice of campaign performers. Springsteen was deployed to Rust Belt events, where his connection to middle-class white Americans would theoretically lead to greater support for the President among these voters. Obama utilized musicians to reach out to numerous favorable voting groups and enhance his preexisting support from these demographics. His campaign rallies featured the Spanish-language band Maná, hip-hop icon Jay-Z, and pop sensation Katy Perry. These performers helped the President’s campaign to successfully target Hispanic voters (a group Obama won 71% of), black voters (93%), and 18-29-year-old voters (60%).

Both candidates benefitted from campaigning with musicians whose dedicated fanbases connect with their artistic merits as well as their personal backgrounds. Romney worked to shore up his own working-class credentials and appeal to rural voters by appearing with Michigan native Kid Rock and Trace Adkins, a lifetime member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Obama attempted to turn the personal narratives of Springsteen and Jay-Z to his advantage, telling supporters at a November 5 rally in Ohio that “both of them tell an American story.” He further linked himself to Jay-Z, who is married to pop star Beyoncé Knowles and holds the Billboard 200 record for most #1 albums by a solo act musician, by noting that “both of us now have daughters … and both of us have wives who are more popular than we are.”

Get on your feet – Enthusiasm is paramount to turning out voters and bringing in volunteers, especially during the campaigns’ all-important Get Out the Vote timeframe. This critical juncture takes place during the four-day period prior to the election when campaigns shift into overdrive to contact all potential voters and get them to the polls. And at a time when campaign volunteers may be weary from canvassing door-to-door (and voters tired of their constant visits), live music provides a welcome jolt of adrenaline to all involved in the political process.

Perhaps no performance was more emblematic of this excitement than Kid Rock standing on a piano this past election eve and belting out the soulful vocals of “Born Free” before a New Hampshire audience of 12,000 people. Obama leveraged the same dynamic when he brought in Dave Matthews to headline a sold-out Virginia amphitheater event November 3. But the motivating factor of live music was never clearer than when the legendary Stevie Wonder played an unannounced concert for Clevelanders standing in line for early voting that same day. His impromptu performance provided extra incentive for these voters to brave the long lines for hours and make their voices heard.

All together now – No matter how strident the song, campaign music rarely turns into attacks on fellow Americans who share different political beliefs. And for good cause: no campaign wants a belligerent message that will turn off independent voters. This policy seems to extend to candidate-affiliated musicians’ comments off-stage, for reasons not limited to the threat of alienating fans and losing record and ticket sales. Even after endorsing the President, Springsteen still made time to speak (via telephone aboard Air Force One) with devoted E Street fan and Republican National Convention keynote speaker Governor Chris Christie. Kid Rock breached the partisan gap the hard way when he ran into Obama at an event just weeks after the November election. He said the President reminded him, “I’m still here,” which he recalled acknowledging while laughingly retelling the encounter. Kid Rock went on to call for Americans to support their country and wished the President good luck in resolving the nation’s challenges. If politicians and musicians, even the self-designated Devil Without a Cause, can reconcile after an election, surely their supporters can come together right now.

Weirdos from Another Planet strike again: Mars Rover successfully fires laser on Mars, vaporizes rock.

NASA’s work makes me squeal with joy

Curioislity, the Mars rover successfully placed on the red planet by NASA, has successfully deployed its ChemCam laser to vaporize a rock in order to test the rock’s chemistry.

This is a victory by a large number of people from NASA and from partner organizations, but my favorite reaction so far has been from Kelkulus, who tweeted:

I’m reminded of the Calvin and Hobbes strip from Weirdos from Another Planet:

Bill Watterson is always right.

The monster is always us.  Which is awesome.

Blood Donation

Blood donation worker [reading from script]: Have you taken any medication not prescribed by a doctor in the last eight weeks?

Me: Uh, I took some orthotricyclen once.

Her: …that’s birth control.

Me: Yeah.

Her: Why would you take that?!

Me: It was for a dare.

Her: Don’t take medication on a dare anymore.

Me: But it did clear up my acne…

***

Donate blood to Lifesource (Chicago Area) or the American Red Cross (Nationalwide)

 

EDIT: spelling

Blind cave salamander lives to 100, is worried about Romney/Ryan cuts to Medicare

“Atreyuuuuuuu”

Ok, the title is kind of a cheap shot, so let me summarize what follows: party nominees can be a bit like blind salamanders.  I can’t promise that that sentence will make any more sense at the end of this essay, but here goes.

The Olm is a blind cave salamander that lives in Slovenia and Croatia; the cool part of the linked Discover article is that it does seem to have a possible lifespan of about 100 years.  What’s interesting about the olm for the sake of this discussion is that its blindness is a secondary characteristic, what evolutionary biologists call a “derived trait.”  The ancestors of the olm, just like the ancestors of other blind cave species (blind cave tetras, etc.) all had sight; the vision was lost later as an evolutionary development.

Loss of eyesight is believed to have occurred due to lack of advantage in keeping the very-complex mechanisms that allow sight maintained over generations; cave salamanders that had good sight had no advantage over cave salamanders that had terrible vision, so over time the maintenance of a high level of the trait was unnecessary.  If you have a hard time understanding that, I’ll put it this way: I have worn thick glasses since I was 10 years old.  If I had such terrible vision as a child 5,000 years ago, I probably would not have amounted to much except lunch for a predator.  As I am lucky enough to have been born in a developed country in the late 20th century, to parents that had a vision plan as part of their health insurance coverage, I can live, work, and eventually marry (two years ago today!) despite my awful eyesight.  If my children have terrible eyesight inherited through me, it will be because I (presumably) have other traits that outweigh the trait of bad vision, which is no longer as big of a handicap as it would have been 5K years ago.  Think of cave fish and other blind cave animals as the subterranean equivalent of thousands of years of Mark-breeding.

That is the weirdest sentence I have ever typed.

Anyway, in some conditions the loss of eyesight can be non-detrimental, as in the case of me.  In the case of the blind cave animals, it can be adaptive, as it can allow animals to select mates based on other, more cave-friendly traits.  I’ll provide one last analogy, this time from baseball’s designated hitter.

Edgar Martinez belongs in the Hall of Fame as much as a blind salamander

In the National League of U.S. baseball, every player in the lineup bats (offense) and every player in the lineup plays the field (defense).  Managers have to strike a balance by picking the lineup with the right mix of offense and defense.  Every player in the National League is evaluated in that fashion, including the pitcher.  The pitcher is often the worst batter on the team (but not always, Kerry Wood cough cough), he still has to take his swings at the plate.  Conversely, as a manager you may be hesitant to play a well-hitting but defensively atrocious player.  If, say, a possible first baseman is an amazing batter but cannot catch a ball to save his life, the manager may decide that the risk on defense is not worth the added chance of defensive errors from that player.

The American League uses a different system, in that teams there have what is called a designated hitter (DH).  The DH is a batter who takes the place of the pitcher, so the typically-worst hitter is no longer in the offense.  The DH hits but does not take the field; he does not play defense at all.  Thus, in the American League, managers can set a lineup without having to include one player in the defensive calculus at all; the manager is free to select one good hitter without constraint of that player’s fielding at all.

This creates a scoring advantage for the American League in comparison to the National League; in 2011 alone American League teams scored  723 runs to the National League’s 668.  This scoring difference in favor of AL teams is pretty consistent over the last few years; by not having to worry about how the pitcher is hitting, teams with DH’s can devote more resources (line up spots) to other, more offensively-minded, players.

Similarly, the cave fish and salamanders lose their sight in part because individuals (the unit of selection) that don’t expend energy on maintaining eyesight may have moved those resources to other traits that are better for surviving and reproducing in a cave, like hearing or smell.  Over generations, these traits may multiply; good vision may become less and less important without any external need to have it.

What does this have to do with politics?

Like primary politics, but less messy

The American political system at the presidential level is two headed: there is a primary election and a general election.  The standard canard is that this creates more extreme candidates.  The thinking goes that the primaries are voted on by stalwarts, hard-liners in each party, and this tends to create more extreme candidates that then have to moderate their positions in the general election.

I don’t disagree with this line of thinking, but I found myself wondering WHY we ended up with such moderates in the last few election cycles as John McCain, John Kerry, Mitt Romney (he WAS a moderate in 2008, remember) and Barack Obama (he IS a moderate, moreso than a Barney Frank or a Kirsten Gillibrand).  If the idea that we get extreme nominees from the primary system is true, wouldn’t that have given us more fire breathing candidates than the ones we’ve had?

To be sure, in Congress the primaries give some real foot soldiers for both parties, but at the presidential level we’ve gotten, well, Romney and Kerry.  I have a theory: the trait that gets you out of the primaries at the presidential level is perceived electability rather than by substantive agreement with policies or personality.

Perceived electability is the nebulous factor that causes people to say “I don’t like him/her, but he/she is better than Bush/Obama.”  The candidate that seems most mushily in the middle tends to get the nomination in the last few elections.  Even Obama, who some called “the most liberal senator” was considered electable compared to Hilary Clinton.  As experienced and formidable as Clinton was, she carried large negatives that made a lot of Democrats that agreed with her in substance shrink away from the thought of defending her the general.  The perception of electability is why Kerry beat liberal screamer Howard Dean, why McCain beat a pile of more conservative candidates, and why Romney emerged victorious over <shudder> Rick Santorum; the other guys were thought to have less of a chance than the eventual victors.

Walk left side, safe; walk right side, safe. Walk middle, get squish just like grape.

This raises the question: thought by whom?  The answer is, of course, primary voters (influenced by media, endorsements, etc.).  Primary voters have been voting against candidates they may have preferred in order to vote for “moderate” candidates they dislike that they think the other side may find more palatable.  ”Mitt Romney is the dog with the least fleas.”  It is the election equivalent of dating someone your parents like instead of the person you yourself like; sure, you’d prefer someone else, but at least this person won’t be as bad as having no date.

Back to the cave fish: maybe we’ve unmoored the need have a candidate who has substance that we like from the need to have a candidate that is electable, maybe we care about vision less than beating the other party.  Perhaps perceived electability is what parties choose (Romney, Kerry) over candidates that have concrete proposals that are then open to criticism.  Maybe we occasional choose blind salamanders precisely because they have less of a record of leadership.

The blind salamanders and the electorate have one thing in common: neither can see Romney’s tax returns.