About Mark

I wear a yellow hat.

Fastball Hymnal

“Ok Mark, I believe in you. We need this run, but don’t worry about the two outs, don’t worry about the loaded bases, just focus on the next pitch, got it?”

I nodded. The batting helmet, two sizes too small for my head, fell off. Again. The only helmet that fit my head was the one we inherited from the junior high kids, and David Rezick always used it because he knew that if he got a hit I’d have no helmets that could stay on my head. Rezick was standing at second base.

Coach R picked the helmet up out of the dirt and brushed it off. “You can do this. If you can just get one run in, we tie the game, ok? I put you in the number two spot in this lineup for a reason, you know that? You deserve it. You’ll deserve it no matter what happens in this at bat. Just play your heart out, you’ve got a big one.”

I rubbed my nose. “I’m pretty sure a big heart is a health problem, coach.”

“Shut up, Mark. Just get on the Goddamn base, ok, big guy? Get on base.” He trotted back to the dugout, spitting in the ground as he got there. Five or six of the 10-year-olds sitting the dug out spit in response, a Greek chorus chomping on Big League Chew. I stepped up to the plate.

The umpire looked me in the eye. His eyes narrowed to slits, remembering me from the last two at-bats. Randy Stein’s older brother Adam was a sophomore and had classes with the ump, and Randy said he was a jag-off, so we took it as gospel that he was obviously, then, a jag-off. Jag-off, as in, “this jag-off better call the game fairly.”

“PLAY BALL” the jag-off yelled, pulling his facemark on.

I stepped up to the plate, right to the very edge of the batter’s box. I saw my father standing up, shielding his eyes with his right hand. My mother was sitting on a lawn chair next to him, my little bother was in his baseball uniform sitting on the grass. The t-ball league ended earlier in the day, so he was eating whatever snacks my folks had packed and picking at dandelions. Or maybe he was picking at the snacks and eating the dandelions, I don’t know. What am I, a high elf ranger? My eyes are terrible, I can’t see that far.

I can make out the sound of my family cheering for me, but the helmet is pinching my ears.

I look up at the pitchers mound. The pitcher is tall, the tallest 6th grader in the league. His fastball is so strong that it was whispered that he once broke a catcher’s hand, like Dwight Gooden. It was so fast that, to hit it, you had to start swinging before you even stepped up to the plate. When we heard which team were facing for this game, we knew exactly who would be pitching: John Moon. John Moon, the biggest arm in Morton Grove Little League, the terror of Mansfield Park.

I wiped my brow, caking my hand in dirt and sweat and gatorade. I was nervous, a kind of nervousness that only baseball players feel, the nerves that come from being alone against the storm. There are reasons why poems are written about being at-bat; its a microcosm of life, you know? I had to have absolute concentration if I wanted to have any shot at all of

“STRIKE ONE!”

What the heck oh crap, geez, really? C’mon Mark, pay attention, I thought, punching myself in the hip.

“HEY MARK PAY ATTENTION WILL YA?” Coach R yelled from the third base dugout, adjusting his cap. I had played for him for three straight years, and about once a year he would show up to practice without his ball cap and we would all be surprised that he was bald, all over again, every year.

Alright, I can do this. I can do this. I turned to face John Moon, the Howitzer of the North Shore, gripping the bat tight as I steeled my nerves. I’m gonna be a hero, like Frodo or Peter Parker or Willis Drummond, and I just had to focus on the moment and not think about how itchy this jock strap is and

“STRIKE TWO!”

A collective groan came up from the Greek chorus. Coach R folded his arms and spit again. A voice cried out “That was three feet out of the strike zone, jag-off!”

The ump whipped off his facemark and wheeled around to face the spectators. “I will kick you out of here if if you use that language again, do you hear me?” the ump yelled, pointing his finger at the stands on the first base line, “and I mean it, ma’am.”

“MOM SIT DOWN,” Rezick screamed from second base.

I squared my stance, spitting into my hands. The spit helps to remove dirt that can decrease your grip, so the bat is easier to control. Aluminum bats can be really painful if you connect on a good swing, which makes it weird that little leagues tend to use them. I guess its because of their durability? Or the lower expense? Maybe there is, like, an aluminum conspiracy or

“PAY ATTENTION THIS TIME, BUDDY, YOU KNOW WHAT TO DO.” Coach R called, soft chirps of agreement coming from the dugout.

John Moon looked at the signal from his catcher. We all used signals, even though no one was allowed to throw anything but a fastball. Curveballs can hurt your arm development, so the league outlawed them. He stood up, exhaled loudly, then started his wind up.

I tightened my grip on the bat, inhaled as hard as I could and did what I had done many, many times before, what I did better than anyone else in the league, maybe in the whole Chicagoland area: I crowded the damn plate.

A wet smack, louder than you’d expect, and my hip felt like it was on fire. My helmet fell off and I dropped my bat.

“TAKE YOUR BASE” yelled the jag-off, “…AGAIN.” The crowd roared, or as much as about a dozen people can roar.

The ball had struck me on the thigh, on the meaty part, and I left out a manly yell. Or, in my head I Let out a manly yell. I was told later that I screamed like a little girl, but that’s ok. I knew my job, and I did it.

“YEAH! YEAH! Way to go, Mark!” Coach R was jumping up and down. The dugout was a mass of jumping, cheering, and sunflower seeds.

“Way to go, Ma-Mark! Way to go!” my father yelled, clapping his hands and high fiving my brother. “Tie game!”

My mother was clapping, smiling, and shaking her head. “Why does he never get out of the way? Why is this always happening to him? No one else gets hit like this.”

I picked myself out of the dirt (when did I fall?) The third base runner came jogging into home plate, fist pumping. We high fived, and he said “Great job, Mark, I knew you’d get hit.” I smiled and whimpered a “damn right.”

I limped to first base, holding my helmet in my hand. I gave a thumbs up to Rezick at third.

John Moon’s first baseman looked at me, his grimace softening into a smile. “Nice job. You’re crying less than you did the last time.”

“Thanks, man,” I replied, “That’s what I said to your mom last night.”

Maybe no one told you

Maybe no one told you, but you need to know: the American eagle is a phoenix.
It hurts to see our country turn away the poor, the sick, the abused; to close our door to victims of war.
It is painful to see the nation say to the world that only people of some religions deserve help, aid, and comfort.
It is terrifying to see people you love, you work with, and you share a bed with, cheer the hatred of other people because of their country of origin, their faith, or the papers they possess.
That’s ok. You are allowed to feel hurt, to feel pain, to feel the terror those poor people must feel. Maybe no one told you, but you need to know: the American eagle is a phoenix.
This is a dark time, because the US government is muzzling scientists.
This is a dark time, because the US government is declaring war on journalists.
This is a dark time, because the US government is taking a harder stand against Chicago and Philadelphia than against Moscow.
That’s ok. Its dark. It can be dark; it’s ok if you don’t see how we’re going to get out of this, if you don’t see any fire or candlelight out of this. Maybe no one told you, but you need to know: the American Eagle is a Phoenix.
There is a person in your town who is Muslim, or Middle Eastern, or African, and they need you to stand up for them against the thugs and bullies. They need you to stand up for them whether they are there or not. In your street, in your break room, in your church and synagogue and mosque and knitting circle and school parking lot, stand up for the people in front of you.
There is a person in your town who does not have papers, and she needs you to treat her like a human being. She needs you to be kind to her children, to pay her a living wage, to call the cops for her when she is too scared to involve the authorities because of her legal status.
There is a person who laughs at the plight of the refugee, who unwittingly quotes neo-nazis, who passes lies on like a collection plate. We need you to love truth and facts more than he hates them. We need you to support newspapers as much as he hates them. We need you to embrace kindness as much as he rejects it.
That’s ok if it’s difficult, you don’t have to do it all. You don’t have to carry the world on your shoulders, you have to care for yourself first. You will stand at the right time, you will march at exactly the right time, you will spread your wings at exactly the right time. Maybe no one told you, but you need to know: the American Eagle is a Phoenix.

Armistice Day

Soldiers in Flanders. Credit: History.co.uk

Soldiers in Flanders. Credit: History.co.uk

Nov. 11, 1918. At 11:11am, I will stand as a sign of respect for the men and women who lost their lives in World War One, when Europe tore itself to pieces and the old world died.

We get a lot of WW2 history in the US, and rightly so, given the long shadow it casts. It is important, though, that we devote just as much time to the study of the causes of the first Great War. It does not have an obvious bad guy, certainly not as obvious as its sequel, but that’s precisely why it should be examined in detail.

It was the story of the military juggernaut of Germany and the aging husks of the Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary, versus the British seawall, the latest of a succession of French republics/kingdoms/republics, and the somehow still-medieval Empire of Russia.

It was the invasion of neutral Belgium, the rise of the demon of chemical warfare, and destruction of the social fabric of the West.

It was the seedbed of Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, and America the Superpower.

If you can, I highly highly recommend you listen to Dan Carlin’s Blueprint for Armageddon series. It is one of the best and most accessibly series on WW1 around.

The war was supposed to be over within weeks; it took four years and 39 million casualties, military and civilian. It was supposed to be a fine and dandy display of national pride; it would became the morass of corpses, mud, and blood that inspired the land of Mordor to JRR Tolkein.

Nothing the generals, politicians, or businessmen promised before the war came true, for either side. Men with white gloves and cloth hats charged into machine guns on faulty orders, Empires that lasted for centuries fell apart like cigarette ash, and the modern world was born via untrained cesarean section.

The decisions made by the men and too-few-women prior to world war one were made for the most banal of motives: this hedgerow belongs France, this farmstead belongs to Germany.

The errors were made for the most personal of reasons: the madman who healed the Czar’s son convinced the Czar to go to the front, leaving behind petty nobles and the royal family to the tender mercies of Vladimir Lenin. The Kaiser was born with a deformity of his arm and demanded military credits and accomplishments to prove his manliness and worth after the death of his Grandmother, Queen Victoria.

The effects were even larger off the battlefield: A young veteran sees the vengeance taken by the allies on Germany and filters it through a warped and vile soul, eventually writing Mein Kampf. London Banks are unable to finance the long war so the Allied governments take out loan after loan from the only source of capital: New York, and the transfer of authority, prestige, and cash in the West was began.

A geologist and self-made millionaire who spoke Mandarin used his considerable fortune and organizing skill to provide food relief to abused and flooded Belgium, catching the attention of President Woodrow Wilson. That Herbert Hoover fellow, Wilson must have thought, he knows how to fix things.

Read about WW1. And if you are devastated or exulted by the election of an American president, that’s appropriate and rational, but remember that children fifty years on will live in a world built by the actions you take, or fail to take, now. Have humility in victory, and have courage in loss. The roads on which our grandchildren will walk will follow a path based on the walls and bridges we choose to make here, in this time. As in World War One and at all times, we stand on the fulcrum of history; we *must* push the lever, we have no choice except to decide the direction.

On Living A Life Rich and Strange: Part 1, Introduction

On Living A Life Rich and Strange:
A open letter to my child from an unprepared parent

Part 1, Introduction

“God writes straight with crooked lines.” – Original author unknown

Little one, you can’t read yet. You can’t stand, you can’t feed yourself, you can’t identify sarcasm, you can’t crack a knowing smile, you can’t eat fries while driving, you can’t doubt your own worth. You will do all those things, someday, and that day will come far, far too soon for your poor father and mother.

We can’t shield you from the world, even though there is a scared, wet-eyed part of me that wants to.

I can’t do that, though, and your mother and I can only do one thing, and that is try and give you the tools we’ve managed to fashion for ourselves to deal with this great, terrible, wonderful and atrocious world we all find ourselves in. They’re the tools we used, and some of these tools are like Damascus steel: beautiful and strong. Others are like flint arrowheads: crude, homemade, and usable. Some of these tools were handed to us by your grandparents, some we stole from other people along the way. They’re what we’ve got to give you, and, when the sun sets on our own lives, maybe they’re the only things we ever give you. These tools, and our Love; that’s all of it, really.

I’m going to throw advice at you, advice you never asked for. Over the course of your life with us, we’re going to teach you skills that are vital (how to read graphs and charts with a critical eye) and skills of dubious worth (how to de-bone sardines). Some of it will be practical (how to get a front-wheel drive car out of the mud) and some will be social (how to look like you belong when you feel like you don’t belong at all).

As you read this, though, please never forget one thing: I will most definitely be wrong on some (most?) things, and in these cases you will need to fashion your own tools. I hope your mom and I give you enough in this life to help you to make your own tools strong and sharp, even when the time comes for you to ditch the tools we made and handed down. Don’t ever feel like you are letting us down if you have to turn your back on the Way We Do Things. We love you, no matter what. You cannot let us down. We may expect you to be better, kinder, braver, more curious in the future, but while we may sometimes be disappointed in your actions, you yourself will never be a disappointment. Stand and fight, we believe in you. Turn and run, we believe in you. Grow up and accept our principles and our history and our philosophy and our theology; we are proud to be your parents. Grow up and reject our ideas or all we ever taught you; we are proud to be your parents. Use our tools and then make your own; don’t be afraid.

One last thing, by way of introduction: please forgive me for making parts of this letter public. I am loud, I am obnoxious, I overshare, but those stem from one small fact about your father: I am scared. I am scared that all of this will go unsaid. I fear that if I don’t write this publicly, or at least part of it, I’ll forget to tell you all these things that I really hope to tell you. I’m worried that I’ll let the day to day concerns of life make me neglect this letter, that in the putting on of shoes, the paying of bills, the washing of dishes, the Please Just Get In the Car We’re Running Late, I’ll let the chance to tell you these things pass. Maybe the social accountability of writing these publicly will help remind me to tell you. Maybe, someday, the public nature of this letter will help remind me who I was when I wrote it, when fatherhood and motherhood and you, yourself, were new. Maybe the people who love your mother and me, the people who will also love you, maybe they will remind you of these things when we are not around.

No one thing any of us do or create defines us, not the worst thing we do and not the best thing we do. We are the sum and mean of all our actions and stillness. What I write here, what I teach you, is only part of my story; what I actually do is another. What your mother does in her role as Your Mother is only part of her story; her hopes and fears before you came along is another. Your story is being written every day, and I hope that what is written here will be a useful footnote in your life.

Next at bat: Part 2 of this letter, “How to know what you know.”

– MCN

 

Copyright © 2016 Mark Nabong

Tragedies and Statistics

Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges in "The Fisher King."

Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges in “The Fisher King.”

Robin Williams died yesterday, killed in what was reported as a suicide. My breath caught when I heard, but I made a small mental readjustment and thought, “Nah, it’ll be like all the other fake celebrity deaths; I’ll go on eating my burrito.”

When later the Responsible Media (TM) started reporting it, I deflated. I don’t think I was the only one to shrink a little; my social media was swamped with tributes, statements of sadness, and memories of Robin Williams and his work. It was filled with something else, too: a counter-reaction.

There was a collection of people who lamented that there was so much attention being paid to the suicide of one druggie comedian instead of some other major world event, like poverty, Gaza, ISIS, police brutality, etc. I actually think theirs is a reasonable reaction, as the loss of one man cannot be equivalent to the loss of scores of people, so let me explain why I think my sadness at William’s death is just as reasonable.

In a nutshell, Robin Williams was like a friend, who popped into and out of my life with each movie, routine, and painful story of drug use or loss that I saw or read about.  If I lost a loved one, a cousin, sibling, or parent, no one would question my right to grieve, because we know that I “know” them, they were in my life and I in theirs. The loss of Williams is obviously less, since he was a performer and I was a stranger to him, but like most of my favorite authors, musicians, and artists, he was no stranger to me.

Many of my friends in stand-up have been able to meet and get to know Robin Williams, something I’ll sadly not be able to do. Even without that secondary personal connection, though, his movies mirrored my emotional development. I was a kid when he made Aladdin, I was a student when he made Good Will Hunting, and I knew grief when he made The Fisher King. With his passing, I feel like I lost an reliable emotional touchstone, like an old restaurant in your hometown that has somehow stayed in business decades longer than it should have. Was he a friend of mine? No, he was not, but he was there when I made friends, and when I lost them.

With a celebrity like Williams dies, it is easy to dismiss the crass celebrity culture that exists in the US, which celebrates the trite, the superficial, and the pretty over the deep and meaningful. The news cycle should have more substance and less style, more analysis and less Hollywood gossip; this is a totally valid, and damning, critique on modern celebrity culture. In the case of Robin Williams, though, feeling less bad about his death does not mean we would feel more bad about the loss of civilians in a civil conflict; I’d argue that becoming more callous about the loss of anyone, even just some actor, just gives us a little more practice in the art of callousness.

If we intend to be more empathetic with strangers across the world and in our own hometowns, the solution is not to ridicule people who feel emotional about the loss of a famous celebrity; it is to give us more reason to feel the loss of the non-famous, the anonymous.

When Robin Williams died, we saw a person who made us laugh, an actor who could make us cry, and the face of a loneliness and depression that far, far too many of us confront in the dark, alone. We know that face, we see in our family, in our friends, and in our mirror.

If we want more of us to feel the loss of the family in Aleppo shelled by mortar fire, or the baby in the hospital in Gaza who died from a rocket attack, or the young man caught in a Molotov cocktail attack on his synagogue in Frankfurt, then we have to tell their stories, too. Don’t simply pass on a news report about a nameless, faceless refugee camp; find one of them and tell me her name, tell me his dreams. Tell me what they wanted out of life before the men with guns came, before their home became a war zone. Tell me how they lived before they died.

Sawssan Abdelwahab, who fled Idlib in Syria, walks with her children outside a refugee camp near the Turkish-Syrian border. (Photo: REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra)

Sawssan Abdelwahab, who fled Idlib in Syria, walks with her children outside a refugee camp near the Turkish-Syrian border. (Photo: REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra)

“500 dead” is just a number, a collection of bodies. We are not just bodies, we are the souls and hopes and dreams that live in those bodies until the moment our hearts stop. We know what Robin Williams looked like when his heart was beating; we know how he smiled and we know how he spoke. Can we try to say the same for the Tsunami victim? For the flood victim?

Don’t get me wrong; we should care about the dozen that died from X, and the thousand that are fleeing for safety in Y, even if we don’t know their stories. But if we know their stories, then we are not just mourning a number, we are mourning a person, a person that could have been our friend, a person that could have been us.

People will shed their tears for strangers, but they will shed their blood for their friends. We should give the unnamed names, put faces on the faceless, because that is the only way we can start to see the friends we have, hidden in the numbers.


12 Aug 2014
by Mark Nabong

Reinvention and the Power of Community

Reinvention and the Power of Community
Five Lessons from Greendale’s Finest Students

Guest post by Kyle Schmitt

College is a time of personal growth and discovery, especially at Greendale Community College, where teenagers and seniors alike converge to seek education and learn who they really are. Greendale, the setting for the NBC sitcom Community, also serves as a haven for losers on their last chances. Called a “toilet” by its own students and promoted by the slogan, “You’re already accepted!”, the school provides a constant reminder of its denizens’ past failures and lack of opportunity for the future.

Greendale is a place, however, that allows for hard-won self-improvement. Some metamorphoses are just lateral movements – witness Ben Chang (Ken Jeong), who transforms from an incompetent Spanish professor to an incompetent math instructor. But the “Greendale Seven” study group members draw on themselves and their fellow students for courage and support in becoming the people they want to be.

Community shows how we all possess the power for personal reinvention. Here are five lessons the study group teaches us about how to become more ideal versions of ourselves:

Set your goals and pursue them vigorously. Shirley Bennett (played by Yvette Nicole Brown) entered Greendale after a traumatic event in her personal life. When her husband leaves her and their two sons for a stripper, she decides to attend community college to gain independence and a life outside of being an unappreciated homemaker. Shirley gains experience in cooking and promoting her own products. Her efforts culminate in the opening of Shirley’s Sandwiches, a small business she starts on Greendale’s campus. While she eventually reconciles with her husband, Shirley achieves personal growth and finds her own happiness by taking chances and discovering new skills that empower her.

Don’t be afraid to change paths. Annie Edison (Alison Brie) is your typical high-achieving, straight-A student – minus the Adderall addiction that landed her at a bottom-tier community college. She takes academics seriously and keeps a laser focus on the lucrative hospital administration career waiting for her after Greendale. We see periodic signs, however, that Annie is second-guessing her plans for life. And when a class-project yam is destroyed, causing the study group to band together for a Law & Order-style criminal investigation, she realizes a new interest. After graduating and finding no fulfillment in her healthcare industry job, Annie re-enrolls in Greendale to pursue her passion for forensic science. She throws away the rulebook that has restricted her throughout life, and embarks on a new journey that excites and challenges her.

Keep your values along the way. A disgraced lawyer who lost his job for lying about his non-existent college degree, Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) creates the study group merely to hook up with his first recruit, Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs). His egotistical attitude leads him to act aloof and aim sarcastic barbs at group members who look up to him as being cooler and better than they are. Even after growing close with the other students, Jeff often struggles to prioritize his friends over his own selfish desires. His better angels consistently win out, however, as Jeff routinely postpones whatever he’d rather be doing to serve as a father figure to a group desperate for his leadership. He makes time to support Annie’s creation of a Model U.N. group, provide Shirley with pro bono legal help, and throw fellow group member Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi) a Pulp Fiction-themed birthday party. Even when he gets his life back on-track, Jeff maintains tight connections with the classmates he once treated with contempt. These outcasts become a surrogate family for a man who finally learned to prize friendship over wealth and professional achievement.

It’s never too late to become the person you want to be. Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase) serves as a constant reminder to his younger cohorts of where poor decisions and failed relationships will eventually lead. He treats his fellow study group members with disrespect, then complains that the study group leaves him out of their outside activities. This vicious cycle leads him to act maliciously toward his friends, further driving a wedge between himself and those who should be closest to him. After his frustrations boil over into physical aggression between himself and Jeff, Pierce begins to let others into his heart. He sticks up for his fellow students when he believes they are being bullied, dials back the racist/sexist comments, and even saves Greendale from financial ruin by winning a campus-wide paintball competition, then giving the destroyed school his prize money. Pierce waits until after his own death, however, to openly share his feelings with his friends. In his written will, Pierce posthumously tells Shirley that he admired her business acumen and strength of character, and reveals that Britta’s passion for her various causes inspired him. He also provides a life-changing opportunity for Troy Barnes (Donald Glover), who realizes that Pierce saw something in him that he never saw for himself. Accepting the friends he once kept at arm’s length, Pierce makes continued progress (even into eternity) in becoming a more considerate and appreciative person to those who care about him.

Challenge yourself. The show’s biggest transformation is made by Troy Barnes (Donald Glover), an obtuse ex-jock whose stated ambition is to wait until his best friend Abed strikes it rich with a social media innovation, then sue for a cut of his fortune. While the other study group members mature, Troy remains content to watch unwatchable b-movies and co-host Troy & Abed in the Morning, an early morning television program that no one bothers to film. But his stagnancy is shattered when Pierce offers him $14 million in stock options if he successfully sails around the world. Pierce tells Troy that he sees in him the “heart of a hero”, and challenges him to become the man he knows he can be. Whether induced by the lure of money or the opportunity for personal growth, Troy accepts this offer and sets sail with co-voyager LeVar Burton (per another provision in Pierce’s will). True to form, Troy cannot say goodbye to Greendale without playing an increasingly ridiculous game of “The floor is lava” that symbolizes his rite of passage into manhood. But, eventually, he sheds his lethargic state of no expectations and evolves into an adventurous adult whose best years are just beginning.

Reinvention doesn’t require enrollment at a community college that prides itself on its “Straight A’s” (two of which are “Air Conditioning” and “A Lot of Classes”) or which offers “certificates of completion” due to being legally prevented from awarding diplomas. The Greendale study group members demonstrate that setting goals, keeping an open mind to new ideas and opportunities, and recognizing the worth of those around you can help you live the life you want.

 

The author can be reached at kyleschmitt81 (at) gmail dot com.

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]