Friday, August 3, 2012

This is Not the Blog You are Looking For

So…after much pain and deliberation, I have decided to abandon Humoring the Muse, as I am just not that amused. Ah heck, I wasn’t maintaining the frickin’ thing anyway, right? I invite you all to head on over to Mott’s Ruminations to see what’s current and happening and, well, ruminating. Like it, follow it, share it with your friends. Cheers.

Friday, July 20, 2012

You Say Potato, I Say Potahto

There’s a lot of crap out there. People making music, and movies and writing books that…well, they suck, okay? Musicians who’ve never picked up an instrument, movie makers who’ve never seen the outside of their basement dwelling. And writers who couldn’t write their name in the dirt with a stick.
Or…but wait. Back up a minute, Sparky. These are all forms of art, yes? Sure they are. And what precisely is art meant to do in this day and age?


Does perfection at one’s art equate to clear communication? One could argue that the more proficient one is at one’s craft, the clearer the communication. Okay, I might be willing to grant that idea. But then the question becomes: What are we attempting to communicate? And is communication the end-all, or are we really talk about resonating?

Ah, now we’re cooking with gas, eh? Many artists are proficient but do not resonate. Or perhaps they do not resonate with everyone. Some of us raise a hand in salute, give a nod to excellence, while others yawn and look for the exit. And then there are the artists who somehow nail the bull’s-eye without the slightest idea how to notch an arrow (sorry, saw Brave recently).

Maybe—just maybe—art is not about the artist. Certainly not when it comes to communication and, ultimately, resonance.

An example, if I may: Rush may be one of the greatest bands of our time (don’t argue with me, you will lose). But what makes them great? Their musicianship? Of course. The complexity of the arrangements and unadulterated skill level at which they play? Yep, and yep. But (and this may come as a shock) some people like to dance to music. Uh-oh. Can’t dance to Rush. I’ve tried. Shifting time signatures and delicious syncopations make dancing to Rush virtually impossible. Suddenly my favorite band no longer resonates, at least not with everyone. Who can you dance to? Ummm, Justin Bieber. Lady Gaga. Dare I say it, the poster child for absence of musicianship: Techno? All danceable. All quite popular and selling records (or MP3 files I suppose).

We can do this with movies as well. Overheard at the water cooler: “Titanic was a suckfest.” Really? Was it? Why was it a suckfest? I took a good deal of umbrage with this statement at first, until I saw the interlocutor’s point. But screw their point, this is my blog. To my umbrage then: Here’s why I don’t think Titanic stunk on ice (pardon). Put aside some questionable acting (Leo DiCaprio has become a fave as of late, but not due to his performance here); look away from gratuitous period jokes (think Billy Zane and his dissing of the upstart Picasso’s paintings); let’s avert our gaze for a moment from Kate Winslet’s bare breasts…no, wait, that’s one of the good points (or two, if you feel me). Aside from all that, what did Titanic achieve? Cinematic excellence? Oscar-worthy performances? A gripping and unpredictable story line? Nope, none of that. What then? Here’s what, since you asked: Titanic took me somewhere I’d never been; somewhere I never could’ve been. What James Cameron did for me was give me the opportunity to visit a pretty convincing version of a historic vessel, and he placed me on that vessel in a moment in time (the moment) so I could imagine what it was like to see the iceberg looming, to experience something I really never, ever want to experience, which is to say the feeling of the boat going down beneath me. Titanic is a time machine—I was transported. It resonated with me. I do not know enough about the art and craft of movie making to see anything other than the story, to feel the deck pitch and sway beneath me and wonder just how testicle-shriveling cold that water’s going to be when I finally hit. Resonance, communicated clearly from Cameron’s brain to my ganglion. Bravo, sir.

I know a little about music—I’ve been performing for more years than I care to think about—so I can speak on the subject with some modicum of intelligence. I do not, however, know as much about the art of cinema; I only know how it makes me feel, and so I have many guilty pleasures, films and television shows that make me laugh and cry and cringe and whatnot. Books now…ah, here’s what we paid our nickel to discuss, yes?

I am a writer. This is what I do, and what I have spent a great many years learning to do well. What does learning to write well consist of? First, and maybe most important of all, it consists of reading—millions and millions of words that others wrote before me. Our libraries and bookstores and Kindle devices are the universities we writers flock to…or should that read: the universities to which we flock? Never mind. We read so we know what has been written, and to see how it was done. Then, and only then, should we write. Constantly. We write and throw it out and write some more. It is the only way to become proficient. What about writing courses, writing groups, etc.? Sure, if you’ve got the time. But if you’re writing and reading as much as you should be….well, you probably won’t have time for such extracurricular activities as writing classes. Basic English is all you need (if you happen to be writing for an English-speaking audience). Beyond that , you will learn everything you need to know about good sentence structure, dialogue, and description, from your reading. But this is not my point.

I’ve been working my way through some horrendously bad fiction as of late. Trading reviews with other writers, paying it forward, spinning the wheel of Karma. Bad writing is not easy to read; it can be torture if you happen to know what good writing looks like. Open anything by Dan Simmons, or Lawrence Block, or Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Peter Straub, David Morrell, Ray Bradbury, Robert B. Parker…sigh, this is making me want to read. These writers all have The Gift. That indefinable something that is hard to point to and say: “This is why it’s good.” Actually, if you can point to it, it’s probably not good writing—good writing is not aware of itself, does not stand up and say, “Look at me, look how clever I am!” Bad writing on the other hand…well, it has a smell. And it ain’t good.

So I’m reading these clunky efforts, and judging the crap out of them, and wondering why on earth these folks didn’t stick with Sudoku…and then I become increasingly aware just how many of these writers and books are out there. Anyone with a word processor and a junior high understanding of computers (and grammar) can publish an eBook. And if that weren’t enough, people are actually reading the damned things! Some of these books are at the 5th or 6th installment for crying out loud, and people are flocking to them. Because they are literary works of art? No. Because they speak to the human condition and enrich our understanding of the Universe? Hardly. Why then? For the love of Edward Cullen, why???

Ahem. Because they resonate. With me? Not so much. But when did what I like become the litmus test for what everyone should like? People flock to these books because they like the stories. Period. The subject matter, or hunky dude on the cover, or twenty-seven euphemisms for male (or female) genitalia moves them on some level. And as a lifelong lover of books, the hardest thing for me to admit is that I sort of envy them. They don’t see bad writing; they don’t see cardboard characters and implausible plotlines. They see (like me with Titanic) angst and glamour and fear, oh my. The things that turn me on in a book would likely bore them to tears. Does that make me smarter than they? No, it makes me interested in different things. I’m interested in the sheer craft of writing—and when it’s done well, the story hits me all the harder—when it isn’t done well…ah, the heck with it, I don’t’ finish a lot of books I start. But I sometimes wonder if these other readers (and writers) might not have tapped into something grand: they are in it for pure story, pure entertainment, pure resonance. And who is the better person here? Do they judge me for the books I like to read? Uh-uh. Yet I find myself judging them at nearly every turn, calling them names and questioning their genetics. What fresh arrogance is this? It’s akin to calling Itzhak Perlman a dullard because he doesn’t appreciate Charlie Daniels.

This has been a soul-searching rumination. I am interested in your thoughts on the subject, I only ask that you be nice. Don’t name names unless you are being complimentary. Tell me: What kind of art rocks your world? Who are the practitioners you particularly enjoy, and why? Are you able to see how your liking them does not in and of itself make them great? And that you not liking another artist doesn’t mean they’re no good?

Talk amongst yourselves. And talk to me. I’m all ears.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Relative Karma--Sample

Here's another freebee for you: Chapter 1 of my novel Relative Karma, currently available on Amazon for Kindle.  Enjoy!

Chapter 1

Jeff Vincent stands motionless in the shadows at the far end of the deck, undetected, listening…

Nick Grimmer gazes at a refraction of candle flame through blood-red brandy, brings the glass close, lets the vaporized fruit hit his sense of smell before allowing it to slide over his tongue.  “I wanna tell you what happened with Jeff Vincent.”
An early-Autumn breeze stirs the long chimes hanging from the Tinkhams’s deck rafters, mesmerizing in the gathering gloom, lulling in tune with the alcohol and tobacco haze.
Alex Tinkham takes a slow pull on his cigar, inspects the ash, pulls again.  “You mean that time he pulled the guy’s head apart, or is this something else?”
“That’s the time I mean, only Vincent didn’t pull the head apart, Lex, he just tried.”
“Fucking slim distinction, bro.”
“You wanna hear it or not?”
“Pour me another shot…thanks.  God that is some smooth shit.”
“Agreed.  You wanna hear this story or not?”
“You pretty much already told me this one, Grim.”
“You just got the highlights, mostly how it ended.  Even that was just bits and pieces.”
“I’m always up for a good story, but why now? This was a couple years ago, right?”
“Yeah.  But it’s one of the few times I’ve been involved in something that heavy when you weren’t there.”
“And you wanna share.”
“And you’re drunk.”
“That too.  And…I guess I don’t like it that so much doesn’t make sense.  I killed a man, Lex, and I still don’t really know why.”
“You did what you had to do, man.”
“See, you can’t really know that because you don’t know all of it.  Several people died during that shit and I never…I don’t know, I guess I never got to do what we do, you know?”
Alex took a slow sip of brandy.  “That’s because our job is to come in after and sift through the mess and try to make sense of it all.  You were in the middle of it.  You were too close to the thing for the brass to call you in to investigate after it all went down.  Besides, if I understand how it went down, there was nothing to investigate.  You knew all the principles, what they did, why they did it.  Right?”
“Yes.  And no.  I just never understood it.  Too many loose ends, too much weirdness.  And you weren’t there.”
“So, it’s a couple years after the fact and you want to do your job—our job—and see what there is to see.  Or was to see.”
“Maybe that’s it.”
“Tell it then.  And, Grim, when you get to the parts with Shelley…speak very slowly.  There aren’t too many women I would put up against my Lila—”
“Or my Cassie…”
“Or her.  But my God.”
“I know.”
“Yeah, I know too,” he says from the darkness at the far end of the deck.
“God, Vincent,” Alex says, “you scared the shit out of me.  How long you been standing there?”
“Long enough to know I got here just in time.”
Nick hooks a chair closer with his foot.  “Sit.”
Jeff Vincent pulls a glass from the small bar and sits, removing a bottle from a coat pocket, stripping the seal and pulling the cork.  “That’s my story you were about to tell, Nick.”
Nick eyes the newly opened bottle.  “Yeah.  And it can stay untold if you’d rather.  It’s not mine to tell, I just—"
“I know what you just.  I was listening, and I understand, believe me. Not a bit of it makes sense, including the horribly mean shit I did to set it all in motion.”
Alex leans forward.  “What are you drinking?”
“The Macallan.  You said it was the best single-malt scotch to be had.  Have some?”
There is just enough light remaining for Alex to see the label as he takes the bottle.  “Holy shit, I’ve only ever had the twelve-year-old.  This is twenty-five-year.”
“So it’s like twice as good, yes?”
“At least.  And probably five times as expensive.”
Nick holds out his glass.  “Fill ‘er up.”
Jeff Vincent tosses back his scotch, grabs the bottle and pours another, tosses it back, pours a third.
“Damn, Vincent, if you just wanna get drunk quick I’ve got some cheap tequila in the kitchen.  You’re not supposed to guzzle the good shit.”
“You boys got a head start on me.  If I’m going to tell the story the way it needs to be told…well, I need to catch up with you.”
Nick says, “No one needs to tell the story, man.”
“Maybe someone does.”  Jeff tosses back the third glass, pours a fourth.  “I’ve never laid it out how it all happened.  Maybe it’s time.  That shit changes a person—everything about it changed me.  You can’t feel your thumbs pop through a man’s eyes and into the sockets and not have it change the way you think, am I right on that score?”
No one says anything, because there is nothing to say.
Jeff sips at his fourth drink, the first three having done their job.  “Your ladies due back anytime soon?”
“Gone for the weekend.  Took little Bella up the coast to Mendocino.  Show her the ocean.”
“Good.  We have all night.  I don’t know what kind of half-assed story you were going to tell, Nick, but with me you get it all, because I can’t tell it halfway.  This disaster is with me daily, even two years later.  Although, I guess it actually began three years ago; that’s when I really got the karma wheel turning, or whatever the fuck you wanna call it.  Some details of what happened are lost to me, or maybe suppressed, but I remember most of it vividly…too vividly.  I suppose that’s my penance, the ability to pull up the nastier scenes at will like my brain was a DVD menu.  But once this mess gets rolling in my mind there’s no skipping to the end credits—the devastation just unravels chronologically behind my eyes, and people are dying all over again, and I can’t even fucking pretend anymore that it happened to someone else.”
Jeff takes another sip, stares at the amber liquid for a long moment.  “Maybe it will help to tell it.  Or maybe it won’t, I don’t know.  But I will tell you what I do know.  I will tell you what happened.”
Another slow sip.  “I’d been dead for a year,” he begins, then he is gone from Now, from the deck, from Nick and Alex and everything that is going right.  It is two years before, and he is alone again, remembering…everything.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Relative Sanity--Sample

For all of you hesitators out there, here's a freebee for you: Chapter 1 of my novel Relative Sanity, currently available on Amazon for Kindle. Enjoy!


Nick Grimmer drained the last of his beer and placed the bottle on the coffee table next to an abandoned Jonathan Carroll novel.  He decided Carroll was okay to read when sober, but alcohol made his subtle reality shifts feel a little too familiar.  Especially lately.
He leaned back, fished between the cushions for the TV remote.  Across the small living room Cassie cleared her throat, an eyebrow slowly inching up.  He nodded, leaned forward and placed the empty bottle on a coaster.
Cassie had been home for a little over an hour.  Nick didn’t know where she’d been, only that if she wanted a little “her time” she got it.  She’d come home flushed, a little jittery-perky, as though she’d had a hit of speed and was on the downhill slide.  But there was no point in asking, no point in beginning a conversation that could only end badly.  Now she was lounging in the overstuffed leather chair wearing nothing but her tanned skin and a man’s long-sleeved white dress shirt, toned legs tucked out of sight except for a few inches of golden thigh, a slender finger marking her place in a Sue Miller paperback.
She smiled, nodded toward the empty bottle.  “You want another one?”
That empty bottle had been his second—twenty-ounce Kilt Lifters that ran around nine percent alcohol.  He should have been well on his way to a mellow buzz but all he felt was a thick-headed sluggishness; a third would not improve that feeling.  On the end table next to Cassie sat a condensation-studded tumbler of Tuaca she’d been sipping at for the last half hour.  The sweet Italian liqueur had eased the nervous edge off her voice, adding a throaty huskiness that Nick still enjoyed, despite everything else.
And she had that look in her eye.  Sue Miller must have turned up the heat.  Or maybe not—these days it could be anything.  Or nothing, he thought; didn’t have to be a damn thing at all lately.
Nick smiled back at his wife of twenty years and it almost felt real.  “You trying to get me drunk, ma’am?”  Part of him hoped she was, if only for the sake of old times.  A larger part hoped not.
She set her book aside, picked up the Tuaca, licked the rim of her glass with a pink tongue.  “Drunk or not, Detective, I’d appreciate it if you’d get over here and fuck my brains out.”
“I see.”  He used to love this game…used to love a lot of things.  “With or without my gun on?”  The words were rote, stale.  If she noticed, she gave no indication.  He figured it was unlikely that she noticed.
“Bring the gun…might be fun.  Hey, I’m a poet and don’t know it!”  She giggled.  The childish, babbling brook sound he’d fallen in love with so many years ago.
She sipped her drink, ran her tongue across her bottom lip to catch a drip.  This time it was not calculated sensuality, it was just she being herself, vintage Cass, and the utterly unselfconscious mannerism accomplished what the rim-licking, suede-throated come-on had not.  He wanted her.
Cassie’s drink seemed to float out of her hand to the coaster as he stood and walked slowly to her.  Her eyes widened slightly, glistening.
Would it be different this time?  Probably not.  Why should it? 
He stopped before her, took her in with his eyes, something miles deep inside him still marveling at the way she seemed sharper—more substantial—than everything around her, as though her presence required more energy than her mass could supply and had to borrow from things nearby.  What he’d always felt for her was beyond love and without definition, although he’d tried once explaining it to Alex:  It’s suffocating sometimes, he’d said.  Actually more than sometimes.  And it’s more than suffocating; it can be nearly debilitating.
His feelings at this moment were no less extreme than they’d been, but now there was an element of panic, a terror at the possibility of losing her to something unknown.
She did not raise her head, simply gazed upward at him through the wisps of blonde spritzed across her unlined forehead, a crooked grin tugging at the left corner of her moist lips.  Her crisp man’s shirt was unbuttoned halfway down, creating a V that pointed at a spot an inch above her belly button.  His eyes followed the edges of the opening up to where the gap widened to accommodate her breasts: perfect, natural, round and muscled.  The areola around the nipple of her right breast was just visible as a small crescent of pink.  The light caught a tiny bead of sweat—or maybe it was a drop of moisture from her glass—inching slowly down the elegant curve and into the shadowed cleft.  She was, as she had always been, beyond compare, beyond adequate description.
“Why do you love me?”  It was his voice but it seemed to come from somewhere far away; and the words felt wrong, as though they’d gotten mixed up between his brain and his lips and should have been: Do you still love me?  Apprehension clogged his throat, a need that had very little to do with sexual desire causing his heart to thud painfully in his ears.  He needed this to work.
She lifted her head, a quizzical look producing the hint of a line between her pencil-sketched eyebrows.  “Why not,” she said, her voice barely more than a whisper filed at the edges.  And it was not a question—it was a challenge.
She shifted a little, her legs unfolding and opening slow-motion, delicate fingers sliding down her thigh, under the edge of her shirt, disappearing between her legs.  “I think I found something you’ve been looking for,” she said.  A fine sheen of perspiration glistened on her upper lip.
Nick smiled.  “Is that where I left it?”
And it was going to work this time.
Please, God.  This time.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Last Wish

"I don't want to die alone."
     Jack slid into the chair, phone cradled loosely against his ear. No point in standing for this one.
     "I'm sick, Jackie—" Her voice broke.
     "Chelsea, it's just a bug. You're not going to die."
     God, she could be melodramatic when she'd had a few. He shifted the phone to his other ear. "I'm here."
     "It's not a bug. I just got back from the hospital. It's cancer."
     Jack blinked. He'd misunderstood. For the two short years of their marriage she'd been a hypochondriac; the lasting cry throughout the separation and divorce had been, You never took care of me when I was sick. And she was always sick. But now…he'd misunderstood, plain and simple.
     He swallowed. "What did you say?"
     "You heard me."
     Fuck. "I…Chelsea, are they sure?"
     She sucked back a shuddery sob. "Yeah. They're so sure they didn't want me to leave."
     "Then why did you?"
     "Come over, Jack, please?"
     "Chels, you should be at the hospital. I'll come pick you up and take you back."
     "No. Please. Just come be with me. I don't wanna die alone."

* * *

     "I made myself some tea. Would you like a cup?"
     Jack nodded, watched her as she lifted the kettle and poured the boiling water into a China cup, part of a set they'd received as a wedding gift. She didn't look sick, and that alone was enough to make Jack believe. When in the throes of some imagined infirmity she looked drawn, frail, barely able to take the next breath. Contrived, carefully calculated illness. Now she simply seemed resigned.
     She placed the cup in front of him, matching saucer, delicate silver spoon. "Give it a minute, it's hot." She sipped at the cup in front of her, then tossed it back and added more water from the kettle.
     "I'm sorry, Chels. I…I'm so sorry."
     Their divorce had been brutal; ugly, prolonged and vicious. Now all he could do was watch her quiet elegance in the face of the ultimate fear.
     She shrugged. "It's done. They say the cancer has metastasized beyond…" She smiled softly. "Well, suffice to say I'm done. I could stay in the hospital, but to what good? Drugs to dull my mind so that I forget I'm dying for an hour or two? No. If I'm going to die, I'm going to die at home, my way, on my terms."
     "How long did they say?"
     She shook her head. "Doesn't matter."
     "It does, baby. We can look at alternative cures or something. Or at least make the most of whatever time you have left." She suddenly looked tired, about to fall asleep, but with a quizzical grin flittering on her lips. Jack frowned. "What?"
     "You called me baby." Her voice was soft, the words slightly slurred like she'd had a little too much to drink.
     "Did I?" Jack blew on his tea, took a small sip to test the temperature, then, though it was still too hot, drained the rest to have something to do while he tried to remember if he'd actually said the word. That word that had been his favorite endearment before things went south.
     She nodded. "Yes, you did. And…" Her eyes fluttered and her lips twitched in a crooked grin. "And it wuzzlovely." She seemed to be drifting away.
     He placed his hand on hers. "Chels? Baby, are you okay?"
     Her eyes cleared slightly. "Thank you for coming, Jackie. I wanted you to be here. I really didn't want to die alone." She smiled again, then frowned as a sudden spasm shuddered through her. She gestured with her teacup. "It hurts some, but at least it will be short-lived, won't it, sweetie?"
     Jack watched her trembling hand attempt to lift the teacup. Just come be with me. I don't wanna die alone. Her head slumped forward.
     "Oh, baby, what did you do?" He watched her go. She hadn't wanted to be alone, and she wasn't. She stiffened, her body spasming again, clenching and releasing, clenching and releasing. Finally the muscles relaxed completely and he smelled her bowels let go as rigid fingers uncurled from the handle of the cup. Her breath slowed, paused, and it was over.
     He should call someone, someone that could take care of her now that she was gone, take care of her like he never had. But he couldn't think who to call, or what to say if he did call. And he wanted to hold her hand resting so lightly next to her teacup. His hand stretched toward hers but seemed to take forever to reach across the table. He knocked over his own cup, watched the dregs stain the tablecloth, watched the cup roll off the table and heard no sound as it floated away into the darkness under the table. From far away inside himself he felt a contraction, a tightening sensation as something rebelled against whatever he'd ingested, then icy hands began to slowly squeeze his lungs. His fingers finally reached Chelsea's, so soft and still. He was glad to be sitting across from her and glad he'd been here because…
     "Baby," he whispered."
…she didn't want to die alone.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Little Girl Lost

Little Girl Lost

     “Daddy, I’m lost.” She sounded embarrassed.
     Michael twisted the car’s radio volume down and smiled into the cell phone, willing the I-told-you-so tone out of his voice. “Where are you, baby?”
     “Dad, if I knew that I wouldn’t be lost.” Definitely embarrassed, and silently begging him not to bust her chops about it.
     Beth’s sense of direction was non-existent. He’d been so certain she’d lose her way he brought a Thomas Guide street directory to work so he could steer her back on track when she called. Being prepared for things like this was Dad Stuff, just one scenario on a long list of scenarios he’d imagined from the day they’d first learned Deb was pregnant and their childless days were limited.
     A glance at the dashboard clock showed thirteen minutes before six pm. Rush hour traffic had congealed in the late-autumn night, bogging down to speeds nearly in the single digits. The street directory lay useless on the floorboard, unreachable and—with his reading glasses stowed in the trunk with his briefcase—unreadable.
     “Beth, I’ve got to pull off the freeway so I can get to the map. What street are you on?”
     “Dad.” Frustrated. “These stupid streets don’t have names.”
     Michael jockeyed one lane to the right. If the idiots paid attention to his blinker he’d make the off ramp at Madison Avenue; otherwise it would be Greenback Lane, another crawling mile east.
     “Sweetie, they have to have names.”
     “I know that, but it’s dark and I can’t see the street signs.”
     That couldn’t be right. True, it was dark out, but the intersections were brightly lit, large green and white signs stretching across the lanes. “Beth, pull over at the next intersection and tell me what you see.”
     “Okay.” There was a tremor in her voice that reminded him she was just sixteen.
     My God, wasn’t it just yesterday that Deb went into labor? How did she get to be sixteen already?
     A flash of high beams from behind and he had the gap he needed. He punched the accelerator, shot through to the emergency lane and sped along the stationary line of cars to the Madison Avenue off ramp, praying the Highway Patrol had better things to do.
     His mind told him this was no big deal, Beth was fine, she was just turned around and all he had to do was point her back in the right direction—but something didn’t feel right. Beth had been visiting her boyfriend’s grandmother who lived just off La Riviera Drive, a couple blocks west of Watt Avenue. Not a great neighborhood, but it was well lit. Watt Avenue was one of the larger thoroughfares in Sacramento, at several places six lanes wide.
     “I’m here, baby. I’m almost off the freeway.”
     “I just passed an intersection but I didn’t want to stop. I couldn’t see what the sign said.”
     “Baby, I can’t help you if I don’t know where you are.”
     “It was dark and there were these guys just kind of sitting there in their truck. There wasn’t really anywhere to pull off anyway, just kind of a ditch along the side of the road.”
     What the hell? Where was she?
     “Wait, I see a sign coming up at the next intersection…it’s…something ridge.”
     “Slow down and try to read it.” He managed to keep his voice level as he turned onto Madison and into the right lane behind a solid wall of cars. A Chevron gas station gleamed less than twenty yards ahead on the right, but it might as well have been a mirage for all the good it served.
     “Okay, I see it,” she said. “It says Oakridge. I’m passing through and I’m on…what does that say? Geez, you’d think they could make bigger signs.”
     God, please let her be mistaken.
     The signal up ahead turned green, releasing the tension of cars so that he was eventually able to jump the curb into the gas station parking lot.
     “Par…ane…” Static. Digital garble.
     “Sweetie, you’re breaking up. Say it again.” Please, God.
     “I just passed through the intersection at Oakridge. I’m on Parlane.”
     Oh, baby, how did you get so far south?
     “Beth, you just need to turn around as soon as you can.” Keep it steady, she’s scared because she’s lost. She doesn’t need to hear it in your voice.
     “I see a lighted intersection up ahead, finally. I’m going to pull over there.”
     “No, Beth. Don’t pull over, just make a u-turn and go back the other way. Don’t stop.” God, protect my baby.
     “Daddy, there’s a gas station and I’m getting kind of low—”
     “Do not stop. I’ll talk you back to someplace where you can get gas. Just turn around. I’m going to grab my glasses and check the map.” He popped the trunk and got out of the car.
     “Daddy, you’re scaring me.”
     Baby, I’m terrified.
     “It’s fine, sweetie, I just don’t want you to stop in that area. Keep driving. Hold on a sec.”
     He opened his briefcase and dug out his glasses. Back in the car, he flipped to the back of the street guide and found the coordinates for Oakridge and Parlane.
     “I’m here, baby.”
     “Okay, I’m going the other way now.”
     “Good, you’re doing fine. I’m looking at the map now.”
     The dome light showed two full pages of open county land bisected by two lane roads. He had an all too clear memory of the last time he’d driven through the area. He remembered thinking he wouldn’t want to drive through there at night. How had she gotten so far off track? Playing with her stereo more than likely. Fiddling with the radio, oblivious that she was driving into Sacramento’s version of South Central LA. Except that in South Central, there were people around; the south end of Sacramento County was largely uninhabited—except that it really wasn’t.
     “Damn it!” she said.
     His stomach tightened. “What happened?”
     “There’s some jerk behind me driving with his high beams on. He’s like totally riding my bumper.”
     “Just let him pass.”
     “I tried. I pulled almost onto the shoulder so he could get by and he just stayed there. Should I pull off and stop?”
     “No! Listen, just keep going. You should be back into town before long.”
     The map was no help at all. He knew exactly where she was, he just didn’t know how to tell her to get out without making it worse. Stay on Parlane? Or turn right on Oakridge and head over to Fallon? If memory served, Parlane was a bigger street but went through a worse section of town. If she could get over to Fallon—
     “Oh my God! He’s so close I can’t even see his lights any more!”
     “Beth, do not slow down. You should be coming back up to Oakridge. Turn right. When you get to Fallon, turn left. At that point you’ll be—” He yanked the phone from his ear.
     “Daddy, he just hit me!” Her voice was trembling. “Oh, God, he rammed into me and I almost lost it.”
     A sickening throb began at his temple. “Are you okay?”
     “Yeah. No. I mean I guess. He backed off a little and I’m turning onto Oakridge. Oh, shit, he’s coming up fast again! Daddy, what do I do?”

     His voice stalled. This wasn’t happening to his baby. He had no idea what to do. Or what to tell her to do. “Just keep driving, baby.”
     Why can’t I think of what to do? I was so prepared, so ready to be a dad.
     The crunch was deafening this time. “Beth!”
     “Daddy—” sobbing now “—Oh Jesus, I’m so scared.”
     God, help me think what to do. Call 911? No, he’d have to hang up. “Just keep driving, baby, I’m getting help.”
     He stumbled out of the car and ran to the phone booth. No handset, just a busted cable, wires dangling, somehow looking like a torn umbilical cord. Come on, God, don’t fucking do this to me.
     He stared at that torn cord too long, finally backed away in a daze and got back into the car. He started the engine. “Talk to me, baby.”
     Open line. And Beth—my little girl—unable to speak as she gasped through the fear.
     “Keep talking to me, Beth.” He pulled onto Madison with absolutely no idea where he was headed, and was immediately stuck in traffic. No danger here. Just a lot of cars, people anxious to get home. And every one of them keeping him from his baby. He should pull back into the station and have someone inside call 911. Why didn’t I think of that? Why I am messing this up so badly?
     A sharp, static intake of breath in his ear. “Daddy…”
     And then he jerked the phone way from his ear again at the horrible crash of impact. And Beth screaming, or maybe that was the shriek of the tires, and the thin, quick sound of tearing metal and shattering glass and yes, that is Beth screaming like a terrified newborn and he couldn’t be hearing that sound coming through the cell phone, because this wasn’t the way things were supposed to go.
     He sat in a surreal nightmare of hardening-cement traffic as Beth shrieked in his ear from a place of terror beyond the world, screaming No! No! Please, don’t! over and over, the awful cries becoming distant but somehow more intense when the cell phone was dropped—ripped?—from her hand. And the other voice that was not Beth’s—nice tits, bitch—and so Michael’s mind tried to force it all into a muted garble, unwilling to accept that he was hearing his baby girl being raped.
     But the screams were still there—fight, baby—long and persistent, howling at a pain that is outside anything he can imagine—push harder—and the screaming has become a harsh panting and the voice is not Beth, it is Deb, crying his name…
     The traffic begins to spin around him, becoming a blur of white light—white walls, white tile—and there is a smell of antiseptic, the beep of monitors, and a hand on his arm, rough but gentle—
     “You back with us, partner?”
     Michael blinks in the sudden glare of hospital fluorescents. “Dr. Burney?”
     “He’s back,” the doctor says with a soft clap of the hands. “Let’s get this done.”
     Michael feels Deb’s hand grip his own as she leans forward and begins to push again, her body clenching as doctor and nurse urge her on.
     A glance from Doctor Burney. “Help her out, son, you know the drill.”
     And Michael does know the drill—push-push-push-breathe—but he is still trying to get his mind back from the place where Beth is still…Beth? At his side, Deb hunches over the distended abdomen that holds their first child, unborn and struggling to remain so.
     Another drawn-out hissing scream, this time from Deb—of course from Deb, only Deb—and seconds later from a much tinier set of lungs, and yes, that’s exactly what she will sound like.
     Doctor Burney holds the tiny vision high, as high as the umbilical cord—busted phone cable—will allow.
     Deb’s voice at his ear, whispered wonder: “Oh, Michael…Michael we have a baby girl.”
     I know, and we decided on Elizabeth for a girl, Beth for short.
     “Isn’t she beautiful?”
     Nice tits, bitch.
     “Yes, honey, she’s beautiful.”
     Deb’s fingers find his, interlacing and locking together, the way they’ve been doing since they were teenagers. “Our world just changed forever, Michael. You’re a daddy now.”
     Deb’s voice dreamy, determined. “She is our focus now. I never want to let her out of my sight.”
     …I’m lost.