Tuesday, November 17, 2020

She Of Underneath

Originally published on Not Your Mother's Breast Milk

 "I don't wanna sleep! I just wanna keep on loving you!"
        Carrie's first fourteen days at Wells Fargo were terribly defiant of neat description. She anticipated moments of struggle, she predicted fits of despair, but she could not have foreseen how overwhelmed she felt throughout. The pre-closing department, of which she was a part, reviewed REO contract packages: the contract itself, the lender's pre-approval, buyer's proof of funds, everything needed to be present and in order before moving on to the closing department. Acuity of mind and vision made the pre-closer (or contract specialist, depending on whether one wanted their job to sound either more mysterious or important) a valuable member of the team. Carrie certainly could not afford to let crappy '80s power balladry invade her brain while determining if Karen Forrest signed each and every line required by law.
        And yet.
        "Why can't I be thinking about cookies?" she muttered under coffee-splashed breath.
        She couldn't afford the vacation of her dreams, or the meal of her dreams, but the orgasm of her dreams was entirely within reach. Mindful of the brain's status as the body's most vital sex organ, Carrie decided to make hers feel extra special.
        The open-air kitchen area was occupied by two women as interested in Carrie as she in them. As the pair impatiently waited on a pot of coffee, Carrie turned her back to them and pretended to ponder the vending machine.
        "Why were Brad and Carrie fighting?"
        Just like the perpetuation of canards, sex toys have pros and cons.
        "I'm pretty sure she's been sneaking around with Ed and Brad found out."
        The Silver Rocket. The Black Diamond. Who wouldn't want to use a vibrator that sounds like it should have its own entrance music?
        "Whaaat. Oooohhhh woooow."
        F8. A package of blueberry Pop Tarts fell to their doom.
        "You don't know who threw up in the bathroom sink, do you?"
        Pro: if by one's self, one's self is in control of the toy. One's self can adjust the intensity and angle as they feel fit.
        "So do you think he'll be stupid enough to not break it off with her?"
        To improve the fit and the feel.
        Eric's cubicle sat across from Carrie's. Eric ate a donut every morning. And afternoon. The same donut. The same sixteen ounce cup of coffee, as well.
        Con: a toy can place undue emphasis on the goal to the detriment of the journey.
        "I was the one who threw up in the bathroom sink," he chirped.
        Carrie was nearly through her second month at Wells Fargo, one of two temps hired in anticipation of an increase in foreclosures. She was good at what she did, but no better than that. She had yet to experience a work day without at least one contract package coming back, one work day without mistakes that were forgiven only because she wasn't a permanent hire. She placed the blame with a soft spot and a long leash.
        How could she keep reveries at bay as a hired gun? Struck her as a hardly fair expectation. She just needed to keep a focused head, since the present would be the past soon enough.
        Focus, she placed in the paramount position, ahead of patience, ahead of even passion.
        She was determined to not screw it up, unlike all the names on all the papers she examined every Monday through Friday. Those people aimed too high, overlooked the obvious, and underestimated the improbable occurrence.
        Conduction feeds contraction. Onward till outward till upward till downward. Same-old sensations, somehow fresh.
        Carrie lifted her butt from the rolling chair to keep it awake.

FROM: shesapanic@gmail.com
TO: elliep@stagecoach.org

Greetings. It would behoove you, in thirty seconds time, to visit the ladies restroom. Within, your co-worker Carrie will be jilling off with a bullwhip. BYO?

        E-mailing asset managers should take no longer than ten minutes, but would take closer to twenty minutes.

Dear New York-based jackass, one of the most important documents needed to complete the transaction is missing from the package you sent over. How such an oversight is possible, when everyone involved in the process has a checklist for reference, kills me half dead. Time is of the essence, so if your client really wants to buy this craphole from the bank, get back to me before 5 PM EST.

        The grumbles and growls of an empty stomach might prove a turn-off for a partner, but Carrie believed that unpleasant sounds were to expected and tolerated if not exactly enjoyed. The squelches, the expulsions, the clarifications of hungers and thirsts. Out of context, they could be interpreted as silly or deceptive. Perfectly understood, they stoked the fire.
        Fingertips tapping against the keyboard pleased her ears, more insistent, more controlled. Speed was vital, but accuracy ruled. Carrie had both. Nothing ruined a chemical buzz and boil like fingers moving too wildly or pressing too forcefully. Hard-earned lesson, that.
        She clicked on the Spreadsheet desktop icon and uncapped a cold bottle of water. A stack of four contract packages set to the left of the keyboard, waiting for her to finish up the Forrest bundle.
        She was careful to keep the water to the right of the keyboard.
        Why did she want to masturbate after stepping out of the shower, after scrubbing herself pristine? If she couldn't fight off the urge to make herself deliciously dirty, why not before stepping underneath the lukewarm spray? Or, kill two flies with one magazine?
        At three different places, a line appeared for the signature of the prospective buyer, just above their typed name, to indicate acknowledgment of and agreement with the terms and conditions of the document. Ms. Forrest had a no-frills approach to signing her name, making for an exceptional legibility.
        Carrie never diddled herself in the shower. Didn't trust her footing. Can't have a great time worrying about slipping and falling and breaking. Then she'd drown to death, probably.
        The routine was just that until page ten of the REO Contract, the single most crucial part of the whole. The typed name underneath the line read "Karen Forest." As in, trees for miles. The error was not so egregious that a contract specialist would be remiss in failing to note its presence, but it captivated Carrie's imagination nonetheless. Clearly, Karen Forrest (or the attorney advising her) was such a stickler for accuracy (and/or so eager to complete the transaction) that she signed her own last name incorrectly so as to not contradict the misspelling.
        Imagine if they made hand lotion that had the smell of vaginal secretions. It wouldn't sell like hotcakes, precisely, but it would sell. Like frozen breakfast burritos, perhaps.
        The sentient Hummel figurine who was bestowed the name "Mrs. Sharp" and placed in charge of the Pre Closing Department was making her a.m. rounds. Carrie was sure to make eye contact and smile.
        The second-worst thing about sex concerned the fact that it necessitated the presence of at least one other participant. Another set of needs, another set of wants. Some of which may not wind up playing copacetic with YOURS.
        Carrie glanced over at the calendar that had already been placed in the cubicle before she arrived. (Bird silhouettes in a cloudless sky.) A red "X" marked the 14th, her seventh day on the job, the day she completed twenty-three contracts, an official record for the department. (She celebrated later that evening by coaxing out forty-seven orgasms in just over sixty minutes, an official record for her vagina.)
        Mrs. Sharp had been so impressed she summoned Carrie to her cubicle the next workday to receive congratulations and encouragement. The hard-working temp hid her disappointment at not receiving a plague, trophy, certificate or box of donuts as well.
        "You didn't have anyone that did more back in '06 or '07? The good old subprime mortgage crisis days? You must have been seeing five times the number of contracts you're seeing now."
        "Close," Mrs. Sharp nodded. "But we also had three times the number of employees."
        "In this space?"
        "Two words: shared cubicles."


        Ellie lived with her aunt, the only member of her family willing to help the young woman escape an abusive long-term relationship. She had taken a shine to Carrie, offering to keep the temporary hire company at lunch on her very first day, offering advice instead of gossip, and finding a nonjudgmental audience.
        Carrie fidgeted a few seconds before pushing her chair back and acknowledging the coy woman leaning on her desk. She kept running her hands over her forearms. Carrie watched as much as she needed to before breaking the silence.
        "What's up?"
        "His mother called me last night," Ellie whispered. Carrie could only roll her eyes and groan in commiseration.
        "She tells me, 'He's very sensitive, Ellie. The world is a…perplexing place for someone who feels as deeply as he does."
        Carrie shook her head. "Same old, huh? You should probably stop taking her calls. You know? I mean, that's what I would do. She doesn't deserve any more of your time."
        "I know, I know, but I can't help but feel bad for her. I mean, he's her son. Of course she's going to fight for him. I just don't get my family. I think they don't take me seriously because whenever I talk about it, I'm always calm and rational."
        "You can't move on from that part of your life without cutting it out completely. Like a nasty tumor. You don't just leave a little of it in your body as a warning to your cells."
        Ellie's laughter hit the air in fragments. Carrie watched and waited, pen rolling between her fingers, tongue peeking between her lips.
        "Yeah I know, it's just. It's just hard. He was such a big part of my life, almost five years. And she was always so nice to me. I don't know."
        Carrie intercepted her smirk en route, and twisted it into a smile. She doubted anyone in the entire building was worthy of her hostility. "I wish you luck in finding out."

From: jsladky@stagecoach.org
To: jsharp@stagecoach.org

Good morning, team! Becky in the Post Closing Department had her first baby this weekend! To celebrate the arrival of Emma Rebekah, I'll be passing around a card for all of us to sign. This card, along with lovely flowers, will be delivered to her home after end-of-work today.

        Carrie shivered. The fear of pregnancy surpassed even the fear of death in her mind. (After death, after all, was a mystery. After pregnancy, a baby.) How horrid a possibility that two squirming, messy, loud humans could so easily make (at least) one other squirming, messy, loud human.
        Even just a brief visual of a newborn, covered in vernix and crying from oblivion, sent her guts into a somersault routine.  This would not do. Seven and a half hours of work that could be perceived as much more or much less depending on how she managed her mind lay ahead.
        Food--no. A fair amount of one dollar bills and loose change sat inside of Carrie's purse, and the vending machine was closer than the restrooms. Not to mention the four hundred calories worth of fruit-filled rectangles she'd just consumed.
        That left--something that could respect the limits of the fantastical confines.
        Not difficult whatsoever to maim five minutes just staring at the spreadsheet, the names and numbers and especially the colors. The turnaround time on an REO contract ranged from five to ten days depending on the state, and it was the personal responsibility of each pre closer to stay up to date. Entering the name of client, property address, and time since the contract was received was okay, but Carrie loved the color-coding. The highest priority contracts had to be shaded red. Then, in descending order, came orange, yellow, purple and light blue. A rainbow of responsibilities. When the hammer fell, she would miss the color-coding most of all.
        All screens blank--better still, black. Pull the blinds tight; the voyeuristic rays of light must seek gratification elsewhere. She eschewed music as a fatal distraction. No matter how well the taco was sauced, her attentions could be stolen with relative ease.
        Life tended to stick. Words clung to her earlobes for dear life, images swam in the aqueous humor to keep fit, and mostly, the young woman appreciated the company.
        The floor is for when time is of the essence. Otherwise, opt for the bed or the couch. Besides the obvious comfort, both places encourage exploration. Flat on back, hands free to roam over skin changing from apricot to strawberry with each caress. Access to the clitoris must be unobstructed. Carrie could deliver herself to the crisis point via vaginal stimulation, but nothing held a candelabra to the intensity of mashing the button like a Street Fighter novice.

From: emell@stagecoach.org
To: cunser@stagecoach.org

I wish I could make lunch today, but I'm going to be pretty much stuck at my cubicle. I have three contracts that need documents ASAP or they get cancelled before 5. Rain check?

        "I wish, genie…." Carrie knew exactly what she would ask for. First wish: perfect skin forever. No blackheads, no bumps, no rashes. Next up: eat whenever whatever without any deleterious effects externally OR internally. Finally: a home of her own, four walls bought and paid for, in a nice neighborhood, near public transit.
        Knees up for toy play. Lust and lucidity, slick hand in slick hand.
        Even without the cubicle walls, who'd suspect anything? She wasn't even breathing heavy.
        New e-mail. NY-based jackass is sorry, please see attached files. Carrie snorted and inadvertently elbowed her pen onto the floor. She sucked in a breath as her thighs smashed together.
        Libido dominadi!
        "Hello, you've reached the voicemail of Carrie Unser, contract specialist at Wells Fargo. I'm sorry that I am unavailable to take your call presently" no no again "I'm sorry that I'm presently unavailable to take your call. Please leave your name, number, and a brief message and I will return your call as soon as possible."
        A woman's lust is a reliable narrator. How could so many men misinterpret--or just flat-out miss? How could so many of them be ignorant of the bodily basics? Anyway, it wasn't her duty to teach Carrie's Body 101, unless she actually wanted to, which she figured would happen on the same day a pig took a crap on her head.
        I live here…it's mine…I answer to me.
        "Who wouldn't want to have sex with me?" is the most unfortunate rhetorical question, do not ask it, under any circumstances.
        Three-story, brick…screened-in front porch…those bushes would have to go, but otherwise…damn the things money can do for a person.
        Flat on the back, redolent of ho-hum go-to, but Carrie appreciated the classics like few of her peers. What's wrong with just pepperoni on the pizza? What's so bad about a plain glazed donut? What's so funny 'bout Salt-n-Pepa?
        Face down-ass up had the potential to be counterproductive. Sometimes, Carrie wished she was actually having doggy-style sex, the force and power that she associated with that position, the slight pain that gave way to mild discomfort before at last transforming into fierce bliss.
        But then--she would no longer be alone. Carrie didn't hate people, but whenever there was an opportunity to avoid them, she took that opportunity.
        Countless times Carrie had acquiesced to sex when she really would have rather been doing a dozen other things. At no time had Carrie wanked without wanting it more than anything else at that moment.
        Voicemail for both agents. Carrie made certain to speak evenly, ego still bruised from the mild chastisement she'd received from an agent in California, an older-sounding gentleman who accused her of "hurrying" through a message.
        Toy-play while lying on one's side was…Carrie figured she just lacked the flexibility required.
        Every third session or so, she'd perform a thorough breast examination. What better reason to masturbate than in celebration of being tumor-free?
        "Do you have some extra paper clips I can borrow? Thanks."
        Sure, they were gossipy twits who kept rom-coms viable at the box office, but damned if those other women didn't have their shit together. Job security, drivers licenses, husbands with connections.
        The pink cotton quilt normally draped over the couch found its way over her nudity. The additional layer brought not only increased warmth, but trapped sound. No carefully-crafted piece of music she'd heard--not Abbey Road, not "Rites of Spring"--could help but fade and crack against the improvised noises that escaped her throat in the throes of life divine.
        Hands over curves sent her head over heels. Certain expanses reacted more sharply to the touch of a relative stranger. The legs, the stomach, no novelty there, but familiarity wielded expertly could conjure a sensational glow.
        She dove. Once underneath, she wasted no time with an establishing shot. She swam, she splashed, she stayed imperfectly still. Advice read long ago on how to endure a panic attack, it turned out, could also be applied to more delightful stresses as well.
        The world pulsed and pounded, hurtling her towards the narrowing inevitable.
        "It's five o'clock, are you coming?"
        Mind over body.
        Weightless and worry-free, she lay still.  Agape and agog. The intermingled scents made her want to bite at the air. Made her want to hop up, run outside, and moon the whole neighborhood. Made her want to suppresses a sneeze.
        She fulfilled only one of those desires.
        She let the wand fall to the wayside. She could have clicked the switch and extended the ecstasy. Perhaps she would regret her restraint later.
        She blew out a long, hot breath against the cover, wondering if she could possibly have enough wind to lift the cotton even half an inch upward. She fancied herself a dragon, sated after battle, resting atop the pile of spun sugar gifted by her grateful owner.
        If you don't feel as if you've chewed a live wire just like it was a licorice lace, you didn't really have an orgasm.
        Repeated internal insistences to arise and refresh were ignored, until she sold herself on the purgative properties of H20. Gradually, she sat up, post-peak optimism flooding her senses. She leaned over to arouse her phone. 6:43.
        Eighteen minutes. Not bad. Finger painting the Mona Lisa took time.
        The walls of the kitchen were as bare as the walls of her cubicle; a calendar and nothing more. She was halfway through her lease, likely to renew, even if Wells Fargo didn't keep her on. A woman with her skill set never had to worry about protracted unemployment.
        The temptations of sugar were easier to resist when obscured, so the water bottles were always placed at the front in the refrigerator. Uncapping one, she took a long swig, wishing she had a banana or two hanging around. Wishing bananas didn't ripen so quickly. Wishing that the ice cream truck that stopped outside of the condo offered something other than cones and popsicles.
        (A friend once told Carrie sugar was even easier to shun when it wasn't even an option. Carrie smirked and explained: "Self-discipline is like a muscle. If you don't exercise it, it will atrophy.")
        "I wanna be a paperback writer/Paperback writer!"
        She rushed to the end table and bent over. MOM, warned the screen.
        The corny chitter-chatter of flaky mother-mouth tended to leave Carrie depressed rather than irritated. This was a recent development, one that she connected to the imminent death of her twenties. Certain aspects of life were becoming less worthy of her time and tolerance. Including the woman who gave her that life.
        She figured it wasn't really her fault. Everyone had limits, and the days of biting tongues and rolling eyes for an average of half an hour for an average of four days a week were done (or damn near).
        The nadir of this incurable garrulousness, the absolute breaking point, came just the week before. Carrie knew instantly that her mother had been drinking (the higher pitch of her voice, the careful enunciation of words of more than two syllables, the sudden proclamation "This Scotch is really good!") but chose not to invent a knock at the door. She would regret this lack of deception. Talk about plans for her upcoming anniversary turned into an unabashed confession from the older woman that she reached orgasm only a handful of times with her husband during twenty-one years of marriage; it came when she revealed that once she met Carrie's eventual stepfather, climaxes went from precious and few to virtually uncountable.
        Carrie stared down into the water bottle, remembering (but not reliving) the feeling that spread throughout her insides as she listened to her fifty-something mother marvel over her sexual awakening. It was beyond basic mortification. Carrie was eager to bash herself in the head with the phone until either it or her skull fractured, to run outside and bury herself into the ground. Or, barring all that drama, just disappear from shame on the spot.
        Instead, she decided to make her mother disappear. They hadn't spoken in four days. Carrie couldn't wait to experience feelings one way or another about it all.
        She ran her hands over her hair, determined to enter the shower feeling as though she had truly earned the right to all that hot water.


Each Yearning

Originally published on Little Rose. 


 How her mother, how anyone, could live without overhead lighting, Irene couldn't figure. The natural light streaming in through the living room picture window, through the awning window over the kitchen sink…this sufficed for the widow Mattheson during the daytime. When night fell, the curtains would close and a single lamp would come alive.
        How, Irene wondered, could a person combat inertia in such somber settings?
        She suspected that the King James Bible lying on the coffee table--in between two empty candy dishes--was a passive-aggressive gesture. Her mother continued to warble the praises of prayer and physical affections, despite Irene's insistence that she would hit her knees for no man. Despite every embrace feeling like thorn-riddled vines wrapping around her upper body.
        "Pretty day," the older woman observed.  "The violets are gorgeous. Have you seen them?"
        Irene looked up and over to where her mother sat, concentrating on the upward path of cigarette smoke. She swallowed a sigh and absentmindedly slapped at her thighs. As her mother took a penultimate drag, Irene turned her attention back on herself, staring semi-interestedly at her right arm. Using one finger, she traced the "Big Dipper" pattern created by eight small brown spots spread out just under the crook.
        "You ready to go?"
        "Just a minute. There's something I want to show you first."
        Irene pressed fingernails against palms. The TV hadn't been turned on in over two days, since the morning she'd awoken and screeched at her mother's hideous taste in small-screen entertainment. (Apparently, it was paternity tests and game shows or bust for her dear mother.) Seconds later, another sigh was denied life as the other woman joined her on the couch, clutching a photo album. The only photo on the very first page was the very first ever taken of Irene Mae Mattheson. Of mama Mattheson's four children, only the oldest and youngest had extant baby pictures, less than a dozen in toto, frozen memories that she valued above any other possession bar her own wedding ring.
        "Look at how cute you were."
        "Right. I look like I have an invisible boot pressed up against the left side of my face."
        "Oh stop."
        Irene said nothing further.
        Every Friday morning for the past two years, mother and daughter would go grocery shopping using, primarily, the funds on Irene's Electronic Benefits Transfer card. Irene considered these vital jaunts the closest she would ever come to a "walk of shame." She was dependent on the government to eat, officially one of the too-many people that her late father volubly held responsible for the continuing ruination of America.
        "If Dad were still alive," Irene began, rising from the sofa, "none of this would be happening. You know that." She watched her mother's face, especially the hooded eyes, hoping to detect some indication that her words were more than merely heard.
        Once months of unemployment forced her back to a hometown she loathed, Irene sought control over at least one significant aspect of her life. In short order, she focused upon her diet. Fiber bars, protein bars, and pounds of fruit replaced the meat-heavy dishes she'd always enjoyed, and rarely did her daily caloric intake reach quadruple digits. In two years, her troubles had resulted in the loss of over one hundred pounds.
        Helping her mother out with food assuaged a small measure of the guilt she felt knowing that the poor lady was using part of her social security check to keep her daughter alive. There was little she could do for the ravages of age; although the widow Mattheson didn't look her seventy-two years, she certainly moved them, and her legs in particular tended to ache throughout the day.
        Her daughter's dejected posture knew no specific time. Irene followed alongside the shopping cart, eyes following each item as it was placed inside, the twin flames of gratitude and resentment blazing behind them.
        Every week, the same things.
        "Your lack of urgency disturbs me," Irene frowned. "It's like you don't believe in making the extra effort for me because you believe in God and he'll take care of it all in due time. I need a change now. I need things to happen."
        She rummaged in her shoulder bag. "You know why these cards are orange? 'Cause it's a bright color. So whenever a person uses it, other people will be sure to notice it and cast their judgments accordingly."
        Repetition. Builder of muscle, demolisher of spirit.
        "Be a good citizen," Irene smirked over the engine's rumble. "Eat hot dogs and pies and wash it all down with soda and beer. Read the Bible on the toilet to stay regular. Drive a big truck while bellowing the 'Star-Spangled Banner' and honking at the anti-abortion protestors gathered outside the health clinic. Adopt a bald eagle for Jesus. Have sex on top of a fireworks truck." She turned to face her mother. "Are you proud of me?"
        "Of course I am."
        "Then you're a fool. I'm a failure through and through."
        "You are not."
        "By my standards I'm a failure, which means that I am. It doesn't matter what anyone else thinks. I don't have to live with anyone else's assessment or opinion, just my own. I mean I've lost all this weight for what? Just to leave a better-looking body to bury?"
        The drive back to the single story home took, on average, ten minutes. Irene knew better than to waste baleful stares on certain sights around town, but more often that not her resistance was low. (Or her masochism was high. She vowed to determine the exact cause if and when she earned her life back.) Her old elementary school unfailingly turned the blade from steel to rubber. She yearned to revisit the place other people insisted her education began, to sense the changes that did and did not happen in her decades away. She longed to walk room to room as a means to close windows.
        "Just imagine how different life would be right now if people cared," she lamented, averting her gaze away from the man on the corner holding a placard announcing how much God loved the unborn.
        "People do care," her mother retorted, voice thick with thirst and exasperation. "They do want to help."
        "Sure, just not enough people and not enough help. I mean, my own sister…two-faced leopard cunt. I quit my job, she quits on me. That's fair? Is it? Huh? All I need's a hand, a foot. Up the ass, to the face."
        Spin and kick the side of the truck, punch a brick wall, hurl the bags in her hand as though participating in the hammer throw event at the Olympics, scream until her voice liquefied and burned a furrow from her throat to her abdomen. These were the urges she resisted en route from vehicle to building.
        Once Irene had made her way inside, she set the bags on the kitchen table and began the process. Cold items first, the milk and coffees, the meats and frozen snacks, then the canned goods, and finally the cleaning goods, the napkins and detergents. Irene performed the routine wordlessly and retreated to her bedroom.
        She took a seat on the edge of the unmade bed. Instantly, new temptations dropped down from the ceiling and popped up from the carpet. Having mastered the art of moderation, she could usually ignore them until they disappeared, frequently replaced with the twin peacocks of abstinence and indulgence. Both of their trains possessed allure, both appealed to her sense of vanity. Their arguments rarely deviated from the template, steps as familiar and dependable as those in a foxtrot or waltz, plumage swaying from one of the room to the other, until their only audience finally mustered the inner strength to choose: starvation or saturation?


        Weak resistance one day just meant she'd have to smash the reset button the following day. One relapse did not spell out the beginning of the end, a descent into some fat-lined pit she couldn't climb her way out of.
        Movement could assuage some of the horrible feelings. Irene popped up from the bed and walked briskly through the kitchen, not bothering to tell her mother as she left the house. She circled the block, sun warming her. She crossed the street and moved north, ignoring intermittent stomach cramps. Twenty minutes, almost all spent lamenting the ineffectiveness of her reinforcements. The deluge simply could not be halted.
        She returned to her mother's home, stepping over broken rocks and smashed timber. Reflecting on times agone twisted her spirit into constrictor knots, and it had to end.
        Across the street, a car door creaked open. A small, short smile for the small, short woman ready to climb inside. Betty was a busy body, a trouble starter, the embodiment of Irene's disgust with her current situation. She was just one of several women in the small suburb who staggered about, ornery and petty, their watchful eyes and wrathful tongues spying and snaring the weaker of the collective, keen on dragging them down into a thin white inelastic hell.
        The idea that Irene was living out the life she was meant to lead, the truth that failure was her destiny, that success was something that happened to other people, proved even more unpalatable to her than the idea of oblivion.  Yet she could not shake the feeling.
        The unbroken voice inside assured her that a "useless" person was not possible, therefore a "wasted life" was an oxymoron.
        The other voice, streaked with passion, kept hollering about the life a person desired compared to the life they deserved.
        Each voice screamed themselves absent once the chains began lifting the coaster cars. Each car would stop, some at different points along the track. Some were removed before the launch; others made it a few feet. Several took a turn too sharply, or vanished in the midst of a loop. Those lasting the circuit--to the end, to the beginning--were ostensibly the fortunate ones.
        Even if they did wind up staggering and sick.
        So many words, all hitting the two most vital targets with precise impact. Irene shuddered, placing one hand flat over her breastbone, counting exhalations until her nervous system stopped acting so, well, nervous.


        Eye contact mattered. No one explicitly told her so, she simply understood. Always let the other people on the street--especially the men--see your face just as you let them see yours. A sunny afternoon meant more bodies than usual in the square, but they would be moving quicker than usual as well…Irene, quickest of all.
        The resentment flared from her nostrils. Why did she have to move back? Why couldn't she have remained in Ferrisville, surrounded by people who had common sense and decency? Never once did the word "yeehaw" pass her ears, not even sarcastically. Three years out and in without a single shotgun blast. She lived less than one mile from her workplace, and almost as wonderful was the presence of a 7-11 one block over.
        Sheetz was eight blocks away.
        Irene had begun sobbing upon realizing that she had no choice. She explained to her mother over the phone--insisted, in her despair--that remaining there any longer than one year would bring about death. Irene had meant it literally, but her mother, unable to grasp more than one concept at a time, tut-tutted her youngest child's dire prediction away.
        Self-recriminations and bittersweet recollections powered Irene's legs along. She had blown through the suburb, one mile in toto, and then back. Her body yearned for more fire. On a whim, Irene took out her cell phone and dialed a cab. Five minutes later, she found herself at the intersection of West Washington and Jonathan Streets, near the fat-encased "heart" of the city's downtown, having already walked half of a mile. She was getting ready to retrace her steps when she spied a busker at the corner of Potomac and Frederick Streets, his guitar case resting near a street lamp. It wasn't his musical effort that stopped Irene's movements so much as his sartorial one: denim jacket, denim jeans. What a brave man.


        Irene had been given her last two jobs, both by the same woman. The first she had relinquished willingly, the second she had impulsively hurled away in disgust. With it went the goodwill and generosity of her oldest sister. The myth of noblesse oblige didn't surprise Irene, but the revelation that blood and water weren't so different after all--that had stung.
        "You like that, huh? Heh. I've been doing this for a year now, about time I got good. I've been all over western Maryland. First time here, though. It's a nice little downtown area. Shame it doesn't have much to offer people. Lotsa empty buildings. Is that a recent development?"
        Irene chuckled and stuck her hands in her jean pockets. "No, it's been pretty desolate down here for awhile now. Since the mid-nineties, really. Ever since Wal-Mart touched down."
        The busker scoffed. "Might as well make all these buildings offices and extravagant places to eat. But then," he chuckled, "where would a Joe like me go?"
        She guessed he was at most an inch taller than her; above his upper lip sat a sparse mustache that several elderly women could duplicate. Irene watched the resting streetlight, undecided.
        "I started out in front of that convenience store on Frederick Street. Didn't even make it a week before the police encouraged me to find a new spot to entertain people. I noticed the hookers are still there, though."
        "Well, yeah. The cops can get some use out of them."
        The busker's laughter smacked Irene between the shoulder blades. She watched as he placed his black flat-top on dress velvet and paper, listened as the lock snapped, but still she could not decide.
        "Walk with me? I'm just a couple blocks away with my nephew."
        Irene nodded, riveted by the white hairs shooting, like porcupine quills, from the perimeter of his ball cap.
        "Fantastic," he grunted, lifting the guitar case with his right hand before switching off. Irene appreciated that there wouldn't be a big bulky black thing to worry about bumping into.
        Half of the block was taken up by the Treasurer's Office and the Department of Assessments and Taxation, all brick, faux-gold and glass, a building Irene used to visit almost daily as part of her first full-time job. She frowned, even as the busker began speaking.
        "Four-oh-seven Potomac. That's where I'm at. Not a coincidence, by the way. Mind if I explain why?"
        "Sure." Irene tried to keep her voice light. He was friendly enough on the surface, and a walk was a walk.
        "Maryland Theatre," he announced, nodding to the right. "I'll be playing there soon if I keep it up, how about it? Okay, well, as I was saying. The reason why the address I'm currently staying at is not a coincidence, has to do with the fact that when I turned forty years old, I decided to start living my life in seven year increments. Every seven years would be a regeneration of body mind and spirit. You ever heard the old saying 'Life begins at forty'? It's true, absolutely true, if you want it to be. Then, it begins again. Forty-seven, fifty-four, on and on. I'm fifty-six, so I have five more years till I'm reborn again."
        "Forty is a very important age. It was when I realized I needed to start living life."
        The busker turned to face Irene and revealed a mouth mostly full of teeth.
        "They're both holy numbers too. Did you know that? Just pick up a Bible. The Great Flood went on for forty days and nights. Moses on Mount Sinai, forty days and nights. Moses himself, he lived in three distinct forty-year periods. That's a hundred and twenty years!
        "With seven, well, that's obvious. Seven days of the week, no matter what the song says. Seven days to create the Heavens and the Earth. It's all…nothing is random. There's rhythm to everyone that happens, even if you can't hear it."
        "I try and tell my nephew about all this. He just rolls his eyes and changes the subject. He's a good kid. I'm trying to convince him to learn the guitar. We could make a tidy profit out here. The street corner Indigo Boys!" He brayed, slapping his free hand against a denim-clad thigh.
        A weak smile strained Irene's skin. The pair had just passed a near-empty corner cafe and a vacant space that, in its former life as a used bookstore, had provided Irene with hours of distraction. She had been well into her life in Ferrisville when the owners closed up shop, and she took the news as further confirmation that she had escaped not a moment too soon.
        Why run on a broken leg?
        "Hey, miss. Pardon me but, why are you such a grumpy face? You should be a happy face. The sun's out! The birds won't shut up! How about it!"
        A pudgy, limp-locked woman approaching from the opposite direction gave the pair a considerable berth.
        The busker pulled once at the brim of his cap before shooting Irene an anticipatory look. She took a deep breath and, in a handful of tightly-wound sentences, explained her rash of poor decision-making compounded by even worse luck. At spiel's end, Irene took another meaningful inhalation of warm air, stuffed her hands into the pockets of her jeans, and waited for the repudiation from a stranger.
        His steps slowed so that Irene was a full foot ahead of him before she adjusted her own speed. She watched his face, watch it cloud over briefly before clearing.
        "Stop looking back! Mourning what was, what shoulda been, it's not healthy!"
        All words Irene had heard before, but never in such a loud, wheezy whisper.
        "You are one with the world here. The world here is one with you. How old are you?"
        She grimaced. "Thirty-eight."
        "Really? You don't look it, miss. Anyway, you are approaching the prime of your time here and you are not ready. At all. Because of an unearned sense of entitlement!"
        The feeble noise of protest Irene made only strengthened his case against her.
        "I need help," she insisted. "Just some help. I don't expect to have it all handed to me."
        "Uh-huh. Well either you gotta learn some patience or you gotta hunker down and decide you're gonna do it all on your own. Which is hard but not impossible. Your attitude right now, whew, your attitude is not at all bueno, and if you don't change it you'll never be happy. And being happy is the whole point of life, by the way."
        "I just--"
        "You expect everyone to care as much about your life as you do? That's not realistic. That's borderline insanity. No one will ever care about you as much as you. Not even family. No ma'am."
        Irene swallowed and swallowed, but the knot in her throat refused to budge.
        "While I'm in the habit of saying things you've heard before, here's one you ain't: when life hands you lemons, rub 'em in your eyes and let the citric acid go to work. And just like that, here we are."
        "Here" was a collection of bricks painted a sickly-yellow and stacked two stories high. "Here" was home.
        The busker pulled twice on the brim of his cap. "Thanks for the company, miss."
        Irene nodded, chagrined at having blurted so much of her personal predicament to a stranger. "Here." She reached into her shoulder bag and pulled out a five-dollar bill. "Have a good day, sir."


        Irene had the outfit ready: salt-and-pepper sweater, black dress pants. Inoffensive. Comfortable. She had purchased--no; her mother had purchased--the simple ensemble for just such an occasion. Bit by bit, her "fat chick" clothes were finding their way to the bins, replaced by frame-friendly attire that she trusted to tell the tale truer than any bathroom scale.
        Her mother, in a feverish attempt to improve her youngest child's attitude, once asked what company would want to hire anyone so relentlessly morose and negative. In lieu of pulling out a tooth with her bare hands, Irene explained that the world-weary mask was only worn when appropriate. Which just happened to be  most of the time. She knew enough, was still in enough control over herself, to be able to slip it up and off of her head when the time came to impress a potential paycheck-signer. The true Irene, the one who yearned to feel alive, would then emerge.
        Witness to the butterfly would be Horne & Sylvester, LP, an up-and-comer in local real estate located fifteen miles away from the Matheson residence in the Noland Valley Business Plaza. Irene spent most of the prior decade working in real estate, building a strong skill-set that made her a solid candidate for a data entry position. Her last bosses lavished praise on her performance, her speed and accuracy, her above-average comfort level with computers.
        Everyone made mistakes. Everyone got a second chance. Everyone knew that was the way of the world.
        "Why aren't you willing to make peace with the family?"
        "Nothing lasts forever. Things will turn around, they have to."
        "You'll be back on your feet. You've done it before. Remember?"
        Irene did remember. Constantly. Vividly.
        She stood still, gaze fixed on the bare wall, listening to her natural hum, imagining rippling red and coiled blue surrounded by fuzzy green and white.
        "Good morning. May I speak to Irene?"
        game voice.
        "Hello Irene, this is Becky from Sylvester and Horne. We received your resume and were wondering if you would be available for an interview."
        nowhere i'd rather be, nothing i'd rather do.
        "Great. Are you free tomorrow afternoon? We have times available from one to four-thirty."
        free. i am. it's a beautiful state. america in miniature.
        "I have you down for Thursday, two p.m. We look forward to seeing you."
        forward. with me.
        Irene stretched and glanced into the reflective glass before moving on to the kitchen. She grabbed one of the handful of bananas resting atop the fridge. It had been fifteen hours since the last one, and Irene knew she could not afford to go much longer without ingesting more solids. Such lengthy neglect, she'd learned (and re-learned), triggered the sharp palpitations, short breaths and general sluggishness that catapulted her into a self-cannibalizing panic.
        The trek to the bus stop was short, and the pollen-heavy air had a near-hallucinogenic effect. Passing a small group of beef-and-soda-powered natives, she felt the separation between them acutely. Down the steps and along the sidewalk, to the spot on the metal bench next to the 16 ounce cup of coffee attached to the man's hand. Suit, tie, distracted look…he had faked it and made it, a go-getter on the come up, and he was an exemplary citizen.
        Irene knew, she could be that man.
        As a woman, of course.
        Once she re-entered the working world, earning money, regaining personal agency, Irene would set aside a day to throw a party of one. Likely, that day would be a Saturday. There would be pizza, topped with black olives and pineapple and jalapeno peppers; there would be a trio of donuts, two creme-filled, from the local joint with the funky hours. There would be regrets, but even they would be searching her for stray confetti.
        And the day after--fruits and vegetables. The entire week after, in fact. Yellows and red and greens and the occasional shade of orange. Irene had it all planned out.
        She couldn't wait.


Originally published on Babbling Of The Irrational

          "Ideal weather" is a myth. So the absence of wind that night represented nothing more than a kindness to the sensitive skin of my face.
          Sometimes I feel an intense gratitude that I lack friends who can reach me in the proverbial "hop/skip/jump."
          "So what'cha been up to lately, Ally?"
          "Well, I watched a marathon of some ghost hunter show on TV, and while I'm pretty sure those guys are con men at worst and gullible morons at best, some of the stuff they do is pretty interesting. Like, trying to communicate with spirits? Anybody can try that. So I'm gonna try it, this Sunday Sunday Sunday. And if I dig it, I just might do it again."
          I can imagine the reactions--glances askew, snickers barely stifled. Understandable. At first, even I was aghast at my own ghoulish interest. The day after I decided to dare, I attempted to find sufficiently dissuasive reasons NOT to, worried that I would be disrupting a peace beyond my comprehension. But I stuck to my pop guns: I'm gonna go record EVPs in a graveyard near my apartment. An undertaking that while frightening on the face (to some) strikes me as banal. What's so special about being intrigued by spiritual plurality, of wondering about worlds beyond ours without discernible beginning or end?
          My curiosity has always bested my trepidation. (As my brother's since-age-eight till-age-whenever limp can attest.) I've been through thirty-two years of knowing that I know nothing much. People who say, with total certainty, that ghosts do or do not exist tickle me. How do they know? All we have are hunches, vibes, anecdotes, and severely limited study data. For every yes comes a no, for every no arrives a maybe, and let's be real, you can't even put twenty people in a room, show them a turtle, and get them all to agree on what color it is.
          Standing at the corner of 3rd and 4th Streets, St. John's Cemetery takes five minutes to reach, on foot. Coming from my apartment on 5th, I entered via the north gate. (The 3rd Street entrance is the main one, an attractive brick arch surrounding an iron gate.) Thursday 10 PM is never a hopping time around these parts, which was not only helpful for eliminating ambient noise, but kept me from feeling self-conscious about my gray sweatpants/sweater ensemble.
          Among the dead stashed within St. Johns are a handful of Revolutionary War soldiers, fifty Civil War vets, and dozens of men who fought in a World War. I agonized over the strained, haunted words I might pick up, the answers I didn't want. It bothered me--still does--to consider that physical death does not guarantee the serenity unattainable in corporeal form.
          I glanced over the gravestones, wondering: Are they occupying a placid paradise, a wretched inferno, or something else entirely?

          Some women knit. Some women hike. Some sell antiques, baked goods, advice, their bodies--anything to endure the crisis DU JOUR. I have no go-to release, not since a sobering doctors visit marked the beginning of the end of my passionate affair with fatty foods. I suppose I could have taken up smoking, or scrapbooking, but those activities involve me spending more money per week than I need to (not to mention leaving the house more than I want to). Whatever distractions I call upon, whatever decompression chamber I enter, I demand one-time payment and a one-person limit.
          Controversy only adds to the appeal.
          The more I looked into recording Electronic Voice Phenomenon, the more I couldn't resist taking a shot at it. Online are dozens of sites devoted to the pursuit, with "proof" in abundance. For craps and chuckles, I listened to some EVP files uploaded onto the Internet.
          EVPs fall into one of three categories. Class "A" recordings are the goal, the Grail--immaculate quality, words loud and clear. "B" recordings are much more common, apparently--audible, but in need of enhancement via computer software. Lastly are the Class "C" recordings, of such poor quality they'd be accurately deemed "steaming gobbledygook."
          No one who appeared to be a serious "hunter" boasted about capturing a "Class A," I noted. Some of the "B"'s were intriguing, but far from definitive proof of life after death. The "C"'s were the worst things I've heard outside of spoken Turkish.
          These websites have forums, of course, where believers and skeptics alike clash over the very idea that the dead can speak. One poster's passionate, paragraph-free retelling of a fruitful trip to an abandoned school (numerous Class B's featuring children's voices!) will be meticulously rebutted by someone drunk on 200 proof Logic, someone whose post will begin with some variation of--"Well, my Caspar-loving friend, there are all sorts of gadgets taking up valuable air waves, see…." He (I know, damn my assumptions) will then proceed to explain how static, rather than providing an energy that can be harnessed and utilized by otherworldly types for communication purposes, actually fools the listener into thinking they are hearing speech.
          The frequent rottenness of the faceless aside, doubters serve a grand purpose. Indeed, most of the so-called "evidence" for paranormal occurrences is easily explainable as entirely earthly. But, we must all remember--once people stop asking questions, they stop finding answers.
          One poster on a forum asked: "Do magnetic fields mess with the brain and create the illusion of apparitions or do apparitions cause the fluctuations in the fields?"
          A fair question, one that cannot be answered to the satisfaction of a critical thinker--that's all I needed.
          I went into this expecting nothing. So if "nothing" was what I wound up with--no skin lost. Still, in the interest of a good foot forward, I ordered the Spirit Box SB-11-8130 digital voice recorder after research convinced me it would be a nice device for an incipient hunter of residual energy.
          The Box was the only thing I took other than myself that night, clutching it in my right hand as though it received energy from the firmness of my grip. I traversed the  narrow concrete paths for a few minutes. The lack of wind kept the trees still; the grass struck me, alternately, as black or dark green or dark blue.
          Every dozen feet or so, I tugged at the hem of my sweater, hating how it tried to chum up with the flesh of my stomach. (My fault for inhaling a cherry fruit pie and glass of whole milk before heading out.)
          The dim moon rendered the floral arrangements colorless. I had to bend and squint to discern the names carved into stones. Although, really, the letters meant less to me than the numbers.
          Some depressed me (1865-1868, 1940-1987) but not as profoundly as the fact that human beings are not even equal in death. For every grave without a single flower is one with three baskets overflowing. For every stone lain flat along the earth is one shooting skyward, shiny and ornate, wider and taller, proving how loved the deceased were, how fortunate, how valuable, and how tragic their passing away was, so much more tragic than, say, Johnny Flat-Stone over there.
          A part of me--a considerable part, that part which still pulls at imaginary pigtails while ruminating over the reasons the 1980s represented the apex of American culture--hears the word GHOST and refers to the iconography of Halloween, those sheet-draped essences floating in the air, arms held out at the sides--kinda cute, kinda hair-raising, kinda not what a ghost really is, if a ghost really is. I suspect the dead continue on in a perpetual fog along staggered paths, no concept of time and no time for concepts. Once dead, we are nothing but what we were, and what we will be is no longer a concern, as it is no longer a possibility.
          I'd turned right, towards the 3rd Street entrance, when some limbo dweller shot a foot out, pitching me towards the pavement. Luckily I caught myself with both hands, saving my knees and/or head from even minor damage. A lesser broad would have tucked fuzz and Flo Jo'ed the scene. Being a greater broad, I took a few seconds to recuperate and proceeded towards the center of the graveyard.
          I was twenty feet from the main office building, mind occupied with thoughts as to what their carpet situation was like, when the next stupid scare happened. My cheek felt as if it had been struck by expectorate. I reacted in a normal manner, yelping and reaching out to grab some air.
          T'was a raindrop. Just a raindrop.
          I rubbed all four of my cheeks and peered at the peaks of the evergreens that looked so gorgeous in their daywear. A willow beckoned me from fifty feet away. It provided shade for a dozen or so final resting places, and I decided to make that my "spot."
          No sooner had my back hit bark, then the desire to acclimate myself to my immediate surroundings brought me onto all fours. I made my gradual way to the grave directly ahead of me.


          It didn't jut up from the ground; it was one of the humbler markers, belonging to a Driver 8 who took his final break the day before my big 3-0. I did not know him, he did not know me, but the thought that this evening's experiment might change that  somewhat imbued me with an embarrassing warmth. Anticipating a sinkhole's emergence, I scuttled backwards to the base of the tree.
          Reverie helped steel my reserve. I envisioned myself marooned on an island, just me, a tree and a jacked-up walkie-talkie. My jaw tightened from the yearning to hear the songs crooned by those trapped and timeless troubadours. The muscles in my forearms went momentarily rigid; I was overcome, briefly yet acutely, with the admixture of hubris, elation and dread that could only be felt by the last living person on the planet.
          Success depended upon presence. Negativity and aggression are to be avoided. Respect is vital. As there exist mean, untrustworthy people on the planet, there are bound to be specters of unpleasant demeanor, who might view me as a breather, a beater, with a sense of entitlement I'm too dense to appreciate, who might consider my visit as a sort of home invasion. (I would have been greatly tickled to pick up a "screw you, bitch.")
          A warm greeting, an icy threat, secrets tips and tricks, the location of the treasure--I had no clue what I would capture. I wet my lips, adjusted the hem of my sweater,  and switched on the Box.
          I asked each query calmly, leaving seven seconds of silence in between each, since it's my favorite number.
          "Anyone here?"
          "Hello. Hi. My name is Ally. Short for Allysa. Two L's. First time here, in case you were wondering. But enough about me. Who are you?"
          "Was anyone here an only child?"
          "Does it bother you that people step all over your final resting place?"
          "Does it bother you that many people doubt your existence?"
          "Is it better, where you are?"
          "Does anyone here in the air tonight know the Muffin Man?"
          "If Allan is here…do you have anything you'd like to say?"
          "Okay, that's all. Time to bid you fine folks adieu. Thank you for listening. And, hopefully, for talking."

          This life--this upright, uptight life--isn't so terrible. A world of spleen in the soup and gremlins on the wing seems appealing when ennui hurls a high 'n' tight one, but enough baleful glances from resentful sideliners has given me a profound appreciation of the old routine, moving from one chalky outline to the next, tapping and rapping with the other names and numbers.
          It was 11 when I arrived back at the apartment, the next pitch still a half hour away. (Had it been midnight, I still would have resisted the temptation of a thin thing under me and a thick thing over me.) I downloaded the recording onto my Mac. I knew nothing other than I would give it a fair listen. (I fancied myself impervious to the temptation of auditory pareidolia. I have no agenda, after all.)
          I'd grabbed some free audio analysis software from a site that took pride in assisting "ghost hunters on a budget." (How many multi-millionaires/billionaires unwind with trips to haunted houses/abandoned asylums/graveyards?) As anticipated, the majority of the 112 seconds was gobbledygook. Here and there, I thought I could make out short intelligible bursts, but I suspected I was indulging in wish fulfillment.
          Then there was 1:01-1:02. Within this second-long span, I heard a male voice "answer" my final question--gruff, gravelly, begrudging. I enhanced the audio; the extra filtering robbed the voice of its "charm" but made the "words" much clearer.
          Three words. The three that save the day, sweeten the pot, spin the world. Easy to say, difficult to feel…unless they're difficult to say, easy to feel.
          Everyone's different.
          I should be delighted to have captured a "Class B" on my first attempt. I'm not.
          Dead two years, and now he tells me.
          I've played that 1.2 second part 528 times in four days (per the exceedingly helpful software). I've reached the point of constant return, where I have to listen before my first coffee of the day and before my last conscious action of the night. Forget auditory illusions; I'm beginning to see things in the sound waves. Iced-over cauldrons, a mountain of unused trash bags, a dancing dog, a sleeping fish.
          Did I really hear what I thought, or only what I longed to hear? Strike that second one; I haven't craved that particular approval since I entered grade 9 and stuck the desire to hear him say a damn thing ever again underneath my desk like a tasteless wad of gum.
          At times I want to invite someone else to check it out, but, who? I could send the WAV file to a friend, with a minimum of preamble and no leading language, and then what? Emojis and memes. I could send the WAV file to a family member, but that would require I grudgingly acknowledge a blood tie. I could share the WAV file with strangers online, and then immediately begin slicing my wrists with used toothpicks.
          No. No to all of that. Whatever I heard, whatever I thought I heard, is mine. Simultaneously the best and the worst secret I will ever decide to keep.
          Before my maiden voyage, I was undecided as to if there would be any to follow. I know, now, with certainty.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Play MST3K For Me



Created by Wisconsin-born prop comic Joel Hodgson, Mystery Science Theater 3000 (for brevity, MST3K) ran for twelve seasons over thirty years. The first episodes (considered Season 0) aired in 1988 on KTMA, a local station serving the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. The Comedy Channel, soon renamed Comedy Central, hosted the show until 1996. The Sci-Fi Network gave the Little Show That Did a home for the rest of the decade. With the new century beckoning, the literal most futuristic show on TV no longer had a home.

And wouldn't until 2017, when a massively successful Kickstarter campaign allowed Hodgson to create new episodes for Netflix. The 217th episode aired on November 22, 2018. A year later, cast members confirmed the show's cancellation. After thirty years, three hosts, and two riffin' bots voiced by a grand total of six different men, the experiment was well and truly over.

I wasn't surprised; MST3K in any incarnation is destined to be, at best, a cult hit. Two mad scientists holding a janitor hostage on a satellite above the Earth, and foisting upon him the worst movies ever, films so reprehensible to the craft that he creates robots companions to join him in commenting on the onscreen action. (Or, as it's more commonly known, "riffing.") This is one of the medium's most unique premises. That it found one home, nevertheless four, is a minor miracle on par with Haribo confectionaries.

The show escaped my attention until early 1993, late in Season 4, when channel-flipping brought me to the sight of three silhouettes back-talking a stirringly amateurish…movie? Mistake? A Texas-based insurance salesman winning a bet? Yep, my initiation into the Mystery Science universe was "Manos" The Hands Of Fate. My fifteen-year-old brain was entranced by the mixture of smart and smart-ass contained not only in the riffs, but in the brief intermissions, better known as "host segments." Silly, satirical, totally in command.

From then on until the show's first farewell, I tuned in every week, although sometimes not for very long. Two hours is a lot to ask of a person, especially a younger person with homework and homicide on their mind. If the riffing didn't smack my chops by the first commercial break, I'd no qualms over trying my luck elsewhere on the dial. How many full first-run episodes I wound up watching in full is impossible to say, thanks to the capriciousness of memory, but between 60-70 is a good enough guess. And that's over six years. Watching all 196 episodes of Seasons 1-12 took twenty-seven years. Now there's a club for you.

With the lists to follow, I am less interested in settling classic fan debates, and more into offering my own takes. Whether these takes strike you as convincing or confusing is your own dilemma. (It's just opinions; relax.)


Untamed Youth, Ep. 112--Season 1's episodes tend to be slow on riffs and low on laughs. Getting through every ep is an endurance test many viewers will fail. Untamed Youth is the highlight, a showcase for Eddie Cochran's singing and Mamie Van Doren's buoyancy. Black-and-white teen flicks are gold in this format, and proof a film didn't need "mystery" or "science" to make for a fitting subject.

The Brute Man, Ep. 702--Starring Hagerstown's own Rondo Hatton, and prefaced with the endlessly entertaining short The Chicken Of Tomorrow, this should be an all-timer. Not so, thanks to a short-run time and a story that is both exploitative and enervating.

The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies
, Ep. 812--Didn't I almost have it all. A horror-musical fever dream whose writer/director/star looked like bootleg Nick Cage and directed like bootleg Enzo Castellari. He cast his wife as a dancer, and her tall, broad stature prompts a cannonade of transgender riffs. These riffs do offend me, but not for the reason you may think. I am no great fan of belittling trans people, but when an ostensible comedy show insists on being resolutely unfunny for a protracted period of time, I can't just let that slide.

Starcrash, Ep. 1106--A pre-Star Wars flick, this paid Italian vacation for Christopher Plummer also features such luminaries as Caroline "Dub Me" Munro, "Marjoe" Gortner, "Gross As Hell Like I'm" Joe Spinell and "David Hassel"hoff. Much of what I love about the Netflix era is here--relentless and clever riffing clearly delighting in its own existence--and some of what I do not love, also known as, those in-theater songs aren't as cute as they thought.


5. The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy, Ep. 102--Rough patches ahoy, dead air suffused with the smell of liver and onions. Josh Weinstein's failings as red, rotund robot Tom Servo (AKA "J. Edgar Hover") are obvious--monotone delivery made more for radio, fondness for turning the opening credits into the same tuneless song--but his comrades in castigating celluloid (Joel Hodgson as hapless test subject Joel Robinson and Trace Beaulieu as the cranky and clever Crow T. Robot) are still figuring out the field as well, though, so who knows where Josh would've taken Servo with more time.

4. Escape 2000, Ep. 705--The second incarnation of the crew--host Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy as Servo and Trace as Crow--shouldn't bungle 80s dystopian trash so badly. Just burn it and call it a day for night! Instead, there's less laughs here than in a NICU.

 3. Robot Holocaust, Ep. 110-- I so wish they'd let this leaky boat of spunk gravy set for a few seasons, it's painful hearing them cut large swaths of air with each tasty pitch to the plate. (Another of Weinstein's shortcomings: minimal puppeteering during the host segments, maximal puppeteering in the theater.)

2. Racket Girls, Ep. 616--Gross, loutish, onerous, wretched. Saved from the dubious honor of worst by the inclusion of the short film Are You Ready For Marriage?, a magical guide for Fifties youths considering jumping the broken glass.

1. Last Of the Wild Horses, Ep. 611--Great, it's a Western. "Ranch war" my ass, more like "ranch dispute." Barely audible, and if not for the Star Trek "Mirror Universe"-inspired host segments, totally skippable. I'd rather watch Earth Vs. Soup riffed by Joey the Lemur, Timmy, and Jim Mallon.


25. Teen-Age Crime Wave, Ep. 522--Gun rights, girl fights, generation gap gone gaga! Sharp incisions of low-effort "youth" flicks are always welcome. Of course the teens crime waving here are well into their 20s. The invention exchanges and fan mail just weren't the same after Joel's departure.

24. Master Ninja I, Ep. 322--Master Ninja II has the You're A Good Sport, Charlie Brown reference; I has Demi Moore (for a little bit) and more "Van" than you can stand. Two different pronunciations of Queen Latifah! Big-ass medallion! Crow's poor head! MASTER NINJA THEME SONG!

23. The Final Sacrifice, Ep. 910--Too low? Too bad. This isn't even the worst Canadian film the crew took head on (although it is the most Canadian episode). Pudge Dude and Snivel Boy, fueled by beer and daddy issues respectively, bring down a forest cult! Some of the movies torn into by MST3K are distressingly stupid, leaving the viewer demonstrably dumber and more depressed by the end. The Final Sacrifice is dumb in a way that invigorates the viewer. Watch just once, and see if you aren't left with "hockey hair of the heart."

22. Teenagers From Outer Space, Ep. 404--Enough of ruffians going thuggish ruggish on Mommy's bone china. How 'bout alien adolescents who treat Earth like one big garden? Super-sounding, certainly. Joel and the Bots comment on the cute carnage with a song in their hearts and the result is a board with a nail in it so big that one day it will destroy us all.

21. The Girl In Lovers Lane, Ep. 509--Member of a quite exclusive club--"Riffed Films Worth A Watch On Its Own." Not that those movies (including Kitten With A Whip, Diabolik, and Tormented) are unfairly maligned pleasures. TGILL, specifically, is a game effort with one compelling performance and the pointless murder of one very likable female character. The boys take this rotting apple and produce a whole succulent pie--and a quart of thirst-quenching cider. Their mess-talk on Big Stupid is worth the ninety minutes alone, and Crow's gut-busting imitation of Jack Elam really should be playing in some museum as we speak.

20. Avalanche, Ep. 1104--The Netflix MST3K was far from flawless. Too many writers, too many riffs delivered rapid-fire with no room for the camaraderie that marked the earlier incarnations. And while he's a nice guy with a commanding presence (6'5" guys in bright yellow jumpsuits blend into the scenery about as effectively as a Baltimore Oriole in a conspiracy of ravens), Jonah breathes a lesser air than Joel and Mike when it comes to hosting duties. (The puppets, let's avoid that topic.)

Season 11 was good for one absolute classic, a '70s disaster flick where everyone involved is too dumb to live. Turns out RIFF BOMBARDMENT! works when the jokes exceed expectations. Features far and away the most memorable host segment of the Netflix era, too.

19. Final Justice, Ep. 1008--Greydon Clark plus Joe Don Baker divided by 1985 equals a burlap sack spilling over with comedy quartz. Certain fans might find the constant weight jokes hurled at the sausage-sucking lead are too much of a bad thing. I am not among their ranks. Whoever keeps a straight face during the ending credits is simultaneously a stronger, and weaker, person than I.

18. Village Of The Giants, Ep. 523--Bert I. Gordon is a legend for several reasons, not the least of which is his distinction as the director with the most films riffed in the show's history. Eight in total, just a sampling of his oeuvre. What the man lacked in budget, and nuance, and common sense, he atoned for with ambition. Giants, and the problems they cause, is the plot for several "Mr. BIG" offerings, and if VOTG isn't the most substantive, that's because none of them are. It is definitely the most "starring a young Ron Howard," however, and if you replace Tommy Kirk with Dean Jones and make the ducks berate their nephews rather than shake it in the club, it's basically a Disney film. Smartly, Mike and the Bots save their scorn for a totally different film--Willow--while marveling at the glorious goofiness unfolding before their eyes. (This affection seeps out of the theater, evidenced in "The Greatest Frank Of All," a magnificent tribute to the finest second banana on the whole damn tree.)

17. Mac And Me, Ep. 1201--An homage to E.T., Back To The Future, and probably Gremlins, Mac And Me is the stuff snark-a-lot writing staffs salivate brooks over. That infamous wheelchair scene Paul Rudd punished Conan O'Brien with? Is like the third most batshit sequence in the film.

16. Mitchell, Ep. 512--On October 23, 1993, three extraordinary events occurred: Joe Carter's game-winning home run in the World Series, Nirvana's only live performance of "You Know You're Right," and Joel Hodgson hosted his last episode of MST3K. Wire to wire, this is a fluffernutter of a farewell, chased with an Old Milwaukee balanced on a CD of the Doctor Detroit soundtrack. Every time I watch Mitchell, the air in the room grows heavy with sweat and stubborn stains.

15. Jack Frost, Ep. 813--A burgoo of myth and folklore, only built for gallium bowls. The Mike/Kevin/Bill trio is noted for a more acerbic approach than the other trio combos before and after, chucking shot puts at the tragedies onscreen whereas Joel or Jonah-led teams settled for tennis balls coated in snot and wrapped in old newspaper. Russo-Finnish absurdity seemed to mellow 'em, though. Even Crow Bear's "Grr!"s are more heart-warming than bone-chilling.

14. Cave Dwellers, Ep. 301--AKA, the show digs in and gets comfy. A Conan The Barbarian retread with a baffling opening the guys parody to near-perfection, Cave Dwellers is fulla "unk"--lunk-headed, clunky, hunky, funk-faking and begging for a severe dunking. Might as well jump.

13. Devil Doll, Ep. 818--A super-sized Twilight Zone written by a Rod Serling no longer willing to humor Ray Bradbury's passive-aggressiveness. Such a creepy, vicious story, populated with repulsive bodies of various compositions. The riffing is like talking about funerals while watching a murder.

12. The Girl In Gold Boots, Ep. 1002--Sleazy Sixties road trip-turned-crime caper. Several moments rank in my hypothetical "Favorite MST3K Moments," including the Teleportation scene, the Hollywood montage, and anytime someone is singing. By and large, a bop.

11. Girls Town, Ep. 601--With real reform school action! When Mel Torme is the bad boy, Paul Anka is the dreamboat, and Mamie van Doren is the (27-year-old) teen girl on the precipice, it's gold or go home. I tell you these flimsy "teensploitation" films were made for some good old-fashioned verbal maltreatment. What else, what else…oh, am I alone in wondering why no one flips out over the Platters cameo here, whereas

10. Catalina Caper, Ep. 204--Little Richard in Catalina Caper is the stuff from which legends are gradually removed, while receiving frantic assurances no one holds them responsible. The only comedy riffed by the crew, the general consensus is, "a well-meaning, if ultimately underwhelming, experiment." Personally, this eppy is as charming as a robot's unrequited love and bright as Joel's jumpsuit. Don't bring your wet blanket to the beach, buckos.

9. Soul Taker, Ep. 1001--The '90s were a pretty good time for crap cinema starring Joe Estevez. There's a real good movie here, hidden somewhere in Robert Z'dar's jaw, or perhaps split in two and crammed in Joe E.'s armpits. A fun watch on its own, unmissable with some MKB added. Oh, and Joel pops by to say hi and thanks for all the hot fish. And to prove red>blue.

8. The Giant Gila Monster, Ep. 402--Immaculate intermissions, pointless movie skewered joyously, why am I the only one with this in my top 10? Put a knee up for the Mexican beaded lizard.

7. "Manos" The Hands Of Fate, Ep. 424--First is not always best, or best-remembered, but the nostalgia veil is real. Real pink, real ticklish. Manos is a film so all-points poor, even Joel gets flustered. Amazing one-liners pile up like slave wives on the pyre, including a 65-second tour de force via Servo near the end that, much like the Komodo dragon, can only be admired and feared. Preceded by Hired Pt. 2, the Empire Strikes Back of shorts-sequels.

6. Werewolf, Ep. 904--The '90s were a pretty good time for crap cinema starring Joe Estevez. A cornucopia of cringe spreads the length of the table top in this, the single greatest argument against Arizona statehood. No one is exempt from contempt, from the hairstylists and wardrobe department to the special effects team to every single on-camera offender, everyone here puts the "ass" and "eww" in "cast and crew." Adrianna Miles gives the most gleefully terrible performance across all 196 films, her thick accent and flat delivery the equivalent of an Everlasting Gobstopper for those of us with a sweet tooth for hideous acting. The well-earned takedown is overall marvelous, and there's no greater credits riffing possible.

5. Zombie Nightmare, Ep. 604--The pinnacle of the Mike/Kevin/Trace era is overlooked by the fanbase for reasons, shit, I can't say. A hockey-loving, metal thrashing mad bodybuilder did not give the world this deliciously distasteful fusion of voodoo, zombies, law enforcement corruption and hair metal just for it to regularly place outside the top 50 on fan lists. The troops goof masterfully over every icky inch of what is arguably the apex of Adam West's big-screen filmography (y'know, since Tim Burton's a jerk).

4. Space Mutiny, Ep. 820--There's some installments I find inexplicably adored. Pod People? Eegah? "No thanks," and "nice try." Space Mutiny is justly praised. A slow-starter, it builds like the muscles on the raging barrel of our protagonist. The hallmarks of bad movies from earlier eras abound, which is why the riff delivers, over and over. We as a species should not still be making movies so inept. And yet.

3. The Pumaman, Ep. 903--The musical riffs alone would put this in the Honorable Mentions. (When do I not want the flavor of bacon in a dip?) The unlikeliest superhero since, hey up to you, The Pumaman is a lame from nose to toes, and his spirit guide is somehow devoid of personality and a more fitting subject to center a film around. A bottomless treasure chest of humor.

2. Overdrawn At The Memory Bank, Ep. 822--Soft-focus public TV punishment for a crime corporeal beings cannot possibly commit. Raul Julia insists on acting to his usual standard, the plot is ahead of its time (ditto the anti-antieater agenda) and as often happens (see #1) the reach of the filmmakers exceeded their collective grasp by several hundred feet. Possibly the highest percentage of laugh-out-loud riffs in any episode. Even the fat jokes are brilliant. The sketches are good, except for "When Loving Lovers Love," which is genius and spotlights the breathtaking UST between Pearl and Brain Guy.

1. Time Chasers, Ep. 821--In the intro, I mentioned the two great arguments among "MSTies." Joel vs. Mike generates the most heat, with the former even anonymously throwing a log on the fire way back when. The Crow debate, although not as famed, is also a corker. Trace Beaulieu was the best puppeteer on the show, imbuing the li'l golden guy with personality in a few brief gestures. Bill Corbett, well, learning is growing, and growing is learning. Vocally, each man established themselves quickly and definitively. Crow is a careener of a character, and the conventional wisdom states fans must either prefer Trace's mischievous take or Bill's dramatic cynicism.

Using this list to determine my own stance is foolhardy. Numbers bounce funny. Joel hosted 86 episodes; Mike, 90. Joel's era accounts for eight entries on the "Best Of" list; Mike, fifteen. Put differently, 9.3% of Joel's episodes are among my favorites, compared to 16.6% of Mike's. So Mike is my choice for Host With Most? No. Joel is, easily.

At least the humans fought on an even field. Trace voiced Crow for 128 experiments, eighty more than Bill. The OG holds it down twelve times on the honor roll. New Guy, eleven. That's 9.3% of Trace's turns, 22.9% of Bill's. So…bully for Bill, he wears the Crow crown and all that, yes? Well…yes.

Again...numbers bounce funny.

Like 7/7/1777.

Like Werewolf, Time Chasers is a solid argument for cutting some of the loose thread away from the Yooo-nited States. Like Overdrawn, the story holds surface-level intrigue, with nowhere near the money or talent necessary to fulfill its potential. And when I think of Crow, I am inevitably drawn to the Crow of this one show, how vital he is to the storyline, and how only Bill's Crow--put-upon, abrasive, ready to hock on a baby if one's stupid enough to crawl within spit-shot--could pull it off. He's not guided by affection, or justice, he's just about staying upright and functional, so screw Joe Don Baker if he can't take a joke! 

It's awesome when the "victims" of MST3K can roll with the punches (even the low blows), and you can count the cast of Time Chasers among the cool kids. Why not? Thanks to the irritable intellectuals from the middle of America, their film will outlive several Best Picture winners.

If only they'd riffed The English Patient...

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Beauty Lies In the Lives

(Wherein I give my readers the fucking link like a Legend Of Zelda porno.)

Two chapters away from finishing novel number four, it helps to have other projects settling on the side, patiently waiting for some sublime occurrence of frustration, aggravation or out-out ennui, at which point a game will ensue (Rock-Paper-Scissors, Odds and Evens, perhaps a thumb war if the intermission's run especially long) and I will find myself ranking Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes...appraising another book-to-film adaptation...picking my favorite Sonic Youth live shows by era....

Wasn't my idea, y'all. But 2020 wants me to do more than snapping pictures of ducks in between creating root beer floats out of imagination and aspiration.

My all-time favorite racket-gang's had a pretty busy year, for being out of commission since 2011. Started a Bandcamp page to provide "a home to live SY recordings and unreleased, self-released or stray SY recordings." Celebrated the 30th anniversary of their most important album. Displayed the common sense and decency not required of great artists, but hey, great if it's there. Continued along the path of intelligent compassion by participating in a fundraiser.

SY's first-ever show in Portugal is well-known along gig collectors as the "Blastic Scene" bootleg (and is among the sets available on the aforementioned Bandcamp page) and boasts a killer setlist: nineteen songs from seven albums, starting with "Cotton Crown" and concluding with "Brother James." (Far from perfect, but I'd put up with hearing "In The Mind Of The Bourgeois Reader" three times in a row just to hear "Theresa's Sound-World" once.) If you look back at the Youth's concert history, their adherence (obstinace, some might say) is pretty admirable. When they played to promote an album, they played said album, a few select others from the vault, and rarely deviated. Unadventurous, eh, but it meant that after a few shaky first gigs to chase off the dust and spray off the rust, man became machine, blasting star showers.

(The most annoying misconception about Sonic Youth is they were no fun. I saw the band live 58 times, and the vast majority of those times, I saw them alive. Wide and high and alive. Get me?)

"Would you consider the Portugal show one of the best from that era?" Patrick asked. I said, sure, but then again, I've heard a lot of SY concerts, three times as many as I've seen.

"I'd love to see you put together a list of what you think the best by era are."

 So would I, sir.

These eras are determined by Patrick and I, DBA "The J&P Show." They would be different if we were discussing the band's recorded history, rather than their live history.

11/20/1983-Trier, Germany-Exhaus
1/5/1985-Movaje Desert, CA
8/1/1985-Cleveland, OH-Stache's

Baby Youth. Pre-SS Beat Patrol. Raw, rugged, raucous. Ruckus was brought. Mothers were fucked, and fucked right back. The Gila Monster Jamboree is impervious to nitroglycerin. The Ohio date marked Steve Shelley's first performance with the group away from the safety (?) of NYC. His presence on drums takes the band into the next phase.


4/12/1986-Austin, TX-Continental Club
9/15/1987-Chapel Hill, NC-Cat's Cradle
11/5/1988-Chicago, IL-Cabaret Metro

Lotta C's, wow. The Austin show was made available through the Sonic Death fan club, and the Chicago show is up on BC. All three of these represent the "golden trilogy" period superbly. Even just a decently-recorded show from this time puts me in the mood to make popcorn the hard way.


8/11/1990-Philadelphia, PA-Trocadero
8/17/1990-Hollywood, CA-The Palladium 
9/24/1992-San Francisco, CA-The Warfield

Oh the 1990s. My life turned Sonic, right at the start. My personal record of zero broken bones would've ended somewhere in here, if I'd the means to quash the concert cherry. Wild, wild, wild. SY kicked an inordinate amount of ass at numerous Philly shows, venue irrelevant. Why, couldn't tell you. This was their so-called "commercial" era, when Nirvana made people believe like-minded acts were also salable. Flawed logic, for sure, but the records are still great--and the concerts greater still.

Also, I am a sucker for banter, for all the introductions/observations/jokes/pleas, and the Hollywood show is an amazing admixture of "talk" and "walk." 


4/7/1996-Dusseldorf, Germany-Philipshalle
5/28/1998 & 5/29/1998-Los Angeles, CA-Veterans Wadsworth Theater  
2/27/1999 -New York, NY-Hammerstein Ballroom

The last gasp before the Gear Gear Theft. Before some douchenozzles went full-throttle and left the band without any equipment for the next show. Luckily, said show was a festival, featuring many Sonic Lifers whose generosity surpassed expectation. You think those pilfering chumps have ever received such largesse? Life's weird so, maybe, but I'm doubtful.

The German show is also known as "The Easter Show" and also the greatest Sonic Youth concert ever. Setlist is mostly offerings from Jet Set and Washing Machine, distinguished by the sheer number of songs whose recorded peak was reached that night in front of several thousand Germans. "Starfield Road" comes to the fork and paints each tine gold; "Washing Machine" is too good for clothes; "The Diamond Sea" is actually several different gemstones, loupe depending.

The first LA show has the band's blessing, but kids, that second show is every bit its equal. If you're like me, and regard A Thousand Leaves as the group's artistic apex, it gets no better.

The '99'er is a wonderful example of a "between albums" performance, snatching a little from (almost) every bowl. The staggering cover of "Blonde Redhead" isn't up to the original, but it's Sonic Youth doing DNA.


8/3/2002-New Orleans, LA-Tipitina's
7/1/2006-Portland, OR-Roseland Ballroom
8/12/2011-Brooklyn, NY-Williamsburg Waterfront

It's not how you start, it's how you finish, and Sonic Youth's final show on their home turf is more than the answer to a trivia question. Things were still hunky dory, at least in the minds of schlubs like me. We hadn't clue one the end was nigh.

No, that's a lie. We (meaning, me and a few of my friends) thought even while the show was ongoing that we were witness to something wonderful--and weird. Undeniably, on both counts. Look at the setlist! Then listen!

21st century SY punched up real pretty. The Tipitina's recording checks every box for me, and circled a couple for good measure. On the heels of a lackluster showing in Seattle, Portland '06 was and is everything I adored about the concert experience. I miss it, or rather some aspects. Circumstances conspire, and truths must be faced. I think that's why I documented so much of it, why I honor the compulsion to revisit those days...to prevent the mist from feeling comfortable in any role other than "guest."