Thursday, 22 February 2018

Winter Wonderland


The Winter Wonderland is staged in the parking lot of the school, Sunday afternoon, and I'm trying hard to work out why. It doesn't really seem to be about anything beyond kids having a limited quota of fun and promoting the school, but maybe that's all it needs to be. Furnished with the snow cone which is apparently stipulated in his contract, Junior wanders off to find his buddies. We stand and watch the snow slide for about a minute. Somebody invented a machine which makes snow, and they have one here today. There's a line of hyperactive kids climbing steps, then tobogganing down the snowy incline on the plastic sleds provided. It probably helps if you're twelve and haven't grown up loathing snow, or indeed almost anything cold, as I have.

There's a crowd gathered a little way off, and it's only a little way because the parking lot isn't particularly big. I can see very small children stood on a stage singing something religious. Bess and I make our way to the front, but the voices of the children are drowned out by their own backing tape.

Down past the school entrance, a line of tables has been set out with fun activities, but the whole thing is beginning to remind me of Fun Land from the first episode of Father Ted; and to further map the extent of my imagination, one table is manned by the science teacher who reminds me of Andy Dwyer from Parks & Recreation. He seems to remember us so we stop at his table, which is the only fun activity of obscure methodology. He has three trays of iced water and he invites us to probe each with a finger and to guess which is the coldest. They all feel about the same.

'One of them is colder,' he insists, showing us the labels, regular, with added sugar, and salt water. 'Like to take a guess at which is coldest?' he asks again.

I guess that it's salt, but I can't remember why - something about water taking longer to boil if you add salt when making spaghetti.
 
Salt it is, Andy Dwyer from Parks & Recreation confirms happily, because it freezes at a much lower temperature. He whips out a thermometer and shows us: fun and educational.

We wander off, past the face painting and into the school. The building is essentially a church welded onto a school because it's a religious institution - although thankfully not one of those which favours intolerance and brainwashing. It's a proper church too, and pretty big, not just some chapel or vaguely theological outhouse. It reminds me a little of Coventry cathedral and is conceivably of about the same vintage.

We look for familiar names in the alcove where the ashes of wealthy patrons are kept, without success. Our boy's grandfather is apparently here somewhere, as is his great aunt, Barbara Jean. It's odd to find myself attached to a family with relatives interred inside a church, like King John at Worcester Cathedral.

We walk up the aisle towards the altar, enjoying the stained glass and the organ music bellowing forth above our heads.

'That's what you want,' I observe, 'proper organ music, not piped crap from a CD or whatever.' I'm thinking of the Christmas service which featured kids singing along to muzak piped from a laptop.

The organ ceases.

We both turn and there's a man up there. He looks pissed off. 'I'm trying to practice.'

We look at him.

The church is empty but for the three of us, and the door was open so Bess and I didn't need to jimmy the lock in order to effect our entrance. We were talking, as opposed to shouting or singing sea shanties whilst howling with laughter and throwing up. I'm a little surprised the organist could hear us up there in the organ loft, or whatever you call it.

'There will be a service later if you'd like to come to that,' he adds without making it seem as though we would be particularly welcome. It sounds like an awkward afterthought from a man suddenly aware of his own knobesque qualities.

'Okay,' we say and leave.

Just beyond the slide, there's a patch of fake snow set aside for snowball fights and the like. We watch Junior stuffing snowballs down the backs of garments worn by his various school friends; and we notice a child whose anonymity I'll preserve by calling him Juan, son of a legitimate businessman who makes an honest living importing legal materials from Mexico. Juan is at a different school these days. I suppose his father is the man I'll need to see if it all goes tits up next time I renew my green card, if you know what I'm saying.

By this point we've probably extracted all the fun there is to be had from the Winter Wonderland. Junior is still busily terrorising his friends, so we go to the supermarket for cat food, then return thirty minutes later by which time even the kid is bored.

We go home, and as we pass through Olmos Park we witness some sort of medieval re-enactment deal unfolding, except it's all a bit brightly coloured and comical, and the costumes are like something from It's a Knockout; so the day hasn't been a complete waste of time after all.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

My Wife's Rock Group


It's Sunday afternoon and we're in La Madeleine, which bills itself as a French bakery and café. It's a chain restaurant which does a fairly good job of acting like it isn't - in so much as that the food is decent and suggests both human agency and the possibility of someone at head office actually having been to France. I usually have the chicken friand - as it's called - because pastry encasing anything savoury is a novelty in Texas and should therefore be cherished. Instead I have a croque monsieur with a parfait for after. I'm not even sure what a croque monsieur is, but I vaguely remember the name from French lessons at school.

The cashier has a strong French accent, which I find quite exciting. I make a mental note to introduce myself once I've been sorted out with coffee and everything. She will be the first French person I've encountered on this side of the Atlantic, and I will introduce myself as a fellow European. But the moment never comes. My Gallic cashier is busy and in any case, Bess has already spotted the other women of her rock group, which is why we are here.

Six months ago, Bess began painting rocks, decorating small stones with colourful mandalas of acrylic paint. It was something she'd seen on facebook. People have taken to painting rocks and leaving them to be found in public places. The idea is simply to brighten the day of some random stranger. Bess often protests that she has no artistic ability and can barely manage a convincing stick figure, but her recent efforts cast doubt upon such a claim. The first rocks she painted now seem primitive and unfinished, just cheery coloured spots in haphazard configurations; but she's kept at it and developed her talent, and now turns out pseudo-fractal designs of astonishing beauty and precision. They have the look of patterns grown upon the shell of a sea urchin expressed as a firework display. The random strangers who have found them in parks, malls, diners, or on walls have been mostly delighted and have expressed their admiration for my wife's work on facebook. Her fame has become such that the aforementioned random strangers now make specific requests for one of her rocks, even offering to pay. The problem is that such offers miss the whole point of the rock being something found and unexpected, a little bit of magic in what might be an otherwise colourless day for someone you will never meet. Nevertheless, we've now met a few random strangers in parking lots, encounters co-ordinated through social media with me tagging along just in case one of them turns out to be a nutter. Usually my wife will exchange rocks rather than just dish them out because it seems more fair and places the two parties on an equal footing, although those rocks she receives in return tend to score higher for enthusiasm than craft. Society being what it is, we've seen plenty of them decorated with poorly rendered Disney characters. I suppose it's the thought that counts.

Today is probably the next step up from an exchange of painted rocks in a parking lot, because there are five of us and we're in a café. As usual, I'm here for support, although thankfully the other three seem approximately sane, just middle-aged women who like to paint rocks. Examples of our work are passed around, notes are compared about what's been going on in the wider world of giving painted rocks to random strangers, and then they all get out their paints. This is something I hadn't anticipated. My wife is taking a class. She has become a guru.

I hadn't really given much thought to how long we were going to be here, but I didn't anticipate it being for much longer than it takes to eat a chicken friand and drink a coffee. I need something to do because I'm not a middle-aged woman and am as such perilously close to the perimeter of my comfort zone.

'Give him a rock to paint,' one of the women suggests.

Someone hands me a couple of small rounded stones and a brush. Bottles of liquid acrylic are being passed around the table so I take dabs of what I need - yellow ochre, black, cadmium red, a yellow of some description. First I paint the Mexica sun symbol representing the current age of the world by agency of the red and blue ollin glyph at the centre. It's the first thing that comes to me because I've painted it so many times. Next I paint a traditional gnome with beard, boots, and a tall conical cap. I feel that gnomes have been under-represented in much contemporary fiction, so I've written them into a few of my own things and they're never too far from my thoughts.

After twenty minutes or so we all seem to have enough done to show everyone else. Bess has been demonstrating her technique to the others. They seem to be getting it, although their efforts are not quite so polished.

'It's an Aztec sun,' says the woman to my left, and they all coo over my efforts.

'He's an artist,' my wife explains.

Technically it's a Mixteca-Puebla style sun that I've painted, but I'm not a dick so I don't say anything. Thankfully the gnome doesn't really require explanation.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Pest


According to my diary, it was Sunday the 15th of February, 1998. I took my four channel Tandy mixer around to Ed's house, along with a couple of effects boxes - graphic equaliser, compressor, that sort of thing. It was a pretty basic set up, but I expected it would do the job, even though the actual details of what the job would entail were unclear. Ed was in a group called Attack Wave Pestrepeller, an improvised noise thing, and on this particular Sunday they were going to improvise noise in Ed's kitchen accompanied by a group of madrigal singers. No-one quite knew how it was going to work, or if it was going to work; but the singers seemed keen on the idea, and if anyone had grounds for reservations it would have been them, given that Pestrepeller probably weren't going anywhere near the Figgy Pudding song.

I knew Ed because we'd both been involved with small press comics publishing, and then discovered further common ground in weirdy music of the kind which often prompts witless twats to opine I wondered when they was gunna finish tuning up. Ed's enthusiasm extended to his publishing a magazine called The Sound Projector, and he roped me in to write for it, although most of what I came up with now makes me wince. Ed and I had recorded together, and I gather he had formed the impression of my knowing my way around a mixing console, which I do; and additionally he had this band with Harley, another cartoonist, and Savage Pencil.

My introduction to music beyond the Beatles and whatever shit Dave Lee Travis was playing that week had been facilitated back in February 1980 when I started buying Sounds music paper on a weekly basis. By far my favourite regular features of the paper were the tangential cartoon strips drawn by lil' Alan Moore under an assumed name, and Savage Pencil's superb Rock 'n' Roll Zoo, which probably changed the entire course of my life. Rock 'n' Roll Zoo was hilarious, vicious, amazing, fucking stupid, resembled a drug-addled scrawl, and couldn't be arsed to come up with a punchline half of the time; and I would probably still be hailing Savage Pencil as the greatest cartoonist of his generation had I never had the misfortune to meet the miserable fucker. As of Sunday the 15th of February, 1998, I was yet to meet the miserable fucker, and was therefore understandably excited to find myself in the immediate orbit of someone whose work I'd admired to the point of adoration.

Despite being mildly starstruck, I managed to contain my enthusiasm when introduced to Mr. Pencil who, after all, was really just some bloke Ed knew. I refrained from explaining how oh darn - my tail's fallen off again had probably been the greatest punchline in the history of graphic arts, or how he was probably directly responsible for my ever bothering to draw comics in the first place, because it would have been undignified and I didn't want to embarrass the guy. On the other hand, maybe that's what he actually wanted. It was difficult to tell. He was this little bloke, kind of rounded with a massive, grey beard and eyes suggesting sleepless nights - the self-made grumpy hamster of outsider art. He didn't look particularly happy and he didn't say much, at least not to me.

He had a Moog synth so I plumbed that into my mixer, then added Ed's Hammond organ - or whatever it was - and then Harley's guitar, assuming I correctly recall that he was playing a guitar; and there was a single microphone for the madrigal group at the other end of the kitchen. It was going to be chaotic, and my job was to attempt to maintain some sort of balance. The internet describes it thus:
Savage Pencil conceived the idea of combining the fearsome noise of Attack Wave Pestrepeller with the voices of madrigal singers. The idea was to combine two different sounds, but also two different approaches to making music; the singers, who could sight-read music, would be forced to improvise and sing without sheet music to guide them. The idea was tested in Ed's London kitchen, causing maximum distress to the neighbours for long, painful hours. The five singers struggled to be heard over a cacophony of feedback, organ drones and bitter grunts from Sav's Rogue Moog synth, although the handheld tape recordings of the sessions magically extracted the true essence of the event.

I'm thanked on The Cruel Sea, the CDR they released of the recording, although not thanked in the specific sense of having been involved. The magic which somehow just came about, perhaps as a sort of interference pattern resulting from the proximity of such fucking massive talents all in the same place, was, I might argue, essentially down to me keeping Savage Pencil's synth at the same volume, despite his turning the fucking thing up a notch every time I brought him down, so as to allow whatever the others were doing to be heard. Bizarrely, the Pencil seemed to appreciate this.

'He's very good, isn't he?' I heard him mutter to one of the others, marking my apparent graduation from just some cunt Ed knew to a person who is able to do things. It would have been nice for this to have been acknowledged in the above account. I feel somewhat sidelined by the suggestion that what you hear on The Cruel Sea occurred just by agency of some crazy magic, but never mind.

Anyway, we all went to the pub, because that was what we did in those days. The neutral environment seemed like it might be more conducive to conversation with my sullen hero, but it wasn't to be. I spoke to his wife, who was lovely and possibly long suffering. I spoke to himself and he ignored me. Being two decades past, I can no longer recall what I said, but it was almost certainly something safe, possibly something about the synth he had brought along, but he nevertheless ignored me. I made two or three direct addresses, at least one of which was tagged onto some utterance from elsewhere across the table. In each instance he looked directly at me for just a moment, then spoke to someone else, mostly prolonged name dropping from what I could hear. His voice took on the world weary drawl of a retired colonel or some jazz wanker. 'Yes… that was when I went to Los Angeles to interview the Grateful Dead...'

Realisation dawned upon me that for all his talent, the cunt wasn't actually worth talking to, and that contrary to assumptions, I wasn't amongst friends.

This is why you should never meet your heroes, I told myself.

They always turn out to be arseholes.

Every fucking time.

Then I count all of the heroes of mine whom I've met, some of whom I now count as friends, or at least chummy acquaintances, and I realise they don't always turn out to be arseholes.

It was just him.

Friday, 2 February 2018

High Society


We're driving along a certain road through Alamo Heights, and we're driving slowly because it's dark. The road winds down a hillside and Bess snatches glances at a map she has displayed on her phone. We pass another road on the left, a junction with bright lights illuminating expensive cars tended by smartly dressed men. The scene suggests valet parking, which is what we're looking for.

'How do we get back there?' Bess is trying to make sense of the directions given by her phone.

'We turn around,' I suggest.

We do so, returning the way we came, passing the junction of brightly lit motor vehicles before taking a right.

'What are you doing?' I ask. 'It was back there.'

'I don't think that was the road.'

'Did you not see all those cars?'

'Yes, but that wasn't their address.'

'No, but if their house is on a corner - as that one was - then it will be alongside a second road other than the one given as the address,' I explain, fully aware of my having begun to sound like Peter Cook. 'I therefore put it to you that we've just driven right past the place we're trying to get to. Turn here.' I point.

We approach the cars and the lights from the other direction.

'This must be it,' I say.

'I don't know.'

'That's valet parking if ever I saw it, and the invitation said there would be valet parking.'

'Okay.' She winds down the window and asks the guy who is about to open her door. 'Is this the Pace residence?'

He smiles and confirms that it is, and tells us he will be happy to park our vehicle.

'No, we just wanted to know we had the right place.'

'Let's just go with the flow,' I say. 'You saw the streets around here. We could end up having to park miles away.'

Bess concedes the point. We get out and a complete stranger climbs in and drives our car off around the corner, albeit a well-dressed complete stranger.

Some years ago, back when I was living in England, I developed a fascination with Mexican culture and by association a taste for Mexican food. I made my own salsa, but more often than not I'd buy a jar from the local supermarket because it would keep longer. I favoured Pace brand salsa, which was slightly harder to find than the better publicised version made by Old El Paso, but actually tasted like salsa; and now here I am, roughly fifteen years later on the other side of the planet, arriving at the home of the Pace family because our kids go to the same school. This is one of these things I could never, ever have foreseen. Pace were bought out by Cambell Soup in 1995, but it's the same family, and that's why they live in such a huge house, and why their parties offer valet parking.

I know that America has a class system, contrary to the claims of the recklessly idealistic, but I was never convinced of it being a direct correlation to anything I remember from England. Alamo Heights is full of what I'm told are the American upper classes, but mostly they just seem to be regular yahoos with too much money. Take away the big house and the superfluous ceremony and you're still left with some grunting knacker stood in Walmart in his pyjamas stocking up on beer and Funyuns; but I now realise I have it wrong. It's Christmas, and the Pace house is decorated with the extravagance of a department store, but it's kind of tasteful with not a ho-ho-hoing animatronic Santa to be seen. Inside the house, the walls are covered with art, actual canvasses - mostly abstract expressionist - and the guests hail from some demographic other than the cigar and face lift set which doubtless still clog up PTA meetings at the San Antonio Academy.

Junior rushes off in search of other kids, and we say hi to Ava, the daughter who knows our boy from school. We always try to encourage their friendship because Ava is intelligent, a good influence, and she doesn't take shit from anyone. She's shot up this last year, tall, skinny and a little awkward, but she's a great kid. Everybody loves Ava.

Bess introduces me to Ava's mother. We've met before but it was brief and a long time ago. As we talk, my initial impressions are proven. These people may have a ton of money, but they read books and are able to converse on subjects other than ball games, taxes, or favourite Disney character. I present Mrs. Pace with a pork pie, introducing it as an English delicacy, which I suppose it is because you can't buy them here, at least not without having to spunk away seventy dollars on refrigerated postage from some artisan mail order operation. I only ever want one pork pie a year, usually around Christmas, but my craving has been such that I've ended up making them myself. This has been quite an undertaking given that the required hot water pastry can be a bugger to work with. As I present Mrs. Pace with the pie, it feels as though I have lapsed into a peculiar east-European accent.

I bring you a gift from my people.

'It's supposed to be eaten cold,' is what I actually say. 'Maybe with pickled onions and some cheese. It's a traditional Christmas morning thing.'

I get the feeling she's slightly bewildered by my offering, but nevertheless hurries off to place it in the fridge.

Bess and I mingle in search of food. There's a huge silver platter piled high with what turns out to be jam sandwiches - a surreal effort most likely aimed at the younger guests. An eccentric cubbyhole below the staircase has been converted into a bar, so I grab a glass of wine, and we head for what seems to be the dining room. Music is provided by professional carol singers in pseudo-Dickensian atire, three of them giving voice in the doorway of what is probably the living room. I suppose it's a little hokey, which is true of most things associated with this particular holiday, but at least its not some fucking soundbar belting out Jingle Bell Rock, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas or any of the usual festive atrocities.

'You remember, Ty?' Bess tells me, propelling me towards a tall, cheery man of a physical type resembling a classical Greek hero and with a proud head of curly locks.

'Of course,' I bellow happily as I shake his hand. 'You have a lot more hair these days!'

He's glad to renew our acquaintance but seems puzzled by my comment, and about ten minutes later I will come to a realisation that actually I don't remember having met him before, and I thought he was Mr. Bertha, our boy's similarly statuesque but shaven-headed teacher. Never mind. It's Christmas, and we've all had a few.

The buffet seems an odd selection, as though some crucial element is missing, but it's smoked salmon and caviar, amongst other things, so I'm not complaining. We fill our plates and head outside into the garden. Ava passes in the dark with an entourage of pouting girls, and the boys are similarly arranged in their own small groups, daring each other to perform retarded acts near the fountain.

We head for the garage and watch Santa doing his thing for a little while. A sequence of small children are ferried to his knee for photo opportunities, and I'm not even grimacing. Maybe it's the wine. I have another glass and we go back inside. We look at the art, and I try to explain abstract expressionism to my wife, about how the painting is a thing in itself rather than a representation of something else, about edge tension and surface and all that good stuff. It's been a while since I found myself having to think about any of that kind of thing, and Bess isn't convinced.

Eventually, we're partied out, and we find the boy wandering around on his own, which is more or less what we've been doing too. We leave and our car is driven around to the front gate for us. We've probably managed about an hour, but I didn't hate any of it, and that's good going for me.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

A Christmas to Remember


This Christmas, morning begins at seven with a trip to the Methodist Hospital over at Stone Oak.

[material I probably shouldn't repeat on the internet omitted]

We are back at the hospital in the afternoon. Entering the lobby, we notice the man we saw earlier. It was about eight and he was sat in a wheelchair at the main door with a couple of bags across his knees, presumably containing his clothes. He's black, about my age, and with the kind of mutant dreads you associate with homeless people, matted flaps of hair jutting out from the back of his head. He didn't look too happy, but nevertheless muttered a Merry Christmas as we left because it was Christmas morning.

That was seven hours ago. He's still here in the lobby and it's now three. He's stood by the phone, no longer in the wheelchair, and I recall my own checkout from a hospital a couple of years ago. They sat me in a wheelchair and wheeled me to the door. I could have walked but it was something to do with insurance, fear of patients tripping and braining themselves whilst still in the care of the hospital.

[more stuff excised]

Back in the lobby, Charlie is still there. He never gets around to telling us his name so I'm calling him Charlie.

'We can't leave him here,' I suggest. 'It's definitely the same guy.'

Bess can see no member of staff, no-one we might ask about Charlie or what's going on with him. Christmas has transformed the hospital into a ghost town.

We approach him with caution. He wears a military shirt and is almost certainly a veteran. His eyes are a bit wild, but it's to be expected after such a length of time spent in the lobby, presumably waiting for a lift home. His stomach hangs from the lower part of his military t-shirt, a weird slab of flesh, a flap draped like a curtain with a really unsettling central crease, something you don't want to see. It's as though a mad scientist has grafted an extra bum onto his front. For me at least, it rules out the possibility of asking what's wrong. I probably don't want to know, and he probably wouldn't take much pleasure in telling anyone. He has teeth missing and speaks softly with a brutal lisp, just muttered words - something about a taxi or a phone not working. That's why he's still here.

'What are you doing at the hospital?' Bess asks, and he mumbles something about pain killers.

We deduce that he's from the eastside. That's where he would go were a taxi available or if the phone were working.

'You want a ride?'

He shuffles after us. He isn't so quick on his feet.

'Maybe you should drive the car around,' I suggest, and Bess goes off across the parking lot as Will and myself wait with Charlie. It's hard not to wonder whether or not this is such a great idea, but the fact remains that the guy is clearly in a bad way and we're able to help, so that's what we have to do. Bess pulls up to the kerb, and I open the front passenger door.

'You're going to have to give us directions, so you probably need to be up front,' I tell our man, and he silently folds himself into the seat, which takes about a minute. We have his bags of clothing, and Will and I get in the back. Charlie pongs a bit, nothing specific, just the bouquet of not having washed in a while.

'So where do you need to go?' asks Bess.

'Rigsby,' he tells us.

'That's the eastside?' I ask.

'It's a bit of a way,' says Bess, 'but not too far, I guess.'

We drive in silence.

'Are you from San Antonio?'

'Yes,' he says.

We pass the Cornerstone Church, then take a left heading back towards the city. We're presently on the northside, I remember.

'Where does Sid live? Isn't he on the eastside?'

'West,' Will tells me.

'Oh that's right, over by Hollywood… er Holly —what's the name, you know that lake out there?'

'Woodlawn Lake,' Bess says.

'He used to run all around that every morning,' says Will. 'You remember that?'

We talk about Sid and his running for a couple of miles, and how we need to go over and see him because it's been a while.

'You know I spoke to him the other night?' Bess says.

'How is he?'

'He's good. He was asking about my mom.'

'Going into a bit too much detail,' I remind her.

Bess laughs. 'You know, old people stuff…'

'He was asking about MI5 and Scotland Yard.'

'What?'

'He asks me every time. I suppose it's because I'm from England. He asks me about MI5 and Scotland Yard. I don't know what he wants me to say, or why he thinks I'll know anything.'

'Well, it has to be better than asking about the Royal family.' Will laughs. He has a fine laugh, soft and high like the cooing of birds, and very genuine. There's a gentle, Carl Sagan quality to him and he laughs a lot. He has a bone dry sense of humour and apparently not an ounce of malice in him.

We drive on, attempts to draw Charlie out of himself, even to put him at ease falling flat, so we talk amongst ourselves. We pass Fort Sam. Will indicates the opposite side of the road. 'We used to live there. There was an apartment complex before.'

'I thought it was—'

Will laughs. 'We did. We lived everywhere. We used to move around so much.'

'You were in the army,' Bess tries. 'Were you at Fort Sam?'

Charlie makes a noise in the affirmative but nothing further.

We turn left onto South New Braunfels.

'It's some way yet?' I wonder out loud.

'Rigsby is over there. Still a ways to go.' Bess asks Charlie where he went to school, then mentions her own schooling. She knows the area east of the city. She's trying to put him at ease because the silence is getting weird.

We cross a major bridge, one that I recognise.

'Stephen has his garden - like his allotment thing, here some place,' I say.

'What's that?' asks Will.

'Our neighbour, Stephen,' says Bess. 'He runs some garden.'

'He teaches kids, that sort of thing,' I say casually, and in my head I'm leaning forward to explain, Stephen is our friend, and he's a black man like you. That's because we're nice white people, not like those others. The situation is getting weird and awkward, and my imagination has turned Charlie into the grim-faced black dude in a Robert Crumb cartoon, just waiting for the ordeal to be over. He probably thinks we're going to take him somewhere, fuck him and eat him. I seem to recall reports of racist attacks made by random white yahoos emboldened by the thought of one of their own presently stinking up the White House. Maybe that's why he's so quiet.

'Left here,' Charlie says, which is confusing because Rigsby is straight ahead another couple of miles; but Bess makes the turn.

'Pull over,' he suggests, then almost barks, 'Stop right here!'

I get out.

He gets out.

I hand him his bags and he stumbles off without a word, back the way we came rather than towards Rigsby.

'Take care,' I suggest, somewhat redundantly. 'Happy Christmas.' I get back in the car.

Bess turns us around and we head back towards our own neighbourhood.

'Well that was something,' I suggest. 'He didn't even say thanks.'

'Rigsby's in that direction,' Will chuckles as he points. 'You think maybe he had enough of us?'

'Perhaps he thought we were abducting him,' I say. 'Tonight we'll turn on the news and see his photograph during a report on three white people now wanted for questioning.'

'Did you hear him?' Bess deepens her voice for the impersonation. 'Stop right here!'

'Maybe he didn't want us to know where he lives. I still can't believe he didn't even thank you.'

Bess laughs rhetorically. 'Oh I'm sorry - did I just drive your ass twenty miles out of my way across town for free?'

'You think he even had money for the taxi?' Will wonders.

'Naaah - that drive would have cost him a bunch.'

We speculate on what Charlie's deal could have been, how come he ended up in a hospital on the other side of the city. We even consider that Charlie could be making his way back to Stone Oak right now, returning like some nutty salmon for another day of hanging around looking like a guy who needs a ride, for reasons only he will ever understand. Maybe he didn't even need a ride. Maybe someone dropped him off and he was just hanging around, unable to communicate his need of medical attention.

'Well,' I say, 'it's certainly been a Christmas to remember...'

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Some Spider Grandmothers Do 'Ave 'Em



Aliksa'i. People were living at Oraibi. Lots of people of the Hopituh Shi-nu-nu were living there, but our story is concerned only with the family of Hawiovi, that is Hawiovi himself and his long suffering wife. Her name was Honovi which means Strong Deer, which was lucky because the name of her husband had the meaning Going Down the Ladder and it was said that this seemed appropriate only because had he gone up the ladder, he would certainly either have fallen off or dropped something on the heads of those stood below.

One day it transpired that the Spider Grandmother had given Honovi a child. Her belly was a little bigger than usual, and it is also true that Hawiovi had recently found her thighs to be a little more pale than usual, because that is how such things work. All the same, being with child, she continued to grind her corn and to weave her mats. Many times would the moon pass before she had to seek a blessing from Tawa, the sun.

'You should be careful,' said Hawiovi full of concern, because he was ever full of concern. On this day he seemed to be full of a quite unusual quantity of concern. He stood at the entrance of the dwelling and it seemed as though he was dancing upon the spot. He held his headdress in his hands, mashing it and spinning it around as though it were a wheel. His face was like that of a child looking at the moon for the first time. He looked all around. 'Ooh Honovi,' he said for no obvious reason and bit his lower lip.

'Honestly, Hawiovi,' said his wife, 'sometimes I think it is you that is having the baby and not me. You do worry so. Tell me what is on your mind?'

Hawiovi's face became full of blood as the truth was divined, or at least as it was divined that there was a truth which might be uncovered. He started to laugh and his laugh was like the gurgle of a child, but then he held up his finger as though about to make a point. 'I cannot tell a lie,' he said. 'I've been having a bit of trouble.'

'Trouble, Hawiovi? What can you mean?' It seemed that although Honovi had asked the question, she didn't really want to hear the answer.

'Well, I don't like to say,' said Hawiovi with difficulty. 'Can we just say that the Spider Grandmother has not wished to speak with me in a long time.'

'Oh dear,' said his wife. She knew the ways of her husband, how he would say one thing and mean something else. She understood his problem very well.

It is known that sometimes when the Spider Grandmother wishes to speak with us, she makes us feel as though we want to defecate. She then talks to us once we are about our business, because this is the time when we are nearly always alone.

Hawiovi went to see Wikvaya, the medicine man.

'What seems to be the problem, Hawiovi?' asked Wikvaya as he prepared a pipe. 'Is everything well with you at home?'

Hawiovi stood at the entrance of the sweat lodge and it seemed as though he was dancing upon the spot. He held his headdress in his hands, mashing it and spinning it around as was his habit. His face was again like that of a child looking at the moon for the first time. He looked all around. He made as though to giggle, but instead said, 'Having a baby.'

'Well, that is good news,' Wikvaya said, casting his eyes upwards in silent thanks for such blessings as are given by the Spider Grandmother, then before he could ask more, Hawiovi was already speaking.

'I've been having a bit of trouble, but I don't really like to say...'

'Come, come,' said the medicine man, 'we are both men of the fourth world. There is nothing you could possibly tell me which might cause surprise. I'm not some Navajo, you know.'

'It's down there.' Hawiovi pointed with a finger, indicating his personal areas. 'It won't come out.'

It seemed as though there was the sound of riotous laughter in the air, and it continued for several minutes. Wikvaya wore an expression of great shock on his face. His mouth was open and his eyebrows were set high upon his forehead. He seemed to think that Hawiovi had claimed to be with child, but Hawiovi's complaint was that he temporarily found himself unable to defectate. That was the root of their misunderstanding, and the two men spoke at crossed purposes for a long time. Had the misunderstanding been resolved sooner, they might have seen the funny side, but instead they experienced only frustration. And here the story ends.

Friday, 12 January 2018

A Cheerleader for My Teeth


It's cold and windy in San Antonio, which is strange and depressing. I'm cycling to meet a dental appointment which has been brought forward an hour from four to three for some reason. Additionally annoying is that the Texas hill country seems to begin right at the end of my road, meaning my thirty minute ride comprises a sequence of exhausting humpbacks; and yet somehow I make it, bang on three o'clock. The waiting room contains many more elderly people than I am accustomed to seeing here. Usually I'm the only person waiting, but then usually I see the hygienist at four.

Prior to my moving to Texas, I was on the verge of losing most of my teeth. I had pockets extending down into my violently receding gums of over a centimetre's depth, which most dentists will tell you means you're screwed. My gum disease was raging out of control and most of my teeth were loose as the bone support crumbled. Happily, I was treated by one Dr. Stalker soon after I got here, a miracle worker so far as I'm concerned. He operated on my gob, removed those teeth which were beyond hope - mostly from the back - and performed some kind of dental magic by which the bone support was restored to those remaining. I am left with sufficient quota of newly stabilised choppers to be able to eat and to chew. The gum disease I've had most of my life is entirely gone, and those pockets have all closed up - which another dentist once told me would never happen once they were beyond seven or eight millimeters depth. Now all I have to do is to keep them in shape, to brush and floss, and to come back for a proper clean every couple of months, just to be on the safe side and to keep on top of things.

I sit in the waiting room for fifteen minutes. One of the staff emerges from my usual treatment room, presumably a hygienist. I don't recognise her, which is odd. She escorts an octogenarian patient as the woman's husband rises from the chair next to mine. They talk about Christmas, the usual stuff. It emerges that the couple have been married for sixty years.

'So what's the secret of a successful marriage?' the hygienist coos. The old guy mutters some reply and they all laugh.

'This is very nice,' observes the old woman, touching a branch of the miniature Christmas tree on the reception desk. 'Who did this?'

'Some of the staff, I think,' says the hygienist.

The old couple leave and she turns to me. 'Mr. Burton?'

I follow her to the treatment room as she tells me how she just loves old people, then explains that Rebecca - the woman I usually see - left a couple of months ago. She introduces herself as Sabrina. This troubles me because I liked Rebecca. I felt we understood each other, and she seemed like a genuinely interesting person. One wall of her office was hung with one of those digital picture frames which displays a cyclical sequence of snaps. Rebecca's photographs were of herself and her husband on holiday in Arizona, France, Spain, England, Mexico, and other places. The slide show provided a pleasant distraction from the metal spike she would work around my gums, chipping out the tartar which my brushing hadn't been able to reach. The digital picture frame is gone, and Sabrina seems significantly younger. She talks like Regina George from Mean Girls. Her voice is such that I expect to hear her say oh my god I mean I was all like seriously? and she was all like whatever, but instead she asks, 'Where are you from?'

'England.'

I take to the chair and Sabrina gets to work.

'How are you with the sonic?' She means the device with which she intends to remove my tartar build up.

'I'm okay, I guess. I prefer the manual thing, you know?'

'Raise your left hand if I cause any discomfort.'

'Okay,' and we're off.

She hits a sensitive spot every few minutes. Each time I jump so much as to make the raised left hand a redundant statement of the obvious. Sabrina talks as she works. She has a face mask and I can't understand a fucking word. It sounds as though she just said something about a skeleton cap, whatever that is, and I think it was a question. There's an irrigation pipe hooked into my mouth drawing out the liquid, but right now she's holding it in one hand.

'I can't understand what you're saying.'

She pulls the mask down. 'You need to suck on it like a straw.' She sticks the pipe between my teeth. 'Now close your mouth.'

I do so and the vacuum is such that it sucks my cheeks in as it removes all the blood, saliva, and whatever else. The sensation is fairly unpleasant.

She pulls out the tube and I sit up, looking for the glass by which I would ordinarily rinse out my mouth. It's not there. It hasn't even been replaced by anything. The space it would customarily occupy is empty. 'What happened to the
,' - I wave a hand because I'm not sure what it's called.

'Those are gone now. They were unhygienic.'

I think about this, a future with no more rinsing out my mouth in the usual way, just Regina George stood over me with her tube. Still, I suppose that's progress, and it makes sense. I always wondered about those people from the local leper colony forever wandering in and having a cheeky swig from my glass.

Sabrina tells me she has a friend from Mexico who went to a job interview, and somehow one of the questions was whether the woman had ever put her foot in her mouth. Sabrina's friend was apparently at least as bewildered as I am right now, because she hadn't interviewed for the position of contortionist. Sabrina is telling me this in relation to my having failed to understand what she was saying when she seemed to be telling me about a skeleton cap. The story illustrates how there can still be misunderstandings between people speaking the same language, particularly if they are from different countries. Sabrina apparently believes herself to be the first person I've met since I moved to America six years ago, so I gather that must be why she's explaining all of this. She doesn't seem to have realised that I can't understand her because she has the shrill voice of a hysterical contestant on Family Feud, all cobra head and oh no you din't, girlfren' and Steve, I'mma have to say at the dollar store…

Dr. Stalker stops by as is his habit. I find him a reassuring presence. He knows what he's talking about and isn't prone to hyperbole. He looks in my mouth.

'Great stuff there, Lawrence. You're keeping it clean, and that's what we like.'

Sometimes he tells me he can scarcely believe the transformation, how well my mouth has recovered from the state it was in when I first showed up at his door. He says he wishes he had taken pictures for use on the lecture circuit, before and after.

'Keep doing what you're doing and we'll see you again.'

He leaves and Sabrina gets back to work. She chatters as she grinds the pick around below my gum line. The words I understand are mostly to do with how much calcified tartar I have down there.

Eventually she finishes, and as she fixes up the next appointment, she asks about my brushing regime. Then she tells me I need to start using an electric toothbrush.

'I don't like them,' I say, although it's only later that I recall this is because I find the sensation of something vibrating against my gums really unpleasant.

'Well you need to start using one,' and she says it with a smile like that should be enough to win me over. She begins to talk about what we need to do to get my teeth into shape. I'm confused, partially because it's been years since I heard this speech, and partially because I distrust suggestions of what we need to do when there is no we that I'm aware of. I listen to her telling me about why we brush our teeth.

'I don't wish to take a negative tone,' I say, 'but I've been through all this. You didn't see my teeth before Dr. Stalker operated on them. He's the reason I have teeth, and he seems to think I'm doing fine. They used to look like a row of tombstones so,' - I open my mouth to grin in illustration - 'this is as good as it gets, which suits me fine. I don't really care about having the teeth of an Osmond brother.'

She delivers some shrill response, something which scans like a motivational poster, something along the lines of how we don't settle for second place; then she adds, 'I'm going to be a cheerleader for your teeth,' and she says it with a big smile.

'We don't have cheerleaders in England, so that doesn't really work for me.'

'What do you have instead of cheerleaders?'

'We just get on with it.'

Later I realise I should have pointed out that all previous appointments have been distinguished by both Rebecca and Dr. Stalker commenting on how well I've been doing, and how with each visit my teeth seem to require less and less attention on their part; and suddenly I'm back to being the naughty boy who doesn't brush right, and who could do better, and it's not enough to just want the bastards cleaned, you have to aspire to be fucking president too.

It has been a shitty day.

Friday, 5 January 2018

Genuine Pro-Life Baseball Cap


We're driving to Mansfield, which is a little way south of Dallas and probably shouldn't be confused with anything described in a Jane Austen novel. I'm looking at the map to see if Mansfield has a park, so we can go there and take photographs of ourselves grinning in front of the sign for later posting on social media accompanied by a variation on the joke in the first sentence. Mansfield has a Katherine Rose Memorial Park and a James McKnight Park, but no actual Mansfield Park so far as I can see. Never mind.

A couple of months ago, Andrea asked for a stylised drawing of a spinning top, something which could be used to promote a spinning top convention, a design you might see on letterheads, banners, t-shirts and so on. Andrea collects spinning tops. If you're now thinking about that big round thing you had when you were a kid, made of tin with a succession of circus clowns painted around the circumference and a handle you pump to get it going, then we're probably about the same age, but that isn't the kind of spinning top to which I'm referring. The tops Andrea collects are small, precision tooled creations of copper, brass, zirconium, and other metals. They're not really toys, at least not in the same sense as their larger, cheaper cousins. They're objects of beauty in their own right, and a decent one will set you back at least fifty dollars. Andrea collects them, as do people all across the country, and every so often they meet up to talk about it, to compare notes, and to spin tops. So I came up with a drawing of a generic metal top spinning across the state of Texas, because Texas is where this year's get together is to be held, specifically Mansfield.

Beyond agreeing that they're nice objects, neither Bess nor myself have any strong feelings about spinning tops. The distance is 259 miles heading north up I-35, which is a long way to go in pursuit of something for which you have no strong feelings, but we were invited, and it's a day out, and it's a bit of Texas I don't know. Also I'm the guy who drew the design so that makes me about as much of a celebrity as I'm ever likely to be. I've imagined myself seated at a table with a line of spinning top enthusiasts queuing for my autograph.

The journey is about four and a half hours, allowing for a couple of stops. We drive through Waco, a town which achieved notoriety when the local cult got itself blown up by government forces. The most remarkable thing about the place is that you can drive through it without even realising, just another vague urban sprawl somewhere out beyond the burger joints which have accumulated along the route; and then we're in Mansfield, eventually. We book into the Marriott, or at least we book into the Marriott after twenty minutes of pounding the bell at the front desk, requiring that I go off in search of the receptionist who turns out to have been otherwise engaged in the laundry room at the other end of the hotel.

The convention is held at Smoky Mae's BBQ, which looks as though it was a saw mill or an iron foundry or something of that sort up until quite recently. Conversion to dining establishment has been effected by the addition of a bar, tables, and stools. We queue in the part which still resembles a saw mill or an iron foundry, then make our choice from a selection of brisket, sausage, or chicken from a smoke blackened grill, delivered to our trays with tongs by a guy who may as well be the local blacksmith. Through the inner door and into the bar, we add potato salad or coleslaw and select our drinks. They've never heard of Newcastle Brown so I take a Dos XX, which is served in a ridiculous goblet of inch thick rustic looking glass that I find difficult to lift. Booze should never be such hard work.

We take our food and drink through to the convention, which is  outside on a covered veranda. There are twenty or thirty in attendance. Most of them look like bikers, or people who have no problem hanging around with bikers, which is a relief because I was expecting the cast of The Big Bang Theory - at least based on the thirty seconds I saw before I felt like shooting someone.

Bess and I occupy the one free table. The others are covered with tops, displayed in the protective foam of open flight cases, or being spun upon specially made spinning surfaces of concave glass. The top people mill around, comparing notes, admiring the workmanship and so on. Some of them are manufacturers, some just people who like tops.

A realisation occurs to me. At least some of this lot probably have a workshop in their back yard, some place where they hand forge bike parts on their own lathes, and turning out a spinning top is probably not so much of a leap from a custom cylinder, or whatever it is that motorcycles are made from. The top people suddenly make sense. They're sociable, outdoorsy types, probably good with their hands, and the pursuit which has brought them together, some from as far as Michigan or Ontario, no longer seems quite so cranky.

Bess and I eat our brisket and catch up with Andrea, who arrived yesterday. Some guy called Caleb is going from table to table, offering samples of his homemade jerky. He has a huge beard, dungarees, and the denim cap I would expect of a man called Caleb, and naturally his jerky is seasoned to volcanic intensity. I try a little out of politeness but it's too much. I've never seen the point of food so hot that you can't taste anything beyond the thermonuclear capsaicinoids and end up in hospital, but each to their own. Andrea explains that we missed the hot chilli eating competition which was last night.

Oh well.

I am introduced to the main guy, the one who got all of this going. Andrea has had my illustration framed and she presented it to him last night. He's very pleased to meet me, but I guess no-one's that bothered about getting my autograph after all.

Bess and I submit ourselves to one of the competitions. She spins a top which keeps on spinning for two minutes and thirty-five seconds. I manage three-ten, but the winner is some kid called Daniel who makes four minutes. The top is made of wood and doesn't have the momentum of the metal ones, which can keep going for more than ten minutes.

We take our leave of all the excitement and have a look at the local branch of Half Price Books. I find a copy of John Boorman's novelisation of his film, Zardoz - fifteen dollars, which is exciting as I had no idea the book existed until about a month ago, and I certainly never expected to find a copy.

We return to the convention around six, eat some more brisket, and I attempt to pour beer from the stupid giant glass goblet into a styrofoam cup as preventative to giving myself a hernia. It's a bit of a disaster, and then the entertainment arrives to further reduce the fun quotient of the evening - a boring man with his guitar, amplified just enough to make conversation difficult, delivering the usual bloody awful covers. We leave after dark.

We drive back next morning, taking the more scenic route down 281, avoiding Austin altogether, which means we get to look at cows, goats, and horses in fields at the side of the highway. We stop at a gas station in Hamilton. I go to take a leak and find a baseball cap which someone has left in the restroom - all white material with a bright pink and purple photograph of a human foetus developing in the womb printed where one might usually expect to see the logo for either a feed company or a sports team.

Wow, I think to myself, a genuine pro-life baseball cap!