Wednesday, March 02, 2005

 

Jump-start

Okay, so it's harder to get started again than I would have thought.

I looked around last night and noted that I've been trying lots of different things to jump-start my mental health, and somewhere in here I accidentally struck gold. Unfortunately, it's like a psychic flash--you might have one, you might benefit from one, but if you're asked to repeat the process, you might not be able to have another one.

So... somewhere in the middle of late-night online games of Ticket to Ride... and struggling to get a new short story off the ground... and preparing for a nine-day trip to Hong Kong... and trying to reconnect with my wife and son... and slowly but surely contacting friends and family again (I still owe some emails to folks like Debra and Glenn, but I'm getting there)... somewhere amidst this and lots of other little Band-Aids, I am starting to feel better.

Man, does shit back up on you when you go to ground.

So, now I'm cleaning up my own mess that I've let trail along behind me for all this time. I've had a fight with some friends about this depression--that sucked, but I think we're doing a fair job of putting it back together again. I've finally had chances to spend time with Janel again, time that reminded me why I love her, why I've always seen her as such a strong and beautiful woman. I've looked around at the promises I've made that need to be kept and the people who've been waiting for me to get this under control. I've started feeling like I can do stuff again.

I've jump-started.

Thank you for helping me, all of you.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

 

Coming Back

Hey, gang,

I'm continuing to struggling with whatever the inner demons are that have decided to move in and set up housekeeping in my head. That said, I thought I'd try to make a few blog entries just the same, just to play catch up and to reassure friends and family that I'm alive. These aren't the same demons that apparently were recently living in Hunter Thompson's head, for instance.

So, starting on the weekend, I'll ease back into blogging. It may take me some time to gear back up to once a day--as some of you know, that's a real drain to hit that mark every 24 hours--but I'm going to try to at least be faithful to the readers who've been faithful to me.

That said, I owe a bunch of you emails. Glenn, Mitch, Luana, Debra, lots and lots of people. I promise, I'm digging my way back.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

 

Taking Time Off

Hey, gang,

I'm going to take some time away from the blog. To be honest--and if you're gonna be honest somewhere, it might as well be here--I've been more than a little depressed lately, and it turns out that writing for the blog becomes unwieldy when I try to focus on it in this state. I've started and stopped, started and stopped, and I feel like I have nothing to say that isn't... well, that isn't this.

It's surprising how many individual things contribute to an overall sense of emotional disorientation. It doesn't help that I'm a depressive personality to begin with--I'm not as cyclic as a true manic-depressive, by comparison, but I'm sufficiently regular that I can expect some chemical imbalance once every couple of months. I wrote through a few of these bouts, in fact, without much incidence. I can put on a happy face pretty effectively, I think. Often, Janell doesn't even know for sure unless I say something. And most of the time, I'm just fine, good, even better than that.

Lately, though, I have an overwhelming feeling of senselessness and a certain amount of hopelessness. Routine is hell, I've discovered. Knowing what's going to happen to you (barring disaster, which doesn't alleviate hopelessness, by the way) for every hour of every day for the next five days or six days, or that the cycle will repeat beginning next week... this weighs on you. I suppose living in the moment can steer you clear of that, at least for the moment, but it's always there for me, hovering, waiting for me to acknowledge it.

For instance... While I wait for something to happen with my book, I am discouraged from writing another. I recently saw that a book called "P.S. I Love You" was released... using the EXACT premise of a book I wrote TWO years ago. I feel plagiarized... and again, helpless.

Or... I like my job, but it's nothing. It adds nothing to my existence beyond a paycheck. It adds nothing to the lives of my friends and family. It's just a job. I have no pride it telling people what I do. I just do it, am mollified by it, and not comfortable criticizing it in an era when a fine job is, in truth, a GREAT job.

And... In a sea of friends and family, I still feel lonely. It's the reality of feeling depressed--your sense of being a burden to others is powerful and stifling. You smile because you are supposed to. You comfort those who have sufficient courage to admit their worries, and you say nothing about your own because your troubles seem trivial and whiney. You have daydreams of what it would mean for someone to magically recognize your symptoms and swoop in to save you, the Rolling Stones' knight in shining armor, coming to your emotional rescue.

But here's another reality: people can't do that. If they try and fail, you've failed them. They can't be sure what you're looking for, and you can't explain in out loud. Your needs are perhaps unrelated ("I want someone to bring me cookies") or heartbreakingly unspeakable ("I want someone to put their arms around me so I can cry to someone instead of to myself") or too fantasical for anyone to achieve them ("I want to have a week with no commitment, no responsibility, and no expectations of me").

It requires nothing but a moment's isolation to dwell on this; the car ride home can be hard if I don't have Harrison from daycare with me. And it never goes away, even when I distract myself. It's probably something I should see someone about, but again, so much of what you feel is secret, or inexpicable, or downright shameful, that you can't say anything to anyone, let alone to someone who is prepared to scoop you out like ice cream and promptly dissect you for these shortcomings.

So, I'm going to step back from the blog for a week. Please check back next week, Wednesday, and I'll be back with some sort of update. I always have something to talk about--I'm that guy at the party who gets you cornered by the bathroom and just talks your ear off--but it's hard to talk with much enthusiasm when your thoughts lack any sort of enthusiasm about life at all.

Hang in there, come back in a week, and I'll do the same.

Friday, January 21, 2005

 

More old photos

I love digging through my old stuff, especially if I've forgotten most of it.

I think of it this way: it's like a stranger's garage sale with a lot of stuff I personally would think is very, very cool.

I love finding the old magazines and rediscovering the article I saved it for; the cereal box prizes that I was dying for when I was ten; the toys and the trinkets and the little souvenirs from Monkey Jungle or the Sunsinger in Allerton Park or Six Flags Over St. Louis or the Fun Fair in Fairview Park.

And there are always the photos. I can't even tell what's going on in some of them anymore. But some of them bring back some quick memories, like these two that I found in the bottom of my dresser drawers.



Remember the idea I had about documenting what you have? I guess I'm testing this idea here!

The first picture is my mom, dad, and sister, circa 1973 or so. I was nine years old, I believe. It's in the kitchen of the house at 1690 West Center Street, before we moved out to the country house where I would live until I moved out on my own. My mom wasn't quite yet 30; my dad was just a few years older. My sister was five or so. My dad, the hippy with the hair down his back, and my mom with the hairstyle popular on Mary Tyler Moore and, now, That '70s Show. I had my very own camera, a black-and-white Instamatic, and this is one of the few posed photos I took. I still have a few scattered others--one of my gerbil Twerpy, of a family Thanksgiving a year or two later, but this is the one that is of my family. Don't be fooled by Tammy's smile; she was forced to pose, I seem to recall.

The second photo is one of those "damn, I almost successfully forgot" photos, of a vacation with my Aunt Debbie, Uncle Bill, and Cousin Valerie in a motorhome cruising through the Ozarks of Missouri. I have no idea where the hell we really were; Yogi clearly doesn't either. Wherever it was, we hated it. Tammy and I were NOT motorhome types; we were more hotel campers. I'm pretty sure it was either summer 1977 or summer 1978, however. The "Darth Vader Lives" button on my shirt was a popular accessory around that time.

You'll note you can't see my face too well beneath the Chicago Cubs cap and the long hair. This is the wonder of selectively sharing your old photos--you can choose to hide the really shameful stuff as long as you like, or at least until you die and someone else finds it.

Or unless you put it in your scrapbook. I'll have to think carefully before I do that with *all* these old photos I found. Maybe I'll show you one to prove it.

Later.

 

Old School

While digging around for that Garfield book a few days ago, I came upon a bunch of old photos, one of which was of me and my high school chums (a word I learned from the Hardy Boys) back in 1982. Of the old gang, I still talk to John, Doug, and Brian regularly; the others have gone their own ways in time and space. The four of us who've stayed close, we're even hoping to see one another this summer. The last time I saw any of them was July of 2003; as Bruce Springsteen says, "Time slips away, leaves you with nothing, mister, but boring stories of glory days."

I would not call high school "glory days," by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, in a conversation in 2002 about our twenty-year reunion, Doug and I both chimed in that high school had been sufficiently lousy for us that we weren't interested in going to catch up with anyone other than the guys we *already* talked to regularly. I think John and Brian were surprised; their high school experiences were apparently a lot better than Doug's or mine.

Nevertheless, I do have a few fond memories of that time, and this photo is of the people who, for want of a better term, helped me survive those four years. My D&D gang, my Friday night Rocky Horror Picture Show movie pals, my first drinking buddies, my fellow Beatles fans, my best friends.

I never made any friends in college, which I've since heard is when a lot of folks find their lifetime friends. I think I made mine mostly in high school. (I made a few more when I moved to Seattle, I should note.) Look around at who's in your life now. How far back do they go? When did you meet them? What became of your college, your high school, or even your grade school, friends?

And now the tough question: can you guess which one of these guys from 22 years ago is me, now that I'm old enough to be the father of any of those boys in the picture?



Thursday, January 20, 2005

 

What if... Photo Life Journalism

What if...

...you wanted to document your life?

What if...

...you had boxes of pictures and the little knick-knacks you've picked up over the course of a lifetime and lots of things that had actual financial value, though no one could tell?

What if...

...those items that had no fiscal value but lots of sentimental value to you were unrecognizable to anyone but you without explanation?

I've been thinking about the era of digital photography, the phenomenon of scrapbooking (you can tell who I live with, can't you?), and the fact that my ego is big enough to blog daily.

What if...

...you took a photograph of your things, the things you've made an effort to collect, and put those photos in a scrapbook, along with a few lines (or even a few pages!) to explain what it was, where it came from, why it's worth anything to the people who might read your words later on...


***
(beneath a photo of a Shirley Jackson's book, Witchcraft in Salem Village)

When I was in elementary school, we read this book. I had no idea that Shirley Jackson was the same morbid woman who wrote the short story "The Lottery." As far as I was concerned, this was just another book we were reading for our fourth grade reading class. It became a much more interesting book when the hippy-teachers at The New School where I went decided to write a play based on the book, and we kids would perform it for the parents.

My best friend, Mark Parnaby, and I were cast at the eleventh hour in bit parts as the constables who escort the young witches to the gallows. We had no lines. We were on "stage" for under a minute. We were notorious troublemakers at The New School, so we were marginalized.

Mark was the one who devised the plan: after we had escorted the witches to the balsa wood gallows and put the nooses around their neck, the lights would go out to imply their executions. In that instant of darkness, Mark argued, we should kick the proverbial--and literal--bucket out from under witch Rosie (one of our fellow students who had received QUITE a substantial speaking role, due to her family's financial influence at the school, Mark further argued). I actually liked Rosie; it was her sister Barbie who I would much rather have hung, but Rosie was the witch we constables were accompanying out from the wings.

So, the deed was done. Balsa wood, I should note, is an extremely flimsy wood. Much chaos ensued following our bid for infamy, as you might guess.

Interestingly, Mark was cast as Handy Holmes, our friend Don as his sidekick Wally Watson, and I as the dim-witted Inspector of Scotland Yard in the next school play we did, a rip-off of the Pink Panther flicks. I'm assuming the attempted hanging of Rosie might have had something to do with it.

Years later, well after college, I stumbled upon this book at a used bookstore called The Book Barn in Forsyth, Illinois. Seventy-five bucks, the guy who ran the place wanted for it. I did not shell out, even for the memory of my and Mark's John Wilkes Booth moment during the adapted play. But my mom did, for the following Christmas.

If I ever see Mark again in this lifetime--last I know, he and his wife Zehra were living in Chicago, but at this writing, I've not seen or heard from him since 1995--I'll show it to him and see if he pegs me as the mastermind behind the "Witchcraft" play fiasco of 1974.

***

Would it tell the tale of your life when you were done? Or would it take you the rest of your life to document? Would anyone want to read it? What if someone did it for you? Would you be glad your parents, your sister, your best friend created a massive, photo-filled tome for you?

I would.

What if...?


Wednesday, January 19, 2005

 

Vigor Mortis

Sorry for my seeming disappearance. Blogger's been down, Harrison's been sick, and thus I've been thwarted from actually publishing anything.

That said... I'm still thwarted, at least until Friday, by which time Harrison will allegedly be better. :)

In the meantime... a short story called "Vigor Mortis" that I wrote a few years ago...

"Vigor Mortis"
by Michael G. Ryan


I was standing another non-stop sixty-six-day guard shift with Zed when it happened: I was free. No trumpets blared, no parades paraded by, no pomp, no circumstance… just freedom. I heard an audible click (my remaining teeth coming together in surprise), and then Master Mendark’s presence was completely gone from my shriveled brain. All that remained with me in the darkness was an indescribable hunger and a sudden vision… of roast chicken.

I looked over at Zed to see if he’d felt it too. (Zed was just what I called him, by the way; he’d never been able to tell me his real name.) No telling what he knew: Zed was missing both eyelids and his lower jaw, so he always looked bug-eyed and taken by surprise. He was standing mostly in the shadows along the tower’s narrow walkway, a blood-encrusted spear clenched in his vile, rotting fists. He was a chilling sight to see—a flesh-eating zombie, a walking corpse, the living dead. I’d have been terrified out of my mind if I hadn’t been one, too.

I began to test a few words on my dried tongue. It had been long years since I’d had cause to speak—we’re not a chatty lot, we zombies—but now I needed to know if Zed had felt what I’d felt. Had Master Mendark suddenly dropped dead? Were we all being set free to go back to our former lives, that is, being dead? Or had I alone someone slipped free of Master Mendark’s control while everybody else…?

Shut up, Cagari, something whispered in my ear before I’d spoken—it could’ve been a worm, I’m not sure. What if you’re the only one? Don’t you want to taste that roast chicken?

Oh, yes. To taste human food again—not food made from humans—was something I used to daydream about often in those first years out of the coffin. In my pre-undead existence, I was an “improvisational” chef; that is, I was one of those culinary artists who could mix goat’s lard and pine cones with molded rat bones and create a delightfully zesty soup. (The secret is in the goat’s diet.) As I was dying in a freak kettle fire, I thought my cooking days were over. Then came my zombification by Master Mendark and my chance to work the kitchens again, but Mendark was only in need of mindless soldiers, watchdogs for his immense and apparently foreboding tower. I stood guard outside the kitchens once, and I was often rooted like a statue at the grand entrance to Master Mendark’s dining hall, but I never got the chance to cook again. In fact, I never got the chance to eat real food again. Zombies are monovores—we consume only one thing and it walks on two legs—and I missed sampling the incredible range of foods I’d known in the before-life. So, if Mendark’s control over me was gone, what was stopping me from a bit of sampling now?

Zed actually provided me an unexpected clue: he suddenly turned and walked brainlessly off of the tower’s rampart, plummeting to his next death. One moment he was there; the next, he was only a lingering stench. Ah, freedom! I never heard him hit because as soon as it was clear to me that we were all free of Mendark’s control, I set out for the kitchens.

Mendark’s tower was a dark labyrinth of walkways, tunnels, pits, dead-ends, bridges, gates, and assorted chambers of one questionable purpose or another. I’d been in most of them, so I knew exactly where I was going, and I shambled off with as much purpose as a corpse could muster. I descended from the top of the tower to the Master’s master-bedroom level. As I emerged from the stairwell into the shadowy hall just outside the bedroom’s gated entrance, a startled voice cried out, “Halt!”

I stopped and turned to face Roomer the Trainer, Master Mendark’s “zombie wrangler.” He was a short, stocky fellow with a hook for one hand and the disposition and brains of a monkey falling out of a tree. Every step he took was a symphony of clacks and rattles, as he was loaded down with a wide variety of chains, collars, locks, and cuffs for restraining untrained undead. He used to use a whip to control us until a particularly dexterous zombie caught the whip’s tip, reeled Roomer in like a fat fish, and ate the wrangler’s whip hand. After that, Roomer was a much louder advocate for bondage than discipline.

“Why aren’t you on guard duty, zombie?” he snarled at me as he approached with a collar. He snapped it around my narrow throat and stared deeply into my eyes. He stood there that way for so long you’d have thought we were lovers—if you were sick that way. After a long while he said, “What’s this? How did you get free?”

I debated answering but settled for dead silence. I was good at it. The sole lesson I’d learned from Roomer the Trainer was this: Never bear arms against someone unless you’re sure you can get away with it.

“Well, you won’t get away with it,” Roomer said. “Back to the Master with you.” He tugged at the chain shackled to my collar and turned us toward Mendark’s bedroom gate up the dark hall. “He’ll bring you back under control.”

I was about to risk defiance for the sake of poultry when I looked down and saw the thin, colorless tripwires criss-crossing the corridor just outside the bedroom gate. To say that the Master was paranoid does not do justice to his condition, and we zombies were trained to recognize his predilection for lethal booby traps. Of course, the ones immediately outside his bedchamber were rarely activated—another sign that something besides me was rotten at the gate of Mendark.

Roomer the Trainer apparently lacked a zombie’s education, which doesn’t say much for him. He stumbled blindly over the tripwires. A black pit suddenly opened beneath our feet. But what he lacked in foresight, he made up for in reaction. He pushed me backward out of harm’s way—a seemingly selfless act until you realize that he then hooked his claw in the links of the chain that was connected to my collar. My name promptly changed from “Cagari” to “Anchor.”

You might think that Roomer’s weight, what with all those chains and collars and assorted nasty metal devices, would have pulled me right over the edge after him, sending us both plummeting to a dark doom. I might’ve thought that, too, if I hadn’t deliberately stepped into the pit after him anyway. I pulled a Zed.

My dead weight no doubt contributed to Roomer’s rapid rate of descent as we tumbled and turned together for a solid six stories. He cursed a blue streak despite the blackness, calling me names that would’ve been horribly insulting if I’d still had the body parts in question, only to be silenced by our jolting arrival at the pit’s bottom. Because of the darkness, I couldn’t see the spears we landed on, though they made unusual popping noises as they poked their way through our bodies. I’m sure that if I’d been alive when I hit, I’d have been dead. As it was, I worked my way off of the spears, envisioning Roomer the Trainer in the dark next to me as I’m sure many zombies had envisioned him before—a shish kebob, ready for seasoning.

Clearly, I couldn’t stop thinking of roast chicken.

He reached weakly for me as I began to rise, his hand closing around my wrist. But when I pulled away, his arm came with me while the rest of him stayed behind. I heard him groan one last time as I wandered off into the darkness, but by then he was a distant Roomer, so I really didn’t care whether he was alive, dead, or unalive. I was much more concerned about finding my way back to the upper levels of the tower… now that I’d fallen into the crypts. My sense of smell was quite weak (a good thing when you’re rotting), but the odor of corpses was unmistakable—it smelled like me, only more so. Bones clattered beneath my bony feet; though the darkness was complete and seemingly impenetrable, I knew there were bodies stacked all around me.

Mendark didn’t bother with coffins or burials. He simply threw zombie and enemy leftovers alike down here until they plugged the tunnels and created walls of bone and slimy flesh. Water came in from somewhere, turning the whole place into a vile soup.

Sigh. Soup.

I climbed over damp cadavers, balancing myself on the bigger skulls by using Roomer’s disarmed arm as a crutch, eager to get back into the drier corridors where I could find the staircase leading up to the kitchens. As I came down one side of a mountain of cold flesh, I bumped into flesh that was definitely still warm.

“Stop or die!” someone snarled from the darkness. I stopped—what other choice did I have? I’d already done the latter.

“Friend or foe?” another voice demanded, drawing closer. I could hear metal on metal: armor and swords. I had a sudden suspicion that I knew the reason for the booby-traps outside Mendark’s bedchamber.

“Slave,” I answered. My voice was gravelly and low, but it sounded like church bells to me; after all, I hadn’t heard it in nearly fifty years. “Old slave. Trying to escape.”

“We’ll get you out of here,” the first voice said again, then, “as soon as we figure out how to get ourselves out of here.”

“We’re not lost, Sir Valance,” the second voice said. I guessed there were about a half-dozen of them altogether. “I know we’re in the West Crypts, not far from the back landing. If we could only see, we’d be out of here in no time.”

Valance! Not a day went by when the Master didn’t curse that knight. Valance was the bane of necromancers everywhere, one of those shiny-eyed, steel-jawed do-gooders who killed dead things in the name of all things just, right, and alive. He served a king who’d gained the throne simply by surviving the multiple assassination attempts by younger siblings, but Valance apparently believed whole-heartedly in what he did… which meant he’d happily re-bereave me of life if he knew what I really was.

“…and that’s how we lost our only torch,” Valance was saying to me. “So, do you think you could lead us to the back landing? Once we find Mendark, I promise you that your freedom is assured.”

“Yes,” I said, thinking furiously. “Freedom.”

“Give me your hand,” Valance said, and I heard him draw closer. “We’ve been forming a chain so as not to become separated.”

I handed him the business end of Roomer’s arm. He commented once about how cold my touch seemed, and then he and his men fell in behind me in the darkness, chatting among themselves about how Mendark’s demise would be swift, merciless, and gruesome. I was pretty sure that if I didn’t come up with a good idea, my next demise would be about the same.

“There, Sir Valance!” one of the knight’s men shouted after a time of wandering about the pitch-black crypts. “Light!”

Sure enough, a small bar of flickering light shone beneath a thick door just ahead of us in the corridor. Beyond would be the back landing, with stairs leading up to Mendark’s secret tower (which obviously wasn’t too secret if Valance knew how to find it). At the very edges of the door I could just make out skeletal hands and torsos, more useless corpses piled like, well, corpses in the Master’s crypts. This was where they’d finish me off. Without a plan, I’d reached death’s door.

“Let’s get you out of here,” Sir Valance said to me, tugging me along by my third hand. “Soon enough this will all be at an end.”

We moved ahead toward the door. Desperation set in, and I was struck again by the sight of those bodies stacked up just outside the door. Then, finally, inspiration kicked in. I’d have been sweating if I still had enough flesh left to do so.

“Help!” I shouted as best I could with my withered vocal cords. I jerked hard on Roomer the Trainer’s loose arm, and when Valance didn’t let go of it, I did. Then I threw myself down on my back, belly up. As soon as I was down, I struck a suitably horrible death pose.

Valance and his men scrambled about, drawing swords, shouting to one another and calling “after me,” until one of his men thought to open the door to the back landing so they could see what they were doing. When the flood of light poured over me, I was just another of the many dead things lining the corridor.

“Old slave!” they shouted. It sounded pathetic, really. And I actually felt a little guilty about deceiving them as they stepped over me again and again, some of them inspecting “my” severed arm with growing dismay. I felt just a little guilty; it was an emotion that had been buried with me once years ago.

After searching about for a few minutes, Valance (who really did have shiny eyes and a steel jaw, by the way) and his men finally passed on—meaning that they left. They disappeared onto the back landing, Valance casting furtive glances back into the crypts as if I might suddenly appear to be saved, sans my right arm. When I failed to materialize, they headed up the staircase to murder Mendark instead of me.

As soon as I was sure they were gone, I followed at a discreet distance as far as the third level: the kitchens. I could hear Valance and his men above me on the stairs as they clanked and banged on up to the fifth or sixth level in search of the elusive Master. I, meanwhile, pushed open the swinging door to the land of roast chicken.

The place was as still as a morgue, and I should know. Pots, pans, bowls, cups, tableware, and various other more-difficult-to-describe utensils were scattered everywhere—clearly, the kitchen had been abandoned in a hurry. Only one torch still flickered along the near wall, the others having gone out from inattention. Wooden cabinets hanging from hooks on gray brick walls stood open and empty. A big barrel of salt had been tipped over and was spread across the floor (I stepped carefully around it, as I wasn’t sure if I would be able to feel it in my various open but dry wounds). The place had been looted—

—by Master Mendark himself.

Mendark was just pivoting open a thick stone secret door on the far wall as I stepped through the kitchen door, letting it swing shut behind me. He looked up suddenly as I approached him. In his throne room with wranglers and bodyguards all around him, he was quite the intimidating figure: dark facepaint, purplish teeth, his signature jewel-encrusted skullcap, the layered robes of dark purple with mystic death images woven into the cloth, and those shoulder-length earrings that resembled undertaker’s scalpels. But standing in the kitchens in his gray bedclothes, head bald and exposed, skin pasty white, a backpack bulging with food stuffs over his shoulder and a chicken leg clenched between his teeth, he more closely resembled a petty thief in the night… a thief making off with my chicken.

He paused in the secret doorway, the thick stone threatening to pivot and snap shut at any moment, and he took the chicken leg from his mouth. He managed a weak smile. “Zombie,” he whispered. “Come to me.”

I went to my chicken.

Mendark’s old face relaxed, and he reached over his shoulder to put the chicken leg into his pack with one hand while the other held the spring-loaded secret door back. My eyes tracked the chicken. It disappeared into his backpack, and he brought out his jewel-encrusted skullcap.
“Put this on, zombie,” he said, handing it to me. His arm holding back the secret door was beginning to quiver with the exertion. “Hurry!”

Slowly I took the skullcap and dropped it atop my head. It was like putting a serving bowl atop an apple; Mendark still had some fat around his skull. He looked pleased nonetheless, and I felt the same way: For the first time in years, I was within reach of my first meal made of something other than people parts. I couldn’t really smell it yet (sense of smell goes first after death; taste goes second), but I could imagine that I could smell it, which was almost as good.

“You’ll make a fine Mendark,” the Master sighed, looking me over. “You march on out there and let that lout Valance find you now, zombie. It should give me more than enough time to escape.” He turned to go through the secret door into the tight, narrow passage beyond, adding almost as an afterthought, “Roomer trained you well.”

I reached with my right hand for his backpack as he turned away from me.

And then the secret door slammed shut with a terrible screeching and tearing that sounded not unlike someone being drawn and quartered. That sound was me losing one-quarter of my limbs as the secret door tore my arm off.

I adjusted the skullcap carefully with my left hand, then turned and shuffled back into the corridor beyond the kitchen. I could hear banging and battling going on above me; when I cocked my head and looked up the winding secret staircase to the floor above me, I could see smoke and body parts hanging over the edge.

“Valance!” I croaked. Then again, “Valance!” Louder this time, more forceful. “Valance!”

It grew deathly silent up above. I saw a few of the knight’s followers peer over the railing down at me, and then at last I saw Valance himself. He was covered in blood and fleshy bits, and his eyes were wild with righteousness, self and otherwise.

“Don’t move!” he cried out when he saw me. His face suddenly disappeared, as did those of his followers. I waited patiently as I listened to them thump, thud, and curse their way back down the stairs to my level.

Valance came first, his sword at the ready, lowered to point at my chest. He noted the skullcap in one bold stare. The others spread out behind him, weapons drawn.

“At last we meet, Mendark the Dark,” he said almost graciously. He bowed his head toward me.
“Not yet,” I said. I slowly took off the skullcap and extended it to him. “Old slave.”

Valance looked confused for a moment. He glanced back at his men, a few of whom shrugged or discreetly looked at their feet. “Old slave? From the crypts?”

I nodded.

Now Valance looked more than confused; he looked embarrassed and annoyed. I’m sure he might just as well have bowed to a plate of rotten bacon in front of his followers. “What’s the meaning of this? Where is Mendark?”

“If I help you,” I said slowly (I still sounded as if I had a mouthful of worms—and I might have), “can I eat his chicken leg?”

***
It took some time, but soon enough, the deal was struck (after I convinced the group that “chicken leg” wasn’t a euphemism for “Mendark’s leg”). Sir Valance and his men stormed the kitchen, where they found Master Mendark right where I’d left him: just behind the spring-loaded secret door. My right arm still clenched his backpack, and my upper arm was neatly wedged between the secret door and the stone wall, effectively holding Mendark trapped. He had tried to strip off the backpack and leave it behind, but the passageway was too narrow for him to maneuver. He had settled for trying to chew through one of the pack’s straps—or maybe he’d been trying to chew through his arm, for all I know. Either way, he was still caught there when the steel-jawed hero and his swarthy companions fell on the villainous necromancer and did what steel-jawed swarthy heroes do to villainous necromancers.

Valance was good for his word; he tossed me the chicken leg sticking from Mendark’s backpack as we had agreed. Mendark actually lived long enough to see the gesture, something that would’ve made me feel warm and fuzzy inside if blood had still pumped through my veins. I was glad I’d been able to lend him a hand.

I took a bite of the chicken leg, chewing slowly, letting the dark meat spark my faded tastebuds back to life. Valance, triumphant over evil, stood nearby, watching.

“Well?” he asked as I swallowed. “How is it?”

I could have cried as I turned to look at him. “It tastes just like human.”


Sunday, January 16, 2005

 

The Garfield Hunt

Looking at the small collection of autographed books I own--the best of the lot are Stephen King, Oliver Stone, and John Irving--I wondered what had become of my Jim Davis autograph.

I was in junior high school, and I went to Chicago on the Greyhound to see my friend David over Christmas. Though I've now not seen David in more than twenty years, this was an AMAZINGLY important trip. It was a formative trip. How cool is it when you can define key moments like that?

I had received Billy Joel's 52nd Street album (yeah, it was an ALBUM) for Christmas, but this was all because I'd told my parents I liked "My Life." I took it with me to David's. We played it incessantly, and I discovered that Billy Joel was a badass. "My Life" was moderately defiant; "Big Shot" was outright hostile. "Stiletto" stood a pretty good chance of warping my perception of romance. And "Zanzibar"? Where's Zanzibar??

My lifelong appreciation for Billy Joel and Africa--that's where Zanzibar is--has its roots in this trip.

David and some of his friends liked just across the Wisconsin border; they'd all been to Lake Geneva, and they were all players of a roleplaying game that had been around roughly three or four years in their neck of the woods. Dungeons & Dragons. They taught me to play over those three days (I was a wizard who got polymorphed into a troll, discovered that chopping limbs off of trolls makes MORE trolls with a weird allegiance to the original troll they grew from, and who ultimately lost his life when he tried to take over a pirate ship with a small army of amputee-trolls whose allegiance to me also degenerated with each generation they were removed from me. Boy, talk about information you could have used YESTERDAY...).

Not only have I played D&D for the rest of my life, but it also led to my interest in Magic: The Gathering, my job in Seattle at Wizards of the Coast, and pretty much everything I have to be thankful for right now.

When the weekend was over, David accompanied me back to downtown Chicago to catch the bus. Across the street from the station was a massive, three-story tall bookstore. In Decatur, my hometown, NOTHING has three stories. But this bookstore... We went shopping, of course. David was ecstatic to discover a new hardback out by an author he loved, some guy named Donaldson who wrote fantasy.

"The Wounded Land is the first book in the second trilogy," David said as he scooped his book up. "You should read the first series. It's all here in paperback. Get all three."

I did. I read them, all thousand pages of them, over the next week. The Chronicles of Thomas Convenant became books I would talk about to this day, and they convinced me to try my hand at writing fantasy. I've not yet given up that idea.

Finally, on the top floor was a booksigning that we stumbled into. Again, David knew about the book in question.

"You have to get one of these," he said as we stood in line. "This cartoon is in the newspaper up here every day. It's about this big, fat, mean cat. It's hysterical."

So, I bought the first book of Garfield comic strips, Garfield at Large. The guy who still draws it to this day, Jim Davis, signed my copy. On the bus ride home, I read the whole book, laughing out loud. Often. Garfield was still very cat-like back then, and the jokes were all REAL cat jokes. Why cats hang on screen doors. Why they eat plants. Why they clearly love us and hate us at the same time.

So, this weekend, I tore my office apart looking for that old book, and as of yet, I've not found it. But the search reminded me just how significant that one weekend in Wisconsin was. Sometimes we can't remember how we met someone or what we liked about an author or a movie. We can't remember how things began, only how they ended. First dates are hard to remember; divorces are easy. Happiness is elusive but sadness is always right there, waiting for you, whether it's welcome or not.

The memories of that important weekend--even if I haven't found that old Garfield book again yet (I'm sure it's in my office SOMEWHERE)--were very welcome this weekend. If you've got those kinds of memories, I'd recommend finding a notebook, a Word file, or a blog to write them down in.

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