For those of you who missed it the first time, here’s a free short story from my horror collection, SOMETHING WAITS:

Bruce Elliot Jones Writes

I?ve talked with my wife and my psychiatrist and my dog and they?ve agreed I should indeed release these stories in book form?or ebook form–all together in one nifty package. The book will be entitled: Something Waits. It should be up and running on Amazon within a week or so. Meanwhile, here is your final freebie from that much larger collection.

For those keeping track of such things, this story–the last one I?m formatting for Something Waits–was also the last one to appear in the original 1987 Twisted Tales trade paperback. It?s only the second time the story has seen print and wasn?t originally intended for that first collection. Back then, going over the material for Twisted Tales, I decided a couple of pieces might not be palatable to 1980?s reader?s tastes, some being derived from hairy chested men?s magazines of the decade before, a little raw around…

View original post 9,572 more words

Look for our new Kindle offering on, out today: FEVER DREAMS!


The title says it all.

Which is not to say this will be immediately apparent to everyone.

Or even that the authors themselves are aware of the clever double extenders that make the title equal parts blatant pulp (and I mean that in the bloodiest sense) and self-servingly kitsch. The book’s real intent falls so neatly between crass commercialism and apparent satire that the line is blurred. But blurring, it would seem, is the operant theme here.

The authors’ peculiarly gathered concoction plays fast and loose not only with traditional literary form, but with that which makes literature readily available: publishing. For that reason alone it warrants our scrutiny. It’s easy enough to write the whole thing off as a sophomorically prurient exercises in money grubbing, sexually-charged egoism (as the clergy once said of Elvis); the trick is knowing when and whether these exercises are mere fodder for the gore-hounds or are a carefully conceived lampoon. The literary merits of Kilborn (J. A. Konrath’s horror pen name) and Crouch’s tome may be up for discussion, but clearly these are anything but stupid guys. This is not just a novel, friends, this is a marketing machine. The real question is: are the boys parodying as they pander—pedagogues as they prosper?

Look at that wonderful title again: there are exactly three (omitting my own ‘review’) words in the entire hilariously long heading that are not unabashedly sensational: ‘the, ‘the,’ and ‘complete,’ and even ‘complete’ is made attention-getting by its artless overuse. It’s like a one-sheet movie blurb Hitchcock would have loved to have used: SERIAL KILLERS UNCUT! Or even better: THE COMPLETE PSYCHO THRILLER! And just in case it missed a pore or two on your face: THE COMPLETE EPIC! Hey, can even a serial-killing-uncut-psycho-thriller be all bad if it aspires to be an epic?

Konrath and Crouch are the eReader equivalents of William Castle (a compliment). “If you suffer from anxiety attacks, nervous disorders, or nightmares,” warns the forward to the book, “you should …try…something else.” Isn’t that what the sign says just above the rollercoaster entrance? Not a warning as much as a dare. Yeah, maybe you should, but you sure as hell won’t!

To my mind the authors share an even more common antecedent in Bret Easton Ellis. More on the Bretmeister later, right now let’s quickly review the legendary tale of young bravado and colliding forms of publishing that seeded this infernal tome and labored through its gestation. It began as a 7500-word eBook short story called Serial, given away for free online in what some may consider an act of madness but which has, in fact, become a standard marketing tool. According to the authors, it garnered, in two years, 500,000 downloads, a film option and a garbage truck load of incensed reviews (but any review is a good review, yes?) This, reportedly, prompted the fleshed-out book version which came next: Serial Uncut. It should not go lightly noticed that NONE of this would have been possible under the straightjacket editing and edicts of a traditional publishing house. The Kindle eReader had arrived, and say what you will about the authors, they saw their moment and seized it. At this point, according to some, their little venture ceased being a short story or long novel or whatever and became a lyrically official milieu—at least in the minds of the authors. The characters (and there are plenty of them), if not intensely deep and intricately layered, are by anyone’s standards well-defined: “good” and “bad.” More importantly, they consist of mainly perused and reprocessed protagonists from both authors’ other novels (and there are plenty of them). To keep all this straight, each character is hyperlinked to a ‘Character Page’ which includes their initial appearance. This is neither a new nor a particularly bad idea—what IS new, and either bad or just cannily monetary, depending on your view, is the egregious use of whole passages and entire scenes of dialogue from the writers’ own previous works! Again, that niggling blur. Is this merely lazy writing or an authentic stretch of literary boundaries? Art or artless? Was it even preconceived one way or the other? In any event, these guys weren’t about to stop until they’d intertwined, reused and reincorporated “every major villain they ever created into one cohesive volume.” Not until they’d tweaked, reconstituted, dismembered, and outright plagiarized their own previous novels: DESERT PLACES, LOCKED DOORS, BREAK YOU (don’t ask) ENDURANCE, TRAPPED, SHOT OF TEQUILA, WHISKEY SOUR, BLOODY MARY, FUZZY NAVEL, CHERRY BOMB, SHAKEN, STIRRED (how’d 007 get in here?) SNOWBOUND, ABANDON, DRACULAS and RUN—wait a minute, this isn’t a book, it’s Saw VIII! (Ye gods, look at all the free advertising I just gave these guys!—each available at your local neighborhood Kindle store, by the way).

Whether all these athletic contortions signify a laudable achievement seems almost beside the point. It’s certainly marketing genius. Smarmy? Maybe, but then, let’s face it, so is the book, which is sort of the whole point. Smarmy as art. Listen, de Sade made it work, otherwise we wouldn’t still be discussed and debated his books in drawing rooms across the globe.

De Sade isn’t a bad analogy here in fact; not so much for his graphic level of sex and violence, but for the patchwork way he, and our two contemporary authors, spatter them willy-nilly throughout the book’s considerable length. One can, I suppose, make a case for the skill and intricacy—the sheer will–required to thread so many lives and convoluted events together into something like a cohesive form, but it’s ultimately an empty argument, and probably not even a germane one. Like de Sade’s Le Philosophe de Boudoir, this is a school for scoundrels, an unapologetic treatise wherein the bad not only win out over the good, but revel, shit, and bathe in it. A kind of highway safety film for your Kindle. How long, they seem to taunt, until you simply have to turn away, or when your own inner morality says you already should have? Just keep telling yourself: it’s only an iPad. Face it, titillation works. As with Hitchcock’s own Psycho, we’d all enjoy seeing Janet Leigh naked and helpless in the shower, trapped but for our own sense of decency and chivalry. Whether or not we’d then decide to take a knife and hack her to death with fiendish impunity is a matter of individual taste, I suppose–but, in the film at least, she is done in. And what’s left to identify with?–only the manically demented, sexually annihilated, flesh-hungry Norman Bates for the remaining three-quarters of the movie. Was this what Kilborn and Crouch had in mind: trap you in the belly of the beast until your nerves are so frayed you’ve lost all sense of direction (and morality?). Is the message here, that ‘morality’ itself is subjective? To paraphrase Dylan: “People are hungry, and everyone’s gotta cut somethin’.” Also: “The times they are a’changin.” Do we nowadays lock our doors front and back under the ubiquity of real-life serial killers?–or are real-life serial killers ubiquitous now because we (and the media) have helped them believe their own hype? Have we seen the enemy and he is us, victims of our own victimization? Is there something more sinisterly analogous in the authors’ blood-drenched book than might be apparent at first blush? Is there a cancer growing on the nation, Mr. President?

Or are the authors just laughing at our own base penchant for grand guignol, keyboard in one hand, more than a little old-fashion rebellion in the other? By his own admission Kilborn/Konrath has openly dismissed legacy publishing and its dubious contracts and spurious treatment of writers in general. Safe in their lifeboat as the publishing Titanic goes down, he and friend Crouch may be sticking it to the Man here with more than a little payback gleam in their gloating eyes, but perhaps sticking it as well to the oblivious nation of sheep that helped finance the Man lo these many publishing generations. And, just as clearly, the eBook format is allowing them to wallow a bit in this newly available climate as every fresh-born iconoclast is wont to do; and who can really blame them? Freedom of the press may well be our last real refuge from the DRM-obsessed greed of the corporate machine. Hollywood may control entertainment in anti-trust questionable totality–Theaters, Television, DVD’s, Streaming, Recording and your parents’ spinning brains–but not yet the printed word. Not yet. The publishing boat that sinks today may float an Amazon Titanic tomorrow. And nothing corrupts so absolutely as…

Some of this is old hat, of course. How many of you remember the initial publication of the then-scandalous Peyton Place? Hands? No? Okay, how about the 1957 release of Lawrence’s finally unexpurgated novel, Lady Chatterly’s Lover? Hmm, still no hands. Well, don’t tell me you didn’t read Playboy in college! You know, some would have it that Hefner only got away with that rag because he bookended the T&A centerfolds with pages of Hemmingway and Machen. And got away with it. Never, by the way, get into an intellectual or commercial argument with Hugh M. Hefner—you will lose.

There was the much-hyped school-banned Catcher in the Rye, of course, but the major literary audacity in recent memory (not counting the short-lived Eros magazine) was Bret Ellis Easton’s American Psycho. Roundly trounced by critics and readers alike (no pun intended—some critics also read), American Psycho, with that ever dependable Passage of Time, has since found great favor among academia, become a cult classic on campus, and (no doubt to his chagrin) now is considered Ellis’ magnum opus (he was just 27 when he wrote it). The book, which uses surrealism to convey a sense of postmodern dread, mixing absurdist comedy with a bleakly violent personal vision, is certainly noteworthy, warts and all. A member of the literary Brat Pack that included Tama Janowitz and Ellis’s “toxic twin” Jay McInerney, Ellis has always considered himself a satirist, his trademark technique “the expression of extreme acts and opinions in an affectless style.” He also shares, here along with Kilborn and Crouch, the concept (gimmick?) of linking novels with common, recurring characters. American Psycho’s chief protagonist, Patrick Batemen (motels, anyone?) is based on Ellis’ own abusive father and, again, reoccurs in other of his works in various guises and forms, a major character in one novel, a minor walk-on in the next. It’s that blurring again, what is real, what is not?–mixed with a healthy dose of disassociation and outright contradiction. This novelistic blur maintains a high level of ambiguity: devices such as mistaken identity are the norm, for instance. “Hero” Batemen also comes off as a, presumably intentionally, unreliable narrator who, like Norman Bates, keeps the reader uncomfortably off-balance and at loose ends: what’s a sane  mind to do? Whether any of the unspeakable acts in the book actually happened or were mere fantasies of the delusional psychotic Batemen is never satisfactorily addressed. Or is that also intentional? Is it also intentional, even the point, of Kilborn’s and Crouch’s work? Or do I give them too much credit? In his novel Less than Zero, Ellis includes a reference to Tartt’s forthcoming Secret History with the throw-away line: “that weird Classics group…probably roaming the countryside sacrificing farmers and performing pagan rituals.” Like serial killers? But is it the characters–as in Kilborn’s and Crouch’s Serial–who are contradictory, psychologically damaged and disengaged, or the fission created by the novel’s quixotic and sometimes disengaging staging that causes discomfort? It’s worth noting that, after the death of his lover, Michael Wade Kaplan, Ellis was obliged to infuse Lunar Park (2005) with an uncharacteristic and wholly new (some would say refreshing) tone of wistfulness. For their part, Kilborn and Crouch eschew even the vaguest notion of wistfulness throughout the entire 120,000 blood-drenched words of Serial Killers Uncut. Can artistic style turn on a crisis of faith?

In the end, whether Serial Killers is a “good” book may be of secondary importance: what the hell kind of book is it? There’s no doubt it was written as an attention-getting device (no shame either; what book isn’t?) but to what extent and eventual evaluation does that have to do with any work’s essential worth? Someone once said, “A writer’s heaviest task is simply getting out of his own way,” finding that dream-like state which, like a sunny screen door,  lets the novel breeze-in without purpose or thought, guileless as an unexpected and probably undeserved gift…and always from “somewhere else.” It is possible Kilborn and Crouch were in such a commercial-hungry writing fever, donned with mental blinders, that they inadvertently blocked out all conscious affectation in the process? Or were they just having too much fun to notice or care? Like Ellis’ much-damned magnum opus, will Serial Killers—twenty years hence—be looked upon as a work of (albeit naively unaware) genius?

Or will the world’s ongoing brinksmanship of desensitizing anything and everything around us finally reach some unimagined point of diminishing returns, rendering literature itself as moot as the dinosaur, the corset and the evolutionary stunted eight-track? Along, naturally, with the eBook itself?



Posted: March 19, 2012 in Uncategorized

Not so long ago I’d have met that question with the clarity and conviction of a long rehearsed answer: NO!

The very idea of writing fiction with a partner was antithetical to everything I ever knew, learned or enjoyed about the concept of writing. Some of the happiest moments of my childhood were spent all alone in my room or the school cafeteria filling reams of spiral notebooks with fiction created by me, for me, without anyone but me. With nary a thought of even showing it to anyone else. I still treasure the memory of those days, writing for the pure joy of it without the hassle and ego-deflating strum and drang of agents, editors, publishers, et al. But now I tend to regard that time without the strawberry glasses of nostalgia, and the naiveté of my youthful ideas about creativity.

In 2000, after some twenty odd (very odd) years in the screenwriting vineyards of Hollywood, I moved back to the Midwest to dedicate myself full time to writing the novel. Anyone who’s ever worked the vineyards “out there” knows exactly why I did this: for the rest of you it can be summed up in that word ‘antithetical’ again. If novels mean (supposedly) total artistic freedom for the writer, the screenplay is its polar opposite. Everyone works with a partner in LaLa Land, even if they complete the first draft all alone in a closet. And most of these ‘partners’–from the studio heads right on down (the writer being the bottom)–are more than glad to remove your name from the project and take complete credit for most of what you wrote. But would-be screenwriters, take heart: considering the way most movies turn out, this can actually be a blessing. Also let’s not forget the soothing balm of money the industry usually provides. There’s gold in them Hollywood hills.

Anyway, that same year I moved away and back to my roots, Stephen (he’s the) King published On Writing and I picked it up (yes, published authors still do that—writers are never secure). The book discusses many things, perhaps the most salient being King’s work mode: find a room, shut and lock the door, turn off the TV, turn your computer from the window, park your butt in a chair and write. Also, never stop to rewrite until you’ve gone straight through to The End, and never show it to anyone in between. Given King’s ginormous and grindingly enviable success, I read this section with a small smile: that was the way I’d worked since grade school! Writing was, by God–along with music and painting and sculpture—a true art form! And art can only be achieved, even pursued, with a singular author’s singular vision, not with someone else getting in there and mucking things up with his own ideas! This is what art is. This is what I was taught art is in college. This is why the third floor of Strong Hall on the KU campus was divided in half:  Commercial Art on side, Fine Art on the other. And never the twain should meet. I, of course, pursued a degree in the latter and was damn proud of it…along with all those other poor, deluded freshman iconoclasts.

One thing I began to notice, though, around the time of my junior year, was the tendency for the commercial side to talk about money and marketing—talk about it a lot; whereas the very mention of money on the Fine Art side was tantamount to heresy. Now, I could tell you that I chose the Fine Art side originally because I was already a full-fledged elitist wrapped in a fine art banner, but the truth is, the curriculum on the Fine Art side didn’t require my taking another agonizing year of math. And what the hell, I could already draw, right? It should be a cinch.

Still, my mamma didn’t raise no stupid kids; I knew the realities of the work-a-day world around me way back in high school. A Fine Arts diploma might look great on my wall but it wasn’t going to get me job one in the real world. Which is why I headed straight for New York after school, to become a commercial illustrator, as opposed to becoming the next Jackson Pollack. Few Pollack, I knew, enjoyed wealth in their lifetime. Ah, New York! The legendary seat of publishing and magazine illustration! Never mind that magazine illustration had been moribund for years, supplanted almost exclusively by photography, and that just about the only steady work as an aspiring artist I could find was in comic books. Yet married, broke and determined to life creating something beyond kids, I hit the comic book houses. A few years of that and the next thing I learned was that writing comic books pays a hell of a lot better than drawing them. So I wrote too. It helped pay the bills. In between I sold a couple of novels to small publishers, which earned me an overall pittance compared to what the comic book companies paid a writer. But never mind, I was realizing my dream: I was a full time, working professional! I got paid to create! I was an artiste!  Maybe not with capital A, but I was creating, and I was doing it alone. By myself. No more shoe store clerk jobs for this kid!

Then I met the girl…

This is already getting long so here’s the short form: I hired this radiant beauty as a model for a photography book I was doing. And we hit it off almost immediately—in more ways than one. Did I mention we were both married to other people? You should probably know that.

We worked together all day, me and this girl April, and at the end of those hard work days found we still somehow wanted to be together, still had so much to talk about. Naturally both our marriages went to hell, but even before that and after the photo book was finished I realized that if we wanted to be together, this girl and I, we were also going to have to continue working together in some fashion, because the photo books weren’t selling.

So, for the first time I went dead against everything I’d ever believed in about writing and began plotting a few comic book stories with April. I did this under a mountain of guilt. First, I couldn’t afford to pay her much, second, I feared I was betraying all my artistic “singular vision” mantras, and third, I was terrified that the work itself couldn’t possibly be as good as before when it was just me at the helm because really, folks, who’s as good as me?—but mainly because I was simply having too much fun with the work. The great thing about plotting—just verbalizing, or ‘spit balling’, really—is that you can do it walking around a lake or over hamburgers or even at the local mall. To my surprise (and probably chagrin), my readers never seemed to notice. In fact, my comic book sales improved! And it soon began to dawn on me (horror of horrors!) not only was I a complete sell-out to my artistic instincts, but some of those stories  were better because I plotted them with a partner! Can you spell ‘confusion’? ‘Depression’?

Only it’s hard to stay depressed when you’re having such a good time. Sure, falling in love was part of it, but the ideas and plots fairly flew between us, some brimming to the surface almost magically! Also, my spelling improved noticeably. Life was good. So long as I kept the serious work (novel writing) to myself, door shut and locked in solitude, TV off, butt parked.

But the thing is, April was reading my books as soon as I finished them anyway, correcting my spelling and throwing in some editing here and there. What the hell, King used his wife, didn’t he?—so did a lot of pros—and my partner had already read and liked all my published books; it’s not like I was torturing her. Exactly. And more and more (after I’d completed the book) April’s input increased. I actually began listening when she dared suggest chapter 10 or perhaps the entire ending of the novel might be improved by doing things an alternate way. Silly girl.  I tolerated her whimsies. Reminding her constantly that this was, after all, still an art.

Then this thing called digital publishing came along.

And at the same time, because I was getting paid fairly well but hardly getting rich, April suggested maybe I should slow down with the dark, depressing stand-alones and try a breezier, lighter toned style. Duh.

Only I couldn’t think of anything breezy I wanted to write about. My books were about loner guys up against the wall, running through my latest literary idea of film noir hell. But April (bless her) persisted. “EBooks are the future,” she assured me, “also you don’t have to wait years for a company’s publishing schedule and press arrangements. Also, despite what the indicia in books published by the Big 6 says, you really can hang onto most of the rights.  Also, Kindle sales are waaaay up.”

She was driving me nuts. Because she was right. “All right,” I finally shouted to the gods, “here’s the title of my new series:  ‘Mitzi Magee: Vampire Poodle!’” Fortunately she laughed. But in a good way. Unfortunately I couldn’t come up with plot one for the first book. I was completely at sea. Actually blocked for the first time. It stank. Then one day, driving up to Borders Books and encountering a “closed” sign, I got this totally brilliant idea–this just colossal, stupendous idea I was so glad I had thought of all by myself. This really terrific, Artistic idea: ah, the hell with it, let April come up with the damn plot. Or at least plot with me the way we’d been doing with the comics. What’s the big deal about plots anyway? As they say, there’s only seven original jokes. Did Hemmingway sit around and worry about plots? He did not! So! That’s what we did, adopting the same methods we used with comic writing to the new series. I mean, I’d certainly learned the old axiom “two heads are better than one” was true, at least for me, so why not?

Turns out, there’s a LOT of reasons ‘why not.’

Heads up now, before you consider working with a partner in the writing biz:

First—and I can promise you this—there will be fights.

Actually, there should be fights. If there aren’t, you’re completely abandoning the “singular vision” ethic, and I don’t advocate anyone doing that. Every novel (unless you’re Faulkner and I don’t think we need worry about that here, right?) needs a strong narrative thread, a clearly accessible vision, a “voice,” if you will. But with a partner, you must constantly fight the dilemma of anything that sounds even vaguely homogenized (unless that’s somehow inherent to the plot—and I can think of few instances).  The challenge then, to me, of writing with a partner was even greater than writing in total singularity. A partner must trust you the same way you trust yourself, and vice versa. I’m not sure you need to be in love to enjoy the mysteries of a writing partnership, but you must, absolutely must, trust and—even more importantly—respect the person you’re partnering with. Because sooner or later, just like any marriage, you’re going to have to compromise.  My then-girlfriend and now-wife, April Campbell Jones, and I share that kind of symbiosis. She can fake my “style” (whatever that is) almost without faking it. I still do the majority of the Word Smithing–setting the story or novel down in type–after April and I, working in tandem, sort out the plot. When the actual writing is finished, I do a polish or two and give it to April. She does the editing and her own rewrite or two. We think the results read pretty seamlessly, but you may have your own particular modus operandi, it doesn’t matter. The point is to embrace the other guy’s ideas instead of shunning them immediately out of guilt or ego–and to create a terrific and, hopefully, more balanced end product. If it helps you to think that what you’re doing is pure, lowbrow commercial craft, go with it. Whatever works. The trick is learning that compromise can be a good thing, that your way is not always THE way. And really, at the end of the day (a phrase clearly over-used which I’m still guilty of), if you line up twelve different people to read your book, at least one or two of them are going detest it, no matter how many people did or didn’t labor over it. Which is why some writers employ the method of multiple private submissions to friends or family before sending their child out into the world. But that’s another topic.

Okay. I know what you’re thinking: yes-yes, but what about this Art you keep prattling about?

I’ve thought about that too…thought a lot about it. And most of my original ideas about the “singular vision” still hold true. Yes, writing can be an art—perhaps one of the very few things we have that actually qualifies, so perhaps, for you, it should remain a singular principled pursuit. But consider this: what is Art? What is it really? So-called “singular vision” aside, artists begin the same way we all begin life, by collecting (stealing?) the sights and sounds of the world and others around us. Copying is a natural progression toward learning to go your own way. My question is: do any of us really ever go completely our own way? Those of us in the arts don’t suddenly reach a point in life where we turn off the filters and stop absorbing the world out there. Ray Bradbury has advocated that it’s better to read not at all than read bad writing. Others believe, with the right attitude, you can learn something from anything. But does anyone really write alone? Is it even possible? You didn’t, after all, invent the alphabet, but as a writer you’re lost without it. Mere mechanics?  Maybe. Certainly what we do with that alphabet is the important thing. Still, for me at least, more and more the line between Art and Craft has become increasingly blurred over the years. What was taught with sober confidence yesterday can seem laughably naïve today. And though the glow of nostalgia may persist for personal pleasure, I’ll never be that ten-year-old kid with the reams of spiral notebooks again. A dead shadow from a life that will someday die altogether.

To my mind, experimenting on the page is the only way to grow as a writer. Perhaps experimenting, within reason, with our work habits can be another form of growth. One warning: I’ve suggested that having a writing partner can be fun. It can. I’ve always said that it can even improve the work. It can. Now here’s what it won’t do: it won’t make the art/craft of writing any easier. Nor should it. In fact, a partnership, for some, will make writing so much more a trial it becomes counterproductive, and that’s always a mistake. Partnering is not right for every project. Somethings must come from our own hearts alone, even if born crippled. An art professor of mine once said something I’ve never forgotten: we had a late night class together and I was filled with malaise one particular evening. He looked over my shoulder at my sketch but didn’t offer the usual support or advice. He said, “You’ve worked that thing to death, but you don’t look like you’re enjoying yourself.” I confessed I wasn’t. He said, “Then go home. Try again tomorrow.” I was astounded. “Why?” I asked incredulous. “Because,” he said, “art should–above all–always be fun.”

With that I’ll leave you with a few real quotes that help explain why I love words so much and why I consider them one of the most important creations of mankind. Have fun.

“I never said actors are cattle…I said actors should be treated like cattle.”

                                                               Alfred Hitchcock, 1958 on the set of Vertigo

“I never said you should learn politics…I said you should learn parlor tricks.”

                                                               Harvey Kurtzman, 1954, Mad parody of Pogo

“I never said I was a libertarian…I said I was a libertine.”

                                                              Me. But only once. I think.





Posted: March 14, 2012 in Uncategorized

Mom died this week.

It had taken awhile. And taken its toll on both her and the entire family. 

Yet it also seemed to happen very suddenly, catching me looking completely the other way. I can’t explain it better than that. When someone you’ve loved all your life is dying, time makes its own rules.

I hadn’t written anything worthwhile in weeks, maybe months. And I knew it. But I kept at it, mostly, I’m sure, for the solace of escape fiction can provide. But never really fooling myself. I have never been “blocked.” As far back as grade school where Mom dropped me off every morning, I’d learned that the fastest way to beat the blank page was to get out of my own way, let myself fall into it: stop being the reality me and be another me. Now all I could think of was that Mom had stopped being the reality Mom. Permanently.

I wasn’t dealing well with “permanently.”

But I hacked away at the keys like always—“hack” being the operant word–convinced it was what she would have wanted. Isn’t that what they always say?

I had worked my way to Chapter 29 over the months, getting toward the end of the book. I was in the middle of this line: ‘The last thing she said to me was, ‘Don’t worry, I’m not going

–and the phone rang beside me. And my sister-in-law said, “She just passed.”

I don’t remember what I said to Lynne, my sobbing sister-in-law; don’t remember anything but sitting there staring at that unfinished last line. This  ”unfinished” sensation  remained and became my general state of mind for the next few days. I moved through life like a shadow—the usual rooms, usual places—feeling always just slightly outside myself looking in. For the first time in my life I got absolutely nothing written, not a single word. I couldn’t even go near the computer. But I suppose that’s perfectly normal under the circumstances. Right?

Maybe not. I was aware of a slowly growing panic, which I thought was the realization I’d never see Mom again but which–knowing the size of my ego–was also the fear of finally experiencing that dreaded thing I’d always laughed at: writer’s block. 

But give yourself some time, I thought. Time wounds all heels, or something like that…you’ll be fine.

But I wasn’t fine. Only more and more scared and depressed. 

I told no one, not even my wife. Just kept convincing myself this would surely pass–that  ‘Mom would have wanted it that way’—want me to go on doing the one thing that made me happiest: writing. So, why didn’t I believe it? Why did I think something had been broken that could not be put together again. Also this: why was I not grieving? Not even crying! Hadn’t shed a tear. Telling myself that would come too when it was ready—even though my heart wasn’t buying it. 

I even tried staging grieving. A kind of forced sobbing that came out like a pig with hiccups. Tried my best to work up a real honest-to-God bawler. 


Every few hours for the next several days I’d wander into my study and look down at my computer and stare at that unfinished line: “The last thing she said to me was, ‘Don’t worry, I’m not going

–sentence incomplete. Original thought and intent lost.

Chapter lost. Maybe the whole damn book lost.  I had no memory at all of what I’d been trying to write or what came next. It all seemed immensely trivial and pointless now, along with a lot of other things –like my own mortality. 

After a time I couldn’t look at the computer screen anymore: the unfinished words became more than just ironic, they seemed unfair, even cruel. “But you did go, Mom! And you took the best part of me with you! And I never even got the chance to say good-bye.”

Still, I didn’t cry.

Wasn’t allowing myself the relief of letting go. Something was holding everything in. Was I punishing myself? Was there a Freudian phrase for this? What was the last thing Mom said to me? I couldn’t remember. Nor my last words to her. And it seemed terribly important that I did remember…that neither the book nor anything else would be complete until I did. The panic grew, but nothing would come. Just a blank, and Lynne’s voice on the phone, “She just passed,” and that damn unfinished sentence staring back at me every day.

 If only I hadn’t stopped writing, if only my sister-in- law hadn’t called at that precise moment—maybe I could remember what I’d been thinking at the time, finish the sentence and–if not finish the book–at least get on with things again. But my mind remained on hold.

The panic eventually ebbed, replaced by a hollowness that was maybe worse. I felt lost. A stranger in my home. Everything looked exactly the same, but everything was different.

Then one morning I got up, had my coffee, stared at my handful of published books on the shelf like they were strangers, and wandered around the house again.

I ended up in my study before the computer screen. “Enough,” I thought, “enough of this!”  I reached for the delete key; but I hadn’t bothered putting on my glasses and hit the wrong one– the backspace key–which only separated that unfinished last line from the rest of the paragraph, making it stand out even more.

In disgust I stuck on my glasses, sat down and put the unfinished sentence back where it belonged, at the end of the unfinished paragraph. I started to get up. That’s when Mom came to say good-bye. Or someone did. Someone reached out and completed that annoying last sentence and it didn’t feel quite like me. I typed just for letters, a single word: “anywhere” and put a period after it. “I’m not going ANYWHERE.” 

I sagged with relief. Sentence complete. Chapter closed.

Then I wandered back to the bedroom, lay down beside my sleeping wife and had myself the most wonderful cry.



Posted: September 20, 2011 in Uncategorized


Posted: July 17, 2011 in Uncategorized

No, I’m not talking about the Harry Potter franchise, though I’m sure a lot more people are concerned (or at least aware) of that ephemeral phe-nom than the far more reaching one at hand.

And I’m not talking about (Christ, I hope I’m not!) the Aug 3rd deadline the President and Congress have given themselves–and the economy of the world—to prevent the entire planet from falling apart financially, although I suppose that takes precedence over just about everything else.

As I write this (Sunday 11:52 PT) we shall all know by 5. p.m. today whether the country’s 2nd largest bookseller is still a viable entity or, like one of its most famous products, gone with the wind.

The company, Borders Books, which has been with us and a big part of my life since 1971, was close to approval on an agreed upon deal with Najafi Cos. for $215 million and an assumption of $220 million in debt in bankruptcy proceedings for some time now. But the deal seems to have gone south. The Ann Arbor based bookseller faced objection to the agreed upon Najafi as creditors, siting that Najafi could merely buy assets and liquidate Border Books. Creditors warmed to another bid from liquidators Hilco Merchant Resources and Gordon Brothers, feeling it was a stronger move; apparently it involved more cash than the offer from Najafi. Creditors had banked on Najafi submitting a higher counter bid, but none has been forthcoming; Najafi is standing tough. And as a result, Borders could be through for good. Not just the cutting back of another 200 stores as it did earlier this year when filing for bankruptcy, but through…gone, zip, nada. Borders claims it will accept bids until 5p.m. today but there is a strong general feeling that in the end—of a true era—it will close its remaining 400 doors next week.

So what do you care, Bruce? you’re saying–you’ve been flogging your own digital books on this blog for months now.  Well, a few of you are saying that; most of you surely have seen the writing on the wall for some time now: hardcover book sales are falling, digital books and ereaders are climbing, and with even Barnes and Noble searching around for a buyer, it’s pretty obvious the brick and mortar stores, with the possible exception of the big boxers like Walmart, etc., are a thing of the past. At least book-wise.

I suppose it was inevitable.

Like the price of gas and global warming and a fun little thing called the San Diego Comic Con, which went from a one room operation in the 70’s for comic book sellers and buyers, to a leviathan of mostly movie-related commerce and elbow-pushing greed by the beginning of this century. Like the death of the LP, the eight track, the CD (and mostly) the DVD… in favor of the Great God Streaming.

It makes sense, even if—perhaps in a nostalgic sort of way—it depresses some of us. Netflix may have pissed off a lot of customers when it raised its prices recently, but you really can’t blame them from trying to get out from under the smothering postal system and join the streaming future. It’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times. Technology is an ever-changing marvel that keeps us communicating in ways never dreamed of, adds tons to our convenience even while purchasing prices of its myriad gadgets drop. Technology in in. It even saves lives. It’s what will get us to Mars. Technology is soaring! Even if we all are out of work. And broke. And scared. Some of us homeless and really scared.

But we tighten our belts and solider on, right? Yeah, that’s why as soon as our old cell phone or computer or MP3 player breaks we throw it away and buy the new more expensive one. Always got money for that! Why? Because…we are mad. Even while inching toward the real Depression our penny-pinching, tight-ass, frugal ole parents and grandparents all warned us about.

But all good things come to an end, as someone very wise or very obvious once observed. Strange I’ve never heard the counterphrase: “All Bad Things Come to an End.”  And I suppose I can (like I have a choice!) live with the ever-changing gotta-have-the- newest-tech-toy mentality. Apple doesn’t make us buy this shit, you know.

But I, for one, shall miss bookstores.

I’ve haunted them all my life, grew up with them, saw them go from grubby little strange-smelling mom and pop operations to the glory of mammoth, unending cyclopean football fields  of real, tangible books—all shapes, all sizes– where you could virtually browse away an entire afternoon and have some pretty decent coffee in the interim. Hell, you were even encouraged to sit down and read for free, despite the clear eventuality of some coffee being spilt on some pages. And let’s not even get into the lavish art books! All in one place. I remember my first Waldenbooks: it was like: they finally got it right! Book lovers heaven! Oh sure, for the more esoteric stuff you still had to haunt the dingy privately owned outlets or drop into a Half Price store now and again, but all in all it was manna from heaven. And—for me—Borders was the manniest.

Something stuffy and off-putting about Barnes and Noble, I could never put my finger on it. The layout, the snotty escalators, the stern-looking staff, the completely lame-ass magazine section, the feeling that, okay the chairs are there, but we’d really prefer you bought the damn thing and moved on, this ain’t a friggin’ library y’know! Barnes and Noble was your English teacher; Borders was the kid you lit cherry bombs with. Their CEO, unfortunately, was wayyy out to lunch. No Kindle-like ereader? C’mon, you’re not even trying to move ahead!

But I shall miss it. More than most things.

But then, I miss the San Diego of the 1980’s before The Gas Lamp Quarter closed down all the tattoo parlors and you could drive anywhere at any time of day with little traffic– and even if housing was overpriced you could certainly rent nearly anywhere—‘cept maybe La Jolla. I miss Christmas. Let’s don’t get into that one. I miss having fewer TV channel choices for free. I miss summer movies for grownup before JAWS turned the season into blockbuster time—though in comparison to current offerings, JAWS now looks like a work of popcorn genius. I miss having a global enemy that could blow your own country off the face of the Earth but was at least reasonably sane! I miss driving. Just about everywhere.

But that hardcover book, that I will miss most. The way it felt in my hands, the heft…the smell of the fresh cracked page, like that new car smell only farrrr cheaper. The dust jackets—oh, yeah, the dust jackets—will miss them a lot! The knowledge that even though clearly mass produced, your personal copy was somehow just an nth distinct from all others. The way they looked lined up on a shelf. A warm look.  An intelligent look. A friendly, stroll over and grab one down look. Maybe there was that mustard stain on page 38, but it was your mustard stain. And lend them? Not on your life. These weren’t pieces of disposable property to bandy about, these were old friends. In many ways more dependable than the live ones. Yes, we had to box them, yes, we had to haul them, mile after mile, state after state. But no matter how strangely unlived-in each new house or apartment felt at first, the old familiar books helped make them quickly and reassuringly comfortable.

Perhaps most of all, especially if you didn’t take care of them, books aged…just like you did. Yet there was something comforting in the knowledge they’d outlive you, preserving your invisible fingerprints, invisible aura long after you’d departed. Even the paperbacks. They weren’t merely a commodity, they were—or could be when done well—an art form.

And now, like much of my hair and most of my jawline, they’re disappearing.

Okay, this is getting maudlin. It’s just paper, right? Quit sounding so goddamn acquisitive, Jones. Take a walk. On the beach. Soon as the 405 reopens…

Because the IMPORTANT thing is the writing itself! Not the silly-ass delivery system? Right? Right?

Of course.


…that Borders Iced Chai…


My new collection of short stories, SOMETHING WAITS, is now available on in Kindle format. If you don’t own a Kindle you can get the app for your PC, iPhone, iPad, Sylvania TV with Halo-Lite, whatever. Soon to be available on iBooks as well.


–it isn’t really my book. It’s YOUR book. You made it happen by your terrific response to the “pre-release” of some of the stories on my blog, and for the faithful purchasing of my other ebooks, THE DEADENDERSSHIMMER and THE TARN. And for that I thank you from the bottom of my cuffs. Give yourselves a big hand!

I do hope you enjoy all the stories collected in SOMETHING WAITS…there’s quite a few more where those came from. In the meantime, there’s more Jones coming your way this summer in the form of a very special project even I am sworn to secrecy about…but I’ll reveal this much: it’s a concept totally unlike anything seen before and may just be the ultimate summer read!

Again, my heartfelt thanks for your continued support of my efforts!

Happy Nightmares!…


I’ve talked with my wife and my psychiatrist and my dog and they’ve agreed I should indeed release these stories in book form—or ebook form–all together in one nifty package. The book will be entitled: Something Waits. It should be up and running on Amazon within a week or so. Meanwhile, here is your final freebie from that much larger collection.

For those keeping track of such things, this story–the last one I’m formatting for Something Waits–was also the last one to appear in the original 1987 Twisted Tales trade paperback. It’s only the second time the story has seen print and wasn’t originally intended for that first collection. Back then, going over the material for Twisted Tales, I decided a couple of pieces might not be palatable to 1980’s reader’s tastes, some being derived from hairy chested men’s magazines of the decade before, a little raw around the edges for a family-oriented publishing house like Blackthorne. That none of them feels that way now is, I suppose, a sign of the times. But removing those stories, I felt, made that first collection slightly wanting in word count. It needed one more tale to fatten up the book. So I sat down in 1987 just before publication and penned (in long hand in those days) a story I’d been meaning to get to for ages. And that’s the one that follows.

As stated, many of the stories for this present iteration were taken (and refurbished in some cases) from the above mentioned Twisted Tales–but not all. Some that appeared in the old collection were left out of this new collection because I wanted the new book to lean most heavily toward my mystery/horror yarns (with the exception of Pride of the Fleet, I guess). In their place I’ve included some new stories—to my mind—some of my best.

Over the years I’ve gotten a lot of kind requests from fans to reprint the Twisted Tales short story collection in its original form. I often seriously considered it. That volume is long out of print and had a somewhat limited run to begin with. Some out there weren’t even aware of the stories, then or now. But after a time I realized their relative scarcity—including the terrific Richard Corben illustrations inside—lent a kind of nostalgic mystique to that first collection I hated to tarnish. Some people actually collect my stuff and might not be thrilled with the idea of making it readily available again.

Also, I was never very thrilled with the ongoing confusion generated by Twisted Tales the prose short story collection, and Twisted Tales the comic books. They had little to do with each other except having been authored by the same writer, but the identical titles sometimes caused trouble. EBay hopefuls sometimes purchased a book of short stories while expecting a stack of comics—and vice versa. To eliminate the problem this time out, I updated not only the stories themselves but the title as well. Adding the new tales to this latest collection further distances the two editions and offer a nice bonus to you faithful readers of this blog.

So, what you will hold in your hands (or Kindle, or Nook) with Something Waits is not a clone of Twisted Tales. Several stories from that now rare collectionnot included here are: Roomers, Jessie’s Friend, Black Death, etc. If you want to read those nightmares, you’ll need to dig up a battered copy of Twisted Tales online or at Half Price Books.  Or, if this volume proves popular, wait until they’re included in yet another compendium of my early New York scribblings.

Meanwhile, here’s one more freebie. Then if you crave more Jones, buy the very reasonably priced Something Waits on Amazon. And you won’t offend me in the least if you download copies of my novels like The Deadenders or Shimmer  or The Tarn while you’re there. Send one to a friend, they make dandy Christmas presents or…funeral tokens, or something:  the gifts that keep on giving. Not unlike those to be found in private little clubs like the one below, that caters somewhat exclusively to




                                                                     Bruce Jones


Mr. Conway had passed the little shop a thousand times without once thinking about it.

This does not mean he wasn’t aware of it. He was. He didn’t, in fact, much like it. But he didn’t think about it, didn’t dwell on it, because cold weather was cold weather and restless nights were restless nights and little porno shops at Central and Sixth were whatever in heaven’s name they were supposed to be and there was nothing much you could do about such things. Something about freedom of the press, Mr. Conway supposed.

So he ignored the freezing Chicago winters, suffered though the acid indigestion that too many bottles of Sominex can provide, and drove airily past the dun colored little porno shop. Every day. On his way to work.

Except today.

Today he pulled before the red street light that shared the corner with the dingy little shop as usual. Glanced casually askance at the shop’s front and the clumsy attempts at rhetorical seduction (Beaver Books! Nudes! Must be 17!) and snorted self-sanctification. What was the world coming to? Turned back in disgust to appraise the red light—now turning green—he  depressed the pedal and shot away. About two yards. After which the car stalled a moment, then quietly died.

“Oh for God—“  Mr. Conway twisted the silvery ignition key again. Nothing. He twisted it three more times, imploring nonexistent vehicle deities, twisted some more, cursed nonexistent vehicle deities, cursed the guy behind him leaning on his horn obnoxiously, finally flopped back impotently behind the wheel in resigned defeat. The street light turned red again. The guy behind him kept leaning on his horn. Mr. Conway twisted at the stupid key again, banged his knuckles furiously against the wheel, finally rolled down his window to Arctic winds and signaled the jerk behind him around with a freezing arm. Retrieved his cell phone from his expensive Armani overcoat and punched in The Auto Club. Noticed the little screen was blinking up apologetically at him: BATTERY NEEDS CHARGING.

Well, he was going to be late for work, that was obvious.

Not, he supposed, that it mattered a great deal. He’d hand trained his hand-picked staff to practically run the place without him. Wasn’t he, after all, the boss? Didn’t he own the most successful advertising agency in Chicago? Didn’t he still gross millions annually while the rest of the country wallowed in recession? Damn right he did.

So a little stalled Boxter problem on a Wednesday morning of a slow work financial week was, in the scheme of things, hardly a crisis. He’d simply have to find a phone somewhere, call the Auto Club. Be on his way again before lunch. Meanwhile, Stan, his partner and right hand, could watch the store. Run the store if it came to that. Stan was a miracle. Stan was the greatest sales representative Mr. Conway had ever seen—ever hired. That was six years ago this month. In the interim months of remarkable growth, Stan had gotten out there in the field, dazzled and tap danced and secured clients like crazy, furnishing Conway and Associates with some of its highest paying accounts. Microsoft? Was it really true their company represented Microsoft now? Damn right it was. And wunderkind Stan Waterman was largely responsible.  Had they made the cover of both Fortune and Time in the same week? Damn right they had, while continuing, in these economically challenged times, to run roughshod over the competition. Which is why Conway and Associates had gladly altered the logo on its company stationary to Conway and Waterman Associates, simultaneously cementing not only a new family member but a new family of blue chip accounts and Dow Jones averages. Oh, C. J. Conway knew how to pick ‘em, all right, where to find ‘em. Instinct,  that was the answer. Like his father before him. He could find talent. He could find a panther eating licorice in a coal bin at midnight, as they laughed with him and patted his back at company parties. He could find anything.

But he couldn’t find a phone.

Not anywhere on the entire rundown, disheveled, freezing-ass block. Maybe because most of the block was boarded up or vanished under the wrecking ball. There was the greasy little Mexican grill way down on the corner; they had a phone, one of those old fashioned wall jobs with a rotary dial that was quaint as hell but kept spitting his quarters back indignantly.

Two blocks he wandered through the slush and cold and still could not locate a phone. A pizza parlor he tried had one, but not for customer;, a dry cleaner had one but the phone company had shut them down, business was bad. A Chinese restaurant certainly had one but they didn’t speak a word of English no matter how insistent his gestures.

He wandered on through high drifts and crusted slush until his new $250.00 shoes were wet, his toes calcified and he was right back where he started beside his inert Boxter, which now had a ticket under the front wiper. He’d tried every store and shop in a three block radius. Except one.

Funny thing was, he’d never been in one.

No, wait, there was that time in the 70’s when Izzy Bickford and he had gotten faced in school and stumbled into that little joint south of Bridgeport, what was the name of that joint? Anyway, he’d been too out of it to remember much about the experience. And now…well, now what was the point? Any twelve year old kid with access to a computer could download more pink, slippery flesh and heaving chests than all the remaining little walk-in sex stores in North America put together. What was surprising was that the dun little shop was still here at all, even on this rundown street. It couldn’t even lay claim to being shabby chic anymore. By its sheer ubiquitous presence, porno had become sooo last year. That a specialty shop like this one could even exist was more eye-opening than anything within its grimy little walls. To say nothing of being an outdated eyesore to the community. Certainly not a place for a successful, well-known CEO like himself; there were certain standards to which he must adhere. Being caught in this dump wouldn’t be considered embarrassing; it would be considered feeble-minded. The place was an anachronism.

So, naturally, they had a phone.

“Sure, mister, help yourself! On the wall over there!”

The man behind the scarred counter was grinning, for no reason apparent, like a Cheshire cat. Neanderthal.

Mr. Conway regarded the hand-worn receiver of the old black rotary phone with a jaundiced eye; probably swimming with herpes viruses in a hole like this. Christ, what a way to start the week.

But it worked. The filthy thing worked and the Auto Club would be glad to come out and peek at his car. Only thing was, everyone in the Windy City was having car troubles today in this inclement weather, it might take them a little while. Like two hours, actually.

Fine. Great. He couldn’t go back to his car because the heater wouldn’t run. He couldn’t hang around the Chinese or Mexican places because it had begun to snow again and his feet were already freezing. He was going to have to stand around this little snatch-happy hellhole surrounded by rack upon rack of coagulated flesh and engorged orifices. It was that or call Stan at the office and Stan was always working a client at lunch hour. He could try a cab, but then he wouldn’t be around when the Auto Club finally got there.

He looked up quickly as the shop door dinged and a woman in her twenties breezed in. A woman! In this clit pit! And she was actually scanning the merchandise! Mr. Conway couldn’t believe it. It was…it was…

…it was embarrassing. May as well admit it. Passé or not, porn could still be embarrassing, still had that going for it. Good for you, he thought, turning his back on the woman and pulling up his collar, power to the peter! He headed for the door.

It only took one short blast of cutting, icy wind.

In a moment, he was back inside the stuffy little shop, back to the embarrassing woman, back to staring out miserably at the blowing snow and struggling traffic. He dug his hands in his coat pockets, leaned hunched up against the jamb, and wiggled his toes, trying to reclaim some circulation there. Okay, fine. He’d stay right here in the doorway! He still had his brain! He could work anywhere! He could work on the Brewster account in his head, lay out the whole campaign! Filth and embarrassing lady at his back, clean white flakes at his front.

Except he didn’t want to think about the Brewster account. It was…messy business, the Brewster account. Something he’d been putting off now for some time. They kept phoning the office, lauding him to the skies, assuring him that Conway and Waterman was the only advertising firm they’d even consider trusting their very special needs with. And he kept putting them off. Stalling for time. Pleading over-commitment.

Not so in the beginning. When he’d first heard of the Brewster thing, he’d done backflips, lifted his wife in the air and regaled her about how it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Brewster Foods was a major breakfast cereal company with a small wing in the bakery goods arena. While hardly competitive with the likes of General Mills, they did well enough regionally and were even considering expanding their confectionary market. But that was the least of it. Some egghead lab genius who had never contributed much before beyond a new way to thicken malt had come up with this ‘safe cigarette’ brainchild. It was a product made entirely of natural ingredients! And, most importantly, it really tasted like a cigarette! Yet it was tar and nicotine free! The thing even contained properties that were good for you for chrissake! It only needed a sophisticated, trendy ad campaign of the kind Conway and Waterman Associates were famous for.

“A thing like this,” he’d told his wife ecstatically, “could put us ahead of Young and Rubicam! It could take off like a rocket, cover the globe in a matter of weeks! We could retire on the first year’s profits alone!” And he’d landed the account himself, all by his lonesome, hadn’t even told Stan about it, let alone the staff. He wanted to wait until it was sewn up, then spring the surprise.

Sounded so good. Until that dark (very dark) night when he was seated alone before the bedroom hearth, toasting the crackling flames with a glass of his best champagne, and his cell phone had burred beside him. And a low, whispery voice that could not be recognized and would not be recognized said the words that made all that expensive champagne go sour in Mr. Conway’s mouth. “The safe cigarette is death.” Click

That was all. But that was enough. Enough to prompt Mr. Conway to break every rule in the book and have one of the precious ‘safe cigarette’ highly guarded prototypes spirited away from Brewster Labs and into the hands of a college buddy and corporate chemist. Where it was analyzed from one nicotine-free millimeter to the next. And yes, it proved to indeed be tar-free and carbon-monoxide free, and yes, it was composed almost entirely of natural food products that would harm not a hair on anyone’s head. Until you lit it. Then, you had, oh…a seventy/thirty chance of contracting irreversible lung and heart damage within six years.

And it had been such an expensive bottle of champagne.

So now he was trapped: either keep his mouth shut and sign with Brewster for the campaign—thus exposing millions of innocent smokers to a probable and lingering death and his soul to perdition’s flames—or say no to Brewster and watch about a billion bucks fall into someone else’s less moral advertising lap. I may be a so-called advertising Czar, Mr. Conway reminded himself, but I’m not a man completely without principle.

He blinked out at the snow. Well, this was getting him nowhere. Take the plunge or cut bait. This damn Brewster thing was giving him acid indigestion. Maybe a heart attack at his age. The doctor had warned him…

He watched absently as a cement truck ground its way through the traffic. Carrying foundation cement to some suburban mall site, no doubt, some glass enclosed, temperature controlled, antiseptically designed marvel that would soon fill up with yet more Starbucks, yet more Gameco’s, restaurants, department store anchors. Some of which owed their success to one or more TV spots Conway and Waterman had created. Great country, America. Make a smart man rich. Halleluiah.

Mr. Conway consulted his watch. Still a minimum of an hour and a half before the Auto Club worked him into their schedule. He leaned back against the weathered door jamb and closed his eyes. I feel very old just now, he thought, very tired…

It wasn’t always so. Those early years before Stan Waterman joined the company, for instance–years when Mr. Conway had drummed up all the clients himself, run all the paper work, hell, even swept the damn office. Lots of waiting around in doorway then too, hopeful waiting, in doorways and austere little foyers on hard plastic seats. Lots of long, unending hours, nights away from home in crummy hotels. He found himself grinning remembering it. He and Althea had only just met, two kids fresh from school, full of ambition, piss and vinegar. Working hard and spending every spare second together. He grinned wider, recalling Althea when her hair was long, free of gray, remembering  the two of them overlooking the twinkling Chicago lake… the back seat of his old Dodge, its window steamed opaque. It may not have been much of a car, much of an apartment, but how they’d made love in those days…how they’d made love…

He snapped from reverie, looked down at his watch again. Still over an hour to go.

All right, he’d fought it long enough. He hadn’t built one of the most successful ad agencies in the country by standing around doing nothing. He had a curiosity like anyone else—better than most. If there was nothing but this seedy little porno shop to appraise then he’d by God appraise it! You can learn from anything; his dad had taught him that. To hell with public image: he was stuck here and he had to stretch his legs, get that damn Brewster thing off his mind! He turned in the doorway and faced the dark little orifice. Snorted a silent laugh. What an apropos metaphor: ‘dark little orifice.’

The man behind the counter looked up from his copy of Reader’s Digest. “Need to make another call?”

Was that sarcasm in his voice? Did other patrons use the phone as an excuse to come in here, peruse the pink-fleshed pamphlets and sticky-paged smut?

“Just…browsing,” Mr. Conway muttered.

“Help yourself.”

And he did. Up and down the aisles, over and around the racks. And, while there was actually a modicum of variation in this athletic coupling, even a distinguishable categorizing of preferences and practices, it all became pretty redundant after a while. Pretty predictable. And in the end, pretty “—boring.”

“How’s that?” from the counter man.

Mr. Conway looked up in surprise, unaware he’d spoken aloud. “Nothing. Talking to myself.”

But the counter man had heard. “Bored, you say? Seen the retro peep shows in the back? Only a quarter.”

Peep shows?

And now he saw it, the little curtained doorway against the back wall and the hand lettered sign nailed above it: ADULT MOVIES 25 CENTS! Retro, indeed, at that price!

His hand dipped involuntarily into his tailored slacks, fondled the change there. Yes, he had a quarter or two…

What the hell. He nodded rueful thanks at the counter man and pushed through the threadbare curtain.

It was even worse in here, this narrow hallway with the red painted doors and the red colored bulbs stationed above them. It was dark and dank and smelled like urine and something else. All the doors were closed. But only some of the bulbs above them were lit. Presumably a lit bulb meant an occupied room. He stood there in the narrow, plank wood aisle between the rows of doors under the hellish red glow of the bulbs and felt like an idiot. Worse: a pervert. He needed to get out of here.

But he’d come this far…

He selected an unlit door—number 14—sighed admonishment at himself and entered. There were no interior lights and in the musky tightness he could only just make out the length of wooden bench at the opposite end of a short cubicle, on which he was, presumably, to sit. He closed the door behind him, stepped gingerly across the sticky floor and parked himself philosophically on the bench, back to the wall. He was now facing the inside of the door across from him. Now what? Darkness pressed against him. To whom did he give his quarter? His pupil receding, he glimpsed a glowing swatch of chrome to his immediate right: a coin box. It was the old diner-style table juke box idea. He fingered the metallic surface, searching in braille for a friendly slot, found one, and sacrificed his quarter. He had a sudden almost amusing thought: one-millionth part of the vast Microsoft account allotted to watching dirty movies; please enter that into accounting, Miss Linquist.

The coin rattled, clinked; a distant whirring filled the cubicle, followed by a yellow shaft of light stabbing above his head. An incredibly freckled young woman appeared on the back of the door. No, she wasn’t freckled, it was the watermarks and stains on the worn, endlessly run 8mm film loop.

The woman was seated at an old wooden desk, poring over a stack of papers. There was a strategically positioned American flag beside the desk but other than that only a blank, curtained background…so it took him a moment to realize this was supposed to represent a school setting, a teacher at her desk. A man in his mid-twenties wearing a high school sweater entered frame right. He approached the desk and handed the young teacher his test paper. The young teacher appraised it, looked appalled, slashed a red pen across it and soundlessly reprimanded the ‘student’ with over-theatrical gestures. The young man hung his head. The picture jumped a splice—blurred, composed itself again. Now the young man was turning about before the desk, the teacher ordering him to lower his trousers. When he did, the mortified teacher picked up a short ruler and addressed the young man’s backside. She lifted the ruler. The images flickered a moment and went black. End of show.

Mr. Conway blinked in darkness. Was he really supposed to waste another quarter on this? He consulted the luminous dial of his thinly sleek Movada: still at least an hour before Auto Club Time. Yes, he’d waste another quarter.

Rattle, click, whir.

The young man was punished as predicted. Then, for reasons not immediately clear, was ordered by the teacher to turn around and be rewarded. The teacher knelt, covered her mouth with dismay and delight at what loomed before her. She shook her finger at the naughty thing and scolded it, as if it possessed an intelligence separate from the young man’s. Then she put down her ruler, leaned forward and addressed the young man’s front side. The film flickered and went dark. Mr. Conway was out of both quarters and patience. He heaved himself from the wooden bench, crossed the sticky floor and pushed dismissively at the red-painted door, the bulb above it winking out appropriately.

A furtive figure with waxy, wary features and a long topcoat was waiting in the narrow hallway impatiently a few doors down. He was rocking on the balls of his feet, humming incoherently to himself and nodding his head anxiously. Mr. Conway stepped past, gave the man a wide berth. The man on rocking and nodding at no one until Mr. Conway had moved further down the aisle–then darted through door 14. The red bulb winked on and, for all Mr. Conway knew, the man was nodding and rocking still inside the little cubicle at the teacher and her ruler. Rattle, click, whir.

Mr. Conway sighed and pushed through the worn curtain in comparative brightness. Back in the racks and magazines and pamphlets and glass cases with various colors and lengths of rubbery “marital aids.” He stood about a moment, first on one foot, then the other. There was nothing else to see now, he’d seen it all. The man at the counter looked up from his Reader’s Digest smiling. “More quarters?”

Mr. Conway rolled his eyes. “No thank you.”

He turned toward the shop door and the promise of freezing blasts, when he happened to notice for the first time another door in the shop. It stood in a small shadowed alcove to the right of the cashier counter. Another hand lettered sign adorned it: MEMBERS ONLY. The door was closed.

Mr. Conway paused. “What’s that?” he gestured.

The man behind the counter grinned companionably. “What’s what?”

Mr. Conway pointed. “That door to the right of you.”

The man behind the counter didn’t look and didn’t stop grinning. “Oh, that. That’s for members only.”

Mr. Conway closed his eyes a moment, summoned patience quietly, opened them again. “I can see that. What’s it for?”

The counter man’s grin seemed frozen in place. “Oh, you wouldn’t be interested in that.”


“Perhaps I would,” Mr. Conway informed him, then added an indifferent shrug to underscore the perhaps.

Still grinning, the counter man shook his head. “Naw, I don’t think so.”

This was absurd. Ridiculous. Screw this jerk.

Mr. Conway marched to the door, hauled it open, already squinting anticipation at the expected blast.

“Come back and see us, now!” from the counter.

The frigid blast came but with less intensity. The sun was out, the sky beginning to blue. The Auto Club man was waiting for him at the curb. “Got over sooner than we thought!”

Mr. Conway didn’t bother concealing his relief.

The Auto Club man looked past Mr. Conway at the winking neon of the dun colored little shop; then he looked back at Mr. Conway. Now the Auto Club was grinning…not unlike the man behind the counter. Mr. Conway rolled his eyes.

* * *

Back at the office he sat in his private oak paneled sanctum at his burled wood desk and stared out the window at the city below.

It was about all he did these days. The staff had grown large and capable and the business nearly ran itself under Stan Waterman’s masterful hand. And that was fine. That was what success was all about, right? Wasn’t he, after all, the boss? Didn’t he own the most successful advertising company in Chicago? Didn’t he gross millions annually? Damn right he did.

So what if things got a tad tedious now and then? That was the price of success. Everything had its price, he supposed, even success.

Too bad Stan wasn’t around today, though. He missed Stan sometimes, missed his lousy office jokes cribbed the previous night from Jay Leno Show. They used to take lunch together all the time in the old days, or sit around Stan’s office spit-balling little local accounts sometimes just for the sheer hell of it. Small time stuff.  Fun stuff. That little hardware store client had been fun, talking the ego-driven store owner into appearing in his own TV spot for “audience recognition.” Right. You couldn’t even understand the moron when he did remember his lines. But, of course, using the owner saved them the money of hiring real talent. They’d laughed about it for weeks.

There were no more little accounts now. Stan was always gone in the afternoons, schmoozing some hot client across town or across the country, putting together the next boffo presentation. Stan was a genius. And a good friend. They’d been so excited that day—long ago now—when he’d landed their first major account: Pillsbury. They partied all weekend with the wives. Funny. In some ways it had been more exciting coming in to work when they were poor and struggling, when the whole thing was a game. “We’ll keep doing it until it’s not fun anymore!” Stan had laughed.

At home, later, Mr. Conway sat in front of the TV.

It was about all he did with his evenings these days. Althea was out and about at one of her meetings. Noon time and evenings, out at her meetings. What were they? —fundraisers or something, a chance for her to mingle with the beautiful people, get half lit. Another price of success: lose your wife to the bright lights, big city. Seemed like they hardly spoke anymore. Seemed like they hardly saw each other anymore. Certainly never made love anymore.

Well, they were older, that was to be expected. People don’t make whoopie as often once the kids had grown and gone off to college, off to their own lives. The parents settled into a slower, more comfortable pace, a more predictable routine. A good book would do just about as well after a hard day at work. Right?

Right? He wasn’t so sure somehow. He still wanted to make love sometimes, still found his wife attractive, older or not. He heard himself sniggle before the TV now: maybe he should rent an old school desk, give her a ruler, see what would happen! He could imagine the expression on Althea’s face—or lack of one. Might be worth it, though, if he could stop laughing long enough to explain it to her. Except.

Except she was never around anymore to laugh with. Always those damn fundraisers, social obligations. Oh well, hell. He was no spring chicken anymore. No more all-nighters like when they were first married. By the time ten o’clock rolled around these days he was beginning to lose steam. He wasn’t eighteen anymore.

It was enough just to lie in bed before the TV and occasionally catch one of his own spots. Still gave him a little thrill seeing the major campaigns all dressed up and ready for primetime. Ford. Prudential. And he was generally pleased with their current look since they’d brought that hot West Coast art director on board. Oh, it wasn’t exactly the look he would have used, but Stan seemed to think it was more cutting edge than the old stuff. You had to keep up. Couldn’t lag behind, appear dated. That was why he and Stan had always been successful, not afraid to bend to young ideas, take risks. He sat there now under the TV’s glow and thought: what was behind that little MEMBERS ONLY sign anyway?

Strange thing to have hanging in a porn shop. ‘Members’ only? What members? What could a little dump like that possibly show to customers that wasn’t already out on the front racks? What were they doing, attempting to appeal to a higher clientele? What the hell did that character behind the counter know about higher clienteles? He could show them a thing or two about higher clienteles!

Whatever it was it wasn’t that engorged pink mess out front; that stuff was about as arousing as a gynecological convention. No. It had to something else entirely. Something completely different. But what? He was only interested because he was in a creative field himself, had a natural inclination for the imaginative…

Mr. Conway glanced at his watch, sighed, heaved up and turned off the downstairs TV. He trudged to the bedroom and the upstairs TV. He clicked it on, watched the stock reports while undressing, flopped atop the duvet and channel surfed awhile with the remote.

Real girls maybe? Is that what they had behind that closed door? Yes. Perhaps. Bring in more business.

No, that didn’t make sense. That would make it a nightclub and they’d have to have a license for that along with a whole other set of hassles from the city. Dump like that could never afford it. Kiddy porn? Hmmm. No, that was worse. That was guaranteed jail time. And that guy behind the counter didn’t look stupid. Smarmy little smile, maybe, but not stupid.

Wait a minute! Maybe it was one of those—what did they all them, those godawful movies you used to hear about in the ‘70’s? Snuff films? That was it! The little grease ball at the counter had a projector set up in the back of the store for a bunch of psycho perverts sweating and twitching and getting off on people killing each other!

No, no, hold on. Surely the police would be on to that sooner or later too. Especially with that little alcove door so recklessly flaunting its MEMBERS ONLY sign.

He snorted and shrugged it off, killed the TV, the nightstand light and turned over, fluffing his pillow. No point in waiting up for Althea. Probably out on the lake somewhere, big yacht bash with the mayor. He closed his eyes, snuggled down, waited for sleep.

The smile on that little jerk behind the counter… like he knew something Mr. Conway didn’t know himself. Impudent asshole. He could buy that crummy little hole in the wall a hundred times over, put in a real store, dress up the street, get rid of the sleaze. Maybe he’d speak to Althea about it, her buddy the mayor. Might be good PR for the firm. Maybe even contribute some company money to that rundown block, a pro bono thing. Smarmy little grinning prick. What the hell did guys like that do for a life?

Althea got home at ten.

Mr. Conway was almost asleep but her perfume woke him.

“Did you have a good day?” she asked—her usual while undressing.

“All right, I guess,” from his pillow.

“That’s nice.”

He watched her. Two children, eighteen years of marriage—and she still had a figure. Not the same figure but definitely a figure. Remarkable. The expensive spas and occasional lifts didn’t hurt, he supposed, but still…

“The Brewster people called again,” he remarked, watching her graceful back.

“Oh? What did you tell them?”

He sighed. “I didn’t take the call.”

She slid heavy silk over still-firm breasts. “Oh, darling, why don’t us just take the bloody account?”

It surprised him—her tone. Impatient. Maybe a little dismissive. “It’s a question of morals, Althea. The product is potentially dangerous.”

She tossed her slim shoulders. “All cigarettes are potentially dangerous, that hasn’t stopped you before.”

He stuck his hands behind his head. “This is different. They want this marketed specifically as a safe cigarette, that’s the whole point. There isn’t a campaign without it. I don’t want to be responsible for duping millions of nicotine-happy teens with something they think is harmless. Anyway, morals or not, we’d be creating a potential climate for hefty libel suits down the road.” He sighed heavily. “Just doesn’t feel right.”

She slid her long legs in next to him and reached for her light. “They’d sue Brewster Foods, dear, not Conway and Waterman.”

“That’s not the point.”

She yawned, “Okay.” She said nothing more and he let it go. He still hadn’t told Stan about the Brewster thing; maybe it was just as well. He lay against the warm, perfumed length of her and listened to her breathing grow regular. In a moment she was asleep, soughing gently.

“Althea? How would you feel about spanking me with a ruler, then sucking me off? Only swallowing this time?”

He said it to the dark, to the walls.

He drifted off himself a few minutes later, thinking about the little alcove door with the MEMBERS ONLY sign. Maybe it was a joke. A play on words. ‘Members’ as in ‘penises.’ Did that make sense? He was snoring himself before he’d decided.

* * *

Thursday morning Jack Binder of Binder Plumbing called and suggested lunch.

The Binder account had been an early one, a low-paying one for the firm, but it had helped keep Conway Associates eating during the lean years. Mr. Conway believed it was important to remember your beginnings and those that began with you, so he accepted the invitation to lunch, suggesting they dine at the Chinese restaurant where nobody spoke English he’d recently discovered.

That was his excuse.

The truth was, immediately after they’d finished eating and waved good-bye and let’s-do-it-again at the corner, Mr. Conway walked briskly the two blocks to the corner where his car had been stalled the day before, and directly into the dingy little porno shop.

“Nuther phone call?” grinned the counter man.

Mr. Conway countered the counter man’s grin with one of his own. “How does one become a member?” he demanded, nodding at the little alcove door.


“Come on.”

The counter man held his grin. “Oh, that.”

“Is there a fee? A membership tariff of some kind?”

The counter man shook his head. “No membership fee.”

“It’s free then? All right, I’d like to join.”

The counter man put down his Reader’s Digest. “Join what?”

Mr. Conway gestured impatiently. “The club, the club! Or whatever it is you’ve got back there.”

Facetious eyes studied him. “You wanna join somethin’ you don’t even know what it is?”

Mr. Conway rocked once irritably on the balls of his feet. “Let’s just say my curiosity’s aroused.”

“Yeah? That’s what’s aroused?”

“Very cute. Come on, what do you say?”

Now the counter man turned at last, slowly and deliberately as though seeing Mr. Conway for the first time. He studied the door in question. Then he looked back and studied Mr. Conway a long moment. “Naww…you ain’t ready for that yet.”

Mr. Conway raised up on his toes again, cleared his throat indignantly. “Aren’t you a little presumptuous? How exactly does one qualify for admittance?”

The counter man cocked his head reflectively, looked Mr. Conway up and down unhurriedly. “Well now, you might call it intuition. I can always tell about potential members.” He turned leisurely in his chair and gave Mr. Conway the once-over one more time–from his Brooks Brothers tie to his Andre Bellini shoes. “A fella has a certain look.”


He shook his head. “You ain’t got the look.” The grinned widened. “No offense.”

“Now listen—“

“Try cubicle 12.”

“I’ve already admired your retro peep show.”

“Not number 12 you ain’t.”

“I’d prefer the members only club, thank-you.”

“Sorry. Maybe some other time. We don’t let just anyone in. Try number 12, we guarantee satisfaction!”

What am I doing? he thought with some amazement, standing here in this sleaze hole on my lunch hour talking to this grinning idiot about peep show rooms! I should get out of here!

So he did. But not before investigating cubicle 12.

It was an experience. The girl was nothing special. But the guy! He could only have been a circus performer—a sideshow freak. Such convolution, such gymnastics! Mr. Conway had never seen the like. Triple-jointed is what the guy must have been. It was a truly educational experience. Mr. Conway was tempted to applaud after his last quarter finished the reel.

But it wasn’t what he’d come to see.

“Do I qualify for membership now?” he addressed the man behind the counter.

The grin was really getting on his nerves. “Come back some other time!”

“Don’t think I don’t know what you’re up to! Don’t think I just fell off the turnip truck—I’m a man of means, a man with more money, more connections, more…everything than you could begin to conceive in your wildest dreams!”

“That’s nice.” Grin.

“I was pulling bait and switch tactics when you were still in your Buster Browns! I know how to prime a customer, dangle a carrot, tease the mark, slam shut the trap and close the deal! I’ve been up against the best, pal, the very best! There’s nothing a punk like you could teach me! Now I want to see what’s behind that door!”

“Fine. No problem. But some other time.”

Mr. Conway rocked righteously on his heels. “Impudent little slug! I won’t be back!”

* * *

He came back every day for the next month.

And always the answer was the same: polite, congenial, unhurried but firm. “You ain’t quite ready yet.”

The little door, the dangling sign, haunted his dreams. Both the day and night variety. He saw the dangling sign at the office.  He saw it superimposed over the TV screen at night. He saw it in the faces of his employees, in his won ton soup, in the silk luster of his wife’s evening gown. He fantasized about it when he should have been working, conjuring every conceivable scenario, every possible image of defilement and debauchery, every imaginable tableau of rampant licentious libertinage.

But none of these, he knew, were the answer to the mystery, the secret. Something extraordinary lay beyond the flaking veneer of that warped little door. Something he could wonder about forever and never know until he saw. There was a kind of crude genius at work here, a subliminal sort of hypnosis, and only those deemed privileged were rewarded. Only the elite.

Mr. Conway was one of the elite. He could sense it, feel it in his bones, always had. He’d been born one of the elite, the privileged, the inheritor of greatness and greatly coveted secrets. He just couldn’t convince the grinning man behind the counter. Not yet…

* * *

He became a man obsessed.

He was nearing the point of drastic action: sneaking down the darkened block at night, forcing entry into the filthy little hole, revealing what lay hidden behind the little door under the reproachful eye of the full moon. He actually felt cunning enough to pull it off; but that wasn’t the way, he knew. In some cosmic way he understood that this was a privileged event, a trust to be earned. A road paved with patience.

One bright, sunny but typically dull Tuesday afternoon several months later, he had an inspiration. Why not make this Tuesday different? Break routine! Skip lunch, forget all about Conway and Waterman Associates, forget all about the dingy little porno shop on the corner,  jump in his car, whisk himself home without so much as a phone call ahead and surprise Althea with dinner at the most expensive, secluded hideaway in town! They hadn’t done that years, and she used to adore that kind of spontaneous frivolity…before the company had become the center of his life, filled his every waking hour, turned him, perhaps, into a husband that didn’t deserve her. It was a splendid idea.

The problem was, by the time he arrived home to their nine room mansion, Althea was already eating. Only she wasn’t alone and she wasn’t doing it in the dining room exactly. She was doing it in the swimming pool with Mr. Conway’s trusted friend and partner Stan Waterman.

The pool was just off the driveway so Mr. Conway had a front row seat of the entire show in vivid, commercial-free detail. He never would have believed his wife was such a…gourmet. She certainly had a surprisingly healthy appetite. Perhaps the most tragic thing was that all the splashing and huffing wasn’t what bothered him most—or even that it was his best friend and business partner providing the smorgasbord. It was the fact that Stan had apparently been frittering away his afternoons this way for some time now, frolicking with his supposedly jaded, un-passionate wife instead out cementing deals. That’s what bothered him the most, and that Mr. Conway found sad.

He sat there for a long time in his beautiful Boxter and watched them. Eventually he realized the main reason the scene was so arresting was he’d seen it before, or at least some variation of it. Then it came to him. His business partner was using the same contorted gymnastic techniques as that guy in the film behind door 12! It was amazing! He really had it down! Ole Stan must have watched that film a hundred times inside that sweaty little cubicle! Mr. Conway couldn’t understand why he and his partner hadn’t crossed paths before now under the grinning man’s counter! Trouble was–he had to admit–ole Stan was pretty good. Althea certainly seemed to think so.

The rest of scene played out like a bad B movie. The Boxter screeched to the edge of the pool, Mr. Conway leapt out, Althea shrieked piercingly, Stan leapt around the water like hooked carp searching for his bathing suit, Mr. Conway chasing him with the aluminum pool skimmer.

Afterward, Mr. Conway went for a long walk.

But not to the little porno shop. He didn’t even think about that. He thought about his childhood mostly, how comparatively happy that had been, in contrast to the last few years of what had become—he had to face it—the lifeless corpse of a marriage. And he felt himself grow bitter inside, laughing a mirthless laugh, shaking a mortified head. Goddamn Stan Waterman: no wonder the bastard never had lunch with him anymore…

Later that night at home, as he was turning down the bed in the guest room, tossing back his third vodka gimlet and allowing himself to visualize the first vague images of what would doubtless prove a phenomenally costly divorce, the phone rang. It was Stan Waterman and he wanted to apologize. He’d had a few gimlets himself, apparently.

“Stan, go fuck yourself.”

“Please, I don’t want to dissolve the partnership!”

“Stan, the partnership is dissolved.”

“No, please. It’s a big mistake doing that, trust me.”

“Trust you?”


“Blow me.”

He started to hang up , then—probably because the vodka was making him feel perverse—he added a parting shot: “By the way, your technique isn’t half as good as that guy in room 12.”

There was a sobering pause from Stan’s end. Then: “You saw the film?”

“The guy had it all over you, Waterman. Good-bye.”

“Wait! Listen, there’s something I’ve got to ask you! That little alcove door to the right of the counter, the one marked ‘members only,’ did…did you get inside it?”

“Did you?”


“Good-bye, Stan.”

Well, that was some consolation at least: the cuckolding bastard had never seen the inside of the mysterious little cubicle. At least that hadn’t been taken from him! He snapped shut his cellular and sat there staring at it. But by God, he’d see it! And he’d see it tonight! And he wouldn’t take no for an answer! He’d taken enough shit today!

Mr. Conway dressed quickly, strangely steady on his feet and clear-headed after three vodka gimlets, and passed his wife’s door on his way downstairs.

“Darling, I’d like to talk with you—“

He hardly heard her. He was on a mission.

* * *

He arrived after midnight but the shop was open 24 hours, so that was fine.

He pushed through the front door, marched straight to the wood counter and the grinning face behind it. His voice was level, controlled, but adamant. “I want to—“

“—join the Members Only Club,” grinned the Cheshire face, “of course. We’re all ready for you, Mr. Conway, step right this way!”

‘Mr. Conway’? Had he ever mentioned his name?

The counter man stepped to the door with the little hand-lettered sign and placed his fingers on the silvery knob. He turned. “One hundred dollars, please.”

He’d expected something like this. All right. He was prepared. He’d pay, gladly. Nothing was going to prevent him from stepping through that paint-flaking door, even if he found only an empty, cobwebbed room.

And that’s about what he found. That, a single straight-backed metal chair, and a portable, glass beaded home movie screen atop a crooked stand. The counter man gestured toward the metal chair. “The feature will begin in a moment.  Popcorn?”  And he snorted a laugh.

“Just get on with it!” Mr. Conway snorted back, seating himself imperiously.

The counter man exited. In a moment the room went dark. There was faint, familiar whir, and the screen grew bright. The lighting and sets seemed Spartan even by grindhouse standards. The girl wasn’t even pretty. She wore a plan gingham dress and a plain, even old-fashioned, hairstyle. And a very plain smile. Her figure was…well, plain.

She stood in an ordinary little apartment kitchen preparing what appeared to be a simple evening meal. Nothing fancy here either, not even particularly healthy food: the old-fashioned meat and potatoes variety as opposed to the vegetarian dishes he had forced on himself in recent years. After the meal was prepared (and it took some time, during which the hard metal chair grew even harder) she brought it smiling into a modest dining area and placed it on a modest walnut table before the camera. She lit a candle, unfastened her apron, and then—to his further amazement—sat down, dished herself a portion and began eating.

This also took some time.

Mr. Conway cleared his throat impatiently, craned over his shoulder at the mote-dancing cone of light behind him. The projectionist and/or counter man were not to be seen in the gloom.

After dinner, the girl cleaned the dishes, winked at the camera with a warm smile, and moved into the modest living room where she relieved the hall closet of a sweater. If Mr. Conway thought he was about to witness a strip tease, he was wrong. She merely put the sweater on over her dress and left the apartment. The screen went dark momentarily.

Mr. Conway squirmed in the metal chair. What the hell was this leading up to?

When the camera next picked her up, the girl was walking in a city park at night. She trailed the shore of a dark expanse of lake, the moonlight silvered on its still waters. The stars were out, millions of them, and they twinkled jewel-like overhead. Occasionally the girl would turn and smile at a couple passing her on the park walkway, holding hands, heads together, taking their time, stealing a kiss between lamplights.

After a time, she came upon an empty bench facing the lake. She sat down. The camera sat down beside her. She looked out at the lake. The stars were diamonds in the clear air, reflected in her glistening eyes, which really weren’t that unattractive in close shots. She sat gazing contentedly at the lake for the next twenty minutes.

Then she turned to the camera, smiled warmly again, and mouthed three simple words. Mr. Conway couldn’t quite make out what they were. In a moment, the screen went dark. The lights came up. The counter man stood grinning from the doorway behind the projector.

Mr. Conway stared back, incredulous. “That’s it?”

The grin never faltered. “That’s it!”

“A hundred dollars for a walk in the park with a homely girl!”

“Don’t forget the dinner and lake.”

“A hundred dollars!”

The counter man shrugged. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Mr. Conway stood up fast, fists clenched at his sides. “I want my money back!”

The inevitable shaking of the head. “Club dues are non-refundable.”

Mr. Conway started to steam…then settled down, nodded contemptuously, wryly. “So that’s it, huh? That’s the scam: lure a guy with vague promises and sly innuendo, get him worked up for months, then rip him off! Is that how you keep this little dump operating, off the money from gullible slobs like me?”

“You’re among our most valued clientele, Mr. Conway.”

“I’ll bet I am.”

He shouldered past the grinning face and stalked to the shop door. He felt…strange inside.

“I’m having dinner with the police commissioner tomorrow night,” he said authoritatively. It sounded about as pertinent as it did likely.

Bon appetite!” from the counter man.

Mr. Conway slammed the door behind him.

* * *

Things were even worse the next day.

He arrived at the office early, bent on setting the wheels of partnership dissolution grinding. He was greeted by looks of sheepish guilt from most of his staff amid a sea of cardboard boxes. The boxes were slowly being filled by the staff with their personal effects. For one ludicrous moment, he thought Stan had gone completely crazy and fired everyone in the office; then the awful truth became apparent. Stan was leaving all right, and taking the staff with him. And from the looks on their faces, it was a voluntary decision.

It wasn’t until that moment he understood the depth of Stan Waterman’s deviousness…and his height within the firm. Who, after all, dealt with all the major clients day after day, having carefully, skillfully built up a personal relationship with them through the years, ate dinners at their homes, knew all their kids by name? And what self-respecting office employee wouldn’t go with the player who held all the most marbles–and the contacts to secure more marbles? The answer was confirmed a few minutes later when Mr. Conway found himself alone in a desert of empty desks and cubicles.

He went to his own office and sat down in his leather chair, sat down very hard. He stared out the window. A skeleton crew of old timers had remained loyally behind, but he was essentially alone in the building and assumed—if he hadn’t completely lost his edge– just about wiped out financially. So this is what Stan had meant on the phone when describing the break-up as a ‘big mistake.’ His mistake, not Stan’s.

He called his secretary to order lunch in, but his secretary had defected too. He called his lawyer and his lawyer was just sick about the whole thing, just really broken up because gosh he’d known Mr. Conway for years even before Stan had joined the firm–but when faced with the choice of going with the most assets the ugly truth was, Stan simply had more—

Mr. Conway hung up.

He stared out the window. Even after the sun began to set. He was, most likely, ruined.

Funny, then, in the midst of all this, he should be thinking about the girl in the film. The plain girl in the plain gingham dress with the plain but somehow sincere smile. She wasn’t pretty, that girl. But she’d had nice eyes…

* * *

He found more packing going on at home.

Althea wasn’t going to wait around and endure all the gory details of a divorce, he could handle that. She had friends in Jamaica. She’d phone him.

The house was quite still without her but that was nothing new. He sat staring at the Jay Leno Show silently, seeing only two soft brown eyes, a gingham dress, a lake, and stars that twinkled restfully, peacefully off its mirrored surface. Althea and he had walked beside a lake like that once, in another time, another world. It was what he was thinking about when he finally dozed off. It was, in fact, what allowed him to doze off.

He woke the next morning knowing exactly what he would do, what he must do. It was the next logical step in his life, perhaps even a preordained one. And he didn’t even have to go into the office to do it. He phoned Brewster Foods right there in his bedroom.

“Conway here, Mr. Brewster. Sorry it took so long to get back to you. Yes, we’d like to begin work on the Safety Cigarette campaign right away. We’re very excited about it.”

After that he called his office and told the remaining staff all about the account. It felt good to get it off his chest finally. They were very excited too. Then, he dressed, drank a glass of orange juice and headed in. Strange how good he felt despite all the recent upheaval in his life. He felt relaxed, almost peaceful. When he arrived at the office it was to a chorus of cheers. We’ll show Waterman what a Conway and Associates campaign can do! This was a slam dunk! Why, the account was so big they’d have to hire a new art director immediately!

He interviewed one that very day, took him to lunch at the Chinese restaurant where no one spoke English, an affable young man from L.A., full of daring new L.A. ideas. They shook hands at the corner and the young man started work that afternoon. Mr. Conway didn’t join him back at the office, though; he walked down the street a couple of blocks from the restaurant.

“I want to see the film again,” he told the man behind the counter.

“Great film, isn’t it!” the man grinned. “Only one in the whole place I still look at. Reminds me of my first wife!”

“I’d like to see it again, please.”

“Why certainly, Mr. Conway, you’re a member now!”

He stepped to the door and paused beside the silvery knob. “Two hundred dollars, please.”

Mr. Conway went pallid. “Two hundred! That’s highway robbery!”

“That’s the price.”

Mr. Conway stamped his foot. “It’s ridiculous! I won’t pay it!” And he turned on his heel and stalked to the door and slammed it behind him.

He went back, of course. Again and again, week after week, month after month, to sit on the bench beside the girl and watch the lake… watch the diamond stars reflect on its surface. Even though the price doubled with every visit and he spent a small fortune in the process. He had to. It was the only way he could sleep at night. Besides, wasn’t he, after all, the boss? Hadn’t he just sewed up the most important advertising campaign in history? Wouldn’t it gross millions of dollar annually?

Damn right it would.


Copyright 2011 Bruce Jones Associates, Inc.


This is a story about loss. Something we all deal with, in our individual ways, every day. It’s hard not to think of loss in these times with so much of it around: Japan, Alabama, Louisiana, Joplin, recession, joblessness, Oprah Winfrey. Watching the HBO movie Too Big To Fail last night gave the word a whole new slant. Loss. Change the last letter to a “t” and you have a completely different word with an almost hauntingly identical meaning.


They say “every time you lose something, you gain something.” So why then does it—sometimes—hurt so much? Death is the elephant in the room here. Death of a family member, death of a close friend, death of a marriage—those are supposed to be the Big Three. I’ve experienced all in the exact reverse order, the last as recently as this week—a decades old friend with whom I shared both the love of art and the eccentricities of our entwining careers.  I cannot imagine not hearing his voice ever again, his laugh, his laments, his ingeniously idiosyncratic mind. Who will I turn to now for that part of me that was him? Yet isn’t my own passing as inevitable as his? These bodies are but borrowed, these surrounding hovels as temporary as the next great wind. Why do we cling to both as if they were timeless, adamantine? Under it all aren’t we as nakedly finite as the stars that made us? Or as Updike, in one of his last novels, Villages, put it far more eloquently: “It is a mad thing, to be alive. Villages exist to moderate this madness—to hide it from children, to bottle it for private use, to smooth its imperatives into habits, to protect us from the darkness without and the darkness within.” One of our great writers…now one of our greatest losses.

Losing a premature baby was my first great loss and without a doubt the worst. I wept for weeks. It turned me inside out. I thought the agony would never end. So traumatized was I, that when my wife again became pregnant (a risky one) I honestly believed I wouldn’t make it to full term. But the baby, a beautiful boy, was born—not without incident—happy and healthy and in every way perfect. I knew it was our last child and was surprised to find a measure of relief in that. I’d never have to go through the awful fear of that kind of loss again.

Except the one thing you can be sure about life is: you can never be sure about any of it.

One sunny day when my boy was five, we drove to a favorite beach in Ventura County to stroll the shops and take the sea air. There was a small emporium containing an indoor carousel and snack bar I thought my son might enjoy. I put him on one of the wooden horses, watched him laugh and wave round and round, then took him to the snack bar for popcorn. There was some protracted problem about the right change that is no longer clearly memorable to me. What is indelibly memorable is my turning around, popcorn in hand, to find my son—ten seconds ago at my side—gone.

The terror comes in building stages. At first you realize, hey, he was just here, couldn’t have gone far, must be over by the carousel watching the horses. Then, finding he is not there or anywhere else in the emporium, you think (panic rising but still manageable) he must have stepped outside: it’s been less than a minute. The all-out terror comes when you search around the building still not finding him, start searching the concourse and find that too is empty, and it hits you that someone that small could not possibly have gotten so far away: unless he was taken.

The thing I remember most? The look on an elderly lady’s face when I accosted her on the concourse in a state of deteriorating frenzy. “Have you seen a little boy?” I asked. Maybe it was the sound of my own voice or the look on my face, but to this day I can still hear with clear distinction every syllable of her reply: “Oh, no!”   That single “no” has followed me down the years, ever just at my shoulder, followed by my own thoughts: Stupid, stupid, stupid! Bad father!

I had never spanked my boy in his life. But when I came back through the emporium door, drained and dazed, looked up and saw my son ease smiling from behind the wooden snack counter, spanking and spanking him very hard was exactly what I intended as I rushed toward him. Instead, of course, I swept him into my arms, hugged him till he yelped and muttered, choking against him: “Don’t ever do that again!”

Years older now, he doesn’t even recall an event I know will live forever within me. Every grueling second of it.

Of all my stories the one that follows is—for the most part, at least—probably the most autobiographic. The ending’s pure fiction, of course, although that too, I suppose, might someday become an eventuality. In the meantime, maybe, like Robert Wilkes, you’ve had–weaving life’s ever surprising obstacle course–a similar experience while playing




                                                                 Bruce Jones


ROBERT Wilkes pushed through lethargic exit doors into chill December night, sucking the cold into his lungs with a gasp.

“Jesus, it’s freezing out here!”

His wife burrowed deeper in her fur-trimmed coat, hunched lower with a trembling nod. “Amen.”

Her way of reminding him not to take certain individuals name’s in vain so close to the season. They walked briskly across the parking lot, tracking through icy rivers of slush–filthy from endless parades of chained tires–squinting against sudden rude blasts of stinging wind. “Holiday spirit or no holiday spirit,” he grunted, “I’m glad that’s over with. Christmas is for the young, the very young.” He shifted heavy store packages in his arms.

She turned abruptly, made a stricken face. “Damn!”

He stopped, icy vapor fluttering, dread building. “What is it?”

She gave him that look he dreaded most at times like this, one of sheepish apology. “I forgot someone!”

“Oh, Lindy, no!” His toes were already beginning to lose feeling.

“It’s Kim Jameson down the block! She gave us that beautiful dish last year, we can’t just forget her!”

He groaned, cast his eyes heavenward. “I can!”

“You go on to the car,” she told him, shivering violently. “You can turn on the heater, I’ll only be a few minutes.”

He looked down the long, darkened parking lot and shook his head. “We’re almost out of gas and you won’t be a few minutes, you’ll be tied up forever in line with other last minute Yule-tiders brimming with holiday spirit.” And sighing regret: “I’d better go with you.”

A gust of wind pushed them back the way they’d come. He held her arm, guiding her around frozen lakes and pot holes, asking himself for the hundredth time that evening why in hell he didn’t do his Christmas shopping in August. It was the same thing every year, as if he deliberately planned this agony for himself—some guilt-edged form of self-punishment. For sleeping late on Sundays, he thought; this is the way I do penance with the Lord.

For a moment, the warm rush of store air from within was a relief as they reentered the stampede, but within the space of two minutes someone jabbed him hard in the ribs, a child stepped on his already screaming toes, and the all-too familiar din of scurrying humanity gave new life to his once-fading headache. He heaved resigned breath as they approached the cattle chute at the escalator. If you squint your eyes, he thought, it’s like that scene from the silent classic Metropolis: soulless workers trudging to mechanized doom.

His wife must have seen the look on his face. “There’s no need for you to fight this, honey,” she said with endearing sympathy. “Somewhere there’s a book department on this floor, why don’t you browse around there while I look upstairs for Kim’s present? It’ll give you a chance to put the packages down.”

He had to love her. “What if we get lost?”

“We won’t. You just stay with the books. I’ll finish up and come to you!”

And he had to admit it sounded good. Better than watching her search through feminine apparel or dishware or whatever she was after. Christ. He didn’t even like Kim’s husband. “All right. Make it quick as you can though, huh Lindy?”

She gave his arm a patient squeeze, proffered that smile that said I love you despite all this mess. Just before she got to the escalator, he saw her point across the store expansively, silently mouth: Books—that way! Then the crowd swallowed her like a living thing.

He strained above the sea of bobbing heads to see where she’d indicated, saw only more bobbing heads, shrugged and struck off in what he hoped was the general direction.

Somewhere above the shuffling turmoil overhead speakers broadcast an ancient rendition of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen by an Irish tenor whose name he couldn’t recall, though he’d heard the song a thousand times over the years. Christmas classics. Right. The old speakers—or maybe the undulant crowd—made the song sound tinny. The way his brother used to tell him he sounded at choir practice. He chuckled under his breath. It was impossible to think of those days without a little rush of nostalgic warmth. And with it, an edge of guilt. Where along the way had he managed to lose his faith? The dealership? The mortgage? No…long before that. Maybe around the time he knew his wife knew they weren’t going to be rich after all…

His faith. His church. He could still see his father’s powerful frame from where he, as a child, had sat in the front row of pew, gazing with unending awe and fascination at the strong hands gripping the pulpit, listening with unswerving love and reverence to the voice that drove out all fear and worry. And later, that same commanding voice, reduced to a gargled whisper by the cancer eating his throat, instructing him from the strange-smelling death bed to take care of Mommy and little brother Jim. He’d prayed to God that night with all his might not to take his father away, not to leave him alone with those terrible responsibilities, the dark, featureless future. But God, it seemed, wasn’t home that night. In the pale stillness of early morning light his father had slipped away…and with him taken the church…

A line of squirming children and bored mothers blocked his path. His weary eyes followed them down the aisle to the bright, hand-painted sign hanging above: Toyland—Visit Santa Here! He shook his head and skirted the slow-trudging line and zombie faces, picturing in his mind this year’s version of Santa: another sad-eyed old man in a padded suit of crimson and white trim, dutifully hoisting each recalcitrant youngster to his lap for $3.50 an hour, hiding, no doubt, a fifth of bourbon somewhere in the cardboard workshop behind him.

Just after entering Sporting Goods his nose was assaulted by a sudden noxious odor. Good Christ, he thought, what in the world…?

He made a face, craned about for the source. Did some kid vomit? Crap his little skivvies? The whole department reeked. He pushed past a burly, blue-haired woman and hurried to get out of there, watching where he stepped as best he could.

He rounded a corner and found himself in Hardware. He hesitated, looked right and left. “Books, books,” he mumbled, “where the hell do they keep the damn books…” The packages were becoming lead in his arms. A growing numbness crept to his left shoulder. Heart attack. Nice.

Then he saw the sign: Books—Stationery.

He grunted satisfaction and moved ahead, forging path like a wide receiver.

In twenty minutes he’d seen all the books he wanted to see.

He found himself leaning against a table heaped high with remainder volumes, packages at his feet, arms folded, back muscles resenting him, listening to—how many times was it now?—God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. The Muzak loop must have been stuck. Or maybe the store was just too cheap this season to up the variety. Right now he’d settle for six straight renditions of Jingle Bell Rock. Maybe even a chorus or two of Little Drummer Boy. Yeah, he thought, shifting his weight to his other aching arch, and a partridge in a pear tree.

He consulted his watch. It had been an hour since he’d left his wife at the escalator. Where the hell was she? Come on, Lindy, I’m slipping away here…

A woman shoved by and kicked the packages at his feet. Merry Christmas and fuck you very much.

He was hot under the heavy coat, had been hot for over half an hour now with no way to remove it. Should have left it in the damn car. Should have stayed in the damn car as Lindy had suggested. He knew she’d be late, they both had known she’d be late, she’d been trying to warn him. Shit.

He shifted his weight to the other leg, sighed. Wondered how many times he’s sighed that night. Why do people sigh, anyway? Just boredom or some necessary bodily function? Hadn’t he read somewhere it was caused by improper breathing or posture? That, by sighing, your body saturated the lungs with oxygen and thereby helped clear the brain. But was it voluntary or involuntary? Hadn’t he seen something on TV where–

–oh who the hell cares! Think about something else. Like a nice cold beer. Or six.

He glanced down at his watch again. It was exactly a minute and six seconds later than the last time he’d looked.

He closed his eyes there against the wooden counter. Please don’t start that damn song again. Please.

For a moment he thought he could almost fall asleep on his feet that way. Horses did it, why not humans? His uncle Allen had a horse once. Kept it in his back pasture. He remembered riding it a few times when he was very young. His Uncle told him once the crazy nag was always jumping the fence, running down the middle of the road, him chasing and cursing it. Funny image. What was that horse’s name, anyway? Angie? Agnus? Mr. Ed? Something. What if he opened his eyes right now and the whole crowd just disappeared. Wouldn’t that be cool? Maybe if he wished hard enough…

The crowd was still there. All but his wife.

Why were women always late? It wasn’t just a double standard, you know, they really were always late. Always. Lousy drivers, too. It was true. Always tell when you get behind some broad. Specially in traffic. Like they waited until you were sure they were going to make that red light, then slammed on their brakes in front of you. Lousy drivers and always late, habitually, every girl he’d ever known, Lindy one of the worst. It was a thing between them. He detested waiting for people, prided himself on his punctuality. She didn’t know the meaning of the word. Women. Great legs, though, had to give his Lindy that. Boobs could have been bigger, sure, but so what, at least they were real. But those legs. Especially before the kids came, remember that? Not an ounce of fat on her. Buns like apples. Guys used to stare at her when they passed on the sidewalk. He didn’t care, didn’t blame them. Let ‘em stare. He got to go home with—

–oh, shit…here came the song again.

He started to look down at his watch again, caught himself, jammed his hand into his coat pocket instead. A watched pot never boiled. Who comes up with crap like that anyway? And who cared? Useless information; his brain was full of it. Some truth to it, though. Glancing at his watch would only make it seem longer. Jesus but his back was killing him!

What was she doing up there for chrissake!

Maybe she was almost through. Maybe she’d found a gift and was standing at the head of the long check-out line, handing her plastic to the girl, or lady or whoever. He pictured the girl handing her back her card, smiling a Merry Christmas, saw his wife move back through the crowd with her package to the escalator, step on it, ride it down…cross the aisle to the book department. She’d be here any minute, any second…the next person to come into view—

He turned expectantly, seeing her smile in his mind’s eye, her waving arm. He scanned the myriad faces of strangers anxiously, searching, searching. Any second now, any second! The very next face would be hers—


He ground his teeth. Now I’m getting mad, damn it! Now I’m really getting teed! There was no earthly excuse for this! It had been the better part of two hours now! She dawdling around up there picking out just the right color of this or that, him down here with spikes through his back, arches on fire! Well, just wait till he saw her! He’d give her a piece of his mind all right, yes even in the middle of a department store! Not that the oblivious ignoramuses around him would notice! But he’d let her have it good, goddamnit, she deserved it! “And make it quick,” he’d told her! Right! She knew how exhausted he already was, the trouble he had with his feet! He’d offered to come back here to the store with her! He’d—

–an attractive girl came out of the sea of bodies and stopped to look at a book near him. She was slim and stately, really quite beautiful. Her swelling breasts strained against a yellow sweater, yellow like the waterfall of curls that fell to her small shoulders. My God; she could be a model. Easily. Maybe was a model. There was a time when girls her age used to look at him, used to notice him all the time, give him the eye. And not so long ago, either. He’d been something of a looker himself in his day. Damn straight. The chicks had dug him, no question about it. Even that teacher in high school that–

The girl looked up and caught him staring. He looked away quickly, pretended to be interested in one of the sale books. In a moment she’d crossed over closer to him. Picked up a book of her own, paged it, put it back. Crossed over closer to him. Right next to him, actually.

What was this? Was she interested? In me? Guy my age? Is she making a play here?

From the corner of his eye he could see the globes of her breasts move when she sighed boredom, turned a page. She wasn’t wearing a bra! Was she–?

He shifted his position again, cleared his throat nervously. What now? She was obviously inviting conversation. He was supposed to say something now, break the ice. But what? He was out of practice. He found himself craning around with a sudden hooded look of fear; of course Kim would show up now!

But she didn’t. And the girl inched closer. He could smell the oil in her hair…

He pictured himself turning to her, smiling, asking innocently about the book she was reading. Nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong with conversing with someone while he was waiting around here, no law against that. Just a quick word to open the conversation. He glanced askance quickly and thought he caught her smiling. She was interested! Never mind why, this absolutely beautiful knock-out doll was without a doubt coming on to him! Next thing he knew he’d be buying that book for her, escorting her to the exit door. Then a quick hamburger somewhere, if she wanted it, back to her apartment, a drink or two, and wham–into the old sack. He saw them heaving feverishly across the bed, bodies locked, her long nails digging his back, round hips bucking up to him, lovely mouth opening as she cried out in writhing orga—

The girl was gone.

He blinked once. Craned around. She was gone.

Jerk. Standing here in the middle of a neighborhood department store the night before Christmas Eve fantasizing about ravaging some poor innocent girl young enough to be your…

He looked at his watch. It was over two hours now. This was beyond ridiculous! Where was his wife!

A sudden chill found him. Wait a sec! What if she’d run into some kind of trouble? What if she couldn’t get to him? It had never occurred to him. He stood there trying to imagine what kind of trouble she might be in–couldn’t think of anything. Still, you never knew; this was an incredibly long time to wait. No check-out line was that long…

No. Something must have happened. This was serious. Two hours! Better go check on her, he thought, picking up the packages, better go see what’s wrong…

Then the thought: but what if she came down while he was going up? If he missed her now it would only delay things further. “You just stay with the books,” she’d said, “I’ll come find you.” Fine, but what if she had run into trouble, was in some kind of difficulty? He’d never forgive himself for just standing around doing nothing while she suffered.

He grimaced frustration. Lindy, Lindy! Why do you do these things to me?

But, hold on! His packages! If he left his packages here with a check-out girl, his wife might recognize them—a signal to wait for him to come back. Also, he wouldn’t have to worry about lugging them upstairs through that mob. Yes. That’s it, leave the packages down here.

“I was wondering if I could leave these with you for a few minutes?”

The ‘girl’ at the cash register was a fat, middle-aged woman with doughy face, blank expression, and red-rimmed eyes with no remaining patience in them.

“Someone’s supposed to meet me and I thought she might come by here and see the packages. I have to leave for a few minutes. Would you mind?”

“You want me to watch yer packages, mister?” flatly, drily.

“If it wouldn’t be inconvenient.”

She lowered her fat neck slowly to the presents in his arms. Arched a dubious brow. “Well, I can’t be held responsible–”

“Of course not. Just keep one eye open, that’s all!”

“Well…I dunno…”

“Please. It’s important.”

“Okay. Fine. Leave ‘em. But I don’t get the blame if they ain’t here when you come back.”

He lifted the gifts to the counter and pushed them to one side out of the way. She regarded them with lifted nose as if they were wrapped excrement. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, leaving them with this moron. Well, too late now.

He turned and struck off for the escalator.

*   *   *

He searched the entire second floor for Women’s Apparel. He couldn’t find it.

By then he was furious. With her, with himself, with the whole night, the whole stupid season. I’ll wring her neck, by God, I’ll wring her neck!

He began pushing angrily into the crowd again, not apologizing when he lurched into someone. It had become a separate entity, the crowd, a mini-Tsunami washing against him, blocking his path, crushing him against a shore of others. His head was pounding with every step, every jolting shove. The store was suffocating, reaching down and pulling him inside out. He longed now for the chilly blasts of wind in the parking lot, would have emptied his wallet for one quick breeze.

“Is there a lingerie department on this floor?”

The simpering high school girl behind the counter shrugged her small shoulders, snapped gum. “I’m not sure, sir, I’m just Christmas help.”

He clenched his fists until the nails dug into his palms. Was there no end to this madness? He stood glaring at the girl, hating her. “Well, is there someone who might know?”

She pointed a skinny arm without looking. “Miss Chadwick, next aisle over.” Thanks a holly jolly bunch, bitch!

He stopped short suddenly in the middle of the aisle.

Who said his wife was in lingerie anyway? He’d said it—he’d assumed it—not her! Christ, she could be on the third floor or the fourth, in dishware or chocolates! Anywhere in the damn store!

He hissed a curse under his breath. He’d spent twenty minutes up here, wandering around like a lunatic drug dog, while his wife was probably waiting downstairs for him right now, standing next to that obnoxious pig “guarding” his packages. Or no! Not at that counter! Lindy was waiting for him at the book department!

He rushed for the escalator. That’s where she was all right, he could just feel it, waiting downstairs for him in Books, craning about worriedly, wondering where in hell he was. He was a fool to ever leave the book department. He pushed onto the silvery moving stairs, waited impotently for the slow, mechanical descent. Please, he begged unseen forces, please don’t let her leave! Let her stay with the books until I get there!

Robert Wilkes jumped from the last step back into the first floor melee.

But which way? His head jerked about randomly. He turned a tight circle. Everything looked unfamiliar.

Goddamnit now, you were just here minutes ago! How could you forget so fast! His eyes fell on the glass-encased directory beside the escalator. “You see,” he told himself, breathing funny, “no need to panic. Try using your brain once in a while.” He quickly combed the list of departments here on the first floor. There was no book department listed.

He stepped back, wiping at his forehead. “What the hell is this!”

A pungent smell rolled over him suddenly. That same sickly odor again. Enough to make you gag. Where was it coming from?

Someone banged into his shoulder, spinning him lazily in place. He felt dizzy, light-headed. He couldn’t take much more of this, he needed to get out of here, to breathe! He shuffled off, directionless, trying to distance himself from the awful smell. It seemed he’d encountered that odor once before. Where? He got a quick flash of dun landscape at night…couldn’t expand on it…

He found himself wandering aimlessly in the music department, hollow eyes searching listlessly ahead for the overhanging sign that read, Books—Stationery. You’ll find it, you’ll find it, just don’t fly off the handle. It’s got to be here somewhere. Right around the next corner, it’ll be right around the next corner.

Five corners later he was totally lost.

He stood in the middle of Household Appliances, a whine building in his throat. This isn’t happening. This is a dream, a nightmare. He crossed on trembling legs to the nearest check-out station. The girl looked seasoned, sharp. Good! She would know where he was.

“The what?”

“Books!” he repeated above the din. “The book and stationery department. Can you tell me which way it is!”

“I’m sorry, we don’t have a book department in this store.”

He stared sightlessly at her. “But I was just there!”

She shook her head. “Must be confusing it with another store, sir.”

“I’m telling you—“

“Sir, I’ve been working here for six years now, and we’ve never had any kind of books. Ever.”

He became aware his mouth was hanging open. “…but I…was just…”

She turned away to take someone’s money. He felt the crowd around him, eyes staring at him.

“God rest ye merry gentleman, let nothing you dismay…” The music rang dully from the ceiling speaker above him. Through him. Stabbing into his brain. He stumbled numbly down the aisle, bumping off people like a pinball. “…remember Christ our savior was born on Christmas day…”

A fat man banged into him, jarring his teeth, almost knocking him over. “Sorry, buddy.” He looked up helplessly at the bright sprawl of Christmas decorations festooning the walls, the ceiling. He tried to think. The decorations swam.

And then it came to him—where his wife would be. The car! Sure! She’d gotten tired of waiting for him in the store and gone to sit in the car, get off her feet! She had her own set of keys—it was where she’d expect him to look for her!

He pushed with renewed will to the first exit he saw, a wave of relief sweeping him. It was almost over now. Soon he’d be beside her in the car, putting it in gear, backing out of the congested lot. Tomorrow they would laugh at this! The packages? She’d probably picked them up herself. And that girl at the other check-out station was off her nut—no book department indeed! He’d been there, hadn’t he?

He wormed through the exit doors into sharp winter air again, basking in the cold wind, hurried across the dark, icy lot as fast as his legs would carry him. Even his headache didn’t seem so bad now. He grinned. It was going to be okay. He could feel the bed under him, the heating pad across his back…

He couldn’t find the car.

He combed the freezing lot twice, carefully checking every vehicle, shaking his head in bewilderment. Nowhere among them was his yellow Tempo.

He looked at the watch with giddy panic. It was almost ten. Over three hours now. The store would close in a few minutes. He started back across the big lot a third time. Please…please…

Then it struck him. She’d left! Something had happened and she’d driven on home! Probably she’d looked for him at Books, failed to find him and couldn’t wait around. He hurried back to the store, heart pounding. Why in hell had he not brought his cellular? Got to get to a pay phone, call home, before they close!

A picture of his child flashed before his eyes. Something had happened to Lonnie! The bath tub? The sitter had called the store, had them paged, but he couldn’t hear it in all the bustle! But Lindy had heard, and had  left without him!

Dimly at first, he became aware it felt warmer outside. He was actually sweating under his heavy coat and his breath wasn’t making vapor anymore. My God, the temperature must have risen thirty degrees! Then the awful smell washed over him again. Even out here?

He gagged. What was that reek? A restaurant garbage dump? It was nearly unbearable.

He reentered the store and quickly found his way to a pay phone. He punched his number with shaking fingers, waited for the ring tone. Waited. It never came. An operator came on instead.

“What number are you dialing, please?”

Now what? his mind cried. He gave her the number, voice shaking.

“One moment, please…”

He clutched the receiver tightly. Please God, why are you punishing me?



“I’m sorry, there is no listing for that number. Would you care to check the number and have me try again?”

“Operator, that’s my home number, I think I know it!”

“One moment, please…”

He waited in agony. Above him the song started again. “God rest ye merry gentlemen…”

Shut up! His mind screamed. Shut up! SHUT UP!

“I’m sorry, sir, but there is no listing for—“

“Operator for the love of God!”

“Sir, do you wish me to try another number?”

“No, I wish you to do your job you moronic bitch!” He slammed the receiver into the cradle. He stood shaking uncontrollably. I’m sick. I’m sick, that must be it. The flu or something. After a moment he lifted his head, lifted the phone again, punched in his number.


“What number are you dialing, please?”

He replaced the receiver slowly, gently. Stood for several seconds staring quietly at it. It looked like an alien thing. “It’s the store,” he muttered aloud, “the store hates me…the store is trying to get me…” It was alarming how real the idea seemed. He could feel his heart laboring painfully in his chest, his breath whistling.

He took the receiver again and dialed information. “May I have the number of the nearest cab company in the Shadybrook area?”

The cab arrived in front of the store in ten minutes.

Robert Wilkes rushed outside and jumped into the back seat, slamming the door behind him. He was dripping sweat. It was almost humid outside.

“Where to, Mac?”

“Ninety-seven twenty-three Maple Drive.” He felt himself pushed back against the seat cushion as the cab accelerated. A few more minutes now and it would all be over, the whole horrible night would all be over.

The smell assaulted him again through the cracked window. He could hardly take a breath. “Where’s it coming from?” he asked the driver.

“What that, Mac?”

“That odor, that smell?”

“Can’t smell a thing, pal, got a head cold.”

He sat in silence the rest of the way. All he wanted was to get home and find out what was happening—put an end to this hideous evening. Until he did, he didn’t want to think about smells or phone numbers or book departments or anything. Those things could wait; right now the sole occupant of his thoughts was his wife. He shivered once spastically. Somewhere deep within him, he’d begun to fight the insane notion he’d never see her again…

The tires made a crisp sound on the pavement as the cab turned onto his street. He watched the familiar line of his neighbors’ houses passing by. The homes on either side were butted together in an unbroken line: welcome to suburbia. Welcome home.

His house was not among them.

He couldn’t seem to find his voice.

”Which one is yours, Mac?”

He blinked out at the night. “Are…are you sure we’re on the right street?”

“This is the only Maple Drive in this burg, pal,” and the driver set the brake.

Wilkes opened the door carefully and stepped into the street, staring intently at the line of homes. There could be no mistaking it. This was his street all right. He just didn’t live here anymore.

A horn blared behind him. “Hey, buddy! You payin’ tonight or what!”

He fished bills from his wallet, handed them absently to the cabby. The taxi jerked away in a cloud of fumes. Silence settled around the man on the empty street. He came to the sidewalk, stepped up on the curb, stared numbly at the houses before him.

He closed his eyes and felt a sob break in his chest. God help me…I’m losing my mind!

He felt a wave of suffocating heat wash over him. A fever? Something he’d eaten earlier? Sweat ran in rivers under his clothes. He opened his eyes and stumbled backward in shock.

The line of houses in front of him was gone. Replaced by a broken landscape of charred rubble, little islands of dirty, drifting smoke.

He turned with a gasp and began running blindly down the steaming sidewalk. As far as his fevered eyes could see, the neighborhood was leveled; an endless black field of twisted, gutted frames canted in terrible contrast before a glowing cyclorama of orange sky. Everywhere was devastation and ruin.

And the smell was overpowering.

He recognized it now; it was the same odor he’d encountered in Iraq. The odor of decaying flesh.

His shoe caught on a piece of shattered concrete and he twisted, pin-wheeled and crashed to the pavement. He winced pain, stared down with unbelieving eyes at the burns on his body, his wasted flesh, ribs jutting white under dust-smudged, shredded clothing. He tried to push up again, but the effort sent slivers of pain through his leg. He seemed to have no strength at all.

*   *   *

He sat alone in the center of the rubble-strewn remains of what had once been a church.

Above him, the poisonous red clouds boiled together and sent a light curtain of rain hissing across the parched earth. The sound it produced was the only sound against the night, save the occasional rumble of thunder.

Robert Wilkes heard none of this. Nor saw the glowing holocaust around him. Nor felt the stifling heat. He braced himself against the frigid blasts of December wind as he and Lindy struggled across the slush-strewn parking lot to the department store entrance. Once again he regarded with irritation the seething mob of last-minute shoppers.

For the eighth time that day, Robert Wilkes relived the same endless dream kept alive by a single thread of sanity still pulsing feebly within his mangled mind. All alone among the crumbling rubble, rocking gently to and fro, he crooned softly to the radiation-choked heavens above.

“God rest ye merry gentleman,” he sang, “let nothing you dismay…”







Copyright 2011 Bruce Jones Associates, Inc.