These columns are posted from newest to oldest, as is the custom in these backward times. Scroll down - all the way if you have some time to kill- and read any posting that strikes your fancy. They're all over the map, subjectwise, so dig in!


Fatherless Day

Fatherless Day

I suppose it’s not surprising that now, each time I visit the house I grew up in, my feeling of missing my Dad deepens. He is palpably still here; in the woodwork, the crappy furniture, the signs of disrepair, the glorious garden that rises and falls along steps and narrow pathways covered in brown oily leaves from the olive trees. Everywhere there are the skeletal remains of his inexpert handy-work; more than 50 years of sagging redwood structures and listing trellises. Everything is drenched with both his attentions and his disregard in equal measure. The shadow and light of his moods slant and scurry about the walls and through the windows, the property so christened in his personality that it will never be rid of him. The next owners will remodel, paint, scrape, scrap and scrub – but he’s in the foundations now, in the pipes, the joists, and the belly. No amount of cleaner can get him out of here. Sorry, Realtor. Apologies, Mr. and Ms. New Owners, whoever you may be someday. He conveys.

While he lived, his happiest days were in this house, and when it came time to die last August, he did it here, suddenly, after a brief decline of body and spirit. His wife – love of his life – is here still, looking for him in all the strange, unlikely places of the house. It is incomprehensible that he is not here with her, and so she simply fails to comprehend it. She demands to be taken from room to room, looking to see if perhaps he is napping somewhere. She is sure she’s just seen him – out in the garden, or passing into the pantry on the way to the bourbon. She beseeches us to go and look. In her enormous bed, when she closes her eyes, she can smell him in the dark, feel his weight next to her even though now the bed sheets are smooth on his side, his stacks of pillows gone. On the towering bedside bookcase are his watches, his hearing aides, coins, gum, eye drops, his memo books, a box containing paper clips and European coins, his thick Swiss Army knife. No surprise that she feels he’ll be back at any moment.

Each time I visit, a few more things on his side of the bed have been removed. The radio alarm clock is gone. The electric blanket control. The water glass. The bottles of Advil, aspirin, and stool softener. Most of the old dust is still there, which is of some comfort to me. The day the old house is dust-free is the day none of us is living here anymore.  

Father’s Day is certainly the wily invention of a clever marketer - our family of dry-eyed skeptics has never doubted that. Nonetheless, on that day, we kids always happily phoned, or celebrated in some homemade way with our Dad. This year is our first without anyone to celebrate. I am not sure what will happen, but I suspect we will gather at the old house to eat and drink - typically more than we should - and raise toast after toast to the plaster, wood, walls and pipes where he still lingers, shedding his wit and hospitality on all present. And our Mom will twinkle, as she always does when he is near, and ask, again, if one of us won’t just nip out to the garden to see if Dad is there and ask if he’d like to come in and join the fun. 





Dead Set 

This was another losing story (I adore losing stories, don't you?), this one submitted back in 2010 in one of NPR's 3-minute fiction contest. I stumbled upon it the other day and thought, hey - let's self-publish this loser! The rules were: 600 word max, the first and last sentence (in grey) required (written by the judge himself). I thought it was peachy. The judge didn't. 

Some people swore that the house was haunted. But then, some people were misinformed. A person got haunted – the house was merely a convenient venue. A proper haunting took skill to establish; Gavin had been at it for eight months, and could barely sift his semi-corporeal form through the floorboards without unexpectedly drifting up the chimney. Cy, who’d haunted the previous owners, maintained that Gavin’s vocal stylings weren’t so much banshee as banal. If the afterlife had a learning curve, Gavin was stuck at the bottom. Not that there was any rush; he was going to be dead for a long time. 

Cy had left a month ago, pursuing his murdering ex-wife and her boyfriend to their new beach condo. Cy was an accomplished ghost, but Gavin felt thoroughly helpless without gravity, and solid as stone when trying to pass through walls. His attempts at standards like rattling windowpanes and chilling rooms left Cy unimpressed. For Gavin, it was no different from his experience in life. He was hopeless. Cy, shadowy suitcases in hand, had said, “Your problem’s mental, kid. You gotta think dead.” And with that, he’d howled after his ex’s loaded coupe as it trundled off to the coast. 

Gavin’s old boss, Pat Macadam, had bought the house, with plans to double its footprint. Gavin wept; he couldn’t even respectably haunt the existing floor plan. He didn’t feel remotely qualified, and wished Cy could’ve taught him more. That night, rocking and groaning, he awaited Macadam’s return from what should rightfully have been his junket. 

Gavin shut his transparent eyelids to thoughts of his years as Macadam’s lackey. Memories circled - like ghosts themselves: belittling comments in front of the entire department, insinuations about his private life, humiliations, tongue-lashings - and then, Macadam’s theft of Gavin’s big idea, the one ten years in development. Above all rose the image of the awards ceremony, being shoved aside as Macadam strode to the stage, the spotlight on his grinning face. That night, as Macadam went home with a curvy brunette, Gavin went to bed with a bottle of Seconal and awoke to find himself, well, not himself. Final rest was unthinkable. He’d haunt Macadam to madness. 

But if he’d known how poorly he’d do, he’d never have bothered. Couldn’t even hover without being wafted about by the ceiling fan. Just like in life. 

The crunching of tires announced the taxi. Gavin gusted ungracefully to the window to observe Macadam maneuvering himself out of the cab. Fat, Gavin thought. Balding, too, under that rug. Five heavy Vuitton suitcases hit the gravel. Filled with swag, Gavin thought darkly. My swag! My damn swag! A sudden rage boiled within his chest and propelled him headlong into the night air. Shrieking, wailing, clawing, he swooped, snatching the toupee from Macadam’s head. 

As Macadam wheeled around to curse the driver, Gavin roared with a savagery that cracked the night, exploding like thunderous applause. The driver leapt into his cab and sped off. Macadam stumbled, tripped over a suitcase, and collapsed heavily onto the driveway.

Gavin felt suddenly giddy – utterly in control and at long last joyously, deliriously dead.  Hovering masterfully, he gloated upon the man beneath him. Effortlessly, Gavin summoned the memory of saliva and filled his mouth with it.

 Macadam scrambled up and looked wildly about, pawing at the spittle mysteriously glistening on his cheek. An unfamiliar terror took hold, shaking him to his core. Trembling, he fell to his knees in the shadow of his empty house. Nothing was ever the same again after that.




2012 Revisited

Hello - most of you who are reading this don’t know of my existence – or that I am a member of the Barajas Family. My name is Steve and I am the eldest of the Barajas children. I was sent off to Switzerland at a young age – long before any of my younger siblings could form attachments to me – and I have been a ward of the severe but loving Father Schnautzum for the last many years. It is a hard life, full of toil and danger, but also of beauty and the satisfaction of hard work and a job well done. I delight in the knowledge that my family here in the U.S. may take their ease and pursue the American dream. I send regular missives to them – via the abbey’s carrier pigeons, which represent the finest Switzerland has to offer- and they return the birds to me bearing greetings and the occasional gift of toilet tissue or perhaps American foodstuffs.

I was asked to write this year’s annual letter because Russell, my dearest mother and Adolfo, my honored father, are quite busy with their three wonderful in-residence children whom I am proud to still call my brothers – although as I have said, I am not fortunate enough to see with any regularity. Or at all. So I shall enumerate each of their achievements from this past glorious year –recounted to me via carrier pigeon letters - so that you, too, may rejoice in their many accomplishments.

First, my brothers:

Sebastian delighted us all when he broke parole and arrived on the doorstep of the family home needing nothing more than a hot meal, a warm hug and $35,257 cash to pay off some friends. He shows such resourcefulness and an enviable sense of self-preservation.  His gift for fiction writing has garnered him a lucrative array of identities, and has enabled him to live a luxurious, exciting and ever-changing lifestyle that encourages him to travel the world – sometimes at a moment’s notice! We love to guess from whence he will call next, and to what name we are to send letters, packages and money orders. A few months ago, he even sent me my first ever carrier camel, with explicit instructions not to return it lest the authorities track him down! When the poor beast froze to death in the bracing Swiss winter, Father Schnautzum mounted its humps on the wall, adding to the brightness of our reading room! Ah, the life of a carefree young man!

Julian thrilled both the family and the USOC with his acquittal on “abusing the dope”. His latest time in the100 meters, which he valiantly lowered by 13 seconds from one race to the next, is now assured to be believed, and his recently acquired musculature accepted as a natural part of his runner’s build. We never doubted him for a moment, and more importantly nor did Nike (his parents admitted to me that they are thrilled not to have to return the twin Porsches!) His enterprising nature made college applications a breeze through the bold method of enclosing envelopes stuffed with what he called “chump change” from his recent wins. We are all so proud of his initiative!

Gabriel continues to excel in his entrepreneurial pursuits. He is the type of hard-working young man who snatches life’s opportunities when they arise – after all, there is always time to go back and finish High School! It’s just that sort of youthful gusto that got him accepted into his top-choice gang! He is now well placed to take over as head of the youth marketing division should – God forbid - Skinny T perish from his recent injuries. Gabriel’s attorney is confident that he can make the racketeering charges go away, the RICO act notwithstanding. Our little businessman!

As regards our family dogs, in April we were lucky enough to have an addition to the pack: Sammie, a wee 8-year-old Rat Terrier (so he says) who travelled from California to join the East Coast Pack of ten-year-old Mocha and Chili, to whom Sammie refers consistently as his “bitches”. As a threesome, they are not as sedate nor as dignified as one might expect, given their maturity.

Now I’ll tell you about my parents Russell and Adolfo – who sent me here to Switzerland and gave me the opportunity to live in this magical place, a place thick with good wet earth and happy cows, a place where I am lucky enough to work from dawn until nightfall for the darling old Father Schnautzum who grinds my nose in the dirt only when I fail to harvest the wine grapes fast enough and who tweaks my earlobes good-naturedly if I neglect to fetch the right Toblerone for his evening after-snuff treat. These same parents reward my every carrier pigeon greeting with informative notes filled with gossip and wishes for a happy Vernal Equinox or Autumnal Wine Solstice or even good luck wishes for the running of the groundmuffins at St. Venia’s Corking Festival. My wonderful parents - who love me so much they sent me away to better myself and honor the family, to learn to do without the vain comforts of the modern world, such as the softness of a mattress and the loving embrace of a mother’s arms.

They’re both fine. Just fine.


Yours in servitude,

Steve (grateful member of the Barajas Family)


My Losing Short Stories

Originally published: September 16. 2011

From the Washington Post

Style Invitational

Week 933


“... in which we asked ... for 56-word humorous stories. We had a hunch that this one would be difficult. It clearly was.”

 Not even an honorable mention, but hey, it was an honor just to submit. 

Here are my losing entries:

Closer Than They Appear

Pit stains belie false bravado while Teenager angles semi-recumbent, hands clutching the requisite three and nine, mocking blinker still tick-ticking - like it’s relevant, man. iPod shuffles obliviously. Eyes close, breath escapes like steam as the amputated side mirror bounces, gutter-bound. Lectures will have to wait. It’s fine, kid, I’ll crawl out on your side. 


Dog Daze

Her belly rumbles sweetly as yellow eyes stare into mine, pondering perhaps man’s hubris, his harsh footprints upon mother earth, his selfishness. Her tags jingle, harmoniously discordant as fleas sup and bacteria renders her breath otherworldly. Sandwich crumbs fall, snow-like, upon her upturned face, her expression begging the question, “Are you going to finish that?”





Community on Rayburn Street

Originally published: February 18, 2011

A Thursday evening in September

There’s the haphazard warm up before things even start. The saxophones – a lone clarinet in their midst - range in age from mid-teens to the upper reaches of middle age. Two altos, two tenors and a baritone stitch separate scales around the skinny drummer with the itchy foot. In back, three older trumpeters purse their lips and one or two hit high notes while the third flips through his charts, brow knit, a spit rag dangling from his palm. Each has a variety of mutes within reach. Across the room, the vocalist wails up and down the scale at the piano.

More musicians, some in workday attire, others in standard issue student wear, stride or stagger in depending upon the heft of their Instruments. Each sets up in front of a stand stamped with the name of this elementary school on Rayburn Street, the regular site of the college’s music rehearsals. In honor of this – and because it makes for a spicier name than the Northern Virginia Community College Jazz Band - the group calls itself the Rayburn Street Jazz Ensemble. As they set up, many greet each other; the violinist calls out cheerfully to the djembe drummer in French, the pianist gives the vocalist a one-armed hug, the lead trombone grins at his neighbor after he trips lightly down the scale like a rippling laugh. The guitar checks his amp while the bass outlines chords softly next to him, squinting at his chart.

The young, slender bandleader writes their rehearsal set list on the whiteboard: Take the A Train, Tangerine, Brazil, Don’t Get Around, Birdland. A smattering of troublesome bars from these begins to sound out furtively from around the room as the musicians squeeze in some pre-emptive practicing. 

Time for a concert B-flat and reminders: vibrato on the Ellington – on anything longer than an 8th note! But if playing in unison, give the vibrato a rest. The sax section gets the most attention – the bandleader has his own alto clipped around his neck. Lip up, push in your reed. He needs more sound from the trombones – but heeds the solitary flute player and the violinist. His ear catches what most can’t, and his voice has a pleasantly nasal drawl, a hint of the Bayou about it, though it is rumored that he hails from the north. Maybe this is just what happens to jazz musicians over the years – like a vocal callus. It suits him.

He holds up his hand and says to the group – which has mostly fallen quiet, “OK, let’s take that A Train. Under tempo at first.” He sits in, seeming more comfortable as one of the band than out in front of them. The third trombone rushes into the room, playing her instrument practically right out of the case- no time to lose. The drummer loses the beat with chaotic consequences. The bandleader waves his hand to signal them to stop. OK, again, this time at tempo. He stands behind the first trumpet, frowning at his chart and returns to the front and encourages all the horns to build. The drummer loses them again.

The smooth tune is bumpy. Smiling benignly at the back line, the bandleader says, “Trumpets, when you have your mutes, you have to play out ‘cause you have these five mean saxophone players and they will eat you up! You gotta blow your brains out.” The trumpets nod uncertainly and square their shoulders.

New to them, Tangerine, is next. “Let’s try a little reading and see how we do,” There are questions about the nomenclature. He teaches them hand signals – a fist means go on, for example, and when he pats his shoulders with both hands, he wants them to provide background for the soloist. There is breathless magic as they play and pull it off all together. He throws the choice out to them – keep Tangerine in, or throw it out? They look around at each other. It’ll stay for now.

Next up, Brazil – slowly, as they sight-read the charts. It seems moribund at halfway, but mysteriously revives, the bossa nova beat breathing life back into it. He gives them a rascally smile. “Just for fun, should we try it at tempo?” They groan, then go on, surviving the key change. He looks around gently as they catch their breaths and wiggle their fingers. “OK, I think I got enough information. We’ll keep it in for now.” 

Don’t Get Around Much Anymore condemns them to more sight-reading – and the challenge of supporting a vocalist. She has trouble competing with the trumpets, even with her microphone. She gets lost – or the band does, or they simply lose each other. They seem to be in different rooms, speaking different languages. She loses her key completely – then finds it. The band wanders inside the arrangement like actors who have wandered onto an unfamiliar set. But the next run-through has fewer surprises, and they decide, for now, to keep this one in the book, too. 

Birdland, the bandleader tells the younger members, was named after Charlie Parker’s club in New York City. “It’s got a rock feel to it, so don’t swing it,” he cautions. It begins ferociously, and as the trumpets struggle to make sense of it, the baritone sax valiantly holds them all together when they threaten to fall apart. The bandleader stops them. Surveying the group, he says, “Hey guys, come with me for a second,” He tells them about the Spanish Tinge, about how Jelly Roll Morton coined the phrase to introduce an Afro-Caribbean feel into jazz. They listen, in various states of attention, and after some debate on the charts, they go again from bar 77 – “If the trumpeters’ chops will hold up,” he smiles. After the last notes have stopped ringing he says to the drummer, “You hear how sloppy they sound? That’s your fault.” The drummer blushes and says he knows.

A Thursday evening in November

Hayburner is going well this evening. The bandleader confesses to the group that back in September he wasn’t sure if they could handle this challenging music, but that he is pleasantly surprised. “You’re sounding pretty good,” It is at this moment that the first alto saxophone confesses he can’t find several of his charts and did the bandleader perhaps have any copies that he might borrow...? The bandleader’s face doesn’t betray much but there is a certain rigidity in his manor when he says no, it is a musician’s responsibility to always have his charts and the first alto, a sunny, open-faced young guy, nods and quietly withers. The vibes player is noodling around, and the bandleader, uncharacteristically crisp, says, “And we can do without that.” Their first gig is in a week, so this is their last rehearsal. He passes out flyers for them to post wherever they might be seen.

It is a subdued group that then tackles Tangerine. Both tenor saxes are absent, as is one of the trumpets. Everyone is chastened. A cautious Somewhere Over the Rainbow follows, the vocalist still unsteady and, with a weak PA system, repeatedly overwhelmed by the horns. The drummer stubbornly keeps his own time despite the singer’s frantic vocal cues at a denouement. The bandleader stops him and smiling wryly says, “There’s no point in my waving my hands around if you don’t follow me. I just look dumb.” As the group laughs, the drummer stammers that he had no intention of doing that. The leader reminds his band to look up at him so he can guide them to the necessary ritardando. The next run-through is an improvement.

Blues in B-flat is a loose structure for improvisation. The alto sax (with the missing charts) solos beautifully, as the second alto and baritone support him. The violin gets her nod, leaps to her feet and practically dances as she plays. With this number, the bandleader has succeeded in loosening them up.

After explaining to the group that a riff is a melodic idea that repeats then builds to an exciting peak, he has them begin Blue Bossa. As they play, the bandleader shows the bass what he’s looking for, and next moves over to the particularly young 2nd alto who then stands and takes a self-conscious solo. The leader nods to the trombone to take the next. They move on to Sophisticated Lady, a drunken slow-dance of a tune - a woman can almost feel the too-familiar hands creeping down the dip in the back of her gown.

Take the A Train needs work. He reminds them of how fast and unforgiving the New York subway is – then pauses and looks around the room. “How many of you have been to New York?” Some nod knowingly but many of the youngest are shaking their heads. He smiles. “Well, the New York subway isn’t the Metro, you know.” Everyone chuckles, acknowledging the prissy reputation of Washington’s metro. 

The leader shakes his head during Don’t get Around Much Anymore “That’s our sloppiest song right now,” He is resigned. But the most difficult still remains. Birdland, with all its changes and odd rhythms and fusion elements is the run-away train A Train isn’t yet. The rehearsal is almost over – only seven minutes remaining. This arrangement jumps right in with just about every band member in tow – yanked straight off the dock.  It’s out of control in parts, the trumpets racing to catch up, stumbling here and there, but in several places it all comes together and the band catches its collective breath. They make it through once before they have to stop and make room for the large symphonic band that has the use of the room at 7:00. Already the next community of musicians is circling, beginning to move chairs and open cases. 

The bandleader thanks his people, reminding them of the dress code for the following week’s performance in the school cafeteria as they pack up. 

Next Thursday evening in November

The cafeteria is humming with conversation and the sound of food being both consumed and discarded. The Rayburn Street Jazz Band filters in, snappily dressed in black formalwear, and begin clearing the space in front of the windows. The round communal dining tables are shoved back – and then back some more - as extra chairs and music stands are fetched and maneuvered into the tight space. The violinist snaps a few pictures as her friend the drummer races in after six. Luckily they are running late.

In a moment they’ll begin. After the first two numbers, the bandleader will promote the program to the audience, inviting the musicians in the crowd to come rehearse with them. Relaxed and personable, he’ll help the audience know when to applaud - always tricky for the uncertain jazz listener. The band will play up to the occasion – play their best yet - the vocalist will sparkle and sound more confident, and despite some dicey moments during Birdland and Take the A Train - and a comical scene when the clarinet’s quick rise from his seat for a solo scatters the charts from his neighbor’s stand - they will do well. 

But for now, the bandleader stands and smiles at them, his back to the mundane cafeteria activity. The players look sharp in their dress-ups, even if the jackets of the younger members seem a bit ample in the shoulders, a little long in the pants that fold onto the tops of their stiff shoes. They all look back at him, instruments poised.

He counts off, they take a big breath and - begin.