Courtney at the speed of life.

A Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie story

“Lord-a-mercy!” I said in my thickest southern drawl. “Somebody tell god to take the rest of the week off. He has made perfection, and there ain’t no topping that!”

The beautiful blonde woman scowled and blushed at the same time. It made her look seventeen again.

“Where is your charming husband? I can’t believe he’d ever dare to leave your side.”

She shook her head gravely, and maybe that was my cue to lay off. Or maybe not…

“Well, tell me what your boyfriend looks like, then. So I’ll know who to run from.”

She chuckled. “No boyfriend.”

“Well, then, the next man that asks, you tell him I’m sprouting gray hairs in patches and I carry a little paunch. I’m half-a-step slower than I never was. I’m ugly as sin, and I stink something awful toward the end of the day. You tell him that’s my description.”

She drew a finger across her eyebrow, the hair so fine it was almost white. Her eyes were blue and deeper than a quarry lake, alive with the light of mischief. “Am I to take that as an offer?”

I nodded gravely. “What fool could pass on perfection?”

She smiled a wistful little half-smile. A woman with a secret, a woman with a story to tell. “I think it was you…”

I wanted to stay and talk but somebody pulled me away. It was a New Year’s Eve party at my sister’s house. I was the guest of honor, the prodigal son returned, and I hadn’t seen some of the revelers for twenty years. I kept getting bounced around the room, passed like the torch of sobriety from one drunk to the next. But my eyes always sought her out, sought her supple perfection amidst all that was chaotic and deformed. She moved like liquid glass, like a cat, like a leopard. Her hands preceded her always, and she caressed everything with long, slender fingers. It was as though she had the power of vision in her fingertips, and she saw more than you or I will ever see with mere eyes.

She moved, and she graced the universe with (more…)

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To El Caballero Jean Valjean: Merry Christmas from a fellow loco engineer.

C’est moi – Loco Willie – the second time as pomo farce.

C’est moi – Loco Willie – the second time as pomo farce.

A Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie story

December 22, 2016

“How old were you when your sister was born?” I asked.


“That’s a tough time to find out you’re not an only child.”

“The worst.”

“No,” I said. “Two-years-old is the worst time. You start to wake up to the idea that you’re something special and at just that instant you’re pushed off the stage by a gooey little bruise who can’t do anything but poop and squall.”

The boy smiled at that. “You might be right.”

“I did it to my sister, twenty-months-old and so precocious. And then there I was, snapping at her heels and robbing her of all the attention. It warped her for life, I’m sure of it.” I was smiling, too, but I really do feel that way.

I was talking to Jean Valjean – the second time as farce – from my station at the choo-choo train kiosk at the Arrowhead Mall. I didn’t actually know to call him ‘Jean Valjean’ until we got around to the end of this story, and what I’ve called him all along, for the whole little while I’ve known him, is simply ‘Caballerito’ – little gentleman.

He’s an Hispanic tweenager – second- or third-generation Peoria Mexican would be my guess, but that’s just a guess. He’s a demi-immigrant, much like my mother’s father was at his age, one foot in the old world, one foot in the new.

He was dressed like a schlub like every other schlub at the mall, but like a MexiKid schlub: Scuffed Chuck Taylor hi-tops on his feet, a faded navy-blue polo shirt that may have made more than one trip through the thrift store and sturdy Wrangler blue jeans that are still too big after four months of school – but will be all-but-too-small by Memorial Day.

It’s not rare to see bigger MexiKids leading their younger siblings around at the mall – and not just at Christmas. But I’ve never seen Jean Valjean and his sister any other way. I see them at the playground, and she rides the train (more…)

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“Merry Christmas, Princess Peach.”

There is only one Christmas, isn’t there? Even at the airport there is only one Christmas. Luigi smiled, and his face bore not the smallest hint of sadness. “Merry Christmas, Chloe.” He leaned forward and kissed the slumbering golden girlchild on the forehead. He said, “Merry Christmas, Princess Peach.”Photo by: Steve Jurvetson

A Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie story

“Luigi!” The beautiful blonde girlchild tore her way across the packed airport corridor.

“Oh,” said her mother, a beautiful blonde womanchild. “Great…”

There is only one Christmas, isn’t there? Holly and mistletoe. A golden retriever by the fire. Mom bastes the bird while dad carols with the choir. Icicles cling to the branches of birch trees and fat, wet snowflakes tumble down, lit by the yellow glow of gaslights. Horses nicker and children giggle and lovers nestle and sigh. We’re all dreaming of a white Christmas – and we’re all dreaming.

And why not? Over the ghetto and through the industrial park doesn’t sound like a very nice way to get to Grandmother’s house, even though the highway really does go that way. There are no trails of tail-lights at Christmas, glinting and glowing in the drops of muddy drizzle on the windshield. The snow is white and windblown into drifts, not plow-piled and gray with soot. The children don’t squabble, the drunkards don’t wobble and the lovers don’t quarrel or cry.

Even at the airport there is only one Christmas, the Christmas-card Christmas of a world without airports.

Luigi was sitting across from me and he leapt up to meet the little girl as she crashed into him. She was seven or maybe eight, really too old to be picked up, but he picked her up anyway. She hugged him tightly and they both had a sudden wetness in their eyes.

He set the girl down as her mother approached. She nodded to him in a way that might have been curt, except the honey gold ringlets of her hair fell forward and robbed her of her haughtiness. She said, simply, “Brendan.”

He answered with a smile that was good-humored at the mouth and mocking in the eyes. (more…)

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Christmas at the cemetery – with Bubba.

A Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie story

December 25, 1998

If you want to hear your thoughts echo into a perfect silence – go to the cemetery.

I do it a lot, actually, not to be too terribly morbid. Potter’s fields and VA graveyards and tidy middle-class golf courses of the dead and tony, upscale permanent condominiums where they frown loudly on walk-in traffic. But democracy makes her last stand at the cemetery, so no one is ever actually turned away, and I expect it would take quite a performance to get yourself ejected.

But the cemetery is not the story – it’s just the honest part. The other part – to be much too kind – starts with my growing a tail.

A Secret Service tail, that is. Last August I wrote a story called ‘How Bubba pulled it off.’ It’s about a teenage masturbator who just happens to be President of the United States, and just after I wrote it I started noticing the tail.

Like this is so hard. I walk from place to place, that’s what I do. Sometimes I take a bus or a train or the subway. Rarely do I fly. Mostly I walk. When you’re walking into an empty dawn on an empty two lane road in upstate New York and the only car on the road is a big black Crown Victoria with D.C. tags, when it’s following you at idling speed with the running lights on – it’s a safe bet you’ve been fed-infested.

Four teams of two agents each, it turned out. They worked in eight hour shifts, and there is no better way to draw attention to yourself than to walk through a small town during the shift change with not one but two big black Crown Victorias following you.

At first it kinda ticked me off. I would run little games on the bozos to lose them – skipping the wrong way down a one-way street, in one door and right out the other, exiting through the freight entrance, that kind of stuff. They would not get out of the car, so I spent about a week in Manhattan (more…)

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A father for Christmas.

“If you give your daughter a father she can be proud of, then one day she’ll bring home a son-in-law you can be proud of. And then you’ll know for sure that your grandchildren will have a father to look out for them, too.”Photo by: renee_mcgurk

A Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie story

December 24, 1996

“Shame about the bike,” I said to the strained young black man at the bus stop. His head was down and he was staring hard at the ground.

He grunted, a sound that conveyed two ideas: “I heard you” and “I’m not listening.”

“Just as well, I guess. A bike like that…”

He looked up for a moment, piercing me with hard, angry eyes. “What about it?”

“Oh, you know. Wouldn’t last too long, now would it?”

He scoffed, and that was that. Or so he thought…

What happened was this: I saw a bike going in to Toys ‘R’ Us, about a week before Christmas, and that’s the kind of thing I just have to follow up on.

It was a girl’s bike – a girly bike. Sixteen inch white wheels. A white frame speckled with iridescent pink and purple flakes. An iridescent pink and purple flaked saddle. And matching pink and purple flaked streamers cascading out of the white handle-bar grips. It was the kind of bike Toys ‘R’ Us loves to sell: Thirty-five dollars worth of bike with three dollars worth of plastic ornaments is priced at sixty bucks. Ten dollars extra for professional assembly.

The bike had been dragged into the store by my companion at the bus stop – tall, thin, with an expression of anger etched into his face. Maybe twenty years old; certainly not twenty-five. He was wearing a Michael Jordan warm-up suit and Michael Jordan basketball shoes. That sounds very casual, but we’re talking three hundred dollars, maybe more. At first I thought he might be bringing the bike in for a minor repair, but something about the way he was dragging it – sideways by the saddle – made me think again.

I didn’t go into the store, but I stuck around to see what would happen. (more…)

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Christmas in Las Vegas with Kim Jong-un.

“You adorn your body with comical uniforms and undeserved medals, and you plaster your name with ridiculous titles, all to make up for your fundamental emptiness. You live your life as the empty puppet of an empty doctrine, and everyone in North Korea – everyone in the world – will love you best when you are assassinated by your own Glorious Successor.”Photo by: Tom Babich

A Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie story

December 16, 2014

“Sucks to be you.” I said that to Kim Jong-un. I was standing to his right on the plaza that overlooks the undersized gondola pond by the Doge’s Palace at the spectacular Venetian Hotel and Casino Resort in scenic Las Vegas, Nevada.

To his left was an an enormous black bodyguard who was poised to snag me by the collar and jerk me back to reality.

To the Shining Sun of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea I said, “There are cameras everywhere, including thousands of smartphone video cameras. Do you really want to cause an international incident? Does anyone even know you’re here?”

The short, squat man gave the tiniest wave with his left hand and that was that.

Christmas at the Venetian is everything you’d expect from Vegas – more than nothing and yet still far less than enough. There’s a smallish ice-skating rink, just like Rockefeller Center – only much, much smaller and engineered with no real ice. There’s an enormous Christmas tree composed of breathtaking bulbous lights – and no actual tree. There’s live music and piped-in music and faked laser snowflakes projected onto the many faked walls of the perpetually-unfinished Venetian/Palazzo complex. And there’s Kim Jong-un, the last and most pathetic of the pretend leaders of the pretend peoples’ revolution, Great Successor to the mantle of chamber-pot valet to the world’s most depressing shithole, North Korea.

“I can’t blame you for wanting to get away,” I said, “especially at Christmas.”

He was pretending not to hear me, of course, but that schtick is nothing new to me.

“I would think Christmas has to break your heart, every year. You grew up on Swiss Christmases, after all. And even if (more…)

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A dumpster diver’s Christmas.

Screen Shot 2014-12-12 at 6.58.52 AMA Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie story

I can be counted upon to walk, after all.

When everybody’s nowhere and even the laundromats are empty. When the respectable stores are closed and the line at the 24-Hour Slurp ’n’ Burp is 15 deep with people craving cold beer and hot salsa and high-octane unleaded. When there’s one lonely mailman in an immense empty truck delivering insanely last-minute gifts sent via God-Help-Me-If-I-Screw-It-Up-Again Express Mail. When the streets are empty and the highways are empty and the parking lots are empty and, for once, even the bars are empty – I can be counted upon to walk. You’re at home with the yule log blazing, with a glazed ham baking, with a Bordeaux breathing, with the children seething to tear into that cache of treasures parked beneath the tree. And Uncle Willie’s out walking on Christmas Eve, dragging his pencil on the pavement for no good reason at all.

“Storm windows,” John Prine sings. “Gee, but I’m getting old. Storm windows, keep away the cold.” And that’s a silly enough thought in the great outdoors. I was cutting through an apartment complex and the closed-for-the-holidays supermarket next door had left its parking lot speakers blaring. And the radio station was playing a song they’d never play if they thought anyone was listening.

I can hear the wheels of automobiles
so far away, just moving along through the drifting snow.
It’s times like these, when the temperatures freeze
I sit alone, looking at the world through a storm window.
Down on the beach, the sandman sleeps.
Time don’t fly, it bounds and leaps.
The country band, it plays for keeps.
They play it so slow…

I was about twenty feet away from a big blue dumpster and I heard a rustle. You can take the boy out of the city, but you can’t take away the boy’s revulsion for rats, and I was suddenly in the mood to be walking elsewhere. But then there was a big tumble-rumble-boom, something big knocking into the steel walls of the dumpster, and I knew it wasn’t a rat.

And I knew what it was, too, and so do you. We call them (more…)

Posted in Poetry and fiction, Splendor! | 7 Comments