Delta Queen

Fiction By September 17, 2017 Tags:

I started working at the Delta Queen with the idea of one day buying it from Mr. Oates. I thought I could make some kind of life out of that. Not exactly a dream come true, but not exactly bad for an ex-con, either. And then she came along and made me feel like my dreams were very, very small.

Charlene was the most beautiful girl in the world. She was also one of the richest girls in Campbell, CA. The beautiful part I could tell at first sight, but I didn’t find out about the rich part until a few weeks later. Her parents wanted her to try out some “real work,” I guess, in the summer between high school and college.

I didn’t speak a word to her for the first week, so she had to take the lead.

“Hey, Gil! You like to swim?”

After I got over the shock of being addressed by a genuine angel, I responded that I liked swimming okay. She threw a bucket of soapy water right in my face.

“Swim in this!”

If she had been a man, I would have punched her square in the jaw. But the sudsy t-shirt clinging to her made it very obvious that she was no man. Instead, I just stood there like a man in a trance. That was Charlene all over. Mischievous and going right over the line. No one dared call her on it because of who she was–or who her parents were, rather. A few minutes later I asked her to go aloft and find the turn signal fluid. By the time she figured out she was on a snipe hunt, she was in love with me.

Her folks may have wanted her to spend some time doing “real work,” but they weren’t too keen on their little girl slumming it up with an ex-con who worked at a carwash. They probably expected her to grow out of it when she went to college. Maybe she tried. I’m sure she dated a few boys at school, but I made damn sure she found a man when she came home for breaks. I also made sure I was more successful each time she saw me.

Mr. Oates sold me the Delta Queen, and I opened another location within a year. By the time Charlene graduated, I owned five carwashes outright and was working with her father’s lawyer to franchise the whole concept up-and-down the West Coast.

She said she was happy for me, but I could tell something was wrong. There was some part of her she was holding back. Going into business with her old man changed me forever in her eyes. I wasn’t the man she thought I was. I guess she was right. She kept finding reasons to get out of town, until one day, she slipped away for good.

I keep busy these days. Busy is good. Keeps me from thinking too much. I keep feeling like she’s going to sneak up behind me one of these days with a bucket of suds.

But that’s never going to happen. She’s up San Francisco these days, still looking for the turn signal fluid.


Genre: romance
Random Nouns: failure, swim


This is the fourth story in my Random Roadside series. In this series, I pick a random image from John Margolies’ Roadside America photography collection at the Library of Congress and use it as the setting for a story. I allow a computer program to randomly select the genre I will write in and two nouns, which I must work into the story.

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Life Guard Station

Fiction By September 1, 2017 Tags:

In her two and a half years at Florida State, she had changed majors five times and boyfriends six times. Then she dropped out, just as her mother predicted on the day she got her acceptance letter. She was young enough and beautiful enough that her flakiness still charmed most people, but she had too many female professors for that to work long-term.

When she moved back home to Ft. Lauderdale, her mother insisted she find work. “If you’re going to live in my hive, you’re going out to gather nectar.”

She put in two weeks cleaning offices. Another week and some change as a babysitter. An ex-boyfriend from high school talked her into trying to sell cars with him at Fletcher Ford, but she quit on her first day after Mr. Fletcher pawed her in the salesman’s lounge.

And now, here she was. Back on the beach. Back under the red umbrella. She had always been a strong swimmer, despite dropping out of swim team after a few months. Being a lifeguard suited her just fine. Better than fine, really. She had no trouble watching the ocean. She loved the ocean. It was always moving, always changing.

She and the ocean had an understanding. It knew how to keep secrets. It didn’t judge. Yes, this would be just fine for now.


Genre: literary fiction
Random Nouns: hive, umbrella


This is the third story in my Random Roadside series. In this series, I pick a random image from John Margolies’ Roadside America photography collection at the Library of Congress and use it as the setting for a story. I allow a computer program to randomly select the genre I will write in and two nouns, which I must work into the story.

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Trout Haven

Fiction By August 31, 2017 Tags:

You a fisherman? Thought so. Got that look about ya.

There’s a crick near here I wanna tell ya ’bout. Look on the map and it’ll say Big Pine Creek, but the locals call it Trout Haven. Trout Haven is a better name ’cause no one ever caught a pine in that crick, but, boy oh boy, have they caught trout! They’re so thick in there you could scoop ’em out with a spoon! Good eatin’ ones, too.

Don’t sound like much of a challenge, does it? Well, it ain’t for the most part. It’s like going to the fish market. Just drop a line and make your selection.

But there is one bugger in there that’ll test ya. Some call ‘im Iron Jack. Others call him Two Ton Tommy. Ain’t no one ever called him dinner, though. Not yet.

I ain’t braggin’, but I had ‘im on the line once myself. The first thing I know, I feel this tug–felt like ten lumberjacks pullin’ on the other end of the line. Now most fishermen lose their head and let go of the rod. I held on, though, and Tommy pulled my arm right out of the socket. Oh, don’t worry, it popped back in after a few days. Right down to this day, though, I can feel rain comin’ in that arm. I can feel the Jehovah’s Witnesses comin’ to my door, too.

I switched the pole over to my lef’ arm right away and ol’ Tommy pulled even harder. I held on, but he pulled me right off the bank into the crick. For about two mile, Tommy pulled me so hard I skidded right across the top of the water like I was on waterskis.

At some point, I hit my head on branch that was hangin’ over the water and got knocked clean out. I still held onto that pole, though. When I woke up, I looked around and realized I was in some kind of lodge with spiky walls. Tommy had built himself a little hut, right there in the water, made up entirely of fishing poles he’d yanked out of fishermens’ hands.

Well, I swam outta there as fast as I could and never went back to Trout Haven.

Good luck to you, though, sir. If you catch Tommy, let me know. I got three cord a’ firewood at my place and we could build us a bonfire and grill ‘im up nice.


Genre: tall tale
Random Nouns: selection, spoon


This is the second story in my Random Roadside series. In this series, I pick a random image from John Margolies’ Roadside America photography collection at the Library of Congress and use it as the setting for a story. I allow a computer program to randomly select the genre I will write in and two nouns, which I must work into the story.

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The Barrel

Fiction By August 25, 2017 Tags:

1.

The problem with The Barrel was, the menu was too damn complex. Burgers and fries and ice cream, just like you’d expect, right? But also pizza, fried chicken, and six kinds of popcorn! The greasy kids working there could barely operate the cash register, so you could just about bet that your order was getting screwed up. I went there one night and ordered a slice of pepperoni and a Coke. What I got was a half-cooked corndog and a soggy hamburger bun. They might have just been messing with me because I was drunk at the time. They probably were, too.

2.

Nick Overton owned the place, but he didn’t like to show up unless it was absolutely necessary. He’d stop by now and then to make sure the place wasn’t on fire, but that’s about it. The upright citizens of the community were upset about the lack of supervision, but they still let their kids work there every summer. They shouldn’t have.

3.

The customers were mostly locals, but every so often a passer-through would grab some food for the road. The Slow Man was a passer-through.

4.

I call him the Slow Man because that’s what the kids called him afterwards. They said he talked like a record on the wrong speed. Slow and deep and distorted. He tried to order something, but they couldn’t make out what he was saying. They started laughing at him. They shouldn’t have.

5.

They said he went back to his car and came back with something that looked like a skeleton’s hand holding a candle. As soon as they saw it, they fell asleep, right on the spot. When they woke up, they noticed that Bill McAllister was missing. Whoosh. Gone.

6.

They looked all over for him. No luck. They went outside and looked around. Still nothing. Then Jenny Wyler noticed that something was coming out of the downspout, which was all wrong because there was a drought. She got closer and saw that it was red.

7.

Joey Smith boosted Deputy Mark Green up to the roof of the place and when he saw Bill up there, gutted like a deer, his blood draining into the gutters, he threw up all over himself, which is saying something considering how many car wrecks that guy has seen.

8.

No one ever found the Slow Man. I don’t know who he is, but I know what he’s got in that car. And if I ever run into him, I intend to take it for myself.


Genre: horror
Random Nouns: community, complex


This is the first story in my Random Roadside series. In this series, I pick a random image from John Margolies’ Roadside America photography collection at the Library of Congress and use it as the setting for a story. I allow a computer program to randomly select the genre I will write in and two nouns, which I must work into the story.

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The Silvermoon Drive-In, Part 2

Fiction By July 13, 2017 Tags:

The Silvermoon Drive-In: An Oral History

An email from William (“Bill”) Barry, friend of Robert (“Bobby”) Nowicki, co-owner of the Silvermoon Drive-In from 1993 until it’s closure in 2006.

Jess,

Your mom tells me you’re working on some kind of history report on the Silvermoon for a class you’re taking at PSU. [Material removed]. You want to know what I remember Bobby saying about the drive-in, right? I don’t remember much, but okay.

Bobby had some kind of unusual financial arrangement with Dan Novak, that much I do remember. I think Dan saw the writing on the wall and was happy to unload the place. Anyway, Bobby was still teaching when he first took over operations.

Interviewer’s Note: Bobby Novak worked at Amhurst Junior High School as a social studies teacher for 23 years. He served as general manager of the Silvermoon for two summers as a part-owner during his last two years of employment as a teacher before taking full ownership of the theater.

He took an early retirement from the school as soon as they put one on the table. He used the lump sum he got to finish paying off Dan. Doreen didn’t like that, but she went along. That drive-in was Bobby’s dream and he was happy for a few years. They made some improvements to the place. It did okay for what it was, but nobody was getting rich off a drive-in theater by then, if they ever did.

You asked about Connie, too, and I have even less to say about him. He was a weird old guy and he never fit in and he never tried. Something about him bothered me from the get-go, but he always did right by Bobby and Doreen, as far as I know.

-Bill

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The Silvermoon Drive-In, Part 1

Fiction By July 13, 2017 Tags:

The Silvermoon Drive-In: An Oral History

Partial transcript of an interview with Doreen Nowicki, co-owner of the Silvermoon Drive-In from 1993 until it’s closure in 2006.

Doreen:
So, let me see here. What can I say about Con?

Interviewer:
Other than the black suit?

[Laughter]

Doreen:
Yeah, yeah, the suit. [Pause]. It was blue, actually. Not that it matters at all. But everyone thought it was black because they only saw it at night. But it was a real dark blue.

And I remember because he wore it when he come in for the interview. And I remember thinking, that’s a little, uh, overdone for an interview for a projectionist, you know.

Um. So, I was surprised when he wore it to work.

Interviewer:
And then he wore it every night?

Doreen:
Oh yeah, every night.

Interviewer:
Do you know why?

Doreen:
Um. Well, I never asked him, but. [Pause]. He was just so serious all the time, you know? About everything.

Interviewer:
So, he didn’t laugh or joke around?

Doreen:
No, no, no. I don’t mean like that. He had a good sense of humor once you got to know him . Real dry. [Pause].

But, I guess I just mean, he took what he was doing seriously. He treated it like it was real important, even if it was, like, the dumbest movie you ever saw.

Interviewer:
Did he have a day job somewhere?

Doreen:
Not that I know of, nope.

Interviewer:
Then how did he make ends meet? I mean, I assume he wasn’t making enough at the drive-in…

Doreen:
Nah, what we paid him couldn’ta been enough. Must’ve had some other money. He did live pretty cheap, though. Lived above the B&T the whole time I knew him.

Interviewer’s Note: The “B&T” was the Black and Tan Club, now called the Market Street Pub, located at 430 Market St., Amhurst, PA.

Interviewer:
So…

Doreen:
I’m not so nebby that I woulda asked him about that. He musta had money from somewhere. Saved up maybe, or a settlement from something. Who knows?

He’s still wearing that suit, you know.

Interviewer:
What?

Doreen:
They buried him in that suit, I mean.

Weren’t only a few of us at the funeral. Me, Robbie, some kids who were working for us then, and some guy named Howard. Don’t remember that guy’s last name, but I remember he was a Howard because who the hell is named Howard and doesn’t go by Howie or something, right?

Interviewer:
How did Howard know Connie?

Doreen:
Said he used to work with Connie on some projects. Well, he called Connie “Conrad,” cause acourse a “Howard” would have to call Connie “Conrad,” right?

[Laughter]

Interviewer:
Projects?

Doreen:
That’s all he said and I didn’t ask nothing else, not being a nebshit.

Interviewer:
So you closed right after?

Doreen:
No, we finished the summer out. Mr. McKay of all people came in and ran the projector for those last two weekends.

Interviewer:
Mr. McKay? The funeral director? That Mr. McKay?

Doreen:
Yup. Got to talkin’ to him at the viewing and turns out he worked at the Silver when he was a kid, when Novak had the place. Asked if it was the same projector, and I said I thought it was, and so he said he’d help us out and that it might be fun.

He didn’t wear no suit, though. [Laughter]. Guess he figured he had to wear a suit enough as it was.

Interviewer:
So that was it? Did you know that was going to be the last summer?

Doreen:
We weren’t a hundred percent certain, but it seemed likely.

Interviewer:
Can I ask why?

Doreen:
Lotsa reasons. It was hard to keep it going, moneywise. Me and Robbie was fighting a lot about money by then. Fighting about lotsa things, really, but I guess that’s not what you’re after here, with this interview. [Pause]. But that’s how it was.

We couldn’t keep ourselves together so, we sure as hell–can I swear on this thing?

Interviewer:
Sure.

Doreen:
So we couldn’t keep our marriage together so we sure as hell couldn’t keep the business going together. And then along comes Rite-Drug with a big fat check right after and that was that.

Interviewer’s Note: Rite-Drug bought the property of the Silvermoon Drive-in in November of 2006. The theater was torn down and a Rite-Drug retail location was built on the property. The Silvermoon’s original neon sign was bought and preserved by the Amhurst Historical Society. It can be seen at 1235, Route 56, Amhurst, PA. 

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Something Dark

Photography By July 4, 2017

This blog was hacked about a year ago and I lost most of my content. As I sort through some of my old photographs, I’m noticing that some of my favorites have a sinister undertone. There’s a mild uneasiness or sense of threat in these that I didn’t consciously intend when I took them.

In real life, this is just my son fiddling with a locker because he’s fascinated by all things mechanical, including locks. The finished product has a kind of gritty, industrial quality that reflects my views of mainstream education.

This is from the side of the building in downtown Latrobe, PA. It was a glorious summer day and I think I intended to capture the irony of this menacing cold war symbol with its incongruous sunny yellow paint. As it turns out, though, I don’t think there’s any irony to it. Because of the angle, it just looks looming and threatening without much “sunniness” to it.

Once again, this i s my son. I think the neighbor’s dilapidated ambulance intensifies the threat of the incoming storm. My son looks a bit like a sailor climbing a mast to assess the nasty weather.

The little white figure at the bottom of the hill combined with the looming shadows above makes this look a bit like a cult ritual in the offing. The obscured face of the in-focus figure at the top of the hill magnifies the effect, somehow. In real life, this was a day of fun at Twin Lakes Park.

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First Resort

Photography By July 4, 2017

Every picture I’ve taken means something to me, but there’s only a few that I consider really good photographs. This is one of them. The composition and the light made this a pretty good picture in its raw state, but the heavy-handed processing elevated it beyond a representation of what I saw that day and made it a representation of how I felt when I saw it.

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Of Course They Kept it for You All These Years

Fiction By July 1, 2017 Tags:

The July sun has burned away all traces of the early-morning thunderstorm. And here you are, back again, with that dreamish feeling you always get–with everything the same but different. Should you knock on the old blue door–still blue, but a different shade–or just walk in like you used to? There’s a brand new air conditioner churning away downstairs, but there’s no hiding from the summer heat in this attic. It was in a cardboard box, of course, but everything here is in a cardboard box so the hunt is afoot.

And, oh. This one looks familiar.

 

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Some Predictions on the Future of Work

Life By July 1, 2017

The economic situation is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, so trying to predict anything about the future of work seems foolish. Barring any major global catastrophes, however, here are a few safe bets.

Anything that can be done by a machine, will be.

Humans have been using tools to carry out low-skilled tasks since before the agricultural revolution, but a perfect storm of technological, economic, and political conditions is set to accelerate this process dramatically. We’ve probably had the technology to replace restaurant and store cashiers with kiosks and apps for several years, for example, but up until now it hasn’t made economic sense to do so. The irresistible political pressure to raise the minimum wage, however, is incentivizing companies to invest in machine labor for these jobs. At $7/hour, it still made sense to hire humans to take orders. At $15/hour, it becomes more attractive for companies to invest in automation. The upfront costs are substantial, but the long-term benefit is a “cashier” who rarely makes mistakesn and never calls off, gets sick, or demands health benefits.

But it’s not just the low-skilled jobs that will be replaced. With advances in artificial intelligence and robotics, many skilled blue-collar and white-collar tasks will be automated as well. It’s important not to get stuck thinking about this as if it will be like The Jetsons, though. It’s unlikely that any given business executive will be replaced by the Execubot 3000. More likely, we’ll see 20% of that executive’s tasks being automated. This doesn’t mean the executive will do 80% of the job and take a few hours off every day. It means that a given organization will employ 20% fewer executives.

This same process of partial-job replacement is already in full-swing in some sectors. In some chain restaurants, for example, you now have the option to pay your bill on a tabletop kiosk. There is still a human server to take your order, bring your food, and refill your drinks, but with the bill-paying process handled by machines, the server is able to serve more tables, resulting in fewer servers for the restaurant overall. A similar process is taking place in retail stores. Instead of employing cashiers for each check-out, many grocery and big box stores now have a single employee troubleshooting a bank of self-checkouts. And, of course, ATMs have been partially replacing bank teller jobs for several decades already.

There will be fierce competition in the labor force for the tasks that can’t be done by a machine.

Let’s look at that executive job again. Of the 80% of tasks that can’t be automated, a significant portion of those can be outsourced. There is nothing about living in close proximity to a corporation’s headquarters that makes one uniquely qualified to carry out certain tasks. If a self-employed contractor or consultant in India or the Ukraine is just as capable of doing some of these tasks–and they’re willing to do it for a fraction of the cost of a U.S. executive–then it’s hard to imagine a legal or political restriction that will prevent exactly that from happening.

Human interaction will be a luxury good.

Many people simply hate interacting with machines and will pay a premium for the opportunity to talk to a real person. Much will depend on what proportion of the population is willing to pay this premium and how much they’re willing to pay. Some people might be willing to pay an extra 10% for their groceries if it means they can interact with a human cashier, for example, but they may draw the line a 25% premium. If a critical mass of such people isn’t present in a given community, there may be no local options for that service.

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