The Letterman to Tarantino spectrum. Where do you fall?

Few things in life bore me more than cliches, and sadly, the whole-low-esteem-imposter syndrome-hate everything-I-write thing has become something of a cliche. As with any cliche, it doesn’t matter much how rooted in reality it is. It is tedious, boring, tiresome, repetitive and nearly as redundant as the sentence you are reading. 

I like Quentin Tarantino. I don’t just mean I like all his movies that aren’t Deathproof. I mean, I like the guy. Kind of. 

Yes, he’s a brash and arrogant blowhard who is way too pleased with himself and his films, but in a weird way, I like that about him. 

Let me explain.

A return to the days of the badass scribe would be great, but I suspect a list of true badasses would likely begin and end with Hemingway. And a deeper dive would probably reveal he was terrified of bulls. 

Fast forward to today and we get Quentin Tarantino, a filmmaker as bold as he is brilliant. No insecurities here. The guy loves his movies as much as you do. The clever dialogue, the stunningly inventive structure, the brave casting choices. He even seems to feel okay about his acting. 

And if you’re like me, you probably think he’s going about being a writer/artist in the wrong way. He’s not supposed to consume his art, and he’s certainly not supposed to enjoy it.

David Letterman, on the other hand, hates everything he does and readily adheres to the stereotype of the self-loathing artist, eternally nursing a case of impostor syndrome. After all, what better way to illustrate that you are a real artist than to express the belief that you’re not a real artist?

Outside of rappers, porn stars and occasionally rocks stars, Tarantino’s brand of confidence is nearly unheard of in the arts world. And I like it. It’s a fun change of pace and it provides a great role model. We should all love what we do as much as Quentin does. Not just because it makes you a better talk show guest. But because it’s fun. As an artist, it’s a good idea to lean back from your canvas and savor your creation. It’s healthy and it energizes you to create more. Who doesn’t want to do more of something they enjoy and excel at?

The problem is, it’s not so easy to be Tarantino. Personally, I’d say I rank somewhere between Quentin and Dave on the Self-esteem-o-meter. More precisely, I tend to bounce between the two extremes, unable to make up my mind if I’m brilliant or awful. I suppose I feel I’m capable of good, even — dare I say it? — great writing and writing makes me wonder why I bother. 

How about you, fellow scribes and artists? Where do you fall on the spectrum?

Number Ones with a Bullet (Top Ten hits re-imagined as pulp tales)

Check out this new series of shorts: popular songs from the 70s and 80s (yeah, I’m old) re-invented as hard hitting tales of pulp.

Now let me channel my inner Casey Kasem:

Our number ten tale is How Long Can you Stand the Heat? is a story of betrayal, deceit and excessive gunplay. (Bonus points if you can guess the song that inspired it)

***

Steve never had a chance. From the second he got off that Greyhound straight from some Nebraska cornfield, it was clear that he’d get swallowed up by the game one way or the other. He was a boy getting mixed up with men and all the gangster movies in the world wouldn’t prepare him for us.

I wasn’t there at the time, but I’m guessing that when the others decided they’d rat me out and split the remaining take eight ways, it wasn’t Steve’s idea. He probably needed persuading, maybe even an easing of his conscience. But in the end, he must have said ‘yes,’ or at least ‘okay,’ so I didn’t waste an ounce of guilt over what happened next. Served his ass right for being so compliant.

For a job like this — late at night, public street — I’d usually go with something quiet and compact. A Sig Sauer maybe or a nine mm. Anything bigger might be a little loud, make too much of a mess.

But in this case, I wanted to make a mess.

I wanted the unlucky fucks who found Steve and the countless rubbernecking assholes who saw his shredded body on the pavement to know what happened when you crossed the wrong guy.

Anybody who mattered in that neighborhood had to know this wasn’t random. They all knew this was my turf, knew I must have had something to do with that misshapen collection of body parts they saw behind the police tape.

I was sending a message. Fuck with me, and you’ll wind up just like the rest. Another one gone. Hey! I was saying to anybody with ears to listen. I’m gonna get you too.

We waited there, crouched behind the door of JB’s, peeping through the mail slot as Steve crept down the street, body cloaked and head covered like he could hide those naive Nebraska eyes under his fedora’s brim.

Soon as he got close enough, the storm came, bullet after bullet finding him, shaking his body into something spastic and crazed. Knees buckling inward while his upper body jerked and twisted and splayed. Like Jerry Lewis making fun of a stroke victim.

The sirens rang out quickly and the rest of the guys took off, leapt into the van. But I had to stoop to his now-empty face to make sure it was over. In once sense it was. In another, it was just beginning.


Jerry was next, the kind of cat whose knife I’d always suspected would find my back. Tall, gawky, heroin-thin and East coast stupid, he looked like a Ramone who had somehow lived into his seventies and still couldn’t be trusted.

He made the mistake of checking his mailbox one morning, ignoring the ’67 Mustang driving past his home way too slowly. Once again, we used fully automatic subs. And once again, we sent just the message we needed to. Another one gone.

The others were trickier, harder to find because they’d gotten the message loud as a roman candle and decided this was a good time for a change of address. But I found them.

I found Gringo Cris at his boat, cramming his stuff into an Uber at nearly two am, hoping he could get to the airport before we got to him. Bad move, Gringo Cris.

I found Bradley at the East Side Market, thinking his six-foot-two Rastafarian ass could blend into a flood of Koreans.

I found Arthur at the train station, figuring it made more sense than the airport and forgetting who he was fucking with. I found Kyle, Orin and Ted on their way somewhere else. It wasn’t easy, but there’s something about getting fucked out of your money by a teammate that gets the gears shifting.

I got home after a busy Thursday, thinking good thing I don’t need to find Kiva. I sifted through our memories, good and bad, happy that she’d still be there. The last person on earth I could trust.

But then I opened the front door and stepped into a nightmare.

The furniture was gone. So was the plasma TV, the pictures, the clothes, the appliances. All Kiva’s now, wherever the fuck she was.

None of this made sense. I had taken her in when the rest of the world couldn’t take her shit anymore. I helped her see that somebody with her tits and her brains her conniving ways didn’t need to beg for anything anymore. I’d taught her to shoot, to sneak into homes, to send a forearm to somebody’s jaw. And this is what happens?

I knew it wouldn’t be easy to find Kiva. But the gears were shifting again.


In the end, it wasn’t that hard to find her. Her sister couldn’t keep a secret and it’s not like anybody who’d pissed off that many people would have tons of options.

“You know where Kiva is?” I asked her sister.

“Kiva?” Aura asked. Eyebrows up like a kid with her mitts in the cookie jar.

“Yes, your sister. You remember Kiva, don’t you?”

“Very funny.”

“Where is she?”

“Kiva?” Voice higher now. I can hear the secret itching to get out.

“Yes, Kiva.”

“She’s not at home?”

“She’s not at home and you know where she is, don’t you?”

“She’s my sister,” Aura said, her voice firm. But she added: “In spite of everything, I gave her my word.” Less firm now.

“You owe her nothing and you know it, Aura. She owes you though. Big time.”

“She’s my sister.” Wavering now, ready to break.

“Your sister who lied to you about your car?”

“She needed help and I gave her help.”

“And two days later, she gave you a Mazda with a dented hood and a bullshit story about how it got that way,” I said. “I repeat. You owe her nothing.”

Aura unloaded a long sigh. “She’s not here with me.”

“Remember what she told the police when they came over?” I asked. “She said, of course, ‘I wasn’t driving. It’s not my car.’” I paused, waited for the granite in Aura’s face to melt away. “She didn’t say in so many words ‘my sister was driving that car. The car that was used in the robbery.’ But she didn’t have to have to. Sometimes you can tell people things without telling them things.” As if my hint wasn’t clear enough, I repeated it: “Sometimes you can tell people things without telling them things.”

The corner of Aura’s mouth lifted a little. She liked my subtle nudge. “She’s not here. As for where she is now, I don’t know? Where would you go when you need protection? Back home maybe?”

I nodded. Aura told me what I needed to hear without saying the words. Her sister was back home in Indigo Valley, an eastern suburb she grew up in years earlier. I did Aura the favor of not telling her what was waiting for her sister, although honestly she may not have cared.


From there, finding Kiva’s place was easy. She was clever, but not clever enough to come up with an alias I wouldn’t recognize. She barely even tried. Gelli Bean? Her cat’s name completed with a stupid pun. Come on, Kiva.

Getting inside was a little tougher. I’d taught her breaking in, so she knew how to protect her place against people as skilled as us. She made good choices for locks, bars on the windows, all of that. But the choices weren’t good enough. I’d taught her everything she knew. But not everything I knew.

The place looked good. Like ours would have looked without my expensive bad taste and clumsy sense of design. A hardwood floor instead of my cigarette burned carpet. The walls cleaner, prettier. She’d covered the Playboy insignia on the coffee table and added a bar in the living room corner.

I sat there, waiting hours, steady hands, emotions on ice. Even her crazy cat’s occasional sprints from under the couch didn’t startle me.

This time I would use the Sig Sauer.

Less noise seemed a good idea. This wasn’t the hood. It was indigo Valley. A quiet place with neighbors who’d call the cops if the dog next door was shitting too loud. Plus there’d be no point in sending a message in the sunny suburbs. So I chose the Sig. And waited.

I kept my gun trained on the front door, ready for her to step inside. But she got me.

By the time I heard anything from behind it was her revolver’s hammer slipping into place.

I turned, but too late. A burn grazed my shoulder, another shot clipped my inner ankle.

Shit! But my arms were fine. I fired twice, missing both times. She jumped behind a couch that could hide her but not stop bullets. I shot twice, then a third time.

A long, soft whimper. I got something.

I stumbled to my legs, hoping to get her trapped there, but no. My ankle gave way and brought me down and she squirted from the couch’s other end, springing loose. She turned to fire again twice before racing to the corner behind the bar, leaving behind a trail a crimson from her ribcage, her arm tucked tight against the wound.

None of her shots connected this time. But the shoulder and ankle were enough to slow me down.

A few shots at the bar gave me nothing but loud clanks. A bulletproof bar. Of course.

She slipped from the side, took more shots.

Then nothing. I heard a metallic clank that told me she was re-loading.

Gun out, I raced to the bar, knowing that if I moved quickly —

Shit!

But I wasn’t quick enough.

She’d slipped back by then, reappearing at the other end, giving me one to the belly that sent my gun crashing to the floor and turned my breath into incomplete stutters.

Reaching for my gun gave her a chance to spring out of the bar’s top and fire again. Maybe she connected again, maybe not. Everything was going numb now, pulling away from me like the past.

With a tuck and roll, I got the gun and stumbled to the coffee table, turning it on its side. We traded more shots, but when one broke through the table and buried itself in my left elbow, it was time for plan B.

More bullets, buzzing past like insects. Glass breaking, Gelli yowling to the ceiling, echoes of errant shots ending in thuds and thumps.

Silence. For a while. Was she waiting me out? Out of ammo?

Maybe I could get to the hallway, slip behind better cover. My only chance really.

I found my feet, then lost them, lifted myself up with the gun and a lame left arm. With a grunt, I was up, but not for long. She rose up and took more shots, mostly misses, but the one to my leg was all she needed.

Back to the wall, I flipped a chair to its side, fired away while slowly easing myself to unsteady feet. Then nothing. I stood there waiting to see where all this was going.

I guess I thought that after all we’d been through — three years, eleven jobs, trust, fights, intense makeup sex, gun lessons — she wouldn’t have the balls to finish the job.

But she proved me wrong. It only took one more shot.

She strolled out from the bar, arms crossed, back reclined, face split by a slanted grin. Like a painter gazing at the canvas in admiration of her masterpiece.

With the wall barely bracing me up, she must have figured I was done. But not quite. My eyes sparked to life, catching her off-guard. Her mouth swung open as she made a desperate scramble back to the bar. Hands and knees like an infant chasing daddy’s ankles.

I had a bullet left, maybe two. A well-timed shot could get her…

Gun weighing a ton, hand stiff with pain, I gave my trigger a final tug.

But I didn’t get a chance to see what damage I did. Or if my shot even landed.

Instead, my knees gave out and met the hardwood floor with a conclusive thud right as the world cut to black.

Anything New?

 

Yeah, it’s been forever since I’ve posted anything here, but don’t worry. I’m still alive and still giving glorious birth to crime fiction laced with danger and bad decisions. In fact, I’ve been too deeply immersed in my writing to foltypewriter-5065594_1920low the news. Anything new happen since my last post of November of 2016?

No, nothing? Okay, here’s what I’ve been up to:

My noir-ish monologue What a Real Punch Sounds was produced by Ragged Foils. I think Joanna Simpkins did a splendid job. See for yourself here!

I wrote and produced a neo-noir audio drama called Cosmic Deletions that asked such all-important questions as: What if that telemarketer is actually an assassin? and What if the world was actually the creation of a software company? Show some love, Copperheads!

Also, hey look at me playing the ukulele! Who says quarantining is boring?

This Week’s Monologue of Menace: Tony’s Wake up Call.

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Wake up, Tony.

You hear that sound? That’s the safety lock being pulled back on my Semi-automatic Glock nineteen, perfect fit in my tiny hand. Feels nice.

Remember the time we spent at the gun range? You teaching me the basics. Me scared like a kitten visiting a lion’s den. But I’m doing fine today. No tremble in my hands. No sweating.

What were the big three again?

One: treat every gun as if it were loaded. Don’t worry, this one is.

Two: gun always pointed in a safe direction. In this case that means away from me.

Three: Finger off the trigger until you’re ready to shoot. Oh, I’m ready.

And four: Don’t point at anything you’re not willing to destroy.

And then there’s the proper stance: elbow slightly bent, leaned forward to absorb the weapon’s recoil. I’m ready, motherfucker. Are you?

Remember how spooked I was when you bought me the gun for my birthday. Too scared to touch it. You told me I needed it, living in this shitty neighborhood. Never know who’s going to be lurking in the bushes late at night, watching, waiting. You never know what kind of harm some creep like that can do if you’re not ready for him.

But now I’m ready. Because now I know the creeps don’t only come with crowbars and handmade shivs. Sometimes they come with big smiles and shitty lies that almost make sense. And sometimes they get busted coming back from office parties that didn’t happen. Because they forget their cell phones at home. Wake up, Tony. I really need to empty a few rounds in your skull. But I’m waiting until you’re wide-awake because I need you to know why.

This Week’s Monologue of Menace: How I Got the Scar (excerpt from Kiss the Ladies Goodnight)

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In this excerpt from Kiss the Ladies Goodnight, Legato’s toughness gets tested by a young suburban punk named Tolliver who’s not too eager to answer questions. “All right, tough guy,” Tolliver said. “Tell me about the worst beating you’ve ever taken.”

Legato sat in front of the guy, then pointed to a small scar under his left eye. “How about I tell you about this. See the scar?”

Tolliver smirked. “Yeah, I see that. What, you get that from some mugger or maybe the bully from Brooklyn high school?”

Legato shook his head. “When I was a kid, there was this guy on the block, never knew his real name but they called him Tweaks. Every block had one. Dude used to sniff glue day and night, lived for the shit, dug through dumpsters to find an extra tube. That guy. The neighborhood joke, everybody laughed at his sorry ass – the way he’d twitch and stutter. The way he’d get lost in mid-conversation if you asked him how he was doing.

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“Then he moved up to heroin and the shit wasn’t funny anymore. He started robbing people, hiding in alleyways with a tire iron. He’d be in and out of prison and some days you’d see him with bloodstains on his collar that he wouldn’t explain.

“One day I come home from school, hearing screams in the hallway as I walk up – Mama’s screams. When I get there, Tweaks is there, this baseball bat in his hand and Mama’s laying on the floor, arms up, bracing for a swing. Then he looks up, staring at me, kind of laughing, but it’s hard to tell with Tweaks. He raises the bat over Mama, says to me, ‘You better talk some sense to your mother. You hear me? I need money and this is not going to get it!’ He shows me this tiny wad of cash. He stares into Mama’s eyes. ‘Come on, lady! You got more than that!’ Mama was shaking, kept whimpering ‘no’ over and over. She’s looking at me, she’s looking back at Tweaks and I’m scared. Daddy was gone by then, no man in the house. So Mama had a gun, kept it hidden under the bathroom sink. I scampered away, straight to the bathroom, hoping I could get back before it was too late. I was going to shoot this guy, right between the eyes if I had to. I was going put down Tweaks before he put Mama down.

“But then I got back into the living room, that revolver shaking in my hand like an egg timer. I aimed it at his chest, but there’s something about holding a gun and aiming it at somebody. Tweaks started laughing, then came after me with his hand out. He may have been out of his mind, but he knew I didn’t have the heart. I was only twelve, could barely pee straight. And I was talking about shooting somebody? I tried to take aim at his chest again, but I lost my nerve. He turned around, raised his bat and started to swing for Mama’s head. And I fired three shots, two went through his ribcage, sent him to the carpet, shaking like a marlin somebody plucked from the river. The third shot? It went into a mirror off to my left side. A splinter came back and got me just under the eye.” He pointed to the scar again.

The punk said nothing.

“You ready to cooperate with me, Tolliver?”

“Yes, sir,” he mumbled, back erect now, almost respectfully. No more jokes.

This Week’s Menacing Monologue: Daddy’s Little Girl

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This Week, Rochelle has a few words for Daddy’s new girlfriend.

 

Here’s the thing. You’re not the first. It started with Linda, Dad’s first “friend” after the divorce. She was nice, kind of pretty. But not his type. The chemistry between them was off, a little awkward. She was kind of bookish, a little too nerdy for Dad.
 
Then came Stella. Tall redhead, good cook, really into fitness. But here’s the thing with Dad: he’s not a fitness kind of guy. And never will be. Nice try, Stella, but no.
 
Next was Sarah. Sweet lady, but the whole Wiccan thing? I don’t think so.
Janine was a wild ride — big drinker, motorcycle, too many tattoos. Dad thought it could work anyway. It did for a weekend. But Dad needed stability. And Janine needed a team of therapists. So their splitting up was the best for everybody.
 
Then we get to Julie.
 
I warned him. I told him the thing with Julie would end the wrong way. That things would go sour and she would leave him all broken and sad. He didn’t listen.
 
“Hey, who’s the grown-up, here?” he’d say. And he’d laugh and laugh until everything crashed into an ugly mess just like I said it would.
 
God, he was impossible that week. I’d never seen Dad like that before. Weak and helpless, sliced up into a million different pieces that would never be Dad again. What Julie did was beyond crappy. And I’m sure you’d never repeat it.
 
But if you ever did, here’s the thing: I will hurt you. I’m serious. I know I look small and seem innocent. But I will take my aluminum bat and I will track you down and I will find you. And I don’t care if I have to scale your backyard fence and slip into your bedroom window at two am. I will get you. I will wake you up to the worst beating you’ve ever had.
 
I will hit you and hit you and hit you until you are bruised and bloody and maybe even choking on your own teeth. And I swear you will regret the second you ever thought it was a good idea to break my Dad’s heart.

 

Oh, another thing: Would it be okay if I called you Mom?