September 2017


There are three days when I don’t like working the piano bar: Halloween, Christmas, and New Year’s.

Halloween has that carnival atmosphere where everybody has a request but nobody tips because they think their dime-store mask will protect them from the bad karma. I remember a Halloween, two years ago, when the only thing that showed up in my tip jar was a bobbing apple with a sloppy bite, oxidation already browning it.

People at Christmas are generous with their food but not with their tips. I get plenty of cookies that night, but everyone seems to be quietly guilty that they’re at O’Sullivan’s rather than in the warm embrace of kith and kin. It’s just a sad twirl on the dance floor, awkward passes made at anything that stirs their loins, and longing looks at mistletoe. Oh, and Christmas carol requests. Nothing but. My professors at Julliard would be spinning in their graves if they were dead.

But New Year’s is the worst.

This past New Year’s, I was sitting at my piano playing Auld Lang Syne for the millionth time, nursing a sprained ankle under my dress pants and with a glass of sassafrass beading sweat and leaving a ring on the piano. People will offer you a drink if you don’t have something amber going to waste on your piano, I’ve learned, and they don’t take kindly to being turned down. Better to have something, anything, up there rather than causing controversy with the people who should–emphasis on should–be tipping you.

A drunk lady approached me, with just the right attitude that I thought I was in for some juvenile flirting. Not that I’d mind under ordinary circumstances–people hitting on you do tend to tip until they realize you’re not going for it because you like your job–but people are possessive around the holidays. I remember when the other pianist I alternate with, Zack, got his lights punched out because he flirted with a punchy patron’s hubby.

“I’ve got a strange request for you,” she slurred. “You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to, but there’s a tip in it for you.” She stuffed a hundred-dollar bill–a real live Benjamin–in my tip jar before I could respond. “Okay then,” she continued, as if I’d actually agreed sight unseen. “Here’s what I want you to do.”

She reached into a voluminous designer purse and pulled out a piece of sheet music. Ancient stuff, yellowed and fragile-looking, though it didn’t crumble in my hands. “Play this song,” she said. “See that person over there? It’s the song of their soul, and every note you play will make them totally in the power of anybody who commands them.”

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A slick grin slopped across Muntz’s face. “I can’t write,” he said. “Can’t read, either. I’m just a natural.”

“Make your mark with an X, then, same as everybody else,” said Missy. “Right there on the line.”

Muntz shrugged. “Supposing I don’t?” he said airily. “Supposing I decide to make whatever cantrips I want wherever I please?”

“Then you’ll do them whenever you want and wherever you please,” said Missy. “Excepting Smokewood and its environs. Nobody comes into town without surrendering their tools of mayhem.”

“I am a tool of mayhem,” said Muntz. “Am I to surrender myself to you, little girl? I doubt you could handle it.”

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Silas Moore has been dead for about 10 years, but it hadn’t interfered with his running of a funeral parlor with his equally dead brother Elijah. Whenever someone came to buy a coffin in advance, Silas would always tent his gaunt, colorless fingers in delight. “Wonderful! Perhaps they’d be interested in joining the ranks of Smokewood’s living dead? It is a community badly n need of new blood.”

Silas wasn’t lying; in addition to himself and Elijah, only a handful of undead graced the area with their presence. There was Smathers the zombie, passed out drunk on cerebrospinal fluid on any given day. A couple of secretive ghouls lived in the hills, and a vampire rancher who would come into town only every fortnight.

When the client declined, as they inevitably did, Silas would smile wanly. “It is, as they say, up to you. But should you wish to join me in the divine hereafter of living death, the table is set.”

Elijah, for his part, refused to acknowledge that he was dead and would only allow that he was “getting on in years.”

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“Jed?” One of the boys said. “What if they won’t go? What if they’s stubborn?”

Jed’s eyes glowed red under the floppy brim of his hat. “Let them burn, then,” he said. With a flick of his wrist, he scattered magical sparks onto the dry grass before him.

The dry teeth around his neck rattles as he turned his back to the fresh gouts of flame and walked away.

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A beast writes near the timer. The shell camps opposite, desperate for a lesson. The beast scribbles dashes outside the lines, in contempt. Knowledge impairs the contributor to the recovered magazine. Their living handicaps float across the spectrum with the harsh rain their only companion.

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Every town, even out east, has one of Them. The slacker, the drunkard, the ne’er-do-well that sins through inaction. For the burg of Smokewood, such as it is, that’s Feris. Yeah, just Feris. Every time she introduces herself, she gives a different last name, one that’s usually a pun or a crude joke. A partial list follows:

-Shufflebottom
-Dungworth
-Wheel
-Clutterbucker
-Bracegirdle
-Hiscock
-France
-Rattlebag
-Cornfoot
-Bungay
-Fair
-Swindell
-Nutters

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“You can see here the speakers and subwoofers. Armored, of course, and fine-tuned by a company out of London to produce 11 hz white noise. It’s inaudible most of the time but makes people violently ill at ease and, often, violently ill.” The manager of Special Branch pointed to fixtures set all around the ceiling in recessed enclosures. “These are strobes that flash at 11 hz in sync with the speakers.”

“What’s that do?” I said.

“It really ratchets up the sensation,” said the Special Branch man. “Hallucinations, altered states of consciousness…most people can only bear to be exposed to the ‘fun room’ for only a few moments before they lose their minds.”

“I’m…almost morbidly curious to know what it feels like,” I said.

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” said the man from Special Branch. “You’ve been strapped into the ‘fun room’ for 24 hours already.”

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