“So you smuggle?” “A bit.”

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Art by KangJason

[Han Solo sits alone at another nameless Outer Rim bar. He casually watches everyone and everything, but sees little, lost in his thoughts and the weight of his own history…]

Leia. The Princess he never dreamed could be his…his everything.

And now here he was, struggling to find his footing. His only hope of a grounding coming from the life and the work he once knew. When things were simpler.

No Jedi.

No Force.

Just money and parsecs and the zing of pulling off a run. Details resolved with a few credits or by the smoke coming out of a spent blaster.

And now. What? Honest man? General Solo? Who am I?

Ben. Why? How did we not see it?

How did Luke not see it, with all his Jedi Master powers? How could he let it happen?

What good was the Force if it let innocent children become something horrible? Where was the Balance in that?

Our son. Fallen. To the darkness. Like Vader.

And then I lost Leia. Insult to the worst of injuries.

Did it to myself. Let the pride and the hurt drive her away when we needed each other most.

So here I am. Lost. Old. Glories receding into whispers, into legends that people like me laugh at over drinks.

Who am I?

Ship. Have to find the Falcon. I’m not me until I have her back. If I can get her back, I’ll be able to make this right.

Me and Chewie.

And Leia. I can make this right with Leia.

Maybe find Luke. Find out what happened. What to do next. How to save Ben.

But first, got to get my space legs. Run some goods. Shake off the rust. Be the old Han. Lots of good jobs to show everyone this old space bantha has some new tricks up his sleeve. Or at least the same tricks. Those ‘were’ pretty good.

One step at a time. Get a ship. Me and Chewie. Run some jobs behind the First Order…even the Republic. What harm is there in that?

And then. Go find the Falcon. Then Luke. Then Leia.

And then we’ll go get Ben.  And we’ll be a family again.

My son.

Someone coming up to me.

‘What did you say, pal?’

Oh.

“Yeah. I smuggle. A bit.”

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In the wee small hours

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‘In the wee small hours of the morning.’  That was the only time of day worth singing about to Frank, and he sure had it right (as he usually did).  Stuff happens then.  In the dead of night, you can guarantee certain events and life moments will happen that would otherwise shun the daylight hours.

My dad used to talk about how much stuff he figured out (had to figure out) over a tumbler of Jack as the lights of the neighborhood shone like lonely sentinels outside the house window.  I didn’t really understand what he meant until I really got into my thirties, mainly because when you’re younger than that, the wee small hours are almost entirely benign ones for your life.  Drunken carousing, greasy Mexican food, lamp-breaking sex.  That’s the 20-something’s late-late night.

But then you get a little older, and then a lot older.  The weight of things intrudes on your beauty sleep, which explains why my hair’s thinned and gone grey, and my eyes have deeper rings than Saturn.

Let me outline how the wee small hours of the morning roll.

Midnight isn’t technically part of the wee small hours, but it gets honorary mention, because it’s when you might feel the first unfortunate effects of that last double-whatever you ordered at the bar to cap off the evening.

1 a.m. is when your child will always wake up with the beginnings of a really good case of the flu.  The kind you hear first…from down the hall.

2 a.m. is where all difficult-to-reach smoke detectors go to die.

3 a.m. is when your dog decides it’s a super moment for a random gastrointestinal attack on your carpet or area rug, even when hard wood floors are but a pivot away.

4 a.m. is my personal favorite.  That hour has the dubious honor of being both the one time of night I most need sleep to feel rested (your hour may vary), and the moment when all my personal doubts, failings and crises tsunami over my brain and heart.

It’s when I wonder about the dance of direction and execution, vision clashing with practicality, and the head’s endless sparring with its brother soul.  It’s also the time when I go searching in my mind’s eye across the world, seeking connection with the people going about their day in the busy streets of Shanghai or the souks of Istanbul.  The planet shrinks.  Anywhere but here is where I want to be at 4 a.m.IMG_0535

And lest you think these hours bring only the downsides of life, let me lend balance.  It’s during these moments that all is still and quiet, so much so that sometimes I think my very thoughts are too loud to let everyone else keep sleeping.  It’s when I can go into my child’s room and watch them gently breathe in utter peace, dreaming of splashing in ocean waves or the smell of Christmas. I can stroke my elderly dog’s soft ears and appreciate her unconditional love.  And when all else may seem in flux, there is my wife in our bed, warm and welcoming.  The wee small hours, as Frank said, are actually more about love than loss.

By the time you get to 5.am., well, sleep is far too gone to salvage.  Time to get the coffee going, feed the dog and maybe set in motion some of those 4 a.m. decisions.

And within a very short period of time, the first light of morning comes to the rescue, as it thankfully always does.

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“If you get Dr. Bowers on your side, that’s all that matters..”

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Ted tapped his thigh emphatically as he passed the sales advice on to Bert, who was, at this moment, en route to Dr. Bowers’ family practice in Tulsa.

The Hertz bus Ted was on rumbled habitually towards the rental car lot at Albuquerque International airport. Ted shifted his phone to the other ear.

“These statin promotions are really kickin’, so he’d be a fool not to want to sign up the whole practice. Oh, and don’t forget to mention there’s a trip to Cabo for the top three prescribing practices in the country. That should get his attention. Bowers loves a good margarita.”

He hung up with the junior sales rep, hoping that Bert was going to pick up where he’d left off with the good doctor. It meant a nice little extra manager’s bonus to Ted, and he needed it for supplies, particularly with the summer pageant season upon him.

Albuquerque. That happenin’ town, he’d heard a twenty-something sarcastically tell his buddy as they’d passed him en route to their seats on the connection from Dallas.

So true, he thought. Only one good bar in town, and their best-dressed contest didn’t pay much except in local glory and maybe a mescal shot or two from admirers. So different from the real hotspots like NoLa, South Beach and New York. But his pharma rep territory sadly precluded those places, leaving him to do what he could with the southwest drag circuit.

What really upset Ted most was the impact his road warrior career was increasingly having on his appearance. Stretchy polo shirts and pleated khakis were far more forgiving to a growing paunch than his favorite satin bustier and candy apple red stilettos. If he didn’t drop some pounds soon, his well-received Mae West persona, Maybe Yes, would soon be most decidedly Maybe No.

As he crammed himself into the Hertz Kia Soul sitting in stall 225, Ted shifted his black bra back into place, and cranked the AC. Albuquerque might not be a hotspot in terms of drag queen bars, but it was plenty warm in August. He drove out of the rental lot to the uptown Sheraton, which he liked because the manager, Xavier, gave him the ‘Queen for a Queen’ discount.  Xavi (or rather, Lupi Lupay, as his stage name went) was a tough local competitor, but they had bonded over the years around such fiercely-debated topics as the proper display of peacock feathers and flapper-era hemlines.

He drove down the I-25 highway, past the many storage centers and signs for the local Native American casinos, and began to think wistfully about his annual fall vacation to San Francisco.

Not too far away, thank God. He could almost taste the fresh seafood, smell the sea air and hear the ABBA. Of course this year would be sadly different with Lisa not joining him. She may have appreciated a well-fitting bra and a good lipstick, but in the end it wasn’t enough common ground for a marriage. Ted swallowed hard and blinked back some quick tears as he pulled into the hotel parking. He understood Lisa’s decision. Tough calls were familiar ground to pharma reps and drag queens alike.

 After all, people needed their Lipitor, and the show must go on.

 

E-Yah!

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Goddamn, I’m tired.

Lijuan ‘Alice’ Fung shook herself awake with a start, and wondered if she’d actually missed the ferry home to Kowloon while she snored away some of the long night of office cleaning at the Peng Building in Sheung Wan.

In Mandarin, Li-Juan Fung meant ‘beautiful and graceful bird’.  But with all due respect to the honored, long-dead parents who named her, right now Alice felt a lot more like an old goat.  No imminent, glorious flight here, she thought; just a lot of bone-ache and back spasms.

‘E-yah’, she said to no one in particular, as she noticed that the Star Ferry she’d meant to be on was, in fact, already docked across the bay.  At least the next one’d be along in twenty minutes and she wouldn’t be too late.

I’ll still have time to shower, make a bowl of congee with that leftover chicken, and maybe even watch half of my TV soap before taking the #23 bus to the early afternoon pai-gow game with my useless cousins.

Gotta keep sharp.  The only way to have another good weekend in Macau was to keep playing, keep learning, and keep figuring out the angles.  All that, plus a whole lot of joss, and maybe, just maybe, her winning streak in the glittery casinos would keep rolling.  Fortune had certainly been with her.  More or less.

Work wasn’t nearly so glorious, and lately it’d been even worse.  The Pengs were cold, ungrateful bosses, who hadn’t given her a raise in who knows how many years.  She was fairly certain she was heading to an early grave because of the cheap cleaning products they made her use as she went from floor to floor six nights a week. 

Recently, the Pengs were even more irritable, as they negotiated the sale of the building to a Kowloon holding company, which was surprising given it had been the cornerstone of their very profitable Hong Kong real estate empire.  It was, after all, a very solid building – well-built, good location, with fairly reliable, established white-collar tenants.  It even had decent congee downstairs in the restaurant, although their lai wang bao were disgusting.

Alice looked back across the landing, and noticed that the ferry was about to dock.  It was the Meridian Star, which meant nothing to her other than she knew all the classic Star Ferry ships had ‘Star’ in their name.  How much this city has changed, she mused.  The Star Ferry was once the only reliable, affordable way to cross the bay between Hong Kong and Kowloon.  But with multiple (expensive) underground tunnels for traffic and the MTR, and all the land reclamation projects, the Ferry was being relegated to nothing more than a tourist must-do.  Still, she thought, she’d used it her whole life.  No sense switching now.

She climbed aboard the green, black and white ferry, and took her favorite wooden bench seat on the sunny side of the ship.  As she did, the first smile of the daylight hours crept across her face.

She couldn’t wait for her purchase of the Peng building to close next week, so she could finally tell those pig-fuckers what she thought of them.  Thank you, Macau. E-yah!

Sir, did you ring your call button?

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Copyright Pax-International

“Yes, I did.”

“What can I get you?”

“May I please have a dinner roll, two butters and a glass of Chivas?”

“Of course.  I’ll be back shortly”

“Thank you.”

Celeste turned off the call light of row 44GHJ, and walked back to the mid-section galley of the Air France Boeing 777-300ER.  She also did two other things on her stroll back to her station. 

First, she habitually eyeballed the passengers as she passed each row, noting which ones were already asleep, and which ones were engrossed in some kind of entertainment. 

So far, about a third were already passed out from that soporific cocktail of travel fatigue, altitude, mediocre airplane food and alcohol.  About par for the course for this point in their ten-hour journey from Chicago to Paris, she thought.  Within two hours, that percentage would creep to nearly three-quarters, and that’s when life would get nice and quiet for her and her flight attendant colleagues.

The second action was a little more frontal lobe and frankly a lot more imaginative. 

She wondered if the gentleman in 44G loved his wife.

That thought wasn’t really based on the man’s request for the extra dinner roll or the Chivas Regal twelve-year.  It actually was born out of a look Celeste had seen so many times on these transatlantic flights.  She’d long ago learned that such flights opened portals to what often ailed passengers’ souls.

These portals presented themselves in so many ways, some more subtle than others.  Some passengers engaged her and their fellow passengers in almost rabid penetrating conversation, preferring the direct approach to filling their ongoing emptiness.   Others enjoyed the equally unsubtle wink and physical clues that they hoped at least gave them some kind of out in the event the recipient summarily rejected their overtures.

And some simply asked for an extra dinner roll, two butters and a glass of Chivas.

Well, she thought, the request could be almost anything.  She’d heard it all – a stick of gum, a magazine, a pillow.  Hell, she’d even seen a man ask to try on a woman’s dress once.  On a trip over the pond, anything could happen.  The rules of engagement were as open as could be.

As she moved into the galley and began pouring the whisky for Mr. 44G, she nodded to Beatrice, who smiled briefly and then went back to reading her Oui! Magazine while she took her post-dinner service break.

Beatrice was several years junior to Celeste, and to her, the opportunities for a little mile-high interaction were still shiny and interesting.  Usually within the first 30 minutes, Beatrice had the economy cabin pegged.

“32A broke up with someone, and I’m pretty sure it was her girlfriend.  God, a distraught lesbian can be so hot.  I’d almost give it a shot.”

“56B would prefer to be anywhere than with his wife in 56A, and I’m sure he’d join me in the left-aft bathroom if I gave him the nod.”

“64D hopes a few weeks of pastry-eating and some bistros will save her from a life of uselessness.  She’d be wrong.  And what’s with that ‘Wives of the O.C.’ haircut?  Jesus!”

This was Beatrice’s game, as it was for each of the crew.  For all of them knew that the key to surviving years of working at 36,000 feet was imagination.  And the combined game of ‘what-if’ and role-playing were core to that skill.

All of which led Celeste back to the stranger, whose current address was the middle hamlet of row 44G.

Every once in a while, did he search the horizon for something more?  When he went to his Parisian hotel, would he immediately dial someone he cared about, or would his mistress, Ms. Email, dominate his first hours on the ground?

Did he enjoy long talks in wool-knit sweaters by a roaring fire?  Did the extra dinner roll, the two butters and the Chivas underlie a hunger for an attractive, 40-something Air France flight attendant, one who actually did like long talks in wool-knit sweaters by roaring fires?

OK, stop that, she mused.  You’re getting creepy.  If someone asked you that, you’d be totally skeeved out.

Celeste cleared her head just about the time she reached row 44, roll, butters and drink in hand.  The mysterious passenger was waiting expectantly for his request, and gratefully accepted the food and drink.

And as he did, he turned to her with stormy-sea grey eyes she’d not noticed before, locked her gaze and said:

“Thank you.  I find these settle the stomach.”

“I remember you like the spicy food”

“I remember you like the spicy food”, Juan, the painter, said proudly as he asked to use my downstairs bathroom.  Juan was a truly nice guy, but his English was still a little on the broken side.  Lord knows it was better than my truly-busted Spanish.

Juan’s mention of my fondness for chilies was, I knew, his way of reaching out to me, bridging the language divide enough that we both felt good about his decision to ask to use my bathroom.

I don’t think Juan realized that while he’s been here working on this particular paint job, updating my daughter’s one bedroom wall from her toddler pink to her very-specific tweener purple, that he’s been mere feet away from my growing crisis of faith.  Even if he knew, I bet he’d be relieved that our respective language limitations safely precluded a dive that deep into one another’s lives.

Have you ever painted anything?  I mean a real multi-hour job kind of painting, like a room, a table or a canvas?  Like most tasks in life that you don’t routinely tackle, painting starts with those first tentative strokes, those first anxious moments of a beginning.  Did I get the right brush?  Is the paint the right color and type?  Did I tape the edges so it doesn’t look like I had a seizure every couple of inches?  It’s one of two moments of truth in any endeavor.  It’s The Beginning.

I’ve often needed to remind myself that courage can be defined as ‘being afraid, but going anyway’.  And you need a little courage to start a paint job, because it always opens up some part of your personal box of fears and insecurities.  But you know you have a job to do, and you get on with it.  Courage.  Belief.  Hope.

Then a great thing happens.  You start to get into the groove swing of the painting.  Strokes become more sure and even.  Rhythmic.  You take less paint from the container and drip less on your pant leg, and find less of it smeared on the sides of your fingers.  You start to think of other things.  In fact, you think of anything other than painting most of the time…this middle time.  You drift into that other place.

To me, it’s like swimming under the surface of the ocean.  You go as deep as you feel like going, only occasionally surfacing for a breath of air.  Or in the case of the painting, you come back into the here-and-now, and make the required observations and adjustments to your progress.  And then you go back under again.  Focus.  Lack of focus.  Here.  Not here.  Linear.  Parallel.

Before you know it, you’ve come to the end, and as with all endings, the other moment of truth arrives.  The Ending.  How did it go?  How does it look?  Was it worth the effort?  It takes a different kind of courage to face an ending; an even worse kind.  For it’s far scarier to end something than to start it, and even more terrifying to evaluate your own ending.  Courage.  Belief.  Hope.

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It’s absolutely a missed opportunity

…Jude admonished his friend. “This is what you’ve been waiting for, isn’t it?”

Michael pulled up his coat against the subzero wind that seemed to blast the two of them with a complete tone of mockery as they briskly strolled down one of the more featureless blocks of New York’s financial district.

It wasn’t that he didn’t agree with Jude.  In fact, his every cell ached to embrace what had been offered, from the tips of his nearly-numb toes to his too-sculpted dark brown hair.

His cell phone buzzed inside his grey SoHo bespoke suit.  Although his leather gloves were thin, he was clumsy as he fished the phone out of his pocket.  Nerves, he thought.

Oh, Lord. It was his father, calling from Tucson. Michael’s heart looked for somewhere to run as he answered. “Hi Dad.” His father’s deep, weathered bass seemed to tunnel directly into Michael’s soul.

“Hello, son.  You know why I’m calling….there’s not much time.”

“Isn’t there anything else we can do to buy us some more room?” Michael asked.

“Despite what we all wish, sometimes there just isn’t an option”, his father replied evenly. “And this is one of those moments.” Michael knew his dad spoke the truth…knew that there was no agenda in the definitiveness in which the words were spoken.

“I’ll leave tonight then.” Michael said.  “See you soon.”  He hung up the phone.

He and Jude rounded the final block to their office building, a featureless skyscraper that couldn’t have been well-described if their lives depended on it.  In fact, the best that could be said of it might have been that it looked robust or well-built, a stocky leg bone in the body Manhattan.

Jude had heard the exchange between father and son, and while sympathetic with Michael’s plight, he felt the need to remind his friend of the choice he still had to make.

“Listen, I know this is a poor moment to make such a big decision. Really, I do. It stinks.  But if you have to go tonight, then it’s all the more reason to make your choice before you go.”

Jude looked at his friend as they entered the express elevator. “Take the deal, Michael.”

Michael felt the elevator rise briskly, and wondered silently why it never made him feel better to be going up.

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