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Image Source: Fred Herzog

She never showed. Said she’d meet me at the White Lunch Cafeteria at 5:30, Arlene said, and she never showed. So I spent an hour and a half huddled under the marquee of the Capitol waiting for nothing in the pouring rain. And now I’m back in my room at the Empire working on a fifth of Crown.

Should’ve known…should’ve known. Girl like her would never give a guy like me a break. Don’t know what I was even thinking asking her out. I was so scared, thinking she might say no. I almost wish she had said no. At least that way I wouldn’t have gotten my hopes up.

Like said before, I just don’t understand this world, and I don’t get along so well with so many other people. I try, but I just seem to screw the deal every time. I think it’s easier to keep to myself. Keep the circle small, don’t let anyone in. Much less maintenance that way. Less hurt.

Cold night. Cold and wet. It’s nice to look out at it, now that I don’t have to worry about being stood up anymore. Now that I know it’s just me, in service of the Crown tonight. Now that I know that I’m alone again.

Maybe this is how it’s supposed to be. Maybe I’ll never see anyone else again…

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Image Source: Joel Meyerowitz

Silent and still…a slight fluttering of the curtain…orange yellow sun bursting into the dark of the room…the smell of fresh linens and musty books and the sound of the surf, muted and subdued…I raise my head slightly, confused, off-kilter, before remembering where I am, in this room in this magnificent rented house by the sea…so far from the office and automobiles and subways and leaking furnaces…such peace and tranquility…it is early in the morning, the beginning of the day…the beginning…morning…beautiful morning….

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Image Source: Vivian Maier

They call him “The Professor”, an’ that makes sense since he’s always talkin’, talkin’, talkin’. Don’t nobody know what his story is or what makes him spend his days standin’ on the corner an’ givin’ his lectures to nobody in particular. Some say he was in the war an’ got too close to artillery fire. Some think he lost his marbles because his wife an’ kids left him. Most all agree he should be locked up in the asylum. But I happen to know that he’s harmless.

I always set up my paper stand on the corner of 44th an’ Lex, so’s I can get the Grand Central traffic, an’ The Professor is often up at 46th an’ Lex. So by the time my customers come to me, they already got an earful. You never know what The Professor will be rantin’ about on any particular day. Some days he’s up there yellin’ about the President, an’ some days he’s going on and on about what’s playing at the pictures and how crummy the leading man is. One day he may got somethin’ to say about automobiles an’ design, an’ two days later he’ll be havin’ a fit about how DiMaggio is losin’ a step. I hear all this second hand as traffic moves south from The Professor’s corner, an’ the talkin’ about his talkin’ is always somethin’.

I said that I happen to know that The Professor is harmless. How do I know this? Well, I seen him enough on the street, an’ I talked to him a few times, see? He’s always out there talkin’, an’ I think he’s just looking for someone to talk with him. ‘Cause every time I’ve stopped an’ talked with him, it’s a genuine conversation an’ it’s very pleasant. He’s a very knowledgeable guy. I think he just likes to get going and hope that someone will stop an’ join in, an’ maybe that’s why he’s always going on about so many different things.

So maybe he ain’t a big social guy in the way that others are social. Maybe he ain’t the type that can sit on a bar stool an’ talk up the guy next to him on his own. Our friend Tiny Tom is like that, but ain’t everybody going to be like that. I can’t imagine getting’ up on a stage an’ givin’ a lecture, so I can understand where The Professor might be comin’ from. We all got our things, an’ who am I to judge?

Alls I know is that if you happen upon The Professor, you should stop an’ talk with the guy for a bit. He may look like he’s lost his marbles, but he’s alright. He’s a together guy, probably just a little lonesome. But he’s an alright guy, an’ he’s got a lot to say.

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Image Source: Elliott Erwitt

Oh yeah, I seen it happen. Poor bastard landed right there onna sidewalk, right in front of Tony’s. Jumped from his own goddamn apartment onna fifth floor. Top left window, right in-line with the C inna Coca Cola sign. BLAM, SPLAT! Ain’t that a bitch?

I heard they was jackin’ up the rent inna buildin’ over there. Guess that may have had somethin’ to do with it? An’ I know he worked at one’a them transistor stores on Cortlandt St., down on Radio Row, an’ there’s all kinds’a rumors about how they’re gonna level that whole neighborhood to build the World Trade Center the Rockefellers keep talkin’ about. Maybe he was scared’a losin’ his job? Who the hell knows?

Y’know, it’s a funny damn thing: I seen the guy onna street every day, an’ I seen him in his window, lookin’ out. Ev’ry mornin’ I see this guy lookin’ out his window. Only this mornin’ I seen him leanin’ out an’ jumpin’, an’ that’s the last I’m gonna see of him. You see a guy like that every day, even if you don’t know him, he kinda becomes part of your life.

Kinda goes to show, you don’t ever really know nobody. I seen the guy every day, likesay, but no way I’d be able to tell you why the poor bastard done it to himself. Seemed like a nice guy, looked like he had it all together, an’ then one day the guy is dead onna sidewalk.

I guess you just don’t ever know, do you?

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Image Source: Andrew Bush

Aunt Ina loved that painting, even if it was a fake. A fake: like her flowers and her books and everything in her house and life.

I spent a lot of time at Aunt Ina’s house, partly because my middle school was across the street and partly because my own mother was such a louse. I never knew my father, because he split before I was born. No wonder my mother was such a loser. I guess I don’t blame her, but I still resent her.

I used to sit next to that book case, across the room from my Aunt, while she watched her soap operas every afternoon. She would serve me stale Danish cookies and warm Shur Fine soda on a rusted gold TV tray with a painting of a fruit bowl. Then she’d sit down on her plastic-covered recliner, pull on her afghan, drink her tall-boys of Schlitz and chain-smoke Kools. The taste of those cookies and soda and the smell of stale beer, body odor, smoke and gas from the stove is frozen in my memory forever as afternoons at Aunt Ina’s house.

Aunt Ina always said proudly that she had two tall-boys of Schlitz every afternoon at 2:00, and not a drop more. Like she was trying to vindicate herself. But the house reeked like Schlitz by the time I got there at 2:20, and every afternoon at 3:00, after she retired for her “nap”, I could hear her crack open more cans. It was all a fake, just like her soap operas.

A lot of days when she was “napping” she’d start muttering to herself in French. I don’t know much French, but I picked up on it. Always everything was c’est très mauvais and je suis vraiment désespéré. I learned later that those meant “it is very bad” and “I’m really hopeless.” When she really got going, she’d scream je vis dans le mensonge! over and over. That meant “I am living a lie!” And then she would start sobbing.

It sure did a number on me hearing all that from the next room. I was supposed to be doing homework, but instead I was watching re-runs on TV and turning up the volume to try and drown out Aunt Ina’s yelling. I tried to go into her bedroom once, to try to make her feel better. I knocked on the door softly, and as soon as I did she stopped sobbing and got real quiet. So I opened the door, and she yelled at me to get out and threw a shoe at me. It scared the hell out of me, and all I could do is go back to the TV and hope it would all be better when she woke up.

Uncle Emil was long dead, and by the time I got to my sophomore year in high school, so was Aunt Ina. My mother was always really vague when I asked what she died from, and her story changed once or twice. I guess she was continuing the lie that Ina started. They sold the house, and I graduated and got the hell away. But any time I pass by a display of Danish cookies or smell cigarette smoke, it all comes back and leaves me feeling just as helpless all over again.

I don’t mean to say Aunt Ina was all crazy. She always told me how much she loved me, and she was always bragging about her painting and her flowers and books and how beautiful they all were. I guess she convinced herself. I guess she had to.

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Image Source: Gary Winogrand

They used to say that my looks could stop traffic. Yeah, I’d stop traffic for any cheap hood waving a $20 in my face. Looks can only take you so far, and then it’s what you do with your looks. And when you’re young and dumb and desperate to make it…

I worked Avenue B a lot. Noon rush, usually. I’d get lots of executive types that would cut out for a little “exercise” on their lunch break, if you know what I mean. Alphabet City was a wasteland back then, so these big-wigs would come down from midtown or up from the financial district, ‘cause they didn’t want to be seen anywhere around their offices. Smart, right? But business was good. Lots of Jaguars and Mercedes and guys that had money to burn on cocaine and hookers. And there I was.

Like I said, I was young and dumb. Fresh from the sticks. I wanted to make it as an actress. Hell, who didn’t? I tried waitressing, but I was horrible at it. Tried working in a grocery store, but I was horrible at that, too. Tried working as a secretary, but I couldn’t pass all those tests. I was out of work, and one of my girl friends suggested I try it. Some friend, right?

I guess I got “lucky” on my first time. I went out with my girl friend, and my first was some middle-management guy in a cab. He was clean, and he was staying at the Sheraton on Seventh at 52nd. I gave him a blow and got a good tip out of it. First time out and I hit the jackpot.

If only the rest were like that. You wouldn’t believe what pigs some of them were. Guy in a Bentley pulls up, I jump in and the car reeks like the last toss he just had. Can you imagine going down on that? Sometimes we’d do business in the car on the sidewalk in broad daylight. And sometimes we’d check into the most disgusting flops you could imagine. Cockroaches, stains on the sheets…just sick. Lot of times after a job like that I had to take my shoes off in the street and shake out the bugs. And you can imagine what it felt like up my skirt.

It’s a hell of a thing to be servicing a guy whose wardrobe is worth more than your monthly rent in a dump like that. It really kind of makes you feel your place in life. But I felt my self-worth in a pile of bills in my hand at the end. And then I went out and felt even more self-worth.

Me and my looks, right? Jesus. Me, the Human Red Light.

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Image Source: Ernst Haas

American cloudburst, out on the road, out on the plains. 400 miles to nowhere: time to shut it down for the night.

All I want at the end is a place to lay my head. Jesus. Ten hours straight, and at least as much tomorrow. It’s a long, lonesome road. I don’t know if I was ready for that when I started this racket. But I know it now.

Lousy room, spackling chunks on the wall and awful flower paintings, and the air conditioner is loud. But the bed is soft. Damn, breakfast seems like years ago, but it was today. 400 miles and eleven hours ago. Same thing again tomorrow. Damn.

I should grab a bite to eat at the coffee shop, but I’m almost too tired. Maybe watch the television…nothing on. I could call somebody on the telephone…but who? Food…..too tired…..

Lousy room, but it’s a place to lay my weary head. I have to do this all over again in the morning….and again the next day…

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Image Source: Houston Press

Pete Burdon was in the mood to get extremely fucked up and have a good time. It had been that kind of day/week/month, and sometimes a good drunk cured all. And if it didn’t, he would die trying.

He ordered a Schlitz and turned a five into quarters for the juke. He flipped through the selections until the record he was looking for, without realizing it, presented itself: Highway 61 Revisited. He dropped in his quarters and loaded the entire album.

“Like a Rolling Stone” segued into “Tombstone Blues”, and Pete sat in his booth rocking out to Mike Bloomfield’s guitar leads. He was early into the night and enjoying the feeling of liberation. Life was spiraling out of control: he had left Austin after Lila had left him, he didn’t know anybody in town and he wasn’t having much luck finding a job. Money was getting tight, and he was worried about making rent and eating.

But all those things would eventually work out, and he couldn’t do a damn thing about it right now. Tonight was all about blowing off steam and relaxing. Pete was aware of his habit for hanging on to his worst thoughts and letting them take over. But tonight he was just going to let it all go and have some fun.

After the up-tempo barrelhouse blues of “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” and “From a Buick 6”, the album slowed down and got surreal on “Ballad of a Thin Man”, with Dylan’s tin-pan piano and cryptic lyrics. Pete was working on a new Schlitz, and he felt the shift in mood.

He thought about Lila, wondering where she was and what he did to cause her to leave. He entertained those thoughts for a minute, then pushed them away. “Fuck her,” he thought to himself. “And fuck it all! Let it go and have some fun for a change!”

A fresh round arrived in time for “Queen Jane Approximately.” Pete was still feeling a bit wistful, in spite of his efforts, but he tried pushing it all away. “Pretty remarkable record,” he thought. “Not one, but two ‘I told you so’ fall from grace songs: ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and ‘Queen Jane Approximately.’” He sang along under his breath:

Now when all of the flower ladies want back what they have lent you
And the smell of their roses does not remain
And all of your children start to resent you
Won’t you come see me, Queen Jane?

“Kind of like Lila after walking out on me!” Pete thought. He pictured himself in the Dylan role, taking Lila back after her fall and reckoning. “Like a repo man!” he sang to the tune of “Like a Rolling Stone,” melding the two songs into his own mission of redemption.

“God DAMN I miss her,” he suddenly said out loud. But the only reply was the clink of a fresh round on the table.

By the time the album closed out with the Spanish-influenced guitars of “Desolation Row”, Pete Burdon had given up all pretense of not giving a shit. Lila was on his mind and he couldn’t get her out. She had just walked out: cleaned out their apartment and left, with no letter and certainly no forwarding address. “Pretty cold way to operate,” he thought, or maybe said softly. “Just like that, she leaves? And I get no say? And no answers…SHIT…”

Pete realized he was pretty wasted, but he wasn’t quite done yet. The record had ended, and the bar was momentarily quiet. He called for his check, paid and walked out as a regular loaded the juke with old cowboy songs from Hank Snow and Buck Owens.

He staggered a bit on the sidewalk, righted himself and stopped at the general store for a quart of Old Milwaukee. Schlitz was bad, and Old Milwaukee was piss in comparison. But this was not a night for high standards.

The train whistle blasted through the late-night small town calm like an explosion and an invitation card. Pete found himself shuffling toward the trestle. “Yeah, GREAT idea!” he thought. “Drink a cold one on the trestle, stare at the river in the moonlight for a bit. It would be beautiful!”

“As beautiful as that BITCH Lila!” Pete yelled at the stars. “Yeah, how does it FEEL?!? TO BE ON YOUR OWN!!!! With no diRECTON HOME TO ME!!!” He downed the quart and threw it against a tree, loving the sound and feel of the smash.

Pete got to the tracks and walked out on to the trestle. The moon was huge and shimmering on the river in oblong orange crescents. He thought he felt the bridge vibrate just a touch, but the thought didn’t register compared to thoughts of THAT BITCH who’s BOUND TO FALL Lila.

He had to piss desperately, so he unzipped, whipped it out and held on to the steel while letting go.

Half-way through he looked right and thought he saw a pair of fuzzy lights side-by-side way down the tracks. The light on the lower left soon enough melded into the light on the upper right, and suddenly it was one headlight, and the bridge was vibrating like crazy.

The other side of the trestle was not at all far off, but Pete couldn’t get himself to start running. The light was so hypnotizing, so calming while it was so terrifying. He kept staring at the light as it got closer and closer and the whistle blew, louder than anything he had ever heard in his life.

The blast of the whistle finally snapped Pete out of his dreamscape, and he started performing mental calculations. He only had another ten feet to run to cross the trestle. On the other hand, the trestle was only ten feet above the river, and it wasn’t very wide. Pete could barely swim, but he could swim just enough.

He thought, amazed at his ability to slow down time and fight off his drunken fog to do so, of that line

When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose

and he clenched the outer edge of the trestle wall and made the decision that would likely mean the rest of his life…

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Hennepin Avenue Bridge
Image Source: Notsuoh Photography

Rick Nillsen walked half-way across the Hennepin Avenue Bridge clutching a business-size envelope against the chill October breeze. He walked the bridge all the time, often stopping in the middle to take in the sweep of the Mississippi toward St. Anthony Falls. Even with the traffic hurtling by it was a peaceful spot, a place to gather his thoughts and find his balance. But today it was all different. Rick’s entire life was different thanks to the arrival of the envelope.

The hand-writing on the envelope was achingly familiar

Nillsen
2541 Nicollet Ave
MPLS
55404

Nothing more than that. Nothing more was needed. Rick opened the envelope and pulled out five Polaroids and a piece of lined notebook paper. In the same script was written

funny how every photograph is a LIE
Goodbye

Nothing more than that. Nothing more was needed. Rick looked at the photos: he and Dana leaning against the hood of the Dodge, he and Dana by the Spoonbridge and Cherry statue in the Sculpture Garden, he and Dana in front of the Christmas tree, Dana smiling on the stoop, Dana as Mary Tyler Moore tossing her beret on the Nicollet Avenue mall. He fingered the pictures, and read the note again. And again. And again.

And it was all so true.

They were so damn happy in those pictures. And it was a lie, like all photographs. Nothing but a snippet of life, with no context at all. Not that we intentionally lie when posing for the snap of the shutter, but the moment captured is nothing more than the surface view. There’s always much more going on below the surface.

He thought of his favorite picture of himself with his dad, taken just after tossing a football around in the snow, both of them beaming smiles and happiness. But dad probably already had the Hodgkin’s that would take his life when that photo was taken. And maybe he knew it as they were tossing the ball around.

He thought of the one with dad and mom, taken on New Year’s Eve, mom rosy and glowing and tipping her Martini glass. There was one drink in the picture, but Christ only knows how many she had that night.

He thought of those moments captured in the Polaroids in his hand. Dana was apparently never happy with him, so it was all a lie.

Nothing more than that.

And nothing left…

When a relationship ends, a life ends. Everything ends. Routine, pattern and repetition, comfort and security. Everything familiar and needed comes to a sudden, sickening end. And nothing will ever bring it back.

Dana is gone. My life is gone.

The wind howled on the bridge as the sun left the sky and the Grain Belt Beer sign lit up for the evening. Another Minneapolis winter was coming, one he could not stand to take alone. Nothing left…

Rick slowly, methodically ripped up the envelope and the note. He then ripped up all the Polaroids and, one by one, dropped the torn-apart pieces over the side, into the river. He leaned over the rail, watching the pieces scatter into oblivion, leaning over a little further, trying to find peace with what was to come…

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Image Source: Waymarking.com

The Rock Island tracks are about a mile yonder, ‘cross the field. That’s the Kansas City to St. Louis line. I hear the whistle and dream of being on the train, heading toward the big city. Gee, I’d love to go see the sights one day.

I can’t see the tracks or trestle from the house, but I love walking toward them ‘cross the field in the afternoon with my dog, Betsy. I especially love it in the fall and winter, when the sun goes down so early and the crows fly all ‘cross the corn stalks when the whistle blows. Something about the sunset, the crows against the orange sky, the barren field, the snow crunching under my feet and seeing Betsy’s breath in the cold…it’s all like a picture in a museum.

I love summer nights best, though. We have a little Philco portable, and I take that outside and lie on the grass with Betsy. I spin the dial until I can get Harry Carey and Jack Buck calling the Cardinals games on KMOX. And I just lie there in the grass, feeling the dew, seeing the stars, hearing Musial batting and that train off in the distance. My Daddy says he’s gonna take us to Sportsman’s Park next summer for a Cards game. Can you imagine that? Me going to see Stan The Man in person!

There ain’t much to say of life here. Just a small town in the middle of nowhere. Times have been hard since the depression and the war, but my Daddy gets by doing odd jobs here and there, and sometimes he catches on at the mine for a spell. A lot of folk have had it pretty rough, though.

But every day that Rock Island train come through, heading for the big city. And every day Betsy and I walk the fields and see the crows fly as the whistle blows. I can’t see the train, but I know it’s there, and I dream of hopping aboard and riding to the end of the line.

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