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So That Happened: A Vignette in One Act

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Doorbell rings.

It’s the kid next door. Good kid, unfailingly polite, takes care of Maow whenever I’m out of town. Always rings the doorbell like this to ask if he can get a ball out of my backyard, as he does today. I’d be fine with him just going back there to retrieve his wiffle and tennis balls whenever I’m not quick enough to get out there and toss them back over the fence, but him always ringing to ask is a sign of his polite upbringing, so it’s worth the trip to the door.

But this also happens: He comes to door alone, but as often as not, it’s him and one or two other kids I see running past my windows in the backyard, ostensibly to retrieve a ball.

One ball.

Once, one of his friends was parkouring onto and off of the rocky terrace in our backyard, and all I could picture was the kid twisting an ankle and eating rock or crashing to the yard below and breaking a tibia and some parents suing me for medical damages because their kid’s a spastic moron to whom I didn’t give express permission to be in my yard.

Today, though, it’s only two of them — the neighbor kid and one friend — who go darting past my windows. The friend — these are 12-year-olds, by the way — is carrying some sort of clear plastic container in one hand and its lid in the other. And they’re back there awhile — like, long enough that I wonder was I really so engrossed by work that I didn’t notice them leaving the yard. So I get up and walk toward the dining room, and I don’t see them through the curtains in the part of the yard where I expect them to be.

But I hear voices.

Now I go over to the living room–side window, where the blinds are completely clapped shut and I’d look really obvious and creepy if I try to separate two of the slats to look out there and see what they’re doing. Still, this muffled conversation is taking place that sounds a lot more detailed and intricate than anything involving the retrieval of a ball.

One ball. With a lidded plastic container.

I should note that there’s absolutely nothing of value in the backyard that they could cart out without my noticing. So honestly, whatever’s back there that they can fit into this container they’re welcome to.

But the mystery persists.

And yet I’d be the creepy asshole in this picture if I just asked them point blank why are they really back there and what the hell’s with the container.

… and scene.


Written by Shepcat

August 29, 2017 at 5:50 pm

Posted in Life, The PNW


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I’ve always respected the principle of living within one’s means, so my concept of wealth has never revolved around living in a big house, belonging to a country club or driving an expensive car.

My idea of perfect wealth is the ability to buy 200 pairs of boxer shorts and put 185 into storage, hedging against the absolute certainty that, by the next time I need to buy underwear, the manufacturer of my preferred brand will have completely changed its design to something uncomfortable or otherwise objectionable, if not ceased production altogether.

Thus, the cornerstones of my capitalist manifesto are:

  1. True wherewithal is measured by one’s ability to outpace and outthink the free market.
  2. No matter where you live, no matter where you go, you’re always at home in comfortable underwear.

Written by Shepcat

August 6, 2017 at 11:35 am

Posted in Life

Perchance to Dream

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Last night I dreamed I was entering a beachfront bar when Susan Sarandon approached me and said hello. I was surprised she remembered me. (In the subtext of the dream, we had apparently met briefly or worked on a film set together once.)

After a moment it became apparent that she wasn’t merely being gracious but actually wanted to continue our conversation, so I asked if I could buy her a drink.

At the bar we ordered, and as I opened my wallet I discovered I had misplaced my credit card. So I reached for cash, and instead of a couple of neatly folded 20s, I produced a wadded-up fistful of small bills, counting to make sure I had enough, then handing the lump of cash to the bartender, as though I was a 9-year-old who had been saving up his allowance, not to put toward a baseball mitt or a new bike but to buy drinks for Susan Sarandon.

This has been a story about how even in my most sensational dreams I exude the same suave, worldly sophistication I possess in my waking life.

Written by Shepcat

April 8, 2017 at 10:41 am

Posted in Life

In Which Maow Throws Up on Some of the Things but Not All of the Things

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gak \ˈgak\ v. to whork up a hairball or other vomitus, as a cat does; also, n. the substance thereof
gakked; gak•king; gak•ker

I’m a fairly heavy sleeper. As such, I long fretted fatherhood, certain that I would most likely sleep through the wailing of my child and later face the wrath and recriminations of my sleep-deprived wife.

Then cats entered my life.

At which point I learned that the clutching, gulping, premonitory sound of a cat in the throes of gakking up a hairball — though much subtler and more subdued than a baby’s shrill cries — is enough to pierce my veil of sleep and catapult me into action.

Of course, Maow used to sleep with us, right there on the bed, so we were more likely to hear her when she went into her prelaunch countdown. But as we fumbled out of our slumber, from zero to 60 in mere seconds, we still faced two immediate challenges:

1. Could we get the lights on quickly enough?
2. Could we find a magazine quickly enough?

The latter of these, of course, is the critical element. The availability and proximity of a magazine or newspaper — long since read and kept on hand only to be sacrificed so that our carpet or comforter might be stain-free — is paramount, particularly the part about proximity. Because every second counts, and the fewer seconds devoted to a panicked search, the more time available to give one’s cat an approved target.

Because periodicals tend to be filed away neatly, tossed aside indiscriminately, or relegated to the recycling bin, I had suggested that perhaps we should buy a dustpan and hang it from a nail or hook on the wall. A solution dedicated to a singular problem, situated in a place where we’d always be able to find it when time was of the essence. One for the bedroom, one for the TV room — the two rooms in which we passed the most time — should do the trick.

We never executed this plan. We fumbled for light switches and darted across rooms and back again, sometimes more successfully than others. But we never followed through on any kind of emergency gak protocol.

And so it occurred last April or thereabout that the Spring 2016 issue of my alma mater’s magazine, The Jayhawk Journalist, arrived in the mail. After I had paged through it and read at length about the retirement of a favorite professor of mine, I set it aside and didn’t think much about it … until the next time Maow started to gak.

There it was. Right place. Right time. That time and, well, every time thereafter.

Because after the magazine caught the first of Maow’s gaks, I just rinsed it off at the bathroom sink, let it dry, then returned it to a discreet but convenient location until such time as it was again needed. For the next eight or nine months I did this, and over time the magazine became warped with repeated usage, rinsing and drying.

The spring issue’s cover subject was a fellow KU alumna who is now associated in some capacity with a vineyard and winery in Oregon. More than once I entertained the notion that I might someday cross paths with this woman and pause — “Excuse me. Don’t I know you from somewhere?” — until it occurs to me that, “Oh, yeah, you’re the woman my cat throws up on,” at which juncture I must sheepishly remove myself from the conversation.

Finally, a month or so ago, I sojourned to Bed Bath & Beyond to pick up a few items, and at long last I procured a new plastic dustpan. It’s a little bigger than the task requires — I had only the one to choose from, as, oddly enough, Bed Bath & Beyond doesn’t offer a selection of dustpans that aren’t attached to brooms — but it is an exemplar of its form, a damn fine American-made dustpan.

Except that Maow is terrified of the thing.

The drill has always been, whenever she begins expelling something from her esophagus, I’ll kneel beside her and put a hand softly on her back — partly to calm her, partly to keep her in one place — then slide the magazine in front of her until she defaces it. There are usually two or three stages to this, so I may have to follow her a few steps while she works up her next expulsion, but she’s always been pretty cooperative.

Until now.

Now when I slide the dustpan in front of her, she bolts from it, wide-eyed with terror, as though I’m the feline Grim Reaper bidding her to gaze upon her reflection in the blade of my scythe. Which, in the absence of a readily available alternative, is how I ended up with puke in three places on the TV room carpet today.

It may also explain her historical disdain of our kitchen lineoleum, which has always been right there, just a few steps away. Slick surfaces. Who knew?

The good news? It’s March. The Spring 2017 Jayhawk Journalist should show up in the mail before too long.

Written by Shepcat

March 8, 2017 at 11:13 pm

Posted in Life

Tagged with

The Night Of: August 20, 1994

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a pre-Chronicles tale adapted from the journals of Brent Shepherd
The place: a coffeehouse called Insomnia Café, on North High Street in Columbus, Ohio, across from the university, with décor that I described as “sterile … with metal-topped butcher’s-counter tables and artsy, architectural-metal chairs. They served me a giant cappuccino that may have been brewed in hell and express delivered — it stripped the nerves off my tongue and still hasn’t cooled down some 30 minutes later. …

“There’s a huge American flag on one wall that may have been stolen from a Perkins restaurant. At any minute I expect George C. Scott to stand up over there and tell us not to let the bastards get us down.”

The time: Our story begins in earnest around 11:15 p.m.

I had decided I wouldn’t stick around long because I had an earlier-than-normal (for me) flight to catch the next morning, but I ordered an Italian soda and turned my attention to the book I had brought with me. Across the room, a lumpy, dirty but comfortable-looking garage-sale sofa was vacated by the trio of girls who had occupied it since my arrival, so I made my move.

I had read only a few pages when the guy whose picture appears next to the word dreg in the dictionary sat down in the chair opposite me with a mug of steaming-hot tea. He wore abused work boots, some kind of fatigue pants with cargo pockets, a T-shirt, and a leather jacket, even though the temperature was 80+ degrees in Columbus that day. He was attempting something like dreadlocks with his hair, which had aluminum-can pull tabs tied to the ends. (Don’t ask. I was hoping you’d tell me.) He had a sparse and stringy excuse for a beard, dirty teeth, and a glazed expression that extended from his eyes to his whole face. He looked like he had bathed once or twice that calendar year and had maybe been released from jail as recently as that morning on someone’s recognizance other than his own.

He took from his fatigue pockets a rolled-up graphic novel that was as ratty, stained and disheveled as he was. He unrolled it, opened it and read as he fiddled with his teabag. Occasionally he would mumble some question about the café to me as though I were a local.

He asked if Insomnia had a chess board. I told him I didn’t know. He asked if I’d be up for a game if he were able to find one. I said sure, why not. Much to my eventual chagrin, he found a board and pieces and we were all set to play.

I tried, somewhat successfully, to feign concentration while we played and thus kept conversation to a minimum. I spoke to him only when spoken to, which was difficult enough given his slurred speech. Nonetheless, he found things to talk about, asking me still more questions about Insomnia Café which I was unable to answer. Only much later in the proceedings did I venture to explain that I was from Kansas City and therefore not intimate with my surroundings, if for no other reason than to assure him that I was merely ignorant, not an imbecile. I chose to let my chess strategies speak for the imbecile in me.

To this point, I have neglected to mention one important feature of my opponent’s costume, a prop, if you will: the knife tucked into his belt.

Apparently no one in Insomnia minded that this most unsavory character was walking around with a knife handle in conspicuous view. You’d have to be Ray Charles not to notice this detail. Then again, probably everyone figured he could do more harm to himself than to anyone else, because of the way he wore it, the blade pointing straight down toward his genitals. (I have no idea whether he was wearing a sheath of some kind in his pants and was really in no hurry to ask. I didn’t want to know him that well.)

This detail is important because early in our chess game we were approached by a trio of his friends, the leader of which was a perhaps more unsavory-looking punk with a carelessly groomed green mohawk, nose rings, a leather jacket and — you guessed it — a knife handle sticking out of his pants, also aimed precariously toward his genitals. (At this point, I wondered whether this was perhaps a local characteristic that I hadn’t been hipped to yet, and I glanced around the room to see if anyone else was wearing a knife in their crotch.) The mohawk punk’s knife had an elegantly curved silver handle, obvious without being glaringly shiny.

At one point in the conversation, the mohawk punk blurted out, “Oh, dude — I got a new knife.”

“Do you have it with you?” asked the dreg. “Let’s see it.”

At which point the mohawk punk grabbed the buffed silver handle and withdrew his new weapon to reveal …

“Aw, man — that’s a steak knife,” cried the dreg. Indeed, it was a steak knife that may have been lifted from a Shoney’s or a Ponderosa or some such place.

“Yeah,” spat the mohawk punk defensively, brandishing the knife. “But I could still fuck someone up with it.”

“But it’s a steak knife,” repeated the dreg.

The girl who had arrived with the mohawk punk spoke up then, something to the effect of, “You’re probably gonna end up stabbing yourself with that thing,” thus prompting the mohawk punk to threaten her with the excision of a certain part of her own genitalia. The girl seemed undaunted, but as the mohawk punk repeated his threat a few times, I imagined myself getting tangled up in violence among complete strangers. The girl wasn’t very attractive, but it seemed to me she could certainly do better for herself than present company. In any event, the steak knife was eventually resheathed (yikes!), and the trio bade their farewell.

The dreg and I resumed our chess game, which lumbered on toward closing time.

At perhaps 1:30 a.m. another of his derelict friends approached the table. This one was older, at least in his late 30s, unshaven and largely toothless in a hockey player sort of way, wearing thick-lensed horn-rimmed glasses. They greeted each other amiably, without wielding cutlery, and talked while the dreg and I played.

“Hey, look what I got,” the dreg said, producing the disheveled graphic novel from his fatigue pocket.

“Cool,” said the derelict, apparently recognizing it as subject matter in which they shared a common interest. He began to page through it. “When did you get this?”

“Today,” replied the dreg. I almost couldn’t conceal my surprise. This ragged, stained, shredded stack of pages had possibly been a crisp new periodical as recently as 12 hours ago. Maybe I care about printed material a little too much.

A digression: Earlier that evening, when I overtook the sofa, the group before me hadn’t picked up after themselves when they left. The table, nothing more than some particle board suspended by two milk crates, still held a mug, a cup and saucer, and a bottle of Arizona Iced Tea that was still about one-fifth full. The dreg and I had sat the glassware aside to make room for the chess board, but at some point during our game, he reached for the iced-tea bottle.

“Is this yours?” he asked.

“No.” I shook my head.

“Mmm,” he grunted in acknowledgement, then proceeded to top off his own still-steaming mug of tea with the bottle’s contents. “I’ve gotta cool this shit down. It’s too hot to drink.”

I was (probably visibly) appalled, thinking, You have no idea who might have backwashed into that bottle before you came along. Then I caught myself and imagined that, if the girl who’d left it behind returned to witness the spectacle, she would’ve been more grossed-out by the concept than the dreg would ever be.

Anyway: Closing time was drawing near, and the dreg and I were in a standoff. I knew we had to wrap up the game quickly, so I started playing kamikaze chess, trying to make things happen and force one of us to win or lose the game. Insomnia employees urged us to finish but were gracious enough to put up with us. I went after the dreg’s king.

The derelict became more actively involved and actually made the dreg’s final five or six moves until they were able to checkmate me (or I allowed myself to be checkmated). There wasn’t much fanfare. I bade an unceremonious (and probably unnoticed) farewell and vacated the premises.

It was 2:10 a.m. So much for getting to bed early.

At 3 a.m., back at my hotel, I called to request a 7 a.m. wake-up call. The night manager didn’t seem to find the request unusual.

Written by Shepcat

November 27, 2016 at 6:58 pm

Posted in Life, Travel

Jon Polito 1950-2016

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Allow me to share with you again one of my top three all-time L.A. memories:

On Tuesday, January 6, 1998, I attended the New Beverly Cinema’s 9:25 p.m. screening of Miller’s Crossing, Joel and Ethan Coen’s essential 1990 entry in the gangster genre.

I had scouted out my closest-as-possible-to-dead-center seat and was slumped down, settling in, waiting for the movie to start. And who should walk in and sit down in the next row, directly in front of me? Jon Polito, who plays Johnny Caspar, the Italian mob boss and foil to Irish mobsters Gabriel Byrne and Albert Finney in the movie I am there to see.

By the standards of the New Beverly — which at that time and for some time afterward was rundown and a little seedy, with squeaky, rattily upholstered seats and dim lighting that hid any number of other flaws and scars — Polito was impossibly elegant. He wore pressed trousers and a blazer with an open-collar shirt and looked as though he may have come over from a party, although it was such a comfortable look on him that — who knows? — probably he was just that casually elegant in everyday life.

I was a fan, not just of his work with the Coens but also his role as Det. Steve Crosetti on Homicide. And yet I couldn’t work up the nerve to say anything to him — even though he was right there. But a braver audience member approached to say hello and give voice to the question burning in all our minds: “What are you doing here?”

Polito replied that hadn’t seen the movie in years and noticed it was playing at the New Beverly, so he came down to check it out. Just that simple.

And so it was that I, who love character actors, had my most meta experience in a lifetime at the movies, sitting behind one of the best, who laughed loudest at some of his own lines, as if he had forgotten what a great part the Coens had written for him.

We lost Jon Polito yesterday. And thus endeth our lesson in — hell, I ain’t embarrassed to use the word — ethics.


Written by Shepcat

September 2, 2016 at 10:59 am

The Likeliest Demise

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Late one summer night in 1997 I was robbed at gunpoint, in front of my own house on a tree-lined residential street in midtown Kansas City. Sometime after 4 a.m., having survived the ordeal, observed the processing of the crime scene and, eventually, ID’d one of the perps from a photo array, my racing heart and adrenalized mind slowed down just enough for me to arrive at an oddly logical conclusion and the most spontaneous but fully realized decision of my life:

“If they can get to me here, they can get to me anywhere. … Might as well move to L.A.”

A month and a half later, I was there.

Eight years after that, I was circling another such decision, more pensively this time.

Personally, professionally, actuarially, I could feel my luck running out. Not that I had experienced anything in Los Angeles, of all places, quite as fearful as staring down the barrel of a gun, but there had been a few close calls — many traffic-related. Because L.A.1

In any event, it felt like time to go. So I went.

Now I’m back where I started, more or less: in the suburbs, on another tree-lined residential street. And though at a glance there does not appear to be as much to fear here, my mind still goes there from time to time. Because, as the old saw goes, most accidents and tragedies happen close to home.

How good are the locks on our doors, really? And would they make any difference at all to someone who was determined to get in? How often does a squad car turn down our street on a routine patrol? How much security, actual or imagined, are our tax dollars buying us?

We’re avid readers of our local paper’s police blotter, mostly for entertainment, and yes, most of the quote-unquote criminal activity in our burg is pretty half-assed — petty theft and domestic disturbances. But yeah, one pays attention to the addresses of the reported misdemeanors, lest that element make a foray past the imaginary boundary that separates us from them and offers us no real security to speak of.

It’s also worth noting that I’m middle-aged now — some days more than others — and that I’ve endured a couple of health-related episodes in the last few years that, while not edging me any closer to mortality, have at least made me consider the vulnerabilities of this vessel that moves me around from place to place.

Despite all those considerations, however, my imagination has zeroed in on what I believe, for the time being anyway, is the shortest distance between me and my maker.

Turns out, it’s only 25 yards.

That is, the 25 yards, give or take, between the corner of our street and our mailbox just up the block.

I think about it on rainy evenings, or evenings just after the rain, when the street is wet, and night has fallen before I remember that neither of us has retrieved the mail (or the recycling, as it most often tends to be). If it’s cold or wet enough, I’ll throw on my rain jacket, which, naturally, is black and does nothing to alert passersby to my presence.

There’s a streetlamp, but it stands so close to our neighbors’ tree as to be completely camouflaged by it. It illuminates the corner directly beneath it but does little to cast any light on, say, a pedestrian on the sidewalk just a few steps away.

Just below our corner the street winds out of a curve that, combined with the heedless velocity of many a motorist, shortens the reaction time of pretty much anyone at or near the corner or entering the flow of traffic, such as it is.

Put them all together, and all that’s missing from the equation is some jackass teenager with a noisy carload of friends or some soccer mom trying to fish a smartphone out of her cavernous purse before the seventh or eighth incantation of her regrettable ringtone before I’m jellying up the sidewalk and stepping toward the light. With my back to oncoming traffic, I’m at a visual disadvantage, but on my return, I’m always thinking, Tree. Tree. Streetlamp. Signpost. These four things and my once Jedi-like reflexes are all that stand between me and the likeliest demise I can conjure.

Think of it as you would Achilles’ heel. Absent motive — and don’t think that the possibility of someone tear-assing around that curve some night with malice and intent hasn’t at least once crossed my mind — cosmic or karmic opportunity must conspire with the available means and a singular method to thread a very small needle in order to punch my ticket. On the face of it, those are pretty great odds. And yet …

Achilles had his fated archer, so are my jackass teenager or distracted soccer mom really such remote possibilities?

Anyway, that’s the grim little scenario I think about for roughly three minutes a day. Perhaps I’ll dwell on it more if that old luckless feeling ever rears its head again.

In the meantime, I’ll be right here, behind our locked doors, in the relative security of our house, on this quiet tree-lined street in this idyllic residential neighborhood, waiting for those patient conspirators bacon and cheese to carry out the hit for which they’ve been contracted.
1 On one occasion, as I enumerated the various ways my number might come up in that city that has so many ways to kill you — from malice aforethought and criminal intent to the carelessness or inattentiveness of some random motorist — my friend Chris joked that his money was on lethal injection.

Written by Shepcat

May 16, 2015 at 4:11 pm

Posted in Life