On Julius Caesar at Central Park

BACK in November, when President-Elect Pence went to see a performance of Hamilton, he was ambushed during the curtain call by the cast and compelled (along with the audience) to listen to a statement challenging the newly elected administration. Pence’s response was perfect: he praised the show and commented that the statement was “what freedom sounds like.” This response rather pricked the Hamilton gang’s bubble of self righteousness. Fortunately for them, Donald Trump got involved. This kept the story going days longer than it should have. Pence was right: smile and wave; that’s what he’s paid for. Trump was wrong. Kind of: it was highly unprofessional; had a similar situation happened with Obama in the audience, he most likely would have smiled and waved (see above), but some group of liberals would have been outraged and quite likely would have accused the cast of being racist.

Oh, well. That’s what freedom sounds like.

A week or so ago, the news filled with reports of corporate sponsors overreacting to a production of Julius Caesar done in Central Park by The Public Theatre. In this production, as you most likely know, Julius Caesar is presented as a thinly-veiled version of Donald Trump. Some corporate sponsors—Delta and American Airlines, specifically—took offense and pulled their funding.

Immediate uproar! The Internet and news are filled with stories about this. Everyone weighs in. Censorship is bad. Delta, American, and everyone who is offended by the production have got Shakespeare wrong. People who support this production love freedom of speech and art (and, presumably, puppies). People who do not, hate freedom of speech and art (and, presumably, puppies).

What is amusing is that so many people—on both sides of the issue—have simply gotten it wrong. The situation has little to do with Freedom of Speech or Censorship (and nothing to do with puppies).

Before I go on, I have to say that I am not offended by a production that casts a ‘Trump’ to be the victim of an assassination. Nor would I be offended if a production used an ‘Obama’ (some did), or a Bush, Clinton, Reagan, or whomever. I do think it is in bad taste—in any of those cases. I was not offended by The Interview (the film about the assassination of North Korea’s Kim), but it was in bad taste. Nor am I offended by drawings of Mohammed, but they are in bad taste. By all means, go ahead and make Trump Caesar or Claudius or, better, Bottom (you’ll save on costumes for that one).

Shakespeare is dead and his estate, if there ever was one, is long gone. Unlike Albee or Beckett, he cannot stop a production if he does not like the cast or the interpretation. Because of this, directors have long adapted Shakespeare’s plays to support whatever cause they want. Shakespeare can be both pro- and anti-war, for example. When an audience goes to see a production of one of Shakespeare’s plays, they are not seeing his play; they are seeing someone else’s interpretation of his play, or, rather, they are watching some director’s agenda manifested on stage with Shakespeare’s words as background sound.  Delta and AA are not incorrectly interpreting Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to be pro assassination. Delta and AA are interpreting the Public’s production, which intentionally depicts the assassination of a very public figure. Donald Trump is not only very public, he is also a figure that the artistic community in America clearly hates. The left (which includes much of the artistic community) has filled the Internet with memes and jokes about the president’s death. They are not very secretly praying (or, rather, ‘hoping’, since ‘praying’ smacks of religion) that Donald Trump will have some sort of accident. Trump should be impeached, should resign, or should die (or be executed, according to the Huffington Post). Impeached is best, since it would invalidate Trump’s administration. Death is hard because he would have to die correctly. A stupid accident while golfing would work. Assassination has the problem of sometimes making a martyr of the victim—unless you don’t like the victim, in which case it is a good thing (had The Interview been about two agents trying to kill Obama, the liberals would have found a way to object: most likely by calling it racist). Shakespeare may very well have intended for his play to condemn assassination; the production (or, at least, the director) is presenting the assassination of a widely despised political figure.

Brutus is called “the noblest Roman of them all.” He was trying to preserve to the Republic—in Shakespeare and in history. The First Triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus had subverted republicanism, yet at least had pretended to work within the system. Caesar’s ‘lifetime dictatorship’ did not even pretend. It was the culmination of a campaign that began when Caesar crossed the Rubicon because his ‘dignitas’ was offended. Caesar waged war against the state because it would not bend to his will (or, at least, to his whim). He pandered to and bribed the electorate. He had no intention of relinquishing power. When Brutus cried out, “sic semper tyrannis!” he was not all that wrong: Caesar was a tyrant, even if what he was doing was arguably for the good. What with the Second Triumvirate, the wars between Antony and Octavian, and the eventual elevation of Octavian, the Republic was dead. If Brutus is portrayed as a gull to manipulation by suspect power-hungry senators, then he is trivialized. If he kills his best friend (and someone who has been seen by some scholars to be either his father or his lover) for the greater purpose of returning Rome to Roman values, he is ennobled.

In James Clavell’s novel Shogun, Blackthorn is asked by Toranaga if rebellion can ever be excused. Blackthorn answers that it can—if you win. Dozens of Nazi Generals were posthumously lionized by the Allies because of their real or alleged association with the assassination plot against Hitler. Assassination is hardly seen as an inherent evil, unless, that is, the victim is evil himself. Putting an Obama-like Caesar as the target of the Brutus’ knife, we condemn Brutus. He was wrong. Assassination isn’t the answer. He deserves to be punished. Putting a Trump-like Caesar on a stage where the bulk of the audience is made up of people who do not like him (or even hate him), tells a different story. Any director with the experience to snag a gig with the Public Theatre should be savvy enough to know this. Said director would have known this before rehearsals even began. In fact, this interpretation would have been discussed and debated by the Artistic Director, the producers, the publicists, and possibly the theatre’s legal counsel. They know the story they are telling and have a pretty good idea how the audience will react.

That is the point: they know.

Choosing a very public political figure as avatar for Julius Caesar (or vice-versa) is fairly common. It is also somewhat lazy. It lacks any real creativity. However, it is topical. The theatre wants the audience to say to themselves, “Heh, heh. Heh, heh. Donald Trump. What a douche.” It wants the audience to be uplifted when he is killed. It certainly is not worried that the audience is thinking about Caesar: it’s Donald Trump. The theatre wants something else, as well. This is the important want. It wants Donald Trump to tweet about it. Frankly, I would love for The Donald to tweet that my books suck or have suspect values. I could use the sales. When Joseph Papp started the Public 60+ years ago, it did exciting innovative work. Now it is mainstream establishment. Shakespeare in the Park is no longer hip. However, if it can poke the right place and get a belligerently indignant howl from the White House, then they can reclaim their position as rebel with a cause. How to do that? Well, one way is to depict a Trump-like Caesar being brutally killed on stage. For whatever it’s worth, Delta and AA have interpreted this production correctly.

This interpretation of Julius Caesar is clearly designed as a publicity stunt. It worked. A decent production is all of a sudden given far more attention than it probably deserved. People on both sides of the political spectrum are talking about a theatre and a play that most of them have probably never heard of. If harshly criticized, the theatre will speak of Freedom of Expression and the dangers of Censorship. It will also toss out some Shakespearean scholar’s assertion that the play is actually anti-assassination. Since no government has officially sanctioned (or threatened to sanction) the production, the question of Freedom of Expression is not an issue. No government entity has tried to shut down the play or control what is done on the stage (as far as I know), so Censorship is not an issue. True, Delta and AA have reacted, but they are private companies and can support whom they want. Of course their reactions were ill advised. The airline industry has been dealing with a series of PR missteps these last couple of months; this one makes them look silly. If Delta and AA had really wanted to hurt The Public, they simply could have refused to give them money next year when the theatre came asking for it. They would not have to give a reason; they could simply say, ‘no’. By making The Public a victim of corporate conservatism, Delta and AA have all but guaranteed that some more moderate or liberal corporation or philanthropist will make up the difference.

On top of the corporate scandal, now two Trump-loving conservatives have tried to disrupt a performance of the production. Conservative activist Linda Loomer ran onto the stage and cried out, “stop the normalization of violence against conservatives.” Why would Linda Loomer use buzzwords that are so associated with liberals? Why would a conservative go out of her way to give the play even more publicity? Given that the type of person who goes to Shakespeare in the Park is most likely to be anti-Trump rather than pro-Trump, this ‘protest’ would serve little more than to make more moderates curious, at least, about what is going on there. I love the name ‘Linda Loomer’, by the way. I wonder if her editor is Jonah Jameson and her photographer is Peter Parker. And the conservatives sent two people? If you want to disrupt a play, you sent fifty or a hundred; you have them walk onto the stage and hold a sit-down strike; you have them do something. Two people? Who don’t appear to be connected? I don’t know the truth behind it, but this event has all the earmarks of a set up, a hoax on the part of either the theatre or its supporters. Claques have a long history in the theatre and in politics. Or it could be a practical joke by Alan Abel—though he, most likely, would get it right.

Anyway, this play will run its course, then some other event will happen that arouses someone’s ire. I like that New York theatre is, for one brief shining moment, relevant. I wish, though, that the Public had put some thought into it. They may haul out some dusty scholar to tell us what the play is really about (and that scholar might actually be right), but it stands that the theatre was not trying to be provocative; it was trying to be offensive, and it wanted the audience to embrace the idea that Trump is being figuratively assassinated. Politicizing Shakespeare is old hat. Trump as Julius Caesar is an obvious choice. Bottom would be a better choice. Or Macbeth. I’d pay to see that one: Trump as Macbeth and Pence (or Ryan) as Lady Macbeth. That way, the Public gets to ‘provoke’ folks on the left and the right—and we know that the LGBTQ people never get offended when they are portrayed ‘provocatively’ in the media. Also, Trump needs to grow a pair. Really. The people in charge always get poked by the opposition. You remember how the American left never played the race card whenever Obama was criticized.

Oh, wait.

I first heard about The Donald during the Marla Maples scandal in the late 80s. Since then, Trump has popped in and out of my radar—almost always as some sort of punchline. His occasional forays into the political realm over the last twenty years have done little to change that. His last was brilliant, in a way. At least, it was effective: he won. He’s a billionaire. He’s President of the United States. At some point, perhaps he can stop worrying about what every individual thinks about him. Ignore them, Mr. President. Maybe they’ll go away. Maybe not. To make an analogy: if you don’t like looking at naked people, don’t visit the nude beach; if you run down the street yelling that there’s a disgusting nude beach around the bend, don’t be surprised if everyone goes to check it out.

The Public’s production of Julius Caesar is a theatrical one. It will reach, at best, a few thousand people. The only people who will walk out of the park after a performance with a negative attitude towards Trump went in with one. The theatre’s stunt was not intended to affect anyone’s opinion of Trump. It was intended to get attention for the sake of attention. Now it has the opportunity to play the poor little victim being bullied by the big bad corporations. The Public wants corporate sponsorship and high visibility. It wants to be an eminence rouge in American theatre, while at the same time it wants to be the angry young rebel—backed by a vast organization, lawyers, publicists, and corporate sponsorship—answerable to no one. You had better like the plays, too. If you don’t, if you object to their methods: you hate Freedom of Speech and art; you are a homophobe, perhaps a racist; you’re uneducated and ill informed; you’re Hitler; and, most likely, you don’t like puppies

That’s what freedom sounds like.

Short Story Contest

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I entered the NYC Midnight Short Story Contest again this year. My short story “The Graveyard Shift” received an Honorable Mention. Not bad. Not great. At least one of the judges seemed to have liked it. Not enough of them, though. I suppose it is a blessing in disguise, as I am going on a vacation with my wife and son this weekend and would not have much time to write much of anything.

For those of you unfamiliar with the NYC Midnight Short Story Contest, participants are sent prompts (usually, a character, a situation, and a genre) on a Friday night and have seven or eight days to write a 2500 word (not a word more) story. My prompts were ‘A Radio DJ’, ‘Addiction’, and ‘Horror.’ To me, a lot of the point is the fun of having to write on such a tight deadline stories that I really have no other interest in writing. I suppose, to be honest, I would prefer to win the whole contest, sell my story to a film producer, win a Nobel, and make a huge amount of money. Until that happens, though, I will simply enjoy the contest for what it is: an exercise.

Anyway, here is “The Graveyard Shift.”

“The Graveyard Shift”
Synopsis: A radio DJ contemplates starting his new gig all alone in the studio.

“FIVE DJs, two years? Big turnover.”
“Don’t worry, son.” The manager constantly wipes sweat from his face. “Great place to work. Two got spooked by the hours. Other two got earlier shows. It can happen.”
“And the fifth?” No answer. “What happened to him?”
“Her…. Uh…. Started her show one night. Never finished.” He pours them each a shot.
“Picked up and left?” Drinks. Cheap, but warming.
“Left all her stuff.” Drinks. Sweats. “Probably stepped out for a deal or a trick. Maybe just took off. Had issues. Personal. Look. You’re new here. Clean slate. Just do the show. Don’t worry. That’s a strong door. New door. Guard will bring ya up 11:45. Down at 6. Be a bit quiet, but even the rats don’t go above the fifth floor now the bank’s pulled out. Things will get better. Be right where it’s happening.”
* * *

“Good evening from high above downtown. Dave here. New to the 313, hailing from somewhere that beat you in football and baseball last year. I won’t say where; you won’t spit at me at the supermarket. Ha. Ha. Really, I’m new here—love it already. So, welcome to ‘The Graveyard Shift’. Let’s start the evening right, with a selection of some of my favorite songs. Email or text me any requests, and if I like them, I might play them. Here we go: ‘It was fifty years ago today…’”
“…Sergeant Pepper taught his band to play…” Paul sang.
Dave turned the monitor down.
Deep breath. Off to a good start. Off to a start. Who the hell’s awake at this hour, anyway? Not much of anyone. Not me. Barely me. Hmm. Adderall. ‘Little blue’. Will you keep me going? No. Not yet. Not yet. Let’s get into the groove here. Take it slow. New Place. New Job. New Dave.
The phone light flashes. First caller, right off the bat. This is good.
“Hello. Welcome to the Graveyard Shift.”
“Dave? Dave?” A young woman’s voice. Sounds odd. Scared.
“You okay, miss?”
“Dave? Don’t leave me alone! I’m all alone!”
“Miss?”
Silence.
“Miss?”
Dial tone.
Weirdo. Coed, probably. Prank. No matter.
Feet up, kind of. Can barely lean back in this booth. Look at the clock. 12:02. Half-hour set. Deep Breath. Bored.
Quiet.
Dave hears something, jerks eyes open. Not asleep!
Was that a bump?
A scrape?
A scratch?
“Hello?” Nothing. “Hello?”
A dream?
The echo of a sound? The echo of an echo of a sound?
He looks around the station. Three rooms. ‘Rooms.’ The booth barely large enough for his chair and the board. A storage closet filled with old CDs, chair, minifridge. Junk. A bathroom smaller than the booth.
“Hello?”
Too soon to be hearing things.
Little blues?
A smoke would be better. In the stairwell. Cool air. “Dress light, son. The AC’s been busted forever.” Fresh pack. Heaven!
“Hello down there?”
Ridiculous! Dim shadows, shade, still. Even the bums don’t want to live downtown.
Even the echoes don’t want to come back up.
Grinds the butt out. Kicks it down the stairwell. “Not mine!” should anyone ask. Who would? “Even the rats don’t go above the fifth floor now that the bank’s pulled out.”
Back to the booth. Twenty minutes left. Sets his watch for fifteen. Kicks his legs up. Deep Breath.
* * *
“Come on!”
“You’re drunk.”
“Ya know ya want it.”
“You know you’re married.”
“Let me touch ya one more time. So fine.”
She feels his hand slide along her waist. His fingers scrabble at her skirt. She does want. Wants.
Wanted. Wanted. No longer. No longer. Why won’t he understand? Someone must. Someone.
“Leave me alone!”
His fingers reach in.
She struggles. “I said….”
* * *

JESUS! Dave snaps to.
“Who’s there?”
No one.
No noise but something in the air. A cry? A sob?
No. No noise.
Not true. The alarm is beeping. No music.
Crap! Look at the clock. The set just finished.

* * *

NO calls. “Is anybody out there?” he says to himself, laughs. Starts the next set. Makes it to the bathroom just in time. He leans against the wall as an evening’s worth of coffee splashes against the porcelain.
He feels the fingers on his waist.
“Please don’t touch me.” A whimper.
“It’s all right, baby. Just let me….”
Jesus Christ!
He turns, sprays the bathroom. Sees….
No one.
Dozed off. That’s it. While peeing. Ha!
What was that noise?
A bump?
A scratch.
A door slamming?
Had he forgotten to shut the door? Stupid!
But it is shut. Outside? He kicks open the door. “Ha!”
No one.
No noise.
He looks down. Shadows, shades, stand still in the flickering light.
He goes back to the booth laughing at himself. Outside the window is a skyline devoid of light. Hulking, towering, black shades. A graveyard. A graveyard shift.
* * *

SHE gets up and leaves the booth.
“Stop following me.”
“Come on, baby!” he slurs.
Touching, following.
She spins, wanting to see him, wanting Dave to see him, but he is a blur, just beyond sight, grasping, wheedling.
“Don’t follow me in here.”
He stands, a presence, a shadow, a smell, just beyond the door.
“Leave me alone!”
* * *

THE DJ almost falls over in the chair. Catches himself at the last moment.
The phone is ringing.
“Welcome to the Graveyard Shift,” he says, relieved. He looks at the clock and chokes. It is almost 1:00. Jesus! “Welcome to the Graveyard Shift.”
“Don’t leave me alone,” the girl wails. The same caller? Her voice? “Don’t leave me alone! Please understand!”
Slam the phone down. Run commercials, the next set.
Deep breaths.
Another couple of the little blues. No water? Choke ’em down dry. There’s water in the bathroom. Drink a handful. Some cold water on the back of the neck. Close eyes. Deep breath. There’s a sickly sweet smell of whisky and sweat.
Right behind him.
Who the…? What the…? He swings at the air, at the shadows.
“Hello? Who the hell is here?” Pull it together, Dave!
He turns up the monitor, kicks open the door, steps out to the stairs for another smoke. Air out the place a bit.
He hears someone pounding on a door, looks down the stairwell.
“Hello?”
“Open the door!”
No one moving down there.
“Open the God damned door, bitch!”
“Leave me alone!”
They’re in the God-damned studio!
“Ouch! Shit!” His cigarette has burned down to his fingers.
“Who’s there?” Grabs the rusty fire extinguisher from the floor and charges around the corner. “Who the Hell are you?”
No one. Energy-saver light bulbs. Funny shadows. No AC. Not enough sleep. A stale peaty smell hovering just beyond.
Stay awake, Dave. A few more hours. By weekend you’ll be fine. Time for another set, but first a few more little blues. Just a couple more. Just to clear away the cobwebs.
The phone’s ringing.
“Welcome to the Graveyard Shift,” he says, trying to steady his voice.
“Dave!” she says, her voice distant, in a closed space. Dull echoes. Metallic cocoon. “Dave! Don’t leave me alone!”
Leave.
“Do you understand?”
Leave!
Rushes to stairs. The door is locked.
Locked? He just….
He looks up and sees the hanging key above the door.
“In an emergency, use the key to get out,” the station manager had told him. “Otherwise, the guard’ll come at six to walk ya down. Just a precaution. Even the rats don’t go above the fifth floor now the bank’s pulled out.”
But he’d gone out to smoke. Hadn’t he? Has the pack right in his pocket.
Had.
Back in the booth, smokes in his bag. How many had been in there at the start of his shift?
Jesus! Had he…?
His collar damp. From the water?
The clock reads 12:20.
Jesus. He’d fallen asleep! That was it. His collar was wet with sweat.
Stay awake, Dave. A couple little blue pills. Burn off the fog, the haze, the mist of interrupted sleep.
The phone is ringing. He has to answer. Hates to answer, a dream call echoes just out of thought.
“Welcome to the Graveyard Shift.” He holds his breath.
“Dude! We want some Floyd!”
Thank God! “You got it fella! You all partying?”
“Well, you know. Big blow out at Upsilon O before exams. Keepin’ the buzz on after closing time.”
“Yeah, I hear you.” Turns on the mic. “Good evening from the Graveyard Shift. A request for some of the classics. I’ll be giving you a full set of Floyd to help you get in the mood for that education you don’t need. Girls, head on over to Upsilon O where the boys are lonely, the beer is free, and whatever you may do: think of Dave; it’ll put you in the mood and no one has to know.”
Well, if he can’t smoke on the stairs, the bathroom will have to do. Good timing. Kill two birds. Someone should oil the hinges on the door, he thinks as he washes splash off his hands. He lights a cig and blows smoke at the mirrors and rubs the light burn on his finger. Students. Thank God he wasn’t in school anymore. What kind of lame place closed the bars at midnight?
None. He thinks. None. But those frat boys said….
He glances at his phone.
2:25.
2:25. Not 12:25. He’d read the numbers wrong.
That explains it.
God! He’d slept for two and a half hours. Thank God those boys woke him up.
Can’t fall asleep.
He chews on a few of his little blues. Killer headache. He’d been dreaming some strange shit. Or hearing things in the glooming quiet of the early, like that echo of the squeaking hinges just now, bringing in the smell of sweat and whisky.
“Ya thought I wouldn’t come in here?” Who’s that?
“What are you doing in here?”
He feels his face slammed into the mirror. Feels the cracked glass cut into his cheek. His head is pulled back. His face. Not his face. Smeared mascara. Blood trickling down her cheeks. Her long hair pulled back by a heavy hand. Can’t see the man’s face, not for the shadows.
Whoever it is slams the face into the mirror again. “Not so pretty now, bitch. Are ya?”
She’s thrown to the floor. Dave tries to pull free, but can’t. The man is too strong.
“Don’t!” he cries, she wails. “Leave me alone!”
Thick fingers tear at her panties. Exploring. Conquering.
“Please!”
Tiles tearing at the knees. Shoes lost. Can’t get a grip, toes slipping in blood.
“Tell me ya want me.”
“Please.”
“Tell me!”
A blow comes to the back of the head.
Dave is stunned. He opens his mouth to speak and hears her: “Don’t hit me. Don’t. I want you. I want you.”
“Ya know ya do, bitch! Say it again!”
“No.”
Their face is shoved into the brown-stained toilet.
“I.” Please. “Want.” Please. “You.”
He stabs, tears, pounds into them. Dave feels him. She feels him. They sob. Hands, fingers, nails rip into her breasts, raggedly tearing the flesh.
“Is it good?”
“Please.”
“Is it good, bitch?”
“Wonderful.” Sob. “So good.” Sob. “So.” Sob. “Good.” Sob.
He finishes, goes to wash his hands. Dave curls up in a ball in the corner and closes his eyes.
* * *

She sits in the corner. Curls up small to get as far from the man as she can.
He steps over.
“Please, leave me alone.”
“I will. I’ll leave ya all alone.” His hand touches her throat. Closes around it. Squeezes.
No!
Squeezes.
“I’ll leave ya all alone. Far from everyone,” he laughs.
* * *

DAVE lies in the corner, weeping.
How could he have done this? To me? I…. She….
She’s all alone.
Looks up. Through tears sees the vent. Big enough, he decides.
Stands up. Muscles he did not know he had, doesn’t have, hurt.
“I understand!” he calls out, retching.
Hold it together!
His legs have trouble lifting him up. A few more Adderall will help out.
He climbs into the duct. Goes in. Way in.
By the light of a match, he finds her. Dumped in a corner. Simply dumped. Her clothes tossed next to her. Her skin now long dried up, mostly gone. Only shreds. Only the faintest smell. Her hair like straw.
“Don’t leave me alone.” She’s looking at him. Her eyes wide, hoping. “It’s been so long.”
Jesus Christ! Drops the match. All is black.
Deep breath. Hold. It. Together. Another match.
The body lies there. No eyes to look. No tongue to speak.
He can get her out of here if he can find his way out. Which way to go? Jesus! Too many Adderall. Needs some reds to take the edge off. Just a few. He chews them and swallows.
Deep Breaths. Deep Breaths. How to get out of here! Metal everywhere. Every side. Metal. Up down. Metal. Forward back. Metal. Left right. Metal. Heart pounding.
Did I take any reds? He didn’t. Did he? A few more won’t matter.
She takes his hand. “You will stay with me?” Her breath is dust. Her lips dry and cracked against his, her tongue hard, brittle. “I won’t be alone.”
God! God! God! God! Pushes her away. Lunges this way and that. Metal. He slaps at the walls. Metal. Keeps hitting metal.
He falls on the body. Skin crackles, tears. Bones snap.
Another match.
It’s just a dead body. That’s it. A sad dead body. That’s it.
Light a cigarette. Kill the sickly sweet smell, the taste. Calm down. Did he take some reds? A couple will take the edge off, calm down his stomach, which is killing him. He wants to throw up. Can’t. Stabbing. Stabbing pains. He curls up in a ball and tries to scream.
Jesus! Leave me alone!
“I’ll take care of you,” she says, caressing him, embracing him. “We won’t be alone.” Her fingers explore him, find him. “I’ll take care of you. You know you want me.” She pulls him to her.
It’s so…so…so….
* * *

“WELCOME aboard, Jenny.” The manager pours two shots and hands one to her.
“Thanks. Glad to be here, sir. I’ve always wanted to work in radio.”
“Glad we had the opening.”
“Can I ask what happened to the last guy? He was only here a day, I heard.”
“Don’t really know. He disappeared. Word is he had something of a drug problem. Police suspect he went out for a score and, well…. Lot of empty buildings around here. Lot of places to hide a body. Don’t ya worry, though. That’s a strong door. New door. Guard’ll bring ya up 11:45. Come and get ya at 6. Be a bit quiet, but even the rats don’t go above the fifth floor now that the bank’s pulled out. Things will get better. Be right where it’s happening.” Chuckles. “Maybe I’ll drop by. Say ‘hi’.”

Judges Responses to “Special Delivery”

I did not make it to the Final Round of the NYC Midnight Short Story Contest. 😥

However, I am pleased with the story. I generally prefer to write longer-form fiction, but I really liked the structure and challenge of the contest. I will certainly enter again. NYC Midnight has other contests as well, including a script-writing contest over the summer. I am directing a play I wrote and working on two books, so I will simply wait until the next short-story contest.

I just received the feedback from the judges. I appreciate the comments. Some seem to be contradictory (there were several judges). I find the comments informative. I am not going to argue them, other than to say that one of the judges apparently defined the phrase Martial Artist very specifically. When I see the phrase, I also think Kung Fu or Ninja or something vaguely oriental. However, the phrase simply means someone who is skilled in warlike arts. Bruce Lee, yes. Huo Yuanjia, yes. But also von Clausewitz and Audie Murphy.

WHAT THE JUDGE(S) LIKED ABOUT THE STORY

  • Interesting and creative writing format.
  • Vivid imagery allows the reader to feel as if they are witnessing the development of the story as a member of the neighborhood
  • The description of how the babies are made is interesting
  • The character of the stork is memorable, even though it is something (especially with the cigar) that we’ve seen before; I think this is achieved through the character’s voice
  • The concept here is very high-impact (!) and gives rise to much food for thought.  In this context, it’s very unusual.  
  • It’s brave to play around with the short story format, too
  • The voice of Stork is very well done
  • And the television news item certainly has an authentic feel

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK

  • Some readers may find the format difficult to follow.
  • Breaking up the newscast a few times with a few narrations might be beneficial and capture readers attention through the duration of the story
  • One thing that is missing from this screenplay is the conflict — the stork delivering to someone who doesn’t want it — should be up front, so that the reader knows what to expect
  • As far as building in challenge after challenge,
    • There is much time spent talking and not enough time in actual action
    • The part where the stork storms in, and the image of the tired mother and the father — is wonderful
    • I wanted to see more of that
  • The kung-fu element is not really integral to the story, however. 
  • And I do feel the idea of mass-produced babies took over from the story itself. 
  • As it developed it became more and more a stand-alone dystopia. 
  • The violence used to deliver the babies was the comic element and a satire of Internet shopping
    • But I’m not sure how well it meshed with the mass produced babies. 
  • Perhaps a different structure would have worked better

Special Delivery

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As I mentioned in an earlier post, this year I made the second round the the NYC Midnight Short Story Contest. I expect to find out the results in the next few days. Until then, I thought it might be fun to post my second-round entry.

My prompts were (genre) comedy; (subject) a delivery service; (character) a martial artist.

I will admit that I am stretching a little with the ‘martial artist’ character. Technically, though, one is. I suppose that they were looking for a karate or kung fu master, but they did not ask for one.

I spent a long day (out of four) trying different approaches. In the end, I went back to my roots and wrote a ‘teleplay.’ Perhaps this is reminiscent of “93”, my other short story. Perhaps the programs are even related. I expect that at least one of the judges will object to the style.

Word Count = 1974

Special Delivery

Synopsis:

A popular news program observes Storks delivering a baby to a very difficult customer.

INT.    NEWSROOM — DAY

The camera fades in on John Lockey, anchor for TV 42 News.

LOCKEY

Good afternoon. We are interrupting today’s repeat episode of Are You My Baby Daddy? to bring you a breaking story from Channel 42’s own Mia Dante in Dantes Informals: Gripping News That Really Doesn’t Make a Difference.

Good afternoon, Mia!

 The camera cuts to:

EXT.   A SUBURBAN NEIGHBORHOOD — CONTINUOUS

Mia Dante is an attractive young woman in her late 20s.

 MIA
(Brightly)

Thank you, John. Welcome back from vacation. The Caribbean sun really agrees with you.

(Seriously)

Good afternoon. Welcome to Dantes Informals: Gripping News That Really Doesn’t Make a Difference. This afternoon, the quiet suburb of Elm Hills was disrupted by gunfire. This neighborhood, usually filled with au pairs and young mothers playing on manicured lawns with little children, exploded today in violence.

The cause? A local man refusing to accept what appears to be a lawful home delivery. Homeowner Pat Arnolds has barricaded himself into his house with his nine children, all of whom appear to be armed. The delivery company? Stork’s Baby Delivery.

Colonel Julius Stork, a former tank division commander and Indian War veteran, is the owner of Stork’s and has agreed to speak with us.

Colonel Julius Stork, a burly former army officer, strides into shot. He wears a leather jacket, riding boots, and aviator sunglasses. He is puffing away on a large cigar.

MIA

Good afternoon, Colonel Stork. How are you today?

STORK

One of my drivers has been shot in the leg, and there are bullet holes in my van.

(Into megaphone)

You’re paying for the van this time, Pat. My insurance isn’t covering bullet holes any more.

ARNOLDS

Screw you, Stork! I will not accept delivery!

STORK
(To someone off camera)

Sergeant! Prepare third squad for a Franciscan Envelope.

SERGEANT
(Off camera)

Sir! Yes, Sir!

STORK
(To Mia)

Alberto Francisca. There was a genius. A pioneer in home delivery. Could drive a tank right into your living room and drop the package on the coffee table without leaving a scratch on it. On the table that is. The living room walls would be knocked down, of course.

MIA

Kind of rough on the lawn, as well, isn’t it. Ha, ha.

STORK

Our job is delivery, lady, not landscaping. Besides, we are fully bonded.

Get down!

Cover!

Stork pulls Mia to the ground just as semi-automatic fire sprays the area.

Someone take out that kid on the second floor bedroom! Sandbag him!

There are several popping sounds, followed by glass shattering and a scream.

Those damn politocrats in D.C. really made things tough on home delivery when they outlawed real bullets and ordinance. Sandbags? Flash grenades? It makes you want to cry. Francisca started out delivering summonses with a crossbow. Back then, of course, we were not hamstrung by customer-centric laws. Other process servers would tape the sucker to a warhead and deliver it via an M9A1. Let me tell you, when a crossbow bolt is pinning your shoulder to the wall, then you know you’ve been served. The man was an artist. I have tried to live up to his example since we studied his career at West Point. An artist at war. A master at home delivery.

(To the sergeant off camera)

Sergeant! Cut off egress from the garage! Enfilade between the minivan and the station wagon!

(To Mia)

I’m only bonded within the county. If Arnolds crosses 12th Avenue, we’re shit out of luck, and I’m out the deposit. Might have to lay off some of my guys.

MIA

But certainly the market for babies is booming. Population has been on a steady rise for years.

STORK

Yes. Recently, though, more and more people have been exploring alternate methods for child acquisition. Natural childbirth? What is this? The Middle Ages? This sort of attitude makes it harder for working men to support their families. Fortunately, in Pat’s case, everything was done on the up and up.  We have the paperwork, the receipts, the waivers.

Pat Arnolds might complain, but he had the chance to withdraw the order. Once the order is finished, though, the baby is processed, tailored to their needs and wants. Much more efficient and reliable than manual impregnation.

MIA

Without all the mess as well.

STORK

Storks of Switzerland has been breeding babies for almost 75 years. They are the world leader in propagation services.

Duck!

Shots shatter the van’s windows.

(To someone off camera)

Put some suppression fire on on the kid in the gables!

SERGEANT
(Off camera)

Sir! Yes, sir!

STORK
(To Mia)

Oh, Shang Zhing Corp. may have streamlined production and can out produce in numbers, but Storks of Switzerland has higher quality and greater variety. Stork babies are not mass-produced. They are tailored to the customer’s demands.

MIA

I suspect you may be somewhat partial. You are a Stork, after all.

STORK

I had to change my name when I bought the franchise. All franchise owners have to. My name’s Jackson.

Anyway, both my kids are Storks’ kids. They came out just fine.

He grabs her left ear and looks behind it.

You have a Stork stamp on you as well. Beta 32. Entertainment model. Fine workmanship.

MIA

Thank you.

STORK

Now, I remember when I brought Pat his first delivery. An Alpha 68.

MIA

“First Born.” That’s a good model.

STORK

Pat and his wife were so happy. They were happy a year later when I brought their second model. Another Alpha, this time a 12.

MIA

Slightly more utilitarian, but still a good model.

STORK

A good solid workhorse, yes.

After that, he started filing complaints, trying to refuse delivery.

Life doesn’t work that way. You order a baby, you don’t just get to wake up one morning and decide you don’t want it. Sure, it is rare that the order is processed right away, but once the paperwork goes things start moving pretty quickly. Time and money are invested in the final product. Trainers are assigned. Technicians brought in. Resources allocated. If every customer could pull out of the deal at any time, the industry would collapse, at least the higher quality companies like Storks. Our investors would run and hide, and the stocks would plummet. Companies like Shang Zhing and Babies Babies Babies would be able to flood the market with low quality children bred on assembly lines.

At one point, the laws were so customer-centric that customers could refuse delivery of a product. The company would be forced to sell it at a fraction of the price. Sometimes to agents for the original customer. The company’s profit margins were slashed. That still happens, from time to time. Rarely, though.

MIA

And Arnolds?

STORK

He’s all right. When his first wife died about fifteen years ago, he took the insurance money and upgraded to a Delta 32.

MIA

That must have been some payout.

STORK

Her electric toothbrush short-circuited and fried her brains. Tragic.

MIA

I remember that case. Very sad. But a Delta 32? Wow! That’s a serious upgrade. What was wife number one?

STORK

Don’t remember the series, but she was a Pi model.

MIA

Ooh. That’s tough.

STORK

You’re telling me. I had a cousin who was a Pi. Very difficult. Most irrational woman I ever met.

Anyway, the new wife has been ordering children regularly ever since. Even worse, they use a joint account, so he cannot refuse to pay or accept delivery. I suspect that she shops drunk. Stupid, but not illegal.

MIA

Certainly there is something you can do.

STORK

Why should I do anything? Not my responsibility.

Don’t get me wrong. I feel for the guy. Nine children, with a tenth in the back of the van. He and his wife have to take personal responsibility. They go online. They go to the checkout. No one is stopping them from browsing. Storks provides fine babies. It does not trick customers. If Pat and his wife can’t control themselves, they don’t have to go to the sites. Relationships are about more than just online shopping together. C’mon, these guys aren’t teenagers!

Whatever their intentions, their problems…. Well, I have a job to do. I’m delivering this baby. It isn’t the baby’s fault her mother can’t control her urges.

I’ve got some of the best-trained deliverymen in the business. Some served with me in the army. Some studied at the College of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. It has been accepted for years that the skills that made for a great warrior could be applied to commerce. When the politocrats finally allowed the military to take over the economy, things really took off. Customer satisfaction increased.

MIA

Or, at least, complaints decreased.

STORK

That’s the same thing.

Bills were paid on time, so debt decreased. Subcontracting out to paramilitary organizations like mine simply made sense.

We will get the job done.

Sometimes I feel like an artist, bringing order to the chaos that is the consumer condition.

Look, they are almost in position. In a few moments, the sonic flares will go off. Third squad will approach the rear while second squad will take the right flank. Then the Urban Assault Vehicle will cross the lawn and enter the kitchen on the left. That’s where the wife is. Once everyone is rounded up, I’ll make delivery. Piece of cake.

Here we go.

Explosions can be heard off camera. Men yell. Shots are fired.

A small tank roars roars into view. The camera follows the tanks as it claws its way across the lawn and crashes through the wall of Pat Arnolds’ house.

Men rush into the house from several sides.

After a few moments, a sergeant steps out of the remains of the front door and waves to Stork.

STORK

That’s my cue.

He goes to the van and pulls a basket out.

The camera and Mia follow Stork into the house.

Arnolds and his children have been restrained and are being guarded. Arnolds’ wife, a tired looking woman in her forties, sits at the kitchen table, right next to the barrel of the tank’s gun.

STORK

Here you are, Mrs. Arnolds. Congratulations. My lieutenant will have some paperwork for you to fill out.

Pat.

He turns to Arnolds and hands him a cigar.

Congratulations. It’s a girl.

ARNOLDS
(Lighting the cigar)

You son of a bitch.

Next time.  Next time.

Stork waves a younger officer over to him.

STORK

Good work, Willis. Report.

WILLIS

Four WIA. One critical. One KIA.

STORK

Who was it?

WILLIS

Marsten.

STORK

Shame. Good man. He have a wife?

WILLIS

No, sir.

STORK

Well, then. We won’t have all the paperwork.

(To Mia)

Home delivery is a tough business, but we got the package in the customer’s hands. That’s what’s important. Home delivery is a lot like war: victory is everything.

(To Willis)

Second platoon was a little premature. We’ll work on that over the weekend.

 (To the camera)

I’m Colonel Julius Stork, and this is Stork Baby Delivery. We delivery your baby to you—any time, any place—whether you want it or not.

Stork strides off, puffing on his cigar.

MIA

Thank you, Colonel Stork.

This has been Dantes Informals: Gripping News That Really Doesn’t Make a Difference.

John?

Cut to:

INT.    NEWSROOM — CONTINUOUS

JOHN

Thank you, Mia Dante.

Truly fascinating.

In other news: a popular soda has been found to have killed several young children; a local school is involved in white slavery and prostitution; two missiles from Taiwan have slipped through Japan’s defensive net and struck Tokyo, thousands dead.

We now return you to Are You My Baby Daddy? in progress. But first, a word from our sponsor, Bathory’s, the maker of fine, recycled rectal syringes and other enema supplies. Use Bathory’s, when a laxative simply isn’t enough.

Fade out:

 THE END