Respect: Flash Fiction

The air in the basement was so thick and close, Jacquie struggled with her breathing, and more than anything, she wanted to go home and play her Aretha Franklin records and cry. But last week she’d begged for this open mic slot, and beggars don’t get to be divas. Not in dives like this, with ceilings so low she could reach up and touch the dank acoustical tiles while her Vans stuck to the spilled beer on the concrete floor. She couldn’t even imagine how much worse it would have been back in the days of smoking in public places. “Count your blessings,” her mother, who’d sung in those smoky clubs, once told her. “If they pay you to sing, you show up and sing, come hell or high water. Even if they don’t pay you. Never know what it might lead to.”

Might lead to suffocation, Jacquie thought. She’d been ticking off acts in her head and knew she had maybe ten, fifteen minutes tops to step outside for some air and a hit of asthma meds before she was supposed to go on. She waited until the young guy on stage was done with his rap—not bad—to sneak out the side exit.

The relief of the cool night kissed her skin. Traffic wound through the neighborhood, people went to bars and restaurants, oblivious to the ache in her chest, the gaping chasm in her soul. “The show must go on,” her mother also told her. Every time Jacquie’s nerves acted up or she was coming down with a cold or even that one night when her father was in the hospital and she was supposed to sing lead in the school play.

Jacquie went on.

As she held the medication in her lungs, she wondered how she was supposed to go on tonight. “Respect” was the first song she’d ever sung. Two and a half years old, singing with her mother in the living room. Her first memory.

The door opened; the guy who’d done the rap stepped out, gave her a nod, offered a cigarette he took back when he saw her inhaler, but he lit one up for himself and blew the smoke the other way. Close up he didn’t look so young. Maybe twenty-five, thirty. It could have been a trick of the street lamps out here, or an illusion of the stage lighting in there. Whatever. Age is just a number. People have been telling her she’s too young to even know about Aretha, too white to like or even sing her music. Screw that.

“You on the list?” he asked. “Or just didn’t feel like staying home?”

“Yes,” Jacquie said.

“I hear that.” He dropped his cig on the sidewalk, ground it out with a big-ass-sneaker toe, crossed his arms over his skinny chest. “Way I figure is, they can’t do it, so we gotta.”

She nodded. Letting that soak in and make sense.

“You know,” he added, “I think it would be a damn shame if you didn’t go on tonight.”

“Really.” His eyes were sweet, his smile warm and friendly. “And why’s that?”

“Cause then I wouldn’t get to hear you sing again. Best version of ‘Chain of Fools’ I ever heard coming out of a white girl.”

She didn’t know how to react to that, but he laughed. Which made her laugh. She remembered that night. Her first open mic at this same club. A friend dared her to sing, and sing she did. She felt so good after she didn’t even need her inhaler.

Then she fell serious. “Is it disrespectful, you think? To sing her songs, especially tonight?”

“Hell,” he said. “I think the whole world should be singing her songs. Especially tonight.”

She hooked an eyebrow at him. “You have some nice musicality when you rap. You sing any?”

“Little bit.”

“You know that duet she sang with Ray Charles? ‘Two to Tango’?”

“Oh, damn yeah. That was one of my favorites.”

She stuck her inhaler back in her pocket and reached for his hand. “Come back in and sing it with me.”

A Better Place to Be

20091209-133006-772185If you’ve ever read any of author Chris James’ blog posts, you know that he normally ends with a video of one of his favorite songs. Normally this is something from Genesis’ discography. I think he has a side deal with Peter Gabriel, but I could be wrong. This week, he ended with a songwriter close to my heart: Harry Chapin singing “Cat’s in the Cradle.”

I’ve adored Harry Chapin since high school. He was a New York guy; he and his brothers, Tom and Steve, were born upstate near Watertown and some of his family still lives there. I’ll get to them later. Harry eventually landed on Long Island and that’s where he died, playing chicken with a truck on the Long Island Expressway. My father and stepmother were huge fans and still are, so I got the privilege of hearing him perform live three times: at a college in Newburgh (he loved playing colleges), at the Civic Center in Poughkeepsie, and at the Hudson Valley Winery in Highland.

At the winery, three days before my seventeenth birthday, is where I finally got to meet him.

After the performance—spectacular, by the way, and he played the extra-extended version of “30,000 Pounds of Bananas” but only after the audience begged—we stood in line to meet him and get autographs. My parents had been involved in fundraising for Pete Seeger’s Sloop Clearwater Project, among other causes, so I’d been to a fair number of small-venue concerts by then. Enough to know if the guys in the band didn’t really give a crap about meeting fans, that it was just an obligation because you paid for your ticket and it was good PR to act like you cared. Some didn’t even hang around long enough to do that. Harry Chapin didn’t have to stick around and meet fans. He’d played in London. He’d played Carnegie Hall. He’d been on Johnny Carson. But he hung around. He cared. He shook hands. He listened to stories. This was what, he’d said, inspired the songs he wrote. He traveled around and listened to peoples’ stories.

Meanwhile, as I waited with my father, I sneaked glances at Harry, cowed and amazed at the easy way he engaged with people, like he was born to it. Like that one person he was talking to was the most important one on the planet. When it was our turn, my dad shook his hand and thanked him for his music. I think I might have said something, but I was terrified. I think I asked for his autograph. He signed the front of my T-shirt (collarbone level, no straying hands), made an innocent-yet-slightly-naughty joke and smooched me square on the lips, right in front of my father.

Then I bought all of his albums.

Three years later, he died.

Almost exactly a year after that, I met a guy from Upstate New York. His last name was Chapin. Yes, they were related. There are a lot of Chapins running around up there, in that Watertown/Black River area. Some look exactly like Harry, I mean a freakish resemblance, down to the cleft chin and twinkling eyes. The hole in the family still pulsed, a raw wound. The cousin I met listened to my albums so frequently I thought I’d have to replace them, and I was not allowed to speak while Harry sang.

The relationship did not end well and the less said about it, the better. But for a long while afterward, I could not listen to Harry Chapin. I’d let my sweet, lovely memories be subverted by some bad associations. And one day, years later, I found a cassette tape of his greatest hits in a box long forgotten.

My car was old and still had a cassette deck, so I popped it in and cried all the way through. Not for the Chapin cousin. But because I’d denied myself the pleasure of Harry’s songs and stories for so long. And because fate and a tractor-trailer denied us more of them.

Here is one of my favorites. Thank you for reminding me to focus on the good memories, Chris.

It’s Showtime, Folks…

In 1969, I was probably the only eight-year-old in Hopewell Junction, New York who knew the entire soundtrack of Fiorello!

For that, I blame my mother. Her love for Broadway show tunes meant that the soundtrack of my youth was written by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Or Lerner and Loewe, depending on her mood.

They reminded Mom of her own underscored childhood in Brooklyn, escorted by her family (when ticket prices were much cheaper) to original productions of Oklahoma! and South Pacific.

The comforting and sprightly melodies of shows like The King and I, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and Oliver! were perfect, she said, for cleaning. In her clever way, I’m sure she knew that a jaunty tune would make my two brothers and me more likely to join her. Little did Leonard Bernstein know that his beloved scores were the backdrop for vacuuming or dumping out the kitty litter box. To this day, I can’t listen to West Side Story without wanting to pick up a little here and there. Continue reading

Guest post: LB Clark and MusiCares

Lovely and talented author LB Clark joins us to talk about her latest project, Music Speaks, an anthology of short stories about music and musicians, the foundation she helps support, and the vital role music plays in our lives.

Guest post by LB Clark

Think for a minute about some of the roles music has played in your life.  Have you ever used a silly song to help you remember something (if you learned your alphabet as a child by singing the “ABC” song, then you’ve done this one!)?  Have you witnessed music bringing people together or bonded with someone over music?  Have you seen anyone using music to rally people?  Has a song ever changed your point of view?  Made you think?  Lifted your spirits?  Made you feel less alone in the world?

Now imagine for a moment a world without music.  No “ABC” song.  No background noise during the daily commute to work, no ambiance for a romantic dinner, no epic soundtracks for the summer blockbusters, no upbeat tunes to motivate your workout, no mix-tapes or shared playlists of romantic songs that tell someone everything you can’t find the words to say, no wedding march, no lullabies.  No concerts, no dance clubs, no piano bars, no jukeboxes, no karaoke.  Imagine, too, that those songs that made you feel less alone or lifted your spirits never existed.

Can you imagine it?  I can’t.  I don’t want to.  The very notion frightens me.  Without the music that has gotten me through so many dark days, would I even still be here?  Best not to think about that one too deeply.

While music isn’t a basic necessity, it is still a vital part of our lives.  In turn, the folks who make music—not only the musicians but the entire music industry—are an important part of our lives.  What would have happened if one of the musicians whose music helped me stay strong and sane had run into tough times himself (or herself) and not had anyone to turn to for help?  That music might not have ever been made (and therefore wouldn’t have been there when I needed it).

Now imagine that there is an organization that helps musicians and others in the industry when they run into hard times.  An organization that makes sure these folks have medical care and a roof over their heads, ensures they have access to resources to help them overcome addiction, and helps them recover after a major catastrophe or natural disaster, like the massive flooding in Nashville in 2010.  This one is easy to imagine, because that organization exists.  It’s called MusiCares.

Just as music is a vital part of our lives, MusiCares has an important role to play.  By helping music industry people in need, they in turn help all of us to get pass the small and large roadbumps in our lives.

Imagine now that you can do something to help support the MusiCares Foundation and all of the programs it funds—without breaking the bank or even leaving your chair.  Imagine, too, that by donating to MusiCares you also got a couple of hours of entertainment, gained a little insight, and—just maybe—had something touch your heart or inspire you in some way.  This, too, is easy to imagine; with a couple of dollars and a couple of clicks, you can help MusiCares help musicians, and maybe even help yourself in the process.

Music Speaks is a collection of short stories about music and musicians.  The authors don’t earn a single cent.  Neither does the publisher.  Or the cover artist.  Or the editor.  Or that one poor woman who had to format the thing.  Every penny that doesn’t cover print and distribution costs goes directly to MusiCares, and from there on to those music folks who need help.

Click a link, take a look at what’s on offer, and consider supporting MusiCares by purchasing the Music Speaks anthology.  For less than the cost of a cup of gourmet coffee (ebook) or a fruitiful mixed drink (print), you can change a life—a life that just might end up changing, or saving, other lives.

You can purchase Music Speaks on Amazon, Barnes&, or Smashwords.

LB Clark is an indie writer, editor, and publisher currently residing in an East Texas college town. She is the author of the Jukebox Heroes series—a music-inspired urban fantasy/romance series. Learn more at

10 Guilty Pleasures

What I love about guilty pleasures is the way they humanize us. Could you even imagine that your firebrand English Lit professor reads romance novels like popcorn? Or that your macho, beer-guzzling neighbor melts while watching Disney princess movies with his little girl? In fiction as in life, these traits define a character. They can help your reader fall in love with a protagonist or empathize with a villain. Remember the nasty, obsessive-compulsive writer Jack Nicholson played in As Good As It Gets? That first scene of him stuffing his neighbor’s dog down the trash chute should have sealed our opinions of him. But then we find out he not only writes romance novels, but hand-feeds that same little dog bacon later in the film. This helps transform him from a cardboard character into a complex and much more interesting one worthy of our empathy. A well-placed guilty pleasure in your characters’ lives could do the same. Here are a few of mine:

1. The Wedding Singer. There are very few Adam Sandler films I like, but I could watch this one over and over. And I have. It’s a cheeseball poke in the 80s’ eye, but I love it. Adam Sandler is sweet and funny as a heartbroken, struggling musician. Drew Barrymore is adorable as the naïve waitress he courts. All of this and a cameo by Billy Idol, too! Aw, now I want to watch it again.

2. Lindt white chocolate truffles. Yes, they’re overpriced and not very good for me, but so smooth and creamy it’s like velvet on your tongue. I have to buy them individually, or I’d down the whole bag.

3. Awards Shows. Oh, make some popcorn and get cozy as the glitterfied and glamorous take to the red carpet! I know some people vilify them as self-congratulatory puffery, but the puffery is why I watch. Some eight-year-old girl inside me is squealing, “Look at all the pretty dresses!”

4. Miss America. This is sort of in the same category as awards shows, as it catches my eight-year-old self in its glitter zone. Beauty pageants, unlike awards shows, have a special cheeseball factor: the interviews. Bliss!

5. Lady Gaga. Finally, a vocalist comes along who understands marketing and branding herself as well as Madonna. The kooky get-ups, the wild videos…and she can sing, too.

6. Legally Blonde. Reese Witherspoon goes to Harvard! So fun!

7. Gilmore Girls. A little saccharine, you might say? But I think this show is brilliant. It’s got quirky characters and great lines, amusingly obscure cultural references, and it’s a kind of comfort food for me. I have the first few seasons on DVD, and the night before my mother-in-law had a radical mastectomy, I chained-watched episodes until I could no longer keep my eyes open. I still watch, nearly every weekday, while I’m on the treadmill.

8. Family Guy/South Park. If either of my parents caught me viewing these shows, they might question the astronomical checks they wrote for my college education. But some days, you just need to laugh your ass off like no one’s watching.

9. Bugs Bunny cartoons. Tell me this isn’t one of yours, too. I double-dog dare you.

10. The Ten Commandments. I loved Ben-Hur, but at the risk of getting bombarded with mail accusing me of heresy, The Ten Commandments is probably one of the most mock-worthy movies ever made. Where to start? The overacting? The ponderous, pompous score? Edward G. Robinson and Vincent Price as Egyptians? Or the memorably cheesy lines that make this movie the Greatest Drinking Game Ever Told? (Don’t blame me. Seriously, I went to a Ten Commandments party where people downed a shot for each iconic, but stupid, line.) I still love to watch it.

Okay, now that I’ve embarrassed myself in front of everyone and invited public scorn, it’s your turn. What are some of your guilty pleasures? Why do you like them?

8 Works Inspired By The Wizard of Oz

The Wizard of Oz is one of my favorite movies. Even though I have the DVD, and can curl up with it any time I desire, there’s something magical about catching it on television.

It aired in back to back showings last weekend, and as I watched, I was reminded of how powerful this film is as an American cultural icon, as a shared American experience. Who wasn’t frightened of the flying monkeys as a child? Who doesn’t smile when they hear the words, “And Toto, too!”?

At some of my writing workshops, instructors encouraged us to collect “seeds” as others read their work. These are particular bits of writing that catch your imagination and inspire new ideas. As a work of art, The Wizard of Oz (based on the novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) is fertile as a fat lady rabbit. Just look at this mere slice of creativity its seeds have inspired (including a great Marj Hahne poem at the end of this post):

1. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Released in 1973, this is one of Elton John’s best and best selling albums. It also includes the song of the same name, with lyrics by Bernie Taupin. Ben & Jerry’s “Goodbye Yellow Brickle Road” is a 2008 homage to Elton’s classic, in chocolate ice cream, peanut butter cookie dough, butter brickle and white chocolate chunks, developed to commemorate Elton John’s first concert in Vermont.

2. The Wiz
Diana Ross is Dorothy. Lena Horne is Glinda the Good. Michael Jackson is the Scarecrow. And the great Richard Pryor plays the Wiz. This brilliant 1978 Motown production, directed by Sidney Lumet and nominated for four Oscars, was billed as an “An African American adaption of The Wizard of Oz that tries to capture the essence of the inner-city experience.” It’s technically a second-generation seed, since The Wiz was based on the book of the same name, which was inspired by Dorothy Gale and her friends.

3. Dunkin’ Munchkins
Well, it’s not exactly art, but these bite-sized “donut holes,” introduced in 1972 by Dunkin’ Donuts and sold in boxes of 25 no doubt were named for the small denizens of Oz’s Munchkin Land.

4. Wicked
A mashup of wizardly and witchly wonders, this 2003 Broadway musical (based on a novel by Gregory Maguire) is the story of the witches of Oz. They meet as schoolgirls, long before a tornado drops Dorothy’s house on one of their sisters, and despite their differences, become friends.

5. Toto
What is it about the 70s? Because he’d just seen The Wizard of Oz, Drummer Jeff Porcaro (who died in 1992) got in the habit of writing “toto” on demo tapes he made with his yet-to-be-named band, consisting of keyboardists David Paich and Steve Porcaro, and guitarist Steve Lukather. This was only designed to distinguish these tapes from their studio work. However, the name stuck, and in 1976 a legend was born, even if most people only remember their single, “Hold the Line.”

6. Ruby’s Slippers
This 2009 novel by Leanna Ellis is a modern, Christian twist on The Wizard of Oz. A tornado busting through Dottie Meyer’s Kansas farm (and putting her in a three-month coma) is only the start of her voyage to find her family and, some readers say, God.

7. The Wizard of Id
Created in 1964 by Brant Parker and Johnny Hart (coincidentally, both died in April of 2007) this syndicated comic strip about the medieval kingdom of Id still appears in almost 1000 newspapers around the world. Parker’s son, Jeff, and Jeff’s wife, Nicola, are currently creating the strip.

8. And one of my favorite seed-blossoms, this poem by Marj Hahne.

Dorothy Gale: The Post-Oz Years

A sucker for smart guys, Dorothy Gale,
after graduating from Radcliffe with a doctorate
in anthropology, stayed in Cambridge for its dating
scene but soon grew bored of scholarly discourse
falling short as foreplay. She wanted a roll in the hay,
so she returned to the home of her dreamy Kansas
girlhood, where Scarecrow watched over the long,
fertile fields of corn. He’d come far since Oz,
taking night classes in humanities at the local
community college. Tuesday evenings and weekends,
Dorothy and Scarecrow went head to head in Scrabble-
he, a keen strategist, making multiple words in a single play
by laying the lettered tiles parallel to ones already on the board;
she, a lover of words, aching to make mauve, pecan, canopy.
No matter who won the game, they both scored big
in the end, sweaty and breathless and coming
apart in the corner stall of the barn. But Dorothy
was a junkie for adventure, always off on some emerald
jaunt in her mind, the everyday sameness of the farm
not shiny enough, and Scarecrow knew this.
So when Tin Man began showing up at the place-
to fix a squeaky door or a leaky pump or a clogged
drain-Scarecrow hung his head in the books
and in his fieldwork, afraid of a match
of wit versus sentiment with his old friend
from the road. Tin Man brought Dorothy roses
and chocolates; he wrote poems for his love dot,
his oil of dee. But his gestures were too mechanical;
he cried too damn much. So, though she knew
she would pine for his woodwork, everything
in the house started functioning again. Truth is,
Dorothy wanted a mate with more mettle, more leap
in his step. So, that winter, when Lion came by the farm
collecting clothes and toys for the annual holiday drive,
Dorothy invited him in for supper, sunflower biscuits
and a carrot-mushroom-corn loaf hot in the oven.
They toasted to witches, wicked and good, laughed
about the time she slapped him hard on the nose
for chasing Toto. While Dorothy talked about her
dissertation on the migration habits of Homo munchkinensis,
Lion, having barely touched his plate, excused himself,
ambled to the sofa, stretched regally across
and over the length of it, and fell asleep.
A vegetarian since her undergrad days-
a radical turn from Auntie Em’s home cooking-
Dorothy knew she couldn’t be too picky
about certain lifestyle choices in the dating pool.
But, as a chronic insomniac (since the twister of ’39),
she had to steer clear of snorers, and Lion’s snores
were far less sexy than his roars.
Discouraged, disheartened, dumbfounded,
Dorothy Gale did what any self-respecting woman would do:
she went out and found a new pair of shoes.