Real Life vs. The Movies #1

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I had another “no wonder I’m a writer” moment recently.
In movies, the candy man sings, rides a rolling ladder and showers happy children with candy.
In real life, a pimply teenager stares at an iPhone constantly, ignoring the one child customer right in front of him, and doesn’t smile when you buy his damn candy.
Conclusion: Real life can really suck sometimes. 

An Introduction to Karma

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My parents loved going to the movies. It was like their church. They particularly enjoyed horror movies. This love of voluntarily terrifying oneself was passed along to my brother and I because we were taken to most of those movies as children. I suppose it would be called a “parenting fail” these days, but we loved it. There was nothing better than sitting on swings in the playground at the foot of a forty-foot drive-in theatre screen, stuffing our faces with hot dogs, popcorn and Milk Duds, and watching Dracula get a wooden stake pounded into his chest. Man, what a rush! We were too young to know or care about the effects such viewing had on our prepubescent minds. We would get the Heebie-Jeebie’s back home when we had to walk through the hall to go to the bathroom, but that was about it, until one night.

In an amazing feat of poor judgment, my father decided my brother, at thirteen years old, was ready to see the granddaddy of all horror films, The Exorcist.

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I wanted to go but I was only ten. It would be three years before I was worldly enough to see possessed children vomiting into the mouths of priests. My brother left the house that night eager and rosy-cheeked, and returned gaunt and pale. I asked him how the movie was but he just walked by me silently. My mom asked my dad what was wrong with him. He said, “Ah, don’t worry about it. Kids are resilient.”

After a week or so, he had returned to normal and started talking again. Our parents went to a party and left us alone. We decided to play hide-and-seek. He went upstairs to count and I hid behind our enormous Magnavox television set. And not just behind the TV, but behind thick curtains behind the TV. Of course, the TV was on. It was always on.

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In the days before flat screens, TV’s were monstrous things with pressboard panels at the back riddled with ventilation holes heat belched out of like dragon’s breath. Well, it turned out to be the best hiding place I had ever chosen because my brother couldn’t find me for at least an hour. He actually looked behind the TV but didn’t find me because he didn’t look behind the curtain behind the TV, and because I was such a waif of a child (his nickname for me then was “Pale and Frail”) and I was making myself flat like an Egyptian hieroglyph behind the curtain.

After an hour or so, exasperated, he finally decided to pull back the curtain. When he saw me, I was a sweaty wreck, badly dehydrated and on the verge of heat exhaustion. The excitement of being discovered made me laugh. It seemed perfectly innocent to me, but to him, still reeling psychologically from The Exorcist, I looked and sounded like a small, demented demon. To my surprise, he screamed. But it wasn’t just any scream, it was one of those primal screams only accessible when the mind is pushed to some heretofore unexplored extremity. He turned and ran, still screaming.

Now, the right thing to do would have been to go to him and reassure him that I was still his little brother – but where’s the fun in that? Every mean thing he had ever said or done to me (and there were plenty) rushed through my mind.

“An opportunity like this might never come again,” I thought. “We’ll see who the pale and frail one is!”

I chased him around the house screaming maniacally and scratching his back until he locked himself in the bathroom and begged me to leave him alone.

Don’t let anyone ever tell you revenge doesn’t feel good. It was awesome. For the rest of the week, I glared at him until he asked our parents to make me stop. I was heady with my newfound sense of power. However, I was about to be introduced to another kind of power – karma.

A few days later, in yet another astounding demonstration of irresponsibility, my parents decided it would be a good idea to let both of us watch The Legend of Lizzie Borden starring Elizabeth Montgomery.

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Though already quite the horror aficionado for a ten-year old, I found this movie particularly disturbing, for two reasons – she looked remarkably like my mother, and I was used to watching Elizabeth Montgomery play the sweet and perky Samantha in the TV show Bewitched.

I lay in bed that night wide awake, unable to stop hearing a song in the movie, sung eerily by children –

Lizzie Borden took an axe,
gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
she gave her father forty-one.

Man, oh man. Sleep was completely out of the question. I was afraid to blink. I lay there for hours until exhaustion finally overtook me. I awoke in the middle of the night staring at the wall. I rolled over to get more comfortable and momentarily opened my eyes. When I closed my eyes again, I realized I had just seen the silhouette of a woman standing by my bed, the edges of her hair and nightgown illuminated by pale moonlight from the window.

“Holy Mother of God,” I thought, “Lizzie Borden is in my room.”

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I was too scared to open my eyes again. I hadn’t looked at her long enough to see her hands but I was certain an axe dripping with blood was in one of them, an axe she was about to give me forty-two whacks with. I turned to the wall again, hoping she might leave if she thought I was sleeping. She didn’t. I could hear her breathing. I let out one of those screams only dogs can hear and pulled my blanket over my head because, as every child knows, a blanket can withstand any attack.

“Ah, who am I kidding?” I thought, “It’s a blanket! It can’t stop an axe!” My mind raced, “I’m a goner! And still so young! How did she get out of the TV? I wonder if she got my parents yet. Oh, just whack me already and get it over with, Lizzie! Whack away! Why are you just standing there? God, if you care about me at all, make her leave!”

I started reciting every prayer I knew – “getting right with God” as they say – when a hand touched my shoulder. I screamed. Then Lizzie screamed! I screamed again. She screamed again, too. I started to scream a third time, then thought, “Wait a minute. Why is Lizzie screaming? Axe murderesses don’t scream!”

I reached for the light on my bedside table and pulled the chain. It was my mom. Seems my dear mumsy had chosen that night, of all nights, to stand by her little boy’s bed and watch him sleep. It should have been a tender moment, but it was the longest, most horrifying minute of my life, before or since.

Once her heartrate slowed down and I realized I wasn’t going to be chopped up, we both had a good laugh about it. My dad did, too, as I slept between them in their bed that night, and the next night, and for the next two weeks.

Messin’ with Mark – God’s Sitcom: Episode 22: God Jumps the Shark

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Welcome to episode 22 of Messin’ with Mark! For those of you who are unfamiliar with this series, let me tell you how it started . . .

When I was very young, Jesus was walking around in His heavenly area up there and saw his Dad looking down through the clouds, laughing His head off. Curious, he walked over and asked, “What’s up, Pop?”

“Oh, just pranking that Mark kid again,” He replied.

Again?” Jesus asked, “Why are You always picking on him?”

I don’t know. There’s just something about him,” God said. “I mean, look at his face right now.”

Jesus looked down and started to chuckle, then stopped Himself. “Okay, I admit it’s kind of funny, but this is wrong. I mean, You created him. With all due respect, what kind of an example are you setting for the angels? We’re supposed to love and protect humanity, not single one of them out from all the rest for humiliation.”

God thought for a moment, then looked at Jesus and said, “You’re right. I should stop.” They looked at each other seriously, then said, “Naaaaaaaahhh” and laughed some more.

Jesus suggested that he make a regular show of his pranks on me. They named it Messin’ with Mark. 

Remember Rodney Dangerfield’s bit about getting “no respect” from humans? It’s kind of like that, but on a cosmic level.

So, to today’s episode – God Jumps the Shark

This is not the title God gave the episode. In fact, I never know what titles He gives them. But I’m calling it “God Jumps the Shark” because I think the show is getting old and he’s desperate for laughs. 

For those of you unfamiliar with the term “jump the shark” – it originated in Hollywood when the writers of a show called Happy Days, desperate to lift sagging ratings, had one their main characters, Fonzie, jump his motorcycle over a shark. It was so out of the blue and random, it was clearly a desperate attempt to give the show a kick in the pants. Thus the term “jumping the shark” was born. When your favorite show starts getting old and they do something ridiculous, they just jumped the shark. Of course, shark jumping is not as noticeable these days, with YouTube personalities always trying to outdo each other with increasingly outrageous antics and stunts. Jumping the shark is more the norm than the exception.

But I digress. Allow me to explain why I think my show in heaven is in trouble . . .

I had just returned from a week in Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. I drove for ten hours and was completely exhausted and restoring my comfort zone with some of my favorite snacks and one of my favorite TV shows, Svengoolie. All was right with the world. It was sort of like that scene in Uncle Buck when he indulges in all his comfort foods.

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I suspect it was this state of comfort that inspired God to mess with me again. He just can’t stand to see me relax.

Anyway, before I left for the trip, I noticed a skunk had taken a liking to my front garden, especially an area covered by wood chips. When I planted my garden and lovingly distributed the wood chips over it, I had no idea that I was really just building a skunk cafeteria. Every morning I would go outside and find little holes here, there and everywhere. I researched it and found that skunks like to dig through wood chips for whatever reason and search for worms and other bugs that live in the soil. I was keeping on top of the skunk’s damage before the trip but when I got home after being away for seven days, my front yard looked like a World War II battlefield.

I vowed to discourage him by turning the hose on him every night until he chose someone else to pick on. I didn’t want to hurt him. After all, everything needs to eat. But I didn’t appreciate the fact that he chose me to harass when there are plenty of other front gardens with his beloved wood chips all over town. The stinky little bugger could at least spread the damage around a bit.

I squirted him with the hose a few times before I left but that didn’t seem to discourage him. In fact, he seemed to enjoy the occasional shower.

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So the return to my comfort zone when I returned from my vacation was disrupted by looking out the window every fifteen minutes or so, waiting for his inevitable return.

It was after midnight and I was starting to doze off when I was awoken by the sound of dogs barking very excitedly right outside my front window. I opened the door and was immediately accosted by two very panicked mutts with wet faces trying to squeeze by me and get into the house. Then the smell hit me. In a moment, I realized they had just been sprayed by the skunk and were desperate to escape – into my living room!

I closed the door, grabbed my blanket (my favorite blanket, by the way), and blocked the bottom of the door to keep the stink out. Too late. The entire house already stunk. My eyes and throat were burning as I looked out the window and saw the skunk spraying the dogs again. As you can imagine, dogs don’t enjoy that one bit. And I’m sure the snoot-full of skunk juice comes as quite a surprise because they probably think the skunk is just a very slow, black-and-white cat.

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Then a car pulled up with two teenagers in it. They called the dogs and they both ran and jumped into the car. Apparently, these two Einstein’s saw the skunk and brought their dogs out to attack it. Seeing them call their hounds and flee the scene was quite a surprise to me. I didn’t think there were any hillbilly skunk hunters in this town. 

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Unfortunately for them, they didn’t have the requisite old truck so there was no truck bed for the dogs to jump into. They had a two-door Hyundai sedan so the dogs had nowhere to go but into their laps. They must have had to replace the carpet and seats in their car the next day, burn their clothes and soak themselves in tomato juice. 

Wow, I’m actually starting to feel sympathy for them. Excuse me a second.

Never mind. I just had to burp. Funny how gas can be mistaken for sympathy.

Anyway, the skunk survived but must have emptied its entire stank tank on my front porch. Skunk juice apparently has the power to penetrate walls and windows because after it was all over, it was as if the skunk was sitting on my couch with me, eating my snacks and asking me to change the channel, perhaps to a Pepe Le Pew cartoon.

I tried opening the back door to air out the house but the smell was there, too. I shut the doors to my and my daughter’s bedrooms to hopefully cut down on the smell in their rooms and they didn’t wake up so it seemed to work, but I tried to sleep on the couch, throat and eyes burning.

As I lay there, I realized it was the denouement of another episode of Messin’ with Mark. It must have been top-drawer slapstick for God and his angels, gathered around that flat screen in the sky, watching me fighting to keep the dogs out of the house and choking on skunk odor when I was supposed to be relaxing back into my comfort zone after a long trip. I can just imagine Him thinking, “Okay, he’s all set up, thinking this is going to be a normal night. Cue the skunk!” 

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As usual, as I lay there choking, I looked up and whispered, “Well-played, God. Well-played.” I could only hope this apparent desperation for new show ideas (I mean, a skunk? Really?) is proof that this show at my expense is finally on its last leg and will be canceled soon.

But then I realized . . . it’s God’s show. Who’s going to cancel it?

He always gets the last laugh.

 

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The Four-Legged Horror Movie

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I had always loved dogs. That is, until I met Peanut, a chihuahua owned by an old girlfriend, Rhonda. His name was the least of his problems. He had bulging, leaking eyes that made him look like he was being perpetually squeezed. He had a bronchial disorder that made even calm breathing sound like he had been chain smoking all his life. He had a mysterious skin condition that covered most of his body, caused almost all of his hair to fall out, and left a sticky substance on the hand of anyone who dared to pet him. Last but certainly not least, he had a protracted rectum. In short, he was repulsive whether he was coming or going. A four-legged horror movie. The cumulative effect of all these conditions caused the trembling common to chihuahua’s to afflict him tenfold, and gave him the appearance of a rodent suffering from hypothermia. 

Rhonda spent a fortune in veterinary bills on Peanut but nothing improved. I just couldn’t see the upside. All the money she had thrown away trying to restore Peanut to awful seemed like a terrible waste to me. I joked with her that the only expenses I would have had if Peanut were mine was a tennis ball and the gasoline required to drive to the Grand Canyon for a game of fetch. 

Rhonda had four other dogs of various breeds. For the sake of avoiding lurid and possibly vomit-inducing imagery, let’s just say Peanut was the “janitor” of the group. Maybe “hazardous material clean-up” is a better description. Whatever your imagination is doing right now, triple it. That’s right. Theirs was what is known in science circles as a symbiotic relationship. The other four dogs received assistance with personal hygiene in their hard-to-reach nether regions, and Peanut received a constant supply of tasty snacks. They were all very happy with this arrangement. The only ones who were not happy with it were any humans (such as myself) who were unfortunate enough to witness the ungodly spectacle. Luckily, I didn’t have to worry about Peanut trying to lick my face immediately after one of his many daily haz-mat disposal procedures because, as if to make the monstrosity complete, he had the personality of a shaken-up bag of rattlesnakes. One would think he would have tried to compensate for his appearance (and odor) with a sparkling personality, but no. People who say dogs can’t hate, or that dog spelled backwards is G-O-D, never met Peanut. He was evil incarnate. The stuff of nightmares. The kind of thing that suddenly pokes its head out of a hole in the wall of a labyrinth in the bowels of hell just when you think hell couldn’t get any worse.

Peanut took an immediate dislike to me. I didn’t take it personally because he hated everyone, including Rhonda. It was a mystery to me why she was so devoted to the little pustule. While watching TV or having dinner with her, I would feel his bulging, lopsided eyes watching me, filled with unspeakable evil, probably fantasizing about tearing me limb from limb and devouring my entrails. I would attempt to stare him down, thinking he might suddenly become aware of our vast size disparity, but his glare would only intensify, as if he was saying, “Come at me, bro!” I always ended up looking away. It was terrifying. I once searched the skin under his fur while he was asleep to see if I could find the 666 that Demian’s father found on his scalp in The Omen.

I decided to try to be more mature one day and at least attempt to make friends with Peanut. I slowly sat down next to him, spoke to him in loving tones, gave him a biscuit, waited for him to finish eating, then, smiling broadly, extended my hand to pet him. 

I still have the scar.

Therefore, I was panic-stricken when Rhonda said Peanut would be staying at our apartment for a month. Apparently, he had some other ailment she didn’t want the other four dogs to catch. I suggested a kennel, a doggy B&B, or better yet, a dungeon where he could be fitted with four small manacles for the sake of the public safety (myself being “the public”) but she wouldn’t think of it for her darling Peanut. To make matters worse, I was working at home at the time and she worked elsewhere, so I would be alone with the Evil Seed every day.

The day he arrived, she handed me a list of medicines, special foods, instructions, and his walking schedule. Walking schedule? Now I had to hang out with him? It didn’t help that the apartment we shared was in an affluent neighborhood known for dog lovers. At any time of the day, posh-looking people walked posh-looking dogs, all of them with their noses in the air. Then there was me, walking the canine equivalent of Freddy Kreuger. Our neighbors’ usually warm smiles would gradually contort into grimaces as they saw us coming and beheld the full horror of Peanut up close. Then they would retch violently, depress the button on their spring-loaded leashes, reel in their precious Fifi’s and Lulu’s, quicken their pace, and give us a wide berth as they would one who walks with the plague. 

At first, I was embarrassed by this treatment. I even apologized once as someone fled in horror. But after a week or so, to my amazement, I started to feel – yes, I’ll say it – compassion for Peanut, and contempt for the snobs who shunned him. When they would look at Peanut with repulsion, I would say, “What’s wrong? Never saw a protracted rectum before?” I actually began to enjoy annoying them and disrupting their perfect world and delicate sensibilities.

After that, my feelings toward Peanut began to change. Even I didn’t see it coming. The pivotal moment occurred one day when I was at my desk working and Peanut was sleeping by the fireplace. He was having a harder time breathing than usual. I stopped working, knelt by him, put my hand on his chest and thought maybe he was so mean because he was in pain all the time, or because he was overcompensating for his tiny stature. Plenty of humans behave similarly. How must life be for a dog that weighs only a few pounds? I’m ashamed now that I didn’t feel anything for Peanut before this epiphany. I can only blame it on my youth. 

That day, I resolved to help Peanut overcome his health challenges. I became very studious about his health regimen and spent more time with him. To my amazement, we actually began to have fun together. There was a personality under all that attitude, after all. (His and mine.) Of course, it also helped that he was alone, with no other dogs to perform his haz-mat services on. That would have been a deal-breaker for me. Despite ourselves, old Peanut and I became pretty good buddies. 

This all took place many years ago. Peanut is long gone by now and either guarding the gates of hell single-pawedly, or in command of larger dogs that do. 

Clare Booth Luce wrote, “I don’t have a warm personal enemy left. They’ve all died off. I miss them terribly because they helped define me.” That little monster did help define me, so much so that I’m writing a story about him twenty years later. He helped me find something inside myself I needed to find, something imperative in this world – the ability to love the unlovable. He also taught me that the more love you give, the more you receive, and that sometimes one must try a little harder to love someone, and to access theirs. Maybe there’s something to that God spelled backward thing, after all.

What is it with dogs and mailmen?

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I was working in the garden recently and had left the front gate open for a minute when the mailman came walking up out of my sight. My overly friendly German shepherd mix Charlie charged out to say hello, barking his head off, and I heard what I thought was a little girl screaming.

I went out looking for the child but there was only our fifty-ish year old mailman standing there, a very macho-looking fellow with a goatee and Indiana Jones style sun hat. Charlie had accessed his primal scream.

In a forced and overly deep voice (to compensate for the girlish squeal he had just emitted, which probably shocked even him), he said, “You need to control that dog.” I apologized but he just grunted and walked away angry, embarrassed that my dog had unveiled his inner Wendy.

 

Who Can You Trust? Humor poem (sort of)

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Who can you count on?
Who can you trust?
From the day you are born
till you return to dust?

Coca-Cola doesn’t care if your teeth fall out.
Phillip Morris doesn’t care if you cough up a lung.
OPEC doesn’t care if the earth is a wasteland.
Skoal doesn’t care if you spit out your tongue.

Casinos don’t care if you blow your life savings.
Wendy’s doesn’t care if you have a heart attack.
Developers don’t care about nature or wildlife.
Big Auto doesn’t care if we all cough and hack.

So who’s watching out for you and your family?
Who’ll care for you and for them if you won’t?
Here’s a clue that might help you figure it out –
If they’re making any money from you, they don’t.

You might say your parents would die for you
They certainly love you so I’m sure that is true
but they can’t watch you every waking moment
and they sure as heck can’t live your life for you.

You might say your friends are the best in the world
and I’m sure that they’re all very warm and sincere
but if you could see ten or twenty years down the road,
you might be surprised to see who’s gone and who’s here.

You might say your dog loves you without condition
and he’d faithfully walk beside you through hell
but if Mussolini or Hitler stopped by for a visit,
chances are he’d love both those bums just as well.

“Well,” you say, “Surely God watches out for me.
You’re not going to slam HIM, too, for Pete’s sake?!”
But drive your car toward the highest cliff you can find
and see if He helps you step on the brake.

Don’t get me wrong. I know that God loves us
and He’ll welcome us home when life is through
but for someone who’s bent on self-destruction,
there’s not a whole lot that even He can do.

Okay, so who’s really watching out for you?
Here are a few more not-too-subtle hints.
It’s not the police. They’re just too damn busy.
And it’s not politicans or world governments.

It’s not the Great Pumpkin or the Easter Bunny.
It’s not Woodsy the Owl or Smokey the Bear.
It’s not the Tooth Fairy or good ol’ Saint Nick.
(I hate to break it to you but Santa ain’t there.)

Well, I’ve narrowed it down pretty well
and given a lot of darn good clues.
If this was a game show or a board game,
there’s no way on earth you could lose.

But a game it is definitely not, my friend.
In fact, it should be chiseled in stone.
The only one you can count on 24/7
is you, just you, yourself, alone.

  • Mark Rickerby

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Talky Tina (humor poem for Twilight Zone fans)

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When I was a kid, I was constantly terrified.
My imagination was a bad neighborhood.
I read scary comics like Tales From The Crypt
And watched horror films more than I should.

The first Sunday morning of every month,
I could be found at the local drug store
Looking for the latest issue of Monster
And other mags filled with blood, guts and gore.

On Saturday night, my buddies and I
Would stay up late and watch B-horror flicks
Presented by Vampirella or Seymour
And get our horrification fix.

One would think I was a pretty tough little guy
From all these “inappropriate” movies and rags
But I was actually the world’s youngest insomniac.
I had suitcases under my eyes, not just bags.

But the thing that scared me the most, by far,
Didn’t haunt houses or howl, creep or crawl.
Frankenstein and Dracula were big sissies
Compared to typical, everyday DOLLS.

During sleepovers at my best friend’s house
All the dolls in his little sister’s room
Made me not just run back home to mommy,
I’d run straight back up into the womb.

I couldn’t stand their cold, lifeless grins;
Their painted-on, glassy-eyed stares.
They attempted to murder me night after night
In tortured, tormented nightmares.

Then Rod Serling had to throw in his two cents
And make my night-time fear level climb
When he introduced me to a one Talky Tina –
The freakin’ scariest doll of all time!

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Every night after that, I’d perform a routine
To make sure I was completely alone.
I’d check in the closet and under the bed
With fear that made me quake to the bone.

As I lay in my bed, hiding under the sheets,
A sweaty, petrified, nervous wreck,
I’d hear Tina say, “I’m going to kill you”
And feel her little hands grabbing my neck.

Of course, that was a long, long time ago.
Now I’m all grown up, brave and strong.
Talky Tina never comes to call anymore
And my slumber is peaceful and long.

But sometimes even now, when the moon is full
And the wind makes shadows dance on the wall,
I imagine I see a small figure run by.
I imagine I hear Tina call.

I pull in my dangling hands and feet,
Yank the covers up over my head
And I’m that goofy kid all over again
Lying scared and alone in my bed.

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