Oh God, Helen!

Here is a short film that I wrote in ten minutes and will never make:



KEN BIRMINGHAM, a Re/Max agent, carries his suitcase through the automatic doors of a large international airport. LIGHT, PLAYFUL ORCHESTRAL MUSIC plays as he:

— checks in at the ticket counter and hands his suitcase to the TSA screener

— sends his shoes through the x-ray, while walking through the metal detector

— has his bag searched by a TSA screener

— is wanded and frisked by a TSA screener

— hurries to his gate, arriving at the last minute

— finds his seat, crammed in next to HELEN, a slightly-overweight, middle-aged woman.



The airplane takes off. Although Ken sits in a window seat, he doesn’t watch the scenery. Instead, he stares amiably at Helen.

Helen COUGHS, scratches herself.

Ken clears his throat. Helen ignores him.

My name’s Ken.

Helen ignores him.

Ken. My name is Ken.

Helen looks the other way.

(she disguises her speech as a cough)

…Helen? Nice to meet you, Helen.

Helen turns back to Ken. She smiles a flat, lifeless smile. She stares at him.

I’m a real estate agent. What do you do?

Helen says nothing. She continues to stare. Her creepy smile grows broader.

A flight attendant walks down the aisle. Ken attempts to wave her down.

Excuse me, could I have a glass of…

The flight attendant ignores him and walks past.

…orange juice?

Helen still stares at Ken. Her smile is now a full-blown grin. Her eyes are dead and emotionless.

Ken forges ahead, trying to make conversation.

I’ve been all over the country this week…

Ken may be imagining it, but he could swear that the corners of Helen’s mouth have started to split open.

Just the nature of the business… I’m more a… a property manager, really…

The corners of Helen’s mouth have definitely begun to tear open. The splits now run down both cheeks, leaving jagged gashes that make her grin even wider.

(he chuckles nervously)
In fact, this is my third flight this week!

Ken laughs, hoping that Helen will laugh too, but he elicits no reaction at all. Her cheeks continue to split.

Ken looks out the window. Another airplane has pulled up alongside them.

That plane is very close, isn’t it?

Helen says nothing. The splits in her cheeks now reach back to her ears. She makes a quiet rattling sound, like a dying lizard.

Ken peers across Helen and out the window on the other side of the plane. There is another jet there, too. One of its engines is smoking.

There’s… there’s something wrong, isn’t there?

Helen CHUCKLES. Her chuckle sounds like evil itself.

Listen, uh… Helen…? I’m–I’m sorry if I’ve done anything to offend you, but I…

Suddenly, the top of Helen’s head flips open, unhinging her jaw and leaving her tongue lolling at a disturbing angle.

Ken loses his breath in shock.

Helen’s throat GURGLES. She stands up.

All the passengers watch as Helen walks in slow motion to the front of the plane.

She pulls the emergency release handle on the door. There is a powerful gust of air as the door is ripped off. Oxygen masks fall from the ceiling, but the passengers are transfixed by the vision of Helen, the top of her head flopped backwards, as she hops nimbly out of the plane and is sucked into the already-smoking engine of the plane flying next to them.

The engine of the neighboring plane explodes into a fireball momentarily, but then burns out and returns to perfect working order, just like new.

Ken stares, dumbfounded.

The flight attendant offers Ken a glass of orange juice.



Ken guides a PROSPECTIVE BUYER through an obscenely ornate mansion in Miami. He speaks absentmindedly, as if he doesn’t understand any of the words he is saying.

…and of course the kitchen comes fully-equipped with the latest in appliance technology. Granite countertops, and–

The prospective buyer interrupts.

It’s a beautiful home.

Ken has to think for a moment before he comes up with the right answer.

Yes. Yes, it is.

You find this work interesting, then? Real estate?

Ken looks out the window and thinks for a long moment. He says nothing.

The prospective buyer grows uncomfortable.

Ken turns back and stares at the prospective buyer, wordlessly. He smiles, with dead eyes.




Gringos in a Van

Excerpted from a much longer work that may yet see the light of day:

Granada street

DECEMBER 2009 – After retrieving my bag and smiling my way uncomprehendingly through customs (I was amused to see that the airport police were sponsored by a cell phone company and all sported large red ‘Claro’ logos on their backs), I boarded a shuttle to Granada, accompanied by an American couple close to my own age. They were typical college kids: blond-haired, ivory-white. The guy wore a giant backpack with a Nalgene bottle peeking out of a side pocket. Leaving Managua they were a such a happy couple, fresh-faced and excited to be in a foreign country. By the time we got to Granada 20 minutes later, their relationship was in ruins.

The argument started when the guy kept calling the Nicaraguan countryside ‘primitive.’ His girlfriend took offense, maybe because that’s an ignorant thing to say about a country when you’ve been there a grand total of half an hour, but the issue ran deeper than that. She wanted him to stop calling her father ‘Crazy Pete.’ He countered that if she wanted him to stop calling her father ‘Crazy Pete,’ she should stop calling his friend Kevin a ‘douche bag.’ She responded that Kevin was a douche bag, and so were most of his other friends.

It was hardly 6PM and the sun was already setting. The pungent smell of woodsmoke was almost overpowering, and the cones of distant volcanoes emerged from the haze, only to disappear again. It was, somehow, not at all what I had expected.

“Be quiet!” the girl whispered at the top of her lungs. “The guy’s going to hear, is that what you want?” I was the only other passenger, so I assume she was talking about me. She could have been referring to the man behind the wheel, but she struck me—perhaps unfairly—as the type who wouldn’t necessarily realize that there was someone driving the van.

It wasn’t long before the silent treatment began. It was mutual, and it was brutal. Whatever love they had once shared was gone forever. And all because of some douche bag named Kevin. That son of a bitch. As for Crazy Pete, he wasn’t crazy so much as eccentric, like the time he tried to barbecue a whole pig and nearly burned the house down. His idiosyncrasies were endearing, not like the deeply disturbing habits of the mentally ill. This girl loved her father, and her boyfriend should be able to see that.

Outside the van, a man sitting with a goat in front of what might loosely be defined as a ‘home’ utterly failed to note the significance of what was happening inside the passing vehicle.

If pressed on who was the victim in this argument, I would have to side with Nicaragua. In days gone by, the Nicaragüenses would have toiled under the thumb of Somoza, or been exploited by the fruit and textile companies. Instead, times being what they are, they’re forced to put up with people like the two sitting beside me—and, of course, me. In a world before the almighty tourism dollar, we would have been confined mostly to large American universities, where we could breed among our own kind without spoiling the world for everyone else.

Granada is a popular destination for gringo expats from Europe and the States, and there are a whole host of them living here. It’s cheaper than Costa Rica and more developed and stable (for now) than Honduras or El Salvador. The gringos are the ones who run the hotels and the restaurants and so, in a cruel twist of globalism, they are the ones who wind up with all the tourism dollars, all the while bemoaning the exploitation that Nicaraguans have suffered in the past at the hands of foreign economic and political interests. They of course do a public service to the impoverished people in the city by hiring them as fry cooks and housekeepers. If they’re really generous, they might donate a portion of their income to an understaffed clinic or an overcrowded school.

This is the real tragedy of a tourism economy. On one level, yes, Granada has all the makings of a tropical paradise with a quaint local charm. On another level, though, the introduction of a tourist-class supplants the very quaint local charm that so many people have come in search of. If things continue as they have, it won’t be long until a sea of impoverished barrios form a ring around a central cluster of hotels and bars and restaurants for the affluent traveler, and people like my friends from the shuttle van will never have to venture beyond the thin ribbon of hostels that form the border dividing “charming Central American travel experience” from “homeless glue-sniffing eight-year-olds.” Private security firms will be hired by the chamber of commerce to keep beggars out of the central plaza. The street vendors will be licensed, and all their wares will be priced in U.S. dollars. It will be marvelous.

Vampire Peanut.

Vampire Peanut

Help, I think my house is directed by David Lynch

I woke up to a siren in my living room last night. It was about 3:00 in the morning, and I stumbled from my bed and down the hall. You know how when you wake up to a loud noise you don’t really know what’s going on, but you know you need to do something?

I tripped and fell at the end of the hallway and wound up sprawled in front of the television set. Static pulsed from the screen and the siren grew louder. It wasn’t like any siren I’d ever heard.

From the glow cast by the TV, I could just barely make out five large, perfectly-formed mounds of dirt arranged around my coffee table. On one was a burning candle, stuck by a lump of soft wax to a severed finger.

Help, I think my house is directed by David Lynch.

I know you think a house fire would be bad, but it’s really changed my life. I don’t doubt myself anymore. I don’t wake up to sirens or strange noises. No starting out of a nightmare only to come face-to-face with a formaldehyde-soaked cat corpse. That cat was the only friend I had. The cat’s dead now, Mr. Lynch. I hope you’re happy.

That night, sitting in front of my television, I found a match on the floor. Odd, as I don’t use many matches. Tentatively at first, I extended the match head into the flame of the candle and it burst to life. I held it in my hand for a long time, watching it burn. When it had almost reached my fingertips, I dropped it on the carpet.

It’s strange how such a small match can do so much. The carpet caught fire instantly, and the flames spread much faster than I expected.

Oops, it worked. My house would soon be gone. I would soon be homeless. What about my important tax documents in the top drawer of my desk? What about the hat rack that my aunt Sadie insisted was a priceless antique? What about Chad, the grad student who rents my basement room?

All that would soon be gone. Soon I would find myself standing on the sidewalk in my pajamas, being examined by a callopigian paramedic—Aphrodite with an ambulance, so caring, so tender, as I watched the flames rising high above my head.

You wouldn’t think a house that size would burn so fast, would you, Mr. Lynch? You wouldn’t think that the smoke would spread so far, that the sirens would wake the neighbors from their own restless dreams.

Sorry about the flames

You bewitched me
And so I thought you were a witch.
The villagers burned you alive
But now I am enchanted by the villagers
Who have begun to accuse me
Of overreacting.

A meditation on the number 4

My birthday is this week, and as my annual gift to myself I’ll be abusing my status as a blogger to post some indulgent and/or ridiculous things I have written and never shared.

Here’s a stream-of-consciousness freewrite that was a warm-up exercise at a Ministry of Playwriting meeting. The first sentence was given to me, and the rest was free association:



The Greeks showed the relationship between square and odd numbers like this: Two squares, two odd numbers. In a ring. It’s a death-match. The Roman Emperor is watching, even though he hasn’t been invented yet. It starts with 5 versus 9. Obviously, nine wins. No contest. Then comes 23 versus 16. 23 wins. We think we’ve got a pretty robust system for predicting the winner worked out and the Emperor is getting bored when the third match comes on. 4 versus 87. Get this: 4 WINS. Everyone cheers. The bloody corpse of 87 is dragged from the arena… or rather, the 7 is. The 8 is so mangled that it has to be cleaned up with a shovel and a bucket.

4 is our new national hero. 4 plies the strings of the drummer’s guitar and dances with beautiful women in the street at a parade in its honor. 4 is everything you wished to be yet failed to attain. 4 is the new God.

Athena is angry. She is being neglected. All she’s got is a product-placement deal with Nike, and nobody’s paying attention. Luckily she’s the god of combat or some shit, so she challenges 4 to a fight to the death.

Not surprisingly, Athena wins, and everything is once again right with the world.

And yet sometimes, when I count 3 plus 1 bandages in the bathroom cupboard, or 2 plus 2 otters at the zoo, or 5 minus 1 moaning coeds on the Betamax™ videocassette, or maybe I’m just dialing 4-1-1 or 214-2404 on the phone to talk to my disemboweled grandson, I think of the power of the number 4.

4 is the square of 2, and the square root of 16. It has a loving family of other numbers who always do their best to keep it clean and healthy. And the number 4 killed my father. It was a hunting accident. It’s all for the best, I suppose. He was a horrible man, and all the stupider for taking a numeral along on a hunting trip. What happened was the gun slipped… and it landed at an odd angle… and 5 shots rang out. 4 of them pierced my father through his heart.

At his funeral, we had the undertaker cut him up into quadrants. We buried him in 4 coffins.

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