Tales from the Cubicle

*thunder and organ music*

Gather round, boys and GHOULS, for I bring you DOUBLE the frights in tonight’s chilling tale: “Terror in Team Room 5.”


It seemed like such a normal day. The sky was overcast, and the air was warm, but not too warm. It was more of a cuddle than a scalding. I had done a great deal of work that day, I made a drawing I can’t wait to share, and I gathered in Team Room 5 with the managers and the giant TV to talk to the editors and those who couldn’t make it that day.

Then there’s Brandy (not her real name). Brandy’s desk is fifty yards from Team Room 5, but she Zooms into the weekly meeting. I’m sure there’s a good reason. She’s our staff influencer, and there might be some reason she can’t leave her desk. Whatever.

The meeting was pretty typical, until three-quarters through, when a figure stepped into Brandy’s blurred background. I was watching the editor-in-chief at that moment, so it took Clara (not her real name) whispering at me around the Vice President of Publishing for me to notice. When I looked over Brandy’s shoulder, I saw me.

My height, my build, my bad posture, my complexion, my burgundy T-shirt, my jeans, and platinum blond or white hair were all there. There was no way to communicate to Brandy while he just stood there, shuffling around, giving me the heebie-jeebies.

The Vice President of Publishing, visibly bored, got the editors to stop talking and set us free. After confirming on Brandy’s screen that I was still there, Clara and I raced to her desk. We were between my doppelganger and the elevator, so there was no way he was getting out. And yet, he was nowhere to be seen.

We asked Brandy who he was, and she told us she never got a look at his face. Who was he? Where did he go? We will never know. Watch the background. Always watch the background.

Well, that tale was TWICE the scares! Hahahahaha! It was TWO frightening! Hahahahaha! That’s a tale you enjoy with a hot cup of COPY! Hahahahaha! It gives a whole new meaning to “talking to yourself”! Hahahahaha! I hope you enjoyed this DOS of horror and tune in next time to Tales from the Cubicle. Hahahahaha!

*thunder and organ music*


Create Expectations

When I started writing again after a long hiatus, I was working at The Container Store, which is the most on-the-nose name for a place of commerce since I hung out at The Coffee House in Lincoln the summer of 1996. My shifts were typically six hours, and they could be at any time the store was open or closed, which meant overnights or every Thursday at 5:00 a.m. I was itching to write, but I could only pull it off if my shifts were in the afternoon and evening, as after work, I had no energy or focus.

I didn’t want to be one of those writers who talks about writing but never writes. Writing isn’t work to me or a duty or something I have to do; it’s a process that brings me joy. Every day I couldn’t do it left me frustrated and depressed, leading me into deep planning mode. I noted that, because I’m crashing from my day, the only thing I do in the evening is watch TV or scroll slack-jawed through the internet. My solution was this: hack off that part of the day and gift it to myself on the other end when I have the energy.

Now, at four in the morning, I wake up and get ready, and by 4:30 (I’m a boy), I sit down at my desk or on my stoop, weather permitting, and this was my time to write, every day. I could write a lot or a little, as long as I was writing. I could scribble, “I got nothing” in a notebook for two hours, and it would count as writing. Several months ago, I started drawing, which crowded the writing from my schedule. Now, at 6:30, when I usually need a break, I hop the train to work and draw at my desk until I clock in at eight. The hour at my desk is important because I use my time in the ungodly early hours of the morning to illustrate my comic, which I can’t and shouldn’t bring with me to work. That leaves me with an hour plus lunch with my sketchbook and no restraints. As much fun as the comic is, it’s nice to branch out and play around a little.

I put a lot of time into being creative, so you’ll understand why a man with a lot to worry about is still pretty content.

Unfortunately, I’m entering a bit of a depressive period. I don’t mean depressed like sad, or even the kind of depression that turns my world into black and white and freezes my joints. Aside from concern over Newcastle, I’m actually doing quite well. The problem is, food doesn’t taste good to me anymore. Music doesn’t sound good to me anymore. The new Guardians of the Galaxy is out, and is apparently pretty good, and I couldn’t give less of a fuck. And yet, even this numb is better than the alternative.

Another sign that I’m on a downswing is that my artistic output goes down. I still work during the aforementioned mornings, but I’m more likely to wrap up early or get pulled into the movie I have on in the background. I’m still cranking out pages—I just filed page 6—but I’m less satisfied with the work I’m producing than I’d be if I were level. I’m still drawing in the morning, but I’ve been setting up my drawing gear for lunch when I’ve changed my mind and skipped it altogether to eat while I work.

It’ll come back, it always does. It’s hardly worth mentioning. Except that Newcastle has been extraordinarily clingy lately, and I don’t want to miss any time with him, so I’m probably not finishing page 7 by Sunday evening. Up until just now, I was cranking out two, maybe three pages a week, but between my inspiration drying up and my muse being such a narcissistic asshole, I’m not finding a lot of time to work on my project.

But my reason for creating art is so I can take pleasure in the craftsmanship, from watching a plot unfold before me to scribbling a circle to stand in for a head while the body takes shape. I got to letter in the word “diarrhea” today, with an accompanying facial expression and pose that really sold the dialogue. If I’m not having fun, there’s no point in doing it, so I’m going to have to take it slow for a while.

And if it means I have to be even slower for the sake of my cat, then I will gladly take my sweet time. Doing it amateur means no deadlines.

Past is Profit

The nineties are an important decade to me. I went to high school and college and New York in the nineties. Most of my favorite music is from the nineties. I, for one, couldn’t be more thrilled that it’s going through a revival. And, frankly, I’m sick of it.

My streaming services are showing all the same playlists labeled “90s nostalgia.” All the movies I remember from that decade are being converted into TV series or further sequels (True Lies the series? Come on! Does anyone my age or older remember the plot of that movie? No, they remember Jamie Lee Curtis stripping and Arnold Schwarzenegger making quips as he murdered people, not the generic hotties in the TV show being chaste like all TV shows and movies these days—but that’s another rant.)

The nineties are fucking everywhere, with major brands getting in on it and middle-aged celebrities coming out of their coffins and getting botox. I imagine this must be how LGBTQ people feel about Pride Month, when all the corporations put rainbows on their packaging and continue to give money to hateful, bigoted politicians.

I feel like this is my time, and I can be the old-man expert on the decade, but young people don’t want to listen to me.

On the other hand, my soon-to-be-published novel, Hanííbááz Rising, is set in 1995. I love that teenagers are seeking out and trading CDs like my generation did with vinyl records. (Millennials didn’t really get to do this because nostalgia for the eighties meant tapes, which were the single worst way to store music.)

But I know I’m being pandered to, and that never fails to piss me off.

Man’s Best Friend

I just got a second opinion about Newcastle’s latest health crisis. He’s nineteen years old with a congenital heart condition and now hyperthyroidism. None of the treatments are particularly savory—either for price or how difficult they’re going to make Newcastle’s life. I don’t want to buy more time with him by making him miserable and confused. (“Why is father sticking his finger down my throat?”) And I can’t imagine he’s got long anyway.

When I asked my regular vet what would happen if I chose not to treat it, she gave me a huge guilt trip. When she was listing the treatments, she mentioned a topical ointment, but when I asked about it and told her it was the most appealing, she shamed me for not caring about my cat. A little discomfort a couple of times a day is better than all the suffering he would go through if the ointment didn’t work.

When I talked to my parents, they said, “He’s just a cat.” They didn’t say it in a derogatory way, but as a statement of fact. I trust my mother’s impartiality on this issue despite Newcastle earnestly trying to kill her.

So I got a second opinion. This doctor told me about the effect untreated hyperthyroidism could have, especially on his heart. She told me that cat could possibly live five or six years untreated, but not likely. She looked at his medical records and told me Newcastle could live another three years, but a lot less if the hyperthyroidism went untreated. She said it’s in the early stages, so I could just monitor him for a few months. I basically went to a second vet looking for permission not to treat him, what I got instead was peace of mind and total honesty.

I let Newcastle into my backyard this afternoon, and I monitored him the whole time so he didn’t get into any trouble. I watched him, clumsy, slow, and arthritic, explore. His feet walked on loose soil and packed concrete, and he picked and chose which plants to sniff and which ones to snack on. He escaped into the neighbor’s yard before I could stop him, but I lured him out, using myself as bait. I had brought my phone out with me because I expected to be bored. I was not. I was transfixed.

Overwhelmed, he sat down, and I understood what I want. I want my cat to be this happy until it’s time for him to retire. Nothing will ever compete with the jungle outside the back door, but I’m giving him extra scritches, longer cuddles, some human food, and maybe a spa day or two. And if this means making each other miserable for twenty seconds a day, then I’ll do it. I’m not ready for him to go, and if I can buy another three years, then here’s my credit card. On the other hand, I will not extend the life of a suffering animal just because of my feelings.

Newcastle is not suffering, though. He got to see the backyard. Life is good. I ordered the ointment.

Convenience Store Maniac: an Ode

It’s only natural to mourn the things you loved and are no longer with you, whether it be a person, a pet, a childhood house, etc.

Convenience Store Maniac was a semi-autobiographical portrayal of a man working at an S-Mart gas station and convenience store too seriously. who only lives for his job. One day he snaps, believing that commerce is a religion, and he is the but a humble minister. This means an inquisition of sorts with his regular customers, some of whom really piss him off. And then he starts killing people. It was clever and a little over-the-top, and that’s exactly what we were going for.

I remember when Shane first conceived of it, in depraved journals he wrote in during his overnight shift at the convenience store he’d been shipwrecked in. I read a few of the entries, and what I saw was a rambling, incoherent, violent mess, and I told him, “I don’t know what this is, I want in.” I loved what I saw, and together we breathed life into Leonard, playing to each other’s strengths, arguing over the use of a single word, as well as brainstorming our way around corners we’d painted ourselves into. We named all of the regular customers after classic country-western performers (except for the teenage assholes, who were Kurt, Chris, and Dave). Even though the names were never said aloud, they helped shape the personalities of people who got maybe one line in the whole movie. We manufactured and fine-tuned chaos. We wrote the first act, at the end of which Leonard takes his first victim, and then I got married, and my asshole cat broke my hard drive, and the first part of Convenience Store Maniac is lost forever.

What isn’t lost forever is the memory of the long weekends I spent in his house on Bear Town Road twenty years ago, getting baked and joining forces with my best friend to create something great. We haven’t talked about it in decades, and if we put our minds to it, we could bring it back to life. On the other hand, there’s nothing I could type that will live up to the first fifty pages that lives in my memory.

Mud Simple

When I was a kid in the mid-eighties in a neighborhood called Indian Hills at the eastern border of Gallup, New Mexico, there were these dirt ditches. One of them was behind my house, and it was like Disneyland for kids who couldn’t go to California.

Every August at that time, we’d get a monsoon, and the eponymous hills of Indian Hills (known colloquially as the Hogbacks) would disgorge thousands of pounds of mud, which would flow down the street, mix with the ditches, and pour down our cul du sac like a river, and when the clouds parted, all that was left was a thick layer of muck.

It was glorious. My friends, Eric from a block over would join me, along with Will, who lived on the other side of the neighborhood, and Max, the coolest guy I knew, who lived at the end of our cul du sac, would join my sisters and me in this celebration of unbridled ickiness. I remember finding cat poop buried in these ditches. When we got hungry, my parents hosed us off, and we could come inside again. It was the most fun we’d have all year.

In 1986, we moved away, but two years later, we returned to rent a house identical to our previous one, only across the street. And those assholes had paved the ditches and installed drainage so that the mud was directed in an orderly fashion into what passed for the Rio Puerco, the river that was technically not there. I was twelve at the time and on the cusp of being over that kind of thing (thirty-five years later, this is decidedly not true), but I still enjoyed the majesty of those mini-mountains gifting us kids with the thing we wanted most: to become utterly disgusting.

Never again.

I know why they did it. The mudslides crippled the neighborhood every year, like clockwork. It took countless dollars to clean it up, and as Indian Hills expanded and grew more popular, that kind of thing just wasn’t acceptable in a functioning city.

But I still remember getting shoved into the muck by Max, who would get shoved in return, and shouting and being a goddamned kid, and I remember it being taken away from me, and this being my first real taste of how adults can suck the fun out of everything.

Can You Hear the People Sing? 

In an unexpected plot twist, I spent yesterday afternoon in the Kennedy Center, watching Les Miserables. The plot twist is because I don’t particularly like musicals, and I can’t spell Les Miserables without miserable. I had just started working on page one of my new comic, and I wasn’t ready to call it quits for the day when my friend used the telephone function on her cell and told me she had an extra ticket for that afternoon.  

I have never seen Les Miserables all the way through before. It had never popped into Popejoy Hall in Albuquerque during one of my GATE trips, and Broadway was prohibitively expensive when I was there. (I’ve seen Rent on Broadway, but that was via shenanigans.) I saw the movie with my ex-wife, and we got an hour into it when we had to give up. However, I’m trying to accept invitations now (despite my art) because I’m thrilled someone thought of me.  

I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected. The set was dumbfounding, and damn, these people could sing. And I knew that kid was dead the instant he climbed the barricade. Sure Marius and Cosette had the personalities of wet cardboard, Marius’s bestie (whose name I forgot because I can’t remember anything) was fun and memorable and dead early into the second act. It was nice to be able to hear what Javert was singing about.  

But what really made my brain jump out of the top of my head and jump off a bridge was the aforementioned sets. Les Mis (as all those in the know call it) is epic. It takes place in France as revolution after revolution happens, in the streets, in the slums, in gated residences, etc., and through a miracle of engineering, they made it happen, from the docks at night to a wedding in a palace. There were no people in black moving scenery around—the scenery moved itself. And it did it so smoothly, the lights didn’t have to go down.  

One day in the office a while ago, when there were more people willing to stand around and chat for a half-hour, one of them, who is only a couple of years younger than I said, “You have to watch A New Hope. Just try to ignore the bad effects.” I almost broke my keyboard. The original Star Wars did not have CGI. It had dozens of craftsmen making the rantings of a filmmaking lunatic look like something you’d see in real life. They were sculptors, metalworkers, electricians. Like the lighting tech and the people ultimately running the sets, they were engineers. They were artists. Tom Savini, Stan Winston, they were artists.  

What disappoints me is that with CGI, you can make literally anything happen. There is no limit to the scope of your movie. As a practical effects artist, you are limited by what you have. Sometimes, while accommodating your limitations, you create something even better (i.e. hiding the shitty-looking shark in Jaws). You can’t freestyle with digital effects. The sound of the TARDIS in Doctor Who is a planer running over a piano. How did that guy figure out to do that? 

Something else I don’t like about digital art is that you don’t have to make mistakes anymore. If the brushstroke you just made bleeds into the background, hit control-Z. I have correction fluid, which doesn’t take paint or most inks. It’s my responsibility to leave my error on the page or make it a part of the picture. And I love it. I have hardly any experience with photo-editing software, but I have enough that I could erase every mistake I’d made in any painting or sketch. I won’t do it. I scripted, laid out, penciled, painted, inked, and lettered a whole comic, paint and ink on paper, because I love limitations. Limitations inspire me. The woman who designed the first Cyberman on Doctor Who had some tights and a vacuum cleaner (true story). That’s part of the reason I love Classic Who so much. What they created was cheesy, but it was genius. 

Digital artists are artists. I could never get into it because it required a completely different set of skills that I had been honing in my adulthood, but I recognize how hard these artists work. Sam Yang is a digital artist I admire, for example. I try to discuss it as easier than what I do, but it’s not. It’s just different. 

Going back to Les Miserables and the various Cirque du Soliel performances I’ve seen**, and Rent, they have a budget, but everything they create must be seen from as close as a hundred feet away, and it has to be convincing. Everyone who’s ever done theater knows this, and it takes a particular kind of maestro to pull it off, performance after performance, play after play.  

Bravo, set designers!  

*My ex-father-in-law, a stoic, strong, soft-spoken, masculine man, lived near Vegas, and he had a thing for shows, especially showtunes, and he was a millionaire. I saw a lot of shows. 

Snippets from Romania

When I came to Romania, I was unprepared for how many leather pants I would see.

Nobody wears plaid in this country. Usually, the service industry will start talking to me in English when I say hello, but when I wear plaid, I don’t have to say a damned word.

In addition, they don’t put lids on anything. You are required to do that yourself.

Everyone in Bucharest dresses like circa 2000s hipsters.

Of all the countries in the world, it is least surprising that Romania has a Goth shop.

Prompt customer service is not really a thing in. They only use beverage lids when you ask.

Pop Cola tastes like cloves and redundancy with a subtle hint of redundancy.

The Romanian toy museum is really fun. They have them organized by type, and I swear I’ve never seen so many abacuses in one place. During communism, they had a ripoff of Monopoly called “Capitaly.” But what got under my skin was the Game Boy. In a museum. And before you Millennials start to get all uppity about how old Gen-X is, they had Pokemon Gold in there too.

White Trash Cola tastes like ginger, with a splash of mullets and trucks on blocks.

I was ready to praise Bucharest for not having hostile architecture, but clearly they’ve perfected it.

As we visited Dracula’s (alleged) castle, the weather, cold and rainy, would have been better with lightning. There was a torture room.

Most Romanians look like they’re middle-aged. The reason for this is that everyone smokes, even (no exaggeration) children.

Spite of the Lepus 

I’m sure you might remember how I once expressed my mourning for the lost art of making a tape, especially when putting together a playlist is what people do now, and it sounds unsatisfying. When you made a tape, you had to listen to each song, calculate how long each song was so you didn’t have too much blank space at the end. (Or, as many chose to do it, just play as much of the next song as you can before the tape runs out.) You put stickers on the tape, you decorated the case. You only made tapes for someone you’re trying to impress. A mix tape was a goddamned work of art, and you couldn’t do that with any other music medium.  

Another work of art I miss is letter-writing. I have had several pen-pals, and they were my closest friends at the time. One of my correspondents told me she said to her doctor that she did go to therapy—she wrote me every week. I would illustrate the margins when I was feeling whimsical, and if I was feeling ambitious, I’d do something fun with the envelope. The paper smelled like paper and felt crisp in your hands, while you reread what the final line was on a page so you could make sure it matched up with the next one. I’ve tried to revive letter-writing as an adult (I’ve got all these blank cards I never sold), but it never caught on with anybody. Writing a letter is a commitment, one most people don’t seem have the time or the will to make anymore. But when you take the time to write someone a letter on paper, you are spending every minute you work on it with them, and that is an act of intimacy that you will never find when someone slides into your DMs.   

For our evolution, we next got email, which was about 75 percent less commitment. You could say whatever you want, but not how you would say it. It’s not like your typing changes size or sprawls when you’re agitated. In email, you can capitalize words for emphasis, like some people still do in their comments and IMs, but that just gives people headaches. From there society moved onto comment threads, and the less said about that, the better (though that is how I met my ex-girlfriend and one of my best friends, so it’s not all bad). From there, we moved to IM, which had been around since the beginning, but went mainstream with social media (which is not at all bad, in that I met my eyes and ears in Finland, Wippa, the Norse Goddess of Punishment, through Myspace).  

But going back to email, I called myself a writer, but I hardly wrote because I was I was putting so much energy into emails. I just wanted to entertain my friends, so I wrote little plays, limericks, newscasts, an Oscar speech, the screenplay for a Kung Fu movie starring my coworkers, an ode to my missing button, and song lyrics that I made up. 

I only wrote two songs, one being a blues song about being dumped completely out of the blue that did not obey the laws of music. The other one sounded suspiciously like “A Boy Named Sue,” by Johnny Cash. The subject matter is a little difficult to describe. 

When I moved into my apartment in Jersey City, New Jersey, after the last tenant was removed on a stretcher, which I witnessed, I discovered what I considered to be a design flaw. There was a single pink strip of wallpaper that ran the circumference of my room, and it was decorated by bunnies, rolling around on their backs, sniffing flowers, wrestling, chasing butterflies.  

I looked around and decided that I was never going to get laid in this room (I was wrong), so I got the landlord’s permission and tried everything I could think of to get rid of the accursed bunnies. I even went to an Internet café and looked up how to get rid of wallpaper. I left the one wall for the bunnies that talked to me, but I covered the other walls with magazine clippings, art, and posters. If anything on my walls was going to cock-block me, it would be that. 

One day, while lying in bed and listening to the bunnies, I thought of a song. I emailed it to my friend Barry, and I thought it lost on the median of the Information Superhighway. Today, while poking around on my laptop, I found it: the song. And now I bring it to you. 

“Ballad of the Bunnies” 

When I was young, just twenty-two, 
I sought a place that had a view
And one that didn’t cost a lot of money. 

I found a home, in Jersey City;  
It was cheap, and not real pretty,  
But still the deal was looking kind of sunny. 

So I unpacked my little room 
And saw what would now be my doom:  
A ring around the wall—and it was bunnies. 

Their background: pink. Their pelts were gray.  
Their poses were prepared for play.  
Their coal black eyes were looking at me funny. 

Their origin: I did not know,  
I didn’t care—they had to go, 
Or never would I find myself a honey. 

I scrubbed and washed and scraped that wall.  
I steamed and peeled; I tried it all!  
It only made my paint look kind of runny. 

Those rabbits cut me down to size,  
I had to reach a compromise; 
And now I’m left with just one wall of bunny. 

“This,” He said quietly as he got onto the bus, “is cool.”

Every couple of years this comes up.

In 1991, I was sitting in drama class with the person I most looked up to in early high school, and we came up with some truly bizarre, baffling, high-energy situations to share with our friends. It was a tale that couldn’t be told by one story. It needed three stories. It needed “Three Stories in One.” Since I made a noble effort of illustrating the whole thing, getting distracted at fifty-six pages, I have a clear idea what they look like, and I like to revisit them. I can’t just pick up the last 10-15 pages because comparing my style to the style I had seventeen years ago is like asking Michelangelo to fill in some of the gaps on a cave painting. I’m proud of the work I did, but I’ve made some improvements.

This time, I thought hard about these faces as I worked on them. Since everybody’s based on a real person, I concentrated on features I remember most and spent a lot of time erasing. Luke didn’t look like that. Amber didn’t look like that, and Wendy didn’t look like that, except for the parts that totally did. Amber smiles with her eyes (still does), Wendy always looked annoyed at me—but with affection. Luke was robbed for the Best Dressed in the Class of ’93 (I mean that sincerely). Naturally, Jeremiah looked exactly like that in 1991. Boone really did have that playful smirk when she was up.

And now we need to have a quick word about Boone. A few years ago, Boone transitioned into Severian, a woman. I have not spoken to her as a woman, I have not even seen photos. I’m not even sure I got her name right. The only conception I have in my mind of Severian is when she was presenting as Boone, and the only reason I know about the transition at all is because one of our mutual friends chewed me out for dead-naming her in my last “Three Stories in One” post. Once I knew, I don’t refer to her as Boone anymore.

Last summer, I presumptively wrote my memoirs, each chapter representing the most influential figures in my life. And she was, without a doubt, going to be a very important. I did not dead-name her once, not even in my first draft. I believe that you should be who you need to be. A trans woman is a woman, period.

That said, I’ve spent a lot of time debating this in my head, and I’m not going to change Boone’s name or gender in “Three Stories in One.” The reason I won’t is because Boone is not Severian. Boone is a character based loosely on Severian when she was sixteen. While Severian was throwing bullets at elaborate Lego constructions with her buddy, Matt, Boone was picking up cheerleaders and playing meaningless board games with them.

On the same token, Luke is not a complete bastard, only kind of a bastard. Wendy was not a good driver back then, but at least she wasn’t driving her sweet Karmenn Ghia like it was the Batmobile. Amber was perky, but she was more than just a smile and the attention span of a hamster. (What I remember most about Amber was how kind she was to me. The popular girl treated me as just another student she was on a first-name basis with, not a nerd on the lowest rung.) And if I suddenly found myself, on my bike, in the middle of the Indy 500, I’d be a smear. At the risk of grandiosity, “Three Stories in One” is a historical document.

To be clear, if Severian tells me that “Three Stories in One,” particularly my decision to leave Boone as is, is offensive to her, then I’ll stop making these posts. I hope she doesn’t. I hope she appreciates it for the playful, teasing nostalgic spirit that went into these illustrations.

I’m not George Lucas. I tend to let things go when I’m done with them, but sometimes present circumstances demand that you change the past. Once again, I’m not going to. They were a product of their time.