Friday, March 13, 2015

American Idol: Season 14 Arrives


I’ve told the story before, but I only started watching American Idol when of my wife’s co-workers tried to get on the show.
 
The irony was, he made it to the judges… but didn’t appear on TV. 
 
Mostly, at the time, this led me to two comments – 1) why show all those terrible auditions and NOT show his?  Isn’t that cruel?  2) So, are we done?
 
My wife stated that, no, now she was curious to see how it played out, and I spent most of the season stating that, essentially, I liked a lot of the performers, but I was never going to be their record.
 
This has proved to be mostly true.  Over the course of the last few seasons, I’ve bought both of Phillip Phillips releases, the second of which I should review here at some point, and a Kelly Clarkson Best Of that mostly taught me that even over the course of a bunch of records, she only released maybe four songs I actually want to hear more than once or twice.
 
I mean, nothing against her.  She seems nice.  But, I’m just not digging her scene.
 
(Oh, and here’s the capsule review of Phillips’ second record – it’s more consistent than his first, and the better record overall.  But there were exactly zero THIS IS A HIT songs on it, and I’m not surprised it vanished from the charts pretty quickly.)
 
At any rate, we’re three years away from Phillip x2 now, and the last two Idol records tanked.  People who lost the competition in the past came out and sold two and three and four times as many records as the actual winners of the last two years.
 
Oddly, Randy Jackson, who gave worthless advice and platitudes every year I watched him, correctly nailed the issue with those two records – it’s ALL about the songs.
 
With that in mind, I find myself watching the current season and thinking what I’ve BEEN thinking the last few years:
 
My favorites will eventually be swept away.
 
The person with the best voice will probably win.
 
And then make a record I don’t care about at all.  Even the tiniest bit.
 
I mean, let’s talk about last year for a second, wherein Alex made it almost all the way to the top.  And then got knocked out, which is fine.  I get that.
 
BUT.
 
Idol didn’t release most of his performances.  And there were some very good ones that didn’t come out, and could have at least made for a fun collection.
 
And over a year later, he hasn’t released his own record.
 
And I ask: What is stopping him?
 
He’s got a lot of Idol money sitting around.  And he’s got YouTube.  The man doesn’t need a label, and after the sales of the last few Idol winners, no label is coming for him.  He could have a record out now.  Nothing is preventing it.
 
Instead, his web site is dead, and his YouTube channel has… a cover he released two months ago.
 
I think I’m more down on this year because I’ve come to realize that even if these guys can sing, it doesn’t mean anything for their career.  What they need are songs.  And those songs have to be something I actually want to buy.
 
They have made some wise choices for the competition.  A lot of the episodes this year were an hour instead of two, and I got SO much of my life back.
 
Plus I didn’t have to listen to the judges yapping.  That was GREAT.  They seem like they’re probably decent people, but when has anything any one of them has ever said actually made a singer better?  Or won them more votes?
 
So let’s crunch the show back down to an hour soon, shall we?
 
All that said, here’s how I suspect the show will shake out.  As always, my top five will be wildly wrong, but everything below that should come out within one or two steps.
 
Here we go, from bottom to top:
 
Quentin Alexander
 
The bad news is, I think Quentin might produce the most interesting record, if he ever got near a studio.  And he has a look, which means something.
 
The problem is, he just isn’t connecting with the audience in any way.   He might be able to fix that, but I don’t think he’s going to have enough time to make it happen.  He’s another guy who could really use a YouTube boost.
 
Adanna Duru
 
I’ll admit it, I think she’s got a great voice.  But she has pitch issues, which is death, and honestly something about the way she looks into the camera makes me uncomfortable.   No one else has mentioned it, so maybe it’s just me.
 
Daniel Seavey
 
This kid.  He’s super talented.  He is.  But he has no stage presence, and even though Tyanna is only about a year older than he is, he looks like he’s performing at a high school talent show and she owns the stage.
 
Rayvon Owen
 
This guy… I love his voice.  I do.  And he’s clearly worked a stage before.  Also: Check out his name on YouTube and pull up his song Sweatshirt, which is adorable.
 
He’s going to lose, because he’s just a wonderful old-school balladeer.  But I hope this gives him the push to get himself a full-time singing gig.
 
Maddie Walker
 
I admit it, I’m just not much of a country guy, and nothing she’s done blows me away.  I suspect the country contingent will pull for her (they put TWO country people at the top the year Scotty won, after all) but I don’t see her lasting forever.
 
Nick Fradiani
 
This guy.  I’m tired of people talking about how old he is already.  He gives good performance.  But I’m still waiting for him to just go out there and SLAY a song.  Instead, he’s onstage being the worlds most handsome street performer.
 
It’ll catch up to him, because there are other people who also do that, and DO kill their vocals.
 
Joey Cook
 
Too quirky to last, she’ll almost certainly drop out before this.  She’s Casey all over again, really.  But I’m enjoying her work, and even if she isn’t the one creating her arrangements, she’s been smart enough to be HERSELF so far, instead of doing something straight.
 
I applaud that.  And I’d totally think about buying her record…
 
Qaasim Middleton
 
What a nice kid.  Amazing dancer.  Great performer.  I am not yet convinced he can sing. 
 
Jax
 
Oy.  This could be troubling, actually, as up until now she did oddball little covers that emphasized a certain SOMETHING in her voice that clearly worked.
 
And then last night she sang and that tone was gone.
 
So does she fake the tone?  Or did she fake NOT having the tone?
 
Either way, she showed that she can, in fact, be boring and do karaoke way too early in the season.  So she could be a “surprise” elimination.
 
If it prevents her from doing more of what she did last night, I’d be fine with that.
 
Clark Beckham
 
This guy.  Remember when he auditioned, and he was good but kind of boring?  Who gave him performance lessons?  I can’t think of any time I was this shocked to watch someone come out and just nail his songs.
 
Tyanna Jones
 
She’s got winner written all over her.  She’s got the voice.  She’s got the moves.  At some point in this competition, she will whip out a gospel song and make a bunch of people cry.
 
Then she’ll release a record with no hit songs on a country label, and that will be the last we hear of her…
 
And so it goes.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Return of Things I Love


Sequels are tough.
 
I say this as someone who has written a few of them.  Sometimes, if you’re very skilled (or the original product was flawed in some manner) you can improve on what you did before.
 
But more often than not, the best you can hope for is that you come within spitting distance of being as good as the first go-round.
 
Early this year, two of my favorite recent things got follow-ups, and I have to admit I was sweating them both.
 
One of them was music.  The other was a book.
 
We’ll go ahead and do the book first.
 
My favorite book last year was, hands-down, a tie-in novel.  Which is stupid.  A tie-in novel is generally the most unfulfilling follow-up there is.  More often than not, the original creator doesn’t have a hand in their existence.  The story must reset all things back to how they were at the start of the novel, in order to avoid conflicting with anything that came before and might come after.
 
And even then, they’ll often contain details that are immediately rendered moot by any future stories, rendering a lovely moment into something that Never Happened.
 
And then, along came Veronica Mars: The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line.
 
Frankly, this novel took all my comments from the last few paragraphs and rendered them moot.  The novel was co-written by series creator Rob Thomas, and assuming I understand correctly, it was based on the script for the “original” Veronica Mars movie, which he didn’t have the money to make.
 
It tied directly into the events from the new Veronica Mars film, essentially making it a second film in text form.  It kept he same balls in the air, the mystery was solid, and more importantly Rob stated that if it was in the novel, it counted moving forward.
 
It was a tiny miracle, really, like getting a second Mars movie only a few weeks after the first (really enjoyable) one came out.
 
I had read that the second novel would be out in a few months, but the months passed and things went to radio silence.  Rob Thomas had turned his Veronica Mars Kickstarter into a Veronica Mars mailing list, and so I figured I’d see an email the minute the second book was available for purchase.
 
Only that didn’t happen.  I literally found out the new book (Mr. Kiss and Tell) was already on shelves when I randomly decided to Google it one night.
 
Should I have taken it as a warning?  Maybe.  But I got my hands on the book a short while later, and the next thing I knew I was neck-deep in the story.  And all was great again.  It had the characters, it had the dialogue, it had the twists and the turns.
 
Fifty pages from the end, I was already feeling sad that I’d be losing Veronica for another full year.
 
Thirty pages from the end, I realized that I might actually be losing Veronica forever – the Mars contract was a two-book deal, and I couldn’t find any references to a contract for additional books.
 
And by the end of the book… I didn’t know what to feel.  Not at first.
 
There are a lot of storylines in the Mars books, which is surprising considering how quickly they fly by.  With thirty pages to go there was a lot of story up in the air.
 
At the end of the book, everything is tied up.
 
Is that too fast?  It’s hard to say, but it felt like it.
 
I’ll try to be vague, but there’s a strong chance you’ll work out some of the ending if you keep reading – you have been warned.
 
There’s a sheriff storyline that ties up quickly and neatly with the addition of another character who never quite integrates into the story as a whole.
 
There’s a mystery that’s solved simply by shoving some violence into the mix.  A concept that doesn’t quite sit right with what we know of Veronica.
 
And there are a couple other subplots that are resolved… I would say fairly, but in a ways that seem to exist more to add drama than they do to serve the overall story.
 
My friend Harry also read the book, and treated it rather harshly.  And I get that.  Those last 30 pages take three seasons of TV, a great movie, and a really enjoyable book, and they offer up tidy resolutions that should be messy, and messy resolutions that should be more tidy.
 
Perhaps with another 50 pages, things could have been fixed.  The violent resolution could have been a clever one.  The odd side character could have been better integrated into the story as a whole.  Or maybe it would have just made the book longer.
 
And maybe some of it was just my expectation, as it took a thing I really loved and brought me back a thing I only liked.
 
With that, let’s move on the music.
 
I learned recently that Prince released Around the World in a Day a scant TEN MONTHS after putting out the soundtrack to Purple Rain.  In effect, he fired off the follow-up to an absolute classic less than a year later.
 
I’m guessing it’s because he wanted to get the comparisons out of the way.  After all, Around was never going to be as good as Purple, whether they came out ten months or ten years apart.
 
I don’t know that I’d call the Imagine Dragons record Night Visions a classic, but even though it was released in 2012, it was probably my favorite record of 2013.
 
I’ve tried to figure out a way to explain why, and it’s tough.  It’s not a record with amazing flow.  It doesn’t tell a story.  Their lyrics are often obtuse, and their sound is probably best described as, “that record that has that really loud bass drum on it a lot.”
 
And yet…
 
And yet I put it in my car, and it rarely came out of the player for something like six months.  After it came out of my car, it was back in my house for perhaps six or eight weeks, and then it went back in the car and back in the player for another handful of months.
 
I never got tired of it. 
 
And I only recently put my finger on the why of it.  It’s because every track was so different, I could always find a song I wanted to hear.
 
Want a bizarre, post-apocalypse song?  Try Radioactive.  Want the oddball keyboard sound I always hear in Ethiopian music?   Put on Underdog.  Want a slow-drip of melancholy?  Amsterdam, all the way.
 
It won out over other records not by being cohesive, but my being whatever I needed it to be on any particular day.
 
After nearly two years of waiting, I heard that Dragons was finally putting out some more music, and I was just a little terrified.
 
I don’t know who said it first, or their exact wording, but there’s a saying that goes like this: You get five years to make your first record, and five weeks to make your second.
 
I could see that happening.  After years of touring, the group comes off the road with a handful of half-finished tunes, and old songs that weren’t good enough for record number one, and then here’s a new album and we’re going back on tour.
 
It’s happened before, to better bands.
 
On the day it came out, I hit the store and bought Smoke + Mirrors.  I unwrapped it, and put it in the player, and waited for the “new, more rock-based” sound the Dragons guys had talked about to come out of my speakers.
 
Instead, I got Shots, a song that, yeah, probably could have been a deep cut on a U2 record.  And then after it comes Gold, which amps up the bass.  A few songs later, there’s I Bet My Life, which sounds like a more fun Mumford and Sons song.
 
And it goes on, each song different from the last.  Once again, there’s not much in the way of cohesion.  Random style follows random style.  The lyrics are still frequently inscrutable.
 
And once again, I kind of love it.
 
It’s a different time now.  I have a bunch of other recordings I’d been waiting to get released, and so Dragons is in and out of the player.  And I haven’t lived with the record long enough to know if I love it as much as Night Visions.
 
But even as I type this, I can think of a half dozen songs I’d be happy to listen to at this very second.
 
It’s not the greatest record of all time.  In fact, I suspect there are a lot of folks who simply won’t care for large parts of it.
 
But for me, I suspect it will be a highlight of the year.  I’ll let you know if it ever escapes my motor vehicle.
 
 

Monday, March 9, 2015

A Farewell to Glee


It only occurs to me, as I type this, that Glee has developed an odd kind of symmetry.

 

The first part of the first season – a season in itself, really – was about a man trying to put his life back together by bringing back the group he loved in high school.

 

And now, it’s about some broken people… trying to put together their lives by bringing back a group they were in, back in high school.

 

It also occurs to me, for the first time, just how woefully pathetic that concept is.

 

Look, I enjoyed parts of high school.  But I realized, years later, that the parts I enjoyed were firmly outnumbered by the parts I didn’t enjoy. 

 

More to the point, exactly NO ONE ever, ever, ever wants to go back to high school.   I get teaching, as I’ve been one and I loved it.  But to actually try to return, after a fashion?

 

No.  If high school was the best part of your life, I suspect you should talk to someone about that, and figure out what it’s going to take to make your future better than that one time you won that game that almost no one even remembers today.

 

So.

 

So now Glee is in its final season, and it feels, alternately, like they’re trying to do two things.

 

First, they need to run out the clock.  And that hasn’t gone well.  At all.  It’s led to things like Sue building a fake elevator and trapping people in it, which sounds stupid even if you pretend we’re talking about a terrible, mostly-forgotten 80s sitcom.

 

There’s the fact that the show has now, several times, flat-out admitted that it was a TV show, and that its time is limited.

 

It has tossed semi-interesting plotlines at us, and then resolved them immediately because there’s no time to actually address them.  Which has always kind of been Glee’s thing, but it’s even worse now.

 

And on the other side of things, they’re trying to resolve whatever plot points they don’t want dangling.

 

So characters are getting married, and pairing off, and mostly just trying to cram unearned happy endings in wherever they can, so they can go out on a high note.  (Pun not really intended.)

 

Ultimately, Glee has frequently been able to get MOMENTS of the show to matter, and so I suspect the final episode will have a certain functional power.  It will be the last time we see these characters, because the show’s popularity is in the toilet now, and there will be no reunion movie.

 

Heck, so why even talk about the show at this point?  The last day of shooting has already been and gone.  There’s no way to fix what’s coming in the next couple of weeks.

 

I dunno.

 

Well, okay, I do.

 

I want to take a minute to talk about the things that Glee did RIGHT, even though it didn’t do them very often these last couple of years.

 

So here we go.

 

Glee introduced me to a lot of music I might have missed otherwise.

I’ve mused on this before, but I live in a radio-free world now.  I’m old enough and have a large enough collection of music that I can simply buy new stuff by artists I already know, and listen to records I already have.

 

I can become like so many other people my age, who haven’t listened to a new song in five years, haven’t discovered a new artist in ten. 

 

The people who think that Ben Folds is a new and exciting artist, even though his first record came out 20 years ago.

 

(Don’t get me wrong.  I love Ben Folds.  But if you make it 20 years in this business, you’re an elder statesman, not a young up-and-comer.)

 

Glee kept me from getting too complacent.  Or at the very least, kept me somewhat on the pulse of what was going on in music today.

 

And there were other good things, musically.  They put out three solid Christmas records that have become family favorites.  They produced some truly excellent arrangements and mashups.

 

And while they didn’t do it often, a few times a season they produced a version of a song I liked more than the original. 

 

(And man, why did they never release another Warblers record?  The first one is easily my favorite of the Glee releases…)

 

So that’s the music.

 

Everything from here?  It comes with an asterisk.

 

Inclusion was the second thing I thought of, when pondering the things that Glee did right.  It had white and black and Asian and straight and gay and bi and trans and someone with Down’s syndrome and a person in a wheelchair, and… and I’m sure there are more, though I can’t think of them right at this exact second.

 

Of course, there’s the other side of that coin, that asterisk, where we have to admit the show thought it was hilarious that most of those people were horrible human beings, who said and did outrageous things that would get you arrested in real life.

 

But on a TV landscape that features only a few of these types, Glee at least made an attempt.

 

And finally ,there are… those moments that I spoke of.

 

I remember early in the first season of Glee, a friend of mine noted with surprise that her husband was watching the show with her.  “The musical numbers are really entertaining!” he said, with a smile.

 

I nodded.

 

“But some of the storylines…”  He paused.  I wasn’t sure if he didn’t know what to say, or if he was worried about hurting my feelings.

 

“The show is deeply, deeply, deeply stupid,” I said.  “You have to accept that if you’re going to watch it.  Most of these people don’t react the way actual human beings would.”

 

And yet, there were moments on the show that really worked.  That, even divorced from logic, could make you feel.  You can argue it’s just a matter of pushing certain buttons, but it takes the right dialogue, the right actors, the right direction, and Glee COULD get there.

 

Which puts sets me down at maybe the best thing Glee ever really did.  Which was to take Mike O’Malley and make him the absolute heart of the show.

 

Here’s a man who has spent most of his working life trapped in so-so sitcoms, and pushing cable TV.  But Glee used him for something more. 

 

I’m not sure how a show that chewed up Jane Lynch and turned her into a ridiculous caricature left Mike’s work alone.  Maybe it’s because he wasn’t on the show that often.  Maybe it’s because Mike is just that good.

 

But when the dust settles, I can only hope Mike gets a chance to do this kind of thing again, because he’s marvelous.

 

March will come to a close, and with it, the Glee saga, such as it is.  The show is in syndication, and you can buy it in various formats and… that won’t happen, for me.

 

I can’t see going through this journey (hah!) a second time.  There’s too little great to offset the too much awful.

 

The show is over now, and the cast is, I’m sure, scrambling for work.  Coming off a big hit, they might have found fast homes all over the dial.

 

But I think this is the end of the line for many of them. 

 

And that’s okay.  For a moment, they were all icons on the biggest show on TV. 

 

Would that we could all be so lucky once in our lives.

 

So long, Glee.  Thanks for the good times.

 

Sorry I was forced to stop believing. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Krampus Karol

Testing.

 

Testing.

 

Christmas sucks.

 

My name is Dirk.  Uh… Dirk Burger.

 

I hate my name.  And also Christmas.

 

No.  No, that’s not true.  I hate Saint Nicholas’ Day.  It can totally go die in a fire.

 

Which isn’t funny, I guess, since that’s probably what’s about to happen to me.

 

Actually, I’m going to be boiled alive, I think.

 

I’m running out of time here, so I should stop messing around and start over from the beginning.  If I’m lucky, someone will find this stupid off-brand MP3 player and listen to it out of a sense of loss for the dead kid and hopefully, heed my warning.

 

I sound so stupid.  I keep thinking it can’t be happening, but I’ve tried everything from pinching myself to slamming my body against the bars of the cage, and I’m not waking up.

 

I’m not waking up.

 

***

 

It was December fifth, which has very little to do with Christmas.  Or Saint Nick’s Day.  Or whatever.

 

Since I don’t know who is going to find this, I feel like I need to explain that I’m part of a pretty boring, normal family.  Most of the time.  My dad’s an administrator at the hospital, and my mom works part time at my school, which is super lame because the two times I’ve gotten in trouble the principal didn’t even have to call my parents.  I had to sit in the lobby of the office while my mom stared me down, and then when I went in he told me to bring my mother with me, and mom didn’t even take my side.  Didn’t even ask whether I’d done it or not.

 

People say you’re innocent until proven guilty, but that’s not the case at all when you’re in high school.

 

Not important. 

 

The fam was planning on going to Disneyland for Christmas this year, so my mom thought it would be fun if we did what she called “A Super Saint Nick’s Christmas” with my grandparents and my great-grandma, who came over on a literal boat and is about a million and six years old.

 

That might be true.  No one knows how old she is, because she was born in some backwoods village in “the old country” and it supposedly was burned to the ground during World War One.

 

Since my grandparents are alive, I was never sure what to call her, not that it mattered.  So I always thought of her as The Great One.  Because she’s old.  And fat.  And has a huge hump.

 

Since the family was going to Disneyland, my parents unilaterally decided that the trip was going to be our “big” gift, and my little sister and I could each pick one other small gift.

 

I wanted an iPhone.

 

My parents and I had a ton of arguments about it.  They gave me the whole speech about how I was lucky to have a cell phone at all, since I’m only fifteen and I’m not paying any of my own phone bills, and I should get a job and learn about responsibility and whatever.

 

I’ve told them both about sixty-million times that I’ll get a job when I have a car, because having your mom drop you off at your fast food minimum wage job is super-lame.  Not like that conversation ever goes well.

 

So this part, it’s the story of The Great One and the iPhone.

 

The Great One, in addition to riding to elementary school on a dinosaur, is barely aware of what’s going on around her ninety-nine point nine repeating into infinity percent of the time.  So it wasn’t like we could bring her to our house and make some big delicious dinner that we’d all actually enjoy.

 

No.  We got to go to her old folk’s home and eat the food that school cafeterias reject as being just too gross for humans to eat.

 

Mostly I pushed my food around my plate, trying to make it look like I’d eaten any of it at all.  I don’t think anyone was fooled.  On the other hand, it wasn’t like any of my other relatives were looking to join the clean plate club, either.

 

It was a quiet dinner.  The staff let us eat off in some little room in the corner of the complex, so we didn’t have to sit around and watch them feed a bunch of barely-breathing invalids their daily mush.

 

It was totally awkward.  My parents would make some comment to my grandparents, and then my mom would turn and tell The Great One the exact same thing, but louder and slower.  Meanwhile, The Great One would just sit there, staring straight ahead.  If it weren’t for the slight shift of her shoulders and the sway of her hunchback that indicated she was breathing, I would have thought she was dead.

 

My grandparents asked about school, and my mom got that look that says that she “doesn’t want to worry” anyone, so I kept my mouth shut about my recent office visits and said everything was fine.

 

My sister, on the other hand, had just gotten some ribbon for an art project she did, so they gushed over her for a while.  Kid drives me nuts.  Most days I suspect the only reason she’s around is my parents wrote me off when I got suspended from the first grade due to my inability to get along with teachers.  And kids.  And administration.  And every other idiot I meet.

 

After a too-long lukewarm meal of not-food, a staff member came into the room and offered to take our plates, and we passed them off to her as quickly as we could.

 

I figured the pain would end there, and we could all go home.

 

But then it got weird.

 

My mom isn’t really into purses so much as she’s into giant bags.  Her current one is totally ridiculous.  Every color of the rainbow, covered in unicorns, and probably large enough to stuff my sister into it.

 

That seemed a lot funnier, yesterday.

 

Mom reached into the bag and pulled out two Christmas stockings.  “Dirk, Johanna, since we’re going to be on vacation over Christmas, and that’s the big gift, I figured that instead of giving you your one other gift for Christmas, I’d give it to you for Saint Nick’s day.”

 

“Saint what now?” I said.

 

Then, like I said, it got weird, because The Great One, who had been staring straight ahead at nothing the entire time we were there, finally shifted a little bit, resettling her bulky weight into her wheelchair.  Like she was part of the conversation, instead of a baggy-skin-covered statue.

 

“Saint Nick,” said my mom.  She was still holding the Christmas stockings.  One was blue, the other one  pink. 

 

My sister’s stocking wasn’t really large enough to contain her gift.  It was some Disney princess doll, still in the box.  The one with the hair and the dresses who sings that song about wanting a different life. 

 

Oh wait, that’s all of them.

 

“I thought Saint Nick’s day was the sixth,” said my grandpa. 

 

“It is,” said my mom, with that weird “I’m being patient” smile.  “But we’re all here now, so…”

 

My grandma cut in, “Yes, but you didn’t tell us you were going to do this.  We could have brought presents.”

 

“Mom, you don’t have to get them presents,” said my mom.

 

My sister and I exchanged a look.  We don’t exactly have a lot in common, but we knew one thing: Take away all the presents, and grandparents aren’t worth much.  What are we going to do with them otherwise?  Talk about the price of milk during the Civil War?

 

“I’m just saying a little warning would have been nice,” said grandma.  Grandpa and dad sat back in their chairs, staying out of the fight.  They knew what was best for them.

 

“Well,” said mom, “I found the gifts in the clo-” she stopped talking.  Like my sister and I didn’t already know where the presents were hidden in the house.  “I mean, I found the presents, and I had the stockings, and I thought I’d give them the gifts now so they could use them.  It was a very last-minute decision.”

 

Grandma’s lips turned into a thin line, and I thought I was going to go another twenty minutes not playing on my sweet, sweet 4G iPhone, except my sister spoke up then.

 

“Thanks, mama.  That’s really nice,” she said, in her best sweet suck-up tone.

 

My mom’s focus turned to Johanna, and she leaned forward and handed her the pink stocking.  The box inside flopped out onto the table while my sister made a little squeaky sound of joy.

 

“There’s more in there,” said mom.

 

Johanna reached into the toe of the stocking and pulled out a couple of extra outfits and a bunch of foil-wrapped Christmas candy. 

 

I held out my hands to my mom, figuring she’d hand me my stocking.  But as it turns out, my sister wasn’t done kissing up.

 

She hopped off her chair with a, “Thanks, mom!” and hugged mom.  Then dad, who also got a thanks.

 

And grandma and grandpa, who both got a, “Happy Saint Nick’s day!”

 

Even The Great One got a kiss on the cheek, which was like watching her lips mush against a pile of Silly Putty. 

 

The Great One didn’t move a muscle when that happened.  But when sis added, “Happy Saint Nick’s day,” the woman who hadn’t even twitched when my mom was shouting in her ear earlier moved her eyes for the first time in an hour, pointing them directly at my sister.

 

By then, my sister was already back at the table, opening the box that contained her new chunk of made-in-China plastic.

 

I cleared my throat, hoping my mom would notice me again.

 

“And what do you say?” asked my mom.

 

I thought for a half-second. “What did you get me?”

 

My dad finally piped up for the first time.  “How about please?  Or thank you?”

 

I looked at him.  “How about I find out what I got, first?”

 

My grandma’s mouth, which had resolved itself into a smile when her granddaughter hugged her, thinned back out.

 

Okay, so, maybe I’m a brat.  But I didn’t deserve a lecture over it.

 

And I definitely don’t deserve to die.

 

***

 

Can you hear that sound?  That clunking?  That’s a paddle.  That thing built a fire, and put water in a tub on top of it.  A washtub?  Yeah.  Like in that holiday show with the otter and the puppets. 

 

I don’t know how he’s keeping the fire from setting off the smoke alarm in this place.

 

I don’t know where the security guards are, either.  You would think a mall would have an overnight security guard.  Or those motion-seeking cameras.  But I did a lot of screaming and no one came.

 

So maybe there’s nobody.

 

Or maybe the guard was naughty, too.

 

Finish the story, Dirk.

 

***

 

“What?” I said.

 

“Well, why wouldn’t you say thank you?” said mom.

 

“Because I still don’t know what I got.”

 

“Neither did Johanna.”

 

“Are you kidding?  The doll didn’t even fit in the stocking.  She was saying thank you because she already knew what she had.”

 

“No I didn’t,” said Johanna.

 

“Whose side are you on?” I said.

 

Johanna shrugged and went back to work untwisting a wire, still trying to free her doll from the prison-like packaging it was trapped in.

 

I looked at my stocking again.  There was a lump in the “leg” that looked like it could be iPhone-sized.  Even if I was ungrateful, I wasn’t stupid.  Right now it didn’t matter who was right and who was wrong.  What mattered was, there were apps to download, music to blast through my earphones, and my own personal computer with no one looking over my shoulder whenever I wanted to Google something that was nobody’s business but my own.

 

“I’m-sorry-thank-you,” I said, all in one breath. 

 

Mom moved as if to hand me the stocking, hesitated, glanced at her parents, and then I guess she figured it made more sense to just give me the stocking than it did to argue with the sincerity of my apology.

 

Considering how things turned out, it would have been better if she had kept it.

 

The second the stocking hit my hand, I tipped it over and out came a box, maybe twice the size of a deck of cards, with the word iPhone carefully printed on it.  I didn’t think about it at the time, but the box was pretty light.  I should have known what was coming.

 

I dropped the stocking on my knee and pulled at the lid of the box and there, inside the box was… this thing I’m talking into.

 

It was tiny and boxy, and a pair of cheap earbuds stuck out of the top of it.  There was a small hole in one corner, and a few unmarked buttons.

 

I looked up at my parents, both of whom were smiling.  It was a smile that didn’t quite meet their eyes.  They had punked me.

 

“Nice,” I said. 

 

“You’re welcome,” said my dad.  He eased back in his chair and glanced around at the table, I guess hoping for high fives from the rest of the family for his most excellent joke.

 

“Where’s the real one?” I asked.  I stuck my hand into the stocking and started to dig.  I came up with some candy.  Chocolate, mostly.

 

“Real one?” said my mom.

 

“Yeah.  The real one.  This is an iPhone box.”  I held up my present.  “This is not an iPhone.”

 

Dad sat back up, and I saw the tension push back into his shoulders.  He glanced over at his in-laws, warily.  “No, it’s not.”

 

“I asked for an iPhone.”

 

“You have a phone.”

 

“Yes,” I admitted.  “I have a phone.”

 

“And now, you also have an MP3 player.  So now you can make calls, and listen to MP3s, which is everything you needed from an iPhone.”

 

“Well, I can’t take pictures or video.  I can barely text.  My phone has one game that I don’t even understand…”

 

“Dirk-”

 

“Dad…”  I sounded whiny.  I hate it when I sound whiny.

 

“Dirk, do you know how much an iPhone costs?”

 

I shrugged.  “A hundred bucks.  That’s what I heard this guy say at school.”

 

“Yeah, well, ‘this guy’ was wrong.  A new iPhone is more like six hundred dollars.  And you have to keep in mind, that’s just for the object itself.  Then you’ve got phone and data plans, which jack up your monthly costs by another fifty bucks.  Per month. Which I would have to pay for, since you don’t have a job.”

 

I looked at the MP3 player.  “You could have at least gotten me an actual iPod.”

 

“They play MP3s.  So does the thing you’re holding.  At a much reduced cost.  Which meant we could jam an extra day into our Disney trip,” said my dad.

 

“But-” I said.

 

And then it got full-on freak show.  Because The Great One turned her head towards me.  Her neck muscles crackled.  

 

Everyone got really, really quiet.

 

“You…” said The Great One, and it was like you could hear gravel and spiders spilling from her throat.  Like she hadn’t spoken in years.  Maybe she hadn’t.

 

Her eyes were directly on me, but I was so shell-shocked by sound coming from her mouth that I could only say, “Me?”

 

“You will anger him.”  It was like listening to two rocks scraping against each other.

 

“Who?” I said.  “Dad?”

 

And then she said it.  The source of all my nightmares and therapy sessions.  Assuming I get to live. 

 

“Krampus.”

 

Talking about it now, even though I can see him in front of me, it feels like something out of a horror movie.  Something that happened to someone else, and then I turned the lights on and the movie off and walked away and it was only a story played by attractive actors slumming for rent money.

 

But then?  I thought I had heard wrong.  “Christmas?”

 

“Kram-pus,” she said, drawing out the word. 

 

“Father Christmas?  Like Santa Claus?  You’re worried I’m going to tick off Santa?  Because I know he doesn’t exist, I’m not five-”

 

“Dirk!” snapped my mom.  I looked at my sister, who was still playing with her doll.  I rolled my eyes, and was about to make an ironic remark about how my sister was going to have to learn someday about the fact that some creepy dude doesn’t sneak into her house…

 

And then The Great One grabbed the table, and heaved herself to her feet.  “KRAMPUS!”

 

Standing, she looked more like a troll than a human.  She was hunched over the table, as if she was preparing to pounce and grab one of us for her supper.  Her entire face wobbled, as though her skin was a cheap rubber appliance that wasn’t glued down correctly.

 

Everyone sitting at the table pulled back from it, except my sister, who dropped to the floor and crawled under it towards dad.  As if dad was going to protect her.

 

The Great One began shuffling towards me, using the table for balance.  Her eyes never left mine, even as her over-lipsticked mouth spat words at me.

 

“For every good thing, is also bad thing.  Opposite.  Light and dark.  Saint Nicholas brings good things.  Toys.  Food.  Children cry when they get coal in stocking, but in old country, in my home, coal would give warmth when there was no warmth. 

 

“Bad children not get coal.  Bad children get Krampus.”

 

By now, The Great One was standing inches away from me, her face nearly touching me, her breath like something out of a hot, steaming sewer.  I tried to pull back, but the chair was in the way and I couldn’t process the motions it would take to slide it.  As if my chair was hooked to the table, and there was no escape.

 

She continued.  “You are not grateful for gift.  You are mean to sister.  You are not happy about time with family.  These are all presents, much better than some toy.”  She looked disdainfully at my MP3 player. 

 

I didn’t think. I said, “But I wanted an iPhone.”

 

“Is toy!” she bellowed, and I felt the wind of a thousand stomach ulcers crawl up my nostrils and set up camp. 

 

I didn’t say anything else.

 

“You ungrateful.  Brat.  You make amends.  Become good. Or Krampus come for you.”

 

“Who-?”

 

She cut me off.  “Saint Nicholas is saint.  Says so in name.  What is opposite of saint?  What is not-saint?”

 

The only saint I could think of was Saint Peter, the guy who was supposed to meet you when you died and went to heaven.  The opposite of that?  “The devil?”

 

“Not the devil, perhaps.  But a devil.”  She offered me a hideous grin, and I looked at her black, stained gums.  “With teeth.  No.  Fangs.  Rows and rows, like shark.  Horns.  Naked, but covered in fur.  Claws.  Claws wrapped around a sack.  For you.”

 

“I thought he didn’t bring presents.”

 

“No presents.  Sack is for you to go inside.”

 

I felt a giggle escape my mouth.  It wasn’t real laughter.  It was a kind of hysteria.  “And then what?”

 

“He… tenderize you.”

 

“How?”

 

“Hitting.  Kicking.  Until you are black and blue. And bloody.”

 

“And then he takes me home?”

 

“No.  He eats you.”

 

“Kills and eats?”

 

“No.  Takes pieces.  Cooks.  While you watch.  Eat you in front of you.  Easy death too good for bad child.  He…”

 

She trailed off, and her eyes opened wide, and she swayed backwards, and forwards, and tilted, and fell into my lap, and her weight pushed me over and we both fell onto the ground in a heap, her full weight on top of me, and I screamed, and shoved, and punched, and kicked.

 

Staff members ran in from the hallway, and my family, who had all acted like they were locked into their chairs, began to move and shriek.

 

“Grandma?”

 

“Mom?”

 

The staff picked her up, pulled her away from me, and I rolled over, trying to catch my breath, and then I heard my mom say, “Grandma!” and my sister started to cry and I heard my dad tell her to look away.

 

The Great One had finally drawn her last horrible breath.

 

***

 

I can still see Krampus in the firelight.  He’s got a huge pile of those special chemical logs that are supposed to burn and burn and burn.

 

The washtub was boiling before.  Now it’s almost churning.  That thing broke one of the metal sprinkler pipes to keep water flowing into the pot because it’s evaporating too quickly it’s boiling so hard.

 

I need to hurry.

 

***

 

We spent hours at the former abode of The Great One.  None of us had really eaten, so in addition to the fact that we were all traumatized by what had happened, we were all starving.

 

Johanna and I finally just gave up and started eating our Christmas candy, which actually made it worse.  There’s a reason that dessert is always the last part of a meal.  It’s because too much sweet stuff sours in your belly when you haven’t eaten anything else.

 

First the staff had a million questions for all of us.  Then the police came, because someone had called them when they heard screaming and they had to file a report.

 

Then the director of the place showed up and had my parents sign a whole bunch of papers that, from what I could tell, were mostly about making sure my parents couldn’t sue them for negligence, and closing out The Great One’s account.

 

They were told they had two weeks to clean out all of her belongings, and that they’d be charged for their disposal if it came to that.

 

By the time we got home, it was late, and Johanna and I both felt tired and sick to our stomachs.

 

I figured I’d try to work the trauma to my advantage, and ask for permission to stay up a bit and at least load some music on my totally lame MP3 player. 

 

Yeah.  That wasn’t going to happen.

 

I brushed my teeth, threw on a T-shirt and some boxers, and went to bed.

 

For a little while.

 

My parents aren’t much for the night owl thing.  Dad is one of those guys who wakes up at five AM every day to hit the treadmill before he heads to the office.  And Johanna gets up every day at six whether it’s a school day or not, so mom is always up and making sure she doesn’t impale herself on something, I guess.

 

So somewhere around eleven, I decided it was time to load the player.

 

The computer is in the downstairs living room, which means that anyone and everyone can see what you’re doing.  So if you’re supposed to be writing a paper, and need a little social media break, well, good luck with that.

 

On the bright side, I already had converted most of my music to MP3s in anticipation of my nonexistent iPhone.  So it was only a matter of stuffing a cable into the computer and starting the downloading to my player.

 

Files started copying, and I started clicking around the web, bouncing here and there and everywhere I can’t go when someone is watching over my shoulder.

 

So I thought I was the only one awake when I heard footsteps upstairs.

 

I closed everything on the screen and checked my copied files.  I’d grabbed some tiny percentage of my music, but having some and not getting busted was better than having mom or dad come down and asking what I was up to.

 

I pulled the cables and shut down the computer, then crept over to the stairs.  I thought I could still hear some movement, but it seemed to be at the opposite end of the hall from my bedroom. 

 

I figured if I could at least get to the top of the stairs without getting caught, I could always say I had to pee.

 

I went up.

 

I could still hear shuffling, but as I was sneaking up, step by step, I could mostly only hear my blood rushing in my ears as I strained to time my ascent to the sounds from upstairs or outside.

 

I was trying to time everything just so, trying to make sure I wasn’t wandering into a trap.  I’d attempted to sneak up the stairs after a late night computer visit and had gotten busted before, and that was a whole conversation I didn’t feel like having ever again.

 

Finally, I hit the top step, and looked around.  I could still hear a faint sound of something-or-other, but couldn’t figure out what it was.

 

And I was surprised to find that, thanks to an overactive heart rate and a rising stress level, I really did have to pee now.

 

I touched the door to the bathroom, and it eased open. 

 

And there was Johanna, barfing into the toilet.  The shuffling I’d heard was her padding around, trying to clean up the chocolate-covered vomit that she’d created before she’d made it to the porcelain collector of all things disgusting.

 

She needed new pajamas and a bath at least, and the carpets on the floor were going to need to be washed.  She looked a little freaked out, too, and embarrassed, like she’d been caught doing something bad.

 

“Help?” she said, weakly.

 

“No way,” I said.  “This is mom’s problem.”  I figured it was only fair, since mom had sicced The Great One on me.

 

I turned towards my room and took a step.

 

Johanna screamed.

 

I turned back towards the bathroom door.  I could feel angry words in my mouth.  I was tired and cranky and there was vomit everywhere and I had to pee and I didn’t even have a cool iPhone to play with.

 

And then it hit me.

 

Literally.

 

I felt metal smash into my mouth, and heard a loud whump, like someone was striking a muted gong.

 

I flew backwards, directly towards the stairs, and went down.  I tried to grab at the bannister, but I was at the center of the stairway and there was nothing to latch onto.

 

I could feel myself moving backwards through space, and tucked my head into my chest, hoping that whatever I hit would have some give. 

 

Then I rammed into the wall, and my head punched a hole into it.

 

The only light in the house was in the bathroom at the top of the stairs, and the night light down the hall on the right.  Both lights flickered, but I couldn’t tell if it was something to do with the electricity in the house or the blow to my noggin bone.

 

I tried to sit up, but the pain in my head became nausea in my stomach.  The house around me rotated twice.

 

I saw my parents’ bedroom door open, and the silhouette of my mom appeared.  Her mouth moved.

 

I realized then that I couldn’t hear anything.  Or rather, I could hear, but it seemed like everything was far away and very slowly getting closer.

 

My sister was still screaming. 

 

My mom said something else, but I couldn’t hear it, and then she said something else, and I looked up, trying to focus on her face, trying to read her lips.

 

But when I looked that way, something was blocking my view.  He was blocking my view.

 

Krampus was blocking my view.

 

I don’t know how to describe him.  I’d say he was like something out of a horror movie, but I’ve watched a lot of horror movies, and I can tell where the zippers are and how the blood is made and…

 

And none of that will do this thing justice.

 

Because it’s not the big details that matter, it’s the little ones.  It’s not that his entire body is covered in hair.  It’s the fact that the hair looks wet.  Slick, like it’s covered in some form of slime.  Like he came out of a giant birth canal just a minute ago.

 

It’s not that there are horns on his head.  It’s that they’re ancient, and scarred, and stained from centuries of existence and being painted in every form of animal and human bodily fluid.

 

It’s not the teeth, or even the fangs.  It’s the crust of blood between them, around them, dripping from them.

 

It’s not just the smell, it’s the scent of never-ending decay.  Centuries of rot free from the amenities of toothpaste and soap.

 

I tried to raise my body again, and felt the world swim.

 

In one hand, Krampus held the washtub, and a giant sack.

 

With the other, he grabbed me by the hair and pulled me to a standing position.  I thought he was going to hit me with the washtub again, but instead, he twisted my hair until I was standing up straight, looking down the remaining stairs to the hardwood floor below.

 

Krampus let go, and for a moment I felt only dizziness and nausea, and not incredible pain.

 

Then he put his foot on my backside, and shoved.

 

I had gone down the first set of stairs backwards, unable to do anything to protect myself.  This time I was flying like Superman, but I could at least throw my arms up to protect me from shattering my nose or skull.

 

I wasn’t in the air for more than a second, and when I hit the ground I felt most of the air go out of me.  While protecting my head, I’d left my torso fully exposed to my landing, and I could feel my ribs and breastbone compress my organs.

 

I couldn’t breathe.

 

I tried to push myself up onto my hands and knees.  Something inside me, my primitive lizard brain, was telling me to get up and run, but the lack of air in my lungs and the spinning sensation in my head made it impossible to get my limbs to operate. 

 

I tried to focus all my brainpower on moving my right arm, just that one limb, pulling myself up and forward, and while I could see my arm sliding just a tiny bit, I couldn’t really feel it.  It was like operating a car by remote control.  I knew I was moving it, but there was no sensation.

 

I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was a blessing.  It was the last time I’d stop feeling pain.

 

I felt the temperature around me shift, and grow warmer.  I had a microsecond to wonder what was happening.

 

And then Krampus landed on my spine.

 

I had thought all the air in me was gone, but I felt the last whoosh of it pass my lips.  The claws on his toes scraped the scalp on the back of my head, and it was like my nerves turned back on.

 

Air scraped itself past my throat as I brought air in, and I tried to scream, and I couldn’t.

 

Krampus stepped lightly off of me.  His hand came down, and flipped me over so I was looking up at his face.  Why did he do it?  Did he want me to see what was coming?  To increase my terror by a few more degrees?

 

I’ll never know.

 

What I know is, I saw his foot rear back, and then he was kicking me.

 

There was no rhyme or reason to it that I could tell.  I kept trying to get my arms and legs to function, to block or deflect or at least weaken Krampus’ blows, but it was beyond my abilities.

 

Each strike felt like a punch from a gorilla, or a kick from a kangaroo.  This is what Krampus does, and this is what he is good at, and he knew where the softest parts were.

 

My hearing continued to return.  I could hear the wet-meat sounds of Krampus smashing his foot into my body.  I could hear my sister alternately screaming and gasping.  I could hear my mother yelling into the phone.  Something about an emergency, and the police, and an intruder, and to just come, to come, to get here, to get here now, her son was dying, was being murdered in front of her eyes.

 

In the same dim, faraway place where my limbs were, I realized that she meant me.

 

How long did it go on?  It felt like weeks, but it couldn’t have been more than a minute or two.  I could hear a siren somewhere in the din of screaming and yelling and crying, and my dad trying to comfort Johanna while mom screamed into the phone.  My dad said, “It’s okay.”

 

Only it wasn’t okay.

 

As the siren pierced the din of my house, Krampus stopped raining blows on me for a moment.

 

Then he held up the washtub, and smashed it into my skull.

 

Everything went grey.  All sound became a loud, piercing whine in my brain, like microphone feedback.

 

Krampus dropped the washtub, and let the sack fall open.  He grabbed me by the shirt again, and pulled me up, and stuffed me in, head-first.

 

I could feel myself sliding in, bending every which way, could feel the bruises on my body rub against the rough cloth. 

 

I heard a door open and felt cold air through the cloth.  The siren sound got louder.  I started to call for help, with the meager amount of air in my lungs.

 

Then a pressure against my entire body, as Krampus swung his sack.  Then pain, as I hit something rough and unyielding.

 

Then darkness.

 

***

 

If you watch a thousand movies with magic in them, the magic is always different.  You’re born with it.  Or you develop it.  Or there are books of spells and you can just read them.  Or there’s a magical object.

 

Of course, “magical” is one of those words with a good reputation.  Magic sounds cool, and fun, and awesome.

 

Until you realize that something like Krampus is magical.

 

That thing, that creature, the one out there building up his fire, boiling the water in his washtub, watching the sides of the tub turn bright red from the heat, he’s magical.  He got into my house even though there’s an alarm on the door.  He came here from The Old Country, which makes him as magical as Santa Claus is.

 

I wonder if this means Santa is real.

 

The sack he’s got looks like it would fit someone half my size, but I slid into it like it was no trouble at all.

 

And he got us into the mall, without setting off an alarm.  He’s got a raging fire going, and the fire alarm isn’t screaming and the sprinklers aren’t doing anything to stop it.

 

And here I am.

 

When I woke up, I was locked in here.  It’s a cage they use to keep the live reindeer they bring in so Santa’s Workshop looks more authentic.  I don’t know where that deer is right now, but his smell never left.

 

I’m not sure how long I was out.

 

But when I woke up, all I wanted was water.  I drank from the deer’s bucket.  I’d worry that I’m going to catch something, but I don’t see that it’s going to matter.

 

Now that Krampus’ water is boiling, he’s pulled out a dozen axes of various sizes, and he’s sharpening them all, one by one. 

 

The ironic thing, the thing that surprised me most, was that through all of it, the falling, the landing, the beating, I held onto that stupid MP3 player.  Turns out the hole is a microphone.  Press a little button and it records.

 

After I tried yelling and screaming and pushing on the bars with my aching limbs, I figured I’d at least die with some music in my ears.  Which was when I found the button.

 

He’s taking a belt and running it along one of the axes now.  Making the edge as sharp as it can be. 

 

He’s coming this way.  I’m going to the back of the cage now, so he can’t reach me.  Maybe when he unlocks the door, I can run.

 

Yeah, I’m talking about you, you big stupid animal.  Come and get me.  Come on.  Come –

 

***

 

He can-

 

He did-

 

Belt- 

 

Leg-

 

Tourniquet. 

 

He’s cooking it.  Them.  Boiling. 

 

Eat.  Juices.

 

He’s coming back.

 

No.

 

He’s coming back.

 

Coming.

 

Be nice.

 

Be nice, kids.

 

Be-

***



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