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Haunt coture

The flashes of ghoulish light illuminate the semi-possessed doll scribbling missives about death and the past, while the medium calls out into the darkness.

“Whatever you do, do not break the circle!”

The massive table bucks and creaks, and our hands — flat against its surface — ride along.

Harry Houdini’s ghostly voice booms, charging the unseen, molesting demonic force with despicable misdeeds, ordering it Out! Out! — like Lady Macbeth’s damned spot.

A tambourine whizzes past my head, crashing into the wall and settling among some of Houdini’s belongings. Bits of light reflect in Little Emily’s eyes, dancing downward along her porcelain hands.

And then, silence. The table drops. Collective sighs melt into the darkness. Light returns.


Earlier in the evening, I’m watching magicians rouse the crowd with their parlor tricks — sleights of hand veiled by Cheshire Cat grins. And I clap my hands along, sloshing my spent lime wedge with the last bit of vodka.

Bows are taken, hats are tipped, and everyone pours out of the Palace of Mystery, straight to the bar. We weave through the crowd with our friends, attempting to find other mystical corners within the labyrinthine castle. Turning down a packed staircase, I brush my shoulder against a man mumbling about the crowd. It’s Casey Affleck.

I stare at Andy. He raises his eyebrows. We keep moving.

Soon enough, we about-face, winding our way back up to the bar for sliders, truffle fries, and cake. Which is exactly what I’m eating when I turn and see Neil Patrick Harris ducking inside the same chamber we’d left minutes before.

More raised eyebrows. More food to eat. We keep going.

Because we can’t exactly have a seance on empty stomachs.


The medium enters through a side door, his demeanor serious, his voice calm but direct. He regales us with stories of the castle, and the man whose name this room bears: Houdini. Relic locks and barrels and sideshow props adorn the walls and fill glass cases. And I wonder which of these hide the peep-holes, the pulleys, the bits and bobs that’ll be used to scare the bejesus out of us.

He concludes a story, and asks me for a time — any hour of my choosing. And I tell him; and he shows the pocket watch in his palm reading the exact hour I’d mentioned. My vision fuzzes from amusement and incredulity.

And just how did he do that?

More volunteers are given little chance to remain seated and quiet.

Trinkets are dumped onto the table. Selections are made. Doll hands and boots are left on the table, like the tragic leavings of some playground toy tussle. More names are elicited from the group, and chalkboards write out the answers dancing around in the confused heads among us.

But we all know it’s smoke and mirrors, with a bit of imagination and a little luck — all vital ingredients combined to form the glue that holds the whole show together.

Because without one, cracks form. Silences aren’t filled. Answers aren’t given.

We must keep to our craft. Adding this and that. Changing spells and writing new ones.

All of us — magicians, conjuring.

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My ass is in the air, and a blind poodle is smooshing its face against my inner thigh.

This is my reality.



Staring ahead at the barking dogs, I inhale, propel myself — face down — through the narrow passage leading to the other side. Then slip, and kiss the cold concrete floor — my cheek mere inches from a steaming turd.

The poodle follows.

I step back.


And realize I’m screwed.

*Poodle face-smoosh*

Everything had been going according to plan.


A lot of people wonder what my new job entails. And by “a lot,” I mean my parents.

Working for a nonprofit, everyone has to wear at least five hats at a given time. And, sometimes, coordinate them with five outfits without notice. So, one such wardrobe change I frequently make is for two news segments, each of which helps us find homes for the featured animals we take on the air.

And this day, I have a date with a Shih Tzu. At 6:00 AM.

There’s primping to be done, scarves to be tied, bowel movements to be made on the sidewalk. And y’all, time is rarely on our side. Especially when the dreaded highway of hell, the 405, awaits.

But today, I get in early. I have everything ready. This should be a dog walk in the park.


A click of the lock later, and I’m walking into the shelter, rousing the curiosity of its barky residents, one of whom will soon be making his TV debut.

Three Shih Tzu’s later, I’m empty handed. Sweat beads on my forehead.

Where is he? 

Was he already adopted?

Am I insane?

I begin searching frantically. Then blow through a door, turn the corner, and walk through another one, with a momentary thought trailing after me like a potent fart.

I hope this door doesn’t lock.

I turn to catch it.


I turn the knob.

Jiggle it.

Pull it.

Push it.

Before my heart sinks to my toes, and I come to the crushing realization.

I’m trapped.

Like the last brick sealing Fortunato’s fate, the click of the door ushers in an all-consuming denial — incredulity that demands remedy.

This. Is. Happening. 

Like most panicked animals, I scamper within my confines while entertaining racing, irrational thoughts.

My eyes dart here. There. Every damn where for salvation, escape.

Maybe I can squeeze through that four inch space.

Maybe that barbed wire isn’t as sharp as it looks.

If I had shape-shifting powers, I could totally get out of here.

But then, I remember something — a real super power.

My phone!

I reach into my back pocket. But only grab lint and dental floss.

Oh. Balls.


As the doggy din subsides, I shove two large shelter keys in the door and kennel locks, trying to make something work — like a lock-picking Tim Gunn.

No luck.

But there’s one more key — a tiny, imp-like piece of metal. So I turn to an empty kennel, push in and turn the key, and alakazam!

I’m in. Kenneled.

Now comes the tricky part: getting from Point A — inside the kennel — to Point D — the other side of the locked door.

I assess the small passage separating the inside-outside kennel halves and push myself through, emerging into the other fenced half facing the stray section. With another lock conquered, I have only one option — trying the same thing with one of the inhabited kennels.

So I walk the kennel line, determining which of the strays wants a temporary roomie. And that’s when I see him — the little blind poodle.

And Bingo was him name, oh!


By now, the whole kennel block is one loud bark. Inside, facing my fellow strays, I know I’m just one little flip of the key from victory.


I take a few steps to the kennel door, and reach for the lock.

Only to realize that this particular door is slightly different from the others — the lock is bolted to a wooden post, out of view. And the only way to get to it is to shove my hand through the chain-link fencing.

The canine cacophony is deafening — reverberating off the walls, almost shaking my hands — and I can’t help but think their barks are more critical in tone than supportive.

But then, as sweaty rivers cascade down my face, I get a little, literal nudge of encouragement from my kennel mate.

With my hands contorted and smashed through the fencing like some arabesque marionette, I glance down to see him — quietly determined — smooshing his head into my pant leg.

And, exhale.

I turn back, twist my hands — scraping off more skin — jostle the lock, and feel it give.


I push, and smash my face into the immovable fence. Crucial minutes pass before I realize I have to push yet another lock out of my way. Which I eventually do.



Only after a coworker arrives do I find the one.

So my furry friend and I jump into the car, race to the interstate, and sit in gridlock traffic — watching the segment time inch up, then pass.

Fifteen minutes late, I swerve into the studio lot, hear a heave, and turn around just in time to see puparoo puke all over his crate.


And then we sit. For an hour. Until we’re shoehorned into another segment.

We go on, I smile and chat with the anchor, and the pup gets adopted a few days later.

This is my new work life. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.


Nesting in a new home is always punctuated with an I-can’t-take-this-mess-anymore culling period. And this time around, old field clothes, notes, and just about everything from my past job as an archaeologist went into the dumpster.

Still, I find myself struck by the fact that I need absolutely none of it for my job now. My professional slate is more than clean — it’s rebuilt.

But a few days ago, I got a little reminder — a sense of the past creeping up and tapping me on the shoulder.


Silent auction items for an upcoming event lay strewn across the desk. And a pocket watch takes center stage.

“Hey, Matt. You might know something about this. Do you know how old this is?”

The historian-researcher in me suddenly springs out of hibernation. Within minutes, I have the serial number called up on a database, and a use-date onscreen. And fueling that keyboard clattering and image searching is a bit of enjoyment, with a hint of nostalgia.

Because not everything about what has been has to be painful. There’re plenty of ways to pay homage — nodding to a past life knowingly, thanking it in my own way, and acknowledging that it had its time, its place.

And that it’s time to move on.

“Well, never mind, I guess we don’t really need it anymore since we have these.”

I smile down at the opened, gold lid — the watch’s cracked glass and yellowed Roman numerals, the hands stopped at some random moment in time.

“No, I suppose we don’t.”

Then close it.

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Finding Waldo

Before the night is out, I will find Waldo 134 times — here, posing next to a gorilla; there, wearing little more than his glasses.

But right now, I’m watching Bruce Vilanch’s ridiculously cute salt-and-pepper pug drag her ass across the concrete balcony. The reverberations of West Hollywood’s Halloween spectacular thrum beneath us– the streets gorged by streams of costumed phantasms. The off-street, dark alleys behind — a cacophony of orgasms.


A Manhattan before, I’m rubbing shoulders with dragons and Abraham Lincoln and the characters from Moonrise Kingdom. But I just stay focused on the referees leading me and Andy down Santa Monica Boulevard, through the throngs of carnival-goers.

John blows his whistle with such conviction that he actually parts the sloshed seas on occasion. Shawn clutches his artfully arranged flag, ready to throw it down and declare a foul.

But before we know it, we’ve arrived.

A sexified Angel of Death flutters up the stairs ahead of us, and we sidestep through a nearby door.  A breeze whips up along the walkway as we pass apartment after apartment in the sleek, contemporary building.

John rings a doorbell. A gladiator answers. His white Chihuahua darts out, and busies herself with smelling my feet.  He takes a few steps out, stoops, and scoops up his precious cargo.  Which is how Shawn gets a clear view of the hand-to-sword combat going on in the back room.

The gladiator smiles, re-assumes his sentry post, then motions next door.

“Bruce is there.”

Before we can thank him, he’s returned to his ménage a lot.

And then, I’m pug watching.


There are times in my life when I’ve wished for more developed, intellectual thoughts to be rolling around in my noggin than what’s screaming in the fore.  And this is one of them.

Instead of reflecting on the thoughtfulness of our friends — for braving the costumed masses and dragging us away from watching Hocus Pocus in our underwear — or our host’s humor and hospitality — his complete lack of pretension — I’m thinking, I’m watching Bruce Vilanch’s pug drag her ass across the balconyIncredible.

I snap out of it, and catch then follow Andy’s concerted gaze. And there, placed just so by the television, Bruce Vilanch’s Emmy’s.

“Oh yeah, well, you know Chi Chi, right?”

I swivel back to the conversation and nod. Even if he’d asked us about a chattery dolphin that has a lion’s head and speaks in tongues, we’d nod, zombie-like.

Yes, Bruce Vilanch.

“Well, he lives over there.”

I peer over the side, toward the lighted apartment in the distance, but get distracted by a Rubix cube dancing below.

Finding Waldo...

The world is a bizarrely amazing, small place. 


A week later, my mind is goo.

The Merlot is dark and tastes like strawberry jam — a catalyst to wax poetic.

Faces reflecting an internal dialogue —

The laughter,

Wry smiles,

Heavy, somber eyes

The tears.

The animation.

The intimidation.

Emotion overflowing onto asphalt like a dull, constant rain.

We keep to our courses — exploring new avenues,

Detouring around construction,

Hunkering down and pushing on;

It’s all a journey,

And we’re each just one pilgrim,


We stare out from our table at the passing cars as conversations buzz around us. And I lend my ears all around — like hummingbirds, they swallow the lifeblood of others’ lives: the stories that make us something special.

Andy and I stare over our salads at one another, and just absorb everything.

“This is the moment we’ve been working towards.”

He smiles and nods. And the server materializes, resting our plates in ghostly quiet. I push the slightly sticky wine glass stem toward Andy’s. He meets me halfway — near the bread — and a melodic, soft ting bleeds into the surrounding chorus.

Months ago, we landed in an alien place — knew few people; had dreams of where we wanted to start building a life.

And as we peer through the candlelight, we know we’ve found it.

The answer melting into each other’s eyes.