Amazing live sea monkeys

January 30, 2006 at 1:29 pm (Uncategorized)

I’ll never forget the day of the slaughter. Hundreds were killed. Mothers and daughters, fathers and sons. The village doctor was among the dead. The horror. The horror. I was only five or six years old, but I understood how great a tragedy had befallen the young community. There were no survivors.

Like the rest of you, I had sea monkeys when I was a boy. *sniff* I loved those little guys. I watched them grow from gritty flakes in a paper pouch to full grown sea critters. Remember the pictures on the box? The sea monkeys had big eyes and crowns on top of their heads. There were little boy monkeys and little girls. There were mothers, fathers and family friends. They interacted like people and lived in a giant castle. There was a time when I wanted to be a sea monkey.
And then it happened. I rushed home from school to visit my ever growing family. I searched for the tank in which they lived and found it in the kitchen. It had been washed and rinsed and dried. There were no signs of little Jim Bob and Ella May and sweet Sally Sue. The babysitter, a woman of 245 who had dyed black hair and bright red lipstick, had found them on the window in my bedroom. Believing she had stumbled upon a bowl full of brackish, bug infested water, she dumped them down the toilet and gave it a flush. I need… I need just a minute.
Chances are good that the sea monkeys survived. They probably grew to massive size feeding on the nutrient rich waste in the sewers. I’ll bet they went after Mrs. Gilbert one night. I’ll bet they slithered up her stairs and stole into her bedroom, dragging her screaming from her bed with those long, pink tentacles…
I’m getting freaked out. What the hell was my point? Oh, yes. My point. Sea monkeys are creepy little life forms, especially as portrayed in advertising. It’s amazing no one has taken up the concept as a basis for a novel or horror flick. The creative child ads random products to his sea monkey water and the results are terrifying. Or a lonely professor falls in love with one of his sea monkeys and endeavors a find a way to join her. Great opportunity for a sea monkey sex scene.

But I’ve said too much already.

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Lies and damned lies

January 25, 2006 at 12:42 pm (Uncategorized)

I’d been on the run a long time and I knew the cops were at my heels. They missed me by seconds over in Fresno. I caught the squawking of their scanners as they came up the stairs and I beat feet through a window and onto a fire escape. A big bull of a cop was waiting for me on the ground and we fought. He had me in a chokehold and I felt my freedom slipping away, along with my wind. But I came around after a few seconds and beat him down. When I left the musclehead, he was writhing in a mound of trash.

Those were hot, desperate times over on the West Coast. Everywhere I turned, those gumshoes were right behind me. I caught a train for Chicago and laid low there for a while. Then some U.S. marshals sniffed me out of the rathole flat I was living in and a whole squadron of them swooped in. I duked it out with another gorilla and managed to escape, this time through a dumbwaiter.

It’s all hazy. The strip joint mix-up in Manhattan, the meth lab down in Baltimore, the brothel in Tennessee. I was using a lot then and the memories are fuzzy, like a blown-out photograph on a computer monitor. Running from The Man, fighting with The Man, knocking The Man down and beating feet.

Yeah, I was on the run a long time and I saw some crazy stuff. I was just a kid, but I was faster, meaner and slicker than the rest. I hear someone wrote a folk song about me in Tucson. In the Midwest they named a tornado in my honor. That’s me, all right. Powerful, unpredictable and enigmatic.

Great stories I could tell for a lifetime. Too bad none of them are true. I just felt like going James Frey for a while. I felt like recreating my youth in hopes that people would believe it and find me heroic. Hey, feel free to send me money if my story has moved you.

I don’t mean to get down on Frey and his struggle with booze and drugs. I think it’s admirable that he conquered his addictions through sheer will and that he chose to write about his travails. What irks me is that he invented a majority of his experiences and then asked his reading public to believe it without question. One gets the feeling that Frey sat through a few group therapy sessions and felt inadequate for the tales he had to tell.

Which is fine. When one guy starts talking big, the guy next to him will start talking bigger. It’s what we do. We are hardwired by evolution to build tales as high as they will go when we are in the company of our peers.

The problem I have with Frey is that he presents his struggles as mightier than those of the the next alcoholic or the next addict. He asks that you believe his battle was more valiant and harder fought.

He scrapped with cops. He served long prison stretches. He threw down with every officer and lost a girl while he was in the slammer. He suffered through a double root canal without anesthesia, stared down a Mafioso and established himself as the toughest hombre in rehab. He lost a girlfriend to a train wreck and spent his young years drinking away her memory.

At an AA meeting, it would make a great drunkalogue. Few people would bother to check the facts. But, sell a few million copies of a book and people will rightfully begin asking questions. They will find the police reports that reveal only minor arrests. They will find officer statements describing you as polite and cooperative, instead of combative and powerful. They will check prison records and find that you were never there. They will learn that the young lady killed by the train was never your girlfriend, and that you were never the neighborhood ruffian.

And so as the lies stack up, we start to wonder if Frey’s sins of hyperbole are equal to or greater than those of someone like Jayson Blair. Blair fabricated news stories and hornswoggled those who trusted him. Frey deceived people who needed to believe the most – the suicidal drinkers and ragged-edge druggers who were inspired by his story. When they learned about his deceits, they might have felt they had been betrayed yet again, that there was one more entity in which they could not believe.

Mothers of rowdy children might claw your eyes out if you utter a word of criticism about Frey’s book. Because they want to believe that even bad kids are essentially good, and that change is always possible. And while that may be true, Jim Frey should not be the symbol of the transformation.

Jayson Blair, Jim Frey. Two men who concocted clever mixtures of fact and lies and hoped they would ring true. Two men who fooled their audience for a time and then were called on it. A word of advice for them both: If you want to make things up, write fiction. People may still condemn your work. But at least they can’t call you a liar.

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Reporter looking for cryptic banter

January 23, 2006 at 3:18 am (Uncategorized)


In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police, who investigate crime. And Mark LaFlamme, who whines about it incessantly. These are their stories.

CHING CHING.

So, I’m pretty sure I need a partner. It’s not that I’m overworked. I spend more time trolling than a bass fisherman or an out-of-stater looking for a prostitute in downtown Lewiston.

The problem is that I don’t have enough banter in my professional life. I have thoughts. Deep thoughts.

Fresh from the streets, popping like an overloaded Pez dispenser, I’ll spring to my wife’s desk on the other side of the newsroom.

“Somewhere in the distance,” I’ll say to her in my most dramatic tone, “a dog barked.”

My sweet wife looks at me with those pretty, brown eyes and says nothing. The silence is enough. The brown-eyed silence says: “I married an idiot.”

So I bounce as if on a pogo stick to the copy desk. There I find editors hanging from their desks like bats in a cave.

“It was a night just like this,” I inform them with just the right tone of ominous foreboding.

The editors look at me with those small, black eyes and then consult each other with beeps and chirps. Protecting the queen is what they’re doing. And then one of the worker editors is enlisted to advise me on the remark.

“Do you need something to do, Mark? Or shall we devour you and feed the remains to our young?”

The bane of banter

Cops are no better. Cops worry constantly about banter because it might get inserted into a news story. Cops need to think about what their chief thinks of their demeanor in the ‘hood. So when I lunge at a cop with one of my profound observations (“The beasts are loose in Bethlehem tonight, wouldn’t you say, officer? Eh? Eh?”) they think heavily before responding.

“There is the possibility,” a cop might say, “that perpetrators will commit misdemeanors or felonies this evening. That’s affirmative.”

Criminals get all itchy when you try to banter with them. You just want to yack about the nature of the city and they get all squirrelly about it. You unleash a few lines of fresh banter and to their delicate, crook ears, it sounds like trouble. They think you’re wired and start patting you down, right there on Park Street. They look over one shoulder, then the other, and flee in an all-out sprint. It really kills the banter mood.

I’ve got nobody. I need a Lenny Brisco-type partner. Someone who will understand my non sequiturs. Someone who will scowl when I scowl and spit when I spit. Someone who will address me by my last name only.

“The one-eyed monkey barks at midnight.”

Spit.

“You got that right, LaFlamme. It is wise to know the difference between a hornet and a bee.”

“Hear that.”

“Damn straight, LaFlamme.”

Spit. Spit.

The shadows know

On a few occasions, I’ve had people shadow me on the job. These were young people fooled into believing my occupation is exciting. I like having them along. They bring to the job scene a great deal of enthusiasm. For about six hours. At which point, they realize that nothing ever happens and the reporter they happen to be riding with is a big dork who speaks in riddles. I always try to use these people as banter partners.

“This is the big one,” I’ll say, ear cocked to the scanner. “Get ready to roll.”

A barking dog complaint rolls across the airwaves.

“Sir, I’d like to call my mom,” says the pimply, Lenny Brisco washout.

So, I need a partner. No journalism skills are needed. Hell, I don’t have any of those, myself. All I’m looking for is someone who can keep up verbally. At those times when I don’t make sense (estimated by my colleagues at 94 percent), you would just nod, spit and say something equally inane.

“The lunatics are in the hall.”

“Hear that, LaFlamme. The paper holds their folded faces to the floor.”

“And every day, the paper boy brings more.”

“Yeah, LaFlamme. Yeah.”

Spit.

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Hostel

January 16, 2006 at 11:20 pm (Uncategorized)

The movie world is full of countless flicks that will make you jump, scream and maybe hurl your popcorn across the cinema. Boogeymen creep from closets. Lunatics are killed but keep getting up. Tiny dolls with knives menace entire communties. Most people enjoy a harmless fright. It’s all good once the credits roll and the theater is lighted again.

Hostel is not a harmless fright. It’s bleak, bloody and bold and suited only for those who like to wander to the really dark places. It’s a gloomy, hard tale every bit as traumatizing to the intellect as it is repulsive to the eye.

In short, I freaking love this movie. And it all starts with lively music and naked people. For the first 45 minutes, I wanted to be a reckless teen again. I wanted to get myself a passport and backpack and prepare to tramp all over Europe. I wanted to wander with my friends and experience the liberal offerings of those far flung countries. I wanted to indulge in all the vice so vividly advertised in the opening scenes of the movie.

By the time it was done, I had endeavored never to leave the safety of the United States. Nossir. I’ll burn the passport, drop the backpack in a river and stay right here where 911 is always a finger’s length away.

Much fuss is made about the graphic violence in “Hostel.” It’s certainly graphic and violent as they come. Yet, it’s not the blood and gore, drills and saws that will leave you unsettled. More disturbing is the concept at the very heart of the tale. The idea that Americans abroad could be snared into a sinister underworld and then sold to wealthy sadists to do with as they will. What gnaws at you is how handily such a business could operate.

There’s a scene midway through the film where a young man awakes with a hood over his face and only a small hole to see through. His feet are bound to the floor. His hands are bound behind him. He is a prisoner in a dark, dingy roomand the horrible truth of his situation becomes abundantly clear soon enough.

The movie works because it plants you in that very chair. You feel the rising desperation as it becomes evident what your role is here. You are a plaything for a madman who has paid good money to satisfy all the depraved longings in his sick heart. At his disposal is a nauseating variety of tools. There are drills and blades, saws and hammers, needles and scalpels. All the things that have scared you since your first visit to the dentist or doctor are right here and there will be no anesthesia.

Yeah, it’s pretty damn jolting when the first young man gets a drill bit sunk into his thigh. But more revolting is the notion that this is the only beginning. Because a person who pays enormously for such nasty pleasure is surely not going to be quick about it. You feel the grinding and growing horror of the victim’s plight. Screaming will get them nowhere. This is a place designed specifically for screams. There will be no human rights groups stopping by. There will be no U.S. led rescue operation at the last minute. This is a place with a name like Ardvarkia, or Ohyuckia. The safety of home is a long ways off and the people back there are blissfully unaware of this strange country and of the terrors therein.

Sure, in-your-face images of dismember legs and hanging eyeballs will ruin your popcorn. But it’s the heavy feeling of isolation and helplessness that will cloud the rest of your day.

There are plenty of people who refuse to see this flick. If they are timid about unrestrained nastiness, I don’t blame them. Don’t blame them at all. But if you’re even mildly curious about the movie, I say go. Go spend a couple hours with Tarantio and Eli Roth, and you’ll feel a little better about missing those overseas trips when you were a cocky college kid. You never go the high times in Barcelona, it’s true. But at least you have all your fingers and you never had an eyeball dangling against your cheek.

If you still get a giddy delight watching the ear scene in “Reservoir Dog,” go see this movie. Just cut your date some slack if he or she starts squeezing your hand with bone crushing might. It’s only human to recoil against atrocities committed against humans. And a story that can reach a person on that primitive level is a success. I give “Hostel” two thumbs up to go with the three or floor laying on the floor.

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Desperado

January 11, 2006 at 10:43 pm (Uncategorized)

Sometimes I fancy myself a gunslinger. I don’t carry a sidearm and the last time I rode a horse, I fell off. Still, there are times when I fancy the storefronts are saloons and the downtown streets are gritty with Old West grime.

I imagine I hear clink, clink, clink with each step down these dusty roads. I fancy it’s tumbleweed and not snow blowing across my path. My eyes scan shadows in all directions lest a rival lunge from the darkness to settle an old score. Not tonight, my friend. You don’t want to become another notch in the carved-up grip of my gun.

Clink, clink, clink.

The police are a posse of lawmen called to this one-horse town to put things right. Crooks are outlaws with mugs posted in every two-bit town from hear to Reno. Train robbers, most of them. An ornery, slippery lot.

The corner stores are barber shops where you can get a shave and a haircut for a nickel. City buildings are houses of ill repute where you’ll find women in frilly dresses with names like Lulu and Clementine. And there, dark and vacant on Lisbon Street, are the five and dime, the blacksmith shop, the undertakers place and the benzinery, all left empty when the gold rush was over and the town was left behind.

Clink, clink, clink. I haven’t seen hide nor hair of Old Red Nose Nollie since the day of the poker cheat when he beat the devil around the stump. Still, I keep a hand on the butt of my revolver just in case. Because Red Nose Nollie is a lot like a rattlesnake. He can have his fangs in you before you even know he’s there. He’ll dry-gulch a man as soon as look at him.

But I’m feeling ace-high tonight. Lewiston is my frontier. I’ve got no one to ride the river with, but that’s alright. I’m between hay and grass and I’m heeled. I’ve got no difficulty but to wait for someone to kick up a row somewhere and give me a time.

Clink, clink, clink.

It’s the boots. Definitely the boots. Every winter I slip them on and it’s like sliding into grand delusion. I don’t walk toward the scene of the crime, I swagger. I don’t simply stick a cigarette in my mouth and light it up. I do it with theatrical, gunslinger ease.

“Pardon, lawman. You reckon you’ll corral that curly wolf tonight and put him at the end of the hemp?”

“Yep. Simone pure. That codger is as full as a tick by now, I reckon.”

So what if I have no notion of what any of that means. So what if the officers are giving me strange looks and whispering into their radios. Lewiston is a lonely, cold place on a January night. If your beat is mischief after dark, you need a little delusion to get you through. Who wants to be a mere crime reporter when you can be Lascivious LaFlamme, feared and famed?

But the gunslinger fancy is short-lived, like most daydreams. Some idjit drives by in a sagging Plymouth with rap music shaking its frame. A cab driver lays on his horn because I have swaggered in front of him. The cell phone buzzes at my hip and for a horrible moment, I believe it is Red Nose Nollie with his poisonous rattle.

Reality crashes in as it always does. The boots are just boots again, footwear manufactured at one of the Lewiston mills along the canal. The stores sell cigarettes at five bucks a pack and lottery tickets are sold through electronic machines. Lawmen have cruisers instead of steeds and there are computers mounted on dashboards.

Lewiston is a cold and well-lit city again rather than an old frontier. But I like to think the city has an Old West mentality. There are outlaws and posses. There is cussing and more than a fair share of carousing. There are those who still come here to strike it rich or go belly up. Lewiston is a city with a gunslinger spirit.

But the fantasy is gone like smoke from the barrel of a Smith & Wesson. The only things strapped to my hip are the phone and the scanner. No six-shooter in battered leather holster. No shave and a haircut for a bit.

It’s all for the best, really. Put a cowboy hat on me and I’ll disappear. I bluff poorly at card tables. And if I haven’t mentioned it already, I’ll mention it now: The last time I rode a horse, I fell off.

That’s about the long and short of it, I reckon.

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Lessons of the dangling foot

January 10, 2006 at 11:09 pm (Uncategorized)

I might someday be very wealthy and able to afford the most cutting edge security system on the market. I might have cameras with infrared technology scanning every inch of my property. I might have an armed response system ready to rain bullets should my perimeter be breached. I might have fierce dogs on alert and a .45 beneath my pillow.
It won’t matter. None of it will matter. I still won’t be able to sleep with my foot dangling over the edge of the bed.
You may snigger all you’d like. Because the older and wiser I get, the more convinced I become that letting your foot dangle is a very bad idea. I’m not talking about a fanged creature with hot breath living under the bed. I don’t fear a low growl and then the clamp of mandibles upon my ankle. No sir. What I fear is much more subtle.
In the quiet and peace of night, with muscles relaxing and sleep upon my eyes, the thing I dread most is a simple touch. A light caress from beyond the edge of the bed. Just a tweak, a tickle, a cool hand brushing over my heel.
Because in that moment, it will become absolutely clear that the horrors conceived of in childhood exist, after all. They exist in the physical world where you live.
With that soft touch of the dangling foot, the security and sanity of adulthood is gone. You can no longer cling to the old belief that irrational fears are only products of an overstimulated imagination. You can no longer rely on the mantra that says the only thing to fear is fear itself.
Monsters, ha! The monsters will eat you and be done with it. Your terror, though gory, will be brief. The cool touch of the dangling foot spells a lifetime of horror — the horror that comes when a person is forced to believe the unbelievable. There might be something hideous hiding in the closet, after all. Maybe the devil really is the source of the creeking sounds from the attic. Maybe the dead do rise and they might be waiting in your basement this very moment.
You don’t want something pinching your toes in the night because that pinch will confirm it all. That quick and playful squeeze will present an absolute promise that you should fear the world and fear it plenty. You can get up, turn on all the lights and arm yourself with a canon, if you want to. Surround yourself with friends and make them poke under the bed for you. It won’t matter. Because there is always tomorrow night and the night after that. There is always the basement and the attic and sooner or later you’ll be alone again. Sooner or later you have to sleep. And now the thing under the bed knows you are aware of it.
It all sounds very hysterical, I know. I manage it well, and without medication. I do breathing exercises. I drink a lot. Mostly though, I make damn sure my foot never dangles over the side of the bed. You should do the same.

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Catch a killer

January 9, 2006 at 2:01 pm (Uncategorized)

Slowly, slowly, catch a killer. Slowly. Slowly. Catch a killer.

She used to say it to me all the time. She’d creep up behind me at my desk and whisper it in my ear. She’d call me on the weekend and repeat the ominous mantra. Sometimes, she’d send the simple yet startling words in an e-mail.

Her name was Sharon Santus and she was the leader of the justice team at a newspaper in Virginia. She was compelled to repeat this hypnotic phrase because I had a glaring habit of rushing headlong into a murder investigation.

It was a personal flaw long before I went into the news business. When a person is killed and the slaying is shrouded in mystery, I can’t wait for the truth to be revealed. I want to know whodunit, how they dunit and why as soon as I can. I want to unravel it all like a knot no one else can manage.

Most people know that I’m short on patience. When the virtue was being doled out, I was prowling the fishing docks of Newport News, asking about a man I was sure had committed an atrocious act.

It was the nasty cane killing back in 2000. An elderly woman had been beaten with her walking stick and left on the floor of her apartment. I had been assigned to the case and within a few days, I was sure I knew the identity of the fiend. Absolutely sure of it. I wanted to prove it, alert the police, and write a long, breathless story for the reading public. I wanted to explain away all the elaborate, nebulous riddles that had so confounded the entire population.
“Slowly, slowly,” Sharon would tell me, catching me by the arm before I went bolting out the newsroom door for the fourth time in an hour. “Catch a killer.”
She was right, of course. One loquacious witness or a single, tasty clue does not mark the resolution of a crime. Tenacity is an admirable quality in a sleuth, but so is restraint. These days, I have a new boss with equal wisdom advising me against working in haste.
Yet, I don’t believe I’m alone in wanting to race to the facts sometimes. Most cops will tell you they’d like to have all the pieces gathered up and the big crime puzzle solved by the end of the day. Wrap it up, book the culprit and hand him over to the courts.

The average person reading the headlines over coffee tends to prefer a quick resolution, too. In national crime stories and local ones, they scan the pages or television channels in search of new developments, no matter how wee those developments might be.

Family members ache a little more each day that passes without answers. Killers have left their loved ones dead on city streets, in the woods or in shallow graves. Nobody can tell them why.

Since 1971 in Maine, nearly 100 murders have gone unsolved. One that haunts me is that of Dorothy Milliken, bludgeoned to death outside a Lisbon Street laundromat in 1976. Milliken’s daughter, 30 years older now, wonders every day if the killer will be found.

But not all of these haunting crimes are 30 years old. There was Butch Weed in 2003 in Wilton. Eighty-year-old Helen Caron, killed when an apartment building was burned down in Lewiston in 2001. Crystal Perry, stabbed in her Bridgton home in 1994. And of course, James Vining and John Graffam just a month ago. More killings, few explanations.

I’ve been particularly involved lately in the Vining and Graffam investigation. I speak to sad friends or family members and try to eke out clues. More than once, I’ve been convinced I was onto something. More than once, I’ve been disappointed with what I’d found. Because I was working with a sweaty desperation to grasp the answers that have eluded the sharpest minds in the state.

Unsolved murders haunt not only those directly involved with the deceased, they haunt entire communities. Somewhere among us walks a person with the derangement to take a life and the cunning to hide his or her sins.

Somewhere on the downtown streets, I might have handed a cigarette to the very hands that killed those two men and left their bodies out by the railroad tracks. You might have handed the killer change during a transaction at the bank.

I’d like to suggest that there is a way out of this for all of us. The killers who walk among us do not need to live with the white-knuckle burden of their crimes. Contact me and confess. Call and admit your crimes and you can be led smoothly to the fate you have wrought. No more living in fear of discovery, no more emotional crippling of your neighbors.

Slowly, slowly, catch a killer. It’s a fine sentiment for someone brooding over the complexity of a case. But there is an equally good catch phrase for those who have created all the pain and turmoil: “Confession is good for the soul.”

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