Category Archives: Mystery

The Celestial Salad Bar (Two)

Photo by Cats Coming on /

Albom Riff handed over the cash for the room at the Robin Hood and took his key. It was a real key, a brass key, attached to a yellow piece of plastic shaped like a diamond and with the room number 9 etched into it. “Thanks,” he said to the woman behind the counter, and to number 9 he went.

He sat on the edge of the bed and looked out the window at the cold, gunmetal, western town with its hints of beauty, isolation, mystery, loneliness. Loneliness. He was lonely. But no one knew it. He thought about Hollywood Helen on Wheels at the J-Bob’s restaurant and wondered if he should call her. He dug out the piece of paper with her number and looked at it. Maybe she could help him figure out why his driver’s license claims he’s a resident of Raton, New Mexico. How can that be? he wondered. “I’ve never been here in my whole entire life,” he whispered aloud to himself.

The room phone suddenly rang, and Albom nearly jumped through the ceiling. It was a clanging, obnoxious ring that broke the pure silence catastrophically. He went to pick up the receiver. “Hello?”

“Did you enjoy the salad bar, Mr. Riff?” The voice was deep and slow, like a dangerous cover up.

“Who is this?”

The line went dead. Albom hung the phone back up. He went to the window and peered out. There was a man standing on the edge of the parking lot. He wore a black jacket and sunglasses. He seemed to be staring right at him, Albom felt. He moved to the door and opened it. The mysterious man had disappeared.

 The phone rang again. Albom rushed to answer. “Hello!”

It was the man with the deep voice once again. “What was your favorite item on the salad bar, Mr. Riff?… The iceberg lettuce perhaps? Do you know what happens to icebergs, Mr. Riff?” He didn’t wait for a reply. “They fall apart when the heat is on.”

The line went dead once again.

Albom marched back to the J-Bob’s, a haunting howl from the bottom belly of the city followed him there. He found Hollywood Helen on Wheels at the salad bar, and she was just standing there still as stone and staring.

He took hold of her wrist, and she suddenly came out of whatever hypnotic state she was in and turned to him with a look of fear and surprise. “What are you doing?” Albom asked her.

“I was… I was looking at the salad bar.”


“It’s part of my job,” she answered. “I must make sure the items are well stocked and appear fresh. It’s very important work.”

“There’s something weird about this salad bar,” Albom said, and he pulled her over to an empty booth and they sat down. “What the hell is going on around here?”

Hollywood Helen on Wheels stared at him with a blank expression. “You just couldn’t wait to see me again, could you?” Then the stiffness of her face came undone and she smiled. “Do you want more salad bar?”

“No. I want to know if you’re fucking with me!”


Albom retrieved his wallet from his pants and pulled out his driver’s license. He slapped it down on the table before her. “Why does my driver’s license say I live here in this town?”

She picked it up and looked at it. Her eyes shifted to Albom for just a moment and then back to the license. “Wait. You live here? I thought you were from somewhere else. You sure did make it seem like you were from somewhere else.”

 “Somewhere else,” he mumbled.


“It’s a song… ‘Everyone I love lives somewhere else.’”

“You’re not making any sense.”

“And someone strange called me at my motel. Twice. And there was a man outside in the parking lot. I think someone’s watching me, following me.”

“Why would anyone do that?”

“I don’t know, but I really believe this all has to do with your god damn salad bar. What else do you know?”

“I don’t know anything. Maybe you’re just crazy. Hollywood Helen on Wheels got up out of the booth. “I have work to do,” she said, and she walked off.

Albom Riff leaned back in the booth for just a moment before his eyes were drawn back to the salad bar in the center of the restaurant. It appeared to glow. He heard Tibetan meditative music in his head. Then a voice repeated the word “Iceberg, iceberg, iceberg…”

Albom quickly got up and rushed over to the salad bar. It glowed delicious before him. He snatched up a white plate and began crazily filling it high with iceberg lettuce from the large clear plastic bowl set in a swamp of crushed ice.

Hollywood Helen on Wheels noticed him from afar and called out to him, “Hey! You have to pay for that.”

He swept an annoyed glance toward her. “Oh, I’ll pay for it. I’ll fucking pay for it!”

Heads turned in the restaurant as joyful cowboy music softly played overhead.

Albom topped his lettuce with croutons, sunflower seeds, bacon bits, some shredded cheese, black olives, pieces of hard-boiled egg. He ladled orange French dressing over the top of his little salad mountain and watched it run down the sides like lava flows down the side of a volcano. He set that plate aside and grabbed a clean one and began to fill that with other salad bar items: Tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, oiled mushrooms, a spiral pasta salad, pickled beets, banana peppers, cottage cheese, cling peaches, gelatin with grapes set inside that looked like monster eyeballs, and finally a clumpy potato salad.

He took both plates back to the empty booth and sat down. He waved a hand in the air to catch the attention of Hollywood Helen on Wheels. “Excuse me miss? Could I get some service over here?”

An exasperated Hollywood Helen on Wheels approached the table with attitude. “Just what the hell is your problem, mister?”

“I don’t have any silverware, or a napkin, or anything to drink.”

She glanced at the two heaping plates of salad bar food. “I sure hope you plan on eating all that. Be a god damn shame to waste all that. That’s enough to feed four people. You should be ashamed of yourself. Pure gluttony.”

Albom pointed at her. “Look, I’m telling you. There’s something about that god damn salad bar that isn’t right… And I’m looking into it. There’s also something not right about this whole town and why I’m here. And I’m looking into that, too.”

Hollywood Helen on Wheels scoffed with a chuckle. “What are you… A salad bar detective?”

Albom Riff laughed out loud. “That’s a good one, baby, but you’re not wrong. Now can I please get some silverware and a Coke.”


Tomah Graph


Censor me still-life
take my Tomah Graph
swimming in the Hollywood Holiday Inn pool
now drowning in a pool of my own
painful frustrations and jitters
uninvited guests in the gray of night
this brain hurts like cinema for Alex
have another stick of chewing gum
another stick of dynamite to ease the grief
you so gallantly feel at this moment
these white office lights bleaching me pale
invading my blood and neuropathic welly wells
the gondolas paddle through my veins of Venice
churning up all the nicotine clots and bad vibes
where is my slice of American apple pie
I must of dropped it in Vietnam
when the grenade went off and all was nonsense

Cradling three bags of light in my coat pockets
as I walked along
the Lake Marion Passage Trail some 30 years later
I noticed the sky was still the same deep blue
the leaves of the trees still fell in perfect rhythm
every year
the dissection of Autumn
Saroyan and Whitman staring down
Jack passed out in a beached aluminum fishing boat
the narrow, quiet roads lined with the dangling limbs of tall, skinny trees
the Spanish moss hanging there like the fallen locks of a stoned Medusa
the quiet so soothing, the calm so intoxicating, the wet so disheartening
but a woodsy wander it shall be
in the rural confines, gloriously gorgeous confines, of the southern Carolina place

Until… Put my fist through the timber lodge paneling
the boiling inside again
asking for it again
just asking for it again, the other side of the coin.

The Laguna Bungle (Session 5)

The Laguna Bungle. A highway through a desert is partially covered by sand. A woman in a blue dress stands in the middle of it.
Photo by The Lazy Artist Gallery on

The Desert Therapist

I was motoring toward a town called Feldspar, out there on the edge of the nothing land, that deep, crusted sandbox of California, the dim and salty place where the heat stirs like a devil and your own loneliness is echoed. I wasn’t too sure what was going on in the belfry lately, the bells were there and gently clanging, at times misfiring, must be my neurons or electrons or the emojicons in my brain. Regardless of what the science is, I’m never the same person all the time. I am liquid. I am fluid. I break and spill. I flow and damage. Other times I am as still as an unmuddied lake beneath an azure sky, brushstrokes against a canvas of lapis lazuli. It was always difficult to uncover my own thoughts, let alone decipher them.

Driving can be therapy. There’s something soothing about driving alone in the middle of nowhere. It’s akin to survival almost, because what would happen if the car broke down and I was miles from anything. What would happen to me? I would have to survive. That’s a sort of ridiculous notion considering all the eyes on us always — the cameras, the satellites, the snipers with their cell phones. It’s not the 1800s. Someone would find me sooner or later, that is, if I wanted to be found. Sometimes, I do not. Sometimes, I think it would be better to just sink down into the Earth and never return.

As I drove, I started thinking about astral projection and dreams and wondering if they were the same thing. I had a dream last night where I was playing volleyball with balloons, and I wasn’t very good at it. My strikes were continually misguided, and the other players were down on me, so down on me that it came to the point if the ball was coming toward me, they would yell for me to just get out of the way. I quit, walked away because I was purely fed up with people being down on me. I went off to some haunted house and looked out some windows at weird people looking in at me. It was unsettling. I woke up. The sheets were crumpled. Her scent was gone. I looked to my left. Her skin was gone. She was gone. Was it forever? I remembered I had a job to do. I had a case. I was hunting a wayward husband. But maybe she deserved it. Then again, maybe no one deserves it.

And then my cell phone rang. Carola Strawberry’s name illuminated.


“Mr. Smoke. It’s Carola Strawberry. How are you?”

“I’m fine. How can I help you Mrs. Strawberry?”

“Carola, please. For some reason being attached to that last name leaves a bad taste in my mouth.”

“Right. So, what can I do for you?”

“My husband is planning a weekend getaway to Palm Springs. Something about golfing or whatever again, but of course I don’t believe him. The only holes he’s really planning on dropping his balls into belong to someone who is not me. I’m talking about another woman if that wasn’t clear.

“It’s very clear.”

“I thought it might be a perfect opportunity to launch your investigation. I mean, it may all be just a smokescreen, but I thought it was important to let you know.”

“Of course. Do you know what country club he was planning on casting away his vows at?”

“That’s an odd way to put it.”

“I’m a natural when it comes to putting things in an odd way.”

“He prefers the Far Wind Resort.”

“Far Wind… Got it. Anything else I need to know?”

Carola Strawberry paused on the other end. Was she shattered or would she stand up on her own? I wondered. She cleared her raspy South American throat. “I know that all this will break my heart, Mr. Smoke, and I know it’s what I want you to do, but if you could, be easy on me with the details. He was still my husband, so of course, part of me wishes it to be untrue. Does any of that make sense?”

“It makes sense. I’ll do what I need to do, Mrs. Strawberry… Carola. I’ll be in touch.”

I ended the call and grabbed the steering wheel with two hands and just hung on as the machine burrowed its way toward the sunbaked playground of the rich and the weak and the broken-souled.   

As I looked out at that chalky chocolate expanse of place, I started to wonder if the world was just done with me from the very start. As one gets older, one has more to look back on. The messes start piling up. The regrets fill every vessel. The guilty things start stabbing your heart. Why do I feel so damaged? Why has the world sat on me so often? Why do dreams always die?

I don’t know why, no one answered. But what about the good things? Why don’t you ever think about the good things, John Smoke? she said. Who was she? My phantom love, that fallen angel with the open arms. Did I pass right through them?

I had to get my thoughts back upon the road. This isn’t about me right now. I turned on the radio and flew upon the miles that waited for me.


You can read the previous part of this story HERE.

The Laguna Bungle (Session 4)

The Laguna Bungle. A golden sunset punctures a deep blue sky over the ocean.

The Nomadic Mind

I’m not sure if the woman in the pink bathrobe had just hired me to kill her husband, but it sure felt that way. And if that was the case of the case, she was getting it for a bargain. But there was no way in hell I was killing her cheating husband for 1,000 clams. I’m not in the business to kill, and I never have been, and maybe never will be. But I suppose I should let it be known that if I had to kill someone, I would. If it came right down to it? Absolutely. I pack a Walther PPK because it’s a messy world out there and sometimes you have to protect yourself, stand up for yourself no matter what, even if that means plugging a guy, or girl, who are ready and all too willing to plug you. That’s how I feel about it. You can’t just let the world cross the line and have its way with you whenever it wants.

My thoughts drift like the sands of the Sahara. My mind is nomadic, and so here I go and go again.

I always find it strange that people are born into this world completely innocent and then they get folded into it with a prodding paddle of good and evil, and it makes them hard as stone, bad-hearted or sad or full of pain for some reason or another. I don’t get why we allow that, as a society, as so-called human beings. Why do we take this simple, fresh from the womb innocence and brand it with the burning hurt of this planet just to make more hurt. Right now, it seems the whole world is so damn backward that people are digging the pain, they’re digging the hurt, they’re digging the hate. The prayer warriors out there are cheering for demons. The leaders are ripe for gleefully tossing bombs. Their goals are suffering and destruction. I just don’t get it. Sometimes I just want off this watery marble. I want to be like Captain Kirk and transport myself somewhere else, somewhere else I can breathe.

Some people would argue and say that none of us are born innocent. They say we’re all born with sin already in us and the only way to get past that is to take a dip in a baptismal bath at the church, like the one of my youthful days, the one on Erie Avenue in my hometown by the sea in a place called Ohio. Well, it wasn’t really a sea, it was a lake. A big lake. A big, cold lake. But it looked like some magical, mystical far-off sea to me. Like the Caspian or something like that.

That’s where they dipped me in, the holy water font in the church, not in the lake, although that may have been better, more real, a far more shocking electrocution of the nerves, an authentic awakening of the newly born spirit. That house of the universal god blessed my throat and listened to my sins, too. And now I’m no better than most coming out on the other end of that long ago gig. Now I carry a gun and my nerves are shot. I get lonely, too, but then sometimes loneliness tastes good and I revel in it. There’s something about loneliness that drives a man’s creativity as well as wanton self-destruction. All my ex-girlfriends think I’m crazy. That’s why they’re exes. Maybe I am crazy, but you sort of have to be in this world and with what I do. I’m okay with my shader pale of madness as I like to call it. It’s like loneliness that you just can’t hold in anymore.

Church. What a bizarre place. So ornate, so golden, so solemnly colorful as the people look up and worship some invisible being or idea. I always liked the smell of the incense burning away in the swinging thurible, always in perfect rhythm to the indecipherable chant of the white-robed holy one directing the show. That exotic scent of the incense mingled with the worshippers, their perfume and the aftershave and the afterglow of rapid morning sex of sinful lovers in heat. I close my eyes and just listen and breathe it all in.

As I drove north on the 1, the PCH, I looked to my left and saw the ocean spread out like a big ruffled blue blanket. To my right it was clusters of buildings, rectangular plug-ins with windows and porches and verandas and parking lots and yards, all of the works of the inhabitants carved into the orange and green and asphalt gray and ancient white and yellow adobe, everyone gathered for a game of real life right there at the edge of the teetering coast.

Everyone is living on top of each other here. I live on top of others in a place called Huntington Beach. It’s crowded. My apartment is small, but it works. It has big windows at least, but the rent kills. It’s hard to find a place to park. I don’t have a bedroom because it’s a studio, so the rumpled bed is in the main living space. So is the refrigerator because the kitchen is too small. I don’t have a stove, only a two-burner hotplate. I eat out a lot which is fine because there are so many restaurants pressing in on me, just like everything else. It all presses in, there’s no room, it’s jam packed here. Every space flows into the next. There are no borders here.

But I can walk to the beach, and looking out at the endless ocean gives me a sense of release, and relief. I’m on the third floor and I have a small balcony so I can sit outside and drink coffee or read a book and look out upon the hive of madmen. I can listen to all my neighbors screw each other, too. No one is ever quiet about it. Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a dirty movie but I’m always the guy on the sidelines just watching and sweating, craning my neck trying to focus in on the penetration and I’m just puzzled as to how they get themselves in such positions. I can also hear the punches crushing faces and the screams and the cops knocking on doors.

Did I mention that the air all around me smells like the ocean and exhaust. It’s weird, but I kind of like it. It first hits you out around Indio when you come in from the east. It smells different than anywhere else I’ve ever been — this carnivorous California. These endless rows of mad life.

The woman in the pink bathrobe who hired me to throw surveillance on her cheating husband has a strange name. Carola Strawberry. That’s what she told me and that’s how I got her saved in my phone now. Carola Strawberry. Before I left her house, I made fun of her name because she made fun of mine — John Smoke. She thought it was made up, so I told her I thought her name was made up. Then she told me her husband’s name and I just about lost it — Garola Strawberry. “Granola?” I asked her.

She repeated it, slower so that I could understand her because she had a strange accent, like something out of South America. I got my money and told her I’d follow up in a couple of days after she emailed me some more info and logistics. I was heading home to get cleaned up before I headed out to the desert for a night or two just to get crazy lonely and moon high and wild like a wanderer. I needed time to think about everything. I needed time to consider my future in this world.


The Laguna Bungle (Session 3)

sophisticated woman talking to a man inside an office
Photo by cottonbro on

An Unfortunate Meeting

My head was just totally empty for a moment while I stood there by that front door in this void of time stands still, Time Stand Still, (no S) that Rush song from eons ago playing in my head, and the sound of Jennifer Dillinger’s voice caa-kawing like an aggravated crow every time I played one of their CDs in my car. She was a girlfriend. An ex-girlfriend. She was a fox but hated Rush. I think she fell off a cliff and died. Somewhere in Mexico. I sort of remember hearing something about that, but I was usually high back in those days and so I had the attention span of a Tasmanian devil. I suppose it’s somewhere there in my memory banks all lost in the dust. All I know is she never got back to me… About anything. So, I moved on.

I rang the doorbell again, but was I really expecting a dead woman to answer? My thoughts had gotten ahead of me once again because the door slowly opened and in the cracked opening to this other dimension, I saw half an underbaked woman’s face look out at me. “Yes. What is it you want?” she said.

“I’m very sorry to bother you, mam. But I believe I saw someone being strangled out on the veranda and I was just checking to see if everything was all right in there.”

She opened the door wider. She was wearing the pink bathrobe and clutched it closed with a hand. She was the one for sure. But she seemed very much alive to me. There weren’t even any marks around her throat. “I’m afraid I don’t understand. Are you a police officer?”

I retrieved my identification. “I’m a private detective.”

She looked at the ID and then back up at me. “John Smoke? What kind of name is John Smoke? That seems made up.”

“It’s not made up,” I told her.

“But I still don’t understand. I haven’t called for any private detective… And as far as someone being strangled. I’m entirely baffled. No one was being strangled… Not for real, I assure you.”

“Not for real?”

“My husband and I are in show business, and we were merely rehearsing a scene from a movie we’re trying to get off the ground. That must have been what you saw. But why were you looking in the first place?”

“I like birds. I’m a bird watcher. The sights of my binoculars fell upon your veranda while I was doing some of my watching. I saw someone being strangled. I wanted to investigate.”

I’m a very convincing liar.

She looked me up and down like I was crazy. She was a middle-aged woman obviously carved up and pieced back together by an expensive plastic surgeon. She was tying to turn back time, but she should know that’s a losing battle… For anyone. I tried to build a time machine once but failed miserably. I never even knew where to start. And I don’t understand why people get plastic surgery in the first place. It makes them look worse. Fake. Manufactured. Desperate. How do they not see how unattractive they are? The woman before me was a poorly sculpted trainwreck, puffy and taut. She paid good money to look like this, I had to wonder.

“I’m not sure I believe you,” she said. “You don’t look like the birdwatching type.”

“But I am.”

“Really?” She looked past me and out to the yard. “Then what kind of bird is that sitting atop that bush over there?”

I turned to look. “That’s an oak titmouse.”

“Are you making that up as well?”

“No. I take birds very seriously.”

Her stance relaxed and she smiled as best she could with that jacked up face. “Well, all right then,” she said. “Would you like to come in? I may have need of your professional services after all. That is, if you truly are a real detective.”

“You mean a case?”

“Possibly. But we need to talk before my husband returns. This concerns him.”

The house was just as I expected. Large, showy, a blend of light and dark, modern yet strangely cozy. There were lots of big windows with views of the ocean. There was a lot of fancy furniture neatly aligned and looking as if it had never been touched by human hands or asses. She briskly strolled ahead of me across shiny marble floors toward an open kitchen with a long island and a row of perfectly placed stools. She was dwarfed by the sheer expanse of it.

“Please have a seat wherever you like. I’ll bring us some drinks. Do you drink, Mr. Smoke?”

I took a seat in a wide, comfortable chair and glanced out the cathedral wall of windows. “I’ll drink anything,” I answered her. I could hear ice being dropped in glasses and the sound of two rough pours. “You have an amazing view here.”

She came to where I was sitting and handed me a heavy glass of rusted amber liquid. “It’s a very pleasant view,” she agreed. “It’s a big part of the reason we bought this particular property. I hope you like Scotch. It was very expensive. All the way from Scotland that bottle came.” She held up her glass in a gesture of cheers and smiled before taking a seat in a long leather couch across from me. A meticulously kept glass table with a bright green plant in the middle of it sat between us.

“Would you drink poison?” she asked after squirming her ass into a comfortable position.


“You had said you’d drink anything.”

“I meant anything that doesn’t kill you.”

She laughed at that. “Wouldn’t you consider what’s in your glass right now to be poison? What is it Jack Torrance says… White man’s burden.”

I looked at the Scotch and then took a big gulp. “Depends on how much you let it get to you.” I polished off my drink and set the empty glass down on the table. “I like that you have an appreciation for good movies.”

“I’ve always found The Shining to be one of the most spinetingling cinematic escapades of all time.”

“Right. Now, what about this case?”

She rolled her eyes toward the ceiling and sighed. “I believe my husband is having an affair behind my back. I need to find out for sure. Is that something you do?”

“Sure,” I answered with confidence. “Simple surveillance is definitely in my wheelhouse.”

“Good,” she answered. “It’s not that I really care if he’s screwing someone else, I just don’t want to be made to look like a fool. And I want the end result to be a clean divorce that favors me. I’m the victim of bad love here, and he should pay for that. Does that make sense?”


“When can you start, Mr. Smoke?”

“I usually don’t start until I secure a retainer fee. A thousand up front… And I’ll need any pertinent info you can give me.”

“I’ll pay you whatever you want as long as I get results.”

“You’ll get results. Any suspects?”

“That floozy assistant of his at the production company he runs… Misty something or another. But my husband runs around with his pants down around his ankles half the time, so, I’m sure there are more.” She got up and went to stand against the high windows looking out onto the ocean. She spoke with her back to me, but I could tell she was pressing her intelligent breasts against the glass. “And if he happens to die during your investigation, Mr. Smoke. It wouldn’t hurt my feelings one bit.”