You Can’t Go Home Again

Either Kenny or Maud had already brewed a fresh pot of coffee. Sam grabbed a mug off the lattice of wooden knobs protruding from the wall above the sink. She filled it to nearly overflowing with the essential onyx liquid. She snatched a stroopwafel from the package and headed for the sofa beckoning her to the other end of the room. She set her cup on the end table and fell into it the over-sized cushions. 

Prior to embarking on her trip, she arranged for an international phone plan which afforded her only 30 minutes of talk time each day. She had to call Kendra, apparently, but she would need to throttle Kendra’s desire to chat for hours as they had done on so many occasions in the window seat of their apartment. 

Sam shifted her focus to the bustle of everyday life just beyond floor-to-ceiling window that bookended the massive space. In her peripheral vision, she monitored steam escaping the small opening at the far edge of her mug she had failed to eclipse with the gooey caramel cookie. Smokey tendrils danced in the autumn sun flooding the room. Suddenly, the realization of fleeting nirvana came to her. This city, these people, this moment—bliss. She savored it gratefully. She never wanted to go home.  

She swung her legs up onto the sofa. The path from her heels to her ass was a caret or lazy capital V, depending on the vantage point. She leaned forward resting an elbow on the broad arm of the sofa. She gazed out the window for a beat. As she reached for her coffee, a resigned frown formed on her face at the thought of Kendra crashing through her utopian moment. 

Sam lifted the nearly melted stroopwafel and took a bite. A stubborn gossamer strand of caramel refused to let go as she pulled it away from her mouth. When it finally broke loose, it landed on her chin, neck, and the drawstring of her hoodie. She quickly twirled it onto her index finger and sucked it off.

Excerpt from All or Nothing Girl, the forthcoming novella from Blake Charles Donley

Another One Bites the Dust

Kenny, for his part, was mostly a stand-and-play musician. There was little pretense, if any, in his performance. He was a rock ‘n’ roll disciple testifying from the black triangular dais as fervently as anyone Sam had ever seen. The gospel of bluesy rock & roll he preached into the microphone had entranced not only Sam, but the entire audience. The man, the singer, had soul, and he was bearing it for the entire congregation that showed up for this late-night mass.

Kenny’s big blue boot was deliberately stomping out a rhythm to the Black Crowe’s haunted ballad “She Talks to Angels”. Apropos of the song, the first verse didn’t feel so much sung as torn from somewhere deep inside the big guy’s spirit. Sam, Sid, and the locals who’d packed the room looked as though they’d been lulled into a state of suspended animation as Kenny alternately howled and scowled through the verses. To a neutral presence, the scene would’ve had the feel of an ironic vignette from a DC Comic’s strip where The Flash was moving so much faster than everyone else that he looked to be operating in slow motion amid a field of statues.

Excerpt from All or Nothing Girl, the forthcoming novella from Blake Charles Donley

I Strike the Lightening You Clap the Thunder

Sam was standing on a stage in the largest record shop in Amsterdam gazing out at a packed house. Hundreds of live music fans, some sitting, some standing, were gazing back in utter silence. She debated whether to regale them with her Samantha Fox intro, but she had no way of gauging how many of them were familiar with ‘80s pin-up girl gone mega pop star. She also had no clue as to how many of them spoke fluent English or had a sense of humor or both. Her stock-in-trade intro seemed like a risky proposition. That said, every risk she had taken lately had paid off, in spades.

Unbeknownst to her at that moment of inner debate, a much more innocuous maneuver would prove to be the riskiest of all.

Max stepped onto the stage to introduce Sam. As he began, Sam noticed that every monitor in the entire record store flickered, went dark, and then began playing the video of her and Sid singing “Black” back in the Minneapolis record store. The moment was equal parts shocking and exhilarating. Seeing her rock star persona gyrating and wailing on a half-dozen LCD monitors imbued her with all the confidence in the world.

As Max was wrapping up his overly magnanimous remarks, Sam perused the small sheet of paper upon which she had scratched out her set list. Her lead-off tune was the slow but mighty Joan Baez staple, “Prison Trilogy (Billy Rose)”. Max was nearly finished, as Sam positioned the microphone stand in just the right spot. She proceeded to affix the set list to it with a small piece of masking tape she had grabbed from Kenny, who had seemingly endless rolls and varieties of tape in his bag. Pulling over a stool that was at the corner of the stage, she sat down and flung her guitar strap over her shoulder.

The last thing Sam did before Max motioned to her and walked off stage, was to lift her right leg and rest the heel of her boot behind the bottom rung of the stool. As the audience dutifully applauded in anticipation of her first song, Sam felt the distinct yet terrifying sensation of a seam ripping and her tight leather pants relaxing considerably. Shortly after, she felt the cool vinyl upholstery of the stool in direct contact with her bare ass. Her wardrobe had betrayed her, malfunctioned spectacularly, in fact.

Excerpt from All or Nothing Girl, the forthcoming novella from Blake Charles Donley

A Kind of Magic

“What’s the story with the piano benches?” Sam asked. 

“Ha! They are from the shows Tom Waits did at the Royal Theatre Carré in November of 2004. I am his biggest fan, and the proprietor of the theatre is a good friend. When I heard Tom was coming to Amsterdam, I asked if I could buy four identical piano benches and have them placed at the piano on stage for his three shows plus his rehearsal.  My friend agreed. Those piano benches were all used by Mr. Waits.” 

“They are his prized possessions,” Luuk added with a smile. 

Max slapped Luuk’s knee. 

Sid, Sam, and Kenny stood there in various degrees of shock, awe, and reverence. 

“Wow! That’s a helluva story,” Sid finally said. 

Max and Luuk just smiled. 

“He wrote songs about your city, you know? ‘9th and Hennepin’, ‘Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis’, He drew great inspiration from there.” 

Sam didn’t know that, but she nodded along with everyone else. 

“Aren’t you worried they’ll get ruined?” Sam asked with a concerned expression on her face. 

“What is ruined?” Max pontificated, “I think putting them behind a glass enclosure, or roping them off from anything other than looking, and oohing, and aahing—that would ruin them.” 

Sam looked quizzically at him. 

“I love telling the story of the benches, especially to people who’ve sat on them, especially to the ones who know of Tom Waits. I’ve savored thousands of reactions over the years. Some people are amused. Some people are amazed. Some are ecstatic. It’s the reactions—they are the joy of having these benches, not the benches themselves. So, I leave them for people to sit on, enjoy some music, and make a really cool memory.” 

Sam smiled and thought, That’s perfect…

Excerpt from All or Nothing Girl, the forthcoming novella from Blake Charles Donley

Altitude Adjustment

“Thank you, thank you,” Max repeated as he continued to shake her hand, “Now sit everyone, let’s have some food and drink!” he motioned to the open seats at the table. Max was clearly a native, but his accented English was pretty damn impeccable, Sam thought. 

Sam eyed the table with wary enthusiasm. The surroundings for their little lunch were luxuriant by her standards. There were smartly dressed Mokummers seated at the other tables drinking sophisticated wines and beers. The corner café across the street from which the waiters and waitresses darted like ants looked sanguine amid the drab shops that flanked it on either side. They’d be sitting near the abutment of a bridge under which boats meandered and over which bicycles whizzed. The table sat betwixt another table and a scrappy elm tree, which had burst through the cobblestone path.  

There was just one tiny issue that tugged at Sam—the table seemed perilously close the edge of the canal. If one was to shift his (or her) chair a bit too far the wrong way, there was no barrier whatsoever preventing him (or her) from plunging into the water. She noticed that Max was sitting on the canal side, she vowed to sit next to him, one chair removed from the canal. 

But before she could commandeer her preferred chair, Sid pulled out the chair across from Max and motioned with his hand, “The lady gets the view.” 

She smiled nervously at him and sat down. 

All the men nodded in approval. 

She briefly peered over the edge at a boat moored below them, then quickly fixed her eyes on Max, who was directly across from her. He’probably and expert at not falling into canals, she thought. 

Excerpt from All or Nothing Girl, the forthcoming novella from Blake Charles Donley


Song 2

The cement floor was not really the color of any cement she’d ever seen. It looked like a vat of maple syrup had been dumped onto the concrete and allowed to harden to shellac. It gleamed under the soft glow of gigantic light fixtures that dangled from cords so skinny they look like they’d snap any second. A pair of fans with massive wooden blades whooshed overhead. Black piping made up the framing of everything from the shelves on the wall, to the retail displays, to the record bins. Behind an endless counter wrapped is brushed aluminum, a pair of hip-looking twenty-something pixies were chatting about something. There were numerous glass display cases set into the face of the counter offering everything from funky jewelry, to crazy stickers, to glass pot pipes. 

Is it legal for them to sell those here? Sam wondered.  

Throughout the space, there were artifacts like lava lamps, old concert posters, and vintage stereo gear—mostly headphones and boomboxes—scattered about. But the pièce de ré·sis·tance was easily a stack of silver stereo components that seemed to be bolstering half the rear wall. Sam counted them—nine components in the stack plus a turntable on either side. Each component and turntable rested on its own shelf thus making the entire rig at least eight feet high. Two sets of identical speakers, also on their own shelves, were situated vertically on either side of the turntables. 

Above the massive reel-to-reel player, which crowned the stack, was a brilliant neon sign that read: “Pioneer Stereo”. Amazingly, the entire stack was lit up with meters bouncing to the song currently playing on the PA system. The whole thing looked like a satellite with the dueling stacked speakers acting as the solar panels attached to the big main silver unit by the turntables on either side. It was a spectacle to behold, it was a delight to hear. 

Excerpt from All or Nothing Girl, the forthcoming novella from Blake Charles Donley

You’re a Friend of Mine

Brandon, in his tighty whities, and I just sat and watched as Leo scrubbed in a fury. He never once looked at us or acknowledged our efforts—good or bad. He would never discover that the ceiling was wiped clean of green paint. He would go on thinking that the damage was limited to the carpet. That Brandon not only masterminded the initial disaster recovery plan, managed to remove all traces of green from the ceiling, and sacrificed himself to deliver the news, was indicative of the man he would become: a most useful man. He would be useful in many—at times unimaginable—ways over the course of our brotherhood. And he would surpass Leo and me in handy-mandedness, gregarious-naturedness, and big-heartedness. He would be the go-to guy for throngs of others who were drawn into his irresistible orbit—Leo and I included.

Excerpt from Finding Fidelity, the forthcoming novel from Blake Charles Donley

Santa Claus Is Coming to Town

As I approached the Goodwill in Plymouth, a flamboyant tempera mural was chalked up on the glass facade. It featured a Christmas tree with presents tucked underneath. According to the painted banner winding across the glass panel, my gift on this day was to be the “Christmas in July Sale!” Even more so than used car lots, pool and spa superstores, and shady characters hocking mattresses from the back of semi trailers, thrift stores took advantage of any opportunity to have a sale. This made complete fiscal sense when your inventory was essentially free.

As I entered, I was greeted by Carl, who was wearing a shabby looking Santa hat.
“Merry Christmas!” He barked as I walked toward the pile of blue shopping baskets.
“Merry Christmas,” I halfheartedly echoed, as I smirked at him dubiously.

Right down to his name, Carl bore an eerie resemblance to every junior high shop teacher ever. He wore black horn-rimmed glasses, which marvelously accented his crew cut gray hair. He was short, slim, and wiry. He wore sensible shoes and seemed like a sensible fella. His sole concession to an alter ego rock-star persona, was the gray soul patch nestled just below his lower lip. I couldn’t picture him without it, however.

Any time I ended up at his register, he’d comment on each record I’d chosen.
“That’s a good one!”
“I don’t know this one?”
“Man, this one brings back memories!”

These were but a few of his stock assessments. He especially loved anything from the late ’50s and early ’60s. I’m pretty sure he knew both the Everly and Righteous brothers personally. From what I had gathered, he wanted to know Nancy Sinatra biblically. He’d seen Elvis play Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor Michigan at the show that would ultimately end up on the Moody Blue album. But his favorite artist of all time was easily Roy Orbison. He knew everything there was to know about the man—he was an Orbison savant.

I’d never entertained the prospect of hanging out with the various characters who worked the thrift store circuit. Most were quirky, strange, or just flat out freaks. They were the carnies of retail. But it seemed like talking Orbison with Carl over a few beers at the lackluster sports bar across the street might be a smashing way to kill a weekend afternoon.

Excerpt from Finding Fidelity, the forthcoming novel from Blake Charles Donley


The console and stereo was positioned along the rear wall of the cork wallpapered family room. It faced the back of the endless brown davenport, leaving just enough room for single-file passage between them. My father had deposited the records along the back side of the davenport. As he eased himself onto the ground with a large crate between his legs, I dropped what I was doing and sat next to him.

He flipped past dozens of record jackets and stopped at one with a man sticking his thumb up. The man’s thumb was painted like an American flag. I recall being struck by this now-indelible image. My father uttered some profane exclamation of glee and quickly unsleeved the record to examine it. After a minute of holding it at various angles and blowing on it a few times, he lifted the Plexiglass cover of his turntable and put the record on post in the center. As he flipped a number of switches on the various brushed aluminum components, a calm voice pierced the silence…”A long, long time ago…”. As my dad leaned against the back of the davenport, he closed his eyes and began to sing along. I quickly moved closer and gazed at him as he sang. This moment seemed to last forever. As an eight-year-old, nine minutes and twenty-four seconds was an eternity.

That song that ended my innocent enthusiasm for nursery rhymes, Sesame Street anthems, and the seminal children’s feel-good record: Free to Be You and Me, the song that ushered me into the great wide world of adult music, the song that popped my aural cherry was Don McLean’s magnum opus: “American Pie”.  I would be the song that altered the course of my life.

But for me, sitting next to my father hearing it for the first time, this would not be the day the music died. Paradoxically, it would be the day my melodic odyssey was born. From this day forward, songs would become an acoustic chronicle of my earthly adventure.  A deeper appreciation of music would be the impetus for a pursuit that would nearly bankrupt me, a pastime that would often allay the disquiet of my journey, and a passion that would truly save my mortal soul. Throughout the remainder of my days, music would be that one true friend—proving its fidelity time after time.

Excerpt from Finding Fidelity, the forthcoming novel from Blake Charles Donley

Diamonds and Rust

I often found myself amid things that people had used up and among used up people’s things. Regardless of which thrift store I approached, there was a noticeable dinge that marred nearly everything from the parking lot to the display racks to the merchandise. Other than the sporadic “new old stock” item still unopened from its heyday in some more quaint and benevolent version of the modern day big-box store, most items had been reduced to ragged castoffs. There was the bin of random cords: AC adapters with nothing to power, various non-standard lengths of coaxial cable bound with masking tape, and a dozen nearly obsolete 24-pin adapters of every conceivable configuration. There was the dusty catch-all shelf where every unpaired, mismatched, and friendless dumbbell, ankle weight, and sauna suit—top or bottom, never both—was exiled. Then there were the shelves of occasionally warped, sometimes moldy, but always dusty LPs—the flame to my moth.

I could easily overlook all of the somewhat-functional electronics, half-used personal care products, and chipped brick-a-brack, because there were records. And regardless of the condition of the outer jacket and inner sleeve, vinyl records were nearly indestructible. You could rescue a vinyl record just like you could rescue a stray dog: with a bath (a dip in the SpinClean MKII), a trim (removing any gluey price stickers), some medication (a Windex wiped down to remove any mold) and a bit of love (repairing split seams and new protective sleeves).

Despite the general air of dinginess and aroma of discarded fabric—half of any thrift store inventory, thus I assume half of all donations, was clothing—there was something utterly soothing about stuff that used to clutter the lives of others; stuff that was pre-loved. Unlike the blight of cheaply made $1 goods that greets shoppers at many major retailers, the thrift store contained mainly durable goods. No item that had outlived its previous caretaker could be considered anything less. As for the items that were orphaned prematurely, at least they had survived the “burn in” period.

Some abandoned stock was special, however. It came from a different era; a time when craftsmanship was the rule not the exception. As I mingled around late ’70s silver era HiFi components, dumbbells made of actual iron, and vintage tools that had put in a lifetime or three of hard labor, I was awash in reverence. People used to care about the stuff they made and made stuff people cared about. Today, everything is made to be discarded within the season. This presents a most arduous paradox as there is greater-than-ever penchant for weathered, worn, and rustic objects, yet nothing is engineered to last long enough to accumulate authentic wear and tear.  A bizarre outcome of this disposable culture is the manufacturing of items that appear aged but are in fact brand new. Faux patina, distressed finishes, and counterfeit rust are the new tricks of the trade. Graceful deterioration is as obsolete as durability itself. Only at the thrift store can you find sturdy old things.

There is a clipboard that hangs on a bent nail in my basement. The metal clip at the top is rusted and creaks when depressed. The board itself is quarter-inch-thick wood that had been stained and varnished. It had clearly served outdoors in a previous lifetime. In my mind, it hung on a nail on the inside of a barn door. It held the list of chores, which marshaled a brood of farm kids through their daily responsibilities. Early each morning, over a cup of steaming coffee, a farmer sat at a small wooden table scratching out the day’s toils on a sheet of paper torn from a notebook. Just before he suited up to face the frosty morning air, he grabbed the list. As he entered the barn, he grabbed the clipboard with one calloused meaty hand and depressed the clip with the opposite palm—up went the list. The farmer then disappeared into the barn.

Thirty minutes later, the first of his six children stumbled toward the barn to peer up at the list with bleary eyes. Each drowsy cherub scanned the list for his name. Once he found it and memorized his marching orders, he hung the clipboard back on the nail and stumbled into the barn. This ritual was repeated five additional times each day, hundreds of times each month, thousands of times a year, for years. The farm prospered, the children grew, and the clipboard endured. Depending on the season, the clipboard would inevitably be dropped onto the frozen, muddy, or parched earth. Depending on the prevailing mood, the clipboard would be hung carefully, clumsily, or sternly back on the nail. Depending on the weather, the clipboard would be subject to persistent dampness, blinding sun, and every temperature from below zero thru beyond oppressive. And yet it endured—reliable as the land itself.

The only remnant of the original finish remained on the middle of the board where a sheet of notebook paper barely shielded it from the elements. It was a shadowy reminder of a previous lifetime and the ghosts that once inhabited it. This was the best thing about my clipboard: it bore the scars of real life, and it was built of memories as much as wood and metal. As it hung in my basement next to my desk reminding me to gather paperwork for Tax Day, to pick up my dry cleaning, or what to purchase my kids for Christmas, it gathered only dust and new memories.

In thrift store after thrift store, day after day, I explored these neo-ancient artifacts. Often times, just the approach from the parking lot elevated my mood. The anticipation of discovery was a sublime agitation. Once inside these labyrinths lousy with the past, every new aisle was rife with possibility. All of the shelves were brimming wondrous congestion. Each garish fossil like an orphaned pet looking for a home…again. At any given moment, I could uncover an impossible treasure or something magnificent from the past. One day it was the fantastic clipboard that surely came from a farm. The next day it might be a wicked lava lamp with neon orange goo inside. On my best days, it was an armload of sweet vinyl records that I would save and then savor.

This confluence of mystery and possibility was unique to thrift stores with their ever-churning stock of discarded goods. Thanks to my father, I was a jaded veteran of second-hand venues. Flea markets and swap meets tended to be divided evenly between new shiny tchotchkes, dubious collectibles and gimmicks like custom-made wood signs, hand-made jewelry, and artisanal bread spreads. Antique stores were bloated with haughty goods that carried presumptuous price tags. Online auction sites were devoid of the charm and visceral experience of ogling and fondling inanimate objects—you were resigned to window shopping in the most virtual sense. I had experienced them all and found that only the lowly thrift store presented the diligent scavenger with endless opportunity.

Excerpt from Finding Fidelity, the forthcoming novel from Blake Charles Donley