Category Archives: Journal

Paris through the Window in Three Variations…

A Drabble is a vignette of precisely 100 words in length and the term—described as a word game for 2 to 4 players wherein the first player to write a novel is the winner—was coined in Monty Python’s Big Red Book, first published in 1971.

Since this word game in print isn’t practical to play in the real world within a short period of time, it was determined that a Drabble would have to be a very short novel indeed, in order to play the game in real time. And, it was furthermore agreed that a hundred words would suffice; and that the first rule of writing a Drabble is adhering to the precise word-count of a hundred.

Hyphenated-words-are-argued-about—but not by me, so have at it—with fifteen additional words permitted for a title.

Now, in my daily practice of writing a single page of concise compositions of polished prose using exactly 336 words, I’m accustomed to working within a structure of limitation when I write an essay or a piece of fiction or satire.

However, my practice also includes building on a 336-word piece by writing additional pages, if necessary. Some of my pieces are complete as one-off single-page pieces, but some are not. And all of my pieces can be expanded if I wish—with the highest page limit set at six pages.

Writing a Drabble is a particular kind of challenge for me because it forces me to be even more concise and specific with my writing and requires a very precise collaboration with my internal editor.

The most satisfiying writing exercise I play with is crafting a Drabble inspired by a work of art.

And my favorite is the following piece of short fiction I wrote, inspired by Marc Chagall’s 1913 painting, Paris par la fenêtre, and published here in three variations revised three times over six years.

I’m offering these variations as examples of different ways to tell the same story with slightly and vastly different outcomes and moods.

1.

Paris Through The Window (2012)

by Richard La Rosa

The room is littered with hundreds of paintings yet one instantly catches my eye—Chagall’s, Paris Through The Window.

My brother knew it was my favorite (as I had given it to him fifty years ago). Yes, it’s the original, created with an extraordinary oil paint made by a Russian gypsy in 1909. The one in the Guggenheim is a fake.

Placing my hands on the painting, I concentrate as only my brother the art forger and I, the art thief, know how.

The room dissolves as I step into the Paris of 1913—and the past becomes my present.

2.

Paris Through The Window (2015)

by Richard La Rosa

The flat is cluttered with a hundred paintings, but one against the wall catches my attention: Marc Chagall’s, Paris Through The Window.

It’s the original, created with an extraordinary oil paint made in 1909 by a Russian gypsy. The painting in the Guggenheim is a fake—expertly copied by my brother, using the paints that our great-grandfather made a century ago.

Placing my hands on the painting, I concentrate as only my brother the art forger and I, the art thief, know how.

The room dissolves and I step into the Paris of 1913 just before the world ends.

3.

Paris Through The Window (2017)

by Richard La Rosa

I stride over to a painting by Marc Chagall hanging over a bricked-up window inside a Paris flat that is filled with a hundred masterpieces acquired over a hundred years.

A copy of the divine work of Cubism—created with oil paints made in 1909 by an artist whose genetic imprint is stamped in my own art-thief eyes—was made by my deceased art-forger brother and switched, like all the others, for the original.

Closing my eyes, I reach out to the painting, and I’m a hundred years in the past where my brother takes my hand.

***

Author’s Note:

This piece is precisely 672 words in length (2×336) and I expect I will likely expand it with an additional 336 words (probably on the subject of Chagall’s painting and some of the themes that inspired it—as well as the connection those themes have to my story). ~R.L.R.

Charlie Chaplin Crashes My Interview With Pola Negri

I’m at the café with Pola Negri, the femme fatale from the Kingdom of Poland who appeared in German films such as Die Augen der Mumie (1918) and Mad Love (1921) before she made her first Hollywood film in 1922. Charlie Chaplin joins us at the table.

“I met Charlie at the Palais Heinroth,” Pola tells me.

I know the place well as it’s the swankiest hot spot in Berlin. Pola says that Charlie entered unrecognized, conspicuously underdressed among all the swells in evening dress.

Charlie remembers it like this:

“I was guided by the Palais Heinroth manager to a table located at the most obscure part of the room and I’m surprised by a slap on the back and a voice calling out my name.”

It’s Al Kaufman of the Lansky Corporation.

“Come over to our table,” says the manager of the Famous Players studio in Berlin. “Pola Negri wants to meet you.”

Negri laughs at the memory.

“A little man with a sad sensitive face fought his way up to our table. Were it not for his odd appearance, so dapper and so pathetic. He had such a strange physiognomy, with tiny feet and an enormous head that made him seem top-heavy. The only physically attractive thing about him were his hands, which were never without a cigarette.”

“Pola was so beautiful,” Charlie remembers. “Beautiful jet-black hair, white, even teeth and wonderful coloring. She was the centre of attraction.”

The silent screen star blushes.

“What a voice she has,” he says, traveling back in time to the moment. “Her mouth speaks so prettily the German language. Her voice has a soft, mellow quality, with charming inflections. Offered a drink, she clinks my glass and offers her only English words, ‘Jazz boy, Charlie.’”

On Christmas Eve of 1922, Charlie gave Pola a large diamond that he intended to set within an engagement ring. However, in March, he announced to the papers he was too poor to marry her and she ended their engagement.

Stan Laurel Crashes My Interview With Charlie Chaplin

I’m in a pub with Charlie Chaplin and he’s regaling me with one version of his history. He says he was born into poverty amid the squalor of South London on 16 April 1889—the same year that the Moulin Rouge opened in Paris. Charlie’s birth took place in a gypsy caravan as it was traveling through Birmingham. His mother, Hannah, would never tell Charlie who his father was or if she even knew.

The funny thing about this interview is that Chaplin’s lips are moving but no sound is coming out. Of course, he’s a silent movie star, I should have expected a dumb show. Fortunately, there are subtitles in my mind.

Chaplin started as a music hall performer among comics and mimes and magicians and mesmerists, performing before booze soaked audiences that watched the acts through a haze of tobacco smoke. At eighteen, he joined Fred Karno’s burlesque of mimes and acrobats. Karno, a theater impresario and comedian, was known as the father of the custard-pie-in-the-face gag—and Charlie was still with Fred Karno’s Army in the autumn of 1910 when the touring company left Southampton aboard the SS Cairnrona and crossed the Atlantic bound for Canada.

Not surprisingly, a piano crashes through the ceiling above and crushes our table, depositing an unkempt Stan Laurel at our feet. I’m reminded of Slim Pickens riding an atomic bomb at the end of Doctor Strangelove.

Stan dusts the ceiling plaster from his suit and says, “I was Charlie’s understudy and room-mate for the tour. When we reached the shores of Quebec, we were all on the deck of the [converted cattle boat], sitting, watching the land in the mist.”

Suddenly, Charlie ran to the railing, took off his hat, waved it and shouted:

“America, I am coming to conquer you! Every man, woman and child shall have my name on their lips—Charles Spencer Chaplin!”

“We all booed him affectionately and he bowed to us very formally and sat down again.”

Table for One at the Existentialist Café

Over the years, since around the age of nine, I’ve had imaginary conversations with a great number of historical figures and fictional characters. It all started with verbal chats with Tarzan, Spider-Man, and The Human Torch. Growing up on the road, with real life friendships few and far between, I had years of solitude to hone my imaginary social skills.

I spent a lot of time in libraries and bookstores, perusing my favorite subjects and also seeking out new things to read about. I became a literary dilettante with a bee-like habit of flitting from one book to another—gathering a bit of prose-pollen from each book.

When I was twelve I began writing about my encounters and placing them in specific environments. I was a time traveling voyeur of literary worlds and a fly on the wall of the peanut gallery—and I had no qualms about commenting.

At sixteen I was journaling and weaving into the conversations ideas and actual thoughts and dialogue from books I read. That was the year I first read The Outsider by Colin Wilson and learned that there was a name for what I was—an autodidact.

Reading The Outsider formally introduced me to philosophical worlds and those that created them. I learned about phenomenology and read about Jean-Paul Sarte’s book, La Nausée—though I would not actually read the book itself until I was twenty-one. I wasn’t the most sophisticated philosophical thinker but I was extremely earnest and driven to understand what I was reading.

For seven years, from the age of sixteen to twenty-three, I considered myself an existentialist—though I didn’t yet have a full understanding what that meant. At twenty-three I abandoned existentialism in favor of what I thought to be the less dogmatic shifting belief system of guerrilla ontology.

A few days ago I bought a book called “At The Existentialist Café” and I’m once again captivated by the architects of existentialism.

Like Dorothy returning to Oz.

Discharged

24 August 1985

I’m sitting in a booth at Lenny’s Nosh Bar, dispatching the remains of a hot meatball sandwich with a Löwenbräu chaser and stewing in a shame of failed expectations that has dogged me from San Antonio to Eugene.

My return to Oregon after being discharged from the Air Force on grounds of a difference of opinion regarding my military career path was not celebrated at home by a ticker tape parade. There’s no reward for an idealistic child of flower children that infiltrates a system to change a system.

I desperately want to kick off my combat boots and peel off the military issue fatigues that hang on my body like an old skin to be shed in snake-like fashion and to wash away the sour smell of cigarette smoke and cheap alcohol—the proprietary perfume of the Greyhound bus that delivered me home—which clings to me like a desperate barfly. But first, I need to decompress in familiar surroundings.

Tossing back the last swallow of beer, I sigh deeply and press my back against the duffle bag propped beside the wall of the booth and close my eyes, listening to the sound of a twelve-bar blues tune with a palpitating Hammond B3 organ line as it spars with my beating heart. Green Onions, the 1962 hit by Booker T. & The MGs, is playing on the jukebox to welcome me back.

My head turns as the bell above the door rings and there’s Lenny Nathan, strolling into the Nosh Bar like he owns the place. He sees me and raises an eyebrow but heads directly to the tap. A moment later he comes over with another pint which he places on the table in front of me. He plucks a joint from the pocket of his apron and sets it beside the beer.

“I told ya so,” Lenny says. But there’s humor and understanding in his mischievous eyes.

I grin back at him as Ella Fitzgerald starts singing Too Young for the Blues.

Excerpt from Long Live Lenny’s Nosh Bar.

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Undead Homeless Dude

I pass by the old dude while riding my bicycle on the path that parallels the railroad tracks in the west end of Santa Rosa. His body is stretched out and facedown, a gnarled hand is resting over a soft guitar case, and his backpack is open and his head is on the path.

“Hey, man—are you alright. Do you need help? Are you alive?” No answer.

I get off my bike and touch his hand. It’s stone cold.

Gently placing my hand on his back, I nudge his stiff body, which rocks like a mannequin stuck in the mud. He doesn’t seem to be breathing. Damn—another dead man.

I call 911—it’s not the first time I’ve made this call. There was that dead man in Eugene, Oregon in the mid eighties and another guy in New York City almost a decade later.

“I found a guy on the bike path,” I say to the dispatcher. “I think he’s dead.” Suddenly, his shoulder circles slowly.

“Oh shit,” I say. “False alarm. He’s alive.”

“Does he need medical attention?” The woman asks.

The guy raises his head like a bear waking suddenly from hibernation and glares at me with feral alertness.

“Do you need medical attention?” I ask. “He’s not responding,” I say to the 911 operator.

“What are you doing here,” the man growls.

“Hey man, be cool. I’m just checking to see if you’re alright.”

“I’m trying to get away from people,” he says rising. “People like you!”

“Okay,” I say, laughing nervously and backing away. “Take care, man.”

“Hey, HEY,” he yells.

The operator asks me what’s happening and I tell her the guy is coming after me—but not to worry as I’m on my bike and riding away.

“Try to do something nice and that’s what you get,” she says. “You should buy a lottery ticket.”

I laugh and say, “I would if I lived in a world where I could exchange good karma points for cold hard cash.”