Category Archives: Weekly Writing Challenge

The Spectre of Buena Vista: A True Mark Twain Mystery Discovered by Prof. Artemus Carbuncle (Weekly Photo Challenge: Cover Art)

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Good Evening:

Did you know that in his spare time, American literary legend Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain was also an adroit and intrepid amateur sleuth who solved crimes that baffled even the most professional investigators?

Don’t worry, no one else did, either.

Cover for the soon-to-be-published The Spectre of Buena Vista. The graphic designer will add an image of a ghost in the upper right background.

Cover for the soon-to-be-published The Spectre of Buena Vista. The graphic designer will add an image of the spectral figure of a spectre in the middle right background.

However, one Dr. Artemus Carbuncle, Professor of Linguistics and Linguini at the University of Northern South Dakota at Phoole (special virtual no-prize to all readers who spot the musical reference–VSB) claims to have uncovered a trove of papers in a hitherto unknown archive in which Samuel Clemens recorded his stirring successes as an amateur private detective. Professional Clemens researchers remain skeptical–“It seems most unlikely that Mr. Twain would have used official Spongebob Squarepants stationary” represents a typical snotty and envious comment–but Dr. Carbuncle remains undaunted in his efforts to bring this unknown side of Mark Twain to light.

(Ed. Note: Insofar as Twain was the author of the underrated and unfairly neglected Puddin’head Wilson, an early forensic detective novel, it seems highly probable that he possessed a greater knowledge of criminal science in that era than most other Americans.)

Consider the most curious case of the elderly Egbert Hieronymous Cuthbert XII, a fabulously wealthy puritanical right-wing mining magnate and family tyrant preparing his last will and testament. Every time the Spectre appears in the park, another relative who stands to inherit part of the family fortune gets trapped in an awful, embarrassing and yet hilarious scandal that causes Cuthbert to disinherit that individual.

Fearing that he’s next, Cuthbert’s son Egbert Hieronymous Cuthbert XIII enlists the aid of his old school chum Sam Clemens, already visiting San Francisco to enjoy one of the city’s brisk invigorating summers. Can Mark Twain use his unique skills and personality to uncover the connection between the spectre and the awful, embarrassing and yet hilarious scandals that plague the family? Can Mark Twain prevent his friend from getting trapped in another awful, embarrassing and yet hilarious scandal? And what do those anchor symbols drawn on the tree trunks mean?

Find out in The Spectre of Buena Vista. Not coming soon to a non-existent bookstore not near you.

Vonn Scott Bair

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Anouar Brahem @ 3:00 p.m. (Weekly Photo Challenge: Room)

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Good Evening:

I cannot recall how I blundered into the music of the extraordinary Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem; probably just another example of how serendipity is a life skill that can be mastered. He takes his time creating music; he recorded his most “recent” work, The Astounding Eyes of Rita, in 2008. The combination of oud, bass clarinet, bass and percussion produces music at once soothing and intriguing, quiet and mysterious.

In other words, a great addition to my collection of music for 3:00 p.m. on a Friday afternoon.

The HR department at the SFPUC also has a great room for enjoying songs like the title track, “Stopover at Djibouti,” and “Dances with Waves.” The Sunol Conference Room has comfortable chairs, a few small tables, an adequate view of the Civic Center, and a soft quiet light suitable for winding down after a busy week and contemplating the upcoming weekend. Someone has taken to leaving old issues of Time magazine in the room. Another co-worker brought plums from his tree to share with the rest of the gang on Friday. Incredibly sweet and flavorful, best I’ve ever had.

So I put the music, magazines, room, plums and the Civic Center together, and got this.

Still Life with Plums and Magazines, 6 June 2014

Still Life with Plums and Magazines, 6 June 2014

The different qualities of light (interior vs. exterior) posed a challenge for my point-and-shoot. Will need some advanced work to make the table whiter.

I hope you have a great weekend. Mine could prove a big one; the world premiere of my short play “The Duck” takes place tonight and the Friday preview looked terrific.

Vonn Scott Bair

PS–Did you notice that not all of the flags fly in the same direction?

The Sound of Silence on the Set on Mt. Tamalpais (Weekly Writing Challenge: The Sound of Silence)

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Good Evening:

One fine spring day in 2002, I received the first of a series of phone calls from a casting agent in Los Angeles who said that he really needed me for the starring role in an episode of a television series. Well, that’s what he said. Given the size of the acting pool in LA (mindblowingly huge) and the size of the acting pool in the San Francisco Bay Area (um, not terrible), it seemed reasonable to believe that maybe a modest modicum of mistrust might come in handy.

After several more phone calls from him, and after I conducted a little online research, he seemed real, but I made sure we met in a very public location. I’m glad I did. Not only did everything prove legitimate, but I found myself with my first lead role in an episode of a foreign television show, a Channel 4 UK reality crime series called Supersleuths. The good news: I had and have the exactly right look for the role.

The bad news: the role was David Carpenter.

David Carpenter (no links), born 1930, is The Trailside Killer, one of California’s all-time worst serial killers and today he might be the oldest person on any Death Row in America. Yours truly in 2002 bore a striking physical resemblance to him circa 1980 when he committed a series of rape/murders in the Bay Area, many of them occurring on Mt. Tamalpais, the highest peak in the Marin Hills and one of the most beautiful locations in the Bay Area.

Therefore, we spent many days on “Mt. Tam” creating reenactments of the crimes on the actual locations where they occurred. In my experience, most film sets are boisterous fun places; for most people in the industry, getting a job is the tough dreary part, working the job is the fun part. By contrast, the cast and crew on “The Trailside Killer” episode of Supersleuths maintained by far the most sober and serious environment of any acting job on which I’ve worked, especially after the first day of shooting, which took place at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Marin County Civic Center. A woman who had worked with the detective who literally handcuffed Carpenter watched the first take of the first scene and immediately fled the set. When an assistant caught up with her, she kept whispering, “That’s Carpenter. That’s Carpenter.” We never saw her again after that day.

Everyone, both local and British, figured it out; the crimes remained very painful memories.

But early one grey, foggy, drizzling morning on Mt. Tam, the director, cinematographer and I studied some actual photographs of the crime scene we planned to recreate. Yes, actual photos, another reason for the sobriety. The crew prepped their equipment whilst simultaneously shielding it from the minimal wetness, while the actress who would portray the first of the four victims I would kill that day stood under an umbrella gazing at the place where she would die. We had set up our work site at a picnic area a little over 2,000 feet above sea level, normally a noisy environment: this part of the park can get very windy, and the Bay Area has so much vehicular traffic below us and so much air traffic above us that ambient noise always poses a challenge for sound crews.

Then I said, “Guys, did you hear that?”

The director, an Englishman, said, “I don’t hear anything.”

“That’s my point. I hear nothing.”

The light drizzle fell so lightly that it made no noise as it landed upon asphalt, grass, wood, or leaf. But it fell thickly enough that combined with the low clouds overhead and fog all around, the weather managed to muffle all of the sounds of the mountain and the San Francisco Bay Area without itself making any sound. The weather even managed somehow to stop the wind.

We listened to nothing. The crew stopped working, looked around and listened to nothing. The actress looked up at the sky and heard nothing.

The director said, “I’ve never heard silence in my entire life.”

I said, “Neither have I.”

The cinematographer said he had heard absolute silence once before. He was almost 60 years old. I remember one of the crew slowly stomping his right foot up and down on the grass, making no noise at all. Then he stood still again. We all held still for two, perhaps three minutes, and listened to silence, listened to nothing, and aside from the cinematographer, we were listening to the sound of silence for the first time in our lives.

Then we all grinned. Simultaneously. For the only time during the entire project.

The director said, “We’re falling behind schedule,” and we sobered up and got back to work. I still had to kill four people that day and we were losing time.

Vonn Scott Bair

The Bowl (Daily Prompt: Ingredients)

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Good Afternoon:

I will keep this Daily Prompt simple.

  • A bowl.
  • A bowl of soup.
  • A bowl of chicken soup.
  • A bowl of chicken noodle soup.
  • A bowl of homemade chicken noodle soup that your mother made for you when you were eight years and the flu left you bedridden for four days and thereby ruined your Christmas vacation.
White & Blue Series, 9 February 2014. The Bowls.

White & Blue Series, 9 February 2014. The Bowls.

  • A bowl.
  • A bowl of chili.
  • A bowl of red.
  • A bowl of your uncle’s homemade 5-alarm beef and pork chili that once took Honorable Mention in the state championships, each cube almost exactly three-quarters of an inch along each edge, raising blisters on the roof of your mouth but that’s OK because your uncle also makes his own California-style Pale Ale and has won gold medals at the AHA national championships and has plenty on hand to douse the fire.

Let us all now pay homage to the humble bowl.

One of humanity’s earliest kitchen utensils, the bowl has become so ubiquitous, so universal that perhaps we do not appreciate how many of our happiest memories begin with the words “a bowl.” But that’s all right. I’m here to help you appreciate.

  • A bowl of homemade popcorn.
  • A bowl of buttered homemade popcorn.
  • A bowl of lightly salted buttered homemade popcorn.
  • A bowl of lightly salted buttered homemade popcorn in your lap on the sofa as your sweetheart curls up on your shoulder and you pop a popped kernel into each other’s mouth as you watch The Princess Bride for the 10th (or is it the 11th?) time.
  • A bowl of lightly salted buttered homemade popcorn in your lap on the sofa as your sweetheart curls up on your shoulder and you pop a popped kernel into each other’s mouth as the two of you watch The Princess Bride for the 20th (or is it the 21st?) time and your two rugrats sit cross-legged on the rug in front of you engrossed in the flick.

The bowl is such a simple item, serving as nothing more than the receptacle of the daily meal and your memories.

  • A bowl of pasta.
  • A bowl of chuk or chook (“rice porridges” on most Chinese restaurant menus).
  • A bowl of pozole.
  • A bowl of cereal.
  • A bowl of oatmeal.
  • A bowl of stew.
  • A bowl of pretzels.
  • A bowl of ramen (how many of you just remembered something from your starving college student days?).
  • A bowl of peanuts.
  • A bowl of miniature candies on Hallowe’en.
  • A bowl of ice cream.
  • A bowl of your dad’s homemade chocolate ice cream.

Admit it: you just remembered something you didn’t realize you had thought you had forgotten.

Vonn Scott Bair

A Traffic Jam of Weddings (Weekly Photo Challenge: Juxtaposition)

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Good Evening:

San Francisco City Hall is a great place for weddings and a better place, setting, and background for wedding pictures–sometimes too great. For example, today. Consider this another sort of puzzle. Study the picture carefully.

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Now, can you count the number of newly wedded couples in the picture?

There were four.

Which led to a bit of a traffic jam of wedding photography on the steps of City Hall. Note for example, the couple at the extreme right waiting for the other three couples to get out of the way. Four couples, four wedding parties, four professional wedding photographers, all tangled up, all juxtaposed on top of, in the middle of, and mixed up with each other. Fortunately, everyone managed to work out everything. And that’s a good thing, right? I mean, who wants to see four happily wedded couples get hauled off to the hoosegow, all bloody and beat up after brawling with each other over who would get the best picture?

Vonn Scott Bair

PS–It’s a little hard to spot the other three couples, but one of the grooms is leaning against a wall at the extreme left, in the right center area you can see a photographer in a grey shirt taking pictures of another couple, while the final pair are obscured behind their friends in the middle at the top of the stairs.

The Duck, Part I (Weekly Photo Challenge: Family)

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Good Evening:

I form a lot of families over the course of a year. Tis the nature of the theater and film world; for anywhere from a week to several months, a group of people will gather as strangers, become a family of greater/lesser functionality/disfunctionality, and put on a show or make a movie.

Behold my latest family:

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My latest collection of siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles include the combined forces of the Playwrights Center of San Francisco and Wily West Productions. Laylah Muran, in the bottom right, performs the combined role of theatrical mastermind/overworked Executive Producer, whilst the rest of the gang (not including yours truly) consists of playwrights, directors and sundry personnel.

They have selected my very short one-act play The Duck for a festival of short works in June. Even better news, I have a very good director in Wes Cayabyab (extreme left).

Funny thing is, The Duck is a play about family, inspired by a rather chilling document called NISMART-2 (2nd National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Thrownaway Children–and yes, I wrote “Thrownaway”). Two FBI agents want to solve a 24-year-old missing person case, but the woman they interview (at age 7 she survived a murder attempt at the cost of permanent retrograde post-traumatic amnesia) refuses to cooperate. Herewith I present the first half of the play: the rest shall follow tomorrow.

THE DUCK

a one-act play by Vonn Scott Bair, copyright 2013, all rights reserved.

  • HOPE JUDITH HAUSER: Born circa 1968, any race, ethnicity
  • AGENT DEMARCO: FBI, any age, race, gender, ethnicity
  • AGENT FREDRICKSEN: FBI, any age, race, gender, ethnicity
  • TIME: December 1999.
  • SETTING: Exterior of HOPE’S home. Duck-themed decor.

(LIGHTS UP. ENTER DEMARCO and FREDRICKSEN.)

DEMARCO: Guy said, “Just look for the house with lots of ducks.”

(DEMARCO rings the doorbell.)

DEMARCO: Duck theme mail box, duck theme address plaque, knocker, doorbell, custom-designed welcome mat. Lots of ducks.

(ENTER HOPE JUDITH HAUSER from the same direction with shopping bags. She sees the detectives, stops, stands behind them at a distance. No facial expression.)

FREDRICKSEN: Mat’s upside down. Faces the house, not the visitors.

DEMARCO: And that does not represent a typical welcome message.

FREDRICKSEN: “Don’t give up. Don’t let go.” Not normal.

(FREDRICKSEN knocks.)

FREDRICKSEN: Message is for her, not us.

DEMARCO: No question. (Pause.) Think about it. Our last case of the year, on the last week of the last year of the millennium, and the first case ever that might have a happy ending.

(FREDRICKSEN knocks again. DEMARCO turns around.)

DEMARCO: Hope Judith Hauser?

HOPE: You’re police, and you come from another state.

FREDRICKSEN: FBI. Agent Fredricksen, Minneapolis office.

DEMARCO: DeMarco, also representing Minneapolis. How did you know?

HOPE: Only the law uses my middle name.

FREDRICKSEN: You must get a lotta visits from our kind.

DEMARCO: And we came for the same reason as the rest. First, we need to verify your, um, state of mind, if that’s the correct-

HOPE: Yes, yes, yes, I remain a retrograde post-traumatic amnesiac, with no memory of my life before I woke up in a hospital 24 years ago on July 20, 1975.

DEMARCO: We have a very unusual assignment. For us. We just need to take a quick DNA swab and we’ll get out of your way.

FREDRICKSEN: You know better’n us how quick these go, and we can do it–right–here–Ms. Hauser?

DEMARCO: Ms. Hauser, you OK?

(Pause. HOPE has remained absolutely still and motionless during this entire time.)

HOPE: I’m–I’m not–no, I’m. (Pause.) Let me start over. I don’t, don’t–really–demonstrate much–emotion-

DEMARCO: We noticed-

HOPE: -so I have to tell people how I feel. I–just–snapped.

FREDRICKSEN: Thank you for sharing-

HOPE: Total mental breakdown. Except it’s more like an epiphany, and I feel almost good. (Pause.) You can’t have my DNA.

(Pause.)

DEMARCO: We’re trying to help a family, and you’ve always cooperated with the law in the past, and-

HOPE: No. This time, I do not cooperate. This time, I help me.

FREDRICKSEN: What is so different this time?

HOPE: Bad timing. Real bad for you. I realized–I can say no. I feel free. And it feels so good. Because I met the Ones who Came After Me Once Too Often. I met you.

For twenty-four years, 15, 20 times a year, you come after me. Shut up and listen! I am the only one who counts…

Over 50,000 children go missing every year. There must be hundreds of thousands of families with missing children. They all want them back. The families–come after me. They need me. They need their hope, wishes, dreams–they need me. Families who lost a daughter any age except mine, lost a daughter any year except 1975, lost a daughter with different hair, different skin, they, they, they–come after me.

Because I might be the one…

I am not the one. Not now, not ever.

And thank you ever so much for coming two days before the first anniversary of the night a drunk driver killed my parents in an accident CRASH AND BURN and he wasn’t even scratched but just try to get the smell of burnt flesh out your mind and the drunk with six DUIs SIX on him and a liter of vodka in him was joking about barbeque sauce and thank you for helping me smell the accident right here and right now just two days before and he had drunk a liter of vodka my parents killed for the price of one liter of cheap liquor and go back wherever you came from and tell that family their daughter is lost lost lost lost LOST AND THEY HAVE TO GET REAL AND DEAL WITH IT THEIR DAUGHTER IS LOST AND THEY WILL NEVER GET HER BACK tell all those hundreds of thousands of families to JUST ACCEPT THAT THEY ARE GONE AND THEY ARE NEVER COMING BACK and maybe they don’t want to go back maybe they ran away because their families abused them or neglected them or maybe they were just too plain BORING and life is nothing but DEATH and loss just GET USED TO IT and you came here two days before the first anniversary my parents are gone BURNT and…

There was a time when I enjoyed dashing hopes, when I wanted your kind to visit so I could disappoint another family that would not leave me alone.

Now, I just want you to stay away. Forever.

The worst part is I feel the same hurt as these families. They can’t think about the chance that I might be their missing daughter without reliving the hurt of their loss, and I feel how it hurts when their hope gets crushed yet again–my name is a pitiful JOKE–and maybe I only feel one or two per cent of the sorrow, grief and pain each family feels, but I have felt the sorrow, grief and pain of hundreds of families and I have inflicted sorrow, grief, and pain upon hundreds of families and I can’t take it anymore and I just want you to GO AWAY AND STOP HURTING ME MY FAMILY WILL NEVER BE FOUND AND THESE FAMILIES WILL NEVER FIND THEIR CHILDREN and stop causing all this hurt and YOU and all the rest of YOU JUST GO AWAY!!

He joked about barbeque sauce.

These children are lost, and they will stay lost. Forever.

There is no hope.

(HOPE sits on the welcome mat, ducks her head, curls up into a tight little ball. Long pause.)

HOPE: You have a warrant. Your ilk always does. You’ve never needed it before, but you need it now, so shove it in my face and force me. Just do it and get out of my life.

(FREDRICKSEN starts to reach inside a pocket for the warrant, but DEMARCO stops this with a gesture.)

DEMARCO: We prefer that you choose to help. (Pause.) Hope, we said this was an unusual case for us. We did not say why.

END OF PART I.

Wordless Wednesday (Weekly Photo Challenge: Window)

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Good Evening:

A miscellany to conclude this week.

View of Civic Center Through a Shade, SFPUC HQ, San Francisco, CA

View of Civic Center Through a Shade, SFPUC HQ, San Francisco, CA

Photographing the Photographer, British Art Museum, New Haven, CT

Photographing the Photographer, British Art Museum, New Haven, CT

British Art Museum, New Haven, Connecticut

British Art Museum, New Haven, Connecticut

Bike Messenger, Superior Court, San Francisco, CA

Bike Messenger, Superior Court, San Francisco, CA

Windows, Reflections, Sky, San Francisco, CA

Windows, Reflections, Sky, San Francisco, CA

Windows, Reflections, and Sky II, San Francisco, CA

Windows, Reflections, and Sky II, San Francisco, CA

Vonn Scott Bair