Saturday, February 04, 2012

Part Five Of The Thing That Has No Name

[Author's Note: Apparently, this is now a thing. I started the whole kerfluffle by writing this, and then the marvelous Marian over at Runaway Sentence wrote this, so I in turn wrote this, which induced Maid Marian to write this. Whatever this thing we have started is, this is part 5 of it. I don't think you need to read the previous ones to enjoy this one. But it can't hurt. (Previous warnings still apply. All of these stories are about adults doing adult things, and some of those things may include saying bad words and/or engaging in sexual activities. If you're offended by these stories, I guarantee a full refund of all the money you've ever paid to read this blog.)]

I always hate waking up. I'm never sure where the line is between the dream world and the real one, and it takes about thirty seconds of terrified thought before I banish the phantasmagoria of dream space for the concrete reality of my bed, this space, my life. I heard two things at once, the distant hiss of my wife starting her shower, and a bang, followed by a yelp, coming from the boys downstairs. I hauled myself upright, pulling my pants on to investigate, suddenly remembering when I felt unfamiliar pains from muscles I hadn't used in a while. We had spent long hours at a charity function last night, then come home and started some stupid fight. Then we made up.

I went downstairs, feeling like I was walking through paraffin wax, and separated the boys, who were bickering over a toy lightsaber. I put the toy out of reach, then set them on more appropriate tasks, drank some coffee, served breakfast, and kissed my wife, hair wet and gloriously messy, when she came down to continue the process. My uncle always said it required less manpower, was less costly and less complicated, to occupy France than it was to raise small children, and nearly every day we proved it.

Between the two of us, we eventually got clothes on everyone, shoes on feet, and the two hellions out of the house. She was fixing her hair in front of the mirror, corraling a stray hair and tucking it into the neat dancer's bun she had assembled. I noticed avidly the way her blouse gapped and tugged where it tucked into her slim black skirt. I felt a slight, distant ache, the throb of memory from last night. I loved watching her when she thought I wasn't watching.

She had thoughtfully constructed the classroom snack last night, so we both gathered our materials together and set off, her for the school and then back home to work on her consulting business. She dressed up to work at home because that made it easier to dash out to lunch meetings, and because she said it reminded her not to slack off. We parted at our cars with a final kiss, her getting into the gleaming new cherry red compact SUV, me into the older grey sedan. I felt the familiar churn when her high heels left the ground as she climbed in.

I drove to the office sedately, half listening to NPR tell me about records I will never buy and books I will probably never read. My mind was still half in the fugue of dreamland as I parked in my usual spot, taking my travel cup of coffee and my duffel bag into the studios. Our building looked like it had been left here by a more advanced species, all darkened hardwood and sharp angles with enormous windows everywhere. My office was still when I got to it, my pens capped and put away, my desk clear of scraps of paper, my office whiteboard virginal and pure.

Aimee, a brunette who wanted my boss' job without stopping at mine first, was at the door before I even set my cup down.

"Hey, Michael? Can I talk to you about something?"

"Of course," I said. She came in and shut the door behind her. She had a dark blue dress on, the kind that wraps around like a toga on top, and some kind of deep black hosiery that sucked your eye in, along with gray shoes with a modest heel. She always dressed like a model. today in cool shades of blue, black, and muted gray, all the way down to her necklace and a dangling bracelet. If she were a male, I'd refer to her as a sharp dresser.

"I wanted you to hear this first," she said. She had a great body, fleshy where my wife was toned, bawdy, funny, and very creative. We had just come off a long project, a series of ads about orange juice that had required some long nights. We had always had a light, easy relationship, bantering flirtatiously. I remembered exchanging those looks, two adults knowing they were alone. I felt a charge, and I always wondered if she did.

"I'm going back to Philadelphia," she continued. "My college friend is opening her own firm, and she wants me to come work for her." I looked at her evenly, trying to weigh her words. Her face was pinched and tight. The sunlight gleamed off of the corner of her cat's eye glasses.

"That's great! Congratulations!," I said. I started calculating what that meant. More work for me? Less? Would they hire? Does that mean I have to delay my departure? Do I really want to leave? I looked down at her shoes, elegant and restrained. She leaned back on her heels.

"Thanks," she said, looking down. "I'm going to miss you," she said. "More than most." The looked at me full on. Did this mean something? The look felt smoldering. Was I reading into it? I felt my pulse start to pound.

"I'll miss you, too," I said. What else could you say? "Have you told Dave?"

"Nope," she said. "I'm going to," she added. "Today. I wanted you to know." She shifted her weight, crossing one foot slightly in front of the other. I had never touched her, but I can't say I had never thought of it. I felt something in the room, like the silence had weight to it.

"Thank you. I'm really happy for you. I'll miss those late night work sessions though. Nobody's more fun than you," I said. I came a little closer to her, setting my coffee on my desk. I could picture my arms sliding around her waist, pinning her against the door. The thought came unbidden, but once I entertained it, it was persistent. Something about the way the fabric covered her hips, sloping at her waist. It was warm, it seemed to invite touch.

She was looking away, her gaze distant. "I have to get to Dave before he gets wrapped up in something," she said. I thought about never seeing her again. Would I regret never tasting her lips on mine, never feeling the plush softness of her pressed against me? Was she thinking along the same lines as I was? All I knew about her was she was divorced and seldom talked about it. Was she picturing the hem of her dress coming up above her smooth thighs?

"So I assume we'll do something Friday? Like a dinner?"

"I suppose," she said. "Up to Dave, I guess."

"Yes," I said. She moved her hand towards the door handle. Was this my chance? I felt myself preparing to take a step forward.

"Good luck," I said.

"Thanks," she said, and smiled brilliantly. She grasped the door handle and pulled it open, heading down the hall. I exhaled deeply. At times, I don't understand myself at all.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

100 Word Song: "What do you want?"

My pal Lance has posted a new 100 Word Song Challenge, this week about Radiohead's "Idioteque". I call this story "What do you want?"

"What do you want for lunch?," I said.

My nephew's head was down on the table, brown hair tousled, his eyes locked on his toy. I wondered what he was thinking about, whether he was hearing dialogue from a TV show, or music, or if his mind was silent and still, like an empty whiteboard.

"Buddy? Lunch?"

He was in his own world, imagining, thinking, focused on what was in front of him. I wondered what it was like to be in the moment like that, a tiny Zen master.

"Pal? What do you want?"

"Everything," he said softly.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Flash Fiction Friday: "Lunch Date"

"Hello? HEY! Caroline! How are you, hun?"

"Uh huh. Getting tough, huh? Yeah. I remember those days."

"Oh, you have Braxton- Hicks? Oh, you poor thing. I remember those. Awful."

"You'll get through it, though. We all do. It's tough. But you can do it."

"Is it worth it? Yeah. Well, sometimes it is. It depends."


"What? Oh, I just took my shoes off. They're cute, but God, do they hurt."

"Mark? Oh, he's fine. Busy, like we all are. But he's fine."

"Kristen? God. Don't get me started."

"Oh, I know, the teen years are tough. I was a beast to my parents, so I guess it's karma, right? But I can take the snotty attitude and the back talk. I mean, I don't like it, but I can take it. It's her schoolwork that's killing me."

"Oh my God. It's a disaster. She won't study for anything, she won't do any homework. We threaten, and we beg, and we cajole, and....nothing. She'll do a little bit, just enough until we back off, and then she's right back to her old habits."

"Mark? He's worthless when it comes to her. Worthless. He can't say no to her. He's as bad as those stupid pimply faced idiots who call her at all hours of the night. They're all in love with her. At least Mark isn't trying to get into her pants. "

"Ha! You're funny!"

"I know. It's awful. I keep asking her, 'What's your plan? What are you going to do without an education? How are you going to pay your phone bill? Car insurance? How are you going to pay for all those shoes you love so much?' And all I get is 'I don't know,' and 'I'll figure something out,' and shrieking, and tears. God, I'm so sick of the same arguments. Every year since about second grade, it's the same talk. 'You have to do your homework!' It's freaking Groundhog Day."

"I know some people do it, just get married and have families. There's nothing wrong with that. You found David, and that's great. But you got your education, too, that's the thing. I know you never use your degree. Heck, I barely use mine. But you have it. God forbid something happens to your husband, you have skills, something to fall back on. Kristen has nothing. I know high school is stupid. But we all did it!"

"No, I don't think I want her to be just like me."

"No, I don't. I really don't. I just want her to be something, to be someone, to be able to support herself. Something other than somebody's other half."

"Are you saying there's something wrong with being like me? Owning a business? Creating something?"

"Oh, OK. I understand."

"No, I understand what you're saying. Maybe that is her destiny, just to get married and drop a litter. But don't you think that's setting your sights a little too low?"

"I know she is. You should hear the messages come in when she turns her phone on. I hate to say it, but I would have been such a slut in high school if I had looked like her."

"Right? Seriously."

"What really frightens me is that I can so picture her getting knocked up, right out of high school. I really can. What I keep thinking of, what I keep picturing in my head, is her looking up from some precious baby's face and telling me she wishes she had listened to me. It turns my stomach."

"I mean, am I working too many hours? Is that it? Am I ruining her life? Does she not get enough attention? Doesn't she see how hard I work? It really makes me question everything I've ever done as a parent. As a person."

"Thanks, honey. I appreciate that. And it would help if we had a united front. But Mark always, ALWAYS takes her side. No matter what. "

"Maybe you're right. Maybe she'll catch on. I hope you are right. I get nauseous every time I think about her future just crumbling away into nothing. You have a future with David. And even without him, God forbid, I think you'd be OK. 'Mom' just isn't a career choice that pays that well. You know that."

"You're right. There really isn't anything I can do, is there? I can yell until I'm hoarse. And I have! And I can't make her do it. I just don't want her to ruin her life."

"I know. You're right."

"God, listen to me. Here you are, about to have a baby, and I made it all about me! I'm such a bitch."

"Thanks. You're such a good friend for letting me monopolize the conversation like this. I really appreciate it. I better get back to work, though. "

"Tomorrow? Absolutely. 12:30 tomorrow................I can, yeah. At the Cafe Gano? I love their Caesar salad! Sure. No problem."

"Alright, I'll see you then."

"OK, sweetie. Bye."

The Flash Fiction Friday Challenge this week is to write a story about Groundhog Day. This story is a little wierd, and it is called "Lunch Date".

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Terrible Minds Challenge: "Sunday Morning On Thornton Street"

The fiendish Chuck Wendig has been up to his flash fictional tricks again. Last week's challenge is to select three random Flickr photos, using the handy dandy tool located here to select them, and write a 1000 word story. The pictures I chose are this one, this one, and this one. However, since I am a Slowey McSlowerton from Slowville, I did not complete it before the Friday deadline. This week's challenge is to write a 1000 word story in the present tense. I'm going to (hopefully deftly) combine these two challenges into one with this story. I call it "Sunday Morning On Thornton Street"

It wasn't the Grand Canal or the Champs Elysees, but walking down Thornton Street on a sunny fall day with David still felt pretty good. We had just returned from two weeks in Venice and Paris, where he had to go for work, and since we managed to cash in enough miles for me to join him, it became as much of a honeymoon as two unmarried people could have. I have loved David for nearly all my adult life, so after we spent most of Saturday sleeping off the time changes, when he proposed a stroll down to Marge's Cafe for coffee and pastry and the Sunday paper, I couldn't have been more willing.

We walked silently. We both felt talked out, I think. The house we bought together was a pleasant 8 minute walk from a strip of small stores that featured a drug store, the cafe, and a convenience store with a newsstand, all opposite an open park with a softball diamond and dog run. Our dogs, Buster and McCormick, ranged nearby, examining every leaf and scrap of newspaper as we walked along the sidewalk. You were supposed to have them on leashes, but they knew better than to range too far.

I was at the age when our friends were getting married and having babies, so each time we gathered in someone's living room to celebrate one or another of these events, the question laid on the table like a dead fish. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, it came up, implied or expressed, from relatives near and far: when are you two getting married? And the answer was, basically, when we were good and ready. I was never the kind of girl who dreamed about a princess wedding. I was always more interested in playing kickball with boys than talking about them. But still, the questions came, and I fended them off as best I could. A well meaning, "what if you get pregnant" parried with "we're careful," and a "what if he leaves you" answered with, "he'd have to get out of the lease, which is twice as hard as getting a divorce."

We usually got our coffee and donuts to go, then walked back with the paper, feeding bits of plain donut to the dogs as we went, before settling down into a lazy Sunday sprawl. He was watching me approach, which always made me feel a little bit like I was on stage. He had a scraggly beard, because he hadn't shaved since we left Paris on Friday. His look was intense, with a palpable weight to it. I never felt worthy to return his gaze.

"Hey, you," he said, his voice still thick with sleep.

"Me?," I asked innocently. I still felt the little lurch in my chest when he looked at me, like I suddenly was able to breathe deeper.

"No, McCormick," he said. "Of course you, silly." One of the things I loved most about him was that we laughed constantly, at small things and big, at serious things and trivial.

I altered my path to come in front of him. He stood with his legs slightly apart, a posture that allowed me to slide up close. He was just tall enough- not so tall that we looked like a freak, but just tall enough for me to have to wear heels, or go high on tiptoes when I was wearing sneakers, in order to kiss him. The first time we ever danced together, I remember I surprised myself by sighing when I noticed how well we fit.

"Come here," he said. I could hardly be any closer. I took two more tiny steps towards him. My feet were between his shoes, my thighs brushing his, looking up into his face, his charming crooked nose.

"Yes?," I said. I didn't have any idea what he wanted. I felt this aura of trust and love. Both dogs stopped, looking at him expectantly.

"Marry me," he said.

I didn't think I heard him right.


"Will you marry me?," he said again.


"I don't care."


"I don't care."

"How? Who?"

"I don't care," he said again. "Invite everybody or invite nobody, I don't care. I love you, and I can't imagine a world without you. Let's shut everybody up and do it."

"Oh my god," I said, my head spinning. I felt tears springing into my eyes, blurring my vision.

"You haven't said what your answer is," he said calmly.

"Oh my god," I said again, my voice breaking. "Yes, of course, yes," I said, before stepping closer, standing on my toes and kissing him, his arms around my waist, next to the black iron fence while the dogs and God and everyone watched.

Lily Childs Feardom 100 Word Challenge: "Heading Home"

Lily Childs' Feardom is sponsoring another Flash Fiction O Rama, 100 Words using the words "ballet", "organ", and "follow". My entry is called "Heading Out"

I liked to follow her, watching the delicate grace with which she took each step, her hemline swaying softly. I had watched the tears spring out on her bright cheeks as the Phantom played the organ, accusing the ballet dancer/songstress Christine of betrayal. We were heading into the subway, bound for home. I couldn't have felt happier.

"You think that's us? I would never do that!," she whispered, leaning against me as the train left the station.

"And I'll never leave you," I whispered back, meaning every word of it.

She was right. I was wrong.

Indie Ink Writing Challenge: Kickoff

For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Satu Gustafson challenged me with ""He who makes a beast of himself, gets rid of the pain of being a man." - Samuel Johnson" and I challenged Wendryn with " 'I believe that writers run out of material, I really do.' -Brian Wilson ".

I had to keep telling myself to calm down. It was hard not to be excited, playing in the showcase game of your professional life. It was an "obituary game", a term my position coach, Donnie Hasselbeck, came up with. If you achieved nothing else in your life, playing in this game would be in the first line of your obituary. It was both bigger and smaller than everyone thought it was, both the summit of achievement in my field and simply a football game- 60 minutes of concentrated mayhem, after which one side or the other will be remembered forever, while the other side will be a good team that couldn't land the big one.

"Do your job," I repeated to myself softly. It had been the refrain since summer camp, way back in July and August, every speech beginning with it, every sign, every playbook page emblazoned with it. It meant several things, as all aphorisms do- both the "Do" part, meaning you have to perform your role in the 11 part ballet, and "Your Job", meaning, of course, you have to know what you're supposed to do, and then do it, and only it. Trust your teammates to do their part, and don't try to do too much. Overreaching leads to blown assignments, followed by your opponents dancing in the end zone. They tried to strike a balance- play instinctively, but inside of our parameters. Jump if you want to, but if you're wrong, it's on you.

I jumped up and down, standing in place, waiting for the signal to start. One of the keys Jake Warner, one of our vets who was here with New York a decade ago, told us about actually playing in the game was that there are more pauses, and longer pauses, than a regular game. He told us to always be moving, even if you're just walking in a circle- you have to stay loose, no matter what. I looked at the stands, packed full with flash bulbs constantly going, and I didn't think that would be an issue. I had played before big crowds before, but this was the ultimate. The whole world, literally, was watching.

"Stay your lane," I said under my breath. "Do your job." I had been on kickoffs most of the year, so I knew the drill- see where they are trying to guide you, and fight against that. We had been watching tape of how they handled returns, so I was ready for their different formations. Be quick. Get to the spot. If nothing else, occupy one, or ideally two blockers so that someone else can make the play. If you get a chance to make the play, hit him hard and finish. If you only get a piece of him, hold on and wait for help. Most of all, don't let him get behind you, and keep pursuing until the whistle sounds.

This was the most physical, and the least cerebral, of all the jobs on a football team. When playing defense as a nickel or dime corner, or while filling in for an injured teammate, there were a number of assignments, and variations on those assignments, based on down, and distance, and time, and further refined by what our captains saw from the offensive setup. I was thankful that my first action would be less thoughtful and more instinctual. I just wanted to hit someone and get my juices going.

My five year old, Sophie, has finally made the connection between the mad pace of football on television and the flesh and blood of the men who play it. During our bye week, I was sitting with her watching the start of the Monday night game when Tom Floyd of New Orleans got laid out on a pass over the middle. It was one of those blood chilling moments, one that has been mercifully rare in my career. They broke to commercial, then came back to Tom being loaded onto a stretcher, with circles of players, helmets off, praying at midfield. "Is he OK?," Sophie said. I told her the truth, saying I didn't know, then spent the next two hours trying to console her. Sophie hasn't been the same since, refusing to say goodbye when I leave, and greeting me like Caesar returning to Rome when I come home.

That was the thing that nobody in our business wants to think about. I know that any play, particularly the Newtonian physics writ large of the kickoff, can result in something horrific happening. Just because it hasn't happened yet doesn't mean it won't. I didn't think it would- I used good form, never going for the kill shot, just good, strong fundamental tackles. But I couldn't promise Sophie, or Jane herself, that it wouldn't happen. It was another paradox- I couldn't operate properly while thinking about it, but it wasn't possible to not think about it. I lived my working life doing something violent, yet I hated violence.

Janie started reminding me last night, as we talked in low voices while Sophie slept on the other bed, that she wanted to try for another baby. I didn't blame her- we weren't getting any younger. But I really wanted to get a little more secure before we take such a drastic step. I reminded her about the movie Jerry Maguire, telling her nothing was certain, that I served at the pleasure of the team, while she would counter with the fact that Rod Tidwell got the big contract in the end. She added that if we waited for the perfect time, it would indeed be too late. She's right, I thought, looking down at my cleats on the playing surface. I swiveled my neck and shook out my arms, trying to release excess energy.

I looked at the ref, who was waiting for a signal from the TV people. Focus, I told myself silently, picturing my lane down the field and trying to see who might be blocking me. If it was a bigger player, like a lineman, I would try to blow past him. If it was someone closer to my size, I would probably try a basketball type move- get him leaning one way, then go the other. Like in martial arts, so much depended on what the opponent did. Every move had a counter move, and every counter had a counter counter. Just do your job, I reminded myself, remembering the old baseball joke, "don't think, kid- you're hurting the ballclub."

I wanted to hit somebody- if not the ballcarrier, then at least a blocker. It would siphon off the tension, and it would release me from the net of worry. Once it gets down to just playing football, it's relatively simple. Angles and vectors, force and acceleration. We had practiced until it was second nature- if they do this, you react this way. Doing it allowed me to disconnect, no longer a father worried about his family, no longer worried about contracts and paychecks and whether some kid from Nebraska would take my spot this April and do my job for $200,000 less. Doing it means you're judged based on results, not on your college pedigree or the fact that your agent is a prick. There's no arguing with doing it.

I bounced on the balls of my feet again, when finally the referee blew his whistle. A few more seconds, and we'd be underway, 11 men with one goal. We all checked our spacing, and I instinctively did a quick count- 5 and 5, plus the kicker. It was time. The crowd sensed it too, building to a roar that became almost a physical presence. The tension was thrumming in the air. We could almost feel it through the soles of our feet. Our kicker, Ludwig, put one hand up, our signal to take off when he brought it down. I dug for a little bit more purchase, getting low, picturing Lightning McQueen from that movie about the cars.

Time to do, and not think. The kicker dropped his hand, and I was off, sprinting full out towards the other end of the field, where the next moment waited.