Sunday, December 23, 2012

Gorging One's Self

Matt Potter, who should not be confused with his twin brother Glossy Potter, has announced that "Gorge," a novel in stories, is available for purchase here. It contains a story by yours truly, as does a previous compilation, "Slut". I need not add that these books make outstanding holiday gifts, assuming you can rent the Millennium Falcon in order to get them to your house in time. I also assume you can divine the fact that these are grownup books written by grownup people that talk about grownup themes. (The fact that one of them is called "Slut" was a clue.) There are also other books that do not include me, along with a forthcoming one that will, "Obit."

{On a personal note, I have not written any new fiction to post here since my last post. I'm starting to think that I may start again soon. You'll be the first (well, the second) to know.}

Sunday, December 16, 2012

SPE: Empty Chairs At Empty Tables

{For the Scriptic prompt exchange this week, Tara Roberts gave me this prompt: "(Character name)'s contribution to the holiday cookie exchange shocked all of us." I gave Julia Mae this prompt: " 'Critics can say horrible things. It only hurts when I agree with them.' -Jon Cryer" }

[The following post is written about the fact I can't write a post about this. Besides being meta, this is a little bit unfair, because the SPE game involves composing prompts on Thursday and early Friday morning to be distributed on Saturday. Obviously, the events on Friday have changed my point of view. I don't mean to imply anything is wrong with Tara, whom I respect to the point of abject worship, or the quality of her prompt. Her prompt was written and intended for a different headspace than the one I occupy at the moment. This is not her fault.]

(To steal an idea from Charlie Pierce, optional soundtrack for this post is available here.)

I can't write about Christmas cookies today.

I learned about the events in Connecticut on Friday through a text message from a friend, which seems to be a very au courant way to get news. Perhaps it isn't. I don't know. I went onto Twitter, which was, of course, full of bulletins and news stories and rumors, name calling and accusations and jokes in poor taste. Calls for fewer guns, calls for more guns, calls for mental health care, calls for more God in schools, calls for bans on video games or television or movies- nearly everyone knows the answer and feels compelled to share. This is as it usually is. You don't expect table manners in a saloon, and you don't expect reasoned discussion on Twitter. Among the cacophany, my friend Erik Fisher advised that he was dropping off the grid for a while- he couldn't take it. I didn't listen. I didn't follow his example. I should have.

I have tried not to watch any television coverage, or read much about it, although in the way things do in the modern age, phrases and images and facts find their way to me, from the TV in the next room, or on the car radio before I shut it off in favor of music from my iPhone. My pal Leah Peterson pointed out that one of the most chilling sentences she encountered was "An entire kindergarten class is unaccounted for." I quickly found partners for that, overhearing "the state does not have enough medical examiners for all the dead" and "one of our nation's leading authorities on mass murder". (We have authorities on mass murder? And there is more than one of them?) Like everyone, I am hurt, shocked, saddened, and furiously angry. It's one of those odd angers, the kind where you know you're angry, but you can't find anything adequate to the rage. (If you haven't seen it before, please watch this, the scene where Martin Sheen on the "West Wing", playing the President, tries to voice this sort of inchoate rage against senseless loss.) Among the many thoughts I have entertained, I wonder why it is this slaughter that stirs my blood, as opposed to so many others?

As my wife correctly points out, more people died in Philadelphia, the city closest to me, this year due to gun violence, only they did it one or two at a time. There have been slaughters since Cain and Abel, and probably way before that. Even slaughters in school are nothing new, sadly. Gun slaughter itself predates me by centuries, and even mass slaughter can be traced back to the University of Texas shootings in the 1960s, if not farther than that. Fort Pillow. Cold Harbor. Borodino. Lynching and race riots. World War I. World War II. Vietnam. Korea. Iraq and Afghanistan. As soon as we had guns, we started using them to kill each other, and as the guns got better, so did the killing. (It would be unfair, but not totally wrong, to note that a slaughter in a so called "white" community evokes my rage, but not the slower genocide against poor children that happens worldwide every single day. I don't have anything to say to that except that I am human, and I can't control what provokes me.)

I don't have any particular connection to this event. The most convenient way to get from my in law's house to my mother's house is Route 84, which essentially cuts the state into two triangles, giving me a knowledge of the state's rest stops, if nothing else. My brother lives there. I raised a kindergartener once, long ago. (My son was in kindergarten on 9/11, the last event that I can compare to this, at least in terms of my own emotional response to it.) I have friends with kindergarteners, and my dear nephew is a kindergartener, and his little brother soon will be. I also have a niece who was in kindergarten not too long ago, and two more nieces who will be.

When my son was a kindergartener, I used to advise him, when a video game or school assignment or some other complex task was frustrating him, to try and channel his anger into something useful. Instead of getting mad, try to step back and think. Ask for advice. Attack the problem another way. Or even stop and get a glass of water and let your brain rest for a moment. Just getting mad doesn't help. This advice doesn't apply here. No advice does. There isn't anything to be done. Or, more properly, there are a dozen things to be done, all advocated loudly and vigorously, on and on, from all angles. And if previous slaughters are any guide, we, as a society, won't do any of them, or the ones we do won't work, and this will happen again. There's no place to put this rage against an uncaring universe that created all this sorrow. (With all due respect, if God is your thing, I won't belittle that. It just doesn't work for me. Not right now, anyway.)

I have opinions about what could and should be done. So do a lot of people. If you want to know them, and I can't imagine why you would, you can email me or follow me on Twitter- just look at the boxes on the right. But I feel like this isn't a place for it, exactly, and I don't feel up to it, frankly. I'm just tired of all the talking, and I don't have the energy to engage in debate right now. A blog, you might say, is exactly the place for that- it is one's own personal web space, to be filled with whatever one desires. And that is true. When this blog began, it was much more of a personal blog. It got very political for a while, and then it talked about sports, and right now it is a host for my short fiction. I don't know if I don't want to interrupt the flow, or confuse my readers (either one of you), or what, but I don't feel like I can go off on a rant about guns or mental health or anything like that. Not now. I can't write. I can only ache.

I understand the argument that art, at best, may be the only possible response to heartbreak and madness. "Guernica." Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young's "Ohio". Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising". "A Farewell to Arms". I keep thinking about wrapped presents in closets or attics or car trunks that 20 little kids are never going to open, and everything tastes like ashes, and I can't tell made up stories about people who don't exist. Not today.

An author named Thomas Larson calls this the saddest piece of music ever written, and I'm inclined to believe him. I'm going to go visit my nephews tomorrow, listening to sad music as I drive, and I'm going to hug them both, which is not a bit out of the ordinary. I may tear up some, which is quite unusual. They won't know why, and I'm not going to tell them.

I will work, and sleep, and then drive, and hug, and pray that the world they grow up in will not know this particular kind of heartbreak.

But right now, I can't create anything.

I can't write about Christmas cookies today.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

SPE: Time To Go

{For the Scriptic prompt exchange this week, Jordan gave me this prompt: The crowd had seemed so friendly a moment ago, but now they took on a meaner cast, and seemed to swell with a bit of menace. I gave Julia Mae this prompt: "My philosophy is that if you don't feel like what you're creating is the best work you've ever done, it's time to throw in the towel." -Bernie Taupin}

She was the kind of person who would tell you it was not raining, even as the water poured down in buckets. She wasn't exactly delusional, but she was very sure of herself, and when reality conflicted with her beliefs, she would often insist that the real world was in error, often to the extreme. I was guiding/tugging her across the mall parking lot, to her increasing displeasure. She knew as well as I did that it was time to go.

The parking lot wasn't crowded, but there were people coming and going, couples headed into the movies, older people who look determined to go for a walk, formless groups of teens intent on hanging out and posing for one another. Everyone seemed happy to be outside in the bright sun, but also pleased that they would soon be in air conditioned cool.

"Come on, babe," I said gently. "We have to go." I put my palm on her bare upper arm, as if I were guiding a recalcitrant toddler.

"Get your HANDS off ME," she insisted loudly. She jerked her arm away, and then folded her arms over her chest. She said it too loudly for what was really a fit of pique on her part. Or at least, I thought so.

A couple was walking along the opposite line of cars, a man and a woman with a 5 year old skipping between them. The moment her voice rang out, I froze, jerking my hand away from her as if she were electrified. The threesome also froze, and I watched the man bristle. He turned and looked at me, and then at her. She was frozen, her eyes angry and glaring, looking at him and at me in turn.

"Is there a problem?," he said from across the aisle. He was older than me, and fat, but he looked hard, like he lifted and carried things for a living. I didn't lift anything heavier than a paperclip.

I looked at her, her proud nose, her fiery blue eyes, the tiny gap where her striped top ended and a quarter moon of brown, flat belly showed above the waist of her dark, tight jeans. I was waiting for her to explain. She looked at him, and then at me.

"Is there a problem?," he said louder. He was coming closer, while the woman and the child stayed by the cars on the other side. To my right, a boy and girl my age were walking straight towards me. I shifted backwards, trying to keep everyone in view. The boy had a baseball cap on backwards, and I could see muscles bunched in his upper arms. Using that sixth sense some men have, he sensed trouble and was putting himself between his girl, a cute, thin Asian, and whatever was to come.

My thighs hit the bumper of a truck. I stopped, looking at the two men. Their faces were set, not unfriendly, but even and blank, not sure if there would be a fight, but ready in case there were. My heart pounded in my chest. I clenched both fists, working my keys into my palm. I remembered a self defense book I had read once that suggested using keys as a flail. My palms began to sweat.

The fat guy had a brown shirt on, stretched over a beer gut. "Torricelli Lawn and Garden Centers," it said. The teen had a concert shirt from a recent AC/DC show. I calculated quickly that if the balloon went up, I would hit the fat guy as hard as I could and hope I could turn before the teenager was on me. She stood there, 2 feet from my elbow, but she could have been a million miles away. Her beautiful eyes flicked from me, to the two men, and then back to me.

The fat guy gestured with his right arm, looking above my head. I heard a car engine excitedly revving behind me. "Are you OK, sweetheart?," he said to her, not looking at me, but tracking me carefully, like I was about to steal second base. "You can come with us if he's hurting you. We'll call the cops on him. Don't worry." The teen had caught up to us, his own eyes dancing, his girlfriend several steps back, eyeing him with a mixture of pride and disgust.

I looked at my girlfriend briefly. Her eyes were very wide, her pupils very small in the sunlight. The word "miosis" swam into my awareness from my physiology lessons. I could feel the sweat rolling down my back. I spread my legs apart slightly, getting my weight forward. Around the corner whipped a squat white SUV with "Mall Security" painted on the side. A woman got out with blonde short hair with a blue shirt and gray pants, carrying a walkie talkie in one hand. She gave me a hard edged look. I hadn't done anything to her. I wanted to shake my girlfriend, scream in her beautiful, open face. "Tell them!," I wanted to say, "Tell them I don't hit you! Tell them that!"

"What's up?," the mall cop said evenly.

"I'm not sure," the fat guy said. "I heard her yell for him to take his hands off of her, so I came over to see if something was wrong." The teen came a little closer on my right. The mall cop was standing right in front of me. She looked paunchy, but rough, like she had done more than pinch shoplifters. The fat guy took another small step forward, pinning me in. Everyone was staring at me with menace, daring me to say something, to hit her, to try and escape, to earn the enmity that they all had for me.

"Do you need the police, ma'am?," the mall cop said, her walkie talkie coming to her lips. She was looking right at my girlfriend, her own thighs parted slightly, her other fist balled. She knew how to fight, I was sure of it. I could smell the hate coming off them. I got ready.

With the mention of the word "police", it was as if the spell had been broken. "Oh no!," my girlfriend said excitedly. "No, no. No. I'm fine. No. This is my boyfriend. I was just mad at him because I don't want to go home. That's all."

"Really?," the mall cop said. "You can tell us the truth, honey. I can have the police here in less than 5 minutes. You don't have to put up with being hit. " The fat guy folded his arms over his chest. His arms looked like hams.

"No," she said with a small giggle. "Oh, no. He would never hit me. Not ever." She unfolded her arms and crossed one leg primly in front of the other. The decorative gold chain on her shoe glinted in the sun.

"You're sure?," the fat man said. The teen seemed to be backing away.

"Positive," my girlfriend said calmly. She was half smiling.

The mall cop stepped back towards her vehicle. "You don't want to come with me?," she asked my girlfriend.

"Nope," my girlfriend said. "I'm fine."

The fat man backed away, his wife staring daggers at me over his shoulder. The teen went back and collected his girl, giving me a wide berth, his face still even and hard. I breathed deep, trying to get enough air, trying to bring my blood pressure back down. I looked at my girlfriend, her perfect pointed toe, the way her jeans followed her long, womanly curves. I didn't hit her, and I never would, but just for a half second, I pictured doing so. I shook my head to clear the image.

"We better go," I said.

"Yup," she said, and I watched her infuriating, manipulative, perfect little ass walk in front of me as we returned to my car.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

FFF: "Walking After Midnight"

(Annnnnnnnnd we're back. NaNo consumed me, as it usually does, but I won (see sidebar!), and while it was a worthy journey, I'm also glad it's over. Normal (ish) posting should resume anon.)

(This week's Flash Fiction Friday is about milestones, and this story is called "Walking After Midnight".)

They said on the TV that the blizzard was coming, but for now, it was just another cold December night. She struggled to hold her black wool coat closed against the wind as she walked. It didn't fit her anymore, and only two of the buttons were left, but it was the coat closest to the door, so she shrugged it on and left. At that moment, speed trumped warmth, but the farther she got down the road, the more that equation tilted the other way. She had to leave, so she left. She wondered if they would look for her, but she also didn't care.

The cold seemed cruel, as if it meant her ill will personally. She knew weather wasn't like that- it didn't care about her at all. But she felt the wind attack her, knifing under the thin coat, chapping and burning her face and hands. She felt persecuted, assaulted by the cold, but she just kept walking, her thin Uggs making tiny incremental gains along the long, straight street. There was a tiny space reserved for pedestrians, due to the absence of a sidewalk, and she looked down at it carefully, trying hard to keep her footsteps inside it.

But the cars kept driving by, driving harder than seemed necessary, the moving headlights casting evil, sharp shadows over the ground. The disrupted air as they moved past her hit her like a wall each time, making her stumble and almost fall. The air was bitter and cold, and it smelled like gasoline. She felt the buffeting winds, and wondered how much more she could take. The smell made her nauseous and sad, but she wasn't sure if that was entirely the smell.

She kept walking, hunched against the wind, her head down to try to protect her face. She saw Bozo Donuts, glowing like a lighthouse amid the closed stores on either side of it. She looked at the giant clown in front, the hedges that surrounded the building, and the red and white decor inside. There was a long counter, with red stools empty in front of it, behind which were gleaming racks of donuts and coffee rolls and danishes behind glass. She steered herself down the driveway without thinking. She wasn't hungry, but her feet, seemingly of their own accord, wanted to be out of the wind.

A bell tinkled gently when she came in through the door. She closed her eyes with pleasure as the dry, stuffy heat started to thaw her skinny jeans and the quarter moon of bare skin at her belly that her sweater revealed when she stood up straight. Her hands and cheeks began to burn with a diffuse, tingling pain as she felt the blood returning to the damaged tissue. There was an Indian woman behind the counter, mopping at the already clean surface with a dirty rag. She was older, perhaps in her 50s, but looked kindly and small, with a tendril of perfectly white hair hanging over one eye. She had a red dot on her forehead, and she was wrapped in a giant turquoise sari with plastic beads and bangles on it.

"Coffee?," she said in accented English.

The cold girl didn't say anything for a moment, then finally opened her eyes and looked at the woman.

"Yes," the visitor said. "Decaf. With cream and sugar." She didn't like coffee, but it would be hot, and she could add enough sugar to make it taste decent.

"Donut?," the woman behind the counter said.

The visitor patted her pockets swiftly, then dug into one, leaning to one side to get her fingers deep enough to reach it, coming out with a tattered five that had seen better days. She looked at the prices on display and appeared to make a calculation. "Yes," she said. "Glazed."

"I give you two for one," the woman said. "So I don't have to throw out."

"Oh," the girl said with surprise. "OK. Thank you." The girl didn't really want the donuts, but it was food, and it might mean she could stay in the glorious heat a little longer.

The woman behind the counter produced a steaming china cup of coffee, a spoon, and a glass sugar dispenser with a silver top, and a three small plastic cups of non dairy creamer. She placed a pair of donuts on a tan plate, along with a silver and black napkin dispenser. "$4.50," the handwritten bill said.

"You don't have car," the woman said.

"No," the girl said, pouring sugar into the steaming black liquid. "I walked."

"Too cold to walk," she said. "Why you walk?"

The girl took a bite of the donut while she thought of something to say, letting the sugar melt on her tongue. She settled on taking another bite.

"Men problems? You have a secret? You look like you have a secret," the woman said.

The girl stirred her coffee and took a sip, wincing at the heat and acidity, then added more sugar.

"Girl walk by herself, freezing cold night, no purse, no phone, no gloves, men involved," the woman said.

The girl took another bite of donut.

"Men always cause problems. Like my mother always say, 'Men always want one thing, women only want one thing. Trouble is, not same thing!,' " the woman said, laughing politely at her own joke.

The girl smiled, and took another bite, finishing the first one, followed by a sip of stinging, still bitter, coffee.

"I no let you walk home," the older woman said. "I get phone for you."

She went behind the donut case and emerged with a silver portable phone.

"Here," she said to the girl. "You call home. Tell him you sorry. He come pick you up. It too cold for little girl to walk."

The girl looked at the phone, and up at the woman's creased, aged face, the misadventures of sons and daughters and grandchildren etched there. The girl wanted to explain, to amplify, to show how she was right and he was wrong. But it was cold, and it didn't seem as important now.

"Women always have to say sorry," the woman said. "Even when we right. Especially when we right."

The girl swallowed, tried to say something, and then swallowed again. She picked up the phone and dialed.

"Daddy?," she said. "It's Jenny......Yeah....I'm sorry, Daddy......No, I am, really........I'm at Bozo Donuts, on Madison.......yeah, I walked here.......I know.........Yeah, I know we have to talk when we get home.....OK, Daddy.....Yeah........I know......I'm sorry, too........Bye."

She set the phone back on the counter. She finished the second donut in one bite, folding it into her mouth. She left the five dollar bill on top of the bill, and used one of the napkins to wipe her mouth.

"Thanks," she said.

"Thank you," the woman replied, watching the girl stand inside the front window. The two stayed where they were, without speaking, until a pair of headlights jerked their way into the driveway and stopped. The girl went out the front door and climbed into the passenger's side of a Ford truck. The woman watched the truck leave, then sadly turned out the lights and locked up for the evening.

The woman knew of the many cruelties men can inflict on women, and parents on children. She had experienced most of them. She didn't know if it was right to send the girl back where she came from, but she didn't know what else to do, and it was cold. Sometimes, the woman thought, that's all you can know.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Watch This Space

Everyone who follows this space closely (both of you) may have noticed a deafening silence coming from these parts. Well, folks, it's NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), and with that plus impending revisions and publication to The Thing That Had No Name, time for regular 'ol balderdash has gone the way of the Eagles' playoff chances. Normal (well, what passes for normal) activity should resume by December at the latest, or earlier if I give up the way I typically do.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

SPE: "Rider On The Storm"

(For the Scriptic Prompt Exchange this week, Kurt gave me this prompt: "It was a dark and stormy night (for Halloween's sake)". I gave the mighty Jester Queen this: " 'The things you should have given to the relationship, you give to the work' -Billy Joel")

It was a dark and stormy night. Every time I write that phrase, or even think it, I invariably picture Snoopy, banging away on his typewriter on top of his doghouse. H e never wrote the big book he was starting, and neither had I. But it really was dark, and it really was stormy, as I sat in the big old green house on the top of the hill to wait out the storm.

I had given in to the inevitable power loss, lighting up a few candles and settling in on the couch for a long night of reading and the radio. I had found a country station that was coming in pretty well, despite the occasional bursts of static. I turned it down low, giving me a nice background hum.

The DJ, whomever it was, was playing a lot of old stuff, from Glen Campbell and Johnny Cash to Hank Williams and Waylon Jennings. It wasn't my style of music, totally- I tended towards men that they influenced like Bruce Springsteen and U2, but it was the station I could get, and I was enjoying the low fi feel it gave to the evening.

I was tucking into a volume of Borges stories that I had been trying to tackle for some time, listening to the wind lash the windows and the rain hammer the roof. Suddenly, there was a pounding at my front door. It was so shocking I couldn't figure out, for a moment, what to do.

I got up and walked haltingly across the living room. I opened it to a woman in a deeply inadequate rain slicker. Her shoulders were hunched against the wind, and her dirty blonde hair was plastered to her head. She looked up at me, her eyes wide with something more than fear. She was tiny, with a dancer's tiny feet, but with enormous, expressive features.

"Um, I'm sorry," was all she could say before I ushered her inside.

"God, get in here," I said. "It's not fit for man or beast out there."

She came inside. Her jeans were nearly black with absorbed water, and her fashionable, worthless plush boots were soggy. She had a sweatshirt on under the jacket, which I took away as soon as she unzipped it.

"Let me get you a towel," I said, taking the jacket into the bathroom and emerging with a pair of towels I had thankfully just laundered.

"Thank you," she said, rubbing vigorously at her piles of blond hair. Her roots revealed her true color, a dark mousy brown. "My car flooded right in front of your house, and I hoped I could call for a ride or something?"

"Well, you could certainly do that," I said, "except the phones went out a couple of hours ago."

"Seriously?" she said. She looked stricken.

"Yes," I said. "Try it if you don't believe me."

"No, I believe you," she said. "It's just that I..damn it. I don't know what I'm going to do."

"Well, even if we could call for a tow, or a taxi, nobody would come out in this anyway."

"I bet you're right," she said, looking down at her feet.

"Stay here," I said.

"Oh, I couldn't," she said quickly. She looked panicky.

"I don't think there is anything else you can do," I said. "What are you going to do, walk?"

She looked at me, and then out the window. The wind blew alarmingly hard against the glass, howling with rage.

"I suppose you're right," she said. She looked small suddenly, defeated and alone.

"If the storm is over in the morning," I added, "like it is supposed to be, we'll see if your car will start. If it will, you can be on your way. If not, I'll give you a ride."

"Really," she said, "you'd do that?" She shivered.

"Sure," I said. "Go in my bedroom and change. I've got plenty of clothes in the drawers. Put on something dry and I'll make some tea."

She looked out at the dark sky, as if she could will her car to start. "Thank you," she said, and she squished into my bedroom.

The power was still on, for the moment, so I started a kettle and got down some tea bags from the cupboard. Since my wife had been taken by cancer and the kids to college and the Navy, the old house was too drafty and troublesome for one person. But I stayed, mostly out of provincial stubbornness, because I could.

I heard drawers opening in my bedroom. She could have ill intent, of course. I was dangerously naive about women in general, and young ones in particular, but I wasn't stupid. There wasn't much in the house to steal, and something about the improbable earnestness of her encounter made me think this was genuine. I peeked through the window through the slanting rain, and thought I could make out a car shape near the bottom of my driveway. She was real, I thought.

She came out in ludicrously large sweatpants and a huge t shirt with a Red Sox logo on it. She appeared to be bra less.

"I'm Sam," I said.

"Jessica," she said.

"Did you hang up your stuff in the bathroom?," I said.

"Yes," she said. "It looks like a girl's dorm in there now. Sorry."

"That's okay," I said. "It's been a while, but it's not the first time women have dried clothes in there."

The water was hot, so I shut the stove off and poured two cups. We both prepared our drinks, finally sitting at the dining room table together. I looked at her eyes, dark ringed and scared. Outside, the wind lashed away.

"Why were you out in this awful weather?," I said.

"It's a long story," she warned.

"We have time," I noted.

"I'm tired," she said.

"I understand," I said. "The offer still stands, whether you want to talk about it or not."

She took a sip of tea, wincing at the heat. She paused for a moment. "Have you ever been so scared that you just had to get away?," she asked.

"Sure I have," I said. She was looking at the tendrils of steam coming off of the surface.

"You shouldn't have to be scared," I said. "It's a terrible thing, to be afraid."

She was quiet.

"If you need to stay here beyond the storm...," I said.

She looked at me, her face a mask.

I listened to the wind howling. Somewhere, a branch cracked.

"I'm tired," she said again.

After a brief battle, she took my bed, which I had made two weeks ago and hadn't disturbed since, and I went back to the couch. It didn't take long for sleep to take me, and I awoke to sun coming through the branches in my back yard. I stretched and listened for my night visitor, but I heard nothing.

I got up and walked across to my bedroom door. I knocked gently, and then more vigorously. "You hungry?" I asked, trying to sound friendly. I tried the knob and it was open. I opened the door slowly.

"Hey," I said. "You up?"

I looked inside the bedroom, where my bedspread, tucked like always, looked back at me. Puzzled, I continued in, finding the bathroom as I had left it, no underwear drying, no jacket where i had left it, an old Esquire in the magazine rack. I went back to the front door, smelling the delightfully clean air and looking for the car I had seen by the road. It was gone, utterly gone, like none of it had ever happened. I surveyed the limbs that would need removal that were in my front yard, looking around for someone to explain what had happened.

I slid on some old Nikes and walked down to the bottom of my driveway. Not only was there no car, in fact the worn area of dirt that marked the edge of my yard was a sea of mud, only just beginning to dry in the apologetic sunlight. Not a tire track in sight.

I walked back up to the house, thankful that the power was still on, and wondering if I would ever see that Red Sox shirt again.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

VV/TWC: "Slash"

[I decided to go double dutch this week. This story, "Slash", is submitted to Velvet Verbosity's 100 Word Challenge for the word "distancing", as well as my triplicate obsessed friends at the Trifecta Writing Challenge, for the word "sinister".]

Elisa worked her pocketknife into the black rubber right under the "G". She had to push, leaning with all her weight, but eventually the blade made its way forward. She heard a hiss of escaping air into the cold night. The music from the party pounded the air. Elisa started to sweat. He had been distancing himself, nothing sinister so far, just somehow managing to not be home when she called, or not at the store when she dropped by. Elisa wasn't going to have that, and she smiled as his Corvette began to cant forward on the ruined tire.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

SPE: "Somebody Save Me"

{For the Scriptic prompt exchange this week, Talia gave me this prompt: "I want you to save me." I gave dailyshorts this prompt: " 'Guitar is the best form of self expression I know. Everything else, and I'm just sort of tripping around, trying to figure my way through life.' -Slash."}[This is called "Somebody Save Me"]

When she woke up, she drew her knees up towards her chest. The hospital gown was nearly translucent, revealing her bare flesh in places. It was taking her a while to focus, but after a few seconds, she saw that the curtain was pulled and it was just me, sitting there next to her bed beside the open window where the December sun struggled to show itself. Snow was just beginning to melt on the hospital roof, and every so often there would be a single, sad drop that flashed by. She relaxed, letting out a deep breath. Whatever else had passed between us, we had seen enough of each other's bodies to kill any thoughts of modesty.

Her knees had made little mountains of the bed sheet, which shrunk as she straightened her legs. She had IV lines in both arms. Occasionally, something whirred, clicked or beeped. Her pulse made a wavy, even line on a video screen above our heads.

"Hi," she said, her voice cracked and squeaky. She reached for a plastic cup of water on the bedside table. I stood up and helped her with it. She drank gently from the lip.

"Hi," she said again, her voice sounding softer and more natural.

"Hi," I said. Her hair was matted with sleep, and I could smell her sweat.

"Thanks for coming," she said.

"Of course. Not a problem."

"Nobody wanted to let you in. I had to tell the nurses that I wanted to see you." I heard a car turning out of the hospital drive onto the highway, tires spinning on some slush.

"Well, thank you. As long as you wanted to see me, I wanted to be here."

"My Mom kind of blames you. For what happened."

"I understand," I said. Her mother had been cold, but polite, on the phone when she gave me the news. "I probably would, if I were her."

"I told her it wasn't totally that. It was everything. I mean, that was part of it, know."

"Yeah," I said. She had taken half a bottle of her mother's sleeping pills just over a week ago, and she had only been conscious for the last 2 days. We had been engaged up until Thanksgiving, when she gave me the ring back in a wine fuelled haze.

"I was making you crazy."

"Well," I said, swallowing. "No more than anyone else."

She chuckled, a soft little sound. "Come on. I was driving you nuts."

"Don't forget," I said, forcing a smile. "I was halfway there."

"True," she said. "I'm really sorry, Steven."

"I know."

"If I could undo it, you know I would." A nurse laughed as she walked away down the hall.

"I know."

"It's's like...I don't even know why I do it. It's like there's this monster, and when it gets off the leash, it takes over. You were the only person who could talk to me when I was like that. The only one. When it's in control, I do stupid things. Awful things."

"I know," I said. It seemed like the only thing I could say.

"Dr. Sheffield says she's going to help me tame it. That it's going to take some work, but she will teach me ways to control it."

"That's great news," I said.

"I'm scared," she said. "What if I can't?"

"I'm sure you can," I said. "You can beat this. You're plenty tough enough."

"I wanted Jacob to save me. Then I wanted you to save me. Now I want the doctors and the pills to save me."

"You're worth saving," I said.

"I wish I believed that," she said. "I want you to save me, though. Still. Even though I know you can't. I know I have to save me. That's what they say. I have to do this for me."

"You will. Eventually, you'll want to save you. And the doctors will teach you how."

I reached out my hand. Her hand was resting on the mattress. I slid my fingertips underneath hers. The number that displayed her pulse increased slightly.

"Do you think, maybe, once I'm better...," she said.

"I'm not sure. Let's focus on healing for right now."

"Do you still have the ring?," she said. Her pulse climbed again.

"Yes," I said. It was still in the box I bought it in, underneath my clean socks.

"Do you still love me? Even after what I did?"

"Of course," I said. I did, too. Despite all the madness, I clung to her like a refugee.

"Then maybe we can start over?"

"Sure," I said. "You'll have to ask me out this time, though."

She laughed softly, then coughed once. "Deal."

Someone cleared her throat outside the curtain. She pulled it back slightly. It was the head nurse, a red faced Irish woman. "You have to go, son. Bath time."

"But he's already seen...," she began.

"Tssh!," the nurse hissed. "I've already broken the rules letting him in. He can come back during proper visiting hours. 2-4 tomorrow."

"I'll be back," I said. "Goodnight, Marlena."

"Goodnight, Steven," she said.

I walked down the hall, listening to the sounds, snatches of conversation about sex and death, work and money and fear. All around me, babies were being born, and people were slipping off into nothingness. I thought about tiny, perfect Marlena, all her rages and fits and reckless decisions, and tried to imagine a world without her. My own heart gave a nasty thump under my breastbone. When you can't live without someone, I guess you have to live with them.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

SPE: "Crippled Inside"

[For the Scriptic prompt exchange this week, Jester Queen gave me this prompt: "Cold air blew in from the front of the house, and I knew before I went into the kitchen that the door had been open all night." I gave Eric Storch this prompt: " 'Sometimes I don't consider myself very good at life, so I hide in my profession.' --Kurt Vonnegut"]

I didn't have many visitors. On a hot day, my mailman would sit and drink some ice water with me, and I had a few neighbors who would check in on me. But generally speaking, I was alone most of the time. It suited me well enough. I had always been a solitary sort of person, even when my house was crowded. My wife was stolen, first her soul, then her body, by breast cancer, and then my son left to chase his dreams, living with 4 other animators in a rented house outside St. Louis. So I was alone, mostly, and that was by choice. Mostly.

So when the cold air blew in from the front of the house, I knew before I went into the kitchen that the door had been open all night. I knew I hadn't left it open- my nighttime ritual involved shutting all my doors and windows, then giving both doors a ritual tug to be sure they had latched. I didn't lock them anymore- there wasn't anything for anyone to steal, and our neighborhood was quiet and paranoid enough so that any unusual visitors would stick out.

I had glanced at the clock as I walked through the kitchen. It was 3:45, bringing to mind the old Fitzgerald quote about how, in a deep dark night of the soul, it is always 3 o'clock in the morning. I didn't have to be anywhere in the morning, but this time of the night always troubled me. 2 o'clock is somehow still part of the previous night, and 4 o'clock always belongs to the next day. 3 is a hermaphrodite, half here and half there, and when I find myself awake at that hour, I am always haunted by a vague anxiety, a feeling that nothing good can happen.

I came into the front room and stopped short when I saw her. She was sitting in my recliner, which faced vaguely towards the television, her legs crossed primly at the knee as if she was waiting to be called on. She was in that indeterminate spectrum of age- she could be a tall 12 year old, or a slim lass of 20. Her legs were bare, and she wore only what I assumed was a nightshirt, along with those comically functionless boots that were still in fashion- too slight to be any real protection, and too common to be truly fashionable. It wasn't freezing- in my New England boyhood, we'd call this a warm winter day. But it was too cold to be outside in nightclothes.

I shut the door gently, continuing to look at her as she sat. Her hair was a rat's nest of disorder, tufts and tangles galore. I could see her nipples pushing at the fabric, taut and hard, but her face was a mask of dreamy unconcern. I knew two things that would produce that face, being stoned and sleepwalking, and I assumed it was probably the latter. I had lived with a sleepwalker in college, and we all got used to steering him back to bed at all hours of the night.

"Hi," I said, my voice syrupy from sleep. She didn't react, simply kept staring at my television like she was waiting for someone. She looked familiar. I knew she belonged in the neighborhood, but which kid belonged to which house was a daily puzzle that I never exerted myself enough to solve. Emily, I think her name was.

"Emily?," I tried. "Honey? You're in the wrong house, sweetheart."

Nothing. She could be an android before you pressed the on button. Not happy, not sad, just blank emptiness.



I walked over to the couch and picked up an Afghan my wife had knitted years ago. I walked over to her and tried to wrap it around her shoulders. She was still unresponsive, so I settled on draping it over her as best I could. At least I couldn't see her nipples anymore. What kind of thoughts were running through her head? Was she escaping from something? What made someone walk through the cold into a stranger's house? I knew the old wives' tale that you couldn't wake up a sleepwalker without causing insanity was false, but I didn't want to wake her up even so. She would be entitled to be panicky, waking up in a stranger's house, barely clothed.

I dialed 911, keeping an eye on her as I waited. Once I explained, the dispatcher chuckled.

"Oh, Emily? Yeah, this isn't the first time. About once a month, she escapes whatever traps her parents lay and gets out. She's visited everyone on the block at least once. I guess it's just your turn tonight. Hold tight, an officer is on the way."

I set the phone down, looking at her empty, open face. Her face was flushed red, probably from the wind as she walked. I knew intellectually she had a disease, no more or less than an ear infection, one that would probably clear as she aged. But I had a sick feeling, a deep disquiet that something was wrong with my nocturnal intruder.

The police knocked politely as I pondered. The officer at the door was a young looking man, slightly tense, giving me a long hard look. We exchanged greetings, and I stepped back, letting him and his partner, a squat, muscular looking blonde woman, into my house.

"There she is," the woman said lovingly. She walked in front of me, scooping the girl up as if she were a sleepy toddler. One of Emily's boots fell to the floor as the officer lifted her up. Her toenails had ragged dots of polish on them. I picked up the boot and handed it to the male officer.

"Is this her blanket?," the woman said.

"No," I said. "It's mine. Let her keep it."

"OK," she said. "I'll give the parents your address. You should get to know each other."

With no more strain than lifting a case of soda, the woman walked past me carrying the girl.

I looked at the male officer. "Pedersen," his uniform said.

"Do you think she's OK?," I said. "She's not being abused or anything?"

"I thought that, too," he said. "My partner, there, had a long talk with her the last time we had to pick her up. She swears up and down everything is fine. Until she says boo, there's not much we can do about it."
"Aha. Well thanks for coming out."

"No problem. Thanks for not shooting her."

"Good night, Officer."

"Good night. And lock your door," Pedersen said.

The three of them left. My heat cycled on, trying to eliminate the chill. I thought about her foot, bare in the still chilly air, so vulnerable. My heart ached briefly for all the lonely people I could not protect, and then I sighed and turned the TV on.

That Thing That I Do? I'm About To Do It Again.

"Yesterday it was my birthday-
I hung one more year on the line-
I should be depressed-
My life's a mess-
But I'm having a good time."

-Paul Simon
"Have A Good Time"

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

100 Word Song: "Gone"

(Lance, who is nobody's fool, and whose blog can beat up my blog, allowed his infinitely patient better half, the lovely Bobina, to select this week's 100 Word Song, Snow Patrol's "Chasing Cars". Since I am an Oldy McOlderton From Oldville, I assumed that this would be another of the selections that I had never heard of, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I had in fact heard it. It was one of those, "Oh yeah, THAT song" situations. This story is called "Gone". )

It was one of those moments cat owners know. The house was quiet, and Bella jumped up onto the bed, eyeing me suspiciously. I was dressed, but just laying there, passively resisting my to do list.

"Do you want to come have a rest, baby?," I said, speaking softly. She was very skittish. She looked into my eyes.

"Do you want to lay here with me?," I said.

My phone rang. It was sitting on the bed, and as soon as it vibrated, she was up and off, down onto the floor and jetting into the kitchen.

"Damn," I thought.

Velvet Verbosity's 100 Word Challenge: "Folsom Prison"

The inimitable Velvet Verbosity survived her first round play in game, and is fully prepared to win the Division Series of Blogging. This week's challenge comes from another of my favorite Vs, Kurt Vonnegut, and his advice that every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water. This story is called "Folsom Prison".

Johnny Cash looked out into a sea of hard, expectant faces. His people said he was crazy. But he felt music was a calling. It was a way to bring a bit of someone else's experience to you, and to make you feel it, to make you own it. It wasn't preaching, but it was close. He wanted to bring it to all of God's children.

The hot air had dried his throat. He looked at a guard, standing offstage with a billy club.

"Could I get a glass of water?," he said into the mike, and the inmates cheered.

10 Questions From Gill Hoffs

My other brother from another mother, Matt Potter, editor in chief and majordomo at the literary magazine where all the cool kids hang out, Pure Slush, asked me to participate in one of those tag you're it blog things. Longtime readers will note that this is not typically the cut of this blog's jib these days, but since the request came from the esteemed Mr. Potter, this blog hopped to it. What follows are Ten Questions, originally promulgated by another of this blog's favorite carbon based life forms, Gill Hoffs. The questions pertain to what this blog hopes will be this blog's next novel, which this blog intends to attempt as this blog's NaNoWriMo 2012 project.

What is the working title of your book?

I don't know. Titles are funny. Sometimes they are so obvious that you can't help it, and other times you can't think of anything that isn't stupid or repetitive. I stole a song title for my first book, so I may just do that. Let's call it "A Long December" for right now.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

A pen pal gave me the idea, based on events from her own life.

What genre does your book fall under?

Probably the same thing all my books fall under- "So Called Literary Fiction". "Fiction With Pretensions," perhaps?

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

That's unclear at this time. Certainly young people, or young looking people. I'm thinking a Zooey Deschanel type, only slightly more serious looking.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

"Former lovers narrate their lives through an exchange of letters over the course of years."

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Hahahahahahahahahaha. Seriously. No. Self published, of course. I'm nowhere near good enough to expose my work to outsiders.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Ideally, November 1-November 30, 2012.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Well, "Herzog", obviously.
I kid, I kid. I don't know. The only author I compare myself to is Nick Hornby, but that's a grievous insult to him.

Who or What inspired you to write this book?

When my pen pal described her relationship, the whole structure hit me like a ton of bricks. It seems like an obvious book to me, and I'm kind of surprised I've never read one like it. Of course, there may be 200 like it, but I've just never read them. If you have heard of one, please put it in the comments, so I can slit my wrists with confidence.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

I'm not sure. I never think anything I do is any good, so I'm not comfortable asserting something that may or may not interest you.

SPE: October 17,2003

[For the Scriptic prompt exchange this week, Barb Black gave me this prompt: "The first cold, crisp day of autumn always reminds me of," and I gave Jester Queen this prompt: " 'Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end.' -Semisonic, "Closing Time" "]

{ In the very first moments of October 17,2003, New York Yankee Aaron Boone hit an 11th inning home run off of Boston Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield to win the seventh and deciding game of the American League Championship Series, 6-5. This ended Boston's 85th consectutive season without a World Series championship, and the Yankees moved on to the World Series.}

[This is poetry, I guess. It's incredibly hard, and I give full credit to any and all poets in the audience, especially my home girl Marian. It's called "October 17, 2003" ]

October 17, 2003

ITunes is new.
Iraq War too.
I'm 32.

If it's high,
let it fly.

If it's low,
let it go.

Swing and a drive
Kept Yanks alive

Wakefield walks slow
Heralds the snow

Happy Birthday, John Lennon

Today would have been John Lennon's 72nd birthday.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

SPE : "Forgive Me, Richard Dawkins"

(For the Scriptic prompt exchange this week, Grace O'Malley gave me this prompt: "Archaeopteryx, Inc." I gave Wendryn this prompt: "And everything was going so well, too.")(This is called "Forgive Me, Richard Dawkins")

I didn't have any illusions about my desirability as a mate. I looked like a substitute teacher, which is what I was, rumpled and slightly pasty like a donut left in the box for 2 days. My novel was in what seemed like its millionth set of revisions and rewrites, and my prospects for a career in any field dimmed quickly as each month passed. I felt like a fading star, watching from the bench as younger, stronger players celebrate a victory. "This is what happens when you chase your dreams, kids," I wanted to tell my students.

I went into the online dating world not out of any burning desire for a mate, but more to shut my mother up. Her cries about the extinction of our "line" had fallen on deaf ears thus far, but as 30 years old neared in the windshield, her arguments became less easy to ignore. It would be nice, I convinced myself, to have someone to go to museums and movies with, and to have someone to talk to other than my mailman, my editor, and the crusty nonentities in the various teacher's lounges across the county. So I bought in, and before long, I was exchanging slightly flirty emails with Jamie, a brunette with a severe looking face, her hair pulled back with hip glasses and an Roman nose.

We agreed to meet at the library on Columbus Day, a day off she shared as a bank manager. The floors were cool marble, and outside we could see a fall storm chopping the river into whitecaps. I had one of my better dress shirts on, and she wore a long, dark, modest skirt with tan boots and a big white sweater. We walked together, looking at the different exhibits, making aimless small talk and evaluating each other's mannerisms as we maneuvered around whiny toddlers and moms pushing strollers.

We came into a large hall filled with fossils. She stopped in front of a diorama showing a bird like creature, glaring at us from a foam branch. It reminded me of Snoopy playing vulture.

"Look," she said cheerfully. "They made that one look like a bird."

I stood behind her. I was looking at the way her hair, let down in a beautiful corona, fell across her shoulder. She wasn't the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, but she would probably crack the top 20, and she seemed to enjoy my company.

"I'm sure it's all based on logical deductions." I tended to over lecture, treating everyone within earshot like they were a student.

"What is?"

"The colors, the bone structure. It's all based on the fossil evidence, and logical inferences and deductions."

"Fossils," she said dismissively. "Whatever. You don't really believe in those, do you?"

I stopped short. She took a step or two away from me.

"Believe in them?" I was trying to keep my voice down, but some disbelief crept in. "I don't have any alternative to believing in them. They are real, as real as the floor we are standing on."

"Those scientists don't really know what happened."

"Well, no," I said. "They weren't there. But they can make really good guesses."

"I never believed in any of that stuff."

"What stuff? Science?"

"No," she said, chuckling. Her laugh was musical and her eyes danced. "No, all that evolution stuff. There's no way they really know that."

She took another step away, towards a display of bones, showing the progress from a dinosaur limb into a bird wing. I didn't know what to say next. I thought about the comedian Dana Gould, who has a joke about dealing with his father's irrational beliefs. "What am I supposed to say? He thinks gay people give off heat!"

I stepped closer, so I wouldn't be yelling across the exhibit at her. She went to high school and college. Or she said she did. I traced the curves of her hips and waist through the skirt and sweater. She was attractive, even under the layers. There was no denying that. I mentally weighed the possibility of pretending to listen to her lunacy in the hopes of getting her into bed. I knew I could do it. But could I live with myself?

"They're pretty sure," I said more quietly. "Plus all the evidence points in that direction. That's the beauty of science- if you have a better theory, the floor is open."

We stopped again, looking at the tiny flecks of bone with the drawings showing what they would look like at full size.

"Where do you think the fossils come from, then?"

"Oh, I believe the fossils are real," she said. "I don't think there's some company, some Archaeopteryx, Inc, going around the world, placing fossils everywhere. I just don't think that we know all that much about what things were really like. It's a lot of guessing."

I looked down at the floor. The soft brown toe of one of her boots was pointed right at me. It's really good guessing, I wanted to say. Guessing based on all the available evidence. On carbon dating. On ice core samples., for goodness' sake. I was no paleontologist, but I knew enough to know that they weren't just guessing. She really was pretty, and she looked willing. Weren't there enough things in the world to talk about, other than the fossil record?

"I guess you must be getting pretty hungry," I said, trying to sound suave.

"I am, actually. Do you want to go grab a bite?"

"Absolutely," I said. She walked out of the exhibit, back towards the lobby and the cafeteria. I followed, watching her hemline twitch as she walked. There was a tiny line of lace across the bottom of the skirt, and it made the fabric look like it was dancing as it fluttered along. Forgive me, Richard Dawkins, I thought.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

100 Word Song: "Helpless"

Lance, the greatest thing to come out of Georgia since Bear Bryant, gives us Mumford and Sons "I Will Wait" for our 100 word songfulness this week. This story is about someone who did not wait, and it is called "Helpless".

I wanted to say that I didn't know, but I did. Most everyone over here worried someone was cheating at home. We left someone behind, and we hoped they would stay true. It felt helpless. We're not good at helpless.

She stopped keeping Skype dates, then she started staying out of view, her face red, her shirts tight. When she said we had to talk, I knew what she was going to say.

"You said you would wait," I said into the ether.

"I know," she said. "I'm sorry."

I reached out and closed the window before she could explain.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Velvet Verbosity's 100 Word Challenge: "Whatever Was Wasn't Enough"

Velvet Verbosity always makes sure her replacement referees are fully trained. This week's word is "Beyond", and this story is called "Whatever Was Wasn't Enough."

Janet always wanted more. If you drank three, she would drink four. If you stayed out until four, she would stumble in at six. She was always looking for something just beyond the horizon, living in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction. Whatever was wasn't enough. When she finally met Joseph, the male version of herself, everyone was sure that a flaming crash was to follow.

"You two have to slow down," they said. "You have plenty of time."

Janet put both hands on her belly and wished she had listened. By looking for something beyond, she found something else within.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

SPE: "Ethelred The Unready"

[For the Scriptic prompt exchange this week, Jester Queen gave me this prompt: "The narrow world exploded with colors." I gave Diane this prompt: ' "Then it comes to be that the soothing light at the end of your tunnel/ Was just a freight train coming your way-" Metallica, "No Leaf Clover" ']

I was laying down across the back seat, staring out the window on the driver's side, watching the world whip by. When I was little, I remember a similar view on long rides. I used to pretend that I was in a submarine, exploring the ocean floor. Brown utility poles and silver streetlights were the tentacles of enormous undersea beasts I had to steer around, and buildings were coral reefs where even more exotic creatures lurked. Back then, with my head at one end, I could barely reach across the seat to touch the other door. Now, I have to curl myself into a pretzel to fit in the same space.

My father, brown eyed, bearded, and firm in his convictions, had tried to engage me in conversation as the ride began, asking me questions I had already answered and telling me stories I had already heard, until my mother stopped her knitting long enough to finally cut in.

"Let her sleep, Jonathan," she said calmly. "We have hours to kill."

He lapsed into silence, finally giving up and starting an audiobook about English history. My father was the sort of person who turned anything into a chance to learn something, a trait as admirable as it was obnoxious. Relieved, I curled into a ball, pulling an afghan my mother made around me. I listened to stories of Ethelred the Unready, soothed by the metronomic clicking of my mother's needles, and stared out the window as the countryside passed by.

We had risen with the dawn, another of my father's less desirable traits, so early I just pulled my hair back and left without showering. It was remarkable how little space I took up- everything I would need for months, taking up the back of one SUV. I felt insignificant, curled up in my little biosphere, rolling along. I had brought headphones, and my own music, and magazines, but the hypnotic rhythm of the road thumping underneath us lulled me into a Zen stillness, staring, not sleeping, just being.

I had done all the things you were supposed to do, and signed all the things you were supposed to sign. It was all pretend now, answering the question "aren't you excited?" with the only possible answer, "Oh yeah!". The whole process was going on of its own accord, making me view my own life at a remove. I was going because that's what you do, because that's what my mother did, because that's what you need to do. Everyone says so. It was easier to just go along, a stick thrown into the stream.

I closed my eyes, listening to the change in tone as we took a long, slow curve onto a larger highway. The thoughts still came, unbidden and unwanted. What was I doing? I didn't want to go live with a bunch of women I didn't know. I didn't want to do anything. I just wanted everything to slow down, to let me examine my options and decide which one I really preferred. Everything suddenly got complicated, with real world consequences of your decisions that I didn't feel worthy of considering. I wanted to be asked what I wanted in a world that was determined to tell me what to do.

I stretched the afghan taut, pulling my knees apart, one up towards the roof, one pointed towards the front. My mother had been delightfully clueless about my social life, making sure I knew everything an obstetrician would before I was entirely positive I knew what boys were. She tried hard, which I appreciated, but she never knew what was happening, which was deliberate. There were things I couldn't say, thoughts that I knew weren't wrong but were too private, too internal, too real to be shared. I know they whispered about me. I know my mother and my aunts wondered why I never mooned over boys, didn't go to the prom, never flirted at the mall. I never told anyone what I was feeling, what I wanted, what I needed, because the answer was usually nothing.

I read articles all the time about silent privacy codes between roommates, about bolder girls having sex while their roommates slept. Older sisters told breathless stories about drunken hookups with boys, or even with other girls, about emergency trips to the Health Center for diseases or something worse. I didn't know if those things really happened, or if they were just a social exaggeration, like those stories about girls getting pregnant after sitting on public toilets. I found it hard to imagine how I would cope with all that.

I didn't feel like dealing with anything. When we visited campus last spring, the work seemed impossibly hard, the women impossibly long legged and tan, the boys so many different flavors of cute. I couldn't see those people as peers. They were gods, moving through but not among mortals, capable and strong, whip smart and comfortable anywhere. I thought hard about the boys, how they were no more than a couple of years older than the clods who used to sit next to me in US History, but they were so different as to be another species. I wanted to feel like I was one of them, to know their secrets, to understand what they laughed about, to feel the weight of their gaze, their overwhelming need.  

I must have fallen asleep, because suddenly the narrow world outside the window exploded with colors. There were trees near the entrance, green and brown and a few leaves already golden, then grass, broad green expanses being carefully tended by tan men wearing ear protection and dingy t shirts. Then buildings, red brick and deep brown wood, and cars, green and yellow and black and white, Kias and Porches and Fords and BMWs. My eyes popped wide open and I sat up, the taste of panic rising in the back of my throat.

My father was muttering at the insanity of the traffic pattern, or lack of one, as he tried to figure out which of the roads led to my building. My hands immediately went to my hair, undoing and redoing my pony tail, immediately regretting my clothes and my shoes and my unshowered self. I wanted out, back to my old room with its smells and sounds and the flecks of paint from where I put posters up. I wanted everything to be simple again, where the most complicated problem you had was how to be at two different birthday parties on the same Saturday.

My father pulled into a spot, then shut off the engine.

"You ready for a new adventure, kiddo?," he said.

"Sure am," I said.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

SPE: Over and Over

{For the Scriptic prompt exchange this week, kgwaite gave me this prompt: "The road construction was making it impossible to leave the city." I gave SAM this prompt: "The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good." - Samuel Johnson}

There was a forest of red lights in front of me, the frowning rear ends of Hyundais and Hummers, Kias and Corollas, all forced into equality by a traffic jam. The road was narrowing, down to a single lane, with city drivers showing their typical calm and equanimity by trying to squeeze into every square inch at the earliest possible second. I took a deep breath, trying not to white knuckle the steering wheel. There was nothing to be done, I told myself. All the other routes were worse- nearly every major artery had some project somewhere along it. All the road construction was making it nearly impossible to leave the city.

Up ahead, the cones and flashing orange lights and men with reflective vests were out. I knew they worked hard, because eventually the road got finished and they moved on to the next project, but when you passed by them like this, creeping and beeping, I couldn't help but notice how many of them weren't doing anything at all. It was almost mocking, how they stared back at us, knowing that we were there, trapped in our funeral procession. One of them, a tall, lanky guy who looked a little like Mark Sanchez, stretched in the sun, his perfect abs peeking out from under a US Army shirt, then climbed up into an enormous machine.

This journey was foolish. They were all dumb, but I could write volumes, compose page after page of epic poetry about exactly how stupid it all was. I told myself this, every hurried assignation resulting in another long, slow, shameful ride home, combined with promising myself that I would end it, endure the humiliation and rage and simply cut it off at the knees. Stop answering her summons, risking her rage and some twisted revenge fantasy but knowing it would be better to just let it die.

We were creeping forward still, inch by begotten inch, meekly falling into line. I watched the road grader, huge and imposing, flattening down some fresh asphalt. Everyone seemed to just be watching, staring as the big machine did its work. The gleaming flat blackness, shining in the sun, reminded me of riding my bike as a teen, finding a stretch of straight road in an industrial park, pushing myself as hard as I can, high on the thrill of speed. The minivan in front of me had a stick figure family on the back window, along with a decal of a ballet dancer. My mouth was dry.

It was a text message that started this episode. "Come get me," was all it said, and I was up, closing my laptop and sliding it into my bag with one practiced motion. I had the kind of job where you didn't have to always answer for your whereabouts precisely. People snuck in and out of the office all the time, and yet somehow things always got done. That was a blessing and a curse- if I had a more regimented office, the trap I had fallen into would have been impossible. But that's an excuse. I could have said no, should have said no. I just didn't.

She was a student, visiting in the office for two weeks over the summer so that she can get a tiny flavor of what her intended career may be like. We had a routine for our students, letting her sit on some meetings, helping on some projects, occasionally asked to research this or that stubborn item. She performed splendidly, easily fitting into the culture, dressing well, asking pertinent, cogent questions on occasion. All in all, a delightful experience.

Her last day was when the trouble started. I really have got to stop calling it that. The more I think about it, going over and over it like a movie I can't turn off, she was flirting the whole time, laughing too loudly, standing too close, gently touching arms and waists, longing looks across a conference table. I was just too dense to pick up on it.

The boss decided to take her out to a lunch that I couldn't make on her last day, so she came by my office. She was beautiful, long legs and rich auburn hair, an even, oval face with eager, questioning blue eyes. But they always are- people her age are made beautiful, mindless evolution demanding reproductive fitness regardless of society's wishes. After exchanging contact information, she just kept standing there, so close, exchanging small talk, making tiny hair flips, the pointed toe of her shoe making little circles in front of me on the rug.

I have long made a habit of excusing myself from all manner of horrid behavior, but what happened next cannot be adequately explained. I have said "I couldn't help myself," and "I was a slave to my lizard brain," and I have tried every other type of reasoning and justification I can come up with. I was drawn to her, my arms finding the curve of her hips, my hands the small of her back. She was eager and willing, and while I kept thinking that I should stop, that I should wait, that I can't, that we shouldn't, we didn't stop, and we didn't wait, and I could, and we did.

What came next was just the feeding of an addiction. She calls, I come, I leave and feel guilty until she calls again. And then, like the dog chasing the rabbit at the track, I'm off again. I have to do it, it feels like, the way I have to eat or have to breathe. It is a compulsion. I feel an intense, grinding need while we are together. I don't know whether I am reliving my youth or spoiling hers, but whatever it is, minutes feel like seconds, and it is torture until we are together again. I feel slightly nauseous, like when I have had too much caffeine. My nerves feel raw.

Suddenly the traffic loosens up and I'm accelerating onto the highway. The speed after all that waiting feels like I'm making a jailbreak, fleeing from the authorities. I can feel the distance between us, willing her closer even as I hate her for having a hold on me. I know her exit, the tight turn onto the main road, and then the long, slow merging into the mess that surrounds the school. She is with two other girls, the three of them sharing a quick, hard laugh in confidence, as I wait for a bottleneck to clear in front of me.

Drive away, I tell myself. Get back on the highway and go home and get a hobby. Read a book. See a play. Take up yoga. Buy a gun. Do something appropriate for your age. Let her worry about graduation and her upcoming freshman year like her friends do, like people her age should. Let her find her own way in the world, and stop pretending you are anything more than a wallet with feet. Drive past her high school and don't look back.

But I pull forward, negotiating the confusion, pulling to the side along the sidewalk. I'm cursing myself as I do it, swearing under my breath, knowing that there is a wide gulf between what is legal and what is right. I stop the car, and I see her calves first, long and slender, and she is there, bright and alive and clear and smelling like the free summer breeze. She slides into the seat beside me and shuts the door, setting a lime green bag between her feet. I hate myself, and then she speaks.

"I want to go shopping," she says, and she takes my free hand, and I accelerate away.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

FFF: "What I Know"

[The Flash Fiction Friday challenge this week is to rewrite a famous movie scene in 1969 or fewer words. I have chosen the most famous scene from one of my favorite movies, Aaron Sorkin and Rob Reiner's "A Few Good Men", the scene when Tom Cruise's Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee is questioning Jack Nicholson's Colonel Nathan Jessup about the death of Private William Santiago on the naval base at Guantanamo Bay. (It is the scene that contains the meme "you can't HANDLE the truth," which you have doubtless heard in some context, unless you spent the last two decades on a Martian penal colony.) This story is told from the point of view of Nicholson's character, and while I am confident my readers are smart enough to understand this, I feel bound to emphasize that these are not my views, they are the made up views of a fictional character.] [ This story is called "What I Know".]

It was hot in the courtroom, hot and stale in a way fans and air conditioners couldn't seem to stir. I could feel the sweat across the small of my back and on my thighs. I hadn't looked forward to making the trip to Washington for just this reason. Cuba was hot, sure, but Washington got hot the way no place else did. It was oppressive, miasmal heat- it made you wonder just what in the hell they were thinking to put the capital here.

It was offensive, leaving all my work behind to fly up here and have them act like I have to defend my command decisions. But here is where I was told to come, and when you've saluted the flag as long as I have, when they say come, you come. I knew what these lawyers were trying to do. It was that rotten little weasel Santiago, the inquiry into his death suddenly becoming a big affair, when really, it was just as simple as you please. I don't care what the doctors say- those slick lawyers have been throwing around buzzwords like acidosis and metabolism and all that crap I barely remember from high school biology. The lawyers were trying to make me responsible for Santiago's death, but truth is, he died of not being a Marine. Simple.

They told the kid to quit. Kendrick, Markinson, Dawson, everybody. Just leave the Corps and go home. Nothing to be ashamed of if you can't do it. Not everybody can be a Marine. It's hard because it has to be, so the men will be brave, and it's hard to make you a better man. Plenty of kids can't do it. Go home and ring a register, or go to community college. I'm not saying the kid deserved to die- I'm just saying he wasn't a Marine. No shame in that. Most men aren't.

But the little bastard stayed. He stayed, and he still couldn't hack it. He was terrible at everything- drill, PT, cleanliness, shooting. Every time we dressed him down about it, he apologized and promised to do better, but nothing would happen, the same sorry performance, on test after test after test. So if he wasn't going to go, we had to mold him. That's our job, right? Molding men? So I decided to work with the boy. I listened to Kaffee yammer at me, responding to his questions, wishing for just one stupid little breeze to cool off this stifling room.

Of course I knew the Code Reds were illegal. Everyone knew that. Division had ordered it. But whoever wrote that rule either had never faced bullets with his name on them, or had faced them so long ago all the fear had faded. When you're in it, when the man next to you is depending on you to do your job and you're depending on him, you take comfort in the fact that you know he's good enough. He was forged in the same fires you were, so you know he's made of something. That's the kind of toughness you must have in a forward area, that's the kind of toughness you need in a Marine, and that's the kind of toughness that Santiago would never have, and that's the kind of toughness Kaffee, for all his degrees, would never have on his best day.

Look at Kaffee, barking questions at me like I'm some kind of office flunky of his. I wonder about him. What kind of fire burns in a man like that? I can see the sweat gathering on his neck, asking me questions, one after another. They're easy to parry- I know where he is headed, and engaging in a battle of wits with someone this simple barely taxes my brain. I answer his questions slowly to help me think, but also because I think it irritates him. He's not half the man his father was. He may wear a uniform, but he's not a sailor.

I can't help but tense up when he gets close. I have these flashes of jumping up out of the witness chair, flooring the little prick with a right cross, seeing his head snap back, his perfect hair shaking, that golden nose breaking under the pressure, and then getting down on the floor and pounding his head into the floor until the MPs pull me off. Look, he's trying to prove there was no transfer order for Santiago with some nonsense about the tower chiefs at Andrews. How cute. What a child he is. I look at his eyes, the way they glitter and his nostrils flare when he thinks he's got me. Think again. Listen, boy, I've faced tougher enemies than you before breakfast.

He's going to ask me. I can feel it. All he has to do is ask me if I have violated a direct order, accuse me of a crime, and I've got him. Then he'll be on the defensive, and I can just smile and watch the little prick really sweat. He's walked into the trap now, I just have to spring it on him. It's like when you're in a foxhole, and you can't see anything, but you know they are there. It's just a matter of waiting for the enemy to move. Then you bring the rain.

I stare at Kaffee, turning aside his stupid little digs and asides and snide looks. Now he's honing in on the two orders, the one that Santiago wasn't to be touched, and the second sending him off the base. I make dozens of decisions every day, and I can't always explain them afterwards. It's a gut feeling. It's called leadership. It's not as simple as pushing papers. I look at his perfect, shiny teeth and wonder if he is involved with Galloway after all.

Kaffee is close, so close I could punch him, and the thought is so pleasant my arm twitches.

"Did you order the Code Red?," Kaffee finally says, his face inches from mine. No one moves, and I luxuriate in the silence for a split second. It's almost like being on stage.

"Did I order a Code Red? Is that what you're asking me? I think that's what you're asking me, Lieutenant, unless all the gunfire over the years has damaged my hearing. And the answer, son, is no, I didn't order a Code Red. I didn't order a Code Red because my superiors told me I couldn't. I transferred Santiago off the base because he had angered his unit, and because he was a substandard Marine. I did what I did because we exist on a small island with the Cuban Army staring at us, eyeball to eyeball, and to do any less than ensure that the men under my command are the very best they can be is a dereliction of duty. I make decisions all the time, and I admit that not every decision I make is a perfect one.

"Perhaps I should have taken Santiago into protective custody. Or perhaps he needed a more in depth physical exam to figure out why he was performing so poorly. I don't know, and I will go to my grave not knowing what I could have done differently to save Santiago's life. But Santiago is gone, and his death, believe it or not, affects me deeply. Every man I have ever lost does. It is the burden of command. It is not an easy one, but when you accept the rank, you accept the responsibility. I did not order the Code Red, Lieutenant, because I was ordered not to. And at Gitmo, we take orders seriously."

I smiled, watching the words hit home. Kaffee's expression was priceless, almost as good as if I had punched him. Even the dust motes in the air seemed frozen. Then everyone was talking at once, and I knew it had worked. Kaffee was in trouble now, because he had made the accusation without proof, and all I had to do was let things play out. There were things that Kaffee knew that I didn't. The only thing I knew about law was that I had to obey them, and I'm sure he knows every regulation backwards and forwards. But there were things I knew that he didn't, hard lessons about what are truths and what are higher, more important truths and how to distinguish between them. Kaffee didn't know that the integrity of the Corps is the freedom that makes the other freedoms possible. Kaffee doesn't know what I know.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Trifextra: "In Shadow"

{Those fans of Earl "Pitching, Defense, and Three Run Homers" Weaver over at Casa Del Trifecta Writing Challenge want us all to write 33 words only based on or involving the Rule of Three. This story is called "In Shadow".}

"You have big shoes to fill," he said. Caitlin sunk down. She wasn't an athlete, or a beauty, or popular, like her older sisters were. Being Caitlin, it seemed, wasn't enough.