Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Rejection

Miss K. dreamed of being presented before the Queen.

To start, it was a true dream, born of the subconscious, an uncontrolled creature that came unbidden in the night. That first dream rose, most beautiful, a phoenix from the ashes of the mundane day. Miss K. watched herself, in white like a supplicant, adorned with pearls and roses, floating her leather-clad feet up the marble stairs, higher and higher toward the throne.

The royal guard flanked the stair, hands on the hilts of their swords, unmoving. They might have been statues; only the plumes of their feathered headdresses stirred as she passed. Miss K. ascended to the dais where the Queen waited. The Queen smiled at Miss K., then opened her arms to signify her acceptance of this worthy subject. Miss K. marked the ivory columns, the golden bunting, the cages of songbirds and the ranks of lords and ladies attending. A choir, hidden away in a recessed balcony, burst into harmony.

For some minutes, Miss K. felt herself an angel among the heavens and then, to avoid the appearance of immodesty, took her place among the Queen’s court.

When she woke, the dream lingered. Miss K. felt sincere desire where no yearnings had before conglomerated. From that day on, she prepared for the eventual, inevitable moment.

She went about the task in gradual, but definite steps, gathering knowledge as a child gathers wildflowers to start. She plucked at the closest first, and then the most beautiful, and then, in earnest, collecting up and organizing the details in stunning bouquets of meaning. She learned the history of the royal family, and the biography of the queen’s life. She practiced walking with stately dignity, and climbing stairs. She studied the manners of the court and its rituals. Wherever understanding was offered, Miss K. sought it out and took possession. When the Queen called, Miss K. would be prepared.

For not one moment did she doubt the prescience of her dream. The Queen was known to call her most faithful subjects to court, and there was none so faithful as Miss K.

Meanwhile, she increased her devotion. She attended all the Queen’s public presentations, pored over old speeches, kept company with those who shared her interest.

Her new friends aspired to be presented to the Queen as well, and had taken many of the same steps, and others that it had not occurred to her to take. When not reciting genealogies or memorizing important dates in her nation’s history, Miss K. began studying elocution and posture, as well as designing the gown, jewelry, and flowers she would require.

As her devotion deepened, she watched others attaining that which she desired for herself. Every day, the Queen received many subjects, and Miss K. rejoiced in their fortune even as her heart yearned and coveted. As her circle of friends grew, often those of her own acquaintance were called, presented, and accepted. Some stayed in the lofty tiers of the court, favored by the Queen, while others descended, pleased with their singular achievement, describing the wonders of the experience.

While Miss K. was not the only citizen to desire a call that did not come, she felt keenly the growing disappointment. It seemed as if everyone she knew had been to court. She had prepared herself in every way. She was ready. She continued to follow the important current events of her country, tested herself to be certain that she forgot nothing of her relevant learning, and let it be known that she, Miss K., desired to be presented before the Queen.

She pressed her lips together when those who did not desire the honor so intently as she did were presented and accepted. She bit her tongue when men and women who had not prepared themselves at all also were granted their turns. She waited for her day.

She waited many years for her day, but it did come. She could no longer offer the Queen the sparkling beauty of her youth, but the Queen, they said, cared little for outer appearances. She judged what lay within, and Miss K. held nothing within herself but devotion for her sovereign.

On the appointed day, she adorned herself in the fine white dress, the pearls, and the roses. The palace’s high gold doors opened at her approach, and she made her way through the garden, her head spinning in wonder at the marble steps and the stolid honor guard. High above her, seated upon a crystal throne, her benevolent ruler smiled down.

Miss K. lifted one foot, clad in soft, clean leather, and set it down on the first step. No sooner had she begun the journey, the guards, at an unseen signal from the Queen, unsheathed their swords and barred her way. She questioned, asked, pleaded, beseeched, and begged for entrance, and then, when those went unanswered, for understanding, but no explanation was forthcoming. The Queen would not receive her, and she was escorted from the palace.

She could not face her friends, so many of whom had already achieved this goal. Three further times the Queen called for her, and her heart rose, perhaps a little less joyfully than the time before, and each time the soldiers barred her way—once she mounted several steps before being rejected, once she did not make it past the golden gate before they turned her away.

Only the Queen could say what invisible mark of dishonor lay upon Miss K., and the Queen was not in the habit of explaining herself.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Prometheus Remixed! is a collaborative site: anyone can upload text, audio, video, or image files, and then other people can take those files and remix them in different ways. If they make any money off your contribution, you get 1/2.

A friend of mine had previously recorded me reading a few of the short shorts off this site, and added some sound effect, which you can listen to here. Not sure why I never shared that link, but here it is.

However, another friend suggested I get some work on HitRecord, so I uploaded a few pieces last night. And then, while America was sleeping, some guy in the UK recorded "The Postmodern Prometheus," with his lovely, gothic, British accent. It could use a little work (as he points out in his comments--his Evangeline voice isn't quite there, and this version lacks all the sound effects we got into the last version) but I am just enthralled with this guy's voice.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Pop Quiz

Image courtesy of Siju/Wikimedia Commons

Oswald J. Reiter, a self-made man, had never taken a hand up from anyone in his life. A ward of the state from age twelve, when his mother disappeared one moist August night, he wore his orphanhood like a badge.

“I never knew my father,” he told Patton Wyler, the manager of the Shop and Go on 4th Street when asked about his family. “And this address,” he tapped the application form, “is only good until the twenty-first.” He looked up, widening his eyes. “That’s when I turn eighteen, after which I can no longer live at the boys’ home.”

Wyler could not meet his gaze. “Oh,” he said.

“So it’s imperative that I find work,” Reiter added. He got the job.

For two weeks, he stocked shelves and bagged groceries, after which time they promoted him to cashier. Three months later he made assistant manager, and a year or so after that, full manager. Within five years of the original interview, he essentially ran the store. In the meantime, he had taken a second job at the bank, where they also rewarded his quick mind, excruciating work ethic, and general pathos as resident orphan.

Reiter worked seventy hours a week, sometimes more, but spent little of what he earned. He rented a small room from a widow who included two meals a day in the cost of his rent, and usually took his lunch from the grocery store, which offered him fifty percent off all purchases. He never ate in restaurants, or bought new clothes, or took girls to the movies.

What little spare time he had, he spent in the library. Thus, although he never attended college, by the age of twenty-three, he knew most of what there was to know about economics, psychology, management, accounting, tax law as it applied to his current and desired situations, plumbing, and wiring, along with a basic understanding of physics, engineering, history, math, and architecture.

Occasionally, he loaned out small amounts of money at low interest rates to trustworthy coworkers, and, as he learned more about investing, backed several business ventures, almost all of which succeeded. He quit both jobs then and turned his attention full time to investing.

By twenty-five, Reiter had earned his first million. By thirty, his reputation as a shrewd businessman and one of the richest men in the country allowed him a freedom most men only dreamed of. Still, he did not pursue any of the trappings of success: no wife, no mistress, no mansion. He had moved to New York by this time, and he maintained an office of modest size and decor but with an impressive address in midtown Manhattan, yet still lived in a small rented room and took his meals at little expense. He owned, by necessity, some expensive suits and shoes, but he purchased only two sets of clothes a year.

The ideal of philanthropy, which, it seemed, society required of men of his stature, eluded him. No one had ever given Oswald J. Reiter anything, except a chance, and, he noted, when he gave others the same chance—to work hard for him, to start saving their own fortune—they always let him down. He continued to study from library books, expanding his knowledge in order that he could more intelligently invest in more industries. He even became a patron of the arts, to some extent, and his personal collection, all of which he purchased for a pittance from then-unknown artists, represented the greatest private sampling of modern painters and sculptors in America.

Reiter had never watched television. In the boys’ home, screen time had been restricted, and the other boys’ choices hadn’t interested him when it was allowed. He had never understood its appeal. Yes, one might find some educational programming useful in edifying the mind, but the information gleaned there could be extracted at greater speed and depth from a book. That remained his theory.

In his thirties, he allowed himself to consider social issues.

Why should he, an orphan boy who’d started with nothing and worked for everything, enjoy such success, while the masses on the lower rungs of the ladder, most gifted with more auspicious origins, required so much assistance? As he observed from his office window in the rare moments he gave himself for pure, unproductive reflection, an overcrowded planet teemed with ineffective men and women, people incapable of wise decisions, people unworthy of their own free will.

He wrote a book, a concise autobiography with detailed explanations of how to succeed in life, and while it garnered him as much money as any other project, it failed to change the world.

Those he wished to reach did not read it. Their medium of choice, he discovered, was video, a revelation that send him back to the library to study communications and media. In short order, he developed his own popular Internet channel and generated a vast archive of top-rated animated educational content for children.

Pop Quiz, though, he considered his true brainchild. A general knowledge game show with challenges that rewarded common sense, patience, and hard work, it grew to supremacy at the intersection of reality TV and interactive media. Featuring diverse trials and amazing prizes, its following increased with cancerous deliberation. Everyone watched Pop Quiz.

Better yet, everyone could play Pop Quiz. There were no qualifying rounds, no casting calls. Crews roamed the country, shooting footage in shopping malls and swap meets, in Miami during spring break and New Orleans over Halloween.

And best of all, everyone won. Some won small prizes to be sure—T-shirts and music downloads for small victories—but a knowledgeable few walked away with cars, vacations, cash. Even the losers didn’t leave empty-handed. Oswald J. Reiter had invested heavily in a bottling concern, where he produced, amongst other tasty beverages, the popular thirst-quenching Kwizacola. Kwizacola served as the consolation prize even in the most humiliating defeat. As the show became more popular, with more and more episodes produced, the questions became harder and harder, and the chances of winning no more than a six-pack of Kwizacola increased. The country flocked to play, and tuned in, en masse, to watch. With all the extra advertising, Kwizacola’s market share grew.

By this time, Reiter cared little for the commercial success of one thin tendril of his empire. He played the long game now.

Everyone watched Pop Quiz. Everyone wanted to learn, to prove their intelligence, or, barring that, to take home some free soda. “We’re bringing brilliant back,” the advertisements said. Hard work, perseverance in the pursuit of excellence, became the new value.

In twenty years, Reiter could measure his success, his secret success, his greatest triumph, about which the world was not to know. He was fifty-five years old, and since the show’s inception, the birth rate had fallen, test scores had risen, and the type of reality programming that had formerly enjoyed such popularity—shows where the greedy, the idiotic, the cruel found themselves celebrated and idolized—had largely become an embarrassment of the past. The Pop Quiz world praised and rewarded intelligence. Studying and achieving had become cool.

Kwizacola drove the other popular carbonated drink brands into bankruptcy. To drink Kwizacola meant to try ones best, to strive for excellence, to always work toward success.

By age seventy-five, Oswald Reiter felt secure in the knowledge that he had done a great work upon the earth. Pop Quiz, now an international sensation, had shaped generations. The day’s politicians had watched the program, had played along at home, had won fabulous prizes. They grew up to enact legislation for social justice, for fair and nonpartisan solutions to nagging programs, for sustainable regulations and growth. The people voted for them, voted for the value of intelligence. There was, Reiter saw, sense in the world that had not existed before his great experiment. His theory proved true. In the Pop Quiz America, nearly every child was planned. Nearly every child had the tools to succeed academically. Nearly every child made decisions based on rational thought. Nearly every child grew up wise.

Oswald J. Reiter lived a long life, but no longer than could be expected of a mortal man. He passed away at his desk, age ninety-one, after finishing a book on robotics, a subject he had never studied in depth. The world mourned.

The world mourned, but it moved on. Younger, but equally enthusiastic hands took up the reins of his empire. Pop Quiz lived on. Kwizakola lived on.

The people who inherited his assets had the sense to take careful stock, to learn from Reiter’s notes, to uncover his secrets. Thus, they had the sense, also not to tamper with his master plan, which became apparent, to a select few, when they put the pieces together. It was the Kwizakola factory, the big one in Georgia, that exclusively bottled the Pop Quiz consolation prizes. The formula differed here, with the addition of an ingredient known only to Reiter, ordered, delivered, and added in secret.

Every bottle of consolation Kwizakola contained a powerful additive—a form of birth control—that gradually but permanently eradicated a drinker’s fertility. To lose on Pop Quiz, and often, to befriend a loser on Pop Quiz, meant losing the right to procreate. It only took a few more generations of Pop Quiz to elevate—some would say evolve—the minds of the species.

By then, humanity had grown too sophisticated for quiz shows, and for soda, as it turned out. Pop Quiz and Kwizakola faded into historical footnotes. The world remembered he public contributions of Oswald J. Reiter; the world released all knowledge of his greatest triumph.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Stunting of the Heart: An Agony in Three Fits

Fit the First: Colossal Cave

Right foot wedged against vertical rock, left foot on ground as solid as rock can be beneath silk coverlet of cave dust, gaping chasm ahead. Left foot takes leap of faith, falls into space, lands in crevice. Straddling space. Hands find stone. There is advice offered, light from headlamps, quickened pulse a tom-tom counting fractions of a second, but nothing, really, but the next crevice, and the next. The cave shrinks in comparison to this single crack.

The open yaw below churns up the retardant of fear, stirs the breath loud and fast. Lean to the left and push away. Trust in the cave to catch the right foot as it skitters ahead. Looking into the abyss is a mistake, hungry darkness where ground is expected. Floating above takes all the taut, tensile strength of every muscle. Flying is hard work.

Two steps taken, an eternity remain. An impossible journey

Returning to the starting point, floating backward into the dark, a more impossible journey.

Breath. Trust. Step. Fall into the reality of wall, again and again. Make impossible reaches with the legs, noting nothing but the next step and the next and the next.

The terror hovers at chin level, not high enough to drown. The knowledge pushes forward, the knowledge that fear will only dissipate when the gap is conquered. Never start, fear remains. Turn back, fear remains. Reach the end, terror will drain away.

And then, the points become apparent. The advice is unnecessary. Fear is gone and the path is clear. There, and there, and there. Just bounce over the endless gap, and there is ground again. Throw one leg over. The hip pops. Pain with an internal vertigo. Here is where control is lost and the body falls backward into endless space.

But, no. Here is where the brain overrides the body, forces it forward again. Two feet on solid ground, the cave completed. Elation.

Fit the Second: The Key to Your Dreams

I’m going to try on wedding gowns with Lisa and Heather and Jack, because I am getting married in the spring. Between the back gate and the car, something the color of a quarter glitters in the dirt, and I bend over to pluck it up between my fingers. It is a key. Or rather, it is part of a key, the less useful part. The toothy business end has snapped off. This is just the bit with the hole, the part you grasp to turn or thread into a ring to attach to a fob.

There is a word molded into the metal. “Dreams,” the key taunts. It is the key to your dreams. And it is broken.

How? Why? This is my backyard. Who dropped this thing here, this broken dream half hidden in caliche? It haunts me all day as I slip in and out of my clothes, in and out of confections of lace and satin, things I never dreamed of, but need, now, in some way that never haunted my dreams. It was in my pocket, the broken key of dreams, but by the end of the day, it’s gone. While I was trying on fifty dresses in four boutiques, it must have slipped out.

Fit the Third: The Ghost of Relationships Past

They dated in college, and it ended badly, and you wouldn’t believe half the truth if you heard it, but people grow up, keep in touch sporadically. Ten years later she stood up on the bride’s side at his wedding, thinking about how she had really dodged a bullet. You wouldn’t believe any of it, the things he did, the things he said. He called her three years after that, manic, to tell her that he’d only just realized, years later, that she had loved him.

He wasn’t stable.

Something was wrong. You could tell, because his wife was vaguebooking, and there was something about a hospital, and something about needing prayers, and a few weeks later he started texting her, over and over, “Call me, please call me,” even though they hadn’t spoken in five years, since he realized she had loved him once. She gave in. “What’s wrong?” she asked, before small talk could smooth over the reentry.

He had tried to kill himself. Again. He had opened himself. He had always cut, long before anyone had even heard of cutting, he had cut. This time, he had cut deep and gotten lucky and he was not dead.

But he was dead, he said. He had died that night, he told her, his voice flat as a Kansas prairie and far off as the horizon. She asked questions she knew the answers to. He was home again, but it would be a long walk back into the light. He was reaching, searching. He had a wife, a child. The part of him that had lived remembered reasons for living, but he was dead. He had died. He needed others to pull him up from the well.

“Listen,” she said. “I want to tell you a story. Two stories. I went spelunking.”

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Dragon on Noise Phactory

No new short-shorts, I'm sorry to say (the novel I'm working on has metastasized, while job, house, and family situations have all come to a rolling boil) but here's a little side project: a collaboration with a sound technician. We've recorded a half-dozen microfictions (OK, one of them is microfact) and he's in the process of adding sound effects.

There are 4 pieces up so far: "Chihuahua Racing," "Bears Think They Know Everything," "Love Potion," and "The Pain of Withdrawal." In the near future, look for "Postmodern Prometheus" and "Grow! Grow! Grow!"

Check out Noise Phactory for some aural pleasure.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012


Just passing this along: received an email asking me to publicize these two writing contests. I know nothing about them, so you'll have to click the links to learn more:

I may toss a few morsels into the maw of the monster myself.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


He bragged so frequently about smuggling a lump of hash into the country by tucking it behind his balls that at last I was forced to assume that he wanted me to smoke it for him. Presumably, the hash had been wrapped before it came in contact with his scrotum. In any event, sack hash was better than no hash.

The weed in Israel was uniformly depressing, sold by seedy British guys in back alleys of Eilat, thirty shekels a matchbox. Weed came in matchboxes—about the equivalent of a nickel bag—gritty, dusty, low-quality. We’d separate it on plastic plates: a pile of ganj, a pile of sticks, a pile of seeds, and a pile of sand. Every matchbox contained a nice helping of sand.

Nut-hash didn’t belong.

We were, for the most part, in our late teens and early twenties, hiding from the people we were in our home countries, volunteering on the kibbutz for room and board and a pittance that earned us enough to purchase a candy bar or a stick of real butter in the kibbutz store.

Nut-hash was forty-two, a professional chef who “followed the season,” three months in a hotel kitchen in Hawaii, four weeks at a resort in Thailand. Whatever, wherever. He came to Israel because the foreign girls were easy. The British, I noticed, threw off their inhibitions along with their clothing as soon as the sun hit their skin.

But he seemed stuck on me, and never lost an opportunity to brag: underwear models he’d had, exotic ports he’d explored, the beauty of his ex-wife, who he’d left because, “Can you imagine sleeping with the same person for ten years?” And, of course, the lump of Dutch hash he’d taped between his penis and his testicles.

His chunky but good-hearted redhead roommate had a crush on my well-endowed raven-haired roommate. She and I would stay up late at night, laughing about how they’d never have their way with us. I was in fact sleeping with a Russian body builder who had his own house on the other side of the kibbutz, far from the horrifying volunteer quarters, and also with a soulful Moroccan engineering student, who was running away from his Borderline fiancĂ©e. They knew about each other and were good friends, often boring me with long-winded conversations about math.

The Moroccan revealed to me the redhead’s real reason for being in Israel: he was wanted on a drug charge in New York. His mother had made him come. My roommate was running from her dangerous obsession with Mexican-American gangsters. I was running from adulthood.

Technically, that’s what nut-hash was running from too, but I was twenty-one at the time, and he was twice my age.

The Russian body builder was not running. He had citizenship and lived on the kibbutz because the IDF had deemed him too crazy for the mandatory military service required of every other Israeli.

I didn’t like to smoke pot with my lovers; they were both lightweights. The Russian would take a few hits, cough madly, and then spend an hour debating with himself about whether or not drugs made him crazier. The Moroccan would take a few hits and fall asleep.

Mostly, I smoked with the redhead, because he was a real drug dealer and didn’t mind dealing with seedy British guys in Eilat alleys, whereas I found it distasteful and nerve-wracking. On Rosh Hashana, we took an apple from the dining hall and carved it into a pipe, lighting the weed with a lighter my roommate had brought from her local Hillel.

We didn’t hatch a plan to get at the scrotum-hash, but after the fiftieth time he bragged about his act of daring, my roommate and I double-teamed him. We had shared our sandy weed with him. Didn’t he like us? Didn’t he want to come over to our room and share his stash with us? The redhead got in on it, too. Nut-hash either needed to pony up the hash or stop talking about it.

“Come after dinner,” we advised them.

It wasn’t a terribly impressive lump: a fraction of a gram. Perhaps he had already smoked some portion of it. The guys were overly solicitous, lighting the pipe, complementing the way we’d decorated our room: a combination of our own artwork and images torn from magazines.

When the hash was gone, we stretched our arms in mock exhaustion. “Well, goodnight, then,” we said, shoving them out door. Afterwards, we laughed. It didn’t occur to us that we might be cruel. They had wanted to take advantage of us.

Late at night, the Moroccan and I took a walk out in the desert, where I almost fell into a wadi. Although slender and without strength, he caught me, twisting his own ankle in the process. We laughed together, and I supported him with my shoulder all the way back to the kibbutz, where we had a little sex, but only a very little, because the workday started early.

Nut-hash got some sandy weed from the redhead and invited me to smoke down in the desert, and I went, for the drugs.

I fell into another wadi, but this time there was no one there to catch me. Nut-hash stood up on the ridge watching dumbly as I tumbled into the sand and climbed out again. He didn’t offer to help as I limped back to the kibbutz.

We sat behind the dining hall while he bragged about the places he’d been and girls he’d laid, and the Russian wandered out into the pavilion, but he couldn’t see us in the shadows.

“What’s he doing?” Nut-hash interrupted his narrative to wonder.

“Looking for me,” I said. “He’s my lover.”

“Oh.” He sounded hopeful. “Do you have a lot of lovers?”

I smiled in the darkness. “As many as I need.”

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Healing Itch

It’s a mad balance between the quicksilver desire of immediacy and the black tar sand that ought to be left alone. It’s a visual comma separating an error on one side and its remedy on the other. It is a thick scab, red-black and strung out like a comet’s tail. There was a mistake in the sixty-third repetition out of sixty-four attempts to jump twenty inches. Fatigue set in, and the sixty-third attempt only reached a height of fourteen inches, with bloody results. To my credit, I finished the workout, achieving the summit for the final two jumps, despite no longer being able to see the target through the veil of tears in my eyes. And here, a week later, the scab down the middle of the shin, six inches long, curving out at the top and in at the bottom, like the f hole of a violin, resonating with the healing itch.

The fingers wish to worry the edges as they peal away, to pry up the alien armor and bring the pink newness to air. There is pain in the act and the result. This, you must know, is a mistake. Do not pick at it, the world warns. But there is the sick tingle that begs for violence and never stops screaming. There is no correct answer.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

University Medical Center, Diamond Building, Intensive Care Unit

Image courtesy of Norbert Kaiser, Wikimedia Commons

There is no place to look. Every time you avert your eyes, they fall on a crying stranger: a fat middle age man bawling into his cell phone, two willowy prepubescent girls weeping into each other’s arms as they tumble out of a conference room full of sobbing adults.

So, for decency’s sake, you look back at your own well of sorrow, but it’s hard to stay there. If anyone so much as murmurs, you whip your head toward them, grabbing at respite, or else your eyes drift from a long maze of tubes to the quiet monitors with their hypnotic waves and meaningless numbers. Something always beeps, pings, or clicks.

“Essentially,” the doctor explains, “his liver is shot. And his kidneys. And his lungs.” Perhaps these are not the words the doctor uses, but this is what she means.

Last week, they said that if he stabilized, if he found a nursing home able to care for a man with not insurance, and if he stopped drinking for six months, then he could go on the transplant list.

This week they’re talking about infections, calling his daughter in the Midwest. “Do you want us to intubate your father? Do you want us to let him go?”

She is young, twenty-two. She says, “intubate,” but when she gets to the ICU they tell her intubation is only prolonging his suffering. He has, perhaps two weeks, with the machines. She asks everyone she knows, and then she tells them, “extubate.” It’s Tuesday, and her tickets are to go home Friday.

His ex-wife, his ex-girlfriends, the people who were his friends and colleagues before this disease became lover, companion, reference, all file through to say goodbye. At first he can focus his eyes and choke out a few words, but after a while, he is no longer there. It is only the machines, and the solemn watchers.

It takes five hours, once they disconnect him, five hours of sinking lower, struggling to breathe, and sinking lower again, until at last the numbers run down to nothing.

Monday, December 19, 2011

My Writing Life

Five years ago, the publishing company Daw sent me a letter explaining that my novel had "passed first read" and was under consideration. I sent follow-up queries in 2008, 2009, 2010 asking if they had any plans to actually publish it, or reject it, or what.

This week, I received a carefully worded and apologetic letter from the acquisitions editor. He didn't come out and say he wished me the best of luck placing my work elsewhere, but that's what he meant. And it was still the most attention my novel has gotten from an editor :(

On the plus side, my short story "Dog in the Machine" is out in the 17th issue of New Myths and you can read it here!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Poor Children

It was a little divot of a backyard, with an apartment building on one side, and a parking lot to the back, but it was mine, so I planted herbs and lay out in the weak Michigan sun when the weather allowed.

 Image courtesy of newleaf01
Wikimedia Commons
The first time I saw the kids, I had set up for the morning with a blanket, a pitcher of lemonade, a little radio, the New York Times Sunday Crossword, and Merriam-Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. They stood on the little hill in front of the apartment building, looking down at me. This complex mostly housed college students; there were no other kids, no playground equipment, no place to play. There was literally nothing else going on besides me pecking away at the crossword, listening to the classic rock station on a cheap plastic radio.

They stared. My heart melted: no one had ever taught these poor children to entertain themselves.

I beckoned. They tumbled to me.

They were four siblings: Omarion, Sweetie, J’neena, and Buddy. The biggest was about eleven, the little one perhaps five. They were dark of skin, dark of hair, in faded, baggy clothes and falling-apart sneakers, and moved with all the energy of popping corn, their dissatisfaction rippling out through slender limbs in perpetual motion.

“We stuck at Grandma’s,” said Sweetie.

“She got no toys, no video games,” said J’neena.

“No cable,” Omarion added.

They didn’t know what to do with themselves. They had never seen a dictionary, and examined mine with care. They had, apparently, never talked to a white woman, and examined my hair and my accent. “Honey,” they mocked, when I asked J’neena to please not sit on my dictionary. “She say, ‘honey’.”

Lemonade, they were familiar with, and made short work of.

The garden attracted them. “What this?” Buddy asked about the Miracle Gro.

“Plant food,” I said, “but don’t touch. It’s poison to people.”

“It look like candy,” said J’neena.

“That’s why you shouldn’t touch it.”

I let them dig the soil with my trowel. Their grandmother called them up for lunch, and sent them back out twenty minutes later with a little potted tree, a gift for me. “Thank you,” she called out the window.

“She say ‘thank you’ for watching us,” Sweetie explained. “’cause she ain’t got nothing to do in there. She don’t walk too good neither.”

Grandma lived in a third-story walk-up. I cared for the little tree with extravagance.

The next day, I found my trowel halfway up the hill, next to a hole deep enough to break a man’s ankle. The day after that, they rang my doorbell, bored. I loaned Sweetie a jump rope, which I later found in a puddle in the parking lot. They started ringing my doorbell and running away, peeking in my window and later commenting on my bed sheets.

They never knew what they were talking about. “Your neighbor gay,” Omarion said, without having any clue what he meant. When Buddy knocked on my back door and reported, “Sweetie say you make sex with her,” I guided him back to his grandmother’s.

“It’s not true,” I told him. “When your sister says things like that, you can tell her you know it’s a lie.”

I worried, but only a little. They had never been inside my house, had never done anything with me their grandmother couldn’t see from her window. Even if they had could describe my bed sheets, they were not credible witnesses. And anyway, I was leaving for study abroad.

Three days after I left, someone tore up my garden, uprooting all the herbs, pulling plants from their pots, and leaving my trowel and my watering can in a hole halfway up the hill. The girl taking care of my house didn’t work up the courage to tell me for three weeks, by which time she had killed my fish.

The vandals didn’t touch the Miracle Gro. Or the potted tree.

When I got back, Omarion waved to me from his stoop, his face hopeful. I nodded and left him alone.

I never saw Omarion or Buddy again, but I saw the girls, once. They knocked at my back door the week before school started.

“Our daddy taking us away from our mommy,” Sweetie told me, like a challenge.

Keeping my tone blank, I responded, “And how do you feel about that?”

“Good,” she said, the word exploding from her mouth like a cannonball.

“Nah-ah,” J’neena said, jutting her hip into her sister’s. “I going back to Mommy’s after. We going to Disneyland.”

“Who care?” said Sweetie. “Who care anyway?”