Monday, June 3, 2013

Prometheus Remixed!

HitRecord.com 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

Contest

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:

http://www.circalit.com/screenplay/competitions/view/client/cosmos

http://www.circalit.com/screenplay/competitions/view/client/eclectica

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

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Nut-hash


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?”

Friday, November 4, 2011

NaNoWriMo

I do have a short-short in the works for November, but I'm also doing NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, also known as "30 days and nights of literary abandon." If you'd like to find, follow, or friend me there, my username is "Echina." Best wishes to all writers :)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Love Potion


Old Margrete did not truly sell little Jenny Weaver a love potion to ensnare Will Carpenter on the eve of the Maying moon. The very idea of the flaxen-haired, apple-cheeked, green-eyed Jennivere of the Loom needing such a thing, when anyone could see Will’s infatuation with her, set Old Margrete’s raspy throat to bitter laughter. All shy Jenny ever needed was to smile at Will once, and he would be hers, and to that end, when Jenny stumbled, weepy-eyed, into Old Margrete’s cottage at the edge of the woods, Old Margrete gave her the potion she needed.

That is, a hearty draft of strong ale, mixed with chamomile and ginger root to disguise the taste.

“A love potion true?” Jenny had asked. “And ‘twill turn Will’s eyes to mine?”

“Never fret thee,” Old Margrete assured her, “but hie to the commons and catch thy beloved’s gaze. The potion be not all; for the spell to take, he must look upon thy face, and thee upon his.”

“For how long?”

Old Margrete tucked the yellow hair behind little Jenny’s ear. “For as long as is needful.”

And sure enough, two days later the banns were cried and shortly thereafter the wedding of Jenny and Will was celebrated. Old Margrete did not attend, for folk did not care to see her warty face on happy occasions, and Old Margrete did not, for the most part, care to see the townspeople who came to her under cover of darkness, begging for remedies, or the clever hands of the midwife, but made the sign of the evil eye against her should they meet in the light.

So all would have been well, had not the churchman, as he did once a year, perhaps, begin his speechifying against evil, quoting, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” and casting meaningful glances in the direction of her cottage. And still and all, nothing would have come of it, save that Jenny, made bold in her nuptial joy, began to tell around town that, witch though she may be, Old Margrete was a good witch, a kind and loving and helpful witch.

Sides were taken. Eduard Atwater, the alchemist, who also served as village apothecary, had much dealing with Old Margrete, and paid a good price for her herbs. He named those whose mothers had called upon Old Margrete during complicated labors. “Many of us would not be here to today to speak against evil were it not for Old Margrete’s skill,” he said. “Her knowledge of medicinal herbs rivals mine, and comes through experience. She is no more witch than I.”

“Reject the devil in all his forms!” the churchman countered. Sent from the city when the old churchman passed, he had not been raised among them in the village and had no sense of the usefulness of a village witch. “Be not seduced by the fair face of evil.”

“Hardly a fair face,” muttered those who had seen Old Margrete in daylight, but the churchman was young, with a powerful voice that projected across the square, across the commons. It could not be shut out. The more words were spoken in Old Margrete’s defense, the more insistent was he that the old woman had seduced those souls rightly belonging to him, and that she must be put in her place.

“’Tis all my doing!” Jenny wailed, having crept to Old Margrete’s window late at night. It was the eve before the harvest moon, so there was light enough that she had no fear, and besides, little Jenny was with child already, and came also for the tea of fennel and peppermint that Old Margrete mixed so well.

But truly, she came to warn. “There’s talk of cleansing by fire!” Jenny wept. “They’ll burn thee, Margrete, and whether thee be witch or no, thee hast never harmed the merest hair on any mortal’s head.”

“Worry thy thoughts no longer, but get thee home safe to thy husband’s arms,” Old Margrete crooned, again tucking a strand of yellow hair behind the girl’s ear. “Old Margrete’s lived through witch hunts a-plenty.”

“How shall thee find succor?” Jenny sobbed. “Where in the wide world is shelter for thy good old bones?”

“Old Margrete shall stay,” she promised. “There be remedy for all life’s ills here in my pots and jars.” And she sent Little Jenny on her way with the loose tea, along with a bit of licorice to soothe her gravid belly.

Then she went among her herbs and began to mumble to herself as she mixed. “There be love potions and love potions,” she cackled. “And if it’s love that be lacking here, soon there shalt be love a-plenty, even for one with a face such as Old Margrete’s.”

And she mixed something stronger than ale, and sweeter than chamomile, and sharper than ginger, a barrel of it, and said words that were best not to speak, then corked the barrel, hooked a dipper in her belt, and rolled herself and her concoction down the lane. As she went through the moon-dark town, she ladled a dipper of this medicine into every water jug and barrel she came across, with a triple dose for the churchman’s morning ablutions, until she came at last to the village well.

With some straining, for her old joints were sore and her back long since bent under by the weight of the things she knew, Old Margrete hefted the barrel and poured its contents into the water supply, where one and all would draw their drink when the sun rose. “Oh, they’ll see a love potion now, won’t they ever,” Old Margrete muttered.

She slept very late into the afternoon, and when she hobbled out into the day, her front path was strewn with asters and chrysanthemums, her shutters hung with fresh pine wreaths, and three strong young men, the churchman chief among them, were thatching her roof with sweet heather.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Orchids


The little peach-colored carp hang in the artificial rock pool like mandarin orange slices suspended in lime Jell-o. Recorded squeaks and chirps of forest creatures distract from, but do not overwhelm, the rattle and rumble of the fan that maintains this cool and humid environment, a greenhouse fifteen degrees more comfortable than the desert outside. Orchids and epiphytes explode like fireworks overhead, while ferns tumble like green fountains beneath. Despite the marks of human construction—the unconcealed pots of plastic, terra cotta, and teak; the red gravel path, framed by deliberate boulders; the wandering tourists, burdened with cameras and scared off by my still presence; and the glass and metal structure itself, its artificial environment a tropical bubble in an arid bowl—it is very nearly perfect.

I can almost relax.

The strolling gardener, passing by the window with a garden hose, cannot see me, concealed as I am behind Dendrobium sp. Orchidaceae, a sturdy, flowerless stalk possessing thick, waxy leaves sprouting with alternative precision, very nearly to the ceiling, along with another, unidentified woody plant, thick with jagged leaves and topped with tiny purple blossoms. I can imagine myself alone, except when the door opens, and I startle at the next visitor.

Almost, but not quite, relax.

The disorder to my mind is not unlike the educational arrangement in the greenhouse. Orchids are strapped to trees, sprouting from boxes. Some are labeled, their relationship to the rest of the exhibit made apparent, while others hang in obscurity, part of the collection, but apart from the collection. Some of the flowers are not orchids at all—the largest is clearly a fine specimen of hibiscus, and other clusters of yellow, white, and red appear to have little in common with the orchids, except that they flourish in similar climates.

I love orchids, but fear them, like fussy infants who cannot communicate their needs, beyond letting you know that you’re not doing it right. Whatever treatment the amateur provides, the home orchid seems to whither. This has been my experience, at any rate. I love orchids, but leave their care and feeding to professionals.

Orchids are complex, their petals arranged to entice pollinators, drawing them into secret folds, whose lovely purpose is to ensure another generation of orchids. Their colors startle us singularly and in combination: pale pink and fuchsia, cream and orange, purple and gold. Their components fit in ways they should not, ways that defy the pen’s ability to describe their relationships.

My thoughts, disparate and wild but seeking organization and homeostasis, settle into this greenhouse. If my mind could take root here, or even hang, artfully suspended from a cork tree by a tangle of wire obscured by an arrangement of Spanish moss, perhaps I too could suck nourishment from the air and experience equilibrium. I might live like a pampered infant in conditions created wholly in aid of my caretaker’s wish that I might flourish.

But these are only flowers, after all, in a temporary exhibit. In a few weeks, they will wither, their succulent stems and leaves of interest only to serious collectors, those who can care for them in such a way as to coax the next offering of floral enticement. Without petals, the plants cannot provide a draw sufficient to warrant their elaborate display in this greenhouse. Soon, they will be removed to make way for the equally bright and equally fleeting colors of the walk-through butterfly exhibit. Children will shriek, linger, interact.

My mind, tethered to my body by more than a twist of florist’s wire, has at least permanent residency and cannot be displaced. Less delicate than a fleeting flower, it may be reorganized, more resilient to environmental changes.

I cannot live in a greenhouse, abandoning my own hydroponic tomatoes, thriving in a rain gutter balanced between two nutrient buckets and made animate by a pump that requires constant attention, and my straw bale garden, in which herbs and peppers sprout with good will, while watermelon vines grow wild around them, in a rapidly disintegrating medium. The human mind prefers a state of flux. A vegetative mind, of course, has little to offer.

Besides, the Botanic Garden closes early, at four-thirty, and I do my best thinking at night. 

Monday, September 12, 2011

Major Donor


(for Sarah)

***Any similarities to any rich douches living or dead is WHOLLY unprovable***

There is only one thing anyone needs to know about Andrew Myrtle, and he will do you the honor of finding some way to work it into the conversation within five minutes of meeting you.

“My mom,” he’ll say, “oh, you might have heard of my mom? Sherry Myrtle? The founder of Sherry’s Craig Crab Shack?”

And then, you might grudgingly admit that you had heard of this successful national chain of upscale seafood joints, at which point he will go on to tell you an anecdote that relates, at best, tangentially to the famous entrepreneur-slash-restaurateur.

Which is not to say that his mother has anything to do with the one thing Andrew Myrtle requires you to know about him, except that she became, through her innovative take on fish and franchising, almost painfully wealthy, and that he, Andrew Myrtle himself, was her sole heir to her fortune. He intends for you to extrapolate from this that he is tremendously, shamelessly rich, and that he is always soliciting new applications for the position of sycophant. There is nothing, in Andrew Myrtle’s experience, that money cannot buy. There is no one, in his opinion, not honored to learn of his illustrious ancestry and, by association, not intrigued by his potential to reward ardent admirers.

Stacy Redford, regaled with Andrew Myrtle’s brief history on the smoking patio at the conservatory during the summer study meet and greet, feels neither honored nor intrigued as these facts filter through her understanding. She lets him tell his story, and then, because she is a little drunk, tells hers.

“My mom—you probably haven’t heard of her—her name is Bella Redford. She was a chronic alcoholic my entire life. She never had a job. We were always on government assistance. I’ve been on my own since I was fifteen. My mother never gave me a dime.”

She tugs the hand-me-down gown up her chest, helps herself to a cigarette from the pack he’d set on the brick wall, and flounces her long red hair. After an uncomfortable silence, Andrew shakes the ice cubes in his rocks glass and backs away.

It’s her third session of summer study, which is her vacation, her professional development, and her dream all rolled up in one; she won scholarships to attend the last two years, but scholarships are hard to come by, and no one could expect three in a row. Robin Dacha has provided, instead, a job in the front office this summer.

Now Robin leans against the wall, all hulking six-feet-two of him. “Andrew Myrtle made a nice donation,” he says, his voice low. “We need to take care of him.”

“He’s a douche,” she says.

Robin shrugs. “He’s a major donor, Stacy. Take care of him.”

But Andrew Mrytle doesn’t need her. Stuck in the office all summer, she sees him through the window, chatting up whoever buys his line.

Occasionally, she catches him wailing away on his saxophone in the alcove near the vending machines, as if he were the first person to discover its acoustic properties.

A few students complain that he’s out there at weird times of the night. All Robin does is compliment his enthusiasm and invite him over for dinner. Andrew throws a party for the popular students, not including, of course, Stacy, who works four hours a day, practices four hours a day, and spends six hours a day in class, plus attends three student recitals a week.

Stacy loves recitals, and she loves playing the grand piano in the big auditorium. Who is she kidding? She loves the old upright in her practice space. It’s nicer than her own piano at home, which she also loves, an even older upright, on which she is still making payments. The recitals are the real social hub of summer study anyway.

Because some of the new students are shy, Stacy takes one of the first slots. Robin gives her a big hug afterward, and a nice critique. “Your progress since last year is wonderful.” Andrew takes an early slot, too. He plays “Baker Street” with only a few sour notes. Afterward, Robin trips over himself to tell him how remarkable his interpretation was, how amazing that a first-year student should play so beautifully.

Stacy goes down to her practice room and tears apart some Chopin.

This helps. She is here for the music. During the year, she teaches elementary children to sing. The summers are hers, and she plays every moment she can.

One of her jobs in the office is to organize the recital schedule. Every student is supposed to sign up for one slot, but some of the more reticent kids have not performed yet. She goes around with the sign-up sheet, persuading them to take the plunge, then hangs it back on the wall.

She notices that Andrew has signed up for a second recital. She erases his name. He writes it back in. She erases it again. She catches him the third time.

“Every student gets one recital, Andrew.”

He taps the sheet. “There’s all these empty spaces.”

“Reserved for students who haven’t had a turn yet.”

“Robin said I was very good.”

She slides the pencil out from his fingers and lets it fall. It dangles on the end of the string that attaches it to the corkboard. “There are a lot of amazing musicians here. Some of them have been playing for twenty years, and some of them have just started. Everyone gets the same opportunity to perform.”

He tries to stare her down, but she stares him down instead, feeling suddenly very great and tall.

Later, Robin comes into the office. “Andrew Myrtle says you took his name off the recital schedule?”

She pretends to be involved in her data entry task. “Each student gets one recital,” she says.

“Couldn’t you make an exception? I’m really hoping he’ll make a large contribution at the end of the session.”

Stacy smiles to herself. “No.”

Robin shrugs.