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Category Archives: Random Stories & Poems

A Story About What Really Makes America Great

A Story About What Really Makes America Great

I don’t normally blog about politics, and this isn’t really going to be a political post, but with all that’s going on in our country right now, it sometimes seems absurd to be posting my cutesy anecdotes and not even mention the yuge elephant in the room.

I have a lot of issues with that elephant. I won’t go into all of them here. But one thing that continues to irk me about the “make America great again” slogan is its inherent hypocrisy: America is a country founded by immigrants and founded on the notion that people can come here for better opportunities. To me, there’s nothing more un-American than being anti-immigrant.  Are we not The Great Melting Pot? Isn’t it our diversity that makes us great?

The other day, while I was reading the news, it occurred to me that the book I had been planning to write last winter would have been an appropriate book for these times.

I had been planning to write a narrative nonfiction account of a family I know with an incredible story. I started doing preliminary research and interviews, but the book fell through pretty quickly because the matriarch of the family was uncomfortable with the whole idea, and I didn’t want to do it without her blessing. I told her I’d check back with her in a few years to see if she’s changed her mind. And I still intend to do that.

In the meantime, though, I want to give a brief summary of her story here. I will change the names and locations and identifying details to protect the family’s privacy. I feel like this is something people need to hear, and now is a time they need to hear it. Because it is, to me, a story about what makes America so great.

(P.S. If, you happen to know who I’m writing about, please keep it to yourself.)

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The following story is about America, and what America should be.

 

The story begins with Emily, a cute, smart girl growing up in the small town of Franklin, North Carolina. Shortly after being crowned Homecoming Queen of her high school, she finds out she’s pregnant and decides to have the baby. Her mother, angry about the pregnancy, kicks Emily out of the house.

For the rest of senior year Emily works part-time at the grocery store and lives in a run-down efficiency apartment, using the WIC federal assistance program to buy blocks of cheese and gallons of milk to feed herself, and the baby growing inside of her.

A year after the birth of her mixed-race son, Jack, Emily gets enough in scholarships and student loans to attend a nearby university, where she studies Spanish. She even spends a year abroad in Europe, taking Jack, now a toddler, with her.

Meanwhile, far away in an impoverished Latin American country, a twelve-year-old girl named Cristina is also leaving her hometown for the wider world. Cristina is the oldest of eight children, and her mother is dying. It is Cristina’s responsibility to provide for her family.  But in her country, public school for girls only goes through elementary school, and Cristina has no good way of making money.  So she packs a bag and travels towards Mexico City, hoping to find work.

Though the details are unclear to me, Cristina ends up crossing the U.S. border into Texas. She knows of a family friend in the town of Franklin, North Carolina, so she decides to make her way there.

photo 2

 

Emily is now in Texas, too. After earning her bachelor’s degree, she and Jack have moved to Laredo, where Emily gets her Master’s. She graduates in December of 2008 and moves back home to Franklin so nine-year-old Jack can spend more time with his father.

On Christmas day of that year, Emily sits on the floor of her childhood bedroom, staring out the tiny window and watching a single, brown leaf make its slow, swirling decent to the ground. Having made amends with her mother, she is staying in her mother’s apartment until she can find a car, a job, and a place for her and  Jack to live. She is in debt. She is jobless, homeless, and penniless. All she has is a brand-new degree and the lofty goal of starting her own business. She closes her eyes and prays. Please, just help me. I don’t know what to do.  

A few days later, she gets a call that will change her life.

 *   *   *

The call is from an old classmate named Dawn, now a social worker. Dawn tells Emily about a fourteen-year-old Latin American girl who has just given birth to a baby boy in the Franklin hospital.

“She’s apparently been living here illegally with an older man,” Dawn explains. “We need to get her into the foster care system. She needs to start attending school.”

“Okay…”

“The girl doesn’t speak any English,” Dawn explains. “You’re fluent in Spanish, right?  Would you consider becoming a foster parent for Cristina and her baby?”

“I don’t see how that could work,” Emily says. “I don’t have a job or a house right now…”

“Don’t worry about the logistics. We’ll work that out later. The question is, are you willing to do it?”

Emily looks into her heart and decides that she is. She is only twenty-eight years old.

*   *  *

Emily borrows $1000 from her mother and gets an advance from social services in order to pay the deposit and first month’s rent on a small house. Friends and acquaintances give her old furniture: a brown and orange 1970’s loveseat, a round dining room table, beds for Jack and Cristina. For now, Emily will have to sleep on the floor.

At first, the transition is difficult. Emily works multiple jobs, unable, for the time-being, to pursue her dream of having her own business. Ten-year-old Jack has to get used to sharing his life with teenage Cristina and baby Samuel. And while little Samuel goes to daycare, Cristina struggles to learn English at the very same high school where Emily was once crowned Homecoming Queen.

But the patchwork quilt family perseveres. Two years later, Cristina is a junior and can speak English fluently. Emily has started her business, and though she still has to work another part-time job to make ends meet, her client-base is growing. Jack, now in middle school, calls Samuel his little brother.

It is around this time that I go over to their house one morning for breakfast. Despite it being a school day, Emily scrambles a big pan of cheesy eggs while Jack toasts slices of bread, and we all sit down to eat at the table. Samuel babbles over his breakfast while Cristina eats quietly.

Afterwards, Emily loads everyone up in her new minivan. We drop off Jack and Cristina at school and Samuel at daycare. “I’m a regular soccer mom now,” Emily jokes, though it’s obvious she’s anything but regular.

That was several years ago. Now Emily’s business is thriving – she’s not rich by any means, but she doesn’t have to work any jobs other than the one she’s passionate about. Jack is in high school and on the football team. He recently got his driver’s license and is working part-time at a fast food restaurant. Cristina is now a legal resident, living in her own apartment with Samuel. She is taking classes at community college and wants to be a nurse… or maybe even a doctor. She works part-time as a waitress, sending as much money as she can back to her family. She hasn’t seen them since she left home nearly a decade ago.

As for Samuel, he is seven-years-old and an American citizen. His story is just beginning.

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So that is the shortened version of the book I hope to one day write. I still get teary-eyed thinking about it. Emily, despite her own hardships, opened her heart and created a diverse and supportive family. With hard work and good spirit, she and her family found opportunity and acceptance in our melting pot of a country. That, in my mind, is what makes America great: open minds, welcoming arms, opportunity for all, and the willingness to make things work.

 

Poetry Lunch Break & My Shameful Secret

Poetry Lunch Break & My Shameful Secret

Since posting about “Carp Poem” and my struggles with poetry, I’ve been making it a habit to read one poem a day, and I plan to do so at least until the end of the month.  (April is National Poetry Month).  To make this an easy goal to achieve, I subscribed to The Writer’s Almanac newsletter (thanks to a suggestions from my friend Meg), and this provides me with a daily poem, delivered straight to my inbox.  I usually read the poem during my lunch break, and so far they have all been short and fairly accessible. The Writer’s Almanac poems are a good jumping off point for me into the world of poetry, and I’m enjoying the other interesting historical/literary tidbits included in the newsletter.

Shh!  Don't tell my shameful secret!

Shh! Don’t tell my shameful secret!

It’s really high time I started reading more poetry.  I’m always rolling my eyes at so-called writers who don’t read books, and yet here’s my shameful secret:  for years, I’ve been writing poetry (and publishing some of it!), even though I rarely read poetry myself.  Disgusting!

In fact, here are a few of the poems I’ve published over the past few years:

“Sweet Tummy” for The Burlesque Press Variety Show

“Chicken Skin” for Pif Magazine

“The Collection of Princess Langwidere, or, The First Head” for Composite Magazine (pg 15)

“My Life” for Hoot

“How to Reach Me” for Stone Highway Review, June 2013 (pg 33)

“The End of Summer,”An Ode to Boys,” and “An Ode to Kurt Cobain” for The Burlesque Press Variety Show

Although some of theses poems are rather silly and unsophisticated, I don’t think any of them are terrible.  In fact, I sort of like most of them.  But I’m sure that the more poetry I read, the more my own poems will improve.  Check back with me in a few years, and perhaps I’ll have a whole new slew poems, and I’ll give them a better endorsement than, “I sort of like most of them.”

In closing, I will leave you with one of my favorite poems of all time.  It has been posted on my refrigerator for the past two years, and I have forced most of my friends and family to read it.  Now, I force you:

 

The Space Traveler’s Contented Moments
by Benjamin Grossberg
Think of the way your thumb
held in front of you can cover
the moon. Granted, humans have
big thumbs and a small moon, but
there you are: in a corn field,
celestial bodies disappearing
behind your digits. At some distance
above the earth (if you looked
down) your left foot would blot
North America. And farther up,
the planet become so small
you could stand on it only
as a ballerina, aloft on a toe.
A little farther, and you, human,
would become a space traveler.
So it is, sometimes, this ship
displaces the universe around it:
so far from all, the universe
recedes into a tangle –
a string of your Christmas lights
balled up in a box to stow
for next year. But lit.
And here’s the odd part –
it does that even though
I’m inside it, a speck somewhere
amid brightness and writhing
wire. These moments
are unstable, they puncture,
are frail to corrosion by
elements that would extend
your periodic table into
a lord’s banquet. But, human,
more than once I have wished
to take you up with me, to share
how what startles with immensity
can balance, cat’s eye,
on the palp of one finger

Happy Spring and Happy Poetry!

Happy Spring and Happy Poetry!

Carp Poem, or, Are You Hungry for Poetry?

Posted on
Carp Poem, or, Are You Hungry for Poetry?

April is National Poetry Month, and I’m sad to say I don’t read much poetry. I could blame it on the Internet. In his article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid,” Nicholas Carr says the Internet has turned us into a nation of skimmers. People don’t have patience these days for deep reading, and deep reading — slow, careful, thoughtful — is exactly what you need to do to appreciate poetry. Internet or no, I don’t think I’ve ever had a lot of patience for poetry. Which is unfortunate. I’m missing out.

I know so much about “Is Google Making Us Stupid” because in my job as a college tutor/mentor, I’ve helped two different students write essays on the article for their Freshman Composition class. And that same Freshman Comp class recently assigned a poetry analysis.

I nudged my student to write his paper about “Carp Poem” by Terrance Hayes (see full poem below). I had never read it before, but a quick glance made me think it would be easier and more straight forward for him (a nineteen-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome) to understand than the other option, a Sylvia Plath poem.

Poet, Terrance Hayes. He’s very accomplished — check out his bio.  photo credit

 

If all I had ever done was that initial skim of “Carp Poem,” I probably wouldn’t have given it a second thought. But, since I was helping this student with a paper, I read the poem again, more carefully.

I admired the way Hayes compared a pond of densely-packed carp to orange-jumpsuited boys in a crowded prison. And I loved the part about how maybe Jesus was able to walk on the water “that day” because of carp beneath his feet:  “the crackers and wafer crumbs falling / from the folds of his robe, and how maybe it was the one fish / so hungry it leapt up his sleeve that he later miraculously changed / into a narrow loaf of bread, something that could stick to a believer’s ribs.”

I then forced my student to listen to me read the poem out loud so we could hear if it had any “sound effects” (something he needed to discuss in his paper). We noticed alliteration:   “bangles, braids, and boots,” and “black men boxed and bunked.”   And I liked the sound of the mouth-garbling line, “so many fat snaggle-toothed fish ganged in and lurching for food.”

Crowded carp pond. Photo credit.

 

But it wasn’t until the third or fourth read-through that I really felt the impact of the last line, and suddenly I loved this poem. I looked over to my student, who had jotted down “hunger” as a possible theme. “What do you mean?” I encouraged.

“Like, the fish are hungry and the boys are hungry,” he said.

“What are they hungry for?” I asked, excitement mounting in my voice.

“Um, food?”

“Listen.” I grabbed the poem out of his hand and read:  “A room of boy prisoners waiting to talk poetry with a young black poet, / packed so close they might have eaten each other had there been nothing else to eat.” I looked at my student pointedly. “It’s almost like they’re hungry for poetry.”

And I wonder if maybe the rest of us are, too.

Am I hungry for poetry?  Are you, too?

Am I hungry for poetry? Are you?

It’s hard to read poems. They take time and effort and the slow, careful reading most of us don’t have the patience for. We don’t take the time to read them out loud and listen for “sound effects.”  We don’t take time to process the words and let them conjure up images in our minds.

Plus, there are a lot of crappy and/or pretentious poems out there. Wait, let me revise that to something more PC — there are a lot of poems out there that are not to my taste. But there are also a lot of novels in the world that are not to my taste (and I’ve suffered through some of them); it doesn’t mean I’ve given up reading novels.

I was glad I helped the student with his poetry analysis paper because it forced me to read a poem deeply, and with that deep reading I ended up really enjoying it. (So much so that I forced my fiancé to listen to me read “Carp Poem” out loud when I got home that night.) There are probably a lot more poems in the world that would give me joy if only I could slow down enough to read them.

Because skimming isn’t going to cut it.  If a poem is done right, each word has been chosen carefully; each word carries weight. If you skip a few, you miss a lot.

Slow down with your reading!

Slow down with your reading!

 

One of the things my student couldn’t understand about “Carp Poem” was why the author had broken up the stanzas the way he did. “What’s the point?” he asked.  “Why not just write it as a paragraph?” But perhaps poems need white space as a way to slow down the reader — to give them places to stop and reflect.

This month, I’m going to try to read at least a few more poems. I’m not sure where to find ones I’d like, so I’d love suggestions. I know I won’t be able to cure myself of my impatient reading habits, but I’d like to put some effort towards the occasional deep read. In Carr’s article he says, “in the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading… we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas.”

In this way, reading a short poem can feel like a spiritual feast.  It can become a meditation into our own mind.

 

Carp Poem by Terrance Hayes

After I have parked below the spray paint caked in the granite
grooves of the Fredrick Douglass Middle School sign

where men and women sized children loiter like shadows
draped in the outsized denim, jerseys, bangles, braids, and boots

that mean I am no longer young, after I have made my way
to the New Orleans Parish Jail down the block

where the black prison guard wearing the same weariness
my prison guard father wears buzzes me in,

I follow his pistol and shield along each corridor trying not to look
at the black men boxed and bunked around me

until I reach the tiny classroom where two dozen black boys are
dressed in jumpsuits orange as the pond full of carp I saw once in Japan,

so many fat snaggle-toothed fish ganged in and lurching for food
that a lightweight tourist could have crossed the pond on their backs

so long as he had tiny rice balls or bread to drop into the water
below his footsteps which I’m thinking is how Jesus must have walked

on the lake that day, the crackers and wafer crumbs falling
from the folds of his robe, and how maybe it was the one fish

so hungry it leapt up his sleeve that he later miraculously changed
into a narrow loaf of bread, something that could stick to a believer’s ribs,

and don’t get me wrong, I’m a believer too, in the power of food at least,
having seen a footbridge of carp packed gill to gill, packed tighter

than a room of boy prisoners waiting to talk poetry with a young black poet,
packed so close they might have eaten each other had there been nothing else to eat.

NYC Midnight: Waiting in the Dark

NYC Midnight:  Waiting in the Dark

Tomorrow is the deadline for the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. I received my assignment last weekend and was somewhat dismayed.  I’ll just say that it was a genre, character, and subject I thought I had absolutely no interested in whatsoever.  But I surprised myself by sitting down the other evening and knocking out a story I think is pretty clever.  This is the magic of NYC Midnight.

This week I’ve been sharing some of my previous entries to NYC Midnight challenges of the past, along with the judges’ feedback.  (See Extremely Rare and Pudding.)

Today I’ll share the story I wrote for Round 1 of the Flash Fiction Challenge 2013, which won 4th place and advanced me to the second round.  The genre was romance, the location was a haunted house, and the story had to contain marshmallows.  It could only be 1000 words.  Later I ended up getting this story published in an online journal. Thank you, NYC Midnight, for making me write it!

 

 

WAITING IN THE DARK

 

Claire has been lying inside the coffin for what feels like forever. It’s so dark it doesn’t matter if her eyes are open or closed, and to keep herself awake she is eating jumbo marshmallows and thinking about Ben. Before their shift he asked her if she would do his make-up, and she said sure, even though he usually does it himself.

So she used a foam sponge to make dark smudges around his eyes, trying not to stare into them as she worked. She pressed flesh-colored putty onto his cheeks to look like open sores and combed gel through his dark hair. As she dabbed fake blood around his mouth, her fingertips grazed his lips, and her body flushed, the heat burning hottest in the outer curls of her ears.

She thought maybe something was finally going to happen — they were standing so close to each other, her hands still lingering on his face — but then one of the other zombies burst in, laughing about how he’d made some kid pee in his pants the night before, and the moment was lost.

Now, inside her coffin, Claire sighs. Soon Scream Manor will be closed for the season, and she’ll never see Ben again.

She hears the clomping of shoes on the old staircase, followed by a few echoing shrieks. Claire pulls on her mask and waits. The group enters her room, the floorboards creaking underneath their feet.

She waits a moment then pushes the coffin lid open and bolts upright. “Blaaaahhhhh!” She reaches towards a chubby kid with a shaved head.

Everyone squeals, clutching at each other, and Claire is glad. She hates when older guys come through and try to prove how not scared they are by laughing in her face.

The group disappears into the spider room, and Claire pulls off her mask. She’s worried it might be giving her pimples. She twists to the left and right a few times, her spine cracking, before lying back down.

She has just begun another Ben daydream when the coffin lid opens and an arm reaches in towards her. “Hey, what are you doing?” she says. But as her eyes adjust, she sees with a jolt that it’s Ben standing over her.

“Claire? Sorry, I didn’t realize anybody was in this thing.”

In the dimness, Ben’s eyes disappear into his darkly-painted sockets. “Do you mind?” And before she can say anything, he climbs inside the coffin and squeezes down next to her.

“If we close this thing, will we still be able to breathe?” he asks.

“Yeah. There are air holes,” Claire says, although she feels breathless at the moment. The entire left side of her body is touching his, making it hard to concentrate on anything else.

He pulls the lid shut, and the dimness turns to black.

“What’s going on?” She tries to sound casual.

“Shh!” he says, and for a few moments neither of them speak. Claire can hear Ben breathing next to her and feel the heat of his arm against hers.

“I was chasing this dude,” Ben whispers. “Right? That’s my job. And then he turned around and was like ‘zombie wanna fight?’ and he punched me right here.” Ben gropes for Claire’s hand and placed it on top of his stomach.

“That’s crazy!”  Clarie feels as if her heart is beating inside her hand, and she wonders if Ben can feel her pulse through his ripped-up shirt.

“I know. He was like three hundred pounds and psychotic or something. He started chasing me and threatening to kill me, so I ran up here to get away from him.”

“That’s really crazy.  You can hide in here if you want.”

“Thanks.”

They’re both silent for a moment, the darkness settling like a blanket around them. Claire wonders if she should take her hand away from his stomach. Her palm is starting to sweat.

“It smells good in here,” Ben says finally.

“Really? I think it smells like rubber from the mask.”

“No. It smells sweet, like vanilla or something. Is it your hair?” He turns slightly and sniffs the side of her head, sending prickles along her scalp. “No. Your hair smells like flowers. I mean, it smells good, but there’s something else that’s, like, sugary.”

“It’s probably my marshmallows,” Claire realizes. She takes her hand away from Ben’s stomach and feels around above her head for the bag. “You want one?”

“Yeah. Will you get it out for me, though? My hands are dirty.”

Claire pulls out a marshmallow and holds it towards him. “How should I, umm…” She can’t see his face, even though he is only a few inches away.

“Here… Can you feed it to me?” Ben laughs awkwardly.

Claire moved the marshmallow in his direction. Her hand bumps into his chin. “Oh, sorry.”

“It’s OK,” he says softly.

She pushes the marshmallow into his open mouth, her fingers touching his bottom lip, then she pops one into her own mouth. They lay there in silence, chewing.

“Are you doing anything after this?” Ben asks. “Matt’s having people over. I was thinking… If you wanted to go, I could give you a ride.”

“Maybe…” She doesn’t want to seem too eager.

“Or we could go do something on our own, if you want.”

“Yeah, OK.” A stupid grin spreads across Claire’s face, and she’s glad Ben can’t see her in the dark.

“Cool. I’ll see you after, then.” Ben pushes open the lid and staggers his way out of the coffin. A piece of putty drops from his face onto Claire’s neck.

“What about the crazy guy?” she asks.

“What crazy guy?” Ben tilts his head. “I’ll see you at twelve in the break room, OK?” He smiles at her and lowers the lid, and she listens to his footsteps as he descended the stairs.

Slowly, Claire’s heartbeat returns to normal, and she stretches out in her coffin, waiting for midnight and whatever will happen next.

 THE END

 

011

JUDGES’ FEEDBACK:  

WHAT THE JUDGE(S) LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY –

The entire premise of the story — the characters working at Scream Manor as a vampire and zombie — is humorous and funny. These characters collide, and the action is fun to watch (their conversations, their work, etc.). …This was a sweet piece. The details you incorporated into the text were evocative and engaging, and the character development was strong. Nice job……………………………………………………………….

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK –

The writer could take more time to flesh out the power of this connection. Why do these characters like one another? How does the setting affect this? Similarly, the title seems too basic for such a sharp story….The ending here was a trifle abrupt. I would see if you could flesh it out, so that it didn’t feel so rushed

 

NYC Midnight Challenge: Pudding

NYC Midnight Challenge: Pudding

This week I am participating in the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. Since this is my third time competing, I thought I’d share some of my previous entries, along with the judges’ feedback.

Last week I shared the story that got me advanced to Round 2 in the 2013 challenge. Today I’ll share the story I submitted for Round 2, which won an honorable mention but did not advance me to Round 3. The genre was ghost story, the character was electrician, and the subject was love.

 

PUDDING

Brenda Simpson sat on her couch in the dark, clutching the remote control and staring at the place where the TV screen had just blinked out of existence. Now all she could hear was the clicking of the radiator behind her head and the rustle of wind through the tree branches outside.

She put down the remote, grabbed her phone from the coffee table, and dialed. “Jimmy, my damn lights’ve gone out again,” she said when her son picked up.

Jimmy sighed heavily.

“You hear me?” Brenda demanded. Her voice sounded loud in the suddenly-silent house.

“I hear you, Ma,” he said. “Did you trip the circuit?”

“I don’t even know what that means.”

“That’s what happened last time. All we had to do was flip the breaker switch, you remember?”

“No, I do not remember.” Brenda was scared, which made her irritable. She thought she heard the far-off mewl of a cat coming from somewhere outside, and the hair rose on the back of her neck.

“It’s ten o’clock at night, Ma. Just go to bed.”

“I can’t see a damn thing! What if I get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, and I fall and break my neck?” She didn’t like the darkness. It transformed everything she’d thought was familiar. The floor lamp was now a strange man in a hat, lurking in the corner. The armchair across the room crouched like an animal, waiting to attack.

“Why don’t you call your neighbor, what’s-his-name?” Jimmy suggested.

He’s not an electrician. I don’t want him messing around when you could come over and do it right.”

“Well…”

“And anyway, I can’t let him see me like this. I’m in my curlers!”

Just then Brenda heard a scratching sound coming from the other side of the back door. Her heart seized, and she stared in the direction of the door. It sounded like the way her cat, Pudding, used to scratch to be let in. But Pudding had died two weeks ago. Jimmy had buried him in the back yard.

The scratching sound came again, and goose bumps ran up and down Brenda’s arms. “Jimmy,” she hissed into the phone. “Somebody’s here. Somebody’s standing on my back porch, looking in the window.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Somebody’s outside scratching on my door.”

“It’s probably a tree branch scraping the side of the house,” Jimmy said. “It’s windy out.”

“I need you to come over here right now, and I mean it.” Brenda tried to sound authoritative, but her voice trembled.

“Look, I’m not driving forty-five minutes over there just to find out it was something you could’ve fixed on your own.”

Brenda didn’t say anything.

“Why don’t you go down in the basement and flip all the switches off and on, and if that doesn’t solve the problem you can call me back, OK?”

Now that she was thinking about Pudding, Brenda felt tears prick behind her eyes. Lord, she had loved that cat. He’d shown up on Brenda’s doorstep the month after her husband, Karl, had died, as if the cat had somehow known there was a vacancy. Brenda had opened the door, and there was this skinny orange cat with big yellow eyes and a stubbed tail. No collar. That had been seven years ago now.

“Ma?” Jimmy said. “You understand? I put a flashlight for you in the junk drawer in the kitchen. So get that and go down to the basement. I know you know where the breaker box is because I showed you.”

“Fine,” Brenda grumbled. “But if I get murdered, I’m blaming you.”

“You do that.”

Brenda said good-bye and hung up the phone. All she had to do was make it into the kitchen and find the flashlight. Everything would be better once she could see.

She pushed herself up from the couch, bumping her shin on the coffee table. “Dammit,” she muttered. She began to shuffle towards the kitchen when she heard the scratching sound again. And, this time, she thought she heard a meow.

“Pudding?” she whispered. There was a slight thumping sound, and then silence. Brenda felt like her heart had dropped into her gut.

She moved towards the door, her arms and legs prickling. She could barely see, and she reached out her hands to feel her way. Finally she found the doorknob, turned it slowly, and pulled open the heavy, wooden door.

But no one was there. The porch was empty except for a few scattered leaves. The wind howled, whipping the tree branches in the back yard, and she shivered.

Then Brenda looked down. There, in the middle of the doormat, was a vole, dead on its back with its tiny legs stuck up stiff in the air.

She shut the door tight and locked it. She was starting to get scared now. Pudding had caught voles – he was a good hunter. And he’d leave them on the porch for her as presents. But Pudding was gone. Dead and buried. So who had left the vole?

Brenda moved towards the kitchen, anxious to get the lights back. But she didn’t want to go down in the basement all alone, in the pitch black. She considered waiting a few minutes and then calling Jimmy. She could say she had tried it, the thing with the breakers, and it hadn’t worked. But if he ended up driving over, and that was all it was, he’d be furious. Like the time she’d made him come over because she had thought the dryer wasn’t working, but it had turned out it was just unplugged. He hadn’t answered her phone calls for days after that.

In the kitchen, Brenda reached out, feeling for the drawer handle. The darkness formed a thick veil over her face, making it hard to breathe. She worried about reaching out and touching something horrible and unexpected. Like the hard shell of a cockroach. Or the plump, furry body of a rat.

She thought again about the vole outside on the porch.

In some ways, it was a relief that Pudding was gone. The damn cat had woken her up at six o’clock every morning, meowing pitifully. He’d beg to go in and out all day long, and if she didn’t open the door to let him out, he’d scratch the hell out of the furniture. But he’d sit on her lap when she watched TV and curl up purring at the foot of her bed when she went to sleep at night. She talked to him, too. Told him about her day, complained to him that her children never called. He was good at listening.

Brenda rifled through the junk drawer and found the flashlight. She clicked it on, and it worked, thank god.

She walked towards the door that led to the basement. The thin beam of light made it so she could see straight in front of her, but that just emphasized the darkness everywhere else.

She reached the basement steps, and out of habit she reached over to flip on the lights. Of course, nothing happened. She gripped the handrail and made her way down as the light from the flashlight bobbed eerily with each step.

“Ain’t nothing to be scared of, Bren,” she whispered to herself, but her heart was beating faster. Hell, she was scared of the basement during the day, when the lights were on. It was cold and damp and windowless, piled with boxes of old things – things that were too sad to look at and too sad to be thrown away.

She got to the bottom of the stairs. Now the light from the flashlight seemed to be absorbed by the blackness of the basement, and she squinted to see where she was going. She shuffled along the concrete floor towards the breaker box.

And that’s when she heard a meow.

She swung her flashlight back and forth. “Here, kitty,” she whispered hoarsely. Her voice echoed.

Another meow. She couldn’t tell where the noise was coming from, whether it was in the basement, or coming from upstairs, or outside.

The top of her head tingled, and tears smarted in the corners of her eyes. Damn Karl. Why’d he have to leave her all alone in this old house with its shoddy wiring?

She moved her flashlight back and forth. And then she saw something. In the shadows an orange cat with yellow eyes crouched between two boxes. She took a step closer, but then, just as suddenly as she’d seen it, it was gone.

She stood frozen, staring at the spot with her heart going wild.  Had she just seen a ghost?  After Karl had died, she’d thought for sure the house was haunted. She’d walk into a room and smell him – that smoky, moldy smell he had. And sometimes she’d sensed him lying next to her in bed. She’d been scared until Pudding had come along to keep her company.

“Pudding?” she called, looking in the place where she’d seen the cat. “Here, Pud,” she whispered. “I love you, little Pudding.” She’d always told Pudding how much she loved him. Something she had hardly ever said to Karl, or her kids even.

She shone her flashlight all around, but whatever it had been, it was gone now.

Brenda made her way to the breaker box. She hated this electrical stuff, was always worried Jimmy would get electrocuted one of these days. She reached out and flipped the first switch back and forth. Nothing. She tried another.  On the third switch, the basement flooded with light.

“Oh!” Brenda realized she’d been holding her breath. She did the rest of the switches, just to be sure, then hurried back upstairs. The TV blared in the den. She walked over and turned it off.

And then she heard the noise again. A loud, insistent meow.

“What the hell is going on?” She had more confidence in the light. She marched over to the back door. “When I open up this door,” she said, “there best be a cat standing there, or else I’m going to think I’m going crazy!”

She yanked open the door. And sitting there on the porch, next to the dead vole, was a half-starved-looking cat, gray and white, with no collar.

“Well, hey there.” Brenda opened the screen door and stepped out into wind. The cat meowed and rubbed against her leg. “Hey there,” she said again. “Whatcha doing, huh? You hungry?” The cat began to purr.

“I don’t know why you don’t just eat this vole,” she said. “You gone through the trouble of catching it.”

The cat looked up at her and meowed again, and Brenda had the strange thought that this puny thing wasn’t the hunter. Maybe the vole was one last present from Pudding. But, of course, that was crazy.

“I think I got some tuna fish,” Brenda said. She bent over as best she could and rubbed the cat’s head with her fingers. Jimmy would yell at her about taking in a stray, but it didn’t look like this one had rabies or anything. It was just a creature needing a home.

She opened the door, and the cat trotted in. Like it knew there was a vacancy. Brenda made her way to the kitchen and opened a can of tuna. Just then the phone rang. She picked it up and cradled it against her ear while she drained the can over the sink. The cat weaved around her legs, purring loudly.

“Ma?” Jimmy said. “I’m sorry I was short with you. You want me to come over and see what the problem is?”

“No, I figured it out on my own,” Brenda said. “But I appreciate you, son. And I love you.”

“I love you, too, Ma,” he said gruffly.

She hung up the phone and looked down at her new cat, who was waiting expectantly for its dinner.

 

THE END

 

JUDGES’ FEEDBACK:

WHAT THE JUDGE(S) LIKED:

A well put together little piece — nothing we don’t need to know, tight dialogue, good grounding, clear character/conflict/crisis/change structure.  What’s particularly done well here is the sketching of what it must be like to be a widow alone in the world, save for her son; I felt badly for this woman in her predicament, but she wasn’t painted in such a way that it was pathetic: she wasn’t whiny or stereotyped.

In addition, there are several nice lines in here; the paragraph about the shapes changing in the dark, in particular, is not only vividly rendered but is accessible (most readers, I think, can identify with what’s happening in that moment): “She didn’t like the darkness. It transformed everything she’d thought was familiar. The floor lamp was now a strange man in a hat, lurking in the corner. The armchair across the room crouched like an animal, waiting to attack.”//I also loved the line “–things that were too sad to look at and too sad to be thrown away.” That says it all about the junk we all have in our basements, and I think readers can make an instant connection to it.

There were also, I’d like to point out, no typos or misspellings. In my opinion, this is ready to submit to a magazine…….This was a very creepy story, and the atmosphere was well done. I loved the building of suspense!……

 

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK:

I might suggest fleshing out, with a paragraph or two, her relationship with her husband — it was the one thing I felt was missing. Just one paragraph or so, done in similar fashion to the one about her son (for your reference: the one that mentions “Like the time she’d made him come over because she had thought the dryer wasn’t working, but it had turned out it was just unplugged. He hadn’t answered her phone calls for days after that.”) Something like that would give us just a tad more detail about Brenda and add a layer of depth; perhaps even play off the one line that’s already in there, the line that discusses her frustration at his leaving her with a house full of shoddy wiring…….

I found myself hoping for more of a surprise at the end… I hoped all the foreshadowing of a cat’s arrival was a red herring for something more sinister. I also don’t understand her relationship to her children; why is it that they don’t call? Just that she needs them to help her out around the house, or that she’s lonely? It’s nice that you give her a cat at the end, but I would’ve liked more of a solid build-up, more at stake in her relationships to herself and others…………………………….………………………

NYC Midnight Challenge: Extremely Rare

NYC Midnight Challenge: Extremely Rare

For the third time I will be participating in an NYC Midnight writing challenge. It’s the Short Story challenge, and the first round starts tomorrow at midnight.

The way it works is this:  For the first round, writers are assigned a genre, subject, and character. We have 8 days to write an original story no longer than 2,500 words. The judges choose a top 5 in each group to advance to the 2nd Round, in which we receive new assignments, only this time we have 3 days to write a 2,000 word story.

Judges will choose finalists from the 2nd Round to advance to the 3rd and final round, in which we must write a 1,500 word (maximum) story in just 24 hours (April 24-25, 2015).

This means, if I make it to the third round, I will be writing a short story on the day of my wedding…  Luckily (?) I have never made it to the third round.

Uh oh.  When will I write my short story?

Uh oh. When will I write my short story?

It’s a really fun contest, even though I’ve never won. It gets you writing — and often writing things you wouldn’t write normally. From doing the contest twice, I’ve produced four short stories, one of which I submitted to a literary magazine and got published! Also, the judges give you thorough feedback on each story, which, to me, is worth the money you pay to enter.

Since I need time to work on my novel and pound out a short story, I thought that this week and next I might share some of the pieces I’ve written for NYC Midnight challenges in the past, as well as the feedback I received from the judges.

Here’s the first one, which won 4th place in the 1st round of the Short Story Challenge 2013 and got me advanced to Round 2. If I remember correctly, the genre was romance, the subject was steak, and the character was an architect.

 

EXTREMELY RARE

 All I know is that his name is Rich and he’s an architect.

As I park my car on a side street in downtown New Orleans, the thought shoots through me that Rich might not exist. He’s probably a robot. I’ve heard about robots in the online dating systems, tricking lonely men into thinking beautiful Russians with poor grammar are in love with them. I’ve never heard of male robots, but a tall, handsome architect named Rich isn’t likely to be a real person. I should just go home.

And yet I’m here, and I’m hungry. If he doesn’t show up, I’ll treat myself to a baked potato. I step out of the car into the balmy, spring night and smooth my skirt over my butt. I’m wearing something my mother picked out for me: a flimsy, flowered skirt and a low-cut top. It’s not at all like the clothes I normally wear, but tonight I’m not trying to be me.

 *   *   *

 

A few weeks ago, just after my thirtieth birthday, my mother created a dating profile for me and started messaging men on my behalf. The profile says a lot of things that are untrue – that I’m an office manager and I enjoy playing volleyball, for example – but the men of the Internet seem to like the fake me.

Most people would have been annoyed if their mothers did this, but I’ve decided to give it a try. I’ve done a very bad job of meeting men on my own. It might be worth acting like someone else, to have a person to snuggle with at night.  We spend a third of our lives asleep, and in those hours does it really matter who you are?

 *   *   *

 

I step inside the ritzy steakhouse and look around. The restaurant is dim, except for the bar, where tiny lights illuminate liquor bottles on mirrored shelves.

“Kate?”

A man approaches me, and it’s Rich. He has dark hair and blue eyes, just like his picture, and yet there’s something awkward about him in person. His height is gangly instead of dapper; his shoulders and elbows make sharp corners in his clothes. And when he smiles I see that his bottom teeth are crammed and crooked. I’m glad. His imperfections make me feel more relaxed.

“I hope this restaurant is okay,” he says as the waitress leads us to a small table.

“It’s great,” I tell him. “I love steak.” This isn’t true at all. I’m a vegetarian. But my mother told me that men like it when skinny women eat big, meaty meals.

We sit down, and I rack my brains for something to say.

“So you’re an office manager?” Rich asks.

“Yes.”

“How do you like it?”

“I love it.” I smile widely. “I love every minute of it.” My mother told me to be positive. She said my normal attitude is too dark and strange for most people’s tastes.

Rich tilts his head to one side, considering me. “There must be some things you don’t love.”

I’m sure there would be many things I wouldn’t love about managing an office, like answering the phone and making spreadsheets and sending memos, but I don’t want to sound negative.

“Well,” I say finally, “I wish I had more time to work on my art.” This, at least, is true. No matter what job I’m doing, whether it’s pet-sitting, (which is what I do now), or face-painting at City Park (I got fired because some parents complained I made their children’s faces too “scary”), I’m always thinking about my unfinished paintings back home. They’re like my children. Or my pets, at least. I feel guilty when I don’t spend enough time with them.

“You’re an artist?” Rich asks. “You didn’t tell me that.”

I shrug. “I’m not a real artist. I don’t sell my paintings or anything.” In fact, I don’t even show them to anyone except my mother, and that’s only out of necessity, because I store the finished ones in her basement.

“I think if you make art, you’re an artist,” Rich says, and that’s very sweet of him. But he doesn’t understand. He has a real job (an architect!) and a real life (he rock climbs!) Sometimes I’m not even sure that I exist.

The waiter comes, and I order a glass of wine. Rich orders a beer.

When the waiter is gone, Rich asks me about volleyball.

“It’s fun,” I say. “I like to jump.”

“Me, too,” Rich tells me. “I’m thinking about buying a trampoline.” As soon as he says this, he seems to wish he hadn’t. “Tell me more about your hobbies,” he adds quickly. “What else do you do besides volleyball?”

His eyes are large, and in the dimness of the restaurant they swim from blue to brown, like Lake Pontchartrain at dusk. I want to paint his eyes, each one the size of a watermelon, on a huge canvas, with tiny sailboats heading towards the pupils, and flying fish leaping from the irises.

“Kate?” Rich asks. “What else do you do in your free time?”

I’m having a hard time seeing his face as a whole. It’s broken up into different geographical locations: two lakes for his eyes, the mountain range of his nose, the vast cavern of his mouth.  “What do you do?” I manage to say.

“Fair enough.” Rich smiles, and his teeth are rocks to scramble over. “Uh, I play golf. And…What else did I say on my profile?”

“You rock climb, don’t you?” I ask, still looking at his teeth.

“Oh, yes. I rock climb all the time.”

“And what about your job as an architect? What do you design?”

“You know, normal stuff. Office buildings mostly.”

“Anything in New Orleans?”

“A few places.”

Our drinks arrive, and we both sip from them eagerly.

“Are you ready to order?” the waiter asks.

“Sure.” I scan the menu. “I’ll have the house salad and this.” I point at one of the entrées at random.

“Excellent choice,” the waiter says. “How would you like your steak?”

I stare at him, my mind suddenly blank.

“Well-done, medium, rare?” the waiter prompts.

“Rare,” I say, because I like the sound of it. Rare means uncommon, maybe even excellent. She was a rare sort of girl. Maybe that’s what Rich will say about me tomorrow when his friends ask him about the date. “Extremely rare,” I add.

Rich orders a steak, medium, and he asks for extra sour cream on his baked potato.

We talk for a while, haltingly. Rich asks me about the interests listed on my profile, and I try to talk about these things I know nothing and care nothing about. When he asks me more about painting, I’m excited, but I try to talk about it in a normal way. I say things like, “it’s fun,” and “I don’t take it too seriously.” I don’t say, “it’s the only thing that makes me feel real.” And yet, some of my own thoughts seep out through the cracks in my façade.

“I like thinking about size,” I tell him. “Because, really, what does it mean to say something is big?”

I could have gone on to say that “big” and “small” are only important when compared to other things. And distance really screws with size. Something huge can seem tiny when you are far enough away. I always feel so far away. This is one of the reasons why I have trouble with reality sometimes. Everything is relative.

But I don’t say any of this because my mother’s voice is in my head, warning me not to sound weird.

Rich surprises me by nodding and telling me he’s interested in size, too. “I was always fascinated by models as a kid,” he says. “And I have a collection of miniature toilets.” Then he laughs strangely and says he’s just kidding about the toilets.

After a while, I excuse myself to the bathroom and stand in the stall, mopping the sweat from my underarms with a wad of toilet paper.

When I get back to the table, our food has arrived, and I’m horrified to see that the hunk of meat on my plate sits in a pool of oily blood. I push the plate away from me discreetly and concentrate on the salad, which is covered in shaved carrot and has two radish roses at the edge of the bowl.

“You know what’s strange to think about,” Rich says, as he cuts a piece of his steak and puts it to his mouth. “This meat that I’m eating came from a cow. And that cow ate nothing but grass and hay, and that grass and hay grew from nothing but sunlight and water and soil. I’m just a part of the cycle.”

I look up at him. These are the sorts of thoughts I have sometimes. That’s when I remember that “rich” doesn’t only mean wealthy. It can mean deep and strong.

“I’m sorry,” Rich waves his fork in front of his face as if to erase what he said. “That was a weird thing for me to say. I know people don’t like being reminded of where their food comes from.” He glances at my untouched steak.

“That’s OK,” I tell him. “It’s interesting to think about. I always think about how nothing is created and nothing is destroyed. It just changes form. So maybe an atom from that cow you’re eating, and an atom from your own body used to be atoms together in a dinosaur, or a rock, or a…a…”

“Or a star?” Rich says.

“Yeah. Or a star.” I smile at him. I love stars. They look like innocent pin-pricks to us humans, but up close they’re fiery giants. In fact, some of the stars we see in the sky don’t even exist anymore. They are ghosts. They are cosmic memories in light. This is what my latest series of paintings is trying to illustrate.

“Kate, can I ask you something?” Rich says.

“Sure.”

“You seem different from your profile.”

“That’s not a question,” I say faintly, staring down at my hunk of meat.

“I think we should both stop pretending.”

I look up. His eyes are big and bright. “I’m not pretending,” I say unconvincingly.

Rich sighs. “Are you going to eat that steak?”

“Probably not.”

“Do you want to see something I designed?”

I tell him I do. I’m not sure what he thinks of me right now, but I’m glad for the date to continue. Maybe I can try to act normal and get things back on track.

“OK,” he says. “Let’s get a doggie bag for that steak. We’re going to need it.”

 

*  *  *

 

Fifteen minutes later, we’re driving up Saint Charles Avenue in Rich’s car with the steak in a tinfoil swan on my lap.

Rich parks on a side street near Audubon Park. “Bring that meat with you,” he instructs as we get out of the car. We walk down the sidewalk, past giant homes with Roman columns and stone mansions with castle-like turrets.

“Is it one of these houses?”

“Sort of,” Rich whispers. I suddenly wonder if we’re going to steal something, or kill someone.

We move silently down the softly-lit street, boughs of massive oak trees above our heads. We reach a particularly opulent home with lights studded in the manicured yard, illuminating flowering bushes and neatly pruned trees. Rich stops in front of the house.

“It’s beautiful,” I say.

“I didn’t design it.”

“You didn’t?”

“No.” Rich turns to me. “I’m not an architect. Not really.”

What is he then? A robot? “What are you?” I ask.

“I make dog houses.”

“You make dog houses?” I repeat.

“Luxury dog homes, really,” he says. “Plus a few kitty condos. And once I designed a ferret playground for a woman in Florida.”

“Wow,” I say. That’s a lot more interesting than designing office buildings.

Rich shrugs his bony shoulders. “I know it’s weird, but I love to take something large and make it small.”

Funny. I like to take something small and paint it large.

“The one I made for these people,” Rich says, “is the one I’m most proud of. Want to go see it?”

“Sure.”

We creep through the lighted yard. The grass is like a sponge. “They have a Mastiff,” he whispers as we approach a tall, wooden gate. “But I think we can distract him with the steak.”

I hand Rich the tinfoil swan, and he unwraps it. He opens the gate slowly and waves the meat back and forth. “Here boy,” he calls softly. “Look what I’ve got for you.”

A giant, wrinkle-faced dog comes trotting curiously towards us. Rich tosses the steak into the corner of the backyard, and the dog bounds after it. A moment later, he’s settled in the dark grass, gnawing happily.

“That should keep him busy for a while.” Rich reaches out, grabs my hand, and leads me through the gate. His fingers are damp, probably from meat juice, but I don’t care. It’s nice to be connected to another person.

In the middle of the yard, I see a small, circular structure. It’s gleaming white and looks like a miniature observatory, complete with a domed roof and a protruding telescope.

“You want to go in?” Rich asks, and I nod. We duck our heads and stand stooped inside the dog house. The dome has skylights, and I can see a flush of stars through the glass. There is a dog bed in one corner, and the telescope comes down through the ceiling, ending in front of a bowl filled with water.

Rich sits down cross-legged, and I sit down, too, feeling cozy in our round den. I stare up through the skylight. “Do you think the dog looks at the stars?” I ask.

“Maybe. What do you think he thinks they are?”

“Maybe he doesn’t think they’re anything,” I say. “They’re too small for him to notice.”

We are still holding hands. Rich squeezes my fingers.

“This is a beautiful dog house,” I say. “You really designed it?”

“And built it, too.” Rich looks at me, and I feel like we are inside his right eye, looking out through his pupil at the night sky.

“It’s beautiful,” I say again, not really talking about the dog house anymore, but talking about many things, both big and small.

“I really do have a miniature toilet collection,” Rich says after a moment.

“I’m not really an office manager.” I say.

“I’d love to see your paintings some time.”  His breath is warm and damp against my ear.

“I’ll show them to you next time.”

Rich puts his lips to mine, and it’s a rare sort of kiss. One that is only interrupted when the dog comes snuffling in, his breath smelling of meat.

Rich squeezes my hand, and together we leave the observatory, venturing out into the real, human world.

 

THE END

 

FEEDBACK FROM JUDGES:

WHAT THE JUDGE(S) LIKED ABOUT YOUR SCRIPT:

Kate’s voice and perspective are fun to follow (i.e. when she thinks her blind date is going to be a robot because all she knows about him is his name and that he’s an architect). The descriptions of the observatory are beautiful. The moment where these characters put away their facades is meaningful. ……………………This story has such a sweet and unique sense of romance to it. It’s almost sad and hopeful all at the same time, and very enjoyable……………….

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK:

Rich’s voice isn’t as refined as Kate’s — the writer could work on developing the word choices and syntax to make this character three-dimensional. The romance unfolds rather quickly and doesn’t seem realistic — maybe adding more of Kate’s insights would make it easier to swallow. ……………………The only critique I have is to have more back story on Kate. What are some small scenes from her past that make her feel like she needs to be someone else to meet someone?……………