Category: short stories

A Little Close to Home

The best writing surprises the writer, or so I believe. As I’ve undoubtedly said before, I’m often surprised, shaking my head after a writing session and saying to myself, “Well, there’s something going on here, but I’ll be damned if I know what it is.” I’m comfortable with ambiguity in my work, if not in my everyday life. With this poem, though, I recognized the point. I knew it was about me.

I became uncomfortable as the words flowed out, and the discomfort continued as I redrafted and tinkered with it. The poem is certainly hyperbole, but it contains enough truth about me to make me sigh. I’m not a very social person, and lately I seem to have withdrawn even more. I’m trying to rectify the situation, but not as hard as I could. Such is my life at this point.

The Recluse

The fact that I found none of this
peculiar (the horse smell, the dark
magic of the mantle clock, the eye
that glittered murder from the socket
of my dead boyhood friend, the pain)
told me I was either in a dream or
something had fundamentally shifted,
an alien landscape had grown inside
me, a filter had dropped into my brain
that processed everything bad as good.

I determined I wasn’t dreaming by the
sheer consistency of items and events
that stretched through the day and into
the night…dreams went quickly sideways,
and this all had a bizarre, black logic,
including the girl who approached me
hesitantly and asked, “Are you the recluse?”

“I am the one who has been foretold to you,”
I decided to say, not caring how I sounded,
not caring that the girl dissolved into tears
and ran through the empty streets, shouting
out to any who would listen, “He has come,
he has come, prepare the way of the recluse!”

I merged with the shadows behind a house
that used to belong to my grandmother before
she and her second husband killed themselves.
I didn’t know who lived in it now, but I determined
that I wouldn’t visit the new owner–or visit anyone.
I couldn’t. I had a prophecy to fulfill, after all.

A Couple of Swells (short story)

I suppose one day I could submit stories for publication, but I know nothing about the market…and I have enough to do with submitting poetry. In the meantime, I’m happy to post fiction here.

Since my time to writing is limited (usually forty-five minutes a day), I’m trying to write a complete draft rather than writing for a bit and leaving characters in permanent limbo. This one came rather easily after the first line.

A Couple of Swells

“What the fuck was that?” Judy Garland’s ghost asked, looking up at the ceiling. “What do you have up there, a team of wild horses?”

That time, she appeared as young Judy Garland, right at the start of her career. Sometimes, when she was feeling cranky, she showed up as she was in the 1960s. Still larger than life, still able to command an audience like none other…but tired. Wearing thin at the edges.

I sighed. It was just more ghosts, but I didn’t want to get into with Judy. She was something of a drama queen, which probably doesn’t surprise you. I was just glad that Mickey Rooney’s shade hadn’t shown up because God knows it would have been a bitch-fest broken up by sporadic dance numbers. The whole thing was just plain uncomfortable.

“I asked you a question, Darren,” Judy said in her most imperious tone. She stamped her foot on the ground, which didn’t make a sound. Unlike my guests upstairs, the only noise Judy made was from her voice. The woman could still belt it out, but it was clear to me that night she had no interest in singing. At least, not at that moment.

I could have lied, which I did sometimes, but she often found out the truth, and then she was pissed.”It’s a dinner party.”

“Oh, delightful,” Judy purred. “Shall I go up and entertain?”

“No, I don’t think that’s wise. Just stay down here with me.”

Judy pouted, and it was hard to take her seriously. “And why must you be the only one to enjoy my presence tonight?” she asked.

“Because I know those ghosts up there, and they probably don’t want anything to do with you. They’re more into punk.”

“Oh, they’re ghosts,” she said, drawing out the word as she lowered her head as if ready to weep. “And here I thought you’d actually gotten some friends.”

Judy didn’t like competition, but at least the ghosts stayed upstairs that night. She’d gotten into terrible fights with other ghosts who’d showed up on what she referred to as “her nights.” When that happened, she demanded everyone pay attention to her or get the hell out. She’d look at me, demanding my help, as if I could disperse the other ghosts. I could not more do that than I could summon them. They came and went as they wished.

Judy, on the other hand, could clear a room. There were notable exceptions, of course, including those she didn’t want to leave. Frank Sinatra was always welcome to stay, as was Sammy Davis, Jr. Of Dean Martin, she said, “That man is deplorable, and I’d rather drink a gallon of kerosene and swallow a match than spend a mere moment of my afterlife with him.”

Judy perched herself on my sofa, crossed her legs, and scrutinized me. “Darren, you look horrible,” she pronounced. “Are you getting enough sleep? Eating well?”

“I’m fine, just a little worn-out from the day,” I said, keeping the real reasons to myself. So far, and to my great surprise, I’d been able to keep from Judy the girlfriend I’d had for the last few months, but that secrect wouldn’t be a problem anymore.

“No, there’s more to it than that,” she said. “But if you’re not going to be honest, what can I do?” She snapped her fingers. “I’ll sing to you! That’ll at least make you feel better!”

“Oh, no, Miss Garland,” I tried protesting, “that’s not really necessary to–”

It was too late, as always. Judy blasted into “Zing! Went the Strings of my Heart,” and zing, came the headache. I don’t mean to sound cruel; she still has an incredible voice, but you haven’t been two feet away from her when she’s singing. Her voice is like a physical object in the room, forcing itself on it whether or not you want it. I pulled a happy-ish face. When she finished the song, she slugged me on the shoulder and said, “Still glum, chum?”

“No, I feel better,” I said, convincingly, I hoped. “I always do after you sing.”

We heard another crash upstairs, followed by raucous, drunken laughter. Judy scowled at the ceiling, saying, “Listen, if you want me to man-handle those bastards up there, just give me the word.”

“It’s okay, really. They’ll settle down and be out of here before you know it. How about another song?”

Judy’s face lit up. “Now we’re talking, buster. Which one? I got a million and two, you know.”

See, that’s my real job. I’m here to make sure they’re okay, and even though I had a splitting headache that night and bummed out about Tiffany, I knew Judy showed up because she needed an audience, just as the ghosts upstairs needed to have a crazy dinner party. I offered sanctuary of a sort, and I took my role seriously. Too seriously, probably, because I’m sure that’s why Tiffany ditched me. I never let her come over to my place, and I cancel dates left and right when ghosts showed up, needing something.

“You certainly do, Miss Garland,” I said. “How about ‘By Myself’?”

Judy wrinkled up her nose. “That’s a little blue, don’t you think?”

“Well, maybe, but you sing it so well.”

That was all it took. “Anything for you, darling,” she cooed and began singing softly.

I closed my eyes and leaned back, reminding myself that no one else on Earth was as lucky as me at that moment, having a personal concert given by Miss Judy Garland herself, dead nearly 50 years…but with me at that moment. A little transparent, a little monochrome, but beautiful as could be.

A Man, a Turtle, a Boy

This little story is significant for a few reasons:

  • no one dies
  • no one is involved in dangerous, compromising, or hideously embarrassing sexual situations…most of which end in someone’s death
  • tragedy–neither of the epic Greek variety or the dark Flannery O’Connor in which the Holy Spirit moves and wreaks destruction in its path–happens.

I suppose all bullet points can be summed up in the first.

The man with the turtle said, “Just give my money back and I’ll be going.”

The boy behind the ticket counter looked as unsure as a new-born shrimp. Shrimplet? He wasn’t sure which, but he knew he looked unsure. And pale. He watched himself enough in the plexi-class reflection to know that. “Excuse me,” he said, “but I’ll have to ask you to keep voice down.” There, he took a chance and was brave. He waited to see what that would net him.

The man with the turtle blinked. The turtle blinked. The whole world blinked at least four or five times before the man said, “I haven’t raised my voice.”

The boy sighed and picked at the scabs on the backs of his hands. “I’ll have to get the manager, and he’ll just tell you the same thing, sir.” So he was back to saying “sir” after giving himself permission to drop it once and for all.

The man placed his box turtle on the ticket counter. The turtle, which seemed ordinary enough at first with brown and pale green squares on his shell, slowly turned his head toward the direction of the boy. The boy suddenly thought he looked like the wisest creature that ever existed. Forget the owl and all its purported wisdom…the turtle–this turtle– was where it was at.

“If I understand you correctly,” said the man, calm as an unruffled lake, “even if a patron leaves fifteen minutes into a show and politely asks for a return on his money because the show was a colossal disappointment, it’s the policy of this theater not to return his money and thereby ensure that said patron will never return?”

The boy knew most kids his age couldn’t follow the man’s words or ride the wave of his cadence toward full understanding. Many adults thought the kid wasn’t very smart because he loved skateboards and strange music and smoke the occasional joint. The boy was incredibly smart. “With all due respect, sir,” he said–meaning it, for what it’s worth–“you brought a turtle into the theater, and that’s not allowed.”

The man looked down at the turtle. “Mr. Chow enjoys the cinema,” he said. “I bring him with me every Friday, and then I take him to my film club as we discuss what we saw and what’s soon coming to the screen. He doesn’t make noise or disturb anyone, I assure you, in either venue.”

“It’s a pet, sir. In our theater. If I bring out the manager, he’ll freak out.”

“I see.”

“You can hide Mr. Chow and I can get him, but like I said, he’s weird about giving money back.” The boy found himself relaxing more and warming up to the man. And Mr. Chow. “He figures that today, you pretty much know what you getting before walking into a movie because trailers give so much away, and TV spots, and stuff like that.”

“That doesn’t change my disappointment in the film,” the man said. “And as a patron, I assumed your establishment valued my business. As I said, Mr. Chow and I come every Friday.”

The boy liked how the man referred to himself as a patron and the theater as an establishment. The man had better manners than anyone who bought tickets from the boy. Genteel. That was the word that described him.

“Okay,” the boy said. He took out his wallet and open the register, breaking a ten and giving the man $7.50. “Here’s your money, sir. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the film, and I hope you and Mr. Chow will continue to be patrons.”

The man looked down at the money. Mr. Chow turned his head, looked at the money, and slowly nodded. The man swept it from the counter and into his hands. “We accept your generosity and would like to buy you coffee some rainy afternoon, for that’s the best time to have coffee with a friend.”

The boy found himself smiling. He didn’t have many friends, and certainly none like the man. Well, he supposed, he did now. “My name’s Alan,” he said.

The man bowed. “My name is Stephen. I believe you’ve met Mr. Chow.”

“Nonetheless, it’s a pleasure still.”

Now it was the man’s turn to smile. They talked until other customers showed up, demanding tickets quickly so they didn’t miss the previews.

The (Tough) Art of Creating a Short Story

For some reason, I expect writing good short stories to be relatively easy. I don’t know why, at 41, I still think that since I’ve struggled with the short story form since I began cranking them out in my early teens. As I’ve said before, the entire process of poetry–the imagining, workshopping, revision–has been simple compared to writing short stories. Ideas pop into my head all the time, and those ideas usually find their way into my poems. Sometimes, though, characters and their voices show up, and I know to do them justice, I need to write prose.

Aside from my tendency to abandon stories after ten or so pages, I also acknowledge that my strength isn’t in description. I’m also not particularly good at pacing, either. I excel at dialogue, and I’ve heard as much from editors back when I was submitting stories for publication. I received personal rejection slips telling me that dialogue was spot on, but the rest of my writing was flabby. I took that as an encouraging sign, and I still do, despite the number of years that have passed between those rejection slips and now.

For help, I decided to buy the Gotham City Writer’s Workshop book on writing fiction. I like it so far, and while the first section seems geared more toward beginning writers, I still find it helpful. The exercises in the book have been useful thus far, too.

I’ve also returned to using Scrivener writing software, but not for a novel writing (though I’m also tempted to use Scrivener in conjunction with the beautiful word processing program Novlr), but for short stories. Scrivener helps me plan a story, much like I used it to plan my last novel. I realized over the weekend that I can’t continue treating short stories like poems. I need more time with stories, and some stories (like the one I’m currently working on) require research. Scrivener has a wonderful built-in feature to store research, and it allows you to visually plan scenes for a novel, story, or screenplay. Novlr is gorgeous and gets my fingers itchy to fill a blank page.

I can knock out at least one quality poem a day during my writing time, but the first draft of a story takes me at least a week if I tackle it every day. I have the time, and though it can be grueling, I’m willing to show up at the page and take the project on, even if I feel discouraged. Discouragment is just a feeling attached to a useless thought; it has nothing to do with my dedication to the craft or my ability as a writer. I think setting writing goals for myself is a good idea, too. One of many things that quitting drinking has taught me is that I’m a hell of a lot stronger and focused than I sometimes give myself credit for.

I’m also going to re-read Stephen King’s masterful On WritingIf you’re a writer and haven’t read it, I highly recommend you check it out. It transformed the way I wrote, and I’m sure I’ll glean more wisdom and encouragement this read-through.

For the curious, the story I’m working on came from a prompt in the Gotham City book. To paraphrase, it was something like: “Sam knew either it was a lucky sign or a sign of disaster when….” After some freewriting, that prompt led to a strange and touching story about a man who works with chimps, teaching them to sign, and in particular his relationship with a troubled chimp named Roscoe. I like where the story’s going…I just have to remind myself (several times a day) not to abandon it because the words aren’t lining up like obedient little children. They rarely do, anyway, and just because the writing is hard doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it.

Whew, this was a longer post than I intended. Thanks for taking time to read.