Friday, April 19, 2013

Dry Run

For someone like me, economy of words has always been a problem. I never met an adjective or adverb I didn't like. So, having 500-word writing assignments in the creative writing course I took last autumn was a real challenge for me. The instructor's rule was, if you couldn't keep it to 500 words, you could max out at 750. I had one that wrapped up at 749. And that was after considerable editing. 

This one ended up at 699 words. A proud moment, not cracking the 700 mark. This assignment asked us to take a single opening sentence—“Chris began to question the wisdom of this trip.”—and spin out as much of a fiction narrative as possible in 500 words. Okay, in 699 words. The goal was not to finish a whole story, but just get started. We were encouraged to finish our stories on our own. I never did that, but I actually like where this fragment drifts off.

A few notes:
  1. Gudbrandsdalsost is an actual Norwegian brown cheese.
  2. Kum & Go is an actual chain of gas station mini-marts. However, there is not a Kum & Go in Moline, Illinois. That is just a convenient fiction.
  3. Sapp Brothers is an actual chain of truck stops. They have these awesome, giant neon signs shaped like old-fashioned coffee pots. At night, you can see those red pots for miles. 
  4. The "windowless lavender shack" is an actual windowless lavender shack (unless it's been repainted) somewhere between Moline and Chicago. And yes, the signage described is accurate.
So, here's a tiny story fragment for you. Fiction is not my expertise, so the training wheels are still on.

Dry Run

Chris began to question the wisdom of this trip. The Stevenson Expressway could be a slow-moving traffic jam on the best of days, but now, with a jack-knifed tractor trailer splayed across all four in-bound lanes, the Interstate was a parking lot. Chris' fingertips drummed on the steering wheel as she squinted at the wall of Illinois State Police cruisers and Cook County Fire & Rescue vehicles blocking the slick roadway. This was a stupid idea, she cursed herself. All for some damn cheese.

Tor's parents, Bob and Marlene Eriksen, were due in Moline that evening, and this time, Chris vowed, everything would be perfect. Every year, without fail, they arrived from Duluth for Christmas, bearing gifts and Marlene's conservative disdain for Chris, "that girl" who made her son live in sin.

"There's no pleasing Mom," Tor would always remind her the first night, wrapping his arms around Chris's waist and kissing her in the quiet of their bedroom. "Don't even try, hon. Just not worth it." In the darkness, while Tor slumbered, Chris would recall the screaming matches, police calls, and emergency room visits of her parents' fractured marriage. Marlene would never understand it, so Chris just smiled and placated her as best she could, if just for a measure of holiday peace. "Christmas détente," as Tor had proclaimed it after the first awkward year.

And that was why Chris was stuck on the Stevenson in freezing rain, trapped behind a shattered semi and its escaped flock of frozen Butterball turkeys. "Gudbrandsdalsost. Brown cheese," Tor had sighed, scrolling through one of Marlene's myriad emails, jammed with glitter and flashing holiday images. "Mom's obsessed this year with making those little Norwegian pancakes and serving them with jam and this damn brown cheese. She says there's an import store in Chicago that sells it. I mean, it's good and all, but, c'mon. Two hours to Chicago for cheese?"

Chris had her coat on before Tor was done talking. One less thing for Marlene to count against her.

She gassed up at the Kum & Go around the corner from their tiny bungalow, and snagged some caffeine for the ride. The Kum & Go gutbuster soda was always Chris' weapon of choice for a haul to Chicago, and she'd dropped ninety-nine cents for a giant Dr. Pepper before hitting the road. Tor disgustingly referred to her enormous refillable mug as the "Kum cup," and, on that basis alone, she'd considered ditching it for something not branded with the Midwest's most questionable gas station name. A liter and a half later, the cup was empty, Chris was full, and Chicago and that goddamn brown cheese seemed a lifetime away. There was no way off the highway now, and the good Dr. Pepper was knocking on her bladder wall.

Chris tapped her foot, breathed deeply, did some Kegels, and tried not to look at the streams of icy rain gushing down the windshield. She should have stopped at Sapp Brothers' truck stop a few miles back. She should have passed on the gutbuster. She should stop letting Marlene yank her chain. Shoulda coulda woulda. Chris flicked off the radio as an ad urged her to cruise the gentle flowing waters of the Caribbean this winter.

She looked longingly down the shoulder to a windowless lavender shack she'd passed a hundred times before. Black letters, three feet high, shouted ADULT VIDEOS - BOOKS - MASSAGE - HOT SHOWERS - 24 HRS and beckoned lonely truckers and road-weary salesmen with an unsubtle siren call. Chris would have welcomed the filthiest toilet in the joint if she could have safely abandoned the old wagon and slid across the expanding black ice. With her luck, she would fall, pee herself, and freeze to the road among the turkeys. She had a vision of one of Cook County's studliest firefighters trying to peel her off the blacktop, and it made her snort. "Turkeys and urine and cheese, oh my!" She giggled, a little hysteria setting in, but caught her breath as her muscles relaxed. She was not going to turn the Focus into the Pee-mobile. That would just make Marlene's week, and there would be none of that.

 Why yes, I did take this photo!

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Window

Last year, I took an online creative writing course through the Gotham Writers Workshop. The course was a gift from my dear friend, the Sasquatch, and it was my first foray into "classroom" writing/education/critique in a very, very long time. Each week there was a writing assignment with a prompt and a fairly draconian word limit. I get thatteachers need to sleep and don't need 3,000 words of navel gazing from someone who thinks he's the next F. Scott Fitzgerald. 

The first assignment was to write 500 words (well, more or less) using simply the title "The Window" as a prompt. It could be fiction or non-fiction, and was just a chance for the teacher to get a feel for our abilities. I opted for a non-fiction entry. Non-fiction is always easier for me, and I thought I should stick to something within my comfort zone for the first time out. Dip the toes. Get used to writing on deadline for myself. Selfishly, deliciously just for myself. Ahhh.

So, I've decided to share these writing exercises on the blog. After all, a story is a story, right? This story is true, save for me changing my colleague's name.  

The Window 

It was ungodly hot in the Hotel Yerevan café that afternoon. Summer was at full boil in Armenia, and there was no breeze from the large windows that faced the street. The waitress had cranked the thick glass panes open as far as they would go, but left the curtains closed to try to shade the empty room. We were her only patrons, and she sat in a corner with her arms crossed and lips pursed, fanning herself with a menu. She had eschewed her hotel uniform in favor of a thin, daisy-dotted cotton shift and sandals (with white socks), and she was clearly annoyed by us lingering in the swelter of the day. With a glare, she'd brought us a cold bottle of local white which sweat profusely in front of us. My colleague Julia pulled a large stack of photos away from the damp ring expanding on the tablecloth. 

"Oh, we can't damage these priceless artifacts," she said with a smirk. The photos were all the same—blurry black and white images of supposed UFOs our local host,Wolfgang, had snapped off the balcony of his flat. "My wife says I'm crazy," he'd told us that morning, mopping sweat from his brow with his shirtsleeve. "But it's true. They come visit me almost every night." I was more fascinated that his name was Wolfgang. "My parents loved Mozart," he'd shrugged in explanation when I raised my eyebrows at our first meeting in the Yerevan airport. 

Wolfgang was on the city council, and he'd volunteered to be our guide on this brief humanitarian aid visit, but he had ulterior motives—he'd been dying to share his supposed UFO encounters with Americans, whom he assumed would embrace his obsession. We agreed to review his handiwork. After all, it would make a good story back in Moscow. Thrilled, he'd left us a pile of his pictures to study while we had lunch. Uncharitably—and encouraged by wine—we snorted at Wolfgang’s fuzzy smears of light. 

As we laughed, though, a sound was building in the street outside. It was a keening, ragged wail that chilled the heat of the day and drew us and the waitress to the window. 

Through the thin fabric, we saw a slow-moving mass of people walking up the steep, stone street below. We pulled the curtains back and hung over the sill, watching the crowdmen and women sobbing, shrieking, staggering, holding each other up. In the heart of the mass, six men held aloft a long, thin box containing a long, thin man. 

He had been dressed in a plaid shirt and dark trousers, and his arms were draped across his torso,hands gently and modestly crossed over his groin. His skin was dusky, and his wide lax face was framed in jet black hair and a broad mustache. A perverse, nervous thought ran through my brain. He looks like Freddie Mercury

But then Freddie Mercury didn't have a bullet hole in his forehead. This man did, centered above his closed eyes. 

The dead man floated and dipped above the crowd, his body jarred now and then with the surge of mourners. Every time the crowd bumped his casket, I held my breath, praying they would not knock him to the ground in their frenzy. The weeping grew, the crowd passed by, and the echoed misery faded in their wake. 

"Freedom fighter," our waitress sighed. "Nagorno-Karabakh. We see so many these days." She pointed to a house up the street. "See that coffin lid? That's another one there. There's another on the next street, too. All the time now." We stood there for a couple of minutes, saying nothing. Just breathing. 

“Alright, girls. Enough.” The waitress dismissed us, pulling the curtains closed. She moved back to her corner and resumed fanning herself, and we returned to our table, silent, subdued. 

Julia carefully gathered up Wolfgang's UFO photos and tucked them in her briefcase. We slowly drank the rest of our wine, avoiding each others’ eyes, the lightness of the day consumed in the weight of strangers' grief. 

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

He said

He said, "I love your profile. You're funny. God, you've traveled everywhere! Love your pictures."

I said, "Well, remember, those pictures are only of my oversized head." He laughed. I had been very honest in my profile. No surprises. Just me. He had no photos on his profile. I knew he was 6'1", that he loved ska and 80s music and science fiction, and that he was "a spiritual guy," raised Catholic, but had fallen off that wagon long ago, like me.

He said he had two childrendaughters. They were young and lived with his ex-wife, except for two weekends a month. I told him I was sorry, that it had to be hard to raise kids that way. Hard for everyone. He didn't respond to that.

He said he was really happy to find someone who liked the same movies and music as he did, the same TV shows. And ohhe liked to run.

I said, "Well, as you can see, I'm not much of a runner, but I love to walk." Running was just "fast walking," he said. He said he was 39. I told him I had eight years on him. He said he didn't care. He really wanted to meet and have coffee with "such an incredible woman."

I felt a twinge. I don't take compliments well, especially from strangers. It makes me distrust them. It makes me question the sincerity. But coffee is just coffee. I said yes and very cautiously turned the key in my chest, a rusted key that kept my heart from taking sucker punches and being shattered. The door opened a tiny bit.

He said, "How about the Starbucks in Wheaton?" I agreed. It wasn't far from homemine or his. I described what I would be wearing, but added, "You can't miss me. I'll be the biggest woman in the place."

He laughed. An online laugh. "LOL."  He said, "I'll be in a black jacket and jeans, with a plaid scarf." We set a date. We set a time.

I arrived about 15 minutes early. Coffee shops get crowded on Saturday afternoons in winter. I wanted to make sure I had a table to avoid any awkwardness. Well, more awkwardness than there would already be, the fat broad meeting a stranger for coffee and small talk. I had let my hair fall in its natural curls, my minimal makeup in place. (If I have lip tint and mascara on, that's a big deal.) Green jacket to highlight the sparks of green in my hazel eyes (eyes most people don't even notice are hazel), Russian scarf... I smelled like roses.

And I waited.

I saw an old Honda pull up, and a dark-haired man stepped out. Black jacket, blue jeans, plaid scarf, average build. But he was far from 6'1". I know 6'1". I like looking up into someone's eyes. He was in the neighborhood of 5'8", 5'9", but I'm short, and I'm fat, and what does it matter in the end if he fibbed to feel good, right? Right?

He walked in and scanned the room. His eyes fell on me, and I could feel his entire body stiffen from across the cafe. I didn't wince, but just said, "Kenneth?" and waved. A smile appeared and then fled from his face as he waved back. He walked over, taking his scarf from around his neck. He said, "I'm going to get some coffee. Do you want some?"

I said, "Sure, I'll take a small coffee, cream and two Sweet'N Low, please." He walked up to the counter and stood behind two other customers who waited for their drinks.

And then, he turned around.

He strode to the door, right past my table, without looking at me. He pulled his scarf tight around his neck, fumbled with his keys, and got in his Honda.

He pulled out of the lot, and he drove away.

He pulled out and drove away fast.  


I sat for a few minutes. I waited for the people who had been at the counterthe people who had seen what just happened—to get their drinks and go. There were no open tables, so no reason for them to linger. Five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes... I finally got up and quietly walked out to my car, hoping no one at the tables had noticed. Hoping that they were so engaged in conversation or texts they didn't see my humiliation. Five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes... I sat in my car and felt my shame well up. 

And then my phone buzzed. New e-mail. 

It was him.

And he said, "Sorry. I just can't do this. I didn't realize just how unattractive you'd really be."

I re-locked the door in my chest, the key settling into familiar rust. And it hurt. Old rust, scratched with fresh pain.  

I closed my eyes and breathed in roses.  

And I drove home, to the quiet, to the empty. Full of things, but still empty.

He said, "I just can't do this."

I prayed. "I hope someone can."

Rusty Heart by Vera Kratochvil