Writing Calisthenics

AvatarA collection of short stories, essays, and exercises to keep my brain from rusting between larger works.

Henry drives home (Excerpt from Chapter 5)

Automobile accidents rarely are.  Sometimes weather or God conspires to throw the unavoidable obstacle in the way, but usually they're caused by someone just being an asshole.  This is exactly the thought that goes through my head as I see a car in the distance barreling toward me in the right lane, trying to pass before his lane ends.

Dangerous Clothing

It's been a decade since I last cared about the way I dressed.  It was a difficult decade, one that lasted much longer than the usual ten years and one I fear may not be over.  They were years marked; scraped bloody then healed over with the fibrous scar of a burn.  They were years of loud and one-sided compromise where the very idea of improvement was trampled underfoot by the grinding endurance required to just stay afloat.      Looking back, it seems less and less of a coincidence that I took up the marathon during this time.  Turning that emotional perseverance into something physical provided evidence of accomplishment I could feel with my hands.  Medals and race bibs were material things that had substance, things that I could hold onto and say with certainty that stamina and persistence produced results.  In a time marked by hopelessness and alienation, running created its own light.
    As I ran, I lost weight, I gained strength, and my body changed, though never enough to overcome the betrayal of premature baldness I'd carried since my teens.  But the more I ran, the further and further the bright spots grew apart: ten miles away this week, twelve miles next, sixteen, twenty.  With each success came even more failures: injury, fatigue, and missed goals.  I pushed harder and broke down more often until I literally could not run any more.  For the first time since I'd started running, I gave up during a race.  As a runner, this is what defines failure: DNF.  Did not finish.

Marvin's Emergency

(Sorry for the absence, but I've been working on this guy for a couple months now.  I wanted to let this stew for a while, but I'd like comments and reviews.)

Long before the age of ten, Marvin knew he was supposed to feel awkward about searching through Tiger Beat in the Osco magazine stand, and he did.  As surreptitiously as any chunky ten year old with a right leg shorter than the left could be, he had walked by the rack: first in one direction to announce his presence to the magazines gathered there, and then again in the other with a furtive glance that would have said to all but the most astute observer, "Oh, hi.  I didn't see you there."
    The look was quick, but studied.  Osco was just over a mile from his house and as Marvin clumped down the sidewalk, past the store window reflections of a short boy dressed in husky black jeans and a polyester red shirt and that one special shoe with a sole like a rubber loaf of bread, he had practiced.  Marvin had a mental list of stores he'd pass on the way: Martinelli's Grocery, Industrial Hardware, Mr. Grecko's shoe repair, the barber shop, Rite Round record store.  He had picked a very specific object from each of their shop windows to act as a surrogate.  Since the thing he'd be looking for on the cover of Tiger Beat could appear in any number of forms, Marvin had made some rules for this game. 
    The items he chose would have to be specific enough to be instantly recognizable: it was a real face he was looking for after all.  The problem was, in the way of fan magazines throughout time, that face might show up in some helpful, recognizable context or it might be part of a fuzzy floating head, cut from a stock studio shot by an overworked intern with unsteady hands.  The items he chose would have to be ambiguous enough to represent the endless combinations he would have to deal with.  It occurred to Marvin that the searching part of such an exercise might be good practice for a fireman hunting for a small boy trapped in a collapsing warehouse with nothing but a description of the boy's clothing to guide him.  The dispassionate coolness he needed to maintain seemed useful only if the rescue was going to appear on TV.

I'm not dead yet

Seriously.  I'm not.  Thanks for your concern though.  I just had some surgery that's knocked me out for a couple weeks.  Once all the pain killers have metabolized I'm sure I'll be back at it again.

New client

(This is a character development background sketch.  It's not really about developing the character himself, but giving him enough background that I can justify his behaviors later on.  Once you read it, let me know if this person sounds interesting or multi-faceted enough to base a novel around.  Anything seem trite here?  Cliched?)

Counselor: So, tell me a little about your childhood.
Reid: Childhood?  What about it?  I mean, in general or what?
C: Whatever you think would be important.
R: Important.  Hmmm.  Well, we moved around a lot.  It didn't give me much of a chance to make friends.  Not, like, I didn't have chances, but…  You know how they say you can go two ways with something like that?  How some kids learn how to make friends easily, learn how to fit in to new groups and that?  I went the other way.  Moving around all the time - it gave everything a sense of impermanence.  Is that a word?  Like…  like you could pull up stakes at any minute and be somewhere else the next day.  It was like a game to my Mom.  She used to say she could have the house packed in three days and have it unpacked again in two.  As if that was something to be proud of.
C: What about your dad?
R: He didn't like it all.  He hated moving.  He was a lot more outgoing than I am, but still, I think he liked that sense of feeling 'rooted' I guess you'd say. 
C: Why did he do it then?  Was this something his career forced on him?
R: On him?  Oh no.  No, it was Mom.  I'm sorry.  Didn't they give you those forms or whatever?  I wrote all this out already.  Whatever.  Never mind.  My mom was the one with the career.  She was a Major in the Army medical corp.  She was the reason we moved around all the time.
C: I see.

Seven Deadly Sins : Lust

(Exercise info and explanation at the bottom)
Okay, so I totally had no idea what was happening the first time, because it was kinda like climbing on the poles 'cept this time I was just sitting there on the swing with my feet in the wood chips or what have you.  I was swinging one way and Mary Grace, she was going the other way, so when we passed each other we would yell out the name of one of the boys in Sister Francine's class because that was our homeroom class just like it was last year 'cept this year we're in the seventh grade and next year we're gonna be seniors, but not, you know, real seniors, but eighth grade seniors, and the year after that we're gonna go to St. Horatio's.  So anyways, every time one of us says the name of a boy that's already been said we get to punch the other one in the arm which we both know is totally not something girls do but she's got a brother and I've got four brothers and they're always punching us in the arm and sometimes it's so hard that Mary Grace comes to school with a bruise on her arm and she tells me it's because her brother punched her too hard when he saw a slug bug first, but when I ask her what color was the slug bug she doesn't know and says "shut up" and I'm pretty sure it's not Mikey that's giving her bruises.  And it's sad and happy all at the same time 'cause when that happens sometimes my daddy goes and talks to her mom and Mary Grace gets to sleep overnight at my house and sometimes it's for a couple two or three days in a row without even having to keep asking every night.

My Mom Never... (pt. 1)

(Exercise info and explanation at the bottom)
My mother never drove a truck.  On the face of it, that doesn't seem terribly unusual, but if you knew my mother, you'd know it seems like something she was destined for.  At one time or another each of her brothers took a stab at professional trucking.  She likes big cars.  She likes heavy cars (this is a woman who had 1,000 pounds of metal welded to the frame of her Oldsmobile Delta 88 Royale because she didn't like the way it swayed when passing trucks.)  She hates to cook and she loves to drive.
    There's the matter of kids, but in the tradition of the American sit-com we shall do away with them as a matter of convenience.  They're at summer camp.  No, wait — military school.  She was constantly threatening to send us there anyway.  Her husband is gone: a matter of tragedy and not convenience, but the carefully invested money and generous life insurance checks are more than enough to purchase a handsome Mack truck.  My mother is fond of Mack trucks — not so much as a vehicle, but as a standard by which things of inestimable weight, solidity, or reliability are measured.  Without Mack trucks she'd have nothing with which to compare her beloved Oldsmobile.  Her easy description of it being "built like a… " — would hang there, that icon of shared experience that would describe it as the workhorse of a solitary life dangling just out of reach.

Short Story Tutorial Submission - Part 1.

 (See this for details.  Here's the exercise:
I want you to write about one of two people —or both, if you’re so inclined.

1. One who sees and hears a street musician
2. The street musician.

Don’t at this stage tell me a story. Or create a structure. Or describe where we are. No. What I want you to do is merely describe the person. Not his or her physical appearance, unless it might be relevant to what they are such as blindness, but how they are feeling and why they’re there doing what they’re doing. I want to have a feel for the kind of people they are without your telling me they’re, say, old, grey-haired and miserable or young, troubled and penniless. Show me.

Only write a short (please) paragraph about one (or both) person(s). Don’t worry about how you write it. It can be in note form, if you like. Don’t try and write something polished and perfect in order to impress me. In fact, I most definitely don’t want perfection at this stage.

And here's a personal note.  I'm doing background work for a novel about a suburbanite who turns to busking as an escape from convention and the ordinary in a middle-class town ruled by conformity and uniformity.   I've assigned myself an exercise: write a short story or character study about an encounter with this street musician from three different perspectives and personalities.  As an added challenge, each of the separate characters would interact with the other two in some way.)

The Busker:  He wears a chicken suit.  This is important because it's awkward and difficult.  The suit is difficult but inside it, he feels safe.  It's a shield that deflects the inevitable derision and prevents it from being personal.  It's a suit of armor that hides his identity and makes him feel his place in the community is secure.  It also creates a barrier that keeps his unacceptable but unstoppable joy from leaking into the public.  It's a joy peppered with the tiniest twinge of spite.  The hour or two he spends each day in the suit can be humid or freezing cold, but unlike the other twenty-some hours that make up each day, they are anything but empty and ordinary.  It's an hour or two where he has impact and meaning and value - if only to himself - and none of it is measured in dollars.

Observer #1: The crowd around the busker is an impediment.  It's a leech sucking up valuable resources - his resources - and slows down the egress to his car.  He stands taller, he pushes his sunglasses tight against his face and pulls down his baseball cap: he is apart from the crowd, better than them, literally above them.  He strides, elbows out.  He is important and every action must show it.  Anyone consuming what is his is an obstacle to be overcome, by force if necessary.  He does commission math on today's sale in his head but even as the figure grows, the furrow in his brow deepens: the more that becomes available to him, the more the crowd in front of him becomes his competition in obtaining it.

Observer #2: He doesn't know what to think of this street musician.  Literally.  He's lived here 17 years and never seen anything like this before.  The music draws him in because it's old and he recognizes it.  He's curious, but has no parameters to react within, so he's cautious.  At the same time, the crowd slows his exit and irritates him more than angers: it makes him wonder why The City isn't doing something about it.  Is this some sanctioned event?  It must be.  Surely there's some City ordinance about playing in public like this, dressed  — well — dressed like that.  He's confused and he looks for posters or signs, looks to the crowd, looks at their reactions for how he's supposed to respond to this.  He allows himself a brief, non-committal moment of detached enjoyment before returning to his routine.

Observer #3: He's scared.  He's anxious, frightened, completely exhilarated, and fired.  There's a severance check on the way but they may lose the house anyway.  Maybe not lose it, but be forced to sell it.  And he's fine with that.  Beyond fine actually, he's relieved.  His suit and tie suddenly feel like a costume for a long-running play that's just ended.  He steps around the corner and immediately recognizes the busker's tune because it's the question he's been asking himself for months now: "Who are you?".  His heart hammers in his chest because he may not yet know who he is, but he finally knows who he's not, and this failed experiment called "life in suburbia" is it.  The realization makes his heart and legs leap with unrestrainable joy.


(This is a piece I wrote back i n December and have polished up a bit since then.  It was based on a writing group prompt in which we were supposed to develop a story based on a painting in our meeting room.  The painting was a night scene of a stylized tree with dollops of snow on the tips of the branches.)

    I can't get the word out of my head, so I cling to its comforting difficulty like a brain teaser or a math puzzle.  At this point, anything's better than the indecipherable blizzard of fear soaked chatter that swirled around before the shelling stopped. 
    God damnit it's cold.  Not some I-shoulda-worn-a-hat kind of cold, but the kind of cold that turns your toes and fingers black with frostbite.  The kind of cold that turns an inky black night blue.  The kind of cold that makes your teeth chatter and your muscles quake so violently that you don't even bother trying to aim your rifle.  You just point in the general direction you think they're gonna come from and fire, fire, fire.
    There's snow everywhere, and the heat that leaks from my rotted boots melts it into a muddy pool in the bottom of my hole before it freezes again.  I had a buddy once, Bert, from New Jersey.  He fell asleep and woke up with his feet encased in a solid block of ice.  By the time they got him back to the field hospital they had to cut him off above the ankles.  We both think he's the lucky one.
    Anemone.  Anemone.
    There are still some trees standing.  Even the Krauts couldn't take down the entire Ardennes.  When it snowed, it fell heavy and wet, and it rounded the tips of the trees so they reach to the sky like the tentacles of anemones. 
    Back home I had a fish tank.  It was kind of a big deal.  I was the only one in Lawrence with a salt water tank.  Butterfly fish, clown fish, a couple of wrasses.  And an anemone.  I built the whole thing myself.  The wooden frame and stand, the filters, the lights in carefully coordinated rows, each on timers to simulate the rising and setting sun.  There was an article in the Lawrence Picayune about it once.  Had my picture in the social column and everything.
    I find myself thinking about that tank at the strangest times.  Sometimes I think that out here, we aren't so much different than the fish in that tank.  The piercing moon in the sky casts our shadows in stark relief, and draws lines back to places where we convince ourselves we're hidden.  We may as well be in a fishbowl for all the good it does.  When the mortar rounds land like a fist in the middle of our tank, or the Panzer shells and machine guns rake our position like a sweeping net, most of us scatter the same way those fish did, banging against the rocks and the glass of the tank, nowhere to go, no way to escape.
    Not everything in the tank would dart for cover at a tap on the glass though.  Even though the tap must have cracked like sniper fire inside that tank, the anemone never moved.  Most people don't even know that anemones can move.  It's true: they do, but when they do, it's slow and purposeful.  Once it reaches a place it thinks is safe, an anemone will stay still and wait, relying on its poisonous barbs to protect it, trusting in the current to bring it what it needs.
    Anemone.  Anemone.  Anemone.
    You say it often enough and it stops making sense.  Anemone, anemone, anemone, anemone, anemone.  You say it fast enough and it trips over your tongue.  Anemone anemone anemone anenome anenome … an enome … an enemy. 
    An enemy.  So many enemies.

    I'm tired.  Someone is telling me stay awake and keep moving, but I don't even recognize the voice as my own anymore.  I can't feel my feet, and the cold is creeping up my legs.  I'm just going to close my eyes for a little bit.

    Before I left I took down my tank.  I sent a letter to that new aquarium in Kansas City, but they didn't want my fish.  Worried about diseases or something like that.  I thought a long time about what to do with them.  I couldn't just flush them down the toilet.  There's a whole lot of biology that makes one fish salt-water and another fresh.  Things like osmosis and exosmosis and diffusion keep its body in harmony with the chaotic chemical balance it's immersed in.  It's complicated, but basically the fish would end up drowning in its own bodily fluids if you threw it in fresh water.  I know they're just fish, but even for a fish that seemed unspeakably cruel.
    I finally decided to scoop them up one at a time in a bowl of their own water, and put them in the ice box.  I figured the cold would sneak up on them.  I figured they'd start swimming slower and slower until they finally just… I don't know. 
    Do fish sleep?

Learning to Flirt (second draft)

(Based on feedback from the first draft, I've revised the story.  Exercise info can be found in the first draft here)

       I was born without that gene that allows normal people to flirt.  It could be that I'm too serious, or maybe I'm just socially inept.  My wife says she thinks I'm too intense.  I'll let you in on a secret though: the truth is, I'm just a chicken shit.  It's not just flirting either.  I'd love to be one of those people who can walk into a bar and just start up a conversation with some stranger, but I'm not.  This bothers me, and at one point in my life I vowed to do something about it.  Every chance I get I like to practice, and waiting for a flight out of O'Hare seemed as good a place as any to work on my skills with members of the opposite sex.
    I had checked my bags, passed through security, and now I was looking for an outlet to plug in my laptop.  No, that is not a euphemism.  I swear to god this was just going to be flirting.
    My gate had a courtesy charging station, but all of the outlets were already occupied by a button-down group of guys and gals who had an approachability factor somewhere below a high school chess club.  I walked up a couple of gates looking for another charging station when the opportunity to kill two, maybe three birds with one stone appeared sitting under a water fountain.
    She was cute, brunette, and wearing a pair of tan corduroys - that thick corduroy that looks like a fuzzy Twizzler.  She was about 35 or so and she had on a white top and these great boots with a big chunky heel.  She sat cross-legged on the floor, and had a MacBook Air on her lap that was plugged into the wall in the same outlet as the water fountain.
    Okay, read that last paragraph again.  Go ahead, I'll wait.

Learning to Flirt

(This is a first draft.  The revised draft can be found here.  Exercise info and explanation for both drafts at the bottom)
I was looking for her before I saw her.  Not her in particular, but someone like her.  And by someone like her, I mean simply that she had to be a her.  I mean a she.  I mean, she had to be a girl.  A female.  I mean…  Shit.  I get nervous just thinking about it.
    There were two goals.  And by goals I mean there were two things I wanted to accomplish.  Well, not really accomplish, but… I don't know.  Is not *not* doing something an accomplishment?  For argument's sake, let's assume it is.  In that case, yes, I had two goals.  I was going to talk to a woman, some strange woman.  Not, you know, weird strange, but strange as in I don't know her, woman.  And I wasn't just going to talk to her, I was going to flirt with her.  I was going to make her like me.  I was going to make her laugh, and not in that "if I humor you will you please go away" way, but in that "hey, he's actually kinda funny" way. 
    Second — and you have to understand that this goal is one I've been working on for quite some time — I wasn't going to say 'no'.  Whatever happened, whatever she suggested, whatever stupid, hair-brained idea I came up with, I wasn't going to say 'no'.  I'm not sure why I listed this goal as second because if I hadn't sworn to stick with this resolution, there's no way on God's green earth I would have had the guts to go through with the first one.
    Did I mention she had to be attractive?  I guess that's important.  I don't mean _attractive_ attractive, but she had to be attractive to me.  Why?  Well, part of the instructions for this drill say not to spend too much time drawing conclusions, so I'm just gonna go ahead and say that that's left as an exercise for the reader.

    I was born without that gene that allows normal people to flirt.  It could be that I'm too serious, or maybe I'm just socially inept.  My wife says she thinks I'm too intense.  I'll let you in on a secret though: the truth is, I'm just a chicken shit.  It's not just flirting either.  I'd love to be one of those people who can walk into a bar and just start up a conversation with some stranger, but I'm not.  This bothers me, and at one point in my life I vowed to do something about it.  Every chance I get I like to practice, and waiting for a flight out of O'Hare seemed as good a place as any to work on my skills with the opposite sex.
    I had checked my bags, passed through security, and now I was looking for an outlet to plug in my laptop.  No, that is not a euphemism.  I swear to god this was just going to be flirting. 
    My gate had a courtesy charging station, but all of the outlets were already occupied by a button-down group of guys and gals who had an approachability factor somewhere below a high school chess club.  I walked up a couple of gates looking for another charging station when the opportunity to kill two, maybe three birds with one stone appeared sitting under a water fountain. 
    She was cute, brunette, and wearing a pair of tan corduroys - that thick corduroy that looks like a fuzzy Twizzler.  She was about 35 or so and she had on a white top and these great boots with a big chunky heel.  She sat cross-legged on the floor, and had a MacBook Air on her lap that was plugged into the wall in the same outlet as the water fountain.
    Okay, read that last paragraph again.  Go ahead, I'll wait. 

The Dick

His name - I know, I can't believe it either - is Dick.  And, well, he's a dick.  It's not the way he looks, which is an unoriginal and scruffy business casual.  He invariably wears a tech vendor's polo shirt tucked into a pair of too tight navy blue khakis and a lanyard, proudly proclaiming "ARMY" in yellow letters against a black background, and bedecked with a thick assortment of ID cards, badges, and the industry standard RSA security token.  It's not his wild black hair that needs a cut — though he gives the impression of wearing it unstylishly long as a full frontal assault on his rapidly retreating hairline.  It's not even the pepper and thoroughly salted goatee that should have remained on his younger self sometime around 1992.  No, it's really not about the way he looks at all.  In fact, there's absolutely nothing about the man that were I to see a picture of him in an employee directory or in some random Facebook photo album that would make me say "I bet that guy's a dick."             
    It's Dick's voice that makes him a dick.  It's the way he uses his voice that makes him a dick.  He sums up and he categorizes everyone he deals with, then separates and labels them with his voice.
    Dick spends a lot of time talking — on the phone and in person — and there are many people he likes to make it clear he doesn't have time for.  When he wants to express his disdain that he's forced to talk to you, (to you — Dick rarely talks with someone, and even more rarely listens) his words are clipped and his sentences are short and closed.  He leaves no room for the customary banter that would foment relationships or soften the edges of contentious business communication.  He answers social greetings or inquiries with "what did you call for?" or worse, "I assume you have a reason for calling?"
    He bullies with his words.  "You're not building my confidence in you and … Stop talking.  I'm talking here.  Look, you've proven it once again, all right?  You don't seem to care and I'm telling you, I'm 100% disappointed in you right now.  Got it?  I said stop talking!  I don't want to hear from you that…  Right.  Now you're… Look, the time for you to be sorry is…  I said stop talking.  Got it?  I'm talking here!" 
    It's not just the content of what he says either, it's the tone.  He enunciates.  He talks quickly, firing each word from his mouth as though sharpening it on his teeth.  He slaps and spits with his words.  You don't even have to understand English to recognize he's belittling someone.  Dick is a superlingual asshole.
    He's ex-military - a fact that seems relevant, though neither surprising nor necessary for a personality like this.  He talks with the attitude of one who's always held positions of petty power which he then shapes into the platform he stands on to shout down at those who are unfortunate enough to be his subordinates.
    For just a moment, in an outburst of sarcasm crafted to lure its victim into an unjustified sense of hope that he's about to say something nice, I can imagine his voice being pleasant.  I can imagine his voice as a smooth baritone saying "here you are honey" and "don't you look cute?" to the hesitant princess trick-or-treating on his doorstep.  For a second, I can hear him soothing a pup frightened by the crack of thunder from a too-close lightning strike.  But then, after sitting and listening to him bark and snap everything he's spoken for the last three months, I can't help but think that his next action would be to rear back and kick the living shit out of the poor thing.
    I try to forgive his voice.  I try to assume the best.  I try to believe that this is just a necessary part of his job — dealing with people he thinks are trying to get the best of him — that he doesn't enjoy it.  Then I catch him really laying into someone and I know — this is the part of his job he loves best.  His voice gets higher and his words come faster.  He spackles his sentences together rapid-fire with declaratives and rhetoricals: "you know what I'm gonna do?", "let me tell you what I'm gonna do," "here's what you're gonna do," and his favorite: "are you listening to me?"  He uses them to mortar a brick wall he will inevitably slam his victim into.
    I try to ignore him.  I try to not listen, but I can't.  I'm mesmerized by the way he whittles away at his victims and the groveling, obsequious responses his position forces them to respond with.  I wonder how the conversation would be going if Dick didn't have them over a barrel.  I empathize with them.  I feel their shame and their embarrassment. I feel their helplessness.  So I do the only thing I can do.  I call him a dick.

Overworked Haiku

Way too much work here.
Seventeen small syllables?
That's all there's time for.

A Good Waiter

(Exercise info and explanation at the bottom)

The conversation isn't going well. Maybe it's always like that for women with sadness etched on their faces, women who wear black like a warning sign, women whose mouths are perpetually drawn down at the corners. Her arms are wrapped across her chest and her fingers dig into the sleeves of her sweater. She holds herself tight preparing for a fall. He is being rational, explanatory, and she doesn't like that. His words are landing like a sparrow against an office window pane and she flinches as he speaks. He folds his hands in his lap, neither clasped nor unclasped. He sits back in his chair and speaks calmly and quietly, relaxed, soothing her with his posture even as his words seem to make her to unravel.
    The woman with the newspaper has been watching for a while. There is nothing in the newspaper as interesting as their conversation. The edge of the paper flips down for a moment, then back up again after a furtive glance. Can she hear what they're saying? I imagine she can and I'm momentarily surprised at my envy. She takes a sip from her coffee, and lets the edge of the paper curl over and linger there, snatching another glance before she sets down her cup and snaps the paper back in place. It's not long before she stops pretending and the paper falls to her lap. The girl in black unfolds her arms and pinches the bridge of her nose. For a moment the newspaper woman and she lock eyes. I sense the shame of a reluctant voyeur rise in her cheeks — or perhaps it's an embarrassment I feel for us both — and she quickly lifts the paper and I can no longer see her face.
    The waiter hovers nearby, the check in his hand. He is a good waiter. It's his second false start towards the table. He retreats once again, this time covering his aborted approach by collecting water glasses from a nearby table. Suddenly the man places a hand on her knee and leans in. He says something quietly in her ear and she laughs. The paper goes down again, the waiter smiles, approaches, and hands them the check.

Exercise 2, two to three paragraphs. When you go out to a restaurant or bar, jot down your observations in a notebook. In one paragraph describe a loner's looks and behaviors. In another a couple's looks and behaviors. In the third paragraph, describe how a waiter or bartender communicates with the customers.


Get it.  Use it.  Love it.


Lake St. Clair

(Exercise info and explanation at the bottom)

    Swinging and swinging and swinging in circles his hands clasped tight around my wrists as he spun just above the surface of the water.  I was naked and small and light and the wind whipped through my hair and my legs bounced in the air as we spun and spun around dancing like angels on the tips of the waves.  Behind us the boat was pulling away and they waved from its deck and when he turned to look back, he let go. 
    He spun and spun and spun as I flew higher and further.  The lake turned black and thick like printer's ink and roiled and boiled with electric gilded waves spitting up higher and higher around his legs as he spun spun spun drilling deeper under the waves. 
    I flew further, and faster, and backwards, feet towards the shore as he spun spun spun, deeper under the waves, and sadness, sorrow and sadness covered his face, and he reached up for God's own hand to stay his death.  Like the razor lined maw of hell the water opened up to swallow him and I soared, unable to stop, unable to see his face, unable to help, too afraid to want to.  The sky turned purple and black and the waves grew.  And suddenly I was there, right there, and the blue green water closed over his head and down he went in a shower of bubbles escaping from his pockets from his shirt from his nostrils from his open gaping mouth, and his eyes were wide with fear as he tried to hold his breath and struggle to a surface that closed over his head, a sewer, a manhole cover of water water water.
    He breathed in, he choked he swallowed he spit he gagged and his eyes bugged wide until his chest lurched once and he was still.  And suddenly I was flying again, this time backwards bent at the waist, arms and legs trailing twisting in the breezy water pouring off me, yanked from that hate-filled lake screaming and cold and so fucking alone and angry and tired and wet.
    It started to rain and the boat shrunk to a dot and the sky turned black and black turned to night and night was split wide with lightning and shocks of thunder that threw my naked body around like a shoe in a dryer.  It bounced me around and laughed at me and tossed me towards the shore and passed me from cloudburst to explosive crackling burst as the shores of the lake - the edge of the city -  drew closer and louder and taller and pockmarked with light.  I started to run, my feet catching up to my panic as the ground grew closer and closer, preparing for impact, stumbling forward to catch my own fall with hands in the air hoping and hoping for help from no one.
    Seconds to the streets of Detroit, seconds until I could burn naked through alleys and streets and homeward with no idea how I'd get there or what would be waiting for me with my guardian dead and SLAM! the wind pulled the feet from under me and shoved me as it laughed and I fell, knees first skidding on the pavement, flesh grinding off exposing bone and SLAM! my face hit the pavement as I slid, and the skin tore from my cheek and chest.
    And my ribs burst open until I
    Stopped and
    Rested and
    Breathed as
    I watched my heart spill from my breast and
        slow to a stop
            on the dirt and road.

Exercise: Write down the first dreams you remember.  Don't mention they're dreams.  Objective: Remember that in dreams you can't be held accountable for making everything plausible.  Don't punctuate, just drift words and images together into a dreamlike stream of consciousness.

Dear Mr. Business Owner

Dear Local Business Owner,
  You don't know me, so let me introduce myself.  I am a vengeful sonuvabitch.  I am asking you as politely as I can to please not tuck your flyer under my windshield wiper or rubber-band it to my front door so I have to put down my grocery bags to get in my house.  I am asking you to please not put your flyer in a plastic baggie with a rock in it so it gets stuck in my tire when I drive over it, or tape your fake hundred-dollar bill coupon to my mailbox flag. 
   If you do, I will read it and I will remember your name.  I will remember your name and I will tell all of my neighbors that when you came to give me an estimate for my mulch I caught you taking a steaming dump behind my Hydrangea bushes.  I will tell my friends that not only was the job you did resealing my driveway sub-par, but the unspeakable things I caught you doing to my cat made her walk with a limp for three weeks.  I will tell them that part of your garbage disposal repair regimen included licking the the pipe joints clean to "ensure a good seal" and that when you left, we discovered that all of my wife's dirty underwear were missing from the hamper.
  I apologize in advance for my behavior, but this whole situation can be easily avoided: don't use my house as your dumping ground, and I won't use your reputation as mine.



International Radar

    I knew he was coming.  They sent out a memo saying there would be new people on the floor, and one of them would be named Mark.  They said he'd be sitting on the 18th floor right outside the break room.  This sounded fun, mostly because my name's Mark and I sit on the 18th floor right outside the break room.  They also said he was a transfer from the London office so I waited and waited for someone to come up to me, ask me if my name was Mark, and then stare at me in confusion when I responded "yes" in an unmistakably Midwestern accent.
    It never happened.
    For days I looked over at the empty cube across from me for any sign of our new guest.  I mulled over witty and insightful observations about London from recent trips to the UK.  I created a list of my favorite nearby restaurants so he could get a proper taste of Chicago.  I even looked for "football" scores in case he was a fan (I'm not), but abandoned the sports angle when I realized that it wasn't soccer season, that it was hockey season in the US and I knew even less about hockey than I do about soccer, and that the British in general hold our baseball in disdain as a compressed and perverted form of their beloved cricket.  Days passed and I began to wonder if he had changed his mind about coming to America: we're not the most popular people on the planet, you know.
    But he never showed.  After a week or two of persistent vacancy in the quadrant opposite me, I forgot all about the other Mark.  Okay, forget isn't completely accurate.  To be perfectly honest, I felt relieved.  The only thing more wearying than being witty and insightful is preparing to be witty and insightful without any payoff.  I was secretly glad to settle back into the solitude of working first shift in a pod of cubes populated by graveyard shift workers.

    And then today, as I stepped onto the elevator, a tidy white man with fashionably tousled hair got on with me, and my International Radar sounded like a klaxon.  His hair was ginger-blonde and covered the collar of his shirt.  His pants were charcoal with an impeccable crease and an ivory pin-stripe.  He wore a plain, white, long-sleeve shirt cuffed with three precise turns up his forearms, and an outlandish but tasteful purple tie.
    I swiped my badge and pushed the button for the 18th floor.  He took a step forward to select his floor, saw that 18 was already lit, and stepped back.  He smiled and I saw a row of perfectly straight, perfectly white teeth, and for just a moment I thought my radar had failed me.  I smiled back, pushed my stereotypes aside, and tried to think of something clever to say.
    I am not, nor have I ever been quick-witted.  I am a champion of esprit d'escalier, and inevitably, by the time I'm finally poised to deliver my irrecoverable coup de grĂ¢ce, I find myself talking to the door that's swung shut behind my victim.  This time was no different.  I opened my mouth to ask if he was "The other Mark who's supposed to be on the 18th floor," when I realized the door had opened and he had stepped into the elevator lobby.
    The door started to close and I stuck my arm out to stop it.  By the time I got out of the elevator, he was already being greeted near the reception desk by one of the women from the clearing desk.
    "There you are!" 
    I knew it!  Never, never doubt the radar.
    "Where'd you take off to?" the woman asked.
    "Just stepped out for a fag."
    "Oh.  I wanted to go over that listing with you.  I just threw a copy on your desk.  You got time to look at that now?"
    "Sure thing luv," he replied, and followed her through the door on the other side of the reception desk.  I turned around and walked the other way back to my desk.

   I've worked here for over 3 years now.  It would have been nice if someone had told me there was more than one break room on the 18th floor.


Exercise: Write a scene of a story from a glimpse you have had of a group of people.   Sketch the characters in their settings and let them interact.

    Anyone who's ever said that boys and girls, women and men can't be friends has never watched puppies.  Puppies with nylon backpacks stacked in a corner where a fourth would have sat.  Puppies, each with their own snack packs of fruit gummies, each poking and pawing and picking through the other's candy for just the one they want.  Puppies with names like Zach and Rachel — and I'll think I'll call the one in the blue shirt "Friendly." 
    Zach and Friendly have scratchy voices.  Friendly's is dropping as he speaks.  He's going to be a tall one and even though the escape from High School is still several weeks off, he already shaves like a man.  His sideburns are neatly trimmed but the bum-fluff on his face is more than a day's growth.  He wears glasses and the copper colored frames are utilitarian, far from affectation.  Zach is just a bit more boyish and even though it's so rare as to no longer embarrass, his voice still bounces into an uncomfortable register now and then.  He's darker and quieter than Friendly, more brooding, but Rachel is sparkly today and she draws out the puppy in all of them.
    Friendly and Rachel wrestle over the only monthly train pass amongst them.  They're trying on their adult accessories even as they laugh and play and paw and scratch like puppies.  Their day in the city is done and so is the tussle, with Friendly, comfortable in his role as Alpha, conceding the pass.  Rachel practices her care-taking with a squeeze around his shoulder that quavers between mother, sister, and friend.  Zach watches, taking notes on a hungry slate; laughing, involved and enveloped in the infectious affection as an observing equal.
    They sit back and settle in for the ride.  Out come the phones.  I'm surprised when it's Rachel and Friendly that are sucked in and drawn away so quickly.  Zach watches, his eyes slowly shifting back and forth from friend to friend and a slow grin spreads across his face.  He rubs his baby-smooth cheek with his hand, then rests his chin on his arm and turns out the window.


I just wanted a pack of smokes.
     The man in front was short and he wore a thick green vest with lots of pockets.  He walked back and forth to the aisle of hair care products carrying his argument with him.
    "It says 0.66¢!  It's right there on the shelf!"
    He had a coupon on the counter and not trusting the register or maybe the cashier with the tattoos on both forearms, he asked for a pen.  He added the prices of an armload of VO5 shampoo, 0.66¢ a bottle.
    "Wait now.  Just wait."
    He scrawled across the face of the coupon, adding, multiplying, carrying the two.
    "And you have?"
    He looked at the screen with the cashier's total.  "That sounds right."
    The cashier sighed and reached under the counter for a bag.
    "No plastic.  It'll just get recycled."
    I was in my car as he left the store.  He walked out and crossed the parking lot to his black Honda hybrid, arms loaded with plastic bottles filled with unnaturally orange and yellow shampoo and conditioner.
    His hair was spectacular.

Question: How much meaning does a wedding ring really have? Is it possible to be just as committed without one?

I took my ring off when it reciprocated by trying to take off my finger. I don't trust it and it doesn't trust me. Luckily, it appears happier living in a box than my finger ever could have been. My wife understands this.