Writing Calisthenics

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

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.