Writing Calisthenics

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

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.

Anemone

(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.)

    Anemone. 
    Anemone. 
    Anemone.
    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. 
    Chatter.
    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. 
    Anemone. 
    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.