Wednesday, September 28, 2011


The final image of this story was crystal-clear in my mind and the last half of it went by in a writing blur. That may have been the fastest writing I did over the 60 stories.


            “Can you help me?” The air hostess’ words barely masked fear.
            The pilot and co-pilot exchanged quizzical looks. A 777 pretty much flies itself, but the regs make it clear that the cockpit is sacrosanct. “What’s going on?” asked the co-pilot, whose shirt bore an embroidered Lewis above the pocket.
            The hostess swallowed hard. “We have a situation with a passenger. He’s—he’s acting strange.”
            Lewis looked at the pilot, whose shirt read McKinnon. “Doug, it’s your call. I can go now.”
            McKinnon swiveled in his seat. “Nancy, what’s happening? Is the guy armed?”
            She shook her head. “No. I don’t think so. And he isn’t threatening the passengers. But he says…” She wrung her hands and swallowed hard again. “He says that he’s going to cause everybody on the plane to die.”
            The two men were agog. “A terrorist?”
            Nancy almost moaned. “No! I don’t think he’s a terrorist. But he’s back there, in 22B, sweating a lot and saying something about some change coming too early.” She twisted her face into an anguished grimace.
            “Lew, check him out. I’m notifying Logan and have them patch us through to the FBI.” As Lewis nodded, McKinnon added “Keep it as quiet as possible. And be careful.”
            “Roger.” Lewis unclipped his headset and followed Nancy through the quiet plane back to coach, where 22B was. It was almost midnight and most of the sixty-seven passengers were asleep or plugged into some device.
            The man in 22B looked like he’d finished a strenuous workout. His face was horribly flushed and sheened with sweat. The man’s eyes were open wide and he was gulping breaths. His hands clutched the armrests as if to anchor himself against a storm. His eyes darted up at Lewis and Nancy, but he made no gesture or effort to speak with them.
            Lewis squatted near the man. “Hi. I’m Commander Phil Lewis. Are you feeling ill, sir?”
            The man shook his head tightly. “No! Please. Land this plane now! I don’t want anyone to die because of me!”
            Lewis was about to assure the man everything was okay when suddenly, the man…faded. Like a movie scene where an actor becomes opaque and you can see through him to the background… Nancy gasped and Lewis sensed her fear. “Steady,” he said to her. And to himself.
            The man leaned forward slowly, groaning, as if a severe pain were wracking his innards. His hands never left the armrests, white-knuckled claws about to snap. “Do you need medical attention?” Lewis heard his voice tighten and the hair on his neck begin to rise.
            “No! I just need… to get out… of here. Now!” The man raised his head. His eyes…were blank. Gone. Two holes of blackness that quickly filled with glimpses of a beyond no one could imagine. Nancy stifled a scream a second too late.
            Lewis stood up and grabbed Nancy by the shoulders. “Tell Mason we need to land now! Get Lorena to help you calm the passengers. Get them calmed down! Go!” He gave her a brisk push towards the cockpit. She almost ran in her desire to get away from them.
            A wretched groan made Lewis turn and what he saw almost made him scream. The man was no longer in his seat. He had—somehow—become stuck passing through the floor, his arms clutching at the seats around him while his legs were…somewhere unseen. The man’s chest was trapped by the floor and he could barely speak. “It’s about to happen! Hurry! Oh god, please hurry!” The man’s voice was raw with fear.
            Just before the plane was destroyed, Lewis saw over there, the place seen only through the man’s eyes, the world where orange and gray violence melded, where brown was the color of death and where a nightmarish length of limb and claw grabbed a man and tore this world completely apart.

Monday, September 26, 2011


No other place in my life has the magic of New Orleans. I roamed the city, walked miles through it, met dozens of strange, enchanting people, got taken to a crawfish boil up near Slidell--and brought back the next day, by people whose names I never knew, leaped out of a biker bar's window (voluntarily) to win $10, slept in the City of the Dead (four times), listened to about 300 stories and ate more great food than anywhere else. And one night, I celebrated a new triumph in my own way.

She Called Herself Shannon

The small metal table, topped with a heavy mug of chickory coffee and a beignet, bordered the French Quarter sidewalk. Scattered about my body were $2,200 in cash, product of my first real contract as a writer. Midnight had passed and the weeknight crowd was sparse but active.

She walked up to me in a roundabout manner, heading away from me, then back, then away, only to return and make a beeline for my table. She was young, a few years older than me, slim, in jeans and boots, with a light jacket covering a sheer yellow blouse. She was blonde. Mostly.

“Are you waiting for someone?” Her voice was soft and insistent.

I shook my head.

“Would you like company? We can find a room nearby.” She walked closer and her perfume was flowery.

I sat up straight and waved a hand at one of the chairs. “Not interested. But I can pay you for your time just to chat.”

She stared hard. “You want to give me money just to talk?” she said harshly.

I smiled. “Sure. You don’t waste your time and I get conversation.” I placed a twenty on the table, under the coffee mug. “We can talk until you get bored.” She looked at the bill, then at me. She grunted—a nasty sound—and sat down. She grabbed the bill and put it in a jacket pocket.

“What do you want to talk about?” she grated.

I asked her about other cities she had visited and how they compared to New Orleans; about good restaurants and bad; about magazines she’d read recently; about movies from Hollywood and foreign movies that didn’t make sense; about fashion and how it seemed to be aimed at making women look ugly or foolish and other unlikely topics. Every 15 minutes or so I’d place another twenty under the mug. By the fourth bill, she was asking me questions: why was I in town, where did I live, what job did I have, was I really a student, where did I grow up, did I have a girlfriend. I placed a bill under the mug and she waved it away.

She accepted coffee and we talked on. We discussed our families, or at least I discussed mine. She told me about tragedy and abuse that seemed smooth and vague. I nodded and murmured at the right moments. When she finished, I asked her what her name was.

“Shannon,” she replied immediately.

I waited. She got fidgety. I waited some more. “Is that it?” she demanded. “Are we done?”

I shrugged. “Do I owe you any more money?”

She was disdainful and started to get up.

“I enjoyed it. Hope it wasn’t boring.”

She paused, then looked around. We were now surrounded in the French Quarter. She sat back down and suddenly looked 10 years older. “It was nice.”

“Good to know.” I sipped coffee as she just sat there, a deep and unnerving sadness in her eyes. Suddenly she jerked her head around and got up. “I gotta go.”

She didn’t see me nod. She adjusted her purse, straightened her jacket, readjusted her purse, glanced at me as if taking my measure, then leaned over a bit to get closer. “Brenda,” she said softly and walked away quickly.

I quelled the urge to say Goodnight, Brenda as she left the café. For once I had the wisdom to let someone else have the final word.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


At the beginning of this story, I had a fuzzy sense of the plot, but a near-perfect image of the girl in mind (rare for me as I'm not really a "visual" thinker.) By the end, I had the story and the girl's image in my mind was fuzzy. I don't know what that means.


            “Hello. Is this the path that leads to the lookout?”
            Benson whirled around, his heart thudding quickly. The voice here in the middle of nowhere belonged to… a child. About 8 years old. A girl.
            She smiled shyly. “I’m sorry if I startled you.”
            Benson decided honesty was the best policy. “You did, but that’s okay. Don’t get many people this deep in the woods.” He looked around. “Where are your folks?”
            The girl seemed to be trying not to laugh. “I don’t have ‘folks.’” Her emphasis on the word was odd. Benson stared. With a toss of her head, straight dark blonde hair rippling silently, the girl said “I belong to The People.”
            Uh-huh, thought Benson, those words are capitalized. “Uh, The People?”
            A series of nods that ended abruptly. “They won’t miss me for I’ll be back before they do.” She bit her lip, the first gesture she made like a child. “But I need to find the lookout.”
            Benson removed his ranger hat, sweat-stained and stiff, and rubbed his head. No hair got in the way. “Well, I don’t rightly know what you mean by ‘the lookout’… Are you sure your parents or kinfolk aren’t here with you?”
            A frown was chased away by a determined look. The girl said “You have to know where the lookout is. It’s still here, on this side, only I can’t see it because now I’m too small to climb the bigger trees to search for it.”
            Benson wanted to sit down, maybe with a frosted beer in one hand. He rolled the hat in his hands, rough hands that had led a serious life. “You came alone? Several miles into this mess of woods? By yourself?” His hands were showing a tiny tremor.
            The girl humphed. “I got here. Now I need to leave. But I need to find the lookout.” She put her hands on her hips and suddenly looked much older than eight. Much, much older.
            Benson swallowed, then cleared his throat. An idea popped into his mind. ‘What does this, um, lookout, look like?”
            The girl nodded, her child-like smile returning. Benson released a breath unknowingly held. “It’s a big oak, split near the top, with a huge set of branches spreading out wide.”
            Benson sighed. The tree was famous for its strange shape and size, product of deep loam in bottom land and a lightning strike before white men trod these woods. “That’s Ole Two Arms,” he said. “About two miles from here, that way.” He pointed. After a grunt, he said “You can get there in about an hour.”
            Her face fell into panic. “Oh no! I don’t have time for that! They’ll find out for sure!”
            Something in Benson made him forgo the obvious “They?” He noticed the girl now looked smaller, younger, 6 now instead of 8. Maybe even 5...Then she looked up at Benson and a slow…wicked…smile came over her face and leaped into her eyes. “Maybe you can help me…” she said, her voice a deep trill along Benson’s spine.
            He stood transfixed as the girl walked to him, seeming to grow with every step, her body taller, fuller, but misty, as if she were becoming transparent. With gentle stealth, she placed her hands on Benson’s face and as time stretched to eternity, she kissed him. His eyes closed of their own volition and the kiss, immeasurably sweet, infinitely warm, washed through him.
            The kiss ended and Benson opened his eyes. The girl was no longer a child. Benson’s mind said Eight going on eight hundred, while his eyes told him 18...and beautiful.
            With a giggle and a wink, the girl turned and ran away, impossibly fast, her giggle a musical trill amongst the whispering trees.
            Benson forever after hoped that The People didn’t find out that one of theirs had been lost.

Monday, September 19, 2011


Cold weather and I don't agree. My grandmother and I used to argue gently about the virtues of hot versus cold weather. She'd say cold weather was best. One day I pointed out that there was nothing alive in her freezer. She shot back that there was nothing alive in her oven, either. "Yes," I countered, "But the oven isn't on all the time." Cracked her up. Didn't convince her.


It was a record-high 94 in San Juan when I left that January morning. Three hours later, I arrived in Atlanta and I heard the temperature was 26 degrees. Less than two hours later, we landed in Memphis. I didn’t know the temperature. Less than four hours later, the bus left me and my baggage at the Oxford station. The driver told me that the temperature was 0 degrees, with a wind-chill of minus 10. But that was at 5:00 PM, when the sun was still a feeble light in the gray sky. Now it was 7:30 PM and very dark.

I was wearing my usual: jeans, T-shirt, light jacket, sneakers and a cap. As the bus pulled away, I realized just how quiet everything else was, how shuttered and closed it all felt, with scattered layers of snow like trimming along streets and rooftops. I knew calling a cab would be useless. The dorm wasn’t far. I could walk.

Practically my whole life has been spent in warm weather. Winter to me is any drop into the 60s. I had encountered true winter the year before, a day or two in the low 20s, but rode those out by staying in, where the thermostat and some judicious tinkering would keep my room in the high 70s.

I felt pain in my hands and face, an alarming tightness exacerbated by the knifing gashes of breath in my nose and throat. I walked slowly, fighting the urge to hunch over as the wind slashed around me. My bags were light, but began feeling immense and my pace slowed. I looked at the houses with the warm glow of lights behind frosted windows. Maybe I should knock on one of those doors, I thought. But arrogance can be an unjust master and I walked on.

A sudden gust doubled me over and I dropped my bags. I looked at the back of my hands, where the veins rise prominently and was aghast. There were jagged crystals pushing up from inside the veins. My hands were literally freezing. As if in a trance, I touched the largest of the jagged mounds. I felt it move and scrape deep within. I had been walking less than 15 minutes.

I was in front of a dentist’s office. A low hedge ran along the right-hand side of the building, covered in ice and snow. I threw my bags between the hedge and the wall and tried to pick up the pace. The wind slammed from all sides and as I flexed my hands, I could feel more jagged scrapes in places I refused to notice. I didn’t think of taking clothes out of my bag to layer for warmth. I thought only of getting to my room.

The Law Center. If I could get there, I could rest and warm up. Between the town and the campus lay a tree-ringed bowl, an almost elven cubbyhole with a raised sidewalk through the middle. As I crossed it, this space I found so endearing, I felt myself unzip my jacket. The wind howled through the treetops and I almost fell off the sidewalk. I could no longer feel my hands.

I trudged up the low hill to the Law Center, passing several houses. I ignored them. I didn’t care for them. I could barely breathe and my throat was raw. The Law Center was lit. I stumbled to the door and pushed against it with my shoulder, keeping my hands from something bad I couldn’t quite remember.

The door was locked. I had wanted to return early to campus to beat the crowds. I had.

I cowered near the door, trying to draw a less-painful breath. The Student Union. It would be open. It had to be. I swung myself off the door and fell. I didn’t break my fall at all, slamming my head onto the concrete. Rolling over, I pushed myself upright. I had the vague sense that the time was 8:10 and that I should have been in my room five minutes ago.

My steps were painful and clumsy. I could sense it, but not put it into words. I also sensed I should close my jacket, flapping in the sharp wind. I took off my cap and tucked it inside my jacket, against my ribs. It was my favorite cap and I didn’t want it to be damaged.

I stopped walking, turned to my right and took a few steps towards some bushes. I fell forward.

How long I was there, I’ll never know. I spasmed awake to enormous pain. Ice broke off my face and the bush’s branches as I pushed myself to stand. Slowly, without thought, I made my way to the Union. As I approached the door, I could see a gap. It's open, I thought, without concern. I pushed the door open with my shoulder and out of habit, went to my mailbox. I slumped to the floor in front of it and fought the pain as I recovered. I was probably there for half an hour.

From the Union to the dorm was a slow trek without incident. I got to my room and simply collapsed on the bed, too weak to wrap myself in a blanket or change clothes. I had trouble breathing. I didn’t want to move so I could ease the pain.

The phone rang. The phone rang. It rang again. I barely made it there to pick it up. I knew I had never felt so drained in my life.

“Hello?” Four musical syllables. Carol.

I croaked a reply.


Another croak. Carol and Don had returned early too and were at the office. Would I join them?

I said yes. Changed clothes slowly, gritting my teeth to shallow breaths. Got a stocking cap, heavy jacket and gloves. Layered an extra sweatshirt and longjohns. Made it to the office because they were there and that’s where I wanted to be, more than anywhere else in the world. They noticed I wasn’t feeling well. I never told them what happened, except for my bags. We went and picked them up.

Later that night, Don and I went out and peed our names in the snow. Luckily, my name isn’t “Alexander.”

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Short Story: LIFE OF SLICE

This was an odd story-writing experience for me because it started out as my attempt to kill time while bored. I wrote the first line, just to have something to do while waiting for something to happen on my computer and just kept going. I know I stopped for some coffee, ignored the work I was supposed to be doing and finished the story. Looking back, it was the first "Blank screen just GO!" story I wrote, the precursor of almost all my subsequent flash fiction.


            Think of this as a movie with the wrong characters. I don't mean the wrong actors, the wrong characters. You might be thinking that it's impossible for a movie, a totally fabricated illusion, to have the wrong characters. That might be true, but the fact is, movies try to imitate Life and Life sometimes has the wrong characters in it. Do you remember the Kennedy assassination? Jack? Didn't you get the sense that Oswald, that weasel-faced punk, was just wrong as Jack's killer? Like he didn't match up? On one side, a young, dynamic rogue of a family man, leader of the Free World and on the other, this Sad Sack of a loser. Really, this jerk killed President Jack?
            Maybe that's why people just can't get let go of the deed: the sense of utter wrongness they feel about its characters.
            What I'm about to tell you has the same feeling. The characters in it are wrong for the story. It's not anybody's fault, it's just the way things turned out.
            Since I started along the movie metaphor line, I'll continue. The cast of characters consists of four people, or maybe five. (I'll explain.) The main character is Vanda, a young lady in her mid-twenties who's vivacious, friendly, energetic, and attractive, but not beautiful, more like wholesome, girl-next-door type. (For casting directors, think Sandra Bullock). The kind of girl that doesn't cause men's heads to snap around as she walks by, nor do they stare long and hard at. More the type that causes men to smile softly, not cruelly like when the guy looks at a woman thinking she's lovely only to find out she's actually a dog, but with a certain warm expression, like he's reminded of a little sister or a favorite cousin.
            The other principal characters are Deke and Byron. They too are wrong; you'll see. Deke is a large, broad-shouldered young man, with delicate hands and, at best, a bland personality. (Casting Director: think young, secondary actor, maybe minor TV star.) Now bland is actually good, but no one admits to it. Bland personalities, those without sharp edges, are warm and comforting, steady and dependable. Bland personalities are the glue that hold together families, committees, organizations and friends. You can always count on them and every group has one or two. So Deke has the bland personality that is supposed to hold this little circle of friends together.
            His opposite is Byron, a small, handsome chap, with sharp wit and nonchalant viciousness. (Mr./Ms. Casting Director: Jerry Seinfeld with a manic edge, someone like that.) The kind of guy who could go from humor to cutting sarcasm within the same sentence and, even after embarrassing you, could still make you think he was being impersonal. These sharp-witted people are quietly feared, for they are aggressors when sensing weakness and almost impossible to harm in their own game. They really aren't invited: they are tolerated.
            There is another character, but he doesn't ever appear in the story, so forget casting. His name is Mike. A perfectly ordinary name for a perfectly unordinary man. Lawyer, stockbroker, former Olympic athlete, patent-holder no less and the object of Vanda's deepest desires. That's where the problems begin.
            Take the name bit, for example. (These names are real; no attempt to protect the guilty.) "Deke" is a hard-sounding name, reminiscent of a stagecoach bandit or cattle rustler. Here it's the moniker of a guy so quiet and unassuming you'd let your sister date him knowing they'd be back exactly 10 minutes before curfew ends. And "Byron" just reeks of poetic sensitivity, of which our guy has neither. "Vanda" is exotic and she's anything but. That's why guys like her so much: she's a pal, a buddy, another one of the guys, so to speak. All her boyfriends eventually end up being her friends, now a virtual legion, sliding away in pursuit of more exotic fare, but always remaining in contact with their good friend. And the unseen "Mike" should have a handle like "Demetrius" or "Alexander", names dripping with mythological might.
            But, these are the names and the story goes on.
            Vanda has fallen hard for Mike. I mean, hard. Have you ever seen a story of a tomboy, skinned knees, wad of gum in bulging cheek, cap on head, dirt on nose, transformed into a lovely princess? The change is usually expanded into a discovery of boys and first true love. Well, that's Vanda times ten. Here's a girl who's had many boyfriends, a few lovers and so many good male friends she can start a four-team baseball league and she's never really lost her head to any guy. Until now. And what a guy, practically a dreamboat in a Corvette (he actually drives a BMW). So what does she do? Go up to him and make conversation, become his pal, use her fuzzy charm?    No.
            She decides to make him jealous. Or at least, make him notice her. By doing what, you ask? By actively pursuing Deke. Deke! The immovable object.
            Sound wrong? Just wait. Deke, as well as Byron, has been a lifelong friend of Vanda's. Hell, they grew up together. There was a time when Deke was just giddy about her, but he never said a word and eventually let the feeling sleep in a corner of his mind. But he always had a suspicion that Vanda was interested in him. So, when she starts to woo him, in her own fuzzy way, does Deke remain bland and quiet, secretly savoring his quiet bloom? No. He takes to Vanda's interest like a caged bird set free and cuts loose.
            Byron can't help but notice. He's really had a thing for Vanda since childhood, but once he saw the pattern of her life (boyfriend to occasional lover to good friend), he reined in his interest, thinking that he could just step back in and sweep her off her feet anytime. He's always been a good friend, but his friendliness was overlaid with long-term interest. (A scene with Byron helping Vanda move could show him checking out her lingerie, for example. Crude, but effective.) So when he sees Vanda wooing and Deke moving in, does he jump in headfirst and try to break it up, knowing that Deke is probably his only competition? No. He makes it a point to make it easier for them to see each other, like using his influence to get them in to trendy restaurants and sold-out shows. And he does it without really expecting anything in return. That's wrong, at least for Byron.
            And the unseen Mike? The vibrant, successful, confident stud? He's so loopy for Vanda he can't see straight. He's actually intimidated by her. He figures her many male friends are a symbol for how demanding she is, how incredibly wonderful a man must be to make her his. Mike feels he's underqualified to win the love of this lady, not understanding that all she needs is for him to make an approach, because she's never felt this way before about any guy and she doesn't have a clue how to make the first move. Is everybody in this picture wrong?
            Vanda: simple and direct, trying deception.
            Deke: quiet, unassuming, now a whirlwind romancer.
            Byron: egocentric, now the Best Samaritan.
            Mike: from overachiever to underconfident.
            So what happened?
            Vanda, thinking herself safe with Deke, continued dating him every night while trying to run into Mike at all his haunts.
            Deke, thinking that Vanda was in love with him, accepts Byron's "gifts" expecting him to ask for payback and starts planning a major wedding.
            Byron, expecting Vanda and Deke to eventually return to "friend" status, actually enjoys sharing his influence with them and starts planning his move on Vanda. It's about time, he says.
            Mike, running into Vanda (and Deke), just melts faster at the sight of her and when he discovers Byron's pitching in to "help" Deke, figures he really doesn't have a chance.
            Vanda wants Mike, but goes after Deke. Deke risks wanting Vanda, but he doesn't have a chance. Byron wants Vanda, but not now, so he helps Deke keep her out of circulation. And Mike wants Vanda, but can't approach her cause he's tongue-tied and too nice.
            Am I the only one gnashing his teeth at this point? Do four wrongs make a right?
            Here's how it ended:
            Deke asks Vanda to marry her, not even a month into their dating spree. The placid risk-avoider, Deke, takes a leap of monumental proportions.
            Byron learns about the proposal from Deke, who just can't keep it to himself. Does Byron withdraw his support, or hide behind his cynicism, or leap into action? No! He congratulates Deke! Honestly! Now Deke, who figures payback time was going to be Heartbreak Hotel time, is convinced Vanda will marry him because Byron actually approves. Where’s his ego now?
            Mike? Poor guy hears about the proposal from Byron, who doesn't see how gone Mike is over Vanda. Does Mike finally use his long-won confidence to spill his heart to her? No, he sends her flowers!
            Vanda, totally confused about the proposal, for she can't bear the thought of hurting her friend Deke, nor can she imagine NOT marrying Mike, doesn't turn to Byron, who’s right there, for she feels it would place him in the middle of a tough problem. And while she's pondering her answer, guess whose flowers appear? Right. Is the card the invitation she's been waiting for? Nah, it says "Congratulations on Your Engagement" in bright golden script (printed in Secaucus, New Jersey by a machine that doesn't care what effect its messages have on people). True, two dozen roses are nothing to sneeze at, unless, of course, allergies are present.
            Fists clench at the scenario. Will it have a happy ending? Will it have an ending?
            Vanda marries Mike. Surprised? Hold on. Mike figures Vanda's out of reach, so he invites his secretary to dinner where they run into... Yup, Vanda and... Byron. Huh? Byron called Vanda because he noticed she was a bit off, but all he did was wax poetic (finally matching his name) about the upcoming nuptials of his two best friends. So Vanda, strangely enough, clams up. The eatery was picked by Byron because, a) it's close to his office, b) close to Mike's office, whom he expects to see for a stock purchase and c) it's not a place Deke goes to so Byron won't run the risk of causing Deke to be suspicious. Isn't that thoughtful? Maybe too much complexity, but it has a simple side, too.
            At the restaurant, Vanda thinks Byron won't be of any help to her and when he gets up to greet Mike, she stays behind (remember: we never see Mike) and, get this, starts crying. The always cheerful, tough-as-an-Indian-scout lady, quietly dissolves in tears. Who comforts her? Mike? No, his secretary, for after all, Vanda might break down, but not in public. The ladies room is the refuge and the site of the tearful pick-me-up.
            Once composed and back at their tables, the secretary (a minor character with a major impact, so Casting Director, choose carefully) tells her boss about her good deed. All about it. We hear a voice, deep, masculine, thrilling to the female heart, say to the secretary that she is to call Byron over to this table. Cut to Vanda's table, where the secretary calls Byron away from his Poached Trout and we hear The Voice greeting a stunned Vanda and joining her at the table.
            Mike, that paragon of straight-laced virtue, fully realizing what the tears mean, has acted upon information learned in the privacy of confidants. Shocking.
            Vanda is not complaining.
            End result of wrong behavior? Mike states his case, Vanda hears the words she wanted to, they get married ten days later, Deke wrongly blames Byron only to realize (eventually) that what had really happened was inside his head and Byron actually tries to commit suicide (pills and brandy, bad stomachache, lost weekend) over his apparent loss of Vanda. Vanda and Mike are deliriously happy, Deke is stoically nursing his hurt, with eyes upon the cute redhead in Accounting and Byron recovered quickly and remains as cynical as ever.
            And the secretary? Vanda got her fired. Okay, another wrong act in a series of such, but can you blame her? You can only if the Casting Director picks a knockout.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Essay: 2 OUT OF 3

Selling vacuum cleaners is the job I've hated the most. By far. However, it did provide me with two moments, one stunning and one stunningly powerful, both of which stayed out of GCSPrank Is Here. They'll appear someday, I'm sure.

2 Out of 3

I hated selling vacuum cleaners. I took the job because I wanted to challenge myself and have the freedom to explore the Hattiesburg area. It was a challenge just trying to stick with it, I had the freedom to explore and in general, it—well—sucked.

The Sales Manager was a small, sharp-faced man called Jake. Raised snakes and looked like one so you can guess what the salesmen called him behind his back. Jake had only one focus: sales. How many did you sell? was his constant greeting, even at 6 AM. Yes, 6 AM.

At first I was bothered by having to respond “None.” Jakes eyes would freeze, he’d blink slowly 3-4 times, like a… reptile, and he’d turn away as if I had ceased to exist. For all I know, to him I had. As the weeks went by, saying “None” was a pleasure, as it defied everything he stood for. (And because I was making money on the side. Details later.)

Paul was the office’s star, a slim, balding man with impeccable grooming in “formal casual,” his way of describing dressing well enough to be respected, but casual enough to avoid intimidation. Women loved him and he received several calls a day for “service.” He was happily married, though, and he did sell a vacuum cleaner almost every day. In the Renaissance, he would have been the Captain of the Guard with ladies writing him secret letters filled with poetic musings.

Billy Bob—and believe me, I wouldn’t make that up—was a paunchy good ol’ boy who loved huntin’and fishin’. He said his secret to selling a vacuum was to put it together in smart snaps and clicks. He told me once that when any guy saw him click them tubes together like armin’ a rifle, the guy was sold. Billy Bob called me an intellectual, which was always a bad word when he said it. Still, he gave me my first sale, a “college lady” who didn’t like his down-home country style. Sold her the vacuum in six minutes, the time it took for her to write a check and for me to carry the machine in.

Hank was an alcoholic who started drinking about 8 AM and sold most of his vacuums after 1 PM, when his tongue and belligerence got loose. There were days when he out-sold Paul, but most of Hank’s sales were canceled a day or two later. See, he’d get mad if he went through his spiel and you didn’t want to buy. In the morning, he’d smile and leave. In the afternoon, he’d threaten to take your old vacuum and throw it away. He often did. But he sold enough to stay in Jake’s terrarium.

Jim was the Service Manager, a veteran of the Korean War married to a Japanese lady. He spoke fluent Japanese, was a whiz with mechanics and read voraciously. I spent more time talking with him than selling, and because he was limited by Social Security and Jake knew it, we devised a system of taking Hank’s returned units, reclassifying them as inventory for parts and I’d sell them at half-price, splitting 50-50 with Jim. Suddenly, I was making $400-$500 a week and cavorting on Easy Street.

And Jake kept asking “How many did you sell?” Only now I was lying.

The best Jake-tweak happened on a Wednesday. I was pretending to go door-to-door (covering the scheme) when I stopped at a large Georgian (or Victorian?) mansion. My knock was answered with a shout and seconds later, the door flew open.

“What do you want?” A small man, dark-faced, sharp eyes squinting at me like I had slapped his favorite parrot.

I said “Good morning” and told him my spiel, noticing the large white wall-to-wall carpet in the foyer. Or living room. Whatever.

He shook his head. “We already have another brand. The wife loves it.” He started to close the door, then snapped “Do you play chess?”

I said yes and he invited me in.

That afternoon, I walked into the office and started to tell my story. At the point I stopped above, Jake jumped in and said excitedly “You let him win and sold him a vacuum cleaner!”

I scowled. “No. I won two out of three.”

Jake’s face fell. He didn’t even blink: he just walked away.

Billy Bob said he didn’t know how to play chess like us intellectuals.

Jim gave me a big thumbs-up.

Hank was snoring in the back room, propped against the wall.

Paul watched Jake leave, smiled at me and said “You’re not a salesman, Gil.”

I nodded and offered to play chess with him. He agreed, in exchange for the address of that house.

I beat him twice. He sold the lady of that house a vacuum cleaner the next day.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Flash Fiction: THE BOX

I was going for that quiet moment when Life finally makes sense.


            The road had pretty much washed away, a pair of shallow ruts marking the last times a vehicle drove over it. The grass was high, on both sides of the ruts and between them, weedy grass that would never be a lawn. The car bounced and heaved over and into the ruts, the grass whisking loud enough to be heard over the neutral hum of the air conditioner. Stan drove slowly, not risking a flat tire or broken axle, his eyes fixed on the road just ahead. After a minute, the road curved right, just as he remembered. Rain had gullied the road and Stan had to drive off the ruts, the wheels spinning of the gravel. He drove on and then stopped next to the oak tree, the tower of his childhood, now a stunted, hollowed stab into the sky, leafless, without magic.
            Ignition off, Stan stepped out of the car into the cool dry air. The house that used to be there, where Mom smiled when the bus pulled up and where Dad mowed the lawn every other Saturday when it was warm, had collapsed. The upper bedrooms, where Kitty and Jeff and Stan dreamt their coming days, were gone, part of the debris where the kitchen and living room used to be. Only one wall remained, part of the laundry room, the wall where Mom kept a sewing table and Dad stored his Popular Mechanics. Just past that was the old tile floor of what was once Granna’s room, the room Dad built so that Mom could nurse Granna as only a daughter could. Stan squinted in the fading light as he remembered how Granna, then Dad and finally Mom had gone from cheerful to resigned to belligerent as the cancer took its sweet time to take one life and thus ruined five others.
            For as soon as Granna died, just after Stan’s 11th birthday, Dad and Mom sat the three kids down and told them their life was changing. Dad had taken a job in Texas and was leaving in a couple of days… alone. The world stood still and rushed by, glared and became dark, and Stan could vividly remember Mom’s lone tear, the mirror image of Dad’s.
            The next few days were a blur. Even after hours of conversations with Kitty, over cups of increasingly-exotic teas in decreasingly-adequate apartments and days of watching wrestling antics with a listless and aimless Jeff, none of them could recall very much except The Box.
            It had been Granna’s, a teak-and-walnut chest made by an old boyfriend of hers who sailed the world between wars. She had given it to Kitty for “her girlie things,” but she had given it to Jeff to store baseball cards and Stan had won it in a game of marbles. On the last day at the house, before the move to the sterile subdivision, the frenzied new school, Mom’s first job and Dad’s guilt-ridden visits every two weeks, Stan suggested they each put something important in the box and they could bury it in the back yard. Kitty said it would be like an anchor to their home, like the anchor on the chest’s lid. So they searched quickly, opening boxes as Mom and the movers carted things out, the minutes draining with painful speed. Once The Box had the items, they rushed out and desperately picked a spot. They had no shovel, so they dug with their hands, shredding nails in the packed dirt. All three were crying, their sobs and tears an added rhythm to the effort. Mom called once, then again and when she called a third time, they patted the dirt down, wiped their faces as best they could and, surprisingly, hugged each other.
            Sixteen years later, Stan looked over the once-pristine back yard. Dad had passed away first when a stroke claimed him. Mom followed just last month. The doctor called it a heart attack; Kitty said it was from a broken heart.
            Just past the rise, Stan dug. The ground was softer now. He quickly found The Box and with a tear rising softly, he opened it. The ballerina slipper had faded, just as Kitty’s dream had. The tape recorder with Jeff narrating the World Series had corroded batteries, but the tape looked intact. And Stan’s woodcarving kit, his first art tools, were blobs of rust, but of the three items in The Box, his life was the only one that reflected that day long ago..
            Stan smiled and wiped away the tear. The Box with the anchor—the anchor to home—was going to make a difference. He knew it.
            And soon, so would Kitty and Jeff, who simply needed to remember.

Monday, September 5, 2011


[Hey! I'm up as the Weekly Artist, courtesy of E.S Wynn. Check me out!]  

Apropos of the U.S Tennis Open. Rereading this essay startled me: I thought I'd gotten over my ultra-competitive mania. Nope.

Tennis Eddie

Eddie was tall and lanky and looked like an intellectual having a bad day. He bit his fingernails something fierce, and amazingly, his toenails as well. You’d think he’d refrain from wearing sandals.

I don’t remember how we met. There’s this vague memory of an overcrowded cafeteria and me sitting alone. Sounds about right. He was majoring in Political Science, or as I told him, “Something useless.” He chuckled and didn’t retaliate when I told him my major was biology.

Eddie brought up tennis first, that I remember. He complained that his regular playing partner, a Korean student with a powerful forehand, had left the university on an internship. I offered to play him and he quizzed me about my skills. In summary: weak serve, weak forehand, weak backhand, good volleyer. We decided to play later that afternoon.

When I got to the courts, Eddie was already practicing his serve. A high, lazy toss. Several dozen angles as his arms and legs flexed and whirled and uncoiled. Then a meaty splat as the ball rocketed off the racket like a fuzzy bullet.

Into the net. Fourteen times in a row.

I walked confidently onto the court and we started warming up. Eddie’s forehand was smooth, but his backhand was sickly. He was a baseliner, declining to even practice volleys. He twirled his racket, won the up/down and elected to serve.

I was so ready. Hard flat serves were easier than hitting a fastball and I could hit a fastball. Eddie tossed, angled, corked, uncoiled and fired a fuzz-bullet long. Second serve. I was ready. Toss, whirligig, spinning serve that practically bounced sideways.

A lesser athlete would’ve broken a limb trying to reach that ball. I lunged, rolled and spun to sprint back onto the court in time to see Eddie punch a forehand into the far corner of my side.

And that was the pattern of our matches: A hard serve that never came over often enough for me to use it, with crazy-ball second serves that had me moving in and out, side to side and punching it back as if I were 73 and had suffered a stroke.

I never beat Eddie. (It irritates me just to write that.) We played some 14-15 matches against each other and I always lost two sets to one. My serve let me down, as did my forehand, backhand, overheads and lobs. My volleys and quickness kept me close. But it was Eddie’s second serve, that lollipop-from-Hell, that kept me at bay.

And you know what? He never stopped bashing the first serve. I once suggested he make his second serve his first since it went in frequently and was hard to read. He thought about that for a moment, then said “But that’s not the way you’re supposed to do it.”

Spoken like a Poli Sci major.

Read Free E-Books

Just use this handy app: ">Gil C. Schmidt At Work