For a Generation to Come

For a generation to come, this will be a town in motion. Mothers giving birth in hospital beds will be wheeled down the hall with doctors running backwards in front of them, heads between their legs, in order to accommodate the shift. Children in playgrounds will find their slides more entertaining than ever, as the ground shakes beneath them on the way down. Teachers in schools will have to take a couple paces every time they want to write on the board, as it drifts a few inches while they explain to the class the value of X. Cafe owners will take out special insurance so that they will be covered if a patron complains about spilled coffee falling into their laps unexpectedly as the construction continues.

Turtles will not notice the change. They will stretch their legs out and pull their tails in and go to sleep in one place and wake up in another and will not be aware that their pace has changed perceptibly. Birds will be confused and the rate of ducks flying headfirst into buildings is expected to rise.

Analysts predict that war will be untenable should it break out, and have suggested that the mayor call for a state of neutrality for the coming generation, to be broken when the babies of tomorrow reach their thirtieth birthday and are old enough to hate and condemn. Opinions, analysts agree, are not valid before aspirations and delusions are shattered. They believe this is a policy more townships should adopt.

Dreams are said to be on the move already. Complaints have been phoned in from all around town of people having the nightmares of their wives, their children in the next room, their neighbors on the next block. Whether or not this problem will persist is, as yet, unknown.

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She Stands on a Step [Flash Fiction]

She stands on a step to be painted, except there is no step, it is a fictional step, one that the artist has put in the picture he is painting. The duchess – she is thought of as holding this title although she never thinks of herself in these terms – tries to keep her sons still by singing to them and declaiming poetry for children. When she runs out of ditties about goats and horses and knights, she turns to the poems that she herself loves, and the passion in her voice rivets them and keeps them quiet better than their favorite rhymes about animals and battles did.

The duke is perfectly posed, because he has a book held in front of him by a servant and he is reading from it. The duchess, who isn’t in the foreground, cannot have such a luxury, for any servant who would stand in front of her would block her exquisite dress, as well as the little boys. She doesn’t resent the duke this one privilege. There are plenty of other reasons to resent him.

She is much taller than the duke, which is unseemly, of course, as she is the female, the producer of children, the keeper of the house; it doesn’t matter that she saved him from financial ruin, she is still shamefully tall. It’s bad enough having guests with her across the table. At least the later generations who see their portrait needn’t know quite how huge she was. So in the family portrait that will hang for posterity in the halls of the great castle, the duchess will stand on a step, as the artist is painting her now, and will seem tall only because of this small geographical change in their whereabouts.

Her smaller son leans against her, tired of fidgeting. The dog has lain down on his feet and is warming his toes. She knows she mustn’t choose favorites, but her youngest is her beloved one, because the elder is, inevitably, his father’s boy. They ride together often, and she feels him growing colder to her. He has begun to use rude words despite his tender age, an influence that is surely his father’s. The younger, though, is frightened of his father. Though his mother is so much larger, it is his male parents girth that bothers him. He despises roughness of any kind and prefers his mother’s soft skin to any other surface on earth.

She knows she will lose her influence on him, too, one day, but she enjoys it while she can. She moves, eliciting a cough from the artist, puts her hand on her littlest boy’s cheek, and holds it there, perfectly still, committing the moment to memory.

My First Second

   I typed these words: “…vivid enough to be sure of.” I stared at my computer screen. The undersized keyboard on my too-small laptop sat beneath my fingers, silent. People tell me that I type extremely loudly, banging each key violently, even when I’m perfectly calm. I’ve tried blaming my computer – but then they hand over their own laptops or keyboards and I try typing and the banging sound resumes. Clearly, it’s me. I hammer out words with a fervor that doesn’t often suit my mood and that isn’t healthy for the machines I use or for my wallet. A wallet which, if I continue to pursue the path of my chosen profession, will probably not fatten with big bills or numerous credit cards. I should really give my poor keyboards a break.
   I digress. Those words, that are vivid enough in my mind to be quite certain of now, were the final words of the last sentence of Chapter Fifty. I didn’t plan it that way, but I ended on a nice, round number like that. Fifty. It’s satisfying, that number. It feels very complete.
   **
   I wrote the first draft starting at the end of January, 2011, and finished it almost exactly a year ago, at the end of August, 2011. I tried reading it about a week after I had written the last page, unsatisfied and knowing that there was so much more that needed to be changed, inserted, taken out and neatened. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t read it. It reeked of my own foul stench, as if I’d secreted my body odor into it.
   Worse than that, though – it was boring. I tried reading that draft more than once during the months that followed. Every time I picked the thing up, I was astonished at how basely dull it was. There was no there there. There was no essence, no feeling, no emotion – it was a string of words with periods and commas more or less where they should be, dashes and semicolons peppered in for variety. Sure, the sentences were well formed enough. They were understandable. No one would be confused as to the meaning of “Amanda felt” so and so or of “Dan said” thus to some other person.
   But beneath the disgust, beneath the boredom, there was a gut feeling that told me that I would be back. There was a knowledge that these characters and their story were too important to me, as small as their lives are, because ultimately I believe in the importance of small lives. I cannot contain the vastness of humanity – I often talk with disdain about how “all politicians” are like this, or how “people are so stupid” sometimes. But I know that these words are ways for me to deal with the everyday – ways for me to be able to live and breathe and put one foot in front of the other. Because if I gave in to one of my biggest wishes – to try and empathize with everybody, all the time – I would lose myself and I would go mad. Nobody can contain so much of the world. As George Eliot wisely wrote in Middlemarch:

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.

**
   I was right. At the end of the best school year I have ever had, having finished my sophomore year and said goodbye to my friends at my college in the US in preparation for spending the year abroad at Oxford University in England, I was finally ready. I read the first draft of the nameless novel, one of the four I have written, and dedicated my summer to writing my first second draft.
   And now, after two months and nine days, I have finished. I’ve eliminated a lot of expository information that I needed by a potential reader wouldn’t. I’ve gotten rid of my bad habit of overusing adverbs – although I also don’t believe that they’re anathema and allow them to remain here and there, when they’re useful and don’t sound glaringly obnoxious. I’ve changed the race of one character and the sexual orientation of another because they both told me to. I’ve changed the names of minor characters because there were too many similar names with the letter “M” in them.
   It may take another few months before I’m able to read the second draft. But meanwhile, hopefully, some of my friends and loved ones will be willing to read this draft – which is, I am positive, superior by far to the first – and will be able to give me some notes to guide me in my next draft.
   And meanwhile I will also be able to hang around this place again, sweep out the dust and cobwebs, and hopefully get some good, fun, flash fiction and experimental practice writing going.

Stories from the News – Episode 1

Over the past couple of years, I’ve become an NPR junkie. I listen to Morning Edition and All Things Considered almost every single day. I also recently discovered On the Media and listen to every week’s episode on iTunes, as well as NPR’s TED Talk podcast.

Beyond getting my daily dose of “what’s going on in the world” that way, I also get to hear interviews with authors who I never would have heard of otherwise, musicians whose music I don’t like but whose words inspire me, and series on topics that I wouldn’t be exposed to in my regular day-to-day life. Often, the stories I hear inspire me and give me ideas and things to think about. But what I don’t do often enough is write those ideas down.

Which brings me to the title of this post. Today I heard a piece that just sparked my mind and made me want to cry and laugh all at once. Whether or not a good piece of flash fiction will emerge from it is yet to be seen – but the important thing is, I’ll have recorded both the story that created a rush of feeling in me and I’ll have tried to write down some of what it made me think of. Here we go. The link below will bring you to the page with the NPR news story that I listened to. Below it is the piece of flash fiction that arose from it.

“The ‘Other Audubon’: A Family’s Passion”

______

“It’s been days. I’m worried about her.”

“At least she’s taking exercise today. That’s something.”

“Yes, but she insisted on putting on her purple dress. The one she always said that he liked.”

“And so we mustn’t say anything about it. No, not another word. If we don’t talk about him, she’ll forget about him in time as well. The important thing is that she’s out of bed again. Hush now, dearest. I think I hear her coming downstairs.”

She’d been downstairs for a while already, listening at the door, clutching at the handle of her parasol. She bit the inside of her cheek and felt the blood pool in her mouth almost at once as the old wound opened again. Every night it closed up, and every day she found a way to worry it  open again. She wouldn’t complain about it to Mama, though, because then the doctor would come, and she was sick and tired of his patronizing eyes and the way he looked at her in her shift, nothing but her shift, whenever he was there.

“Are you ready, love?”

“Yes, Mama.”

They left the house by the back door. She wanted to go out into the fields, but Mama wouldn’t let her yet. She was too pale yet, she said, and too frail. Maybe when she got stronger, in a few days. Perhaps then. She regretted, now, the fuss she’d made, putting on the purple dress and staying in bed for days. She didn’t love him all that much, really, it wasn’t about him, it was about Mama and Papa trying to protect her all the time. She knew she was frail, she knew she was sickly and small and weak, and she hated it. She could never be passionately swept up by a man like the women in novels were, and she wanted so much to be a heroine at times. The closest she ever got to being a heroine was her fits of hysterical tears and the chokes she got afterwards, when she couldn’t breathe and they fetched the damned doctor.

A whistle sounded just as Mama tried to usher her inside and she looked back. It wasn’t him, which she knew was what Mama had feared. No, it was a bird, one of the beautiful Phoebes, and she could swear that it was winking at her, promising something. In a moment she would know what it was, if only Mama waited one more second – but no, she was ushered inside and whisked back into bed to have a bowl of broth so that she could get strong again.

Hugs

It was the day that he hugged her that he realized that she was in love with him. He’d just finished a gig, and he was sweating, still in the suit he always wore on stage. She ran up to him, smiling, her shoulders hunched forward and inward a little bit because of her lifetime of insecurity and the several years of painful shyness that she’d recently gotten over. She was nice, and he was glad that he’d met her. But when she hugged him, he felt her body melt into his and the embrace was perfect, comfortable, warming. There wasn’t anything suggestive in it, nothing sexual. But it was sensual, and that was worse. It was the sheer warmth and feeling in the embrace that made him realize that things had taken a turn down an alleyway that he wasn’t sure he was ready to enter into.
He wasn’t scared of love, nor was he scared of relationships. He did relationships well, and he’d always been thankful of that, especially when he saw his band members fall prey to their own effed up desires and needs that ended up only hurting them and everyone around them. He’d never been in the same band for more than two years, and every time the bands broke up, or fell apart as was usually the case, it was almost always triggered by one of the members having relationship issues. Of course, the underlying causes were deeper – drinking problems, drug addictions, depressions, inability to deal with the stress of constant touring and little or no money. But the immediate cause had always been a bad girlfriend or boyfriend, a lover posing an ultimatum, or a blowout fight that invited the neighbors to call the police.
He didn’t know why he hugged her the second time. They stood outside, smoking together, and he was glad that she’d come to see the show, like she said she would, even though she’d known that it would be the same set as the show they played two weeks ago, when she’d first seen him. They talked about innocuous things, like movies made by his favorite playwright and the place she’d grown up in. He told her about how he’d heard once that Disney had planned to build a theme park on the moon and call it LunarDisney. She’d told him about the way she knew her parents had done drugs in the 70s. There was nothing too personal in the conversation, nothing telling. She didn’t laugh at the things he said and he didn’t lean forward and tough her all the time. But at some point, almost out of the blue, he leaned forward and hugged her a second time, and the words “I’m glad I met you” seemed to hover between them, almost-but-not-quite-spoken by either or both of them.
He didn’t mean to lead her on and he was determined not to do so. After all, he was leaving soon, moving to another city, and she wasn’t even finished with college yet and wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while. They were going to be leading different lives and they both knew it. But she was in love with him, even though she hardly knew him, and while he wasn’t in love with her, he did feel a closeness that he didn’t know the origins of.
He worried that he would hurt her, especially after that second hug. They finished their cigarettes and discussed what each of them would be doing that night. Neither one suggested that they spend the night together, but he felt a vivid image tugging at his mind in which they woke up together and he smiled at her, knowing that she didn’t mind that his teeth were crooked and that she thought his smile was nice despite them.
She didn’t have any such visions. She didn’t even think he remembered her outside of their brief meetings. That was alright, because love, for her, wasn’t what it was for him. She loved many people, all at once, and felt deeply towards them all. She believed that people were good, and that there was something beautiful in everyone. She was naive in some ways, even though she’d been hurt enough in her life to know better. But she wasn’t expecting anything of him, not of him, and although she sometimes succumbed to wish fulfillment and painted an abstract in which the swirls of color represented her and another whom she loved, she still never verbally expressed that love to anyone.
They didn’t hug when they parted. They bade each other good night, and went their separate ways.

The Writer’s Typewriter

Forgotten bills lay scattered on the kitchen table, surrounded by banana and orange peels. The room stank of rotting fruit and the sickly sweet smell of plants that have been shut up inside for two long without any air-flow. Ants crawled along one wall, sniffing out the grains of sugar that were sprinkled all over the counter and carrying it back to their nests in orderly lines. The lamp, left on for so long, flickered feebly, not quite yet burned out, but definitely getting there.

Robert L. Cove sat at the table, unmindful of all this. He had a typewriter in front of him, and his fingers were hitting the keys madly. Every few hours, one of the keys seemed to break and he would growl in frustration and take out his specialist’s kit. He had to fix it right away, or the words, the people, the story in his mind – all of it would disappear. He couldn’t type on anything else. He couldn’t write with pen and paper. It had to be this particular typewriter, the one that his grandfather had given his mother who had given it to him. It was superstitious to think that it was the secret to the Coves’ success, but Robert L. Cove couldn’t help being superstitious in this instance, even though he openly laughed at anyone who fear black cats or walking under ladders.

It had started with a dream; all his books had started this way. He would wake up and remember the dream in its entirety, know that he would have to begin writing now, immediately, or else he would lose it forever. He had been writing for six days almost non-stop. When he got up to get food or go to the bathroom, he spoke aloud to himself the sentences that he was going to write the minute he sat down again. The naps he took were no longer than twenty minutes every few hours, because anything longer would erase his memory of what was coming next. He also didn’t want any other dreams intruding on the one that originated a story.

When he finally finished the draft, usually within some two weeks of the dream, it was as if he was waking from a trance. He would be disgusted with his own smell, with the way his apartment looked, with the invasion of bugs that seemed, inevitably, to follow each of these sessions. He would clean vigorously before falling into a deep, restorative sleep that usually lasted twenty-four hours or so. Then, collecting the manuscript, he would meticulously care for his typewriter, load a new ribbon into it, and store it away carefully for the next time he needed it.

Socio [Short Piece]

You know that it’s wrong.

Trouble is, you don’t understand why this is the case. It’s not that you don’t know right from wrong. You do. They taught you all that, and you parroted it back to them like the obedient child you were. Are. You’re not so far from being a child, really, when you think about it. The thrill is still there, and you feel the same now as you did when you did it for the first time, when you were only five years old.

They said you were cured when they let you out. As far as you’re concerned, there was nothing to cure, but you played along. You’re still playing along now. But you give yourself moments, moments of delicious abandon, of freedom, of allowing yourself to be who you were meant to be. It’s the only way you can act like all the others. If you didn’t give yourself the respite from the constant hustle and bustle of normality, you don’t think you’d be alive right now.

So it’s wrong to do as you do. So what? People do “wrong” every day, don’t they? Even the most stand-up citizens sometimes fudge their tax-returns or ignore the phone when their old mother calls. The world is full of hypocrites, and you’re just one more.

The only thing that sometimes worries you is what will happen if you’re caught. You’re careful, of course. You’re probably the best. Usually, they look like suicides or accidents. And you don’t have a pattern, a ritual. At least, not one that they can discern. You never leave traces of your private ceremonies, and none of the ones you leave to be found seem to have anything in common, on the surface. You’re safe, so far. But what if they catch you one day?

Will you be able to fake remorse? Insanity? Will you be able to be free again? You don’t know, and that is the only fear this great wide world holds for you.