Excerpt from a short story

The train was perverted. Boarding it was like stepping onto a porno set. The aisle carpet and window curtains were the bright red of cabaret lipstick. The seat upholstery featured key-sized flamingos and peacocks without negative space, entangled in accidental sex positions. Each row, without middle armrests, was in essence a loveseat, bent on forcing strangers closer together. I needed to hold my suitcase in front of me and sideways to fit it down the aisle. Every step it tapped my legs while my briefcase ricocheted off my hip and the sides of seats and its strap weighed a blood-flushed impression onto my shoulder.The cart’s final row had two open seats on my right and a couple of little old ladies on my left. I thought the design team had made a mistake; there was enough space to fit another row and then some. I’d have plenty of legroom, but be missing a lunch tray and seatback pocket and facing a blue wall. The little old ladies had white bouffant hairdos that resembled cotton candy, and they chatted about childcare.

“She will never be allowed to open a preschool: her house is filled with gluten!”

Stowage was a shelf with a metal rail meant to serve as fencing to keep luggage from falling out. I stood on my tiptoes, trying to push my fat suitcase onto the shelf through the gap between the metal rail and ceiling. Behind me this beautiful eccentric chose to wait rather than shimmy passed me. Her irises were the neon green of colored contacts. She wore a spiked dog collar for a headband, clips of skulls and crossbones in her lavender-dye hair that went straight down her back. On her neck was a tattoo of a naked woman wearing a pirate hat, with a sword in her hand, parrot on her shoulder, and sprinkle of gold coins on her boobs.

She cleared her throat in a comically fake way to get my attention.

“Let me give you a hand.”

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Intro to a Short Story

After school whoever was supposed to pick up Harrison was late as usual so he played in the spaceship sandbox, bashing mini dump trucks together, shouting, “Boom, boom, boom…”

Kelton brought out a bridge table and a pair of folding chairs. The folding chairs had to go next to each other so both he and Caroline would have clear views of the parking lot, backyard, playground, and Harrison. From Wolterhan Early Childhood Education Center’s back porch, he heard thwacks scaring birds into flight like gunfire and knew what they were. In the morning he’d found a golf ball, this tiny meteor, which had crashed a tiny crater into the earth between the seesaw and the bronze statue of child angels playing flutes. To land there it must’ve flown over the treetops, must’ve been struck hard but sliced or intentionally aimed at them from the elitist country club on the other side of the woods.

“Don’t blame yourself,” Caroline said. “Certain trouble happens at light speed.”

She served loose-leaf tea with a cinnamon stick. As she poured the wash beat the stick against the teacup much like the long piece of model train track Harrison had used that day to bludgeon another student’s arm.

“Two hands, choked up on the bat,” Kelton said. “I should’ve caught him sooner.”

She picked mint leaves from the raised-bed garden outside the window and dropped one each into their teacups. “Shut up and drink, kid. A little caffeine, warmth, that’s what you need.” Seemed like nothing could surprise her. It was his second year working with her. Since he was an assistant teacher he didn’t have to stay late after school keeping her company. The other teachers had left, the administrative workers had left, even their director, Mary Ellen, had left. Caroline was his mentor, friend, superior, and yogi all wrapped into one. In the game for over twenty-five years, a master of childcare, Peter Singer vegetarianism, holistic remedies, patience. Patchouli followed her like a guardian angel.

Harrison tossed a dump truck and as it flipped through the air he wailed an as-seen-on-TV death cry. After it landed on a mound of sand—“Boom”—he bashed it with the other dump truck. “Mwahaha! I have defeated you,” he growled to play the role of the victor, “and now I eat you! Eat you! Eat you!…”

Caroline stirred her tea with the cinnamon stick.

At last Harrison’s mom’s car, its automatic sliding door opening, drove into the gravel parking lot. Turning around quickly to face-out an inch from the entrance, to position herself for the customary getaway, kicked up gravel and dust clouds. Harrison on cue ran behind the royal castle, and Kelton on cue went to corral him. Their routine appeared to be years in the making. Behind the royal castle, Harrison balled up, stretched his shirt over his legs, squeezed the collar shut over his head, hid in plain sight and began their game of “Where’s Harrison?”

“I just don’t know where he could be,” Kelton said, melodically, “but what is this here that I see? Could it be? Could it be?… A teddy bear is what I see.”

Today Harrison’s shirt featured a teddy bear with a bowtie.

“Hello, Mr. Teddy Bear.” Kelton tickled him. “Do you know where I might find Harrison?”

“No, no.” Harrison, laughing, let go of the shirt collar. “I haven’t seen him, I haven’t.” His head came out of his shirt, smiling with those teeth Kelton worried he didn’t brush, both front ones lost, his canines like little Dracula fangs.

Kelton carried him over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. “Delivery! I’ve got a delivery here!” This carry, and its catchphrase, was a standard he’d used when carrying his younger brother back in the day.

Caroline leaned over the window ledge to talk to Meredith, the mom. As far as Kelton could tell, she constantly had an extra-large thermos in hand and sunglasses on and never stepped foot outside the minivan. Harrison was the youngest of five siblings. His parents had recently divorced. His parents sent Caroline inappropriate, private information about their exes, about universes Harrison existed in only as an object of judicial dispute.

Last night’s email from Paul, the dad, Caroline had forwarded to Kelton: “…Queen Meredith ought to stop inviting every dog in heat stranded at the bar to spend the night …”

Along with Meredith’s email: “…How lovely to have that brainlessdibshit introduce his latest and greatest skankface to my daughter…”

“You must understand,” Meredith said, while Harrison climbed to his safety seat, crawled over food wrappers, knocked empty soda bottles. “My oldest daughter just moved into the basement with her boyfriend.” The automatic door started closing. “They steal food, leave her bras and pipes on the couch—”

“Of course we understand,” Caroline interrupted her. “And you must understand Harrison is at a crucial age and we need—need—to evaluate him this week—this week—either Wednesday or Thursday.”

Kelton had suggested a projective evaluation because he’d found Harrison’s perceptions faulty, his experience of social cues often mistaken. Most of his tantrums committed to a single phrase, unprovoked. Once while they’d played Candy Land, after Kelton had drawn a card and moved to the Peppermint Forest, Harrison had asked him, “Are you mad at me?” latched onto his arm, repeating the question again and again. Another time he started screaming, “Thief! Thief!” as they gave out fresh baked cookies.

“Just email me later.” Meredith’s traditional salutation, she called it out the window while it rolled up. The words caused a familial instinct to seize Kelton. He’d sprint in front of the car, stop them, hop in back and go to their house, cook the family a nice dinner, read Harrison a story or two before bedtime—make sure Harrison brushed his teeth—if it weren’t for Caroline, the gentle hold of his wrist subduing him.

“Maybe they should hire an extra hand,” Kelton said, considering they must be well-off since they sent Harrison to Wolterhan. “I’m sure they’re going through a lot.”

“Have you ever heard of someone going through a little?” She waved pleasantly at the minivan hurrying uphill and turning onto Lakeview Road, which led downtown to the lake harbor with its various tourist attractions, a route Kelton would soon take on his walk to the bus station. “Everyone on the planet is ‘going through a lot.’”

She had told Harrison’s mom what had happened, and she told Kelton what would happen next. Harrison was a detriment to the classroom experience. The girl who Harrison had hit, Liliana, would feel unsafe, as would their other students and the parents of every student, if this assault wasn’t taken seriously.

“It’s early enough. Kid, I’m sorry to say, but we see it already. The best laid plans, the most tactical strategies; every trick in the book will lose to the cards we’re dealt. Better to take care of it before we bury ourselves in sympathy.”

She’d be emailing both those parents the final warning, a promise next time Harrison was violent or overly disruptive he’d be removed from Wolterhan Early Childhood Education Center.

Climbing Up

Eric is long gone now, but Eddy remains.

Eddy and his friend Eric climbed a hill of wet rocks near the pier. The pier was just a walkway, without amusements or fishing, just benches and a railing going around it. They climbed the rocks and sat at the top overlooking the waves of the ocean thrashing the rocks beneath them. They talked and then roughhoused. Eddy stood up, slipped, and fell, his head first against the rock hill, tumbling into the salt water on the side of the hill opposite the pier.

The waves thrashed Eddy against the rocks, and Eric slid down the other side, scraping the back of his legs and arms and back before landing in the wet sand and then ran toward the lifeguard down the beach, who was running toward him already and a minute or two away. Eric stopped and started screaming and pointing, his feet sinking in the sand as he fell to his knees and pointed, not following or watching the lifeguard running by, the image of Eddy’s face smacking that ridged rock above the waves before entering, splitting his face, comatose body and foaming waves.

Media came.

Eric is long gone now, but Eddy remains. Eric’s parents filed suit in the town, not for money but awareness. They forced a lifeguard station nearer to the pier rather than a football field and sprint away. More people began swimming by the rock hill, which they tapered off and buoyed. Teens made bonfires at night under the pier and dared each other to climb the rock hill. Some did. The town hired a night watchman to keep the teens at bay and alive. They considered loading the rocks away but figured it too expensive, and Eric told them to keep the rock hill as a symbol. To keep it in the town, they put a plaque dedicating Eddy on it. First came food stands on the beach. Couples sat on the benches of the pier overlooking the fatal ocean and listened to the thrashing of waves against rocks. The food stands moved onto the pier. Bikers rode down and back and gave extra landscape and distance to their route. With a connection, Adventure Park Group saw the pier and its location as an untapped resource. With a promise not to remove the rock hill, they built four rides, game stands, and various other carnival stands on the pier. Families there on vacations remember Eddy when the older kids tell the younger ones the ghost story. But Eric is long gone.

Intro to a short story I’m writing

Once upon a New Year’s Eve, he and I were naïve, attractive freshmen at an invitation-only house party. Bouncers guarded the front and back doors. Tuxedoed frat brothers hurried in and out of the kitchen like cocktail waiters, divvying out bottles of champagne and gallon jugs of spiked punch. Blunt roaches, red cups, condoms, and cigarettes bobbed around skinny dippers who cheered for me to loosen up. I undressed to the music of their wolf-whistles. I went cannonball into the suspiciously warm pool. I kept up with their drinking pace, shots served to us from the diving board, unknown flavors I forced down like bad medicine. I stayed in until I was ready to vomit.

With my dress on inside out and soaking up the water that stank of latex, I stumbled to a place where nobody would find me unless they were searching for me. At the edge of the woods in the backyard, behind the broken jacuzzi filled with empty liquor bottles, I was bracing against a tree, calculating the positives and negatives of lying facedown on the ground, when he fell hard nearby. I only heard the collapse and saw the aftermath. He rolled onto his back so that his head rested on one of my tree’s massive roots. He had a pretty boy face made for the silver screen, and the heels of his hands were scraped and dirty. He introduced himself as Don Corleone, questioned my motives, why I hadn’t offered him my friendship or invited him over for coffee, why I dared to disrespect him on his daughter’s wedding. He’d been stalking me, I think, waiting for me to lose track of my friends, like a wolf pouncing on prey separated from its herd.

The Call to Write

For me, the call to write is a ghost.

“The Choices Writer’s Make”—more so, Jerald Walker’s essay on Michael Jackson, “Before Grief,” and also June Jordan’s essay “Nobody Mean More to Me than You and the Future Life of Willie Jordan”—got me thinking: why do I write? What is the rhetorical situation of my fiction? For me, it’s different from a societal need. Not to pigeonhole the “rhetorical situation,” but it does tend to demonstrate that the reason to write ought to be based on a necessity of action. Action in the sense of external. What the people, or planet, needs. Michael Jackson dies, people wonder why they should care—they call him a freak show, they question his legacy—which compels Walker to write his essay, in a sort of defense. Sure, it’s not always a defense—someone might want to forward a new idea, like Jordan’s essay on Black English versus Standard English, because they foresee a benefit to interested parties, or they aspire to interest more parties. Still, in that, it seems to be a question of benefitting society. The exigence, often referred to in our literature, seems to be that of the external requirement.

That is not why I write fiction. However, there is a “rhetorical situation.” My need to write is far more physical, as I’m sure it was, in part, for Jordan and Walker. After the cop killed Willie Jordan’s brother, after Walker read a post about how his idol had been called a freak show, a deep, guttural necessity forced them to their notebook or computer. My reason for writing happens constantly, from that feeling. I’m walking down the street, I’m working in a preschool, I’m riding the train. I see something, I hear something, which creates something, which I can’t put my finger on yet. At night, it comes back to me: What is that? I hear it, I see it, that image, that moment. What do I do with it? Nothing for now. It’s hard for me to come to terms with it. Wait, there it is again. It’s clearer. It spurs other images, other ideas. Why do I write it down, though? What compels me to stop everything and put the words into a notebook, then bring the notebook to the computer? The answer is simple: whatever it is that’s creating the story is following me around like a haunting ghost. And I’m Whoopi Goldberg. The reluctant psychic, who ought to interpret it. Or else it might keep lingering. That’s the situation.