Quickfiction: chapter 4

I was able to write and podcast two more pieces for my ongoing Quickfiction Project during a Pink Eye Sick Day on Tuesday. One story is inspired by a student from years past and the other, by my own experience as a teenager.

Bridge
Listen to story
You wish you had been honest. Instead, there they wait. On the other side of the river, urging you on. Between you and them is this log, a slippery bridge over a raging gorge that barrels down from the mountains to the town below. If you had been honest, and owned up to your fears of heights and crossing these logs, you would not have all five of them staring at you, cursing at you to get moving before the sun goes down. If you had been honest, you would not be frozen here. Immobile. Honesty was never your strong suit, anyway. You think of this as you inch your left foot forward. There is green moss on this tree and the bark is crumbling. This tree has been here for a long time. It has witnessed much in this world and it cares not one whit about your fear. It is only there. Last night’s rains make the bridge even more treacherous. The path seems slick. They’re talking to themselves. One shakes a head and begins moving on. The others look back at you, wave their hands and then, in disgust, follow the path into the darkening woods. You remain, now alone, on the other side of the gap, wondering how this will end. Will you retreat? Or move forward? Your right foot crosses your left. You are leaving the solid world behind but the fear races through you. You can’t do this. You can do this. Voices compete in your head in a battle against the sound of the rushing water. Don’t look down. Whatever you do, don’t look down. They are now long gone. The woods are silent. It’s your decision — move on or go back. Forward or retreat. At long last, your inability to be true to yourself is at hand and you realize that you are not ready. No one ever is.

Test
Listen to story

She had no doubt that she knew the answer to every single question on the sheet in front of her. It had always been this way. The trick had been how to hide it so that others would not know. She glanced down, her eyes following the questions and the answers dancing in front of her mind. 24. A equals 56. Square root. Isosceles Triangle. It would be so simple just to fill in the ovals with the answers and just be done with this nonsense. Yet, she didn’t. She couldn’t. She remembered third grade, when she never even opened the test and instead, she had illustrated a picture of her kitten by using the bubbles as dots that could be connected. It was a very beautiful rendition of Scuttle but the results landed her in the Resource Room for the entire fourth grade. She learned to tune them out. Her teachers. The other students. Her parents. Why? they would ask.Why are you here? they would wonder. Tuning them out made everything so much easier. She was feeling worn out by the game, though, and the question of why had begun to creep into her dreams at night. Why, indeed. And why not? The answer sheet crinkled in her hands. The pencil felt cold. Her mind raced on, finding solutions as if it were not part of her entity at all. As if she were separate from her mind. One-million-twenty-five. Radius of a circle. Flip the diagram and slide it right. Parallel lines. She laughed at the thought of what they would all think if she did this test the way they wanted. If she followed the rules. They would be stunned. No doubt, they would imagine that it was somehow a mistake. Some error of the computer system. They would not suspect a thing. She thought of her cat, all curled up at home in the warmth of her bed, and she started to write.

Peace (in stories),
Kevin

PS — I just posted a piece on data collection over at Ben’s blog collective (he is still looking for writers — how about you?) called Teacheng.Us.

A Second Place Poem

I found out last week that a poem I wrote during my OnPoEvMo project last year (one poem every month) garnered second place in a writing contest hosted by our Western Massachusetts Writing Project. The poem is about race and prejudice, and trying to investigate why our skin makes us feel so different from others.

Here is the poem and here is the podcast:

Like Birds in Flight

I can’t crawl inside your skin
I’m claustrophobic with the fingers of history wrapped around my neck
and, besides, your black doesn’t fit with my white.
We clash.

Or so I have been told, not in so many words, of course, but in so many looks.
Which leaves us both here with this sense of intense misunderstanding

and missed opportunities that come from rage at the ways of this world.
No one ever told me that you were always the same as me,
with the same dreams,
the same heart,
and you, with your ancestors on an timeline that intersects with mine only in pain and infinite sadness,
you look so different from me — on the outside.
Your black doesn’t fit with my white.

I often wonder how it would be if we had a covering of feathers instead of skin
and you were to become haloed in a rainbow
with hues casting deep shadows that I could just swallow up like worms on a summer day after the storms have cleared away,
filling me whole with experience and reality,
and then maybe — maybe — I could finally feel your light, your strength, your sense of being you.

Just you and nothing more.

Your black would fit with my white.
We would no longer feel tethered by this solid Earth
and instead, as one, we would rise to the clouds on the upward draft of hope
and avoid the fears that keeps us rooted so firmly in our own minds.
I look at you.
I don’t see you.
Instead, I only see skin.

Peace (in understanding),
Kevin

Quickfiction: chapter 3

I am continuing to explore the world of Quickfiction, reducing down a narrative to its essentials and creating characters and motivations as concise as possible. It’s quite a challenge.

But here are my latest stories:

Disconnect
The week there was no email, Chantel almost killed herself. Later, she would joke about it and laugh about it with her colleagues. Susan, who worked in the cubicle next to her, was astounded. “Come on, Chantel, you wouldn’t really kill yourself just because no one emailed you for a week, would you? That’s just ridiculous.” Karen cultivated the social gossip at the water cooler every day and she offered, “I wish I could go a week without email. I hate weeding through that junk.” Another one, Sam, who fixes the copier when it breaks down, added, “What did you do before email?” There was no life before email. Although Chantel played along with them, and even made detrimental remarks on her own sanity in order to feed the laughter, inside her head, she was, indeed, quite serious. Her lifeline had somehow come to rely on short missives on her computer from family and acquaintances. Friends might be too strong a word. She didn’t really have friends, just acquaintances. An empty inbox was some sort of coded message: she wasn’t important. She wasn’t needed. It had come to the point where she was now finding herself reading Spam, just to convince herself that someone out there was trying to communicate with her, even if the garbled words did come from some computer farm somewhere in the world. And so the week with no email was traumatic and it was only later that Chantel even thought to look behind her computer. That was when she realized that an Ethernet wire had come undone — it just dangled there like a noose — and she had been physically disconnected from the world the whole time. She breathed a sigh of relief as a flood of messages entered into her inbox, giving her a sense of relief not felt in many days.

Cat
He watches me from just outside the window, nose pressed against glass. I stare back. He opens his mouth to make a sound and yet, I hear nothing. It’s not cold outside today, not if you are wrapped up in a fur coat as he is, and I know he is in no danger of freezing. I find myself entranced by this creature that depends so much upon me for survival that I wonder, if the tables were reversed, would he keep me on the outside looking in? I smile at imagined acts of feline revenge against me. The cold nights. An unreliable source of food. Long hours of disappearance. No respect for gifts on the doorstep. None of this is likely, though. If I were the pet, and sometimes I think this may be true anyway, he would no doubt rush to the door, let me in and curl up on my lap just to keep me warm. He would understand that I just don’t have the stomach or fortitude for the world of rodents and Mother Nature. He has a different kind of spirit than I do. Me? I just stare back through the glass and write a story about him looking in at me and do nothing more. I have a story to write. He’ll just have to wait.

Tears
No one noticed me. They never do. I was dressed impeccably in my best suit, hands in my lap, a mournful gaze on my face. I was respectful and in a funeral, no one questions those who are properly contained in the skin of emotional reserve. The body looked handsome, given the circumstances. How it is that they can prepare such things is beyond me. Perhaps we would be better off if this weren’t the case, if we had to look at the dead as they are and not as we imagine they should be. The mother was weeping in the corner, being held together by what looked like one of her other children. The father was in the back of the room, drinking coffee with other men. All of them removed from action. I nodded silently to a few other people in the seats near me. We were in this together, our collective nods seemed to say, acknowledging the loss. The service was short and to the point. Life lived. Too short. Grief. I waited for the tears and again, they didn’t come. They never come. Two years gone and still, I could not shed a tear for her. What was wrong with me? I made a slow route around the room, drawing in as much of their sadness as I could and silently offering to be the one to hold it all in for them, to feel the weight of loss for them, to give them a moment’s reprieve. Such sadness and yet, for me, nothing. I left as I had come, with stealth and beyond the field of vision of anyone in the room. The obit crunched as I fingered it in my pocket. There was another up the street. A woman, age 52, cancer. I was already dressed and ready and hopeful, truly hopeful, that I would find some tears where tears had not naturally come for me two years ago this very week.

Godzilla
A life in miniature. That was the answer Stephen would give when asked why he spent so much time with his trains. It’s true that by the age of 32, he should have outgrown them, placed them in a box for storage in the attic and be happy with the memories. Still, here he was, crouched down low with a piece of broken track in one hand and a blue engine in the other. Curtis looked on, almost antsy with anticipation but respecting his uncle’s request for both silence and stillness. Not easy for a seven year old. Spread out before them in the basement studio was the largest railroad track that Curtis had ever seen. It seemed to go on for miles and miles, twisting through tunnels and moving over mountains and careening around buildings, slicing off at various junctures to create two trails out of one and then one out of two. Stephen ignored the boy. He was angry at Karen for allowing his nephew to come down here. The boy had no business here. So Stephen kept at his task of restoring order through repair. A life in miniature and also, a world completely under his control. Curtis, though, could feel something rising inside of him. He kept it contained, whatever it was, and continued to eye the tracks. Everything seemed so perfect. Everything in its place. Curtis’ world was never this neat and ordered and despite his love for his uncle, the only thing Curtis could think about was ripping up this entire world and feeling the power of destruction. It would be like King Kong! Or Godzilla! Stephen remained patient with the track. A small screw was coming loose. “I need to get a screwdriver, Curtis. Upstairs. Don’t touch a thing.” Curtis nodded and watched his uncle go up the stairs. It was the moment. The moment when Godzilla came alive and wreaked vengeance on an unsuspecting world.

Peace (in stories),
Kevin

A Poem for Bella

We put our family dog, Bella, down to sleep yesterday and so it was a very sad time for all of us here, as our three young boys have known her as a friend and protector, and she was the first dog that I ever owned.

We also had a snowstorm here in New England during her final days and the pure whiteness of the snow, and its temporary nature, reminded me of her white coat of fur and those thoughts and the sadness of making the decision to end her life to spare her suffering sparked this poem in her memory.

All One of the Same (for Bella)
Listen to the Poem

I covet the unblemished snow –
the blanket of white replenished in this candlelight’s flickering glow –
knowing all the while how temporary this is
and how this earth will surely rise up to reclaim it
for another time;
another place.
It is all one of the same.
This flurry of contemplation brings on such a sudden sadness of loss,
so I reach out my fingers to gather up every flake falling
in order to watch the world disappear.
I hold tight to the memory of the moment
so that it
– all of it: the snow, the whiteness, the love –
may live on inside of me forever.

Peace (in dog heaven),
Kevin

Quickfiction: chapter 2

I continue to explore this work of quick/flashfiction. It’s interesting because I am trying to use the concept of podcasting and voice to help me edit the writing, speaking as I write and editing as I speak. The difficulty with this form is providing enough of a story, without giving the story away. It’s all about the gaps in the narrative and how the reader/listener might fill them in.

Here are my latest:

Black Friday

How do you explain this? You can’t. It’s 2 a.m. You should be home right now, sound asleep with the cat purring near your head and the desire, if not the reality, of a warm body sleeping beside you. You need comfort, not bone-chilling cold. You should not be here, at this hour, in this place, waiting in this line. But here you are. You hold the ticket up in the moonlight, and you see the number 27. You can hear the mini-vans and the cars and the trucks running in the parking lot and you imagine the heat. You can’t risk it so you bundle up as tight as you can possibly be. You draw yourself up inside of yourself, like so many other recent nights and descend into the darkness. Part of what brings you here is the understanding that he is there at home, with his youthful dreams of something that must better than what it is, and the other part of it is the knowledge that so much of your life together has been wrangled so completely out of your control. The divorce. The violence. The terrible abruptness of departure that has settled upon the two of you so heavily that it makes you choke sometimes. You can feel his inherent trust in you withering in this dark winter. Words are beyond you now. Words have no currency anymore. It kills you that your only way back into his heart may be through the object that sits on the shelves in there, beyond those big glass windows and bright neon signs. It’s 2 a.m and you feel as if you have sold your soul to something wicked. You finger the credit card and hope to God that there is enough of a ceiling left to allow you to bring it home, wrap it up and be his hero again, if only for that one morning in December.

Threads

The instant the doors closed, he knew he was on the wrong train. He could barely catch his breath from the mad dash down the tunnel and his overnight bag and computer felt like bricks in his hand. It had been all he could do to find a seat in the crowded car. He watched the doors slide shut and he knew, in that instant, that this train was not his train. He wanted to curse out loud but that was something he never did. His mother had taught him better so he held it inside and felt the blackness seep into his head. He tugged out his ticket from his overcoat pocket and looked it over, as if it and not he were the mistake. There were faces of every color all around him. None seemed to invite a question so he wrapped himself up in loneliness and wondered where he was bound. He felt the familiar unloosening of life that comes from making yet another bad decision and imagined one of his grandmother’s beautiful hand-woven afghans being pulled apart thread by thread by thread. That was his life. The ticket-puncher temporarily saved him. She took the ticket from his outstretched hand and shook her head in that sad, pathetic way people often did with him. He could feel another thread being pulled.”You’re on the wrong train,” she told him, in almost a whisper, and he nodded. “This one goes to Philly, not Penn Station.” He lowered his head. Philly. “Nothing to do now but ride into Philly and get on another back to the city,” she offered, handing him back his ticket and moving on. He could hear the rhythm of her clicker as she moved down the aisle. Philly. He’d be late for the meeting. His bags felt even heavier in his lap and he fumbled around, trying to reach his cell phone. He’d have to let them know and ask to reschedule. It occurred to him, however, that in his rush to get the train to New York on time that morning, he had left his phone sitting on the counter, all charged up for the day. Another thread, being pulled, as he watched the landscape roll past him.

Guitar

She cursed when the guitar string broke. She tried to keep going but it was impossible with the wire dangling down the fretboard. It made a loud twanging noise that made her curse even louder than was normally acceptable on this street corner. The little girl was watching her, so she turned away from the sidewalk and faced the wall behind her. “Damn it,” she muttered, and looking back over her shoulder, she saw the little girl still there, watching, waiting. The collection hat sat between them. Just a few coins and a dollar bill or two in the old cowboy headgear her father had given her years ago. Not much, but enough for dinner before she would knock again on the shelter door for the night. Katarina nodded and the girl smiled back, showing gaps where teeth had fallen out. Where was this child’s parent? No one seemed to be tending her. Katarina ignored the girl and dug into her case for another string, slowing unwinding the broken one and rewinding the new one. The guitar made a strange whirling noise as she twirled the peg and tried to get the string in tune. It took longer than usual as the uncooperative string seemed bent on going too sharp or too flat before being herded into the right pitch. Katarina looked up. The girl was gone. Good. Damn it, she muttered. The girl was gone, and so was the hat.

Yawn

If it were at all possible, he remembers his life beginning after the yawn. It was clear as day and it happened in second grade. Tommy and Sandy were nearby, having one of their endless arguments over whose turn it was to use the computer when it was that he realized that he had been yawning for what seemed to be forever and that nothing had existed before the yawn. It was as if everyone was a blank slate. Was that even possible? Years later, that yawn would seem like some Great Awakening in his life. For it was now, with clarity, that he realized a few things. Tommy was nothing but a bully and at recess that day, he pushed his former friend away and made him cry for the first time in his life. That felt good. Sandy was not quite the yuckiest kid on the planet. He thought about this as they walked around at recess together in the snowstorm that stung their eyes. The snowflakes looked wonderful on her outstretched tongue.Words in books suddenly seemed important. He could hear his teacher talking and understood. He was listening for the very first time in his life. Really listening. And then he went home and lost it all in a good night’s sleep.

Peace (in shortprose),
Kevin

A New Writing Adventure

I am back from New York City (from the National Writing Project Annual Meeting) and I will share more about what I was doing there in NYC, and whom I met, later in the week as I pull together some files and thoughts. (I will definitely share a session I led called Writing in the Digital Age, with all of our resources).

But during my stay, I was engrossed during my few down times with a collection of Quickfiction or Flashfiction put out by McSweeney’s. This is a fiction-writing technique of capturing a story or character in a short amount of words. Now that my Poetry Project is over, I have been mulling over what to do next with my writing and this blog, and I think Quickfiction has taken hold in my brain.

On the train ride home yesterday, I started writing and came up with five Quickfiction stories. And hey, I might as well podcast them, too, right? One thought is to collect the best of a series and combine the words and voice with images for some sort of fictional movie project (I haven’t yet figured it out)

Ants

He didn’t think of himself as a killer, even though he stood there with the implements of death in his hand and hundreds of corpses laying around him in every direction. It was just an adventure but he knew his father would be angry with him. He knew this with certainty. He thought suddenly of Horton the elephant and how Horton kept reminding himself that a person was a person, no matter how small. What would Horton think? They were small, these little bodies that had been moving just minutes before but now seemed like exclamation points on the driveway. The magnifying glass felt heavy in his hand all of sudden. He gingerly used his feet to create a pile of bodies and then went into the garage to get a broom. His father would never know. And neither would Horton.

Remote

I barely conceal the remote and still be able to use it, so moving around the mega-store proves to be rather awkward. I imagine the eyes of all the blue-shirted employees watching me, scanning this hesitant figure marching through their midst. In reality, I’m invisible. Just another wallet wandering through with eyes on overload. The difference is that I have had enough. I use my thumb. Click. Click. Click. I’ve learned to move fast in this environment. I’m a clandestine operator. Click. Click. The noise drops. It’s as if a black hole suddenly opened up, with silence rushing right into the gap. Beautiful silence. I feel the most satisfied I have felt all day, even as I hear voices yelling behind me as I push my way through the revolving door and continue my path down Times Square.

Leaves

Their heads are visible and nothing else. Their bodies are down below and their necks are barely just above the color line of the fading leaves. Their heads are there – just faces sticking up. One disappears. There is laughing and then a playful struggle. The second one disappears. I want to jump in and join them down there, below the leaves in a world of their own making. I resist. This is child’s play and I am only the observer here. They need an audience. I hold the rake tight. There’s another rustle of leaves and then, the heads pop up again. They look at me as if I am a scarecrow, tethered to a post and unable to move. I walk to another spot of the yard and begin the endless work on creating another pile of leaves for them to destroy.

Balloon

The balloon dropped so suddenly, it was as if a fish had taken a bite of bait and dragged it down into the water. Like a bobber. You were just a kid then, remember? And balloons were this amazing mystery you couldn’t quite figure out. How was it that something could be lighter than air? Everywhere you went, you looked out for balloons. This one caught your attention as you sat in the back of your parents’ car that Autumn day. Perhaps you were on your way to the supermarket, or a movie, or maybe your grandparents’ house. It may have been a Sunday, coming out of service with your faith in the unknown still safely tucked inside of your pocket. You had long given up pointing the balloons out to your parents and so this view was all of your own. The balloon dropped and that’s when you noticed the basket under it, now swinging up above the oval – it was like a pendulum, it occurred to you — and then it was gone altogether, dropping below the tree line at an incredible speed. You blinked. You didn’t say a thing to your parents. Not a thing.

Death

She was seven years old when the cat died. Eight, when the dog died. And ten, when grandmother died. She assumed that everything was going to die sooner rather than later and when her mom didn’t come home from that long weekend away when she was sixteen, there was no way for her to mourn the loss since she expected it anyway. The problem was that now she often looked to her father, wondering. When? The only time she tried not to think about it was in the mornings, after a long shower, when she was standing in front of the mirror. She didn’t think about it then but she knew. It was only a matter of time.

Peace (in quicktime),
Kevin