I produced these stories at a "Telling Stories" creative-writing seminar in Montpelier, VT, June 10 to June 14, 2005, convened by Judith Arcana and Chris Hables-Gray.
Most of these stories were the result of various writing prompts given to us by the seminar conveners.
As we were taught to do at the seminar, I offer these stories with minimal explanation, no apology or shame, and certainly no boastfulness. I handwrote most of these at the seminar (unusual for me) and typed them on a train from Virginia to Florida. For better or worse, here they are:
The Dog Drop: A Story Based on the June 10, 2002, cover of The New Yorker, by Ulriksen
[I liked this exercise because it inspired me to write about something other than my own experiences.]
"Ah, jeez, here we go again," said Poindexter, as the trainer released kennel after kennel of dogs and began herding them toward a doorway. Poindexter looked around to see if anyone was new. He always worried about the newbies -- it was always such a shock for them the first time. In fact, some had died the first time out -- from a heart attack resulting from their shock or from landing wrong.
The trainer goaded the 70 or so dogs through the doorway, at which point a long, long ramp led up the rafters of the vast building. The more experienced dogs knew what to do -- they stepped off the end of the ramp and into a tightly woven net. The newbies were afraid, though, and Poindexter would always try to reassure any that were near him that it would be OK. The net would hold them safely for a time, and even when the net opened and they were released in the air, they would be safe -- as long as they landed right. The trick was to avoid being one of the first to land. Those who landed first got the biggest jolt on the spongey floor. They had been trained to flip over on their backs if they landed first, paws skyward, so that the later-landing dogs could land on top of them -- ideally paw to paw.
Tricky as that was, most of the dogs had been through this so many times that they had perfected the skill. And anyway, it was better to land paw-to-paw than land on your butt on the floor. The stupid humans who watched went wild every time a dog landed squarely on another's paws. Only the most simpering and sycophantic of the big canine pack got any pleasure out of the humans' enjoyment. That dumb huskey was one of the few, Poindexter thought. Damn showoff, Poindexter muttered. The huskey not only landed on his two front paws bon top of the bulldog, but was in cahoots with the Great Dane. The three showoffs formed a sort of triangle when they landed, with the Great Dane matching back paws with the bulldog's back paws and front paws with the stupid huskey.
Poindexter saw a trembling newbie as the dogs all huddled in the net. Poindexter directed the attention of the frightened Cairn terrier to a net next to theirs. "See that net withe the balloons?" Poindexter said. "Watch what happens when the balloons are released." The little Cairn seemed reassured when no balloons seemed to be hurt upon their release from their net.
The voice of the ringmaster boomed, "Ladies and gentlemen...You are about to see a feat the likes of which you have never seen...The world-famous Dog Drop. Drumroll, please....."
The drumroll began. Snap! The net was released, and 70 dogs plummeted from the ceiling of the arena. Most of them were fairly blase as they had been through this so many times. Poindexter noticed that the dachshund was coming down head first. Didn't look like it would be a good landing. The rottweiler was already down looking extremely pissed off with the heavy bloodhound on his paws. The doberman looked irritated as he waited for the foxhound to land on his paws.
The huskey, Great Dane, bulldog trio did their usual trick, and the damn huskey had the usual stupid grin on his face.
"Crap," said Poindexter as he realized he had no one to fall on.
Many of the writing exercises we did were the result on one-word prompts, resulting in what Dr. Arcana calls "spew." Here's a poem I spewed based on the word "security:"
Security -- Insecurity
Compare, compare, compare.
Why must I do it?
Who's the prettiest?
Who's the fattest?
Who looks the oldest?
Who writes the best?
Who has the most cellulite?
Who has the crepiest neck?
Who's the smartest?
Who's the shyest?
Who dresses best?
Who smells the worst?
Who's the most annoying?
Compare, compare, compare
Why must I do it?
Who's the most insecure?
Later, we were assigned to write a piece consisting only on four-word sentences, so I revised the above poem to those specifications:
I am always comparing.
Who is the prettiest?
Who is the smartest?
Who looks the oldest?
Who has more cellulite?
Who is most annoying?
Who talks the most?
Who is the shyest?
Whose breath is worst?
Who has bad hair?
Why do I compare?
The requirements for this assignment were that it had to begin with "Once upon a time...", contain three wishes and a crow, and that someone had to ride away. This is one of two stories in my "Jack" series.
Once upon a time, two teenagers fell in love. Brittney was 15; Sean was 16. They loved each other deeply and knew, as teenagers do when they experience their first real love. that they would be together forever. Brittney's parents didn't like Sean, though, and the more serious he and Brittney got, the less they liked him. Soon, they forbid the couple from seeing each other. It wasn't long afterwards that Brittney sneaked out of the house, and Sean drove the two of them in his car to the railroad tracks. He wrote a short note and left it in his car: "Brittney and I will be together forever, and this is the only way," the note said. They got out of the car and stood on the tracks embracing. Sean's back was in the direction from which he knew the train would come so he would take the brunt of the hit and Brittney's beautiful face and body wouldn't bee to mangled. A crow circled overhead as the train whistle sounded.
Their bodies were found the next day. A grief counselor was brought in to the high school. Jack, who had gone to middle school with Brittney and was still a close friend, alarmed the grief counselor by saying that he thought was Brittney and Sean did was romantic, beautiful, and poetic.
To his mother, Jack never shed a tear. Instead, he was angry, "Why did they do it?" he anguished to his mother. "I wish they hadn't done it."
Everyone from Brittney's eighth-grade class attended her funeral, even the kids who had moved away. Jack's mother, who had decided early in life never to look at a dead body, advised Jack not to look at Brittney's open casket. Still shedding no tears, Jack later told his mother, "You are right. I wish I hadn't looked at her body."
Not as many people went to Sean's funeral. Some blamed him for what happened. But Jack went and listened to Sean's priest say he wished he could beat Sean up for doing such a dumb thing.
Their classmates vowed never to forget. They said they would have Brittney and Sean t-shirts made and keep the story of their love alive. But the school administrators and many of the parents wanted it all to go away. It wasn't healthy, they said, for kids to dwell on the tragedy. Keeping the memories alive might inspire their kids to copy Brittney and Sean, the adults reasoned.
So Brittney and Sean weren't remembered the way the kids thought they would be. But those touched by the suicides continued to feel their effects. Kids, including Jack, started cutting themselves so they could manifest their emotional pain through physical pain. Jack became depressed. Even Jack's mother could no longer driver anywhere near the railroad tracks.
Jack continued to decline. Twice he was hospitalized with an illness only old drunks got -- not teenage boys. No one could determine the cause. And twice he was arrested for acting out his pain.
Still, Jack never shed tears for his dead friends. No one was surprised more than a year after Brittney and Sean took their lives when Jack's grief and rage exploded in drunken self-destruction, blood, and broken bones. Finally, the tears came and wouldn't stop. "Why did they have to kill themselves? I wish they hadn't done it," he bawled as he rode away in an ambulance to the psychiatric hospital.
This is the second story in my "Jack" series, actually written as an assignment before the seminar. The conveners said it would be better with about half the adjectives:
A Story in the Style of The Toughest Indian in the World by Sherman Alexie
The two women crouched over the scrawny young man lying on the ground. Moments before, they had stood flanking the tall, lanky, shirtless kid. Drunk, talking nonsense, and bleeding from his hand, he had then passed out, his eyes rolling back into his head as he plummeted to the ground on the front lawn on a quiet corner on a tree-lined, middle-class suburban street. The lawn belonged to Karla, the younger and slimmer of the women crouching over the passed-out man-boy. The boy belonged to Bunny, older and fatter.
As the boy, Jack -- an adult really at 18, but looking boyish and fragile with his hairless chest and face - regained consciousness and began to ask how he had gotten to Karla's lawn, the swirl of emotions evoked from the past few hours picked up speed in Bunny's brain with only centrifugal force to keep it all from exploding out of her head. Mere minutes before, Bunny had steeled herself for the idea that she might never again see her son alive. Grateful for this redemption, this chance to rescue him, she pressed the rewind button in her brain and relived at warp speed the events that had led to this moment. The screams of Jack's girlfriend, who was Karla's daughter. The sight of her drunken son smashing a wine bottle on the kitchen counter so hard that he had broken the Corian surface Bunny was so proud of. Blood all over the ceramic-tile kitchen floor. Jack sitting in the blood spatter's midst with a mangled and obviously broken finger. The emergency room, where venomous invective erupted from Jack, and he spat on the security guards and triage nurses. Bunny stepping out of the treatment room for a moment to view x-rays of Jack's shattered finger. Returning to find that Jack had ripped out his IV and bolted from the hospital. Rushing to her car to find him, knowing he either planned to kill himself or go to Karla's house to find his girlfriend. Spotting him in the park and pulling right up on the grass. Futilely trying to catch him on foot with a comical attempt at running that was no better than a fat-lady waddle. Driving to Karla's house and waiting for him to arrive.
Drivers were slowing down and gawking at the women kneeling over the supine, bleeding boy. Karla barely hid her embarrassment as she assured the motorists that everything was under control - lest anyone think anything scandalous was going on at the home of her prominent lawyer husband. Her eyes darted about nervously as she heard sirens and worried that emergency vehicles would shame her further by pulling up in front of her house.
Bunny could have been thinking about what would happen next, how she would get her son the help he obviously needed, how she had failed in raising Jack. Instead, though, Bunny was gazing at Karla's breasts. Karla was wearing a loosely fitting white tank top against her tanned skin, and in her crouched position, her breasts poured forth. A few months before, Karla's daughter had announced with a mix of chagrin and amusement that her mother was getting a boob job. Of all the things Bunny could have focused on this harrowing night, she was checking out Karla's boob job.
"Spew" based on the one-word prompt, "epiphany:"
My epiphany that I am not a creative writer came not only a result of the Peer Day I convened online earlier this year in which all the other learners, I felt, were creative writers. The epiphany also came, I'm embarrassed to admit, from a TV show, in which one of the characters is taking a writing class, and the teacher tells her she is not a creative writer because her writing springs from her own experience. If that truly is the definition of a creative writer, then I am not one as most of my writing comes from my own experience.
"Spew" based on the one-word prompt, "cup:"
The nurse cupped my breast and flopped it up onto the cold, glass panel and then lowered the other glass panel onto it, squashing it flat into a white boob sandwich. She stepped over to another piece of equipment and said in her Southern accent, "Hold real still," making "stee-ill" into a two-syllable word.
"Spew" based on the one-word prompt, "sheep:"
Minnie the sheep lived in our backyard near the swingset and sandbox. Occasionally, she got loose and would get into Mrs. Mayo's tomato plants. I wonder why we had a sheep. Why did we have only one? We had other animals on our small farm, but why did we have a sheep and what ever happened to her?
Addendum: A few days after the seminar, I was reading this "spew" while sitting in a hotel room with my sister. I suddenly asked her, "Why did we have a sheep?" She replied, "What are you talking about?" She had no memory of Minnie the sheep, and neither did my cousin, Liz, who joined us later. They refused to believe we had really had a sheep. At dinner that night, I called my mother, who affirmed Minnie's existence. She said my father had brought her home one day in the backseat of his car. My mother didn't recall why. Apparently we didn't have her very long because of her renegade ways with Mrs. Mayo's garden. But no one remembers what we did with her.
The two "Lizzie" spews I wrote at the seminar:
The "prompt" for the first one was the phrase, "On the way to the seminar, I saw someone who looked like..."
On the way to the seminar, I saw someone who looked like the little girl who got my doll at her birthday party when she turned 3. Her mother had just died of hepatitis, and a birthday party had been hastily arranged for Lizzie to cheer her up. My parents hadn't had time to buy her a present, so they asked me to give up one of my dolls for her. This earliest memory of Lizzie would be emblematic of the emotional highs and lows of our relationship over the next 47 years -- the jealousy, the envy, competitiveness, the sleeping with each others' boyfriends, but also the love and support. The person I saw on the way to the seminar was in fact the grown-up Lizzie, my best friend for almost my whole life, with whom I share genetic material, as she is also my first cousin.
Lizzie and I frequently lament that we could do so much more and think such profound thoughts if we didn't waste so many brain cells on the obscurest of memories from our childhoods and beyond. This morning, the closing theme song of the Peter Potomus cartoon show was running through my head, so I told Liz about it, certain that I wouldn't be cursing her with having it run though HER head all day because I didn't think she'd remember it. But she did -- at least parts of it.
Later, she showed me a robin's nest tended by a mother robin outside the window on her staircase. "Soon, we'll have baby birds," she said as I I ooooo'ed and ahhh-ed at the robin on the nest. "And then we can put them in a boot," she said, and I knew instantly that she was referring to my first childhood encounter with death.
We had found six dead baby birds in the barn of my childhood farm. They must have fallen from a nest in the rafters. I didn't understand death, and I tried to save them. I stuck band-aids to their translucent skin, knowing that band-aids could heal.
I put them into one of my mother's fur-lined boots to keep them warm, and I tried to feed them with an eye dropper.
Day by day, my mother's boot would smell more of decay, and the birdlings would show no signs of life.
I don't remember how or even if I realized the birds weren't coming back to life nor what happened to their rotting bodies. I do know that 45 years later, the memory of those dead bodies incubating in a boot was burned into the brains of two cousins who could be changing the world if their brain cells weren't taken up with such recollections.
Assignment: Divide up your life into chunks/eras/segments:
1954-1960: Kingston Estates
1960-1966: The Farm
1968: Parents' Divorce
1968-1972: Ticky-tacky boxes
1972-1974: The UJ Years
1972-1982: The Drunken Decade
1984 - ?: The Wire Guy
1984-2000: Work-Life Imbalance
2000-2005: Terrible Teens
2003 - Present: The Selfish Era
2005: Now I Can Die Because I Found Out Who Deep Throat Was
Assignment: A story all in one sentence:
My elderly Aunt Chris, who was not really my aunt but some sort of third cousin, had hired me as her teenaged companion at her beach house on the Jersey shore, and on the way to the beach house, when we stopped at a grocery store for provisions for the summer, Aunt Chris was hit with a sudden need to urinate, and unable to hold it long enough to get to the restroom, stood in front of the meat section and peed on the supermarket floor.
Assignment: Present an unsympathetic character in a sympathetic way. Also, a character in this story must realize he or she was wrong about something. I wrote this story as therapy:
"Did you not learn anything from last year?" Kristy screamed over the phone to her sister Roberta. "Did you not learn that Mom cannot handle another five weeks of taking care of your boys this summer?"
"Mom is their only grandmother," Roberta said with complete conviction. "It's important that they have this opportunity to bond with her every year."
"That's easy for you to say, Kristy snarled. You're not the one who had to take her to the emergency room when she had chest pains from the stress of your brats last year. You're not the one who sat with her until she was released. You're not the one who suffered the nightmare trip to Busch Gardens where Mom didn't buy dinner for anyone, and the kids were miserable."
"Mom doesn't seem to have any problem with taking the boys every year," Roberta said calmly.
"Nobody ever took my kids for five weeks when they were young," Kristy shrieked.
"You can't really blame me for that," Roberta said.
"No, I guess I can't," Kristy boomed. "But I sure as hell can blame you for the fact that I have to pick up the slack every year, and the burden falls to me to drive Mom and your boys to all those places she can't drive because she's terrified to drive over bridges. You might think it's between you and Mom, but it's not because your selfishness affects me and my family." With that, Kristy slammed down the receiver.
Kristy sat fuming a few minutes longer. For her entire life, Roberta had unapologetically hoarded their mother's love for herself and her boys. Kristy had had enough of it.
Five hundred miles away, Roberta sighed. She bowed her head and offered a prayer: "Lord, please help my sister, Kristy. Please forgive her anger. Please let me have a loving relationship with my big sister."
It was after midnight, and Roberta still had hours of work ahead of her. It was important to her to keep a spotless house for her boys, and she had lots of housework to do before she got a fedw hours of sleep before going to work the next morning.
She was sure Kristy was wrong to be so angry about the boys' annual summer stay with their grandmother, but she was too exhausted to think about it. It was hard work being both mother and father to her boys. She had married badly. Her husband had left her, yet she was still burdened with him because he suffered from early dementia. She had to pay for his medical care and sometimes drive hundreds of miles to take him to appointments. But her did nothing to help with parenting. She helped the boys with their homework, met with their teachers, took them to scout meetings and to church.
Her eyes drifted to a photo of her mother. "You understand how I feel, right Mom?" she said to the portrait. Of course her mother understood. Her mother had been a single mother for her daughters' teen years. She, too, had worked hard top keep a nice home and act as both mother and father. She didn't have a demented husband, but she did have elderly relatives to care for. "Thank goodness my boys aren't as wild as I was at their age," Roberta thought with a half smile.
The Roberta thought about what a burden she had been to her mother. Refusing to go to school. Getting drunk. Doing drugs. Hooking up with countless guys. Through it all, no one had ever relieved Mom of her children for five weeks so she could get a break from all the stress of parenting.
Roberta looked at the clock. It was too late to call her sister back, so she went to her computer to compose an e-mail.
"Dear Kristy," Roberta wrote. "You were right. Mom doesn't need to be burdened with my boys for five weeks. We'll work out something different. I'm sorry it's been so hard on you."