Pen Monkey

“Come on.” The voice was like a bowl of thorns coated with honey. “You can do it. You did it before. Tell ya what. You do this now, I’ll let you write my next book.”

Happy Equinox…just wanted to share a bit I wrote for last week’s Two-Minutes-Go. Inspiration? It’s everywhere.

As a prison guard in a medium-security facility, Chip had seen some real doozies—CEOs who thought they were due time off from their sentences for golf holidays, celebrities demanding big-name designers upgrade their uniforms. He’d kept notes on all of them for his maybe-someday career as a bestselling author. But this new inmate made taking the graveyard shift worthwhile. Since the old guy was a night owl, that was when the fun really started.

He’d just stepped into the corridor to begin his two a.m. sweep when—

“Chipper! Oh, Chippieee… Aw, come on. Where’s my little friend? Where’s my little buddy?”

The voice repelled yet fascinated him. In the space of seconds, Prisoner 84235 could go from sounding like a creepy old dude trying to lure a kid into his van with candy, then sink into a lower register, like he was aiming to get a girl into the vehicle instead. The other guards said he was crazy and probably should have been sent across the river, where they had the good drugs and quiet, padded cells. But Chip guessed his lawyers kept him out of the bin. Why the legal team hadn’t been good enough to keep him out of the system altogether, Chip could only speculate about. Some of the guards thought that was his wife’s idea. That doing time had more cache than doing psych time. That a stretch in Club Fed would make him worth more when he got out.

When Chip reached his cell, the voice crooned to him. “Chippppp-ieeeee… My phone doesn’t work.”

Of course it didn’t work. Prisoners weren’t allowed to have phones. He’d whined like a toddler when they tried to take it, then he’d threatened to sue everyone in the building. One of the female first-shift guards gentled it out of his hands long enough to remove the battery and the SIMM card, and he’d been content. For a while.

“Did you try turning it off and turning it back on again?” Chip asked.

“Yeah. Twice. This is very sad. And totally unfair.” He beckoned with his small fingers. “Come on, Chipster. Let me use yours, okay? I’ll make it worth your while.”

“You know I shouldn’t—”

“Come on.” The voice was like a bowl of thorns coated with honey. “You can do it. You did it before. Tell ya what. You do this now, I’ll let you write my next book.”

Chip cocked his head. It was probably a bullshit offer, but at the very least, hearing this guy out could be entertaining. Maybe something he could use in his own book one day. He slipped the phone out of his pocket. “Okay,” he said. “What are we doing tonight? Email? Blog post?” His eyebrow hooked up. “Angry tweet?”

Prisoner 84235 grinned, his face bunching like one of those wrinkle pooches. “Yeah. That. Tell ’em—” He waved a hand. “The wire-tapping, the plague, that little business with the nukes… the fact that there’s never any pistachio ice cream anymore…not my fault. It was fake. It was all fake.”

“Like the fake news?” Chip wondered if he should pull up a chair.

“No. All of it. The campaign. The election. The presidency. Me, even. What. You don’t believe me? Believe me.” He pointed at Chip’s phone. “Start tapping, pen monkey. I got a story to tell you.”

Annika

The Russian man was back, lounging at his favorite table like a king. Annika could have predicted this. From the first day he strutted into their bistro and charmed Svetlana into preparing a special dish for him, he had the bearing of a man used to getting his own way; Annika did not fathom why Svetlana couldn’t see that. Maybe love was making her blind. Or maybe he had simply worn her down. To save her dignity, perhaps, or to extend this cat-and-mouse game she was playing, Svetlana chuckled, took two wine glasses from the batch Annika had just washed and hand-dried and filled them with the last of the good Riesling. Svetlana leaned against the counter, sipping from one of them. “I will make him wait,” she said. “What do they say about anticipation, what is that maxim in English?”

Although Annika knew enough English to get by, her first language was German, French her second, so she could only shrug.

Eventually Svetlana went to him, and Annika could not bear to watch. But she imagined the strikingly beautiful chef striding across the dining room, smiling at him, insinuating herself into the chair opposite his, flirting with him as if it was a craft she’d polished as well as Annika had the wine glasses. The change in the pitch of her voice, the low, intimate tone, was a painful thing to hear.

Because Annika had seen him around town with other women. She didn’t know if it would have been kind or cruel to tell Svetlana this. Until that moment, Annika had held her tongue. But just yesterday, she’d passed a jewelry store and saw him through the window, his arm around a slip of a thing as she pointed to various items in the cases. Certainly he was not old enough to have a daughter that age, and there was nothing fatherly or brotherly about the way his hands seemed to own her.

It was that empty hour between lunch and dinner, so Svetlana had the luxury of lingering with special customers. They had wine and bread and cheese, and he leaned toward her and drank her in with his eyes. He was besotted with Svetlana, and why not? The chef was smart and worldly and elegant. And as a Russian, Svetlana understood him in a way none of these little French girls did.

When it was time for dinner prep to start, Svetlana came back in the kitchen, slipping into her white jacket. Her cheeks were flushed, either from the wine or his attention.

“What?” Svetlana said to Annika. “What stick flew up your ass and died?”

Annika turned toward her station. The pots still needed to be washed. “He is not worthy of you,” she said, half-hoping Svetlana wouldn’t hear.

But damn her, those sharp ears caught everything. “That is charming of you, to be so concerned,” Svetlana said. “But I know what I am doing.”

Heat flooded Annika’s pale cheeks. “No, I think you don’t. I think you don’t know him as well as you claim.”

Svetlana flipped a palm up, as if this was of no consequence. “Yes. There are others. And a wife in Moscow. We have no illusions.”

Annika smacked her sponge into the soapy water. “This is just what I meant! He is not worthy—you deserve someone who will love you and you alone. You deserve…”

Already Annika had said too much and her words stuttered to a stop.

Svetlana smiled, stepped over to her, pressed a palm to Annika’s cheek. “Liebschen,” she purred. The low note of it, coupled with the warmth of her hand, vibrated a chord in Annika’s belly. “It is truly sweet that you look out for my welfare.” Then she turned away to begin her prep. “You know, perhaps you could do with a distraction. A night out. I will see if Grigory has a friend.”

The List

“You close your eyes and think of things that used to be funny. One by one you reject them, because they’ve all been outlawed.”

This bit popped into my head when I sat down to write something for JD Mader’s Two-Minutes-Go. Maybe one Friday you’ll join us.

The List

In the back of your desk drawer, folded in half, then quarters, then eighths, then tucked between the unread pages of your Tiny Orange Book, is your list. Of all the things you’ll do when you’re allowed to leave your house again. On damp, melancholy days, fog rising from the ground in small, accusatory fingers, you make hot tea and retrieve the list. After you were released from prison with antidepressants in one hand and the Tiny Orange Book in the other, a neighbor who had been a psychologist in the old days wrote the list for you as a form of therapy. She said that it might be too overwhelming to look at all the items in one gulp, but on bad days, like this one, when the electronic anklet felt as heavy as a battleship anchor, it could help to choose an item at random and just daydream about it for a while.

She said it could give you hope.

You close your eyes and run a finger down the page. Stop. Open your eyes. You’ve chosen “make someone laugh.” Your stomach sinks toward your shoes. You’ve lost the will to laugh yourself; how are you supposed to make someone else do it?

But somewhere in your mostly-functioning moral compass, you know it would be cheating to choose something else. You close your eyes and think of things that used to be funny. One by one you reject them, because they’ve all been outlawed. Satire on television, political cartoons, stand-up comedy. You have vague memories of being on a stage, saying things, hearing the sound of laughter. But after the treatments in prison, you forgot what you used to say. For some reason, you do remember that it used to make you feel good. It made you feel like you were lifting troubles off other people’s backs. People applauded, and when you got off the stage you got money and an invitation to do it again another night, or someplace else.

As the fragments of memory spark around, you get angry. You start to recognize the emotion as heat rushing into your face, your shoulder muscles tightening, a churning in your gut. In prison they gave you a chart that shows different emotions and a how-to guide for letting them go.

But this one sticks. It sticks in your brain like Velcro. You remember loving this thing you did on stage and are angry that you can no longer do it.

The anger fuels you. You storm around the house, finding as many small objects as you can—salt and pepper shakers, candlestick holders, coffee mugs—and line them up on the fireplace mantel. If the anger had come back to you, maybe the brambles of that emotion could rummage through what’s left of your memory and eventually the words that were funny would stick to that, too.

You pace in front of your “audience” and spew out random words. It’s all nonsense, like “Candlewax bumblebee went to the circus can you hear me now making America great again we’re winning so bigly now I got the best generals, just the most amazingly best, yadda, yadda, yadda…”

You go for another few minutes, remembering that was called a “set” back then, and something strange is happening to your face. You’re smiling. The muscles feel tight and strained, and you pat a hand to your cheek, then rush to the mirror and see that yes. Yes. You are smiling. And just the fact of that, followed by the memory of what you now recognize had once been called a joke, makes you laugh. A tiny chuckle. Then bigger.

It was only an itch at your ankle at first. Then a jolt. Then you collapse to the floor, twitching and writhing. Your smile freezes into a grimace of pain. Then so does your body. As the light at the edges of your vision begin to dim, these words fly through your mind: “A priest, a rabbi, and Donald Trump walk into a bar…”

Flash Fiction Sunday: The House

house-54570_640I want to share one of the flash fiction bits I wrote this week for 2-Minutes-Go. It’s a fun freewriting, freewheeling word adventure. Maybe one day you’ll join us.

—–

The House

You’ve passed the house a hundred times at least, in all seasons, when the leaves swirled around the horseshoe drive, when the snow piled up against the mailbox, when the water ran down the culvert in sparkling ribbons, when the boards on the small front porch popped loose from the heat. You’ve passed it so many times you feel a kind of ownership, and you pluck fallen branches from the driveway, and cut down the pokeweed that grows tall over the mailbox, and fret over the chipping paint and the buckle in the asphalt and the shingles that blew off in the last windstorm. You’ve never seen a car there, or a light in the window, but occasionally the lawn is whacked down as if by machete, and maybe there’s an irate neighbor who takes his anger out on it occasionally, fearing it brings down his own property values. One day, idle speculation slides into a thirst for fact, and you happen to be in the neighborhood anyway, so you ask at the town office where they keep records of such things. You get a name and the status of ownership, and the bored clerk pushes her glasses back on her nose and slides her “World’s Greatest Nana” mug away from her record books and sniffs at the ain’t-it-awful history of the place. Death in the family, lost in probate, squabbling children. She goes on, and it breaks your heart. “None of ’em sound like they even want it,” she says, shaking her head. “And it’s not worth spit. I think it’s just about ego, at this point. Can you imagine?” You can’t, or can, and don’t want to, and can’t believe such a thing would ever happen in your own family. You go back to that house and peer in the windows. It’s not a bad little place. It needs a good cleaning and some love, and you’ve been thinking for a while that a change of scene might help you forget. In your soul, you already feel like you’re halfway to ownership. And on your way out, you wonder how the porch railings would look painted sage green, and if there’s enough sun on the south side for a garden.

Two-Minutes-Go Road Trip

writerWhile JD is wading some mountain stream in search of Moby-Trout, or at least that’s what he told me to say when the FBI come by asking questions about him, he’s entrusted our Friday flash fiction fandango to me. No Black Friday crowds here. Just a place to share some words.

Or, in a passage I stole from his website:

Hey, writer-type folks. AND PEOPLE WHO JUST WANT TO PLAY BUT DON’T IDENTIFY AS ‘WRITERS’ – all are welcome here! Every Friday, we do a fun free-write. For fun. And Freedom!

Write whatever you want in the ‘comments’ section on this blog post. Play as many times as you like. #breaktheblog! You have two minutes (give or take a few seconds … no pressure!). Have fun. The more people who play, the more fun it is. So, tell a friend. Then send ’em here to read your ‘two’ and encourage them to play. 

Here’s one to start us off:

The air cooled a few degrees, and that’s when I knew she’d arrived. So I snuck up the back stairs, and at a safe remove on the balcony, I readied myself to eyeball the intruder. Rumors had been flying about her—her beauty, her feline grace and charm that belied a volcanic temper. But before any polite introductions could be made, before we could circle each other and stake our claims, I had to see for myself. Evaluate the potential trouble.

And she looked like trouble. Green eyes widening, she flattered the hosts while scoping out the room, hunting her next mark. I knew that game. My muscles went on alert, a ripple of tension beneath my skin, tiny hairs standing on end like tiny field agents reporting to command. No. Boundaries must be set. There could be no room for misinterpretation, here. This was my turf. I’d been deftly ingratiating myself to these people for years. I had them just where I needed them, each step of the plan clicking neatly into position, and I could not allow some slick interloper to get between me and what I deserved.

They were calling for me. I set my expression. Welcoming, but cool. Calm, but alert. One that spelled delighted to meet you, my dear, but no need to make yourself comfortable, because I’m sure you won’t be staying long enough to even learn what kind of soaps are in the powder room.

Ready, finally, because I would not be rushed, I sashayed down the stairs. And on the second from the bottom, I froze. She had her nose in my food dish. In. My. Food. Dish. The hairs on my back shot to attention. I did not care a whit how lovely she was. This meant war.

Flash Fiction Smashing Pumpkins Edition

pumpkinA story I wrote for this week’s 2-Minutes-Go was partially inspired by actual events. Four years ago, Hurricane Irene wiped out many of the Hudson Valley’s pumpkin patches, among other devastation. Pumpkins float, in case you weren’t aware, and when the flood waters rose in New Paltz, the crop at Wallkill View Farms was washed into the neighboring river, disappointing children and amusing reporters for miles around. On a recent drive, seeing all the jack o’ lanterns on the front stoops, I was reminded of the news footage of the renegade pumpkin flotilla.

——-

The wind picked up. Eyeing his quarry as he wobbled on the east bank of the Wallkill, Pete threw out his arms and prayed for balance, his slick dress shoes doing a piss-poor job against the wet grass and the mossy rocks. This was supposed to be a quick trip. A fast dash up the Thruway, pick out a pumpkin at the big farm market, return home triumphant. A hero to his little girl, not so little anymore. But the old farmer had just lifted his raggedy eyebrows and laughed at him. “There go your pumpkins,” he said, waving a hand toward the swollen river. “Guess you don’t read the papers much, huh.”

And indeed, there went the pumpkins. A recent flood had turned the Springtown flats into a lake and, lighter than they looked, the gourds had left the building, so to speak, turning the Wallkill into a giant bob-for-produce tub.

This was ridiculous, Pete knew as he stood on the bank, the old farmer’s bark of a laugh piercing his memory, that this rash action would not make her forgive him. Would not erase the narrowed eyes, the huff, the slamming of the door. He’d tried so hard to get to the school in time to see her solo last night, but it was like the world had conspired against him. Meeting running late. Then traffic. And the goddamned rain. Now, silence from his only daughter. Before the divorce, they’d take their yearly pilgrimage to the valley, to the farm market, and she’d delight in picking out her own jack o’ lantern pumpkin. But this year, she couldn’t be bothered. His fault? Her mother’s? The adolescent need to distance herself from her parents? He didn’t know. Maybe all three.

He focused on one of the orange globes, bobbing in what looked like approachable distance. It wasn’t too bad, didn’t look like it had been damaged in its slalom along the rocks. He inched down the slope, knees shaking, his hand going for the security of a fairly strong-looking sapling.

“Come here, baby,” he crooned, stretching as far as he could. His fingertips were nearly brushing it when his feet began to move. As if they were fresh-waxed skis on the diamond slope. He knew he was done. That he was powerless to stop. He knew in that way that lengthened time, that had him windmilling his arms in an ineffectual, cartoonish attempt to change…nothing.

And then all he felt was cold. Cold water, seizing his lungs, pressing against his flailing arms, until his hands hit…something smooth. Something round. Something solid. He hugged the object as if it were his retreating daughter, as if it were the only thing standing between him and that slamming door. When they finally dredged him out, shivering with hypothermia, minus one shoe and laughing maniacally, he was still clinging to the pumpkin.

Halloween Anthology: Boo! Volume Three

Screen shot 2015-10-11 at 6.28.13 PMHappy Sunday! Halloween is almost upon us in North America-land, and with it comes the release of the newest Boo! anthology. Boo! Volume Three contains thirteen Halloween-inspired tales by an eclectic mix of authors, including Ann Cathey, Jen Daniele, Erin McGowan, LB Clark, Mala Rheston, Kristina Jackson, Rich Meyer, David Antrobus, and JD Mader.

Where else can you get that much talent and spooky fun for just 99 cents? Proceeds go to charity, and this year, the DB Collective has chosen The Turtle Island Restoration Project, an organization dedicated to protecting oceans and marine wildlife.

Thank you for your time. I hope you enjoy our stories.