Friday Fiction: Woof!

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Friday Fiction
11 May 2018

Woof!

The old man limped up to the check-out in Chapters and placed a brown, hand-made, Italian notebook on the counter.

“Did you find everything you were looking for?” The check-out girl inquired.

“No.”

“Oh dear, what were you looking for?”

“My dog. I lost my dog.”

“Here? In the store? I can page security. I’m sure they’ll find it.”

“No, you mustn’t do that.”

“It’s no trouble. What color is it? Male or female? What breed? Large or small?”

“No, no. You’re much too kind. I lost him at home.”

“I lost my cat last week,” the check-out girl told him. “We searched everywhere for her.”

“I searched for my dog. All around the block. The dog usually comes home. This time he didn’t.”

“That doesn’t sound good. We never found our cat. My mom said the coyotes got her.”

“That’s not nice. We lost a cat.”

“To coyotes?”

“No. To mapaches, you know, to raccoons.”

“I miss my cat.”

“Me too. I also miss my dog.”

“I hope you find him.”

“I will. Oh, look. Here he is. Safe and sound.”

“I don’t see him,” the check-out girl looked around the store from her vantage point behind the cash register but didn’t see any dogs.

“His name’s Woof,” the old man pulled a small, fluffy, black-and-white dog out of his pocket and put him down on the counter. “Here, you have him. He’ll help make up for your lost cat.”

“I couldn’t possibly …”

“Don’t be silly.”

“No. Thank you very much. But I can’t take your dog. Here, put him back in your pocket. Oh, and that will be eight dollars exactly.”

The old man held out a five dollar bill, a toony, and a loony.

“Thank you,” the girl placed the money in the till and the little bell chimed happily. “Here’s your receipt.”

“Thank you,” the old man turned and limped away.

When he passed through the exit barrier, the alarm bell rang, but he took no notice. He walked rapidly to his car, close by in the wheelchair parking spot. He pressed the starter button, placed Woof on the passenger seat, and drove away before security arrived. As he drove, the old man extracted a brindle hound from his coat pocket and waved him proudly.

“Hello Woof,” he chuckled. “I want you to meet Winnie. Welcome to the family, Winnie. You’re free now.”

He put his hand in his other pocket and pulled out a fluffy Dalmatian, all white with black spots.

“And this is Pooh,” he announced. “Woof, Winnie, and Pooh: all broken out of prison. We’re one big happy family.”

He tooted the car horn and Woof, Winnie, and Pooh sat up straight on the front seat, wagged their tails, and woofed in time to the tooted horn.

Friday Fiction: Crave More

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Friday Fiction
04 May 2018
Crave More

Crave More: I hate those words. I always choose
a cart with the shop’s name on the handle.
I can handle that. I can’t stand a cart
that screams Crave More at me every time I
bend to place an item in the wire grid.
If stores were honest they would write Think More
and Crave Less
 on their shopping carts. I bet
that would cut into profits. Anyway,
there I was, in LaLaLand, leaning on
my cart, half asleep, when this ghost drifted
towards me. “Help me,” it said. “I’m hungry.
I need money for food.” I woke up from
my dream, looked at the ghost, tall, skeletal
thin, cavernous eyes and cheekbones sticking
out, gaps in the teeth, grey face drawn with shame.
“Sorry,” came automatically. Then I
too felt shame. I looked at him again. “I
only carry plastic.” The excuse limped
heavily across the air between us.
I saw something in his eyes, I knew not
what, and turned away. As I walked away,
I added one hundred pound of muscle
to the scarecrow frame. Took forty years off
his age. Filled his body with joy and pride,
not shame, and remembered how he played, hard
and fast, but true. I ran the card index
of former players that I had coached through
my mind. I knew their moves, and attributes,
the way they played the game, strengths, weaknesses …
I remembered him holding up the Cup.
But I couldn’t remember his name. I
pushed the cart all over the store in a
frantic search for him. At the ATM
I withdrew cash. I could hand it to him.
I could tell him he had dropped it. I went
through a thousand scenes. I could invite him
to the snack bar. I could tell him to buy
what he needed and follow me. Check out
time, I would add his purchases to my
bill. I looked everywhere. He was nowhere
to be seen. One opportunity. One
chance. That’s all we get. Miss it, and we blow
the game. Grasp it and we medal with gold.

Commentary:
I have been experimenting with iambic pentameter, counting words and syllables on my fingers, tapping rhythms on the table, driving Clare crazy, and disturbing the cat. I have also disturbed my usual way of writing, for better or for worse I am not yet sure. Yesterday’s entertainment was to rewrite my brief story, Crave More, as a poem in pseudo-iambic pentameter. The measures seem to function and the rhythm and word count move both within the line and in the melodic, rhythmic phrasings that move between lines in a constant enjambement.

So, by all means let me know what you think of this experiment.  Here’s the link to the short story, also called Crave More. I would love to receive your opinions on narrative pseudo-iambic pentameter.

Revised Version:

Encounter

I was in the Superstore, leaning on
my cart, half asleep, when this ghost drifted
towards me. “Help me,” it said. “I’m hungry.
I need money for food.” I woke up from
my dream, looked at the ghost, tall, skeletal
thin, cavernous eyes and cheekbones sticking
out, gaps in the teeth, grey face drawn with shame.
“Sorry,” came automatically. Then I
too felt shame. I looked at him again. “I
only carry plastic.” The excuse limped
heavily across the air between us.
I saw something in his eyes, I knew not
what, and turned away. As I walked away,
I added one hundred pound of muscle
to the scarecrow frame. Took forty years off
his age. Filled his body with joy and pride,
not shame, and remembered how he played, hard
and fast, but true. I ran the card index
of former players that I had coached through
my mind. I knew their moves, and attributes,
the way they played the game, strengths, weaknesses …
I remembered him holding up the Cup.
But I couldn’t remember his name. I
pushed the cart all over the store in a
frantic search for him. At the ATM
I withdrew cash. I could hand it to him.
I could tell him he had dropped it. I went
through a thousand scenes. I could invite him
to the snack bar. I could tell him to buy
what he needed and follow me. Check out
time, I would add his purchases to my
bill. I looked everywhere. He was nowhere
to be seen. One opportunity. One
chance. That’s all we get. Miss it, and we blow
the game. Grasp it and we medal with gold.

Comment to the Revision:

The first eight lines of the original poem set the scene. While I tried to use them to accentuate commercial exploitation of the customer’s potential for greed, Crave More, they are not essential to the story of the encounter. Meg noticed this and following her interaction I have revised the poem, eliminating those first eight lines.

This is an interesting and inter-active way to work. Thank you Meg!

Friday Fiction: Sentences

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Friday Fiction
27 April 2018
Sentences

“Use lots of verbs to catch the reader’s attention. Keep your sentences short.”

… people don’t like long sentences … life sentences … things like that … though death sentences may be short, ugly, and brief … unless there’s a power shortage when you’re sitting there all wired up … or they’ve watered down the drugs in the tube they attach to the needle they put in the shunt already plugged into your arm …

… you’ve read the news … seen the pictures … if you live close enough you may even have stood out in the street with a candle and your friends watching the power shortage hit downtown … district lights flickering off … road lights shutting down … big blankets of blackness … as they put all available electricity into the power circuits that lead to the electric chair …

… use short sentences … like the one they read to me when I was six … then they locked me away in a boarding school for twelve long years … until I was eighteen … I ran away … again and again … they beat me … again and again … short sentences … ‘hold out your hand’ … ‘pull down your pants’ … bend over that chair’ … six of the best … no verb in that one … yet the words still strike a note of fear into those who have been publicly humiliated and flogged in a boarding school dining room … in front of all the boarders … and the day boys as well … ‘don’t cry’ … ‘little baby’ … ‘mother’s pet’ … ‘mummy’s darling’ … blubbing like a baby … and this at six years old … or seven … or eight … lashed on hands or backside by a grown man wielding a bamboo cane …

“Keep those sentences short.”

“Bend over.”

“Place your hands against the wall.”

“Don’t cry like a baby.”

“Take it like a man.”

Friday Fiction: It’s Snowing

 

 

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Friday Fiction
It’s Snowing
20 April 2018

I wish it was fiction, but it isn’t. Friday, 20 April, 2018: clouds fill the sky, thick, fluffy clots drift down nodding at me as they pass my window. An inch of snow covers  grass, deck, pathways, lawn.

It’s snowing.

I check the weather forecast: +6C / 43F with light rain forecast for today. So much for the computer and the weather forecast. Look outside: snow is tumbling down, and it’s getting thicker. The blonde bimbo who waves her arms across the weather map with its bars and contours tells me it’s raining. She’s trapped indoors, in a tv studio, reading from a teleprinter. Wake up, lady, and smell the green tea. Then look out the window. But wrap up warmly … because it’s snowing.

Why is it snowing? Several reasons:

  1. I took my snow tires off the car last week: a sure sign it will snow.
  2. I got my hair cut yesterday: that always brings a change, for the worst in the weather, especially when I get a summer haircut, nice and short.
  3. To reassure me that my choice in coming to Canada was the correct one: I could have gone to Australia where my cousins are in danger of being burned out yet again by their third major bush fire in ten years. Here, it just snows. And snows. And so …

It’s snowing on April 20. This is personal. This is a personal attack on my humanity and sanity. I know: I chose to come here, to spend my life here, and I love it … but snow on April 20, when the tv bimbo is calling for rain and wet weather?

What will the robins do? Yesterday, they wandered in little groups all over the grass, chirping happily, singing for their suppers, pulling worms out of the brown earth as fast as they could go. Today, not a robin in sight. Not one.

But the crows are back: ubiquitous, omnipresent, omniscient, eternal, the seculae seculorum crows squat, feathers fluffed, beaks to the wind, hunkered down in skeletal trees, counting the snow flakes as the fall … caw … caw … caw …

Crows and snow: I think of school porridge, burning for breakfast.  I can’t shake off those memories. They haunt me at breakfast time. Porridge suddenly appears as if from nowhere. The smell of burning tickles my nose. My cereal plate fills with the  grinning face of porridge. It makes faces at me, nurdling and grimacing as I try to picture Corn Flakes, Rice Crispies, and Sugar Frosted Flakes, robins, not crows, green grass, not this bright, white table cloth spread on the lawn before me.

Oh for the sweetness of the robin’s song, the dawn chorus of a thousand songbirds lighting up the morning, sunlight on the grass … not a hope … forget it … look out of the window …

It’s snowing.

Scrambled Eggs

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Scrambled Eggs

The door to her father’s house opened before Tiggy could raise the brass knocker.

“At last,” said her father. “You’re just in time to cook breakfast. Come in. Come in,” He stood aside to let her pass and she pecked a kiss at his cheek as she hurried by, overnight bag in the hand closer to him. Tiggy held her breath as she went. She knew the smell emanating from her father would be as ripe as it was during her last visit, if not worse.

“I’ll make you breakfast in a moment, dad. I’ll just take these upstairs first.”

When she came down, her post-drive ablutions completed, she went straight to the kitchen. Her father sat at the breakfast table, restless fingers playing the piano of the table top in arrhythmic Morse Code messages.

“At last,” her father muttered. “Where have you been?”

“Just tidying up, dad,” Tiggy smiled. “You know it’s a long drive.”

“I want scrambled eggs. On toast. Make them like your mother used to.”

Tiggy thought of the dry overcooked eggs her mother used to scrape out of the burnt-to-a-crisp saucepan and sighed. Her almost-liquid, cordon bleu divinity was the real thing. Scrambled eggs, indeed. And so much salt. More like bacalao, dried salt cod with a little bit of turmeric to make it look like scrambled egg.

Tiggy picked up a saucepan. Filthy. She went to the sink and started to scrub.

“You don’t need to do that,” her father said. “It’s clean.”

“It’ll be cleaner when I’ve finished, dad. Don’t you worry.”

“Here,” her father handed her some plates. “You night as well wash these as well. They were clean enough for your mother but they won’t be good enough for you.” Greasy films layered the plates where yesterday’s bacon had solidified. Hard lumps of egg stuck to the cracks that road-mapped the plates’ surface.

“I’ll look after it, dad. You sit down and rest. I’m home now.”

“At last,” Tiggy’s father grunted.

Tiggy took in her father’s face. He had put on weight and veins ran red and blue tattoos across the unshaven surface. He breathed with difficulty, but she knew he angered with ease.

Tiggy looked for the end of the roll of paper towels she had bought on her last visit. When she found it, she dried saucepan, plates, and cutlery, putting the saucepan on the stove and laying cutlery and plates neatly in a space she created on the cluttered table. Her father pushed his setting aside and struggled to his feet.

“Here, let me help you.”

“That’d be great, dad. You do the toast, I’ll get the eggs,” Tiggy walked to the fridge, searched in vain for some butter, and carefully selected three large brown eggs.

Her father followed her to the fridge.

“Here, use up this cracked one,” he handed her a brown egg with a large fissure that mapped a thin contour from big end to little end.

Tiggy reached for the egg. She grasped it and felt the cold icy creep of the army of white maggots that seethed along the line. She shuddered and the egg slipped from her fingers and dropped to the kitchen’s flagstone floor where it shattered. A rich, ripe stench arose and ghosted through the air to tickle Tiggy’s nostrils. Her stomach heaved.

Having washed her hands, she cracked each egg individually into a saucer, inspected it, then poured it into the saucepan. Next, she took a wooden spoon from the drawer and started to blend the eggs.

Meanwhile, her father sat back down at the table, toast forgotten, and recommenced his Morse Code messages.

Tiggy opened one cupboard, then another, in search of bread. Finally, she found the remains of a sliced loaf in a dark corner and brought it out into the light. The first slice she extracted from the bag was a painting from Picasso’s Blue Period, the second, a breeding ground for mold, but the third might be salvageable …

“Don’t worry,” her father said. “Just scrape the blue stuff off. It’ll be fine. I eat it all the time.”

“You can’t eat that,” Tiggy threw the bread in the garbage. “I’ll just serve you the eggs on the plate.”

When they were cooked to her father’s satisfaction, Tiggy scraped the dried-out eggs from now charred saucepan. They landed on her father’s plate with a harsh, unforgiving sound.

“Lovely,” he said, licking his lips. “Just like your mum’s.”

Friday Fiction: Teeth

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Friday Fiction
13 April 2018
Teeth

Lunchtime.

Tiggy opens a can of tom8to soup and heats it on the stove. She slices the remains of yesterday’s loaf of bread into one inch cubes and fries them in olive oil and garlic. Tom8to soup with croutons. Then she puts two slices of bread in the toaster. Her father will only eat toast soaked in butter and layered with Marmite when he eats tomahto soup.

“Lunch is ready,” she calls out.

The black American Cocker Spaniel, bought by Tiggy’s late mother, in a moment of madness, by telephone, unseen, camps in the kitchen. It nests at the far end of the table, by the stove, and defends its territory with warning growls and a snapping of yellowed teeth. Tiggy will not go near the dog.

“Lunch is ready,” Tiggy calls out, a little bit louder. Dog, as they call him, growls and clatters its teeth. It has hidden a treasure in the folds of its old, gray comfort blanket, and guards it with the fierce, loving worry of a dragon protecting its golden hoard.

Tiggy’s father enters the kitchen as she places the soup on the table.

“I’m not ready to eat. Put it back in the pot.”

“What’s wrong, dad? I thought you were hungry.”

“My teeth,” he mumbles through a mouthful of pink gums. “I can’t find my teeth.”

“Where on earth did you put them?”

“I don’t know. If I knew where I’d put them, I wouldn’t have lost them.”

Tiggy’s father circulates round the kitchen opening drawers, lifting saucepan lids, and shaking empty yogurt pots to see if they’ll rattle.

“I can’t find them anywhere. I can’t eat lunch without my teeth.”

“But it’s only soup, dad, tom8to soup.”

“I don’t like tom8to soup. Your mother always made tomahto soup. Why can’t you be more like your mother?”

“Sorry, dad. I’ll call it tomahto soup, if that will make you feel better. But it’s still made out of tom8toes.”

“Don’t be so sarcastic. Help me find my teeth,” Tiggy’s father stomps towards the stove and Dog growls fiercely from its blanket as it guards its treasure.

“Take that, you dirty dog,” Tiggy’s father lashes out at Dog with his stick and cracks it across the head.

“Dad, stop that. It’s not Dog’s fault.”

Dog howls and spits out what it is chewing.

“There they are,” Tiggy’s father bends down, picks up his teeth, still hairy from the blanket and bubbly from Dog’s saliva. He pops his teeth into his mouth.

“That’s better,” he says, “now I can enjoy my lunch.”

Wednesday Workshop: Reading

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Wednesday Workshop
11 April 2018
Reading for Writers

Miguel de Cervantes once wrote that he was so fond of reading he would pick up even the scraps of paper he found in the street to read them if anything was written on them. This is well-known. What is less known is that Don Quixote, his immortal novel (DQI, 1605, DQII, 1615) is a masterpiece, not only of writing, but also of reading.

From the initial sortie, a prose transcription of an earlier short play, to the Scrutiny of the Library, Cervantes demonstrates right from the start his awareness of current trends in poetry, theatre and prose. In addition, he shows (especially DQI, chapter 47) his acquaintance with contemporary literary theory, as E. C. Riley has so ably established in Cervantes’s Theory of the Novel.

Cervantes begins with the traditional Renaissance novel (DQI, 1605) in which he experiments with plays and poetry turned into prose, oral and written histories, pseudo-autobiographical episodes, the picaresque novel, the pastoral novel, the Italianate Novel, the picaresque novel (briefly), his own versions of the realistic Spanish short story, and then, after a ten year gap during which he receives all kinds of reader feedback, he invents (DQII, 1615), the self-referring modern novel. DQII refers back to DQI as if it were true history. Don Quixote on his ravels meets with people who recognize him, for they have read his story and know all about him. The fictitious character establishes himself as an almost flesh-and-blood living person.

What can we, as writers, learn from this? Above all, we must learn to read copiously, not just once in a while, but all the time. Not only must we read, but we must learn how to read. Yes, we can read for knowledge and information; yes, we can read for pleasure and enjoyment; yes, we can read to lose ourselves and wash away the cares of the world. However, as writers we must learn to read in a different fashion. We must read in search of the narrative structures that inspire other good writers. We must read in search of the iterative thematic imagery that binds a text with meaningful, repeated images. We must read in search of the poetry that sates the soul’s constant thirst for beauty. We must read in search of the dialog that cuts to the bone and reveals the hidden character of the protagonists. We must read in search of the layering that allows us to give extra meaning at all levels of the narrative. We must read in search of the secret that allows us to trim all unnecessary material in order that our stories may be spare and sparse with not an extra word or thought.

Reading: I have just finished taking an eight-week online course with the School of Creative Writing at the University of Toronto. In the course of those eight weeks, I read the following books.

  1. 3 short stories a week, recommended by the instructor, the wonderful novelist Kerry Lee Powell, to illustrate each week’s lesson. [24 stories]
  2. 14 first drafts, one from each of the magnificent students in the course (I had the honor of being the fifteenth student). [38 stories]
  3. 14 revised stories. [52 stories]
  4. 14 first drafts of a second story. The course asked for two stories to be written by each participant over the duration of the course. [66 stories]
  5. 14 revised drafts of this second story. [80 stories]
  6. My own voluntary reading included Raymond Carver’s What we talk about when we talk about love (17 stories), Cathedral (12 stories), and my own short story collection, Bistro (35 very short stories). Recognizing the errors, weaknesses, and inaccuracies in my own collection reduced me to tears. [144 stories]

I have spent eight wonderful weeks exploring creativity and the art of short story writing.  Am I a better writer for all that work? Undoubtedly. I can see and think much more clearly and I am beginning to gain a better understanding of how short narratives work. I am a better writer, but I am not yet a good one. There is still a long way to go.

I am retired. A long, cold, icy New Brunswick winter has kept me in the house, close to the fire. I have been gifted the time and mental energy to make the most of this course I have taken. I attended the University of Toronto, as a graduate student, back in the sixties. I was amazed at the quantity of work handed out by the professors in the School of Graduate Studies. My first decision, made very early on in my graduate career, was to take a speed reading course. Accelerating my reading speed and capacity for understanding was the only way I would be able to compete. I am still a fast reader, though not as fast as I was. This speed reading has left me time for long thought and slow writing.

Over the last eight weeks, in addition to the reading, as described above, I have written five new short stories, including two for the course. I have also revised and re-written a series of short stories for my next collection. As a good friend keeps telling me, we are not writers, we are re-writers. After eight very intense weeks, the acts of re-writing, re-reading, re-vising, and re-editing have become much, much easier.

Carpe diem, seize the day: pick up a book and start reading. Pick up your pen and start writing. No excuses. Participaction: don’t think about it, do it.