Poisoned Parlance

I just came back from a vacation, which I’ll be blogging about in the near future. But in the meantime, to assuage all of my fans, or my only fan (HI MOM!!!), here’s another flash fiction.

The theme was facing fear. I wanted to go with a more mundane fear, so I went with public speaking. Then I threw in the stammer, cause they never specified whether it needed to be an irrational fear.

The judges said they wanted more backstory of the main character and his friend. How/why he was invited to be the Best Man/Toast Giver. They might have a point. I certainly made it up as I was going along, and by the time I was done, I could really only edit for errors, not add a shit-ton of content and context.

So now you, intrepid explorer, get…

Poison Parlance

My adversary stands before me as I rise from security. Legs tremble, ready to pounce, fight or flight instinct fully engaged. Except there’s no place to go but forward. Into the face of evil.

It rises in front of me. Solid, erect, pockmarked visage eyeing me warily. ​A soft, guttural hiss emanates from its mouth.

“Snakes. Why did it have to be s-s-snakes?”

It’s not a snake. But I hoped an Indiana Jones line might calm me down. It didn’t.

I wish it was a snake. I could throw a fucking brick at a snake. Not that I have a brick. But at least a snake is a mortal being that can be killed.

I inch toward it. Dragging every ounce of my body, every ounce of time, in an effort to put off the inevitable as long as I can, despite knowing this goes against the priority of getting it all over with as quickly as possible.

Bright silver in the blinding spotlight, hissing and spitting and crackling, stands a microphone. Why did it have to be a microphone? Why the hell did it have to involve me, standing in front of a group of people who I barely now, who I can’t really see, and delivering a canned speech?

Thanks a lot, Ron.

My great aversion to public speaking came during adolescence. All the great social phobias do, right? Kids will take the stage at all-ages karaoke, belting out that song from Frozen at the top of their lungs, completely oblivious to the faces in the audience cocking to one side like a dog, one eye pinched in the universal sign for “you’re a half-note flat.” The kids just keep singing like they’re Idina fucking Menzel.

Hey, remember that time John Travolta butchered Idina Menzel’s name at the Oscars? He called her Adell Dazeem, or some shit like that. That should make me feel better, knowing that even people who do this type of thing for a living can make a faux pas in front of a microphone. But all I can think is that if John fucking Travolta can’t deliver a prepared speech without fucking up, what the hell chance do I have?

“Thuh” I say into the microphone. “Thanks.”

The reverberating echo of my voice sounds tinny, unnatural as it comes back to my ear. I hate recordings of my voice on phone recordings, too. But at least an answering machine doesn’t come with threat of feedback.

“Ron asked me to…”

My tongue tastes desert. Arid, dry, probing for moisture that should exist somewhere in its environ. But all it finds is the jarring back of teeth and a palate as dusty as the cratered surface of the moon. Or the soundstage where Martin Scorsese directed Neil Armstrong to bounce around a bunch. Whatever. Right about now, I’m thinking if scientists haven’t figured out a very basic hydration formula for the inside of a mouth that is trying to speak into a microphone there’s no way in hell they actually made it to the moon.

Or maybe it’s the alcohol’s fault. I have a friend who is afraid of flying. She drinks before a flight. Suggested I do the same here. Plenty of free booze at this place. Except that she can pass out on a flight. If I pass out right here, in front of this microphone, as I desperately want to do, it would probably put a damper on the mood of the crowd. My mood be damned.

“Ron asked me to…”

I did some reading in preparation for this. Don’t make eye contact, the website said. Look above their heads. Except I had a teacher in junior college who did that. And it’s pretty fucking obvious when someone’s looking at the top of your head. Maybe someone in the front row might think you’re making eye contact with someone in the back row. But if you’re sitting near the back, where the people who are most likely going to mock you are sitting, it’s obvious that you’re just staring at the back wall. Hell, sometimes my professor’s eyes rolled up in her head like the goddamned Exorcist, staring straight at the ceiling. Half of us could have snuck out of the room without her noticing. She’d probably just respond by spinning her head around and projectile vomiting.

And trust me, noticing all the miscues of other public speakers does wonders for somebody with public speaking foibles himself.

“Ron wanted me to s-s-say… ssssome things about how him. And, um, J-J-Jake.”

The presentations in middle school were bad. I think that’s where it started. Who the hell decided that middle school students should have to do class presentations? Hey, you’re going through puberty! Acne up the wazoo! No control over your body odor, not to mention all of those other bodily functions! How about you stand in front of a group of your peers, who will continue reminding you of your failures and foibles every day for the next six years?

I didn’t pee my pants that time, at least. I saved that particular reaction for high school. Romeo and Juliet can go fuck itself. Because, again, freshman year doesn’t have enough shit to weigh a fourteen year-old down. Let’s add a mortifying incident that will consign him to the hallway shadows for every passing period in the next three years.

No, in middle school, it was only a profuse sweating. Just enough to make me never want to do this shit again. Yet here I am, a decade later.

“I’ve, um, I’ve  known Ron since middle school. But we didn’t really hang out till high school.”

I seriously thought of telling Ron no. It wouldn’t be the first time. I’ve had a chance to be a groomsman before. I’ve always said no. They act like being a groomsman is such an honor. Stand up there and make me look good. Tell some carefully-sculpted anecdote that Aunt Gertrude, whom I haven’t spoken to since I was eight, can go home and tell her knitting circle that her nephew’s living a full life. 

Not that anyone with half a brain would want my sorry ass standing up for them. Best Man? More like worst. Nothing brings a party to a screeching halt like a minute of dead silence, broken by an occasional stammer. Stammer is sexy. Just ask all of the zero girlfriends I had before alcohol became involved.

But Ron was one of the few people who didn’t hold it all against me. High school as much hell for him as it was for me, just for different reasons. He hadn’t come out yet. Maybe he didn’t know himself yet. But he knew he didn’t fit the mold. Neither of us did. Me, because I couldn’t talk about Romeo and Juliet. Ron, because he liked Romeo and Juliet way more than any ninth grader should.

“Ssssso. I know Ron doesn’t have a l-l-lot of friends from high school. Neither do I. High school kinda suh-sucked. For both of us.”

Way to go, asshole. That’ll slay the crowd. Aunt Gertrude’s gonna have her girders in a bunch after this shitshow.

Imagine all the people in the audience naked, they say. Except, looking around, I really don’t know that I want to see any of these people naked. Except for maybe the bridesmaid, but that’s clearly never going to happen.

I guess she’s not a bridesmaid. There’s no bride. Best maid? Does that make me the Man of Honor? Semantics are stupid. Maybe I should just say that into the microphone.

I never understood how the whole “imagine them naked” thing is supposed to work. Am I supposed to be clothed? Like that episode of “Westworld,” where they’re having perfectly normal conversations in front of an orgy?  I imagine if I was the only clothed person in a room with a hundred naked people, that would be weird. That would not calm me down. I would assume I got the invitation wrong, and if I’m already self-conscious about standing in front of them, then being the only one that didn’t get the memo isn’t going to make me feel more comfortable.

You know what? Probably not the best time to be thinking about “Westworld” and orgy scenes.

Or maybe the “everybody naked” thing is supposed to have me naked, too. Like, we’re all in this together. They’re just as humiliated as I am. Except they’re sitting down, legs crossed, privates underneath a wedding program, and I’m standing in front of them, behind this crackling, feedback-prone microphone, and now I’ve got my shwantz out for the whole world to see. One more thing to be self-conscious about.

“S-s-sorry. I, um, this isn’t about, um, ssschool. It’s about, um, Ron and… um, Ron and Jake.”

I’m off script. Good thing, too, because I can’t read the fucking script., because it’s crumpled in my hand. I’m shaking like a Parkinson’s patient. That eighth-grade, puberty sweat is coming back. Sure, I know about deodorant now, but I didn’t have to wear a tuxedo in middle school. It’s a wash, at best, but thinking of a wash just makes me perspire more.

Off script. What made me think I would be able to read pre-written remarks, anyway? Do I even know my own cadence, or lack thereof?

Like in theater. My dad made me do the school play in tenth grade. He was one of those “make the kid smoke a carton to get over his interest in cigarettes” kind of guys. Figured if I was gonna be a pansy-ass when it came to speaking, he’d get it out of me by humiliating me. I stammer because I can, right, dad? If I’m put on a stage and forced to sing along with the chorus, I’ll spit it out, right?

Or I’ll just knock my fucking knees and faint on stage. Right at the front, near the orchestra pit. Thank God for the gong player. That cushioned mallet raised above his head for the big strike really helped break my fall. The gong player definitely wasn’t thanking God for me though, that’s for sure.

Ron’s father isn’t here, either. He’s probably still back at home, praying the gay away. Maybe that’s what drew the two of us together. A couple of ripe old assholes taking care of us in our formative years.

“Ron met J-j-jake at one of those… after the G-g-giants won.”

Oh shit, they might not know what I mean.

“Not the football. B-b-baseball. The Wuh. The Wwworld Suh, suh.”

No shit, dumbass. We’re in Northern California. Who the hell would think we were all out celebrating Eli Manning. And maybe I shouldn’t add in how Ron had spent the whole game gushing over the abs and thighs Buster Posey must have to be able to squat behind the plate for three hours and still leg out an infield single. Or maybe I should add that anecdote in. That’s real life. Shows his mindset. How the only two gay guys in a sports bar of toxic masculinity can find each other when they’re least looking.

Except that’s not how it would come out. Yeah, I can come up with wonderful lines about toxic masculinity inside my own head. People assume I’m dumb because I can’t enunciate my thoughts. Or just because I’ve now been standing in front of this microphone, radio silence, for what has probably been ten minutes now.

Why the hell did Ron even want me here? Sure, I’m one of his best friends. Yeah, I was there when he met Jake, but is that really a vital piece of information? I already fucked up the delivery of it once. So now all I can do is fumble over part two of their relationship. The bridesmaid is here for a reason, too. Can’t she add anything to the “how wonderful you guys are together” story?

Or Ron could come up here. Or Jake. Aunt Gertrude will talk about how strong of a public speaker he is after that debacle of a cavalier.

I know what I want to say. I want to talk about the change that has come over Ron since he met Jake. The sparkle in his eye, the new way he sees the world. The subtle, little optimisms where there would’ve been sarcasm. His propensity to talk about plans in weeks and months instead of minutes and hours. How the true Ron, the one who I always knew was there because I’m the only one who doesn’t interrupt him or talk over him, is finally out for the whole world to see.

Instead, I just stumble over his damned husband’s name.

Screw it. I’m not talking to all of these judgmental fucks in the audience. I’m here as a best man for  Ron. And for Jake, his real-life best man. I’ll just turn around and talk to the two of them. Ignore Aunt Gertrude and the bridesmaid and the bartender. Okay, maybe not the bartender. But the bartender can wait. But I definitely can’t look at the bridesmaid.

For now, it’s just me and the two grooms.

“Hu-Hey Ron. Juh, juh… You know what? I’m nnnnot gonna say your name. I love what you d-d-done for my guy, but I fucking hate your name.”

There’s a smattering of laughs in the audience behind me. Fuck. Are they laughing at me? Mocking me because I can’t stand looking at them? Turned my back? Fuck you, Aunt Gertrude.

Or do they think I just made a joke? Did I just make a joke? Timing’s never been my strong suit.

Ron and Jake are both smiling at me. Jake is nodding. I’ve told him I hate his fucking name before. He usually thinks I’m joking. I guess I am. I mean, it would be a hell of a lot easier if his name was Aaron or something, but I don’t begrudge a dude his name. And Ron had enough trouble finding someone he could be happy with. It’s not worth throwing a fish back into the pond for his name.

Maybe I should say something along those lines.

“Yeah. J-j-jake. You’ve been the best thing that’s ever happened to m-m-my boy, Ron. I wuh. I wish you had a du-, a different name, but Ron won’t let me, let me call you Aaron.”

More laughter from behind me. That one was intentional. I think for a brief moment about turning around and mugging for the crowd. A wink to let them know I got this. But that would be a really, really bad idea. Like, pee my pants, pass out kind of bad.

“At least your nnname isn’t B-b-buster P-p-posey.”

Less laughter that time. I need to leave the stand-up to Kevin Hart. Just speak from the heart.

“Anyway, I’ve never. Never s-s-seen Ron s-s-so happy. It’s like. It’s like he always had s-s-so much to give and it p-p-pissed me off that he c-c-couldn’t find anyone. Probably mmmy fault. I kuh, I kept taking him to sports bars. Not a lot of gay dudes there. Not a lot of straight girls, either. Hey Ron, I thu, I think I… fffigured out my problem.”

Ron smiles, chuckles a little, gives me a thumbs up. I think this is what he was looking for from me. Time to finish before I fuck it up.

“Anyway. Juh, uh, Jake. You’ve made Ron happy. He acts like himself when he’s with you, which is… sssomething he hasn’t always done with boyfriends in the past. You guh. You guys are guh, great together. I’m sssso guh-glad you found each other. Even if you’re an A’s fan.”

A few more laughs. A thumbs up from Jake. Better pass this snake off before it bites me.

“Okay, I nnneed to get rid of this m-m-microphone before I fuck things up worse.”

The DJ takes the microphone from me. I sit back down and breathe for the first time in a half-hour. I stare down at the table, trying to find my composure. According to my Fitbit, my heartrate is only 110, but that can’t be. It must be at least double that.

The table looks very interesting. The table is my one solace as the DJ introduces the Maid of Honor. Not sure how I couldn’t come up with that moniker myself.

After she gives her speech, a much more eloquent recounting of her life with Jake, filled with beautiful anecdotes from grade school through high school placed naturally throughout, I finally look up. Nobody’s looking at me. My flush slowly recedes. After five minutes, my Fitbit finally drops below ninety, and I take that as a sign that I can have another drink.

I slink off to the bar for my deserved  free drink. Then another one. I’m perfectly content to stay on this stool the rest of the night. I’ve already signed the marriage certificate, so they don’t need me upright for anything.

“That was a nice speech you gave.”

I’m about to haul off and tell the person where they can shove their sarcasm, when I look up and see the Maid of Honor. She’s smiling. I think she’s serious. Or, at the very least, sincere.

“Th-Thank you.”

“Mind if I sit? I could use a drink, too. These things are daunting.”

“I cuh. I couldn’t have said it b-b-better myself.”

I wave to the barstool next to me.

“I’m Rick,” I say, extending my hand for a shake.

She smiles and takes my hand.

“You can call me Erin.”

 

Polly Esther and the 54 of Clubs

This week’s flash fiction asked for a children’s story. Definitely not the forte of a writer who has trouble writing cock-bursting cunt-bubble every other sentence.

So I went tongue-in-cheek. Never expected to win, and sure enough, I didn’t.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not proud of what I wrote. The judges responded that the humor seemed a bit adult. My response: they haven’t read a lot of children’s books. Like when my daughter makes me read a book seventy fucking times in a row to her. The ones that stay in the rotation are the one’s I find enjoyable, the one’s that have something in it for me. The rest are magically transported to the bottom of the pile (or the bottom of the trash can), I don’t give a shit how precious the fucking pictures are.

So, with that as background, I offer my completely off-color Children’s Book:

POLLY ESTHER AND THE 54 OF CLUBS

A very, very long time ago, further back than anybody can remember, there was a time of turmoil. A time of scary sights, of scary sounds, of scary hairstyles.

It was called the seventies. Ask your parents. Or better yet, your grandparents.

During this long-ago time, a mythical city rose up above the land. Towers of steel and glass reached toward the sky in the merry old town of York. Or rather, the very New town of York. Although, from your perspective, the New York of the 1970s would be Middle York, at best.

In this far-off land, in this very olden time, there lived a happy damsel named Polly Esther.

Polly Esther was known for many things. Her clothes was sleek, made of a magical cloth. Cloth of dazzling colors that don’t appear in nature, paired with other colors in stripes and zig-zags and polka dots. Polly Esther’s cloth was amazingly durable and breathable, but didn’t seem to fit to the form of a body, nor lose its own form, no matter how much she twisted or turned.

And Polly Esther twisted and turned a lot! She loved to dance. Every night, if she could, Polly attended galas and balls. She sang and danced to the falsetto grooves of the Brothers Gibb Bards.

The ballroom she really wanted to atten was the 54 of Clubs, a ball that catered to princes and princesses, and other magical beings, as far as the eye could see. This was the Club, it was rumored, where Cinderella ran away from Prince Charming. Or where Rumpelstiltskin spun himself through the floor. Polly Esther had never seen those things happen, but she was pretty sure she had seen Snow White dancing at the other end of the floor one night. Snow White was very easy to spot, for the seven dwarves dancing around her cleared the area around her face.

Now, 54 is a very big number, indeed. It is probably bigger than your parents are old. And that’s a VERY big number. There had been fifty-three Clubs before the 54 of Clubs. There had also been balls of Hearts and Diamonds. But never of spades. A spade is a shovel, and who wants to have a party with shovels? That’s silly!

Polly Esther had not been to all of the fifty-three Clubs before the 54 of Clubs, but she had been to many. And all of the princes and princesses, the earls and bards, even the dragons, used to love Polly Esther and her strangely static clothing of dazzling colors. But all of a sudden, on this, the fifty-fourth Club, they turned up their nose and turned her away.

“I’m sorry, but you cannot come in,” said the grumbly old gatekeeper at the bumbly entryway. It wasn’t a moat or a drawbridge or a thick prison door, but it might as well have been any or all of those things. Because right now, Polly could not pass through the mean old hag of a man.

“But, but why?” Polly Esther asked.

The dragon dragoon looked Polly Esther up and down with a withering eye. Polly felt like he was casting a spell on her. A spell of judgement. He did not approve of something about her, and because of that, he was barring her entry.

“If you don’t know, I shan’t tell you,” the doorman finally decreed, then turned away from Polly Esther as if he had something else, very important, to tend to, some very important person to allow through the magical portal of entry. Even though nobody could be seen for blocks and blocks.

“But I have always been allowed in before.”

“And that,” the not-so-wizened Wizard of No said, barely offering a glance over his shoulder, “is why you shan’t enter under my watch.”

Polly Esther ran away, crying in shame. She thought about leaving behind a shoe, but knew that no prince would come running after her. Besides, elevator platforms are as difficult to remove as a goblin’s tooth!

“I’m sorry that happened to you,” a voice said from beside Polly when she finally slowed down enough to hear.

She took her hands away from her face, where she had been hiding her tears. Tears can be very harmful in a summer wind, so Polly thought you must always shield them from the world.

Sitting in a doorstep, barely even noticeable if he hadn’t just spoken, was a ghastly monster. He might not have been an actual monster, but his pockmarked skin and crooked nose made him very scary, indeed.

“I have been trying to get into the Club since it was in the twenties,” the monster continued. “It can be frustrating, I know.”

The monster was trying to cheer Polly up, or at least to lessen her pain, but it was no good. The monster didn’t look like he belonged in a club. So now Polly had to wonder if she looked just as monstrous. The doorman had looked at her clothes when he dismissed her. Did her clothes make her look like this imp of a person? This person who, smiling to show Polly his support, showed teeth as mangled as his skin.

“I’m so sorry,” Polly Esther said to the monstrous man hiding in the doorway. “But I have only been barred from the Club by mistake.”

“I’m Guido,” said the monster, sticking out his hand.

In order to not seem mean, Polly shook Guido’s hand. He smiled again and Polly Esther did her best to not to cringe. She had only answered him because he made her feel uncomfortable. She was trying to sound empathetic, but Guido might have mistaken it for compassion. Do you know the difference between empathy and compassion? Empathy is when you try to understand somebody, to put yourself in their shoes. Compassion is when you feel sorry for them, but not in a bad way.

“Forget about what happened,” Guido continued. “Beauty is only skin deep. They only look at what’s on the outside.”

“There must be some mistake,” Polly Esther repeated. “They didn’t send me away because of the way I look. He must have had the wrong list.”

Guido merely shrugged. “That’s what I thought at the twenty-fifth Heart Ball.”

“I have a friend, Jim-Bob,” said Polly. “He never goes to Clubs or balls. Maybe he’ll explain it to me.”

“Jim-Bob?” asked Guido. “That sounds like a peasant name.”

“He comes from the countryside. His daddy is a farmer. But that doesn’t mean anything.”

“If you say so,” Guido said. “See if your friend Jim-Bob agrees.”

Polly Esther decided that was exactly what she would do. She prepared to leave Guido by apologizing for being brisk with him earlier. Guido said he was used to it. Polly said goodbye in a much nicer manner than she had said hello. In fact, after she was away from Guido, she wondered if she had ever said hello to him in the first place.

Polly Esther ran home as fast as her legs, swishing back and forth with an unnatural slickness, would carry her. She knocked on the door next door to her flat, on the 53rd floor of the Castle Gardens residential tower.

“Hey Polly Esther, how ya doin’?” Jim-Bob said when he opened the door.

“I’m doing fine, Jim-Bob.” Polly Esther said. “How are you?”

She wanted to delve right into her problems, but thought it might be rude. Jim-Bob, being from outside the city, enjoyed engaging in small talk first. Small talk is always polite.

“I’m right fine, thank you very much,” Jim-Bob answered, nodding his head and tipping its invisible straw hat in Polly’s direction. “I thought you were dancing tonight.”

“They didn’t let me in,” Polly Esther.

“Well, that’s a right-fine how-do-you-do, isn’t it?” Jim-Bob asked.

Polly Esther nodded. She didn’t really know what a right-fine how-do-you-do was, but she was pretty sure being blocked from the 54 of Clubs was definitely one.

“I never understood why you like going into those dungeons of fashion, any ol’ way.”

“You wouldn’t understand. You’ve never been inside. It’s not a dungeon. It’s a magical land of wonder and delight. Everyone that’s anyone is there. No offense.”

“None taken.”

Polly Esther looked in Jim-Bob’s face to see if there was truly no offense taken. He only smiled back at her. Either he really felt no offense, or he was better at hiding his feelings than a crocodile playing Go Fish with a fox.

Polly wished she could be as easy-going as Jim-Bob, but she just couldn’t let it go. Before long, the 54 of Clubs would be the 55 and then the 56 of Clubs. Would they let her in? Probably not. And what about the Heart and Diamond Balls? Polly Esther was still a single woman in the seventies. How would she find love if she couldn’t go to a Heart Ball?

“You should go talk to Bella,” suggested Jim-Bob.

“Bella, with the golden dress?”

Not THAT Bella-with-the-golden-dress. Or maybe it was. It was the seventies in the Village, after all, so who knows?

“Sure. She usually has a good crystal ball into what’s going on.”

Polly and Jim-Bob traveled to visit Bella. Through the tumultuous hallway, down the interminable elevator, out of the foyer of grime, they finally found themselves out on the streets of not-quite-New York. Two blocks later, they rang the doorbell and waited for the familiar brunette hairdo and the familiar yellow gown.

“I can make a phone call,” Bella said, and invited her two visitors inside.

“Who are you calling?” Polly asked Bella.

“Ringo,” Bella answered.

Not THAT Ringo. Or maybe it was. It was the Village in the seventies, after all, so who knows?

Bella picked up her phone and dialed. A telephone was an ancient device that somebody used to speak to someone far away. Like a teleportation spell for your voice. There were no text messages or Angry Birds or even Google. And it was tied to the wall by a cord. Can you imagine such a horrible device?

“He always knows what’s going on at the Clubs and the Diamonds and the Hearts,” Bella continued, then turned her attention to the phone receiver.

Polly tried to listen in on the phone call, tried to glean what was being said on the other side, based on how Bella was reacting. She couldn’t, and it probably served her right. You should not try to listen in on private conversations. And even worse, you should never base your judgement on only hearing one side of the story.

“I’m sorry,” Bella finally said when she put the phone down on its base (which is  how phone calls ended before there was a big red “END” button). “It was no mistake. They meant for you to be left out.”

“But why?” Polly asked.

“It’s your appearance,” Bella confirmed.

Polly looked down at her clothes. She grabbed her long, straight hair. It felt horrible to be judged for her appearance, and even worse, to be judged poorly. They were calling her a pock-marked monster, like Guido, or an outsider, like Jim-Bob. Or a… actually, Polly realized she didn’t know why Bella-with-the-golden-dress didn’t go to 54. She hadn’t gone to 53 either. Polly wasn’t sure if she had ever seen Bella at any of the Clubs. Or the Diamonds. Had Polly even seen her at a Hearts?

“But I’ve always gone to the clubs before,” Polly tried.

“Ringo says the age of Polly Esther is over. It’s time to move on to something else.”

“Well, how do you like that?”

“Maybe you can change your clothes,” Jim-Bob suggested.

It was very nice of Jim-Bob to offer his advice. He had never been to any of the Clubs. He never seemed interested in the Clubs, and he always told Polly Esther that she shouldn’t be concerned with them. But he was a friend, and a friend supports a friend, even when they have different interests. Polly had gone to baseball games with Jim-Bob, and if the Yankees hadn’t let him into their stadium, she assumed she would help him go to a Mets game.

But the Yankees would never bar Jim-Bob. Only Clubs like 54 barred people like Polly. And Guido and Jim-Bob and…

“Bella, why don’t you go to any of the Clubs?”

“I’m more of a Broadway girl.”

“But you’re such a good dancer.”

“The Clubs don’t have my kind of dancing. Not my kind of music.”

“Would you go to a ball if it had music you liked?”

“Maybe. It depends. I don’t like places that shut my friends out.”

That’s when it hit Polly. She shouldn’t be changing her appearance, or changing the way she acted, just to be allowed into a place that didn’t want her. She had friends here. And music. And even more.

“What if I put on my own ball? We will play whatever music people want to listen to. We will put the Yankees game up on the TV. And best of all, anyone who wants to dance can come and dance.”

“That sounds like fun,” Bella said. “How will we get the word out?”

“I know a guy named Guido,” Polly said. “He’s the first person I’ll invite, and I bet he knows a lot of people who want to attend a ball.”

The following night, Polly Esther made a comeback. She had the biggest party in the entire city. Everyone who was anyone wanted to attend. And everyone, whether they were anyone or not, was allowed to attend. The music varied from the Brothers Gibb to Ringo’s old band (not THAT band) to some of Bella’s theater hits. Some of the older patrons, who hadn’t been allowed into a ball for decades, requested some old song by the King about his Hound Dog. After that, a young pup requested a new sound from the Prince of Minnesota, a purple sound ahead of its time, that the Clubs would not catch onto for another five years.

Some patrons danced the cha-cha. Some danced the polka. Bella twirled a pirouette that was elegant to behold.

Jim-Bob watched the Yankees game on the TV. He REALLY didn’t like dancing.

The called the ball “The First of Spades.” After all, a spade is a shovel. And what better name for a ball that digs up and buries all the outdated and exclusive ideals of all of the other three suits?

 

Eating Habits of the Elderly

My mom came to visit last weekend. Always an adventure. But between the “fun” of having someone in our space constantly and the “why is grandchild getting tired of me” and the off-hand comments on our parenting, I found a few oddities about her choice of food.

I found a few of her choices odd because they align with my in-laws, who we dine with more often. My mom grew up in the suburbs of Southern California, my mother-in-law grew up in the rural foothills of Northern California, and my father-in-law grew up in Vegas, so there shouldn’t necessarily be too many common threads between them, geographically.

Except that they were all firmly entrenched in the Baby Boom era. Which means they grew up in an era where Kool Aid was considered healthy and Wonder Bread was the preferred avenue toward the mandatory carbohydrate input of the day. And the only proper spice to put on any dish is salt. And if that’s not enough, add a little more salt.

So it must just be the children of a certain age that have a couple of tendencies toward what I might call double-wide culinary school.

And, other than a few go-to’s, all three of the eaters in question are prone to the finer things in life. Their tastebuds have definitely progressed beyond their meager beginnings. I wouldn’t necessarily call any of them foodies, but they’re not those “same five dishes we’ve always had” types. Especially the females. My mom won’t bat an eye at a Thai restaurant and my in-laws love to discover new gastropubs in San Francisco (provided they have been well vetted by a known source). My mom and mother-in-law are both very good cooks. Both of them can make Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner for twenty, and are even sometimes willing to tweak one recipe or another. One at a time, of course, but still. My father-in-law watches every single competition show on Food Network and my mom is hellbent on visiting every Bobby Flay restaurant in the world.

And yet… And yet…

Mustard. 

I love mustard. I will put mustard on just about anything. I’ll take mustard over mayo on a sandwich any day of the week. I hate when you’re at a conference that’s “providing sandwiches,” because those sandwiches are inevitably half mayonnaise, and the mustard is relegated to tiny packets. So there I’ll be, standing over the trash can, trying to scrape off the mayo and using my teeth to open the five mustard packs it’s going to take to offset the slimy meat and… you know what? Screw it, I’m just going to have a mustard sandwich.

My jaw hit the floor when I saw Alton Brown put mustard (and cracked pepper) on a grilled cheese sandwich. My life has never been the same.

And don’t get me started on In n’ Out’s mustard-grilled patties. They’re a slice of heaven, but I can only get them right about 1/3 of the time. Every other time they assume I want animal style.

“Can I get a double-double, mustard-grilled?”

“Okay, one animal-style double-double.”

“No, just mustard-grilled.”

“Okay, mustard-grilled with pickles.”

“No pickles. Just mustard-grilled.”

“Okay, thousand-island dressing.”

“No, I don’t want fucking animal style. I just want fucking mustard-grilled.”

Blank stare. “Okay, I’ll just write animal style, and I assume the cook will know what to do.”

And there’s I’ll be, scraping shit off of his burger over the trash can.

About a year ago, the in-laws were over for a barbecue. Burgers and hot dogs. Of course, all three of the baby boomers prefer hot dogs over Brats or Polish or Italian or Hawaiian, but whatever. I get out the condiments and…

“Do you have any mustard?” Father-in-law asked.

I hand across the mustard. He looks puzzled, turned the bottle over in his hands, put it down.

“No, I mean mustard.”

See, the problem was that I had given him what I consider mustard. I don’t remember which specific type it was. I can’t imagine it was anything overly spicy. Nothing with horseradish, no Colman’s English, no nuclear-orange sweet and hot. It was probably a generic stone-ground. I probably had some better stuff on hand, but I wouldn’t waste it on my in-laws.

And don’t get me started on the coffee swill I bust out when my mom is visiting.

But no, my father-in-law didn’t consider this particular bottle to be mustard. Of course, we all know what he meant by mustard. He wanted the neon-yellow sourpuss mustard. Good, old-fashioned American brands like… French’s. Or Heinz. What I had handed him was a natural-looking yellow-brown, with a couple of speckles indicating that it did, in fact, come from a plant. Maybe even a mustard plant.

I know the seeds are only for effect. I worked in a homemade ice cream shop in college and can attest that the beans in the vanilla bean don’t add squat to the flavor.

Well, I was a tad bit embarrassed at this barbecue to discover that, although I had three different types of mustard in the fridge, none of them were what he was looking for. I resolved to have some the next time they were over, and he settled for ketchup. I was smart enough to not bust out the malt-vinegar ketchup.

The earlier incident had been lost to the annals of experience. We now keep a bottle of French’s yellow mustard around for the in-laws when they visit. I never thought more of it, and often forget it’s in my refrigerator, even though I see it next to the good shit every time I open the refrigerator.

So while my mom was visiting, I absentmindedly asked her if she could put all the condiments out while I was cooking the burgers. Three guesses which yellow condiment was waiting for me when I got outside.

And look, I’m not opposed to the yellow mustard. It serves its purpose. It gets the job done. It’s cheaper and usually more accessible than the good shit. When I’m scrounging together a mustard sandwich from the Subway spread, chances are it ain’t Grey Poupon I’m slathering on the soggy bread. When I’m at the ballpark, if yellow’s all they’ve got, I’m still getting a hot dog. Whereas, if Coors Light is the only beer they have, I’m getting water.

Although I have noticed that more ballparks are giving good mustard as an option. Just sayin’.

Yellow mustard is a perfectly fine product. But if there’s a yellow mustard right next to a stone-ground horseradish mustard, is it really a question which one you should grab? Well, evidently, it is, because I now have one Baby Boomer who refuses to eat the latter, and one that, I don’t know, doesn’t know it exists? Because what surprises me the most is that my mom opened the refrigerator, saw this, and it never even occurred to her to grab more than one.

mustard

Oh, and that mayonnaise is also only there for when Baby Boomers are in tow.

Bisquick

I’m a little less understanding about this second culinary foible.

Whenever my wife’s sister is in town, we do breakfast at the in-laws. I usually try to steer us toward a restaurant. We have a wonderful breakfast place that specializes in mimosas. I am usually overruled.

Breakfast at the in-laws is usually a smorgasbord of chaos. Mother-in-law cooks up bacon and then leaves a bunch of options out for us to cook for ourselves. There are eggs, which I usually opt for. And then there’s a giant batch o’ Bisquick.

I could have said “pancake batter,” but I’m striving for accuracy here. And whatever the fuck Bisquick is, it ain’t pancakes.

The name implies it started as a biscuit mixture. That might explain the odd baking soda-esque tinge that remains on my tongue whenever I eat a Bisquick pancake. Maybe if I were to eat the pancake with a big ol’ batch of country gravy on top, it would taste a little better.

Bisquick officially lists itself as “Pancake and Biscuit Mix.” So even they have acceded to the fact that they are usually used for the former. Didn’t bother changing their name to Panquick, though.

Oh hey, they also say you can make waffles with their product. Just… let me see here… well, it’s the same as pancake batter, but with a little oil. Are they aware that waffles are supposed to taste different than pancakes? No? That might explain why I also didn’t know that until I was twenty.

My mom is on the same Bisquick-wagon my in-laws are on. About six months ago, she was excited to make some Mickey Mouse pancakes for my daughter. She had been practicing! Because it’s super hard to make Mickey Mouse pancakes. You have to… make three pancakes… but simultaneous! And connected! I assume it takes up a whole semester at culinary school.

But sure, Mom, knock yourself out.

She goes to our pantry and comes out a few hours later like a bewildered spelunker returning from the Land of the Lost.

“I’m sure I’m just missing it, but I couldn’t find any Bisquick.”

“Oh yeah, I usually make pancakes from scratch.”

Blink. Blink.

“From that standard, in-every-kitchen-in-America, Betty Crocker cookbook right there.”

Blink. Blink.

“The one you gave me twenty years ago when I moved out?”

“Oh. Um. Okay. I just. I don’t think I’ve ever made them that way.”

So for this visit, my wife decided to get a box of Bisquick at the store.

“Oh, thank you. Thank you so much,” my mom said when we showed it to her. I think she was more excited at the Bisquick than she was when I told her a grandchild was on the way.

Again, don’t get me wrong. I’m not going all hipster, anti-processed food here. I am perfectly fine with boxed meals. If I could eat Zatarain’s Caribbean Rice fortnightly, I would. I survived a good portion of my bachelor years on Rice-a-Roni, Pasta-Roni, and their ilk. My mom probably had to look behind three boxes of Shake & Bake and a barricade of Mac & Cheese (for the child, naturally…) in her ill-fated search for the Bisquick.

But I’ve got a few problems with Bisquick. First and foremost is the taste. There’s something acrid to it. Something that tastes like they couldn’t figure out if they wanted to taste like biscuits or pancakes (or waffles), so they split the difference and banked on being nondescript enough or ubiquitous enough that nobody would notice. It is not a flavor you would find when you go out for breakfast. Fortunately the IHOP/IHOb rebrand wasn’t alluding to International House of Bisquick. All of these Bisquick-lovers opt for fluffy, flavorful pancakes when we’re out for breakfast, yet don’t bat an eye settling for substantially less when at home.

I suppose I get that a little. I love getting Eggs Benedict when I’m out for breakfast. Because poaching eggs is a pain in the ass. And I can only assume hollandaise sauce would take effort. And I’m guessing the packet hollandaise wouldn’t taste as good.

But there’s a big difference between Eggs Benedict and pancakes, and it’s my biggest problem with the Bisquickers. PANCAKES AREN’T DIFFICULT TO MAKE! Bisquick requires three ingredients: Bisquick, milk, and egg. The Betty Crocker recipe adds four more ingredients: Flour, milk, egg, brown sugar, oil, baking powder, and salt. And I can’t imagine either of the Baby Boomers I know are having issues with brown sugar, oil, baking powder, or salt.

Seriously, I’m shitty at baking because I never measure things correctly. My wife’s the baker and I’m the cook, because I like to toss it in the pan and sample and add a little of this and try to offset a pinch of that. Who does my wife get her baking ability from? Her mother, who loves to bake. My mom makes enough Christmas cookies to feed a battalion. They both make homemade pie crusts and cakes that I would have to buy from the store.

You know what pie crusts and cakes and cookies all have? Oil. And sugar. And probably some baking powder.

Yet neither of them can be bothered to put the extra three minutes and one dirty measuring spoon into a morning meal.

So my mom made a batch of Bisquick pancakes for my daughter. She used the number four mold this time, since my daughter just turned four.

Then she put the rest of the batter in the refrigerator.

Two days later, she busted out the two-day old Bisquick batch. Even my daughter thought that was much. Those refined four year-old taste buds took one bite and said no, thanks.

So my mom made another batch.

Look, I love me some leftovers. But all three of these Baby Boomers are prone to hold on to every morsel of leftover food. A refrigerator becomes a veritable minefield of day-old, week-old, and when-the-fuck-did-we-have-Chinese food. I’m prone to a bit of this, myself.

But Bisquick batter? The whole fucking box cost five bucks. It’ll last twenty years. I may only be a teacher, but I think I can afford a little batter dump.

But then I have to remind myself that our parents grew up during the Great Depression.

Right? Like in “Grease.” The malt-shop, poodle-skirt, Elvis-Presly-pelvis-shaking Great Depression.

Not Quite Gilligan

Time for another one of my not-winner flash fiction entries. For this one, the prompt gave us the first line (“They leap from branch to branch, soaring with grace and poise”)  and the last line (“They command attention, leaving their spectators breathless.”). We had to fill the part in the middle. I immediately thought of a zoo-type setting, but wanted to twist it around so that the “breathless” part was literal. Blood and mayhem, baby. I didn’t care for it at first, but by the end I was okay with what I had written. Definitely not my strongest, but I’ve usually struggled getting to the action part, so it was nice for that part to come out okay.

Of course, I was really annoyed when I was 2/3 of the way through and all of a sudden realized that the first and last line were in present tense…

 

NOT QUITE GILLIGAN

They leap from branch to branch, soaring with grace and poise. At least that’s how it appears to their spectators.

“Oooooo.”

The zoo’s visitors gasp as one through the plexiglass that is not quite plexiglass. One of the graceful specimens comes up a little short on this particular soar, and begins a plummet toward the soft grass canopy that doubles as their bedding. The anti-gravitational boosters kick in. The spectators learned the hard way that these specimens do not recover from a fall as easily as the research indicates.

“Why the hell did they give us branches to jump around on?” Chuck asks, sitting up and wiping grass off his tunic.

“We’re primates,” Arthur says, still sitting in the branch above. “They didn’t bother to classify us beyond monkeys.”

“I thought they were supposed to be super smart. They can’t even tell the difference between humans and goddamn monkeys?”

“Would you know the difference between a greyhound and a bulldog?”

“No, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t feed Meow Mix to a friggin’ lion.”

Chuck stands back up. Experience tells him that the mild electric tingling he is currently feeling will grow to a legitimate shock and beyond unless he leaves = the grassy canopy. The zoo is open, and during opening hours, they can’t be allowed to rest out of sight. The show happens up on the branches.

He walks over to the nearest tree that is not quite a tree. It looks like wood and acts like wood, but it doesn’t feel like wood. The best route up is a ladder embedded into its back. The spectators don’t seem to notice, or don’t seem to care, how their specimens climb up to the observational branches.

“At least that bought me another ten minutes before I have to make another leap.”

“And what are you going to do with it?” Arthur asks, standing up on his own branch and preparing to make a leap of his own. He flips his foot backward and grasps his ankle, stretching his hamstring. “Flip them the bird again?”

“I just might,” Chuck says, cracking his knuckles and wiggling his fingers toward the customers as if he is a wizard preparing to cast a spell on them instead of throwing up a universal signal that is not quite universal.

“You might as well fling your poo at them.”

Arthur leaps from one branch to the next, soaring with a bit more poise and grace than usual. Seeing a fellow captive stumble often has that effect on the next few leaps. It’s nature to relax a bit on a mundane task, until you are reminded how easily it can be made un-mundane.

“If I thought my poo would get through to those a-holes, I would,” Chuck says. “But it would just splatter on the plexiglass, and I don’t need a reminder that I’m in a cage.”

No one responds, so Chuck feels an impulse to continue.

“Besides, it would probably disintegrate in their poisonous atmosphere. No effect whatsoever except for me with a bunch of dingleberries left in my hand.”

Chuck laughs. He knows he’s made a good one, and screw the rest of the humans if they don’t like it. Besides, they’re all minding their own business. The zookeepers don’t like much fraternizing between the specimens. But Chuck’s already been buzzed once this hour, what’s the harm in getting another tingle?

“Their atmosphere isn’t poisonous,” Arthur responds. “We could breathe it.”

“How the hell do you know that? You been holding out some laptop or something?”

“Not at all. They come in to feed us, clean out our cages.”

Chuck says nothing. No one says anything.

“And what do they have with them when they do?” Arthur probes, enjoying the upper hand.

“Cattle prods and shit.”

“And what don’t they have?”

“Qgrxry.” A disembodied, synthetic voice garbles from the air above, a sound all of the humans have become well aware of. They learned quickly to understand the subtle nuance of an alien language.  

James, the third male prisoner, shakes out of his forlorn spot near the front of the cage, and turns to leap away from the spectators.

“Hey numbnuts, qgrxry doesn’t mean jump. It means-,”

“QGRXRY!” The voice booms everywhere, a god that is not quite a god.

“Silence,” Chuck mutters under his breath, refusing to let E.T. get the last word, but not wanting another shock. His internal bravado meets external reality.

James leaps. Layla leaps. Before too long, it’s Chucks turn to once again leap from branch to branch, soaring with grace and poise. This time, he even manages to stick the landing, one branch away from Arthur.

“I’ll bite.” Chuck tries to look like he is only absorbed in his own thoughts, muttering under his breath. “What don’t they have?”

Chuck picks his nose for effect. He saw a real chimpanzee do it at a real zoo once. He twirls it in between his fingers, acts like he’s talking to the booger.

“They don’t have any environmental protection. The zookeepers look the same as the spectators. If they can breathe the air in here, we can breathe the air out there.”

Chuck pops the booger in his mouth. For effect, of course.

“Not bad, professor. Now can you turn a coconut into a radio and fix the fucking boat?”

Arthur just shakes his head at the amazingly failed allusion. It’s his turn to leap away, and he is all too happy to do it.

Chuck steps up to stretch, and leaps in the opposite direction long before any sort of warning can come from above. A couple times a day, he varies his schedule. Got to keep them on their toes, he thinks. He imagines some bureaucrat alien staring at a spreadsheet, trying to make rhyme or reason of the exercise habits of humans.

Plus this time, he has an idea brewing. The first person he encounters is Layla.

“So if he’s the professor, I guess that makes you Mary Ann. I mean, not that I’d like to see you in a halter top or anything, no offense.”

“None taken,” Layla responds. “I wouldn’t show you my halter top if you were the last… Come to think of it, you are one of the last three, and I still won’t show you.”

“Not the last three on Earth, toots. Earth’s still out there, with plenty of humans on it, and I’m starting to concoct a plan.”

“Oh, sweet Jesus. Try not to get us all killed in the-,”

“GRZYXR,” the disembodied voice calls. Chuck clenches, but then relaxes. It isn’t the silence command, and he was planning on leaping away, anyway. He lands near James.

“Hey Gilligan, I got a plan. Sorry, Jimbo, but I figure, if we’ve got the professor and Mary Ann, and clearly I’m the Skipper, that leaves you as Gilligan. You don’t strike me as much of a Thurston Howell type. Do you mind if I call you Gilligan, Jimbo?”

James looks up, then immediately looks away. He likes neither Gilligan nor Jimbo, so he plots his next two leaps, hoping to get far away, fast. Of the four prisoners, he interacts the least, choosing to perfect his leaping and posing ability in hopes of being promoted.

“So I figure if they can breathe, then we can take their breath away, right? And I don’t mean in some cheesy eighties pop-rock sorta way. I mean kill ’em. Dead. Breathless. Although that sounds like eighties cheese, too. Tin roof rusted, and all that.”

James is astonished, and more than a little ashamed, that not only does he understand all of Chuck’s pop culture references, but the idea behind his misguided drivel, too. Chuck thinks he has a plan. It is not quite a plan, but it is, at least, an idea.

“Okay, so at the next feeding time, and man I hope we’re getting mac and cheese tonight.” Chuck pauses for a moment, thinking of the blue box of Kraft goodness that they’ve somehow perfected on this far away planet. “But at the next feeding time, we-“

“Qgrxry.”

James leaps from branch to branch, soaring with grace and poise. Chuck has to admit that, of all of them, Jimbo has the most grace and poise. Even if he seems to jump away at the wrong commands. Doesn’t seem to know his Qgrxry from his Grzyxr, if Chuck is honest about faults. But he’s a damned fine physical specimen, and he should do well as front-line cannon fodder like the Gilligan he is.

“They brought an egghead and a stud,” Chuck mutters under his breath, a compulsion he often feels after the Qgrxry command. “Then there’s me, the streetwise guy. And the girl rounds it out as a foil, like any good story. Stand by Me, right? No wait, there was no chick in Stand by Me. What’s the other one? Oh yeah, It.”

The four specimens continue to leap in silence. If the bureaucrat with the spreadsheet is paying close attention, he might see a spike in their leaps from branch to branch, although the bureaucrat, not actually in the vicinity of the four humans, would fail to note their additional grace and poise. They leap with a vigor, with a purpose, that they have not had in ages.

While they command the attention of their spectators, their own attention is in a different direction. They leap for different vantage points, always mindful of the entrance. From each direction, the entrance looks the same. No hidden trick, a simple portal that leads to a hallway beyond. An airlock, the chance of breathing true air laying beyond. Although each human, apart from Chuck, rues the man who brought the idea to their attention, they cannot deny the merits of the idea. James and Layla and Arthur share glances with each other as they pass each other in silence. Eventually, they must even share their upraised eyebrows in with the malcontent. Everybody needs to be on the same page.

Not that it matters. The box is open, Pandora is free. Chuck is going to bum-rush the first alien motherfucker that walks through that portal, come hell or high water. The other humans were either going to let him fail, and be guilty by association, or help him succeed. It is no choice at all. No more soaring. It’s time for breathless.

“Chgrchx.”  

Feeding time always comes with anticipation, a moment to be human instead of spectacle. The anticipation of this particular Chgrchx, however, rivals all since their first one, when they weren’t yet sure if their captors could even produce human food. For the first time since that feeding, their survival is again in the balance when the zookeepers walk through the door.

Chuck knows the timing. He arcs through the grass, seemingly random but always with a direct line toward the door. If he is correct, he will be directly in front when they appear. Of course, he is correct. There is nothing to learn in this cell except for the timing between a Qgrxry or a Grzyxr or a Chgrchx and its insequential action, like a primitive culture knowing that the Winter Solstice sunrise will shine through a pillar. And when this Winter Solstice of a feeding comes shining through this particular Stonehenge, Chuck is ready to pounce.

He runs right at the alien, shoulder lowered. The alien is unarmed, holding only a tray with four plates of macaroni and cheese. Chuck’s shoulder makes contact with the tray, slamming it up into the chest that is not quite a chest. The alien stumbles backward, one step, then two, and is about to regain its footing when the second wave hits.

Chuck is vaguely surprised that it is Layla, not James or Arthur, that steps in from the alien’s left. Not a full step, only a half step. Only enough to prevent the alien’s third step, the one that would plant and pivot its gravity back forward, from landing on the grass. The alien’s tottering becomes a sprawl, and the alien sprawls backward through the portal, a spray of neon-orange pasta somersaulting through the air the only proof it had been in this location at all.

“Could’ve waited till the armed guards were in first,” says James, still poised on the branch closest to the door.

“Now what the hell do we do?” Arthur asks, already winded from running in on a diagonal course.

“The portal’s still open,” Layla says, returning upright and attempting to avoid being covered in macaroni. “Do we just run through it?”

“But we know there will be armed guards right behind the-,” Arthur starts.

“We keep the element of surprise,” Chuck says, and barrels into the around the corner into the hallway beyond.

Chuck doesn’t have the element of surprise anymore. Two shock sticks ignite simultaneously, one on each side. Thousands of volts course through his body. Chuck drops to his knee.

Layla kicks out again, this time higher up, knocking one shock stick away. Chuck can at least breathe, but even one shock stick is enough to immobilize him.

James aims his leap at the other weapon, but instead of kicking out at it, he grapples for it. The force of gravity, combined with the element of surprise, gives him enough leverage to seize the stick from the alien body he is tangled with. He rolls onto the ground, a move he was not capable of before his years of forced gymnastics, and comes set as the other two humans follow into the hallway.

Layla kicks again, this time in the direction of a groin that is not quite a groin, incapacitating the alien she had just disarmed. Arthur, in typical Arthur fashion, does not break a sweat as he walks through the portal. He picks up the shock stick the picks up the shock stick Layla kicked out of the first alien’s grasp. He thinks about brandishing it himself, but realizes that would make him a target. Instead, he hands the weapon to Chuck.

Chuck tries to stand, but can only get to his knees. He grabs the weapon and nods his thanks to the nerd. He wheezes and coughs, and pretends the air smells so different now, even if it is stuffier in the hallway than in their cage. He is trying, once again, to find his footing when a new sound comes from the next room.

It is not a new sound, entirely. It is a sound the humans are all too familiar with, but have not heard for years. The click, chink, chunk, of a gun being loaded. And not a gun-that-is-not-quite-a-gun, but an honest-to-goodness, steel assault rifle.

Chuck tries to stand once again. He wants to press the advantage. He knows the cause is lost if they wait until the machine gun makes its way into view. One foot up, dragging his knee behind, he takes one step, that is not quite a step, forward. He uses the shock stick not as a weapon, but as a crutch, dragging himself toward his adversary and his freedom.

Chuck never hears the bracka-bracka-bracka that slices through his body. He is breathless before he even sees the lone gunman, a cowering, diminutive zookeeper that had probably been staring at spreadsheets two moments before.

Chuck doesn’t know that James had already gotten into a defensive position next to the doorway, much as the two aliens guards had lain in wait for him, moments ago. He is long gone before James uses that shock stick to fell the alien and upgrade to an assault rifle. Not that it would have done Chuck any good to be in on the plan. One human was going to be the cannon fodder.

“He never knew he was Gilligan,” says Layla, grabbing a gun of her own from the second room. “Now I have a machine gun. Ho, ho, ho.”

Arthur smiles at the reference. “Old Charles would be so sad to know you waited until he was gone before making a Die Hard reference.”

“That’s why I waited.”

There are only two guns, just as there are only two shock sticks. For emergency purposes only. This is a zoo, after all. The zookeepers, the spectators, even the guards, scarcely need a gun.

“So what do we do now?” James asks.

Arthur ponders for a moment.

“We fight for as long as we can. If we can make it to a spaceport, so much the better. But failing that, we take as many of those spectators with us as possible. They are just as guilty as the one who captured us. Agreed?”

Layla cocks her gun. James cocks his gun. Both nod.

The three humans break out of their confinement. They emerge, guns blazing, into the crowd of zoo-goers.

They command attention, leaving spectators breathless in their presence.

 

A Writing Retrospective

A couple weeks ago, I did something I hadn’t done in almost 200 days.

Or rather, I didn’t do something I had done every day, for just under 200 times in a row.

On May 16, I did not write. No blog entry, no flash fiction, no in-progress novel.

Oh, I wrote plenty on May 16. Notes on essays, probably some e-mail responses, but those don’t count.

Prior to that Wednesday, however, I wrote. Every day, all 195 of them from November 2 through May 15, I created some typed content. I wrote on Christmas. I wrote on New Years Day. On Valentine’s Day. On St. Patrick’s Day. The day AFTER St. Patrick’s Day. I wrote the day I flew to Hawaii, and every day when I was there. On the day I flew to a curling bonspiel, and after every game I played while I was there. I wrote while camping (although it was only a one night camping trip, so I wrote before I left and after I got back).

More specifically, during that streak, I typed at least 444 words into the website 4thewords.com. That website is also the reason I know how impressive my streak was. I don’t even know what my best streak was before this. Maybe twenty days? I mean, I know I sure as shit never wrote on Christmas before. Or any of those other dates written above. Except for Camptathalon, of course.

But 4thewords keeps track of my streak, which thereby makes it easier to maintain said streak. My character gets special wings when my streak reaches a certain number of days.

The website and its various carrots are also the reason that the streak was as impressive as it was. I wrote about it after NaNoWriMo. Wow, the number of throwbacks in this blog post makes it feel like those clip shows that sitcoms used to run in April before everything was available on demand.

But because of 4thewords.com, for the first time ever, I continued writing after November was over. Every day. Some days it’s a struggle. Some days, I drudge back downstairs at 10 PM to put down some drivel. Naturally, I get wordier that time of night. Or maybe, since I’m typing this in 4tw, it might be better to say I get as wordy as a talkative wordsmith crafting his wordiness for a living.

What happened on May 16? It was a conscious decision to not write. No, I didn’t wake up with a general “fuck it.” But, with the finite amount of time available to me between the child being put down and my impending crash into unconsciousness, I opted for what was behind Door #2. The AP Test was two days away and I still had a handful of essays I wanted to return  to the students taking the test the following day.

So I said “Fuck it.”

Actually, after I “fucked it” (fuck ited? wordy wordsmithed it?), I logged onto the website to make sure I didn’t lose my streak. They have a special item that extends a streak without needing the 444 words. I had five of them in reserve. Then I got back on the donkey the next day. I’m now up to 216 days, which they count as 195 legitimate days + May 16 + 20 more days since.

So don’t worry, I didn’t lose my wings. Had I not owned one of those items, then I guess my students would’ve just been a little less prepared for a nationwide standardized exam. Gotta have my priorities, after all. Now I have four of the mulligans left. I’ll earn back the one I used next Monday when my streak hits 222. Who knows, maybe I’ll just get a hankerin’ and take a week off from writing. Of course, this is coming from the teacher who has 120 sick days banked, so it’ll take a much more legitimate “fuck it” before I lose that streak.

But still, maybe I should take Christmas off this year.

Oh wait, Christmas is with the in-laws this year? Yeah, I’ll be writing that day.

So what are the results of this newfound verbosity?

On a sidenote, I just looked up verbosity on thesaurus.com, and evidently there’s a word called logorrhea. Like diarrhea, but with words. I definitely need to use that word more.

Okay, here are the stats: I just passed 197,000 words written on the website. Not bad.

They’ve come in all forms: blog posts, which have allegedly become more frequent; flash fiction, and I promise there are more of those on the way, I can only post them after I lose the contest, but I’m 0-for-4 so far, so I’ll start posting them weekly in the summer; e-mails, letters, and Facebook posts (don’t judge); and, of course, the novel-in-progress.

I started the novel way back in NaNoWriMo, 2014. You can read the basis for it here. And a sample chapter that’s four years old. It fizzled out after about 25,000 words, but the idea was still there. Over the next four years, I managed another 15,000 words. In the past 200 days, I’ve added another 75,000+ words to be on the cusp of 120,000 words. That’s too long for a first book, but a lot of those frivolous words will be edited out. I’m guessing it’s closer to 80,000 legitimate words.

How did I triple the output? Well, this will be a shocking answer to some: I actually sat my ass down and wrote. For 200 days. Not always on the book, but I run out of e-mails eventually, and if I want my 444 words, I’m going to have to move that pesky main character along.

I always knew where the book was going. Since I first started, I had this grandiose final scene in my head. Some of the dialogue’s been ready to go for four years. I’ve known where the characters will be placed and exactly how much of the big picture would be revealed (gotta keep a couple things for the sequel, after all).

But getting to that final scene is sometimes a problem. And by sometimes, I mean always. For four years. I’d often get stuck mid-scene. How do I get the characters or narrative through a particular scene? So historically, I would get to a spot, the main character dangling precariously from the precipice, and then I’d take a few days off while I mulled how do get him to the bottom of the cliff. Or a few weeks. Or years.

Then maybe I’d figure it out, and I’d sit down to write the scene, and I’d write 1,000 words and, wouldn’t you know it, the fucker’s still up on his clifftop. Because I forgot I needed a little internal dialogue or a scatological description of how scared he is. And then I’d get frustrated that I spent two months deciding where this scene was going and I finally sat down to do it and I DIDN’T EVEN GET TO THE FUCKING PART I JUST SPENT TWO MONTHS FIGURING OUT!

Here’s how that same scene has played out over the past 200 days: I blog for a day, write a flash fiction over the weekend, and when Tuesday rolls around, I guess I have to write the actual book. So I write 500 words. That’s easy enough. Nothing has to happen in 500 words. He shits himself. Then the next day, he wipes for 500 words. After three or four days, I finally get to the point where I just say “Fuck it” and describe him scrambling down the cliff. Three days later he’s finally engaging in the dialogue I’ve known he was going to get into at the bottom of the cliff.

There are chapters that I know for a fact I will chop 1000 of the first 1500 words. But a lot of times those words were necessary for me at the time, because they helped me work through what the character’s going through. I gain insight into my characters and their world that can be edited to be implied instead of explicit.

It’s the same process I would’ve gone through before, just without the winter of contemplation in between.

So here I am, 120000 words later and guess what? I’m finally to that culminating scene! The one that’s been in my mind since page one. Woo Hoo! Easy sailing from here!

And how’s the scene going? The one that I’ve known the intricacies of forever?

Well, I’m blogging right now.

Because, goddammit, this “easy” scene is just as difficult as any other scene. Maybe moreso because it’s the culmination of four years and 120,000 words of character and plot development. One of the characters who’s supposed to be there is dead. There is a character that showed up around the 70,000 word mark that is vitally important now. rDi I just have him stand around and pick his butt while the corpse of the dead character does something important? Just because I know Darth Vader’s going to reveal he’s Luke’s father doesn’t mean I know how Luke’s going to get there in the first place.

Come to think of it, how the hell is there a Death Star-esque bottomless cylinder in Cloud City? Is everything in the Star Wars universe built by the same contractor?

I think there’s something else hindering my process right now. Do you ever get to the end of a book and slow down your reading? Not sure if you’re ready to be done with it? Well, this book’s been in my thought process for four years. What am I going to write the next day? Sure, I have plenty of new books I could start, but which one should I do? I feel like I’ll be so lost when I don’t have this specific existential weight on me. If I’m not thinking of this specific character and plotline, will I suddenly become aware of a lack of substance in the rest of my life?

Meh. Maybe I’ll take another day off.

But until then, it’s a shit-ton of logorrhea.