Friday, July 31, 2009

Another Month, Another Prompt

Happy Friday!

I've had very little time to blog lately -- I'm racing against end-of-the-month deadlines, and in my spare time, it seems I'm rebuilding our entire house from the ground up. So far this summer, we've repainted the whole interior, refinished all our floors, rebuilt fascia and soffits, replaced the hot water heater, screwed up our plumbing, and landscaped most of the backyard. Next up: power wash and paint the roof. Then relay the stone path in the front yard.

Egad. Just reading the list is boring.

This means that all of my wonderful writing thoughts have been vanishing into the ether like so many little burps. Please excuse me.

But I haven't forgotten: Monday is the first Monday of the new month, so I'm going to post the August story prompt. Rules are the same as last time, except I'll start taking and posting stories the following Monday if anybody is ready. If you're new to this, here it is in a nutshell: I post a prompt. You write a short story of 1,000 words or less. I post it. People comment.

See? Simple.

Last time, I was thoroughly impressed with the quality of the writing and the different directions everybody went -- yet there were common themes among many of the stories. And I got a new character out of it who will almost definitely turn up in a book at some point. So, I know there were a few lurkers out there ... if you want to write this time around, I'd love to post it.

Have a good weekend, and check back Monday for the August prompt.

Monday, July 27, 2009

My Favorite Book

Is it unusual to have a favorite book? I've been asking around, and I get a lot of, "Well, I don't really have a favorite book. I like A LOT of books." Or, "It depends on the day and my mood." Or, "My favorite book is [whatever I read in third grade, because it was the last book I really read]."

I definitely have a favorite book, but I'm afraid this makes me very weird. My favorite book is one of the most dreaded books in the English language, even though I just can't see why people despise this book so much. I've never really met anybody else who loved it the way I love it. Truth is, I haven't actually met many people who've read it at all.

I remember one summer ... I was 20 years old and I was home from college for the summer. I was living on my mom's couch that summer, and working with a friend of mine in his window-washing business. We set our own hours and made good money, working for ourselves. I went out bar-hopping almost every night -- it turned out this was the last summer I would ever spend in my hometown. Turned out, that was true for a lot of us, but we didn't know it then.

I'd get home late every night. Two, three, four in the morning. But instead of sleeping, I'd lay on my couch (sometimes gently spinning) and read Moby Dick. This wasn't my first time through it, but it was the first time the book really grabbed me. I can still remember individual sentences and images and the way they wound into my brain. In some very real ways, my dreams were shaped by Moby Dick on those late summer nights.

Two years later, I read it again, this time while I was living in the South Pacific, near the same stretches of ocean the Pequod plowed through. And then again, and again, and again.

Why Moby Dick? There really isn't time, but just because of everything. It has seafaring adventure, symbolism and theme of the deepest order, the best depiction of madness on paper I've ever seen, and all those glorious passages about the whale and the hunt. It's so much more than the sum of its parts. It has meaning on a level that feels almost post-linguistic, as if it operates on a cellular plane. To me, Moby Dick is near the pinnacle of artistic expression.

Moby Dick is the book I wish I could write.

What about you?

A Knife to the Throat

I guess you could say I'm a cynical reader. Remember during the publication of Harry Potter, when seemingly sane people worried that she might kill Harry? I always thought this was ridiculous. Of course she wasn't going to kill Harry. He was the HERO. They always survive.

But, looking back now, I can better appreciate what Rowling did. She had millions of people worried that Harry might actually die. She had the knife to his throat, and for lots of people, it was entirely possible she might use it.


I love a good action scene -- truly, I do -- but that's a lot different than actually exposing your characters to mortal danger (or psychological or emotional danger). I wonder if sometimes, writers head into action scenes already emotionally knowing their character will survive. That's risky, because it bleeds into the emotional arc of the scene. The danger isn't felt as deeply as it could be because the conclusion is foregone. The lows aren't as low, so the highs can't be as high. In other words, we're leaving something on the table. The stakes aren't as high as they could be, aren't even as high as they appear to be.

Maybe next time I write an action scene, I'll kill off the main character. Just to scare myself silly, and so can I really feel it, so I know intimately what kind of fate I'm avoiding. I can always save him on the rewrite.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

My Weirdly Wonderful Weekend

No, it wasn't that weird. The days of truly strange weekends--the kind where you wake up on Monday and say, "Did all that really happen?"--are pretty much behind me. But I had another kind of weird weekend for someone with a job, two kids and a house.

I was alone all weekend.

Long story short: we needed to refinish our floors. We have terrazzo throughout the house, which I love, but every few years, it needs to be stripped, sealed and polished. We like our floors to glisten (and they were becoming embarrassing--there were paths rubbed into the stone where grubby little bare feet [mine mostly] had smudged it with dirt). So I was left in the empty house with six gallons of industrial chemicals. If you're wondering why I'm a little loopy, blame the chemicals. I'm pretty sure I can feel the brain damage.

First off, there was a point on Friday night, at about 11, when I was mopping and I thought, "Check this out. I'm alone on a Friday night, and I choose to mop the floors."

But then, on Saturday, in between applying coats of sealant, I finished my whole revision. Yep. Just like that. I wrote for six, seven hours, unable to walk through the house and trapped in my room. I spent all day in front of the computer, only stopping to take a few quick laps in the pool and sit in the sun until I dried off. And I finished the draft. I want to tell you that it's great, but I'm afraid that might be just the sealant talking.

Then ... while I was finishing the revision ... I had an idea. And oh my, it was a lovely one. I don't know about you, but I have lots of ideas. Most are crap; a few are, "Hmm, I think I can work with it"; and every so often, one comes along that is, "Yes! Start writing NOW!"

It's called Monsterology.

I think it's hooky and high concept and funny, with tons of potential for a great story and lots of room to explore some of my favorite themes. Oh yeah, and it has monsters. So I went out to dinner with some friends, then came home and sat on the couch, outlining and fooling with this idea until 1 a.m. I got the whole story, pretty much all at once. I can't say how the book will turn out, but there's nothing like starting on a (sealant) high ...

So, yeah, I was alone in the house all weekend. And I divided my time pretty much between working on the floors and writing, which means I'm about the lamest guy in the world. But it was still a great weekend. My floors are gleaming, and I got loads of writing done. I guess this is when you know you're really a writer ...

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Climax, Part Deux ...

I'm still in revisions ... since I started revising this book, I rewrote the whole thing once, but realized I wasn't satisfied. The rewrite didn't work. So I went back to page one and started over again, and now I'm just handling the denouement.

This morning, I wrote the emotional climax. It took me several days to work myself up to this scene. It takes place in a gnarled forest, with trees polished like old bones by the wind, after a moment of fear, pain and panic. The emotional climax is the moment when my hero begins to learn what will come next for him. I think of it as the moment when he begins to see the kind of person he will actually become ... and it's not easy for him. He doesn't really like the thought of it at first, because he's destined to be a good person, and that's a hard thing to be.

My point, though, is that this emotional climax really comes several pages AFTER my plot climax. The plot climax is all action, with flames and hot air balloons and a pitched battle and a demonic blender and a falling piano. This was a fun scene to write, but then a few pages later, there is this moment in the woods.

Every book needs these two: the action climax, and the emotional climax. Sometimes they occur together, but not always. Right? So what do you think? How do you handle the emotional climax in your story?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Revelation, by Erica Orloff

In Sunday School, I used to think that John dropped acid.

I was generally, from sixth grade on, stoned during Sunday School. Which wasn’t on Sunday, actually, but took place on a Wednesday when the Catholics sent their children off to religious instruction in our town in the hopes we would become confirmed, which in my case meant my parents would throw a huge party at which a lot of alcohol and lasagna would be consumed. Oh, and there would be cake.

My Sunday School teacher was a horse-faced woman with eleven kids, which always astounded me—that someone, her husband, who was short and fat and balding, but at least had a nice face, had screwed this woman a minimum of eleven times. Well, actually ten since she had a pair of twins in the middle of the pack. And when she briefly discussed Revelation, I decided that author of it—John—dropped acid. He drank the Kool-Aid. And whatever he drank—or smoked—I wanted some of it.

But turns out he wasn’t entirely a dope fiend.

Because when the end came we expected the Four Horsemen

Instead, we got angels.

Just like it said in John’s Book of Acid.

“Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls filled with the seven last plagues came to me and talked with me, saying, 'Come, I will show you the bride, the Lamb's wife.'”

But people forgot that. The first time the angels filled the sky, yeah, some expected the Rapture. Churches were filled with wailing people, and people celebrating. But angels, right? How could angels be bad?

I was walking down the street, and people pointed and . . . once they got used to seeing them, they were excited. Angels! They’ve come to protect us. To watch over us. Angels with wings. And halos. Like the pictures in a children’s Bible.

“If I should die before I wake . . . I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

Was I the only one paying attention? Did no one else listen in Sunday School?

I had this nagging thought. But like trying to retrieve anything from the hazy pot-smoking years of my youth, and yes, my twenties. And even last year when I was thirty-two and my girlfriend and I went to Amsterdam . . . retrieving the memory was like falling to the floor in a smoke-filled room and crawling around searching for something in a fire.

So I opened the book. John’s book. And the memory came to me. From the horse-faced woman. “Children . . . Revelation is a warning.”

But no one listened. The people I passed in the street, they thought they saw halos. They thought the sky was like the Sistine Chapel come to life.

Until the pandemic started.

Now I spend my time waiting. I peek out the windows of my apartment. Sometimes I look for the Horsemen.

Most of the time, I get stoned.

Sometimes I mutter an apology. To John.

It wasn’t acid at all.


To see the previous stories:

Harmony, by Melanie Avila

My Brother's Keeper, by Jon VanZile

Bob Johnson Being Pushed Out of a Helicopter, by Jude Hardin

Release, by E. Flanigan

The 5,000-Pound Gorilla, by Mark Terry

And if you want to see this month's prompt or figure out what this is all about ...

July's Prompt

Become a Storyteller

Friday, July 17, 2009

Harmony, by Melanie Avila

Happy Friday! Today is all about Harmony ...

Harmony, by Melanie Avila

The humming grew stronger, clearer, as the rotating blades pounded the air.

I still wasn't used to this way of life. The constant accountability. They were always checking, always wanting to know.

It was above my building.

The sunlight strobed through the copter's propellers. I leaned out the window and shielded my eyes.


We heard stories that when they came it'd be chaos, that life as we knew it would be over, but it all went very smoothly. One person in my octad compared it to upgrading the software on their computer. Only we were the software.

They assigned us one of two values: None or One.

The code must serve some larger purpose, but I never figured out how they chose. I just accepted my assignment and went on with my life. Or tried to.

They sent messages. That's how they communicated.

The first one was clear:

Find a way to live in harmony or you will cease to exist.

Then nothing for weeks. Clearly it was it a warning, but no one knew what to make of it, and before long it slipped to the back of our minds.

Then more messages came, this time more rapidly:

Once assigned your value, it must be displayed at all times.

You must always find a way to show your mark.

Mark? We drew close, whispering tales of another time when people were oppressed and forced to brand themselves. The marks of those times had become trendy, their significance lost on my generation. Could it happen again?

No one stepped forward to claim responsibility. It was just these messages pulsing over the computer lines.

Always alternate your codes to maintain the harmony.

You must maintain the harmony.

The initial marks were flimsy scraps of paper that blew away when the copters circled too close, and before long people resorted to signing with their hands. It was easier that way. The real trick was maintaining the harmony. Making sure you were always one-none-one took planning. Coordination.

When the patrols went by we'd flash our marks. Most times they'd dip from side to side—a hold-out from the older pilots that all was okay—but every now and then one would swoop lower and lower and snatch the unharmonious one.

That's what I lived in fear of.

You must always stay positive. We don't want to see fear.

If you're afraid, you must find a way to hide it.

Find a way. Always "find a way."

When they passed overhead I thought back to the stories of my childhood, of my mother's childhood, when a hovering aircraft didn't instill fear in the souls of those it patrolled. Pretending to feel a joy I suspected I might never feel again, I smiled and waved, showing my mark with one hand while the terror slid around my spine. I couldn't look anywhere but up. Up. I had to trust that the others were paying attention, that they took a step forward or back, that they were keeping the harmony.

The copter came closer, its propellers steady.

It should have dipped by now. My breath wouldn't come. It's too hard to pretend when the copter is coming straight at me. Don't they understand that we're trying?


Dip! Dip!

The air churned around me, lifted my hair, my skirt. Someone's discarded mark clung to my leg.


My eardrums vibrated, the tiny bones bouncing off one another, rattling up into my skull, dancing over my senses, blurring my vision.

Two copters.

No… one. Always one.

Metal arms, cold and unyielding, stretching out, out…

A scream, then blackness.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

My Brother's Keeper, by Jon VanZile

Today, I'm up. So everybody, meet Baxter. Baxter, meet everybody.

To see the previous stories:

My Brother's Keeper, by Jon VanZile

As he drew his dying breath, Fred was surprised to learn that the last image he saw in life would be the one burned on his consciousness for all of eternity, like a celestial tattoo.

So there it was: three people in an alley, facing him, the two Germans pointing skyward and behind them, Baxter in his ridiculous yellow jacket and bowtie.

Looking back (after he was dead, of course), Fred realized he should have known something was wrong when his brother lowered his camcorder. Baxter recorded everything. Then the Germans pointed and somebody yelled, "Sieh dich ja vor!" Then a brief moment of crushing pain. Then blackness.

Just before he awoke again (dead, this time), Fred's life flashed before his eyes.

He saw himself at six years old, sitting on Baxter's bedroom floor with a handful of dollar bills from his birthday card. "Listen," Baxter said, "who wants a bunch of dirty paper anyway? I'll give you two 1975 dimes for that one dollar. They're mostly silver, you know. You'll make a fortune if you save them."

"I dunno, Baxter," Fred said. "Mom said—"

"Okay, okay," Baxter said. "Three dimes. But that's my final offer."

Then Fred saw himself at twelve, when Baxter bought his first video camera.

"I'm making a documentary about primitive mammals," Baxter said, zooming in on Fred. "Say something."

"Baxter, stop being rude," Mom said.

"Why don't you stop treating him like a baby?" Baxter said.

Fred next saw himself at sixteen, when Baxter first came home with his ridiculous bowtie and wide-lapelled jacket.

"Hey Baxter," Fred said, "why are you dressed like a waiter?"

"I'm not dressed like a waiter," Baxter said. "This is cool. It's hip."

"I dunno," Fred said. "Nobody wears bowties."

"Baxter, did you know that Fred was just voted president of his class?" Dad said.

"Maybe they should just rename you Golden Boy, huh?" Baxter snorted.

Then Fred saw himself at twenty-four, dropping by Baxter's new apartment. Baxter wouldn't let him in at first, so Fred knocked louder. "I know you're in there," Fred said. "Your peep hole is backwards."

Baxter finally let him in and Fred saw the place was piled with vintage movie posters. "Don't touch anything," Baxter said. "I got two mint-condition Star Wars posters in here that're probably worth twenty thousand bucks each. I only paid a cool ten total."

"You paid ten thousand dollars for posters?" Fred said. "Are you sure that was a good idea?"

"Some of us don't need college to know a good deal when we see it, Golden Boy."

By the time Fred heard they were forgeries, Baxter had already moved on to his next project. In December, he showed up at the family Christmas with his new bride.

"This is Katyana," Baxter said with a flourish.

The girl next to him shuffled and bowed. She smiled nervously and said, "Yah. Yah."

"Hey, Bax," Fred said. "How come your wife doesn't speak any English?"

"Katyana is from Ukraine," Baxter said.

At the word "Ukraine," Katyana perked up and bobbed her head vigorously. "Ukraine," she said. "Yah! Ukraine!"

"Are you for real?" Fred said. "She's a mail order bride? You got a mail order bride?"

"She's not mail order, goldilocks. She's a model," Baxter said and circled his arm around the desperately grinning Katyana's waist.

Finally, Fred saw himself last January, standing outside Baxter's apartment once again, knocking. Katyana let him into the smelly, dirty apartment and stood in the center of the room.

"So," Fred said, "where's Baxter?"

She nodded. "Baxter. Yah. Not home."

"Oh. How's your English coming along?"

"English vurry hard."

"Right," Fred said. "Hard."

Then a frown crossed her pretty features. "Baxter not home."

"You said that."

This was followed by an awkward silence as the girl stood fooling with the hem on her shirt and looking at the floor. Fred crossed the room, surprising even himself, and put a hand out to touch her chin. He lifted her face up and her big blue eyes were sparkling with tears. Her lips quivered a little, and she was the most beautiful girl Fred had ever seen.

"Life's a bitch, huh?" Fred said. "Sometimes you roll the dice and come up Baxter. I'm sorry."

"Not happy! Big mistake!" Katyana wailed, and then Fred had no idea how it happened, but next thing he knew, they were rolling on the floor and ripping off clothes as fast as their fingers could move.

A few weeks later, Fred saw Baxter's number pop up on his caller ID. "Hey," Baxter said. "You want to go downtown for lunch?"

"Oh, sure, Bax," Fred said. "Listen, I got to talk to you—"

"Later," Baxter said. "I got something I want to show you first."

Then the alleyway and the falling ... whatever it was. Fred had no idea what Baxter had done or just how his brother had killed him. He never looked up.

There was only that image burned against his eyes and all the time in the world to think about it. Sometimes, Fred liked to think that Baxter looked uncertain, maybe like he was having second thoughts.

But maybe Baxter was just worried about his aim.

As the eons passed and the universes collided, Fred sometimes wondered what the point was, why he had to spend all of eternity staring at those two damn Germans trying to warn him and Baxter in the background. Was this some kind of elaborate hell? Did he really deserve this?

But he wasn't mad at his brother. Not really. It wasn't Baxter's fault. Sometimes you roll the dice and come up Baxter.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Bob Johnson Being Pushed Out of a Helicopter, by Jude Hardin

Up today is Bob Johnson. Rather, Bob Johnson is down today. If you want to read the previous stories, see:

Bob Johnson Being Pushed Out of a Helicopter, by Jude Hardin

“Say, isn’t that Bob Johnson being pushed out of a helicopter?”

“Why, yes. I believe that is Bob Johnson being pushed out of a helicopter. And...Oh, my word. He’s naked!”

Bob Johnson can’t actually hear what the people on the ground are saying, of course, because of the distance, the engine noise, his own screams, and--most recently--the wind whistling in his ears. He can see them, though, pointing skyward, and can imagine what they’re saying, and the astonishment (or perhaps amusement) on their faces. He envies them as he plummets, as he frantically climbs a phantom ladder back to the relative safety of the airship, because they have one thing that he does not, and that one thing is time.

Bob figures he has about five seconds until impact.

This is not happening. It’s only a dream, one of those dreams about falling where you always wake up right before you texture the hot pavement with splintered bone and pulverized flesh, right before you’re reduced to a ghastly blob of human soup that has to be scraped off with a shovel. This is not happening...

They say your entire life flashes in front of your eyes in the moments preceding death, but they lie. There’s only one thing flashing in front of Bob Johnson’s eyes now, and it’s something he’d rather forget. It’s the reason for his current predicament, jittering through his brain like an old black and white newsreel.

The narrator for this newsreel has a familiar timbre. Distinctive. Dynamic. Comforting. It’s that guy. That sixteen-millimeter voiceover legend everyone of a certain age has heard a thousand times. Bob can’t remember his name, but considers him a dear old friend nonetheless.

Four seconds until impact.

“And here’s Bob,” the narrator says.

We see Bob sitting at a table in a fancy downtown restaurant called Yellowjacket’s. Soft jazz. White tablecloth. Candlelight. Bottle of wine. The waiter is wearing a tuxedo with, of course, a yellow jacket. Bob is gazing into the eyes of a beautiful young woman with long blond hair. Bob and the woman are having a conversation, but we only hear the narrator.

“It seems Bob is quite infatuated with this pretty young thing, and she with him. There’s only one problem: Bob is married, and his wife, suspicious because he has to stay late at the office so frequently, has hired a private investigator to follow him. Uh-Oh, there’s the private eye now!”

We see a man in a dark suit sitting at the bar. He has a digital camcorder the size of a credit card, and he’s inconspicuously recording the couple as they dine.

“Interesting,” says the narrator. “And, believe you me, things get even more interesting later.”

Now we see Bob and the woman in bed, on top of the covers, kissing, caressing. They still have their clothes on, but we get the impression that that won’t be the case much longer. Bob reaches to switch off the bedside lamp, and we see a listening device--a bug--on the inside of the lampshade.

“Clever! Now Bob’s wife will have some audio to go with the video. All that’ll sure come in handy in divorce court. But wait a minute. Someone’s knocking on the door. Uh-oh. These guys look serious...”

As is customary with sixteen-millimeter, the film breaks right before the most exciting part. Bob hears it flapping impotently against the projector’s spool, and the screen goes bright white except for some super-magnified hairs and dust particles.

Three seconds until impact.

Since when is adultery a capital offense? Come on! Don’t you think having me thrown out of a helicopter is just a wee bit extreme? I don’t deserve this...

Bob can actually hear cries of horror coming from people on the ground now. He cups his hands over his genitals, embarrassed by his nakedness.

Two seconds until impact.

Please, just give me one more chance. I’ll be good. I swear. I’ll stop drinking and smoking and cursing and fornicating...

Then Bob sees her, his wife, standing on the ground pointing upward at him. She’s smiling, and she’s sporting a new tattoo on her right wrist. It looks to be a professional job, one word, written in black. D...A...Bob can’t quite make it out.

One second until impact.

Okay, this is it. I’m a goner. Finished. Kaput. It’s been a good life, but it’s over...

Bob speeds toward the gritty asphalt like a supersonic missile now, and microseconds before he augers in he’s finally able to read his wife’s tattoo. The word doesn’t start with D-A after all. It’s B...U...



The giant rubber band attached to Bob’s ankle rebounds just in time, and Bob is snatched back toward the heavens.

Woohoo! I’m going to live. It was all just a nasty joke to teach me a lesson. Haha!

Bob swings like a pendulum for a few seconds, and then comes to a rest. He’s ecstatic, ready to put all this behind him and start living life to the fullest. Sure, she’ll probably still divorce him, but that’s okay. At least he’ll still have Darla...

As Bob starts thinking about resuming intimacy with the pretty young blond, his wife pulls a .357 out of her purse and unloads it into his chest.

This is not happening…

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Release, by E. Flanigan

I was pleasantly surprised to get stories from people who don't normally frequent this blog or comment here. So here's one from a new name to these parts ...

To read yesterday's story, check out The 5,000-Pound Gorilla, by Mark Terry.

Comment away!

Release, by E. Flanigan

She wasn't even sure when the question of circumcision had come up. Maybe the seventh month.

Bill had acted like it was a foregone conclusion. "A kid should look like his father. Don't you think so?" He placed a dirty plate in the dishwasher and looked up at her.

Jane hesitated, unsure of what to say next. Truthfully, an image had formed in her mind's eye of Bill's stubby purple knob, and she tried to picture it with a foreskin. Then she pictured it without. She shifted in her seat.

"I don't know, Bill. I read the foreskin is a source of a lot of sexual pleasure. I don't want to rob him of anything."

Bill guffawed. "Wait till he's sixteen. You won't mind robbing him then."

Jane didn't like the idea that her baby would someday be a man, if sixteen can even be considered manhood. It's old enough to get laid, at least, she thought. She didn't like that idea, either.

Her first time, she hadn't looked down much. Was there a foreskin? Would I be able to tell? When she dreamed that night, she dreamt she was in high school.

It wasn't until the day Michael was born and Jane was changing his diaper that she considered it again. She looked at his penis. It was little, like a pinkie. Smaller than a pinkie. She tried to picture someone cutting it and then decided to get the nurse.

"If I want to, can I change my mind?"

The nurse was busy; she didn't care what happened as long as it didn't add more paperwork. She didn't mind hearing babies cry.

"It's a minor procedure," the nurse said. "Babies tolerate it well."

Jane's mother said, "See, you're just being a new mother. You have to let it go."

Jane tried to picture Michael as a man. She tried to envision him on top of a pot-bellied, droopy-breasted woman. She tried to decide whether he had a foreskin, and whether his wife would be happy. But all she could picture was a crying baby.

That afternoon as Jane flipped through Michael's new baby book, she saw a page that said, "Baby's First Haircut." It had a little envelope glued on for the snip of hair to go into.

When the nurse came in again, Jane asked, "Can I have the foreskin? For his baby book?"

The nurse set down her blood pressure cuff and looked at Jane for a long minute. "Jesus, will you save all his toenail clippings, too?" Then she left the room.

The next morning when Michael came back from the hospital nursery, his penis was wrapped in gauze. His face was red and puffy from crying.

"Keep it coated with Vaseline," the nurse said. "Keep urine off the gauze. Change the gauze at every diaper change."

Bill saw the penis and said, "Holy shit, it looks bad."

In Michael's little crib, there was a baggie stuffed with a brown wad of paper towel. "That's for you," the nurse said. "For your baby book."

Jane didn't open the baggie in the hospital. She didn't tell Bill about it, either. When she got home to the apartment, she put the baggie in the top drawer of Michael's dresser and left it there.

Many weeks later, she was rinsing bottles under the tap when she began to wonder how one gives back a foreskin. As a wedding gift? In some special manly version of a Hope Chest, along with K-Y Jelly and a naked photo of his high school girlfriend? "Sorry we took this from you, son. It's yours again now."

No, Michael's penis had healed by then, and the little piece of skin had surely dried up. Any pleasure it might have given him was gone, and her pleasure in it was gone, too.

She waited until a day with a stiff breeze to open up the apartment window. She took the baggie from the drawer and unwrapped it carefully.

Inside the wad of hospital-grade brown paper towel was a bloody little piece of skin, dried and hardening around the edges. She held the little scab of flesh gingerly between her thumb and forefinger. She studied it.

"Let it go," she told herself. "Just let it go."

She stuck her arm out the window and opened her fisted hand.

As she was looking at her palm, her focus shifted. The people on the sidewalk below were pointing to some spot above her head. Without thinking, she turned her head to look. That's when the little piece of skin lifted up on the breeze and took flight.

She reached out to grab it, a moment too late.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The 5,000-Pound Gorilla, by Mark Terry

Forgive me as I try to figure out the best way to manage this ... I've heard from a few people about posting schedules. Some people think I should post stories as I get them (I've got 5 so far). Others like the idea of posting them all on the same day. Here's my thinking:

1. If I post them as I get them, it reduces the amount of reading and allows people to more fully engage with each individual story. Good thing. BUT, as others have pointed out, it also means that some people will be posted later, and if two or three people went the same direction with the prompt ... well, you know.
2. If I post them all at once, it's a lot of reading, but it also has a nice event feel to it that I like. Then again, it's a lot of reading.

What do you all think?

Anyway, in the meantime, let's roll with the first story (selected on a random basis -- I literally rolled a die to pick which one is up. Guess what Mark? Your number [3] came up). At least for this week, I'll post one a day so we can discuss at our leisure. See you in the comments!

So without further ado:

The 5,000-Pound Gorilla

By Mark Terry

King Kong had climbed the Empire State Building. Well, not really. It was just a giant inflatable ape on the side of the building to promote another Kong movie. Mary did what everyone else did, though, she craned her neck and raised her hand and pointed.

“Hey, nice tat.”

Mary dropped her hand and looked at the speaker, a tall smiling man with a shaved head. “What?” She knew what he’d said and her face flushed, but she was going to pretend she didn’t know what he was talking about. A little voice in her head reprimanded her: That’s not the point, Mary.

“Your wrist,” he said, tapping his own. “I saw your tattoo when you pointed. Just like mine.” He pulled back the wrist of his sweater. Sure enough, on the underside of his right wrist was a tattoo identical to hers. In ornate script it said: La Bella Vita. Unconsciously, she covered her tattoo with her hand.

“I didn’t even know it was a Lindsay Lohan song,” he confessed. “I just liked what it said. ‘A Beautiful Life.’ Hell. I didn’t even know who Lindsay Lohan was.” He held out his hand. “I’m Jude.”

Hesitantly she took his hand. “Mary.”

After letting go of her hand, he took off his sunglasses to reveal warm blue eyes. He smiled and she thought he was a lot less menacing without the sunglasses. The shaved head was kind of sexy in a badass sort of way, but he wore a black sweater over a white T-shirt. Not so badass. Kind of a nerd.

He cocked his head and said, “Another King Kong film. In 3D no less.”

Mary followed his gaze. “I’ve never gotten the appeal.”

“Me neither. Besides, you go to a mysterious island that’s got dinosaurs on it, what do you bring home? The big monkey. Go figure. Hey, I’m sorry I embarrassed you about the tattoo.”

Mary felt her face burn. “It was, sort of, well, you know, one of those things.”

Jude cocked his head. “One of those things? Like, you got drunk with friends and they dared you, or you were trying to mark something, like, I don’t know, I have a friend who competed in the Kona Ironman Triathlon, and she had the ironman symbol tattooed on her foot. Like that?”

"The second one. Marking something, I guess.” Yes, she thought. Two years after Jim died. The tattoo was supposed to be a reminder, it’s time to move on with your life. To have a life. Maybe: get a life.


A guy in a mustard-colored cardigan and a bow tie approached them, a video camera in his hand. “I loooooovvvve Kong!” he crowed. “It’s like, my favorite movie of all time! The very best!”

In a totally serious voice Jude said, “Which one?”

“The first one, of course.”

“You mean the one with Jessica Lang?” Mary knew Jude was giving the guy a hard time.

“What?” the geek shrieked. “That awful piece of—”

Mary rolled her eyes, but couldn’t stop giggling. She saw the gleam in Jude’s eyes and laughed out loud for the first time in, well, two years. “He’s teasing you,” she said. “Calm down.”

Jude said, “My favorite movie is Sleepless In Seattle. How about you?”

A guy who liked chick flicks. Keeping a straight face she said, “Transformers.”

He laughed. “One or two? I liked the first one better than the second one. I thought the dialogue was a lot deeper. I really—”

“Stop,” she said, laughing again. “I don’t know what my favorite movie is.”

The geek snorted and wandered away to bug someone else about the gorilla. Jude said, “Maybe you could remember over a drink. I hear there’s a smoothie bar right around the corner.”

“Or maybe the Chai Latte Mocha Madness up the street.”

“Or maybe, you know—”

“Yes,” she said, thinking about her tattoo. A beautiful life. “Let’s go have a drink. Maybe I can come up with my second favorite movie after Transformers.”

She and Jude strolled toward the corner, toward, well, what? A beautiful life? An open doorway, maybe? Jude interrupted her thoughts. “I bet your second favorite is Death Race 2000.”

Laughing, she said, “How did you know? It’s like you’re reading my mind.”

He tapped his wrist. “Must be karma.”

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Urge to Purge

I'm feeling especially paranoid this morning ... Last night, I caught myself sitting on the couch, worrying about the toxicity of modern life. It's pretty bad, if you think about it too hard. Plastic bottles are leaching estrogen into the water; our cheap food is mostly salt, fat and sugar; our processed food has been robbed of nutrients by industrial farming practices; cosmetics, shampoos and soap are made from a chemical soup of petroleum distillates; our meats are laden with hormones and trace antibiotics, our seafood with mercury and noro virus; and the average household has something like 50 carcinogenic compounds sitting around.

I get like this sometimes, usually after I edit a few "clean living" type books (I just finished another one, in case you were wondering). You read one here or there, and it's no big deal. But when it's your job to wallow in toxicity, it can be a tad overwhelming.

The worst are the diet books. And I mean THE WORST. Nothing can give me the heebie jeebies like a book pointing out how much crap I eat (and I don't even eat that bad) -- so then in a fit of self-improvement, I swear to myself, "That's it. No more alcohol. No more sugar. No more processed carbs. No more salt. No more trans fats. I'll get to the gym FIVE times a week from now on ..." Next thing you know, I'll be downing shots of olive oil and lemon juice in some whacky "liver purification" detox ritual. God forbid. If you ever catch me sneaking a bottle of olive oil and a shot glass into the back room, please smack me.

It's enough to make my head explode, this impossible, endless urge to purify, to get back to the basics, to live clean. It's funny, because when I actually was shoveling my system full of crap, I never worried about it. Ah, but I was younger then. And I hadn't spent ten years getting paid to rub my nose in dirty facts.

So ignorance really is bliss. And now, I'm off to welcome my work day with a glass of distilled water and a dash of lemon juice ...

P.S. Click here if you're interested in being a Storyteller, and here if you want to see the July prompt. I'll be posting the first batch of stories on Monday.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Wait for It, Wait for It ...

I haven't been writing much the last four days or so ... because I've been busy waiting.

I've got this scene I want to write, and I know the basics -- the who, the impossible what, the why -- but I don't really "have it" yet. I couldn't feel it, and actually, I doubted it was possible to pull off. So instead of just sitting down and pounding it out, I was waiting for the scene to gel in my head. I was waiting for inspiration. For an idea.

It finally hit me on Sunday morning. And it hit me the way that ideas almost always do: I looked at the same situation from a different perspective. I was asking myself, "What would Mr. Quincy think?" (Mr. Quincy being a minor character who plays a minor role in this particular scene.) And then, boom, I got it all at once.

I happened to be in church at the moment, which was highly inconvenient, so I ended up scribbling down the sequence on the back of a collection envelope, shooing the usher away when he tried to collect the envelope, and then stuffing it in my pocket.

Once I start working on an idea, I'm always asking myself, "But is it different? Is it interesting?" I can tell if it's a winner if actual phrases begin to pop into my mind, like a domino train of images. Then I start to get excited, and it's off to the races.

But I don't know where ideas come from. They just float up from the murk of my cerebral swamp with some dependable regularity, waiting to be skimmed off surface of the grey matter. Not all of them are good -- the vast majority are dreck -- but that's OK, because I'm willing to wait.

Monday, July 6, 2009

July Prompt

Here is July's prompt. See the next post down if you want to know what the heck this is all about ...

My email is


Woo hoo! I got a better response than I expected, so I figured we can start today with the story telling. Here's how it'll work ...

On the first Monday of every month, I'll post a story prompt. The prompt can be anything ... a verse, a couplet, a photo or drawing, a single word. Whatever. It's just a place to start. If anybody wants to suggest a prompt, feel free.

Then write whatever you want. You want to write a poem? Go for it. A single scene? A conversation? It's all good. For the sake of time, though, I think contributions should be kept to about 1,000 words or less. If you hit upon an idea that needs to be developed into a full-length book or story, all the better! But let's not post novels.

Email me your stories by the following Monday, and I'll begin posting everything that week open it to comments. For now, I'm posting one story every day. If you want to post your contribution anonymously, just let me know when you send me the story. I have no problem with that ...

My email is

As far as comments go, I like feedback, and I'm looking forward to reading and writing fiction, but I think we should be decent about it. We're all in this together, right? So let's have some fun ... That said, I think anybody who participates in this is probably either a working or an aspiring writer, so constructive criticism is welcome (at least for me).

Finally, unless it becomes too time consuming to manage, anybody can post. So let's have some fun!

Friday, July 3, 2009

My New Thing -- Who's In?

I've been fooling with an idea lately and I figured I'd go "live" with it and see what happens. I'd like to start a regular short-story club. You know, no big deal, but an opportunity for people who are interested to write short fiction based on a common prompt and post it here, open for comments. I'm not sure about all the mechanics yet, but I'm envisioning a pretty simple thing. Maybe one a month, or maybe every other week. I'd post a prompt (or anybody could suggest one) and then people could email me stories and I'd post them and throw it open to comments.

Here's why I'd like to do it ... it's not for lack of writing, nor is it because I'm just swimming in extra time. No, no and no. Fact is, I'm busy all the time. I'm sure you are too. But the idea of doing something new, and building a little community of story-tellers, really appeals to me. I also like the idea of a laboratory to try out new ideas, work with some new characters, and get some feedback. I like the idea of writing something smallish and funish and not worrying too much about whatever's going to happen to it.

So if anybody is interested, email me at If enough people respond, I'll post some ground rules and we can go from there ...

Yes, It's Good, But Why Did He Do It?

I'm about two thirds of the way through SATURDAY, by Ian McEwan. I get the impression this is not a book many people actually read, even though it was written by one of the best novelists in the world.

Briefly, the book is the story of a single Saturday in the life of Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon and rationalist, on the Saturday in 2003 when 2 million Londoners turned out to protest the upcoming Iraq War. Perowne is a brilliant man, at the height of his career, and he spends the day circling some kind of vaguely defined ill feeling. Gradually, it becomes clear, to both the reader and Perowne, that Perowne might just disagree with the protesters. Unlike almost any other Briton alive, Perowne might support the war. He once treated an Iraqi general who had been imprisoned and tortured by Saddam's regime, so as he puts it, the protesters have gathered to protect "peace and torture." He's not quite on board, and he finds himself worrying and hoping that the US has some kind of plan for this war.

The book, though, is not really and truly about Iraq, although the war and the events of 9/11 hover over the story--just as they did for everyone in those tense days in early 2003, before the first bombs fell. It's more about one man's immersion and reaction to the modern world, to modernism, and in a way, his deep and abiding love for his pluralistic, open and tolerant society.

McEwan is close to the peak of his game in this book. His control is incredible; every sentence, every word and every thought is completely organic and authentic. But I do find myself wondering what it was about Perowne, and this story in general, that drew McEwan. Let's say for argument sake that a novelist only gets to lavish his or her gifts on so many books in their lifetime. What was it about this story that caused McEwan to invest several years of his ridiculous talent?

It's made me wonder, too ... why do I choose to tell the stories that draw me? Why does anyone? It's not good enough to say, "Because I want to sell a book" or "Because I want to get paid." I think there must be a deeper reason, or else the motivation simply won't be there. The core will be hollow.

Ultimately, the question led me back to theme, and I think I'm beginning to understand in a deeper way than ever what it means to begin with theme. I suppose I can answer my own question about McEwan and SATURDAY. I suspect I know what he wanted to say with this book, and it's not simple. It would take a writer of his caliber to pull it off. So what about your book? My book? Sure, we hope they're good, but why did we do it?

Thursday, July 2, 2009

A Man by the Road

I was driving yesterday, along a five lane road next to a railroad track. It was an industrial area full of warehouses, bus stops and bland concrete block buildings behind razor wire that house vaguely named corporations. There were shabby houses nearby, and the human traffic here is mostly domestic workers, drunks looking for a place to sleep, and nannies coming in from the further suburbs.

There's money here. Those bland buildings are loaded with millions upon millions of dollars in merchandise, whether it's Chinese antiques or ball bearings. But the people in the corners and the wealth behind the wire are as far apart as the moon and Mars.

A train loaded with sand and gravel rumbled by, always a minor event. I drove through an intersection with people standing around in odd poses. An old woman wearing a rag on her head stood in the road itself, watching the train. I wondered if perhaps she was afraid to stand too near, so she chose to stand in the road as if it was safer. Two younger guys--baggy pants, low-hanging shirts--stood in the intersection, talking. They ignored my car as if I didn't exist. A tall and very thin man, his clothes in rags and his face lit with a chemical exuberance staggered down the side of the road, talking to himself.

But there was one guy among the whole scene I really wondered about. He was tall, maybe six foot, wearing jeans and expensive loafers. He had on a black tank top and was tanned and smoothly muscular. He wore mirrored sunglasses and stood back from the road, almost concealed behind a light pole and just feet from the train. As I pulled through the intersection, a BMW with smoked-out windows approached from the other way. I noticed because the driver flashed his lights several times and slowed, but did not stop. The guy behind the light pole emerged, quickly crossed to the BMW, opened a door on the still-moving car and stepped in.

Just before he vanished, he looked across the roof of the car at me. I was staring, of course, and I couldn't see his eyes behind his shades. But from the angle of his head, the set of his shoulders, the pause as he ducked inside the dark car, it was clear he was looking at me. Deliberately. I could easily imagine him putting his two fingers to his own eyes, then motioning to me, as if to say, "I see you."

I see you.

I thought about it all day, that flash of an exchange, him framed by the silver Beemer and the rolling freight train, the amorphous threat in his posture, his anonymity. What was he doing there by the side of the road? Why was he half-hidden? Who was driving the car and why didn't they stop fully when they picked him up? All day long, I invented stories for him. One minute, he was delivering drugs. The next, he was meeting his lover. Another, he was seeing the last sunlight he would ever experience, that whatever night awaited him was full of violence. The explanation was never mundane, never a simple meeting across town.

He saw me, sure, but I saw him, too.