I’ve got a jar filled with coins I can’t use. It’s my own fault. I tell people I’ll take them across the river and they can pay me whatever they want. Sometimes people give me a hundred dollars. Sometimes one penny. But a lot of the time, it’s these odd octagonal coins with strange markings on them. The people who give me such trinkets as payment usually wear hoods and look like they come from another world. They don’t say much, either. Occasionally I catch a glimpse of their eyes. They glow, like cat’s eyes. Always gives me a shiver.
Nothing prepares you for all the tragedy. People die, sometimes while they’re on the phone talking to you. A few times, I’ve been the last voice people hear in their lives. It does something to you. You try to reach across the electronic gap. You want to do more than you can. Then, later, you want to stop and absorb the emotion of it, but you can’t. Another call comes in, another emergency needs handling. At the end of my shift, all the crises of the day blend together into one foggy memory. It’s the sweetest blessing of the job.
My mom raised rabbits and my dad made hats. I guess I was destined for this profession. A lot of what we are is pre-ordained. For example, I didn’t decide to become fascinated by sleight of hand. That was all my brain’s work. You can look closely at what I do and see the trick behind the magic, but most people don’t have that kind of mind. Most people like the deception. I have no argument with that. I make a living from fooling your brain. My rabbits like it too. They live for your applause. I’m sure of it.
Some of my couples, years later, they come to me and thank me. Others, well, let’s just say they are less than pleased. They think I’m here to make them happy. They have never learned that matchmaking is about making the culture happy, not the couple. Do they still think they are the center of the universe? Alas, it is sometimes so. After so many years doing this work, people sometimes ask me if it made me happy. What a question! Happiness is completely overrated. I’ve been happy exactly five days in my lifetime. That’s more than enough for anyone.
Truth is, I never understood why my trade is illegal. All money is fake, right? It doesn’t represent anything except itself. I suppose what irked me most was that they called my stuff amateur. Amateur! I lived on those notes for years. Bank tellers routinely accepted them as genuine. But I was too proud of my work. I framed some of them. When the authorities came to my house they saw them on the wall. Who frames money? Only someone like me. It was my undoing. Where I am now, the bars and fences aren’t fake. They’re the real thing.
Women in church still wear them. Some rock stars. A few eccentrics here and there, but who am I kidding? Hats are an endangered species. My friends tell me I need to find another profession, but I just tell them they’d look good in a well-made hat. They shake their heads at me, like I’m the crazy one. Hats are all I know or care about. I’ve got hundreds of them in my home. I think archeologists in the future will find my house, filled with hats, and think: Those were some amazing people back then. They had style.
I’ve got a staff, sure, but it’s mostly me. I keep track of all those rooms. I know who’s in each one at all times. I know, with ninety-nine percent accuracy, which guests are going to leave their rooms a mess and which are not. It’s my one talent. I’ve refused rooms to people who I know will be trouble. They get upset, sometimes, but I hold my ground. I’m not letting you into my brain, I tell them. They look at me like I’m crazy. But we all have rooms in our heads. We have to protect them.
Ever since that movie about the horse guy, people always ask me if I’m the car whisperer. The first time, I didn’t know what they were talking about. By the time the hundredth customer asked me, I was good and sick of it. Your car is a machine, okay? It’s not something I can whisper to. I’m good at what I do, though. I’ll get your car problems fixed, no sweat. We’re a perfect match of ability and problem. Like the way the meter of a line matches the subject of a poem. That’s what my profession is: pure poetry.
Truth is, I prefer the term janitor. Custodian makes me sound like I’m a patron of the arts or something. But I’m not. I clean the school building. That’s it. I’ll tell you one thing: Gum is the worst. Especially when it gets into the carpet. You ask me, I’d just as soon toss all carpeting. Worst stuff ever invented. But hey, listen to me. I do go on. I remember I did okay in school, back when I was a kid. Loved math. And history. Nowadays, I wash the lessons off the boards. Clean slate. Does a body good.
I was in a movie once. It paid pretty good. I figured out I had enough to survive, without working, for a year. So I planned on taking the next two seasons off: no plays, no commercials, no tv, nothing. Within days I started getting antsy. Without a script, I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t sleep, had no appetite, missed my marks, and repulsed my friends. I ended up playing a clown at kids’ parties for a while. They thought I was funny. I wanted to tell them I was just crazy, but I kept that to myself.
The school sent my daughter home for bullying her classmate. Later she told me she likes to squirt vinegar into our cat’s eye. She said this like it was the most natural thing in the world. Didn’t you do things like that when you were a kid? she asked me. So awful. They give you a manual for inflicting pain, but not for raising your kid. I told her I would think about her punishment. Next day, I tortured a man who pleaded for his life. Said he had a daughter. That means nothing, I said. We all have daughters.
No one carries cash anymore. That’s a problem for me. But I adjusted my expectations. I learned a long time ago that the the life I chose had its rewards, but also its disappointments. I’ve snagged lots of things other than money. Phones. Credit cards. Rings. Cough drops. Love notes. Keys. Earbuds. Lighters. Shopping lists. Gum. You get philosophical about the whole thing. If people just leave these things in their pockets, for anyone to steal, then they must not want them anymore. See, I’ve learned a little bit about psychology. I know we all do things for a reason.
The millionaires don’t like it when I make a mistake. Sometimes they kick dirt on me. That’s okay. We all come from dirt, even them, though they forget that. Humility is not their long suit. I almost went into medicine, but that was too scary. You make a bad call there, someone dies. Here, someone maybe doesn’t get on base. No big deal. I like when they hit their home runs. Dusts everything up nicely. I like to stand behind the plate, watching. I imagine myself riding up to the sky with the ball. I don’t make any mistakes then.
My knowledge was only skin deep, but that wasn’t my fault. I blame it on my training. I wore my ignorance with pride, like a distinct and fascinating scar. As I got older I became more and more cranky with all the tattoos muddying up my territory. I wanted to tell people that a picture you like now will disgust you in twenty years. But no one listened. I started losing patients. They didn’t like my attitude. I told them I was tending to their most important, their most intimate organ. Most laughed at me. I began to cut myself.
I had written many biographies before I began writing the life story of the famous documentary filmmaker who made movies about the lives of writers. At our first interview he asked me what it was like to live vicariously through other people, to not have my own voice. I told him I was going to ask him the exact same question. This irritated him and he refused to say a word. I asked him if he was through making talkies. This made him laugh, but no sound came out. I turned off the recorder. Can’t we be friends? I said.
I never expected to win an award for my work. I was just a humble dishwasher. No shame, certainly, in honest work, but usually no glory either. The people from the awards committee told me I had been chosen out of thousands. My attention to detail and brisk pace were standards that few attempted, much less achieved. I blushed as they handed me a gold-plated scrubber. I held it high and everyone in the restaurant cheered, even the cooks. The next day I retired. Now I’m on the lecture circuit, giving motivational seminars. I thank the stars for dirty dishes.
The auction house was having problems. Since they had been good to me for many years, they asked if I would help out by sacrificing for the greater good. I was sold. To begin, I auctioned off one of my kidneys. The money went to the auction house. Next I put up my left lung. We are symmetric creatures, after all, with built-in redundancy. After my recovery from the surgery I jumped right back in. I got the bidding on my left arm up to astronomical amounts. I felt the power of love as I banged my gavel down: Sold!
The Starling Symphony made my reputation and my fortune. Critics called Starling a breakthrough, and so it was. There has been much speculation about where it came from, since it was unlike anything I had done up to then. Here’s how I made it: Every morning for a year I stepped outside my house and looked up at the power lines strung like a stave between two poles. Starlings perched on the wires like notes. I photographed the starlings in the stave. Later I arranged the pictures next to each other in a long line. The melody was pure creation.
Once my good friend the plumber pointed out to me that my material was once a finished item, a tree, which had been cut down and cut into pieces, I reconsidered what I had been doing all my life. Of course I knew that wood came from trees, but suddenly the plumber’s words felt alive and the very act of carpentry seemed frivolous and futile. I took a leave from work and spent time at home, but my own house, with its wooden skeleton, haunted me. Eventually I moved into a living tree. You can’t imagine the dreams I had.
Guy brought me in a duck he shot. Wanted it stuffed by the weekend. I told him I could do it, but it would cost him. He said price was no object so I did the job and called him up when it was done. He said he would be right over. While I waited for him, the duck started talking. Told me I needed to branch out. Animals were passé. I needed to start stuffing plants. I told the duck to mind its own business. It rustled and squeaked and shivered some. But, it said, this is my business.
After I died, everything changed. My profession suddenly seemed frivolous, even silly. For a while I hung out with the other ghosts. That quickly grew tedious and I applied to become a god. You wouldn’t believe the questions I got asked and the hoops I had to jump through. I did it, though. The promise of that much power was too intoxicating to dismiss. In the final interview, they asked me what I wanted to create. I looked at them blankly. Hasn’t everything been created already? I asked. They laughed. Death seems to haunt you, they said. I felt chills.
I got a call to come out and look at a house. The guy on the phone said stuff was coming out of his pipes. I asked him what kind of stuff. He said you have to come here and see it. So I went. The house stood on a hill, stark against the sky. The guy opened the door before I even knocked on it and took me downstairs. His pipes were exposed against the walls and ceiling. Purple ooze seeped out of them. Oh, I said, that’s just inter-dimensional glop. Didn’t you know this house is haunted?
We finished a tough shoot—twenty-eight days in the desert, drenched in searing light—and I was tired of it. I told my family I needed a break and went to the dark side of the moon. Spent a week in the blackness. Met lots of interesting creatures. Did you know massive three-headed beasts scamper around those inky craters? Neither did I. They were pretty friendly. Even so, I was wary of them at first. Eventually we got to be buddies, romping around on the moon. I forgot my work. Didn’t even care that I left my camera at home.
Ever since my company published that book with the secret codes in it, people ask me if the books I work on have similar codes. They want to get a jump on the public, I guess. I tell them my job is not about secret codes. It’s making sure, for example, that the names of characters are consistent throughout the manuscript, and that words are spelled correctly. That sort of thing. My inquisitors listen to what I say, obviously looking for some hidden meaning. I tell them they’re wasting their time. After all, okopt byzult helf yt senque jux medhilayum.
We usually don’t talk about these things until we retire, but yes, I did see a UFO once. A short flight from Seattle to Portland. Middle of the day. A blip of light appears above Mount Rainier. I point to it. My co-pilot sees it too. It grows bigger. Never seen anything like it. Expands quickly, becomes a sphere big enough to engulf us. We’re bathed in its light. I hear passengers shouting. I’m scared. I think: This will pass. It never did. I still have the light inside me. Only I don’t know what to do with it.
They call me the weatherman. I’m the least reliable person you consult on a regular basis. Did you know meteorologists have the highest incidence of depression? Lots of people think it’s dentists. Nope. It’s weathermen. We drink a lot, too. There’s so much responsibility. The atmosphere weighs six quadrillion tons. That’s a lot of air to keep track of. It’s overwhelming. Sometimes I think it’ll all evaporate into space. That’s when I order another Sea Breeze. Vodka, cranberry juice, and grapefruit juice. Shake in a glass with ice until you get a foam on the top. Makes me forget everything.
As an apprentice, I learned to gather up the photons and herd them into some semblance of order. My teacher helped me until she thought I was proficient enough to step out on my own. I took my camera and approached each subject with a formidable dread. Would I do justice to the patterning all around me? I held my breath as I tripped the shutter. That was the key. Without the paused inspiration, all was a blur. Each picture became a record of the time I held my breath. Later I’d look at them, one by one, and sigh.
The observatory needed upgrading. I arranged for the grounds to be landscaped, the walls painted, the plumbing updated, the décor freshened, and the roof replaced. I oversaw teams of maintenance people as they polished up the facility until it achieved a rocket-skin sheen. When they were finished, I spent a full day and night inspecting their work. I found almost no flaws. What few imperfections I did observe, I let go. I was, after all, a forgiving person, an expansive person. When I completed my inspection, I remembered the stars. I looked up. Don’t feel neglected, I whispered to them.
My toughest assignment was the time I was commissioned to map a human heart. For starters, I had to drive a stake into each ventricle. My assistant got squeamish and left me to do the rest on my own. But I was a professional, you see, so I didn’t bolt from the site. The gushing was annoying, and the beats were incessant. I still hear them in my dreams. Haunting sound. The survey took two full days. I presented the completed map to the client and she hesitated to take it. I think she was afraid to accept the truth.
The absence of the past was disconcerting at first. Our sense of memory was starved with nothing to latch onto and nothing to do. In compensation, we built worlds, just so we could live in them. We invited other creatures to join us. They accepted. We kept building and collecting. Nothing could stop us. We expanded our reach to the stars and lolled on alien shores and considered our origins. Suddenly, we wanted the intervening events to disappear. So many memories. They were nothing but irrelevant clutter now. We endured the tyranny of disarray with a quiet and sobering stoicism.
The end came before any of us expected it. Over in the marketing department, they scrambled to produce a proper logo and theme song. They missed their deadline by only seconds. We cheered their perseverance and plucky spirit. The sky, in the meantime, managed only a lonely drawn out exhalation of breath. Where did all the people go? it asked. No one answered. We were all too busy seeing to our final wishes. The ground convulsed. We expected that and did not squawk or squabble. It would have been unseemly. We liked the bedtime stories. They soothed our weary spirits.
I found a picture of dice on dreamstime.com that I really liked. I immediately thought of a woman who uses the dice to help her make decisions in her life and the title came to me at the same time. I started the story this morning and finished it in about four hours so. I’ve got it on the free page for now, but it won’t be there for long.
Like a lot of writers, I have a lot of false starts: stories I began, got a few pages into, then abandoned. In the old days I would keep these starts in file folders and store them in a filing cabinet. Nowadays they reside in a file on my hard drive called “stories in progress,” which is a way of telling myself they aren’t really abandoned. They are just waiting for me to come back to them.
Sometimes I find that stories I have in this folder are actually pretty good. That was the case with “The Untied States of America” a couple of years ago. I don’t even remember when I wrote that one, but I had put it in the “stories in progress” folder, figuring it needed a lot of work. When I stumbled across it one day a couple of years ago and read it over, I realized I was wrong. The story was fine the way it was. I ran a spell check on it and mailed it out and Andy Cox at Interzone snapped it up and published it a few months later.
Which just goes to show me that there are long lost gems in that folder. That’s the case with this week’s challenge story. (I hope.) I began “How the Clouds Became Domesticated” a few years ago. I even sent out an early version of it, but it didn’t get much love from editors. A few days ago I looked at it again and decided it would be the basis for this week’s story. I didn’t rewrite it though. Instead I redrafted it. The difference is that I didn’t keep any of the old material. I trashed that old file and started fresh.
I ended up with this weird piece about a husband who brings home a cloud for his wife. And not just any cloud. His cloud is made of this styrofoam material and it hides things inside.
Anyway, I won’t give away any more. You can buy it at the usual ebook stores or you can hit the FREE tab above and read it here. Enjoy.
My short story collection, Miniatures, has just been published by Green Snake Publishing. Here’s a look at the minimalist cover:
Miniatures collects 41 of my best short short stories. Nothing in the book is over 2500 words long, and there are a couple that are only 50 words long. I’ve always liked doing these short, intense pieces and I’m thrilled that I’ve got a whole raft of them under one cover. You can find the book at all the usual ebook stores.
print • kindle • nook • smashwords
My latest challenge story has lizards, a snow storm, marital strife, and lots of broken crockery. It takes a look at what happens to a couple when one of the partners “wakes up” from being kept under a mask.
I wrote this one in one day, as usual. It’ll be on the free page until I write the next one.
I’ve heard about parents billing their children for their upbringing. I thought that might be an interesting subject for a short story, so I invented a twelve-year-old who gets such a bill. He is in debt to his parents for his food, shelter, clothing, medical care, and so on and they are giving him fair warning that he will have to start making good on his debt beginning on his 18th birthday. Tom takes the news in stride, but what happens next makes him think even more cogently about the value of life. His own life in particular.
As usual, I started “Before the Birds” on Sunday morning and finished it in about four hours or so. Once again, I get to use one of Kim’s photos for the cover. The story’s called “Before the Birds.” It’s available at all the usual ebook outlets, and will be posted on my Free page until I write the next one. Hope you enjoy.
This one came from a picture of Kim’s. We were at the labyrinth at The Grotto in Portland and saw a snail crawling on the bricks. Kim took a few pictures of it and one of those pictures inspired this week’s challenge story.
Like Susan Sarandon’s character in Bull Durham, I have always believed in the church of baseball. But on this Super Bowl Sunday I understand that particular faith needs to take a back pew to football. So, in honor of the day, my challenge story this week takes a look at a possible future for football that deals with fans, faith, virtual reality, and a little bit of marital friction. As usual with my challenge stories, this one was written and published in one day. You can read it on my free page until I write the next one. Enjoy.
This week’s challenge story is a little early because I’m going to be on the road on the day I usually write them. No matter. I got up at 5 this morning and dove into this piece about a sentient gargoyle. It was inspired by a photo of Kim’s, which I ended up using for the cover. I wrote the story in about 3 hours and it came to about 3500 words. As usual, it’ll be free under the free button at the top, until I write the next story in the challenge.
The rest of the day, after I finished the story, Kim and I spent outside. We went to a botanical garden here in Tucson, and lounged by the pool later. We might go out to dinner tonight, then maybe a movie. In a few days we’ll be heading back to the Pacific Northwest. Will be quite a shock after the desert.
The first stories that really moved me when I was a kid were science fiction tales, those futuristic flights of fancy that came out of the pulp tradition. The stories were vivid, strange, and thrilling. They were filled with action and larger-than-life characters. The pulp days are long over, but the storytelling spirit they embodied lives on. For example, Nicholas Ahlhelm over at Pulp Empire has committed himself to bringing back some of the pulp excitement of those bygone years with his series of anthologies, the latest one of which is Heroes and Heretics. This book also happens to have a story of mine, “Weedhead.” But don’t buy it just for me. There are 18 other stories in this thrill-packed volume. Makes me nostalgic for those good old days just thinking about it.
When I was a math major, I enjoyed the paradoxes dealing with infinity. The ones where you can prove mathematically that Achilles can never catch up to that tortoise. Or the one that proved that motion was impossible. That sort of thing. I thought about some of those paradoxes as I was considering the writing of this week’s story. What I came up with was an infinite garden that got way out of hand for my hapless hero gardener. Throw in a healthy dose of arachnophobia and you get my little 4100 word short story, free on this site until I write the next story. Enjoy. Spider photo courtesy of Kim. Thanks, sweetheart!
Claypot Dreamstance first came to me almost six years ago when I was doing my Conditional Reality blog. Here’s a few samples of what he said to me then.
Since ending my old blog, Claypot’s voice kept coming back to me. He was a tough old guy who had been battered by life but not beaten. Gradually the details of his life came to me and I started a novel with Claypot as the hero. I finished it not too long ago and Green Snake Publishing published it today. Here’s the description from the back cover of the book:
Claypot Dreamstance has a beef with the universe. Once a well-liked artist with a charmed existence, Claypot’s life cracks wide open when his young daughter dies in a drowning accident. Crippled by depression and grief, reckless, belligerent, and anti-social, he splits with his wife and spends his days executing chalk trompe l’oeil drawings on the sidewalks of his native Portland, Oregon, reaching for some meaning and beauty from out of the earth. He shuns his former associates and moves into a tent in Forest Park. He mooches cigarettes and art supplies from hapless admirers of his exquisitely made pictures, and nothing assuages his anger at the universe for taking his daughter away from him. He spirals into a fantasy land of false hope in which he believes he can pull his daughter back from death through one of his life-like trompe l’oeils. Claypot lives on the verge of madness, savagely rebuking anyone who even suggests his quest may be futile. Then one couple takes up the challenge of showing Claypot the beauty still in the world. Will Claypot listen, or will he stubbornly deploy his considerable gifts in a self-destructive orchestration of his own oblivion?
It’s available for the kindle and the nook and will shortly be available at all the usual ebook stores. Print edition also now available.
This week’s story began with a picture that Kim took when we were at The Grotto in Portland, Oregon. While there, we saw a pair of beautiful marble angels on either side of a trail. Like a lot of marble sculpture, these angels had a luminous and life-like quality about them. The figures were bent down and they had their arms crossed in front of their chests. They both seemed to personify grace. Kim took some pictures and this morning, when I was ready to do my challenge story, I looked at that picture and wondered what would happen if one of those marble statues came to life. I tried to imagine what she might want. From there the story came out in about three hours writing time. It’s a little less than 3,000 words long and I hope you enjoy.
Most of us get bumps and bruises in our lives and most of us get over them and go on with living. But what if a trauma decides to lodge in your body and never leave? This week’s story concerns the effects of a kick on a young boy and what it does to the rest of his days.
I began the story this morning with a strong image of a boy getting beaned in the head with a stirrup. From that image the rest of the story flowed out in about two hours total time. The story comes to about 2600 words. To read it, click the “Free” tab above. Enjoy.
The March issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine is just out and it’s got a short story by me in it called “Property Lines” which concerns a couple of nice old ladies who find a way to hate each other over a dispute involving some fruit trees. No one is quite sure who owns them and their resolution to the issue is not pretty. This is my first appearance in AHHM and I’m pleased as punch to be a part of this venerable magazine.
Most likely no one will ever go to the stars, despite decades of science fiction stories that say we will. Also, we probably aren’t going to beat death. Immortality is a dream at best. And I don’t think we’ll ever have real working time machines. Just my opinion. And yet, there’s something fun and exciting about all those things. Even more fun to put them all together into one short story. That’s what I did with this week’s challenge story, “The Universe of Death.” And I packed all that fun into less than 3,000 words.
I started the story on Saturday morning and finished it a couple of hours later. I didn’t get a chance to publish until today, so here it is, my first challenge story of the new year. Enjoy.
Not much to say about this week’s story. I’ve always been interested in the last meals that condemned prisoners ask for. This story is about someone who makes one of those last meals.
Started the piece around 9 this morning. Wrote it in four sessions and finished it about 1:30. It came to a little over 4,000 words.
Most towns have people who live on the edge. They are poor, or have peculiar (to other people) ideas about how the world works, or are hermits, or don’t like most people, or, well, who knows. They’re just seen as different. For this week’s story I wanted to write about one such person. He thinks of himself as helping his town and his tribe, and so he does, even if it is in a way that most everyone else doesn’t understand.
As usual, I started the story when I woke up Sunday morning, which was about 8. I wrote it in three or four sessions with short breaks between and finished it about 2. Did some cleaning up and had Kim read it, then published it to the ebook sites. It came to about 5100 words. Enjoy!
This one grew out of an image I found on Dreamstime. The picture of the puppet’s eye caught my attention and I sat down about noon today and started typing. I let whatever was in my brain come out on the page. I finished the story about 3. It came to about 3400 words. Later in the evening I published it here. This is a strange piece, just the way I like them.
This week’s story began with an article by Andrew Marantz in the current Harper’s which details the imminent demise of Tuvalu, an ultra low-altitude island nation in the Pacific that is slowly being drowned by rising sea levels. I read this article with great interest. I found all the details of how an island disappears to be fascinating. The saga gave me the idea for my story about a king whose nation is slipping into the sea. I wanted the story to straddle the real world and the allegorical realm. To that end, I gave the king a “palace” in the form of a double-wide trailer. I also treated the king with great respect as a character, but made it clear that his realm is a distinctly modest dominion.
Anyway, I don’t want to give away too much of the story. I started writing it at 7:30 on Sunday morning, and finished it about 10:30. Three total hours writing, about 3400 words long. I took another hour and a half to edit it and to make a cover and format it for publication and upload it to the ebook sites. Kim read it and said it was a very Mario story. Another half hour to put it up on my own website and to write this post. Total time from start to finish: about 5 hours.