The Shape of the Thing

Writing has a form. Beyond understanding and becoming competent in the traditional elements of fiction (such as plot, conflict, character, setting, point of view, etc.) understanding the language of form can help a writer uncover the (metaphorical) shape of the work. “The Shape of the Thing” refers to the whole form your writing takes, from the twist and turns of a sentence to the more global view of the plot puzzle.

One way to examine the shape of a novel (short story, memoir, essay, etc.) is to look for a character’s arc following a pyramid map. As old as Aristotle, this shape includes rising action, falling action, climax and denouement. The study of The Writer’s Journey (based on Joseph Campbell’s work) adds the influence of myth and archetype in modern dramatic works.

When we take the study of shape and patterns such as found in permaculture and apply them to writing, we uncover a myriad of framework tools that can guide a written work. One way we learn is through example and copying that example. Copying shape is no different. In our workshops we help writers:

  • Identify the shape of a craft-based habit in a published work.
  • Reduce it to a general rule.
  • Apply liberally.

Come prepared to play with forms, use diagrams and reduce plot points to post it notes that will swirl around the page. Knowing the shape of your work will help you with the most important aspect of your writing— knowing the shape of your story. Come and expect to have fun at our workshop at the Writer.ly Pub Camp on November 15, 2014 in Seattle for more.

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 Come hear me talk  at Seattle PubCamp on November 15th. As one of my friends, you get $60 off the regular ticket price when you use the promo code “friends.” Hope to see you there! Yes, I want to go!

NOTE: This article was written by Ron Heacock and Karen Walasek.

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Veterans Day 2014: Sharps Rifle

This is a Repost from January 20, 2014

sharps rifle

I did not ask for the gun, but I am honored to have received it. The dogs knew the boy was there before I did and although they tried to warn me, I could not understand. You see, like most rural residents, my dogs are my alarm system. Of course they create a ruckus over almost any disturbance; it doesn’t have to be a threat. The Little One doesn’t see very well and, for some mysterious reason, the others think that she is some kind of early warning system. She hears a pipe ping or catches the shadow of a fluttering leaf and it’s a four alarm fire. The other two idiots just react and amplify.

There is a different kind of barking that they indulge in now and again. That’s when a usurper has crossed into their domain. Traditionally it is another dog. People in my county know better than to wander uninvited onto someone else’s land. You might get yourself shot. When the dogs detect a trespasser they go berserk, like a motion detector has been tripped; some faint seismic activity, invisible and silent to my dull senses, causes repeated alerts at all hours.

That night they started in around midnight. Now, at my age, I don’t normally sleep more than a few hours, but they were ringing the bell every hour on the hour, so by dawn I realized I had not been sleeping at all.

In late June the sun comes up before five and even though I had no reason to be up that early, the sun was a welcome excuse to get up already and let the damn dogs out. Usually the lazy mutts will not even come downstairs when I go to make the coffee, but they were whining and door-scratching. I figured there was a stray sniffing around the chickens.

Being stiff and sleepy, I shuffled down the stairs and opened the front door without even looking. “Git-em,” I mumbled, as they exploded outside, a howling dog tornado. Before I could even get the door latched I heard a ferocious “BANG” and a yip.

It’s funny how some sounds can just rattle the sleepiness right out of you. I was awake and in the front lawn before I knew how I’d gotten there wearing nothing but a pair of boxers and torn cotton T shirt. The dogs had scattered. Finn and Little One were on the porch already, dazed and panting. The terrier, Loki, was nowhere to be seen. I rounded the corner of the house to confront the source of the noise and caught sight of what appeared to be a teen-aged boy dressed in an ill-fitting Yankee civil war re-enactment costume. He was fumbling the breach open, apparently attempting to reload a long barreled rifle. Without thinking I called out, “Hey, what the hell…”

He snapped around to face me, bringing the firearm up, its bayonet glinting in the early morning sun. I raised my hands over my head and yelled across the yard to him: “There’s no need for that son.  Put down the gun and let’s see what this is about.”

His image seemed to waver in the rising heat. He did not lower the gun. I was suddenly overwhelmed by the intensity of the colors; the green of the covering sugar maples and the lushness of the grass; every blade and leaf stood out separate and vibrating slightly. The rust-red barn behind him and the black wood fence running up to the forest-green tube gate were almost glowing. The sky, an unusual shade of ultramarine, was streaked with tattered wisps of silver.

And then there was his uniform. It was the deepest navy blue and the jacket buttons were bright gold. Funny thing I realized later is that there was no heat; the wavering must have been something else, because I didn’t imagine it. The image is burned in my memory as clear as a high-resolution photo: green grass, blue boy, red barn.

I was pretty sure he hadn’t had time to reload and, standing a hundred paces in front of me, the bayonet posed little threat. It crossed my mind that if he decided to charge I would look pretty ridiculous, an old man, sprinting through the lawn in my underwear. The thought made me smile. I guess it smoothed my voice out when I said, “Son, you don’t want to hurt no one. Lower your weapon and let’s you and me have a talk.”

You know, I couldn’t really see his face at that distance. Just the same, I could swear that I saw the tears in his eyes before I heard the sob. He fell to his knees. The bayonet point stuck into the lawn as he bent forward and pressed his face into his hands.

I will always be a father no matter that my children have long ago moved away from home. And that young soldier, even though he was only dressed up as one, crying before me touched a deep place in my heart.

I walked over and knelt beside him. He looked directly into my eyes and said, “I’m not a man who kills widows and babies. She looked like my sister. I will never wash the blood from my hands. Look.” He held his dirty palms up to my face. I did not see any blood. “It has stained them permanent and I will be damned to hell forever for what I have done.”

He just fell over before I could speak. I didn’t know if he was asleep or unconscious. Loki had showed up and he licked at his face. The boy mumbled, “Mercy, please.” At least he wasn’t dead.

I couldn’t leave him out there on the grass, but I had no intention of dragging him into the house. I started up to the porch and turned around thinking, “It might be best if I just put that gun inside for him while I go about getting dressed.” I called Loki, but he wouldn’t budge. He’d hunkered down in the grass next to the boy. I figured that it had been a while since he had a young man around. Kids go off and leave their childhoods at home along with their childhood pets. I went inside and dressed, filled a glass with cool water from the fridge and brought it back outside.

When I stepped off the porch the shimmering around the boy’s body had intensified and the colors were brighter still. The landscape behind him changed as I watched. I heard a strange out-of-phase wind blowing. I do not know exactly how to describe the sound of it. The subtle blanket of the morning birds slid between forefront and background with a clanking rumble of voices, animals and harnesses.

Smoke drifted from somewhere nearby. The fences of my front field evaporated and, replacing the rolling pasture, normally dotted with cattle, was the most astonishing panorama I have ever witnessed. This was no civil war re-enactment. This was real. A sprawling army of men and tents, horses and wagons, cannon and low lying smoke covered the scorched battlefield that now ran from where Pigeon Roost Road should have been, across Sneed’s thousand acres to the woods beyond. I shook my head to try and clear it. In response, the scene became more vivid, crystallizing. A pair of uniformed men supporting the boy on their shoulders led him away and down the incline toward the heart of the encampment. He forgot his hat and damp hair hung limp across his face, his head lolled from side to side as they half-dragged, half-walked him away. I distinctly heard him repeat: “Mercy, please,” and one of the others answered, “We need all the mercy we can get, William. Come on now, you’ll be better soon.”

Loki trotted along at his heel, looking up at him as though he had a rare steak in his pocket. I thought to call after him but I didn’t. In truth I couldn’t speak. My throat had closed up and tears were blurring my vision. I blinked hard to clear my eyes and wiped at my face with the back of my hand. The smoke was acrid and greasy, the sky over the encampment purple and bruised. All the earth surrounding them was pitted with cannon craters and several trees were splintered and burning.

My horror grew the longer I watched. My ears were filled with men’s screams and the shrill whinnying of horses. Every so often a loud gunshot punctuated the background murmuring of this writhing city.

I could take no more.

I turned away and looked past my back yard to the rolling hills dotted with round bales fresh from the first cutting. I suddenly realized that I still had the boy’s gun. Without turning to look at the army on the front fields, I went into the house and grabbed the rifle. I did not consider how I would explain myself: a Southern man in a Northern encampment. My only concern was returning the weapon to a soldier who would need it.

When I stepped off the staircase into the yard the entire bivouac had vanished. It took a long moment to realize my mouth was open. I closed it, scanning the fields again for a sign of the army that I had just witnessed. The smell of all that death and smoke still filled my nose, but the sky was clear and a cow lowed in the distance. As I crossed the dirt driveway, walking toward my front fence, my toe caught on something sticking out of the soil. With the gun in my hand and I bent down and pried a Federal army crossed-cannon emblem from the soil. A little scratching around unearthed an engraved name plate and two brass hat buttons.

Loki never returned. I guess that boy needed him more than he needed me.

The gun is an 1861 Sharps, 54 caliber falling block action three-band rifle; it has only been fired a few times. There is a pellet primer still in it and an unfired brass-cased round. Presumably, William actually got it loaded, intending to shoot the dogs or me. Its existence is impossible. You see, aside from the proper patent engravings and the serial number, which falls in the range of the Berdan Sharpshooter rifles, the iron it was forged from is very unique. It was founded from ore mined in northeastern Massachusetts. It has a specific spectrographic signature. This ore ran out in 1870. But the gun that I took from William, as well as the primer cap and bullet, are new. They show no sign of age and no wear from use. It is as if the gun and cartridge were made a few years ago. There were only 500 of these fire arms ever made.

After considerable expert wrangling, the gun was pronounced an authentic civil war artifact and appraised at 1.5 million dollars. I will leave it to my children. I cannot bring myself to sell it regardless of my need and its value.

As final note you should know that boy was William Heacock. His name was engraved on the plate that came from his hat and his initials were carved into the burl walnut buttstock of his rifle. His family lived in Bucks County Pennsylvania. He had a sister and four brothers of whom all but one died on the battlefield across from my farm in 1864. The one surviving son was named Emerson Heacock and he was my great grandfather. I have never told anyone where I got that gun until today.

Sharps Rifle is part of the short story collection, Hey, This is It, I’m Going to Die, due from Libros Igni on November 15, 2014. Contact me for signed copies. Pre order on Amazon:
HeacockCover.indd

Kindle Version of Hey, This is it, Now available for preorder

I read an article the other day that said once you publish a book you become an employee of your former self. I think it’s begining.

HeacockCover.indd
Anyway, the plugs will now begin. Please tell your friends.

I can send review copies to anyone who actually wants to write a review. Leave a comment here or post a comment on my Facebook Writer’s Page.

You can also Email my publisher, Libros Igni for a more formal communication.

I will have printed copies after the workshop I am doing at PubCamp in Seattle on November 15. You can register on their site.

Reviews are welcome.

I’m Doing a workshop at Seattle PubCamp! called The Shape of the Thing

Not only is my collection of short stories coming out on the 15th of November but you can come hear me and Karen talk about Structural Mapping Techniques at Seattle PubCamp on November 15th. As one of my friends, you get $60 off the regular ticket price when you use the promo code “friends.” Hope to see you there! bpt.me/852767

Here’s the short write up of my workshop:

WRITING CRAFT WORKSHOP:
The Shape of the Thing
Ron Heacock & Karen Walasek

Writers are told not to edit until they complete the first draft, because it is impossible to know the shape of your work (whether a novel, short story, memoir, etc). But when we are in the fit of the creative chaos, writers need some sort of guidance. In this workshop we will discuss and practice using structural mapping techniques that help keep the story moving through to the completion of your draft and even to the completion of your manuscript.

What Good is this MFA?

fakeGODDARDCOLLEGEDEGREE

  1. It was a great way to spend $8000 a semester of student loan money (and if I can’t get a job I will not be able to pay it back, so I am not obsessing about it, yet).
  2. I will have a terminal degree (which I thought was going to allow me to teach at college level – but I seem to be competing with every out-of-work teacher in the entire world).
  3. It will be packaged in a nice blue padded folder. (That’s nice, isn’t it?)
  4. Even though I never cared for titles, I will be able to put those three letters after my name…
  5. It taught me to be a better writer, to know a lot about literature and to conduct heady diatribes about Bruno Schulz, Clarice Lispector and Raymond Carver.
  6. I am more broke and displaced than I was when I started but at least I am out of the South.
  7. I met some of the most talented and original writers in the world and I will forever be part of their cohort.

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#7 is the main benefit of any graduate program and mine is no different. One through six are just a rant. Though I do love writing and found all of my reading time (and all of my creative writing time) very fulfilling – I even learned how to hammer out critical work, though I dislike it. I went to a self proclaimed progressive college called Goddard. Some interesting people have come out of Goddard: Mathew Quick, author of The Silver Linings Playbook, Phish, David Mamet, William H. Macy, Piers Anthony…It is a pretty open program where you get to create your own courses. Don’t think for a moment that this is in any way easier than a traditional MFA – it isn’t. At the same time, they did not do much for my ability to teach. And my self esteem suffered while I tried to figure out if I was shit or not – but I figure every program does that to you.

While I was in my Undergrad I got to work with some pretty amazing people, Walter Butts (who’s iconic voice I can hear whenever I read his notes to me),  Ryan Boudinot and Bob Braille among them. I am officially still a student in the MFA program, so in keeping with the adage that one not shit where they eat, I will withhold all comments about the graduate program until I have that diploma in my hot little hands.

The main reason I wanted the MFA was so I could teach college. Sigh.

So looking over the precipice of my impending commencement, I have been occupied with the big beginning and ending question: What the fuck am I gonna do now?

I have been sending stories out and I got some published. I have been trying to meet some writers in my area and get out to read more. I am editing on a couple of journals – this is highly recommended.  But none of these activities are paying me anything and I don’t expect much to change even if I were to get an agent or a publisher. ANd I have been working with both, but it is a long long road.

I just don’t have enough information to predict.

Before I went back to school in 2009 we ran HillHouse Writer’s Retreat for about 8 years. Here is a link for a video we did as part of our failed KickStarter grant attempt back in December of 2012. It shows Karen’s enthusiasm and love for our farm. It also gives you a little visual information to put with HillHouse Writer’s.

But if there is one thing that living on the planet Portland for the past 2 years has taught me, it is that Tennessee is much more alien and twice as hard to make a living in – and we have been nearly homeless here.

No, if we are going to run retreats, we are not going to be able to use our house. We are not going back. But, what if we ran one week retreats in other more exotic locations around the world?

And with a nod to Goddard, the college that both Karen and I got all of our degrees from (up till the end of this year when Karen will get her Master’s in Education from PSU), we have been talking about running a 15 week packet and follow up. I guess that I should explain that a little better for those of you who have never attended Goddard.

The idea is that you figure out what you want to learn and what you are going to do to learn it. Then you create a contract with yourself and the school called a study plan. Then you spend a week talking to your assigned advisor and the other people in your advising group, attending workshops and eating meals (HillHouse had the meals thing down) and listening to other visiting writers and industry folks. Then, every 3 weeks (for 5 sessions or 15 weeks) you send a packet of your creative work to your advisor and the advisor marks your writing up and sends it back.

At the college, you do this for a few years and you get a degree (along with #1 above).

We are trying to keep it affordable, maybe around $2,000.

We are just in the planning stages, but the first retreat might be as soon as November.

I want to open the advisor positions up to others from my cohort who have their MFAs – We would all be in charge of marketing (which is a much needed writer’s survival skill that no one seems to remember to teach) so we will all get plenty of experience trying to figure out what works.

It seems a little weird to me to be arriving where I left six years ago. Of course I am more qualified now, more knowledgeable and a lot more experienced, but really. I had to do all of this work to find out that I was pretty close to the right spot when I started. Even so, it has a certain ironic logic to it.

I am looking forward to feedback about this. I invite all of my friends to chime in with positive ideas (even if they are warnings). Use the comments section on the blog so we can interact with the widest audience.

I am, at heart, an entrepreneur. It doesn’t take much time for me working for someone else’s bright idea to realize that I have bright ideas too, and that I will be paying myself more than a poverty wage on contingency. Please join me for our latest adventure.

NOTE: I added sex to the tags for this post. I was not being disingenuous. Really getting down to the guts of writing is more like sex that you might want to admit. And sex is at the root of everything, without it, there wouldn’t be any writers or readers.

Why is this man Smiling?

laketahoeIf Warren Frank had spoken to anyone about his plan they would have told him it was a bad idea. Hell, even Warren, if he had thought a little, might have admitted it. But seeing as how Gilda, his wife of twenty years had been gone for months, (the number of months eluded him, as did more simple, basic data like; where his matching socks were and what was rotting in the cellar) and Warren’s only co-conspirator was an obese orange tabby named Melvin. Though Warren spoke to Melvin incessantly during the plan’s gestation, Melvin withheld his comments. Melvin’s silence should have given Warren a clue to the efficacy of his plan. It did not.

He and his captive sat hunched in a steel oil tank. Warren’s breathing was restricted by the expanse of his girth and the confining dimensions of the musty metal room. The milky yellow illumination of a $2 Eveready flashlight he’d almost forgotten to buy on his drive to the Wilcombe Estate was nearly expended already. What air was left smelled strongly of mold and diesel fumes. Though they had only been in the tank an hour the batteries in the cheap light were about spent.  Warren had run the non-replaceable batteries down while he was hiding in-between the plaster walls behind the Presidential toilet.

“Ze Presidential bach-hous,” Raymondo had called it with an effeminate flourish of his right hand. He put on an accent too; some kind of French-Spanglish concoction. Ray’s name was not really Ramundo. But that is what Warren and the other contractors called him. He was the lead foreman on the Wilcombe Estate job. Warren and four other craftsmen labored on the restoration of the 18th century Tudor-style mansion for eighteen months between 04 and 05. In two thousand and four Warren was considered a Master Trim Carpenter. That was before The Black Times covered him like a blanket. Warren could not bring himself to consider that period in any more detail that to label it black.

Fucking Black.” His voice reflected back in a close metallic echo.

“Huh?” The other man muttered.

Warren’s captive sounded as though his mouth was full of cotton. He had been sitting, hunched semi-conscious in a pair of burgundy silk paisley pajamas for nearly the whole hour that they had been imprisoned together. The Old North Dock area had been neglected after the renovation was complete. It was thought that guests would rather board the river yachts from jetties closer to the new boathouse at the front of the house. Consequentially, the Old North Docks were largely ignored by everyone except the trades’ men. The wooden docks themselves were grey and splintered. An unearthed oil tank sat obscured by shoulder high marsh weeds. After Warren dumped Pajamas through the hatch and jumped in after him the tank listed and rolled forward and back several times as it sank before coming to rest at the bottom of the lake. He had calculated that Tahoe was only fifteen feet deep at this marshy edge and left ample wire to reach. A moment after the rocking stopped the lights and heater he had rigged blinked out. Now it was getting cold.

The pajama man slurred, “Where the hell am I and who the fuck are you?”

Warren ignored him.  He looked at his cell phone. No bars. He checked out of habit, but the battery was running low too. He reasoned that the wire he’d rigged as an antenna broke the same way that the electrical extension cord must have, it’s frayed end dangling in the murky water. He hadn’t figured in the depth of the mud. That’s what sunk me. He momentary imagined the lake water becoming charged with deadly voltage but quickly realized it would simply trip the breaker in the Old North Dock tool shed. The Flashlight blinked out.

“We are at the bottom of Lake Tahoe,” Warren replied quietly. This part of the plan was not going at all well. He was supposed to take control. Demand changes. Bully the bully. Actually, nothing was going as planned.

“I have kidnapped you Mr. President, but I screwed it up.” He wrapped the flashlight on the curved floor of the metal tank. It sounded a dull ringing. The time was quarter past midnight, but even if the secret service was crawling all over the dock they would find no trace of Warren or his captive.

The flashlight glowed sickly. It hardly cast enough light for Warren to see pajama man’s receding grey hairline or ashen skin.

The older man, now wearing filthy oil stained paisley pajamas, began to scuttle around trying to stand and smacking his head on the low ceiling. He cast from one end of the twelve foot tubular room to the other, coming to rest, sprawled across Warren’s numb legs.

“They will find me, you know, I’m the President of the United Fucking States of America,” he bellowed, trying to convince himself.

“No. It’s no use,” Warren said quietly. By this time he realized how truly bad his plan was. The man he had kidnapped was only just beginning to grasp the situation. He knelt next to Warren and tried to grab the lapels of his flannel shirt.

“Were cut off sir,” Warren began, but using the title felt surreal. He forced the words out trying to ignore the feeling. “See, I was gonna use my cell to explain my demands.” The useless flip phone was still open, the light blinked off. “But the tank here is sunk into the mud now and all the ‘th wires must have pulled out.”

“You have to call them. You MUST!” His captive was staring into his face. His small eyes widened. Warren figured, Yup, the truth of the matter has finally struck the bone. The President’s eyes darted like he had lost all control.

“What the hell have you done to me you bastard?” spraying spittle into Warrens’ face. It smelled like Crest toothpaste. The President’s trembling fingers were wrapped around Warren’s neck. But the grip was weak, more like an embrace than a threat. The hands were cold.

“With no ‘lecticity and no phone we’re going to die down here Mr. President. You keep thrashin’ around like that and you’ll use up what oxygen we got left.”

The older man slumped onto his side. His thin hair hung into the dirty residue at the bottom of the tank but he only rested for a moment.  He sprang up and just missed hitting his head. “Help Me!” he shouted. “Anybody; I’m the President, I’m being held captive. Help me, please!”

The flashlight light faded. Silence seeped in as the light seeped out. The two men wheezed. Warren was calm, but short of breath. Not much time left, he mused.

“I guess my beef with you is kinda besides the point now huh?” Warren didn’t wait for an answer. The air was definitely running out. His captive was making short shallow sobbing sounds, muttering. Warren couldn’t make out what he was saying. He really didn’t care.

“You know you killed us both actually. You and your rush into those damn wars. First I lost my Jamie. Then I lost m’self. Before I knew what was going on my Gilda was gone.” He reached out and felt for the sobbing man’s head and stroked his greasy hair. “I had to do something, don’tcha see? You was killin’ everything I ever loved. My son, my country, my self…” He trailed off.

The President sobbed louder, whining and mumbling. He sounded to Warren like Jamie when he was a toddler. Warren continued to stroke his greasy hair. Somehow the older man had moved his head into Warrens lap. It was hard to speak. Warren slumped back against the cold curved steel wall and went over the plan in his mind, realizing where he had miscalculated, and making mental notes as though he would do better when he did it again.

“I got a call from Raymundo telling me you was taking a hiatus at the “Wilcombe Estate” up to Lake Tahoe. That was when my plan began to form.  I said to m’self, ‘I knows that place like it was my own.’ I nearly rebuilt that whole building with Barney Sofjet and Harry Skillington all through two thousand four and five. We was the team, we was. I lernt about the passages behind the walls where servants could deliver hot toddy’s without nobody even knowing where they came from. They’d move between the kitchens and the bedrooms in quiet; in secret. There’s a whole shitload of staircases and dumb waiters that was never in any plans.”

The man in the soiled silk pajamas was muttering incoherently. Warren mused that it was some kind of justice that he just up and lost his mind. He wondered about how the ruler of the free world could be such a weak man. All that power, no strength.

“I knew that I would never get away with it. I just thought that if I talked to you face to face I might make you see reason. Hell, maybe I could make some kind of statement with my life, like Jamie.

“I remembered the tank and the tool shed. I set up the cords and the heater and lights and antenna days before the secret service even arrived to case the place. Then I hid in-between the plaster walls behind the commode in the Presidential suite for 4 days. I peed in a grape juice bottle and ate stale peanut butter crackers. I could hear anything anybody said throughout that big old house. I knowed when you checked in and when you ate your dinner.  A’course I knowed when you took a dump and when you brushed your teeth too.

I brought an old can of ether that I found in this very house – must have been left behind by the millionaires from the last century. Some rich drug addict doctor I s’pose. It was still good though, I tried it on myself. I calculated how long it would keep you sedated by timing how long it made me sleep.

“I just stepped out of that secret door and hid in the shower while you put on your PJs. Then when you was sittin on the john readin’ that titty magazine I just stepped out and held an ether soaked rag on your face. Out like a baby. It weren’t no big deal to put you in a laundry cart, cover you with old sheets and push you to the dumb waiter.

Once I got in the cellar it was a pretty straight shot out the lower loading doors and down the cement walkway to the old north dock.

I sank that laundry cart and in a blink we were in the tank. I rocked her into the shallows, sealed the door and, well, I don’t think anyone even knowed you was gone.

“Me and Barney joked about makin’ this thing into a submarine. Played around with the sealing doors and even wielded a bunch of 55 gallon drums to the side sos it could sink. But Barney got a long term job with the state and I forgot about the whole damn thing until I heard you was coming up here to visit.”

He paused, thinking about what he expected from this man. The president, dying with his head in Warrens lap.

“I didn’t mean to hurt you mister. I never hurt nobody my whole life. I guess, what I mean to say is, I’m sorry…”

When Warren tried to take a breath he didn’t feel like he was getting any air even though his lungs filled up. Flash bulbs appeared to pop across the dark screen of his vision. He thought that he saw the news boys taking his picture – sticking microphones and cameras in his face and excitedly asking how he had done it.

“Mr. Frank, Mr. Frank, tell our viewers how you single handedly stopped the war and brought the most notorious, treasonous criminal ever elected to Justice.”

Warren Frank did not notice that the President’s sobs had ceased along with his breathing. And he did not feel the lurch or hear the clank of chain against steel as the dredging crane locked on to the sunken tank. He wore a wide grin basking in the adulation of an adoring crowd. When the Secret Service, the Nevada State Police and the FBI split the tank open with acetylene torches they found what appeared to be the former President of the United States of America dressed in dirty silk paisley pajamas sleeping peacefully in the lap of an overweight bearded man. There was no indication as to why the fat man was smiling.

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I am reposting this story because my Twitter account was hacked and Twitter did not distribute this back on March 5 when I originally put it up. Forgive the copy.

Creative Commons License
Why is this man smiling? by Ron Heacock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://wp.me/p4fgRf-1L.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at ron@hillhousewriters.com.

Where They Go

“Mom, where do they go when they die?”

She was loading bags of groceries into the trunk of the car. She did not answer. I walked over to the bird lying on the brown mulch piled up next to a skinny tree. The mulch was surrounded by a concrete curb in the FoodMart parking lot. The bird, one dull beady eye staring, was some kind of brown and grey sparrow-like thing. One wing was stretched out, and its neck bent the wrong way.

“Mom?” I repeated, looking down at the bird.

She must have thought I was going to pick it up. Because she grabbed my shoulder and pulled me toward the car. I might have already bent down. The sun glinted off the chrome bumper.

“Don’t touch dead birds, Sammy, they carry diseases.”

“Where do they carry them?” I asked.

She didn’t answer, just pushed me into the back seat and closed the car door. I could hear her through the rolled up windows, “You didn’t touch it did you? Buckle up now, you know, seat belts save lives.”

///

“It’s a sin to tell a lie,” she said.

It was a different day, the weather was cooler. We were in the garage, having just returned from the eye doctor. After she closed the garage door the sun shined through the cracks between the door panels, painting lines on the cement floor. It smelled like fertilizer, motor oil, and gasoline. I told her that I dreamed I was in the backyard, but then I woke up, and I really was in the backyard. The grass was wet. I was in my pajamas looking up at the cold, black, starry sky. I started to cry, and I wished I was back in my bed. So that’s why there were leaves and stuff on the sheets this morning; ‘cause my feet got dirty in my dream.

I asked, “What’s a sin?”

///

The water is freezing. The bathroom has blue tiles on the walls and the tub is blue too, just lighter. They must have filled it with ice cubes and then they put me in. My skin burns, all over my whole body. My hands and feet feel huge. I am fighting with strong hands. Everything in the room is tilted and wrong­­­–the toilet looks too big; the shower curtain around my dad’s face looks tiny. He is speaking, but I can’t understand the words. I can see up his nose, smell the cigarettes on his breath. I wonder: why are you killing me? I am crying, pleading for my mommy. “Mommy, get me out!” I was so cold before, and now I am on fire. When I close my eyes everything is orange with yellow at the edges.  I want to be out of the water, but I am confused and afraid. As I gasp for air, I hear someone say, “Shush, it’s okay,” And then the little tiled room fills with screams again; the screams are coming from me.

///

I am sitting on my grandfather’s rocking chair on his porch somewhere far away from home. My feet do not touch the floorboards where the grey paint is peeling. It is summer, and flies are flying around the dirty rug in front of the screen door where Chester, my grandpa’s dog, sleeps. It smells hot and dirty like old cooking grease. Chester is mean, I have been bitten, but he is nowhere around now. I want a Good Humor. I want to be home watching cartoons. I want to be anywhere but here. The flies land on me, in my face–on my hands. My mom has warned me about the germs. I am afraid to touch the grimy railing or the grimy doorknob. I squeeze my eyes shut. I remember Dorothy in the movie The Wizard of OZ. I whisper, “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.” I hold my breath; I strain and push and grit my teeth. Sweat runs down my forehead, into my eyes. It tickles my nose; I wipe at it with the side of my hand.

When I open my eyes I am still here. The air is so hot and still that the fence in the front yard looks like it is a reflection in the lake. I remember the lake. The water is cold and dark and deep. I think about the splintery wood on the dock, the metal boat tied up with a thick, scratchy, knotted rope, a black tire tube floating. I can hear the little waves splashing against the posts and the boat banging against the dock.

I no longer want to go anywhere. The idea of the lakeside is just like being there. I relax. I hear other kids playing nearby. When I open my eyes I am sitting on the little sandy beach by the water. A motor boat skims by out in the middle of the lake.

///

She is old. We have had her ever since I can remember. I put my face into the wiry brown fur on her heaving side and listen to her insides; breathing, panting. Like a city of noises gurgling underground. Shallow breaths, up and down–in and out.

They tell me she is dying. I know that it means she will go away.

Somewhere.

I ask, “why?” There is no answer. I ask, “Where will Brownie go?”

My dad walks away. My mom says, “Heaven dear, she is going to heaven.”

I have heard this before. I know they don’t know where that is.

I lean in near her ear, it is very soft. She is panting little pants. I say, “it’s okay now, you can go.” Her tail lifts and falls once, twice. The muscles in her shoulder tighten, and her head lifts off the floor just a little. I think for a moment that she is going to get up, and I move away to give her some space. But she drops back onto the floor and sighs–a long whistling exhale. The panting stops. Her eye is closed, like she is asleep, but I know she isn’t. She’s gone. Brownie’s body is there but not Brownie. I think, I wonder where she is?

///

Wallstone’s Black Duchess. She was the one. I could just tell. One in a jumble of black, tan, and white fur; wobbling on unsteady legs. It was hard to imagine that this little fuzzy rat would someday grow into a dog. Her brothers and sisters squeaked and growled, tumbling over one another in the open cardboard box.

Mom said, “She will be bigger than Brownie, you know. Collies are big, athletic dogs; you are going to have to walk her every day.”

I was hardly listening. I held the little puff ball with my thumbs hooked under her front legs, and raised the tiny black nose to mine. Her puppy eyes were still blue, sort-of unfocused.

My dad said, “I think we’re going to take this one. Sammy? You can call her Duchess.”

The puppy stopped squirming. Her hind legs hung limp. Her little pink tongue flicked out and kissed me. I thought: is that you?

I said, “Mom? I think she recognizes me. It’s Brownie! She’s come back home to me.”

///

My 6th period math teacher, Mr. Mulligan, was the most boring man on the planet. If I wasn’t drawing a battle between the Cylons and the Federation on the inside cover of my math notebook, I would have been asleep. While Mulligan droned on about multiplying negative fractions I saw the janitor, Joe Stern, out the window, riding around and around in circles on the Columbia Middle School lawn mower.

I thought he had to be getting dizzy, just going in circles like that. Mulligan’s voice, the low humming of the motor through the closed windows, and the hot room became too much. I watched a fly land on the windowsill and crawl around, buzzing on and off. Outside, Mr. Stern went around and around and around. My eyes began to close.

I must have fallen asleep, because when the breeze hit my face, I woke up standing in the fresh cut grass outside. The janitor turned just in time to avoid running me over. I stood there blinking. I didn’t know how I got there. I told them, but they didn’t believe me. I got three days of detention for leaving the building without a pass.

///

By the time I was in high school, it had happened enough times that I realized I might end up wherever my attention focused. I was jumpy and nervous, worrying that it would happen unexpectedly. My grades were horrible, I wasn’t sleeping.

I met Alice in the cafeteria. She sat next to me and said, “I remember you from middle school. I was in Mulligan’s class that day, and I saw you disappear.” We became pretty good friends. She told me, “You have a gift, Sammy; you should practice it to make it stronger, like a muscle.” She wanted to help.

My mom had gone back to work, so there was nobody to bother us at my house. Alice suggested I try simple moves at first, like from the den to the bathroom. I discovered that all I had to do was to clearly imagine one detail, like the pattern in the counter top or the way the chrome around the sink drain was chipped, and I would find myself sitting on the toilet or on the edge of the bathtub. A moment later Alice would call after me: “Hey Sammy, you in there?”

I wanted to teach her how I did it, but she didn’t want to try. Once I grabbed her hand just before I moved, but she yanked it back and stormed out of the house. We never talked about it, and I didn’t bring it up again. Alice was my only friend.

///

One afternoon just before Christmas my mom and dad showed up at school together. I was called down to the office; they told me to go by my locker and collect my stuff. We drove all night to a hospital in Saint Louis. My grandpa was very ill, and he might not live through the night. When we arrived in the morning the priest was just leaving. My grandpa was a big, gruff man; I used to be afraid of him. But he looked small and pale in that hospital bed. His color reminded me of an old shirt that has been washed too many times.

My mom said, “Dad? Sammy’s here, and Paul… We’re all here to say goodbye, dad. Can you hear me?” She motioned me to come closer.

I really wanted to get away from that room. If I let myself, I could be somewhere else in a moment, but it would be hard to explain. I moved up next to him, and he mumbled. I asked, “What did you say grandpa?”

I sat down in the chair next to the bed. My mom said, “Listen Sam, you stay here with him for a bit. Your dad and I are going for coffee. Do you want anything?” I shook my head.

I sat there listening to his breathing; he had those little tubes under his nose, and he would wheeze on every exhale. I looked around the room. There was a plastic bed pan; a vase of wilting flowers, the TV remote–it seemed so sad and superficial that my big strong grandfather was dying in such a cruddy little room.

He suddenly opened his eyes, but he wasn’t looking at me. He said, very clearly, “I don’t know how to do this.”

“Do what grandpa?”

“I can’t find it; I can’t find the door…”

I thought of the time in the ice bath. My mom told me that I had a 106 degree fever, and they were afraid I was going to die. It gave me an idea, I said, “Can you see an orange light, grandpa?”

“Where’s the light? I can’t find the light.” He was only taking short, little breaths.

I imagined the pulsing orange light with the yellow around the edges. I looked into the image in my mind and noticed that it was like a flame. Little blue sparks shot out of the center like ribbons. I was standing in front of an open doorway with the orange light radiating from the room on the other side. It wasn’t hot or anything. My grandpa was standing next to me looking off to the side. I took his big, soft hand, and pulled him forward.  I said, “Look Gramps, there’s the door, you want to go through it? It’s okay you know. I think that’s where you’re supposed to go.”

He didn’t look at me. He said “Oh yes.” Then he walked through and disappeared into the light.

I watched for a moment; my heart pounding, but not because I was scared. I wondered where he was going, and I wanted to follow, but I remembered my mom and dad. The next moment I was sitting in the chair. I looked over at the body on the bed. A faint smile curled the corner of his ashen lips, but my grandfather was already gone.

›š###

NOTE: This piece was graciously published in Connotation Press (and I am in pretty good company there!). Please check them out and SUBMIT!

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Where they Go by Ron Heacock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://www.connotationpress.com/fiction/1757-ron-heacock-fiction.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at ron@hillhousewriters.com.

Crossing Cali’s Wires

cig pak“The number you have reached is not in service. If you’d like to make a call, please hang up and try again.” The message was followed by a series of clicks and buzzes and a final pop like the line was actually being cut. Cali imagined a black cable the thickness of her thumb severed with a long handled pair of pruning loppers.

The door slid shut; she habitually stabbed the first floor button three times. “How the hell could the intercom in an elevator be connected to a phone?” She asked.

Her ten year old Corgi, Pootin, didn’t answer. He stood by her feet, panting up at her. She had waited too long to take him out again and his self-control was clearly frayed.

Cali was interrupted from pondering at the third floor when a slobbering bull-dog-sort-of-beast entered the car towing his owner by a stretched leather leash. Pootin whined. Cali smiled toward the man, but his nose was inserted in a yellowed paperback, so she let it fade from her face. The guy was wearing a dirty pair of sweatpants and an unbuttoned paisley bath robe. Cali looked away from his thicket of chest hair. Pootin stopped panting as though the wet noises from the other dog were intimidating him. Cali knew better; her Corgi was silent and staring into the corner because it required his full attention to keep from pissing a lake right there on the rubber elevator floor.

The door opened and she squeezed between paperback face and the metal jamb. “So sorry,” she mumbled, walking fast through the lobby doors and out onto the sidewalk. Poor Pootin almost pissed on the mailman’s leg as Cali dragged him three legged to a pole near the curb. His toenails scratched the cement. She was busy lighting a Marlboro light with one of those cheap plastic lighters and did not notice if Bulldog followed her out. Eyes closed; leaning on the postered pole, she exhaled a lungful of low tar and nicotine. It was amazing that there could be any wood left under the thousands of playbills stapled there over the years.  “Must be more paper and staple than wood,” she thought. Pootin, who had already dropped a quart, looked up at her apologetically, but his urinary stream showed no sign of letting up.

Cali wrote a column named, The Smart Chick’s Guide to the City. Smoking there, she’d drifted into thinking about her latest article in progress, a comparison of the corrupt bucket of mayoral hopefuls in the upcoming election titled Neck Deep in the Snake Pit. “Follow the money and it will reveal the dark underbelly of the political process,” Cali thought. “I’m just worried it might be getting too dark.”

Grinding the cigarette with her heel, she asked Pootin, “You done bud?” He sat calmly on the sidewalk looking up at her as if to say, “Who, me?” Cali punched her door code into the entrance intercom and rode the elevator back up to her fourth floor loft. There were no calls during the return trip.

The only upside of being a smoker in the current anti-smoking world was that it forced her to go outdoors every few hours. At least she couldn’t chain smoke, and her habit gave her an excuse to punctuate her normally obsessive writing life. Pootin appreciated the breaks as well, since Cali hardly ever passed up a chance to bring him with her when she went. Sometime in the late afternoon, following a can of plain tuna fish and couple of stale Ritz crackers, Cali snapped the retractable leash onto Pootin’s collar and walked to the elevator at the end of her floor.

After the door closed and she stabbed the first floor button, a ringing sound came over the intercom. It rang once, as though she were listening to a receiver making a call. Halfway through the second ring, a male voice picked up and mumbled, “What? What do you want now?”

Cali opened her mouth to try and explain that she was in an elevator and the stupid intercom system seemed to be making random phone calls when a breathy female voice said, “You know what I want Charles, and you’ll pay it too.”

Cali closed her mouth. The male continued, “What, why are you doing this? I’ve never done anything to you.”

The woman said, “Fuck you Charley, this is about you, not me. Did you get the money?”

The elevator stopped at the first floor and the door opened. Cali rapidly stabbed the fourth floor button six times. Pootin began to exit but she snapped the lock on the spring loaded leash and gagged him to a stop as the door slid closed.

The man said, “Yes, yes I have it, but, can’t we talk about this. I can help you, you don’t need to do this…”

The woman laughed loudly, Cali hoped that the tenants on the first floor couldn’t hear, they would have thought it was her; they were always up in her shit. “Charles, you have nothing I need, but I am going to ruin you, you asshole. Bring the money to The Crow Bar at 4:55 this afternoon; it will be crowded and noisy. Put it in a gym bag – I know you have one you bastard. Remember, if you are late it’s over, if the money isn’t all there, it’s over, if you tell anyone or bring anyone, it’s over. Do you understand?”

Charles said wearily, “How many times are you going to do this?”

“Until I’m satisfied. Remember, you’re my bitch.” She disconnected and the operator’s recording began, “if you’d like to make a call…”

Cali stood in the car with the door open at the fourth floor until the door closed. The car sat stationary, waiting for someone to summon it. After a moment she pushed the open doors button and walked back to her apartment in a daze. She knew where The Crow Bar was. The time was 3:30.

To say the bar was crowded and noisy was an understatement. Cali did not realize how difficult it could be to spot a man she had never seen at exactly 4:55 PM on a Friday evening. She sat next to a blond with big-hair and a really short sequined skirt at the end of the bar, sipping a Widmer draft, watching the door.  The spicy Chex mix was addictive, the crowd prowled.

At 5:30, after three mugs of beer her mouth felt burned and dry from the salty snacks, but she had not seen a man with a gym bag. Her head was pounding in time with fat bass of the dance beat. The place was a meat market; she’d caught the big-haired blond eyeing her. Cali decided to leave. As she was paying her tab the other woman put her hand on Cali’s wrist.

“You call me sometime, huh?” she spoke into Cali’s ear, pressing a scrap of paper into her palm.

Looking at the woman’s face–heavy eye makeup, too much hair–Cali’s face grew hot; she stuffed it into her pocket and pulled away. There was nothing to say. She pushed out into the night.

As she walked to the light rail stop she thought, “Crap, what a waste of time. I can’t really believe I did this.” The trains were relatively empty at this time; she had no problem finding a seat. She scanned her fellow passengers. There was a woman dressed in blue pumps wearing a faux mink stole, a skinny guy in a checkered sport coat whose sleeves were too short revealing greying white shirt cuffs and wrists so boney they looked as though they were from an R. Crumb comic. A young mother and a toddler boy sat near the front of the car talking about the train and the dark city stuttering past the window.

She had drifted back into thinking about the Snake Pit article, and hardly noticed when the train stopped. A large boned, middle-aged man boarded the train wearing a grey silk pin striped suit carrying a blue Nike gym bag. When the train started up Cali glanced around the car casually and spotted the guy with the bag. She wished she had a newspaper to hold up in front of herself so that she could look at him inconspicuously. He sat down directly across from her and rested both hands protectively on the bag in his lap.

He was staring at her. She looked away suddenly flushed and self-conscious. After the train was up to speed and the overhead mumbled some unintelligible announcement about what Cali could only guess was the next stop, she ventured a look at him and quickly pretended that there was something of overwhelming beauty or importance embedded in the orange plastic of the seat next to her.

She built up her courage enough to glance at him again. This time she swept her gaze across the advertisements near the handles above his head before dropping her eyes slightly to see if he was still looking at her. He wasn’t really staring; just peering blankly out the window to her right. The train began to slow and the disembodied voice on the overhead intoned some more garbled nonsense.

As the train came to a stop the suited man slid over in his seat, slumped forward and fell onto the floor. The woman in pumps screamed and bolted, the mother grabbed the boy by the wrist and yanked him to the nearest opening doors, probably dislocating his elbow. The bag rolled in Cali’s direction and stopped on the toes of her Chuck Taylor high tops. Charles continued to stare under the seat. He was not moving, probably not breathing. A burgundy puddle grew from beneath him; his left cheek pressed into the grooved rubber floor mats. A fly crawled across his open eye.

The geek in the checkered jacket had disappeared. The blue gym bag, which she imagined was full of money, rested on her toes. Charley just lay there. She was alone with a dead body, and a spreading pond of blood. She looked at the blue gym bag. Just as the doors began to close, Cali grabbed the bag and sprinted from the train.

///

Her thoughts were blank. The image of Charley, his pale face pressed into the black rubber mat flickered in her memory blotting out every other sensible impulse. She opened a fresh pack and lit up, walking and smoking, trying to organize her thoughts around what she had witnessed. “What have I witnessed?” she thought. It took a full minute, when she looked up at the building she was standing in front of, to recognize it was her building. When she reached for a cigarette the pack was empty.

Once behind her locked apartment door, Cali dropped the bag on the floor and ran to the bathroom. It only took a split second of deliberation to decide to pee rather than puke. She leaned forward and laid her head on her knees with her eyes closed. The Chex mix was an insufficient dinner, especially on top of all the beer. She tried to center herself and calm her stomach. Even though there wasn’t much in there, it threatened to rise.

When she opened her eyes, the blue Nike bag sat slumped on the saddle of the bathroom door. Sweat tricked down her back like melting ice. The corner of the Nike bag had wicked up some of Charley’s blood. Cali’s gut folded over and she nearly bolted.

Her curiosity got the better of her. She splashed some water on her face, brought the bag to the stainless steel kitchen counter, and poured herself a half glass of Bulliet Bourbon. After drinking a large gulp, she ripped the zipper open like she was pulling a strip of duct tape from her hair.

The bag contained a dirty pair of sneakers and some gym shorts. It smelled ripe. The dumped out contents spilled on the counter. Sweaty gym socks, and a stained wife beater. Some coins rattled to the floor. Cali grabbed a chop stick and pushed the pile of stuff around.

There was nothing of any value there. She wasn’t a lawyer, didn’t know the jargon. It was called tampering with or removing evidence, or something. Whatever it was it had to be bad, someone had murdered Charley. She saw it. He was really dead.

One of his sneakers fell on the floor, tipped over and a wallet and keys tumbled out. “Oh fuck,” she said. Pootin was sniffing around the sneaker, she yelled at him, “Pootin! Get the hell away from that.” The shocked Corgi released a huge spreading puddle that instantly enveloped the shoe, wallet and keys. Cali shouted, “Shit!” and grabbed the billfold and the keys with one hand, spraying her shoes with piss. She lost her grip on the keys and they flew across the room landing on a terry cloth towel piled by the couch. “Oh fuck me,” she cried, but by the time she reached them the urine soaked keys had left a yellow blotter stain on the white fabric. The dog was stuck trying to wedge his fat body under the couch.

After spreading the contents of the wallet on paper towels to dry, Cali looked over the damp contents. There were only five twenties – definitely not a fortune, snap shots in the picture section of a woman in her mid-thirties with long black hair and several of children, two boys, at various ages spanning infant to toddler.

The name on the license was Albert Armstrong. His address was listed as 10010, 105th Street SE. Not Charley.

Cali dropped down on the couch and swallowed the last of the bourbon. Pootin put his head on her knee and looked up at her as if to say, “Do you forgive me? I couldn’t wait.”

She patted his head absently. She was suddenly very sleepy and closed her eyes. It was just for a moment. She had to think this through, figure how this happened and what she should do about it.

///

Cali woke up to Pootin licking her face. The sun filled the high ceilinged loft. She almost forgot about the events of the preceding day, but sitting on the toilet reminded her of the blue Nike gym bag and the memory of Charley/Albert, lying in a lagoon of dark blood overtook her.

The wallet contents spread on her counter greeted her on the way to make coffee. The day suddenly turned overcast and the apartment darkened a shade. Cali sat at her kitchen table sipping from a large mug. “If he wasn’t Charley, then why would anyone want to kill him?” She was thinking. There were coffee grounds in the bottom of her cup. “Maybe he wasn’t killed. There were probably all sorts of reasons that a man would fall dead on a light rail train and bleed all over the floor.” Cali couldn’t think of any just then, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t happen.

“And if he wasn’t murdered…”

“Oh shit,” she said to Pootin, he silently confirmed her conclusion. “I probably grabbed the only identification Albert had,” she said.  “The black haired woman in the wallet pictures; she is probably freaking out.”

///

Cali took Pootin and rode the Max eastward across the river to the 82nd Avenue stop. The sun was shining, but she could not place it in the sky. The time on her phone face read 10:30AM. She hid the blue Nike gym bag inside a grocery sack. The blood had dried to a dark brown stain, it looked like dirt. The wallet was in her pocket next to her smokes.

She walked the remaining blocks to the address on Albert Anderson’s identification trying to hold her head up and keep her back straight, but as she walked, she kept catching herself slouching, and would stiffen up again. A traffic signal stopped her at 98th and she stood rehearsing the story she would tell the dark haired woman when she answered the door. “I can’t say I stole the bag, or even begin to explain why I thought it might be full of money…”  At this point she was not even sure why she went out to The Crow Bar. Pootin whined, Cali looked down at him and then up at the light.

“That’s a long light,” she thought fingering the lighter in her pocket, considering a cigarette.

After realizing that she had stood through two cycles she spun around and started back toward the Max station, but after three steps, stopped and turned back. “No.” she thought, I am going to have to face this. Maybe I can just say I found it. Sure, I found it and looked inside for some clue to its owner.” Pootin looked up at her, panted and trembled.

Walking on, the scene played in her mind: she would arrive at the door and ring the bell, explain her story, and hold out the wallet and bag. Cali wanted to believe that the woman would appreciate the return of her husband’s things. She was nodding to herself. After a few more steps she stopped, realizing, “Oh fuck. What if she doesn’t know he’s dead yet? If the police could not find any identification,” her armpits felt damp now, “then I would be the first to tell her. The police might want to question me.”

Cali couldn’t lie to the police. She pulled the Nike bag out of the grocery sack and began looking around for a place to stash it. When she turned to a row of garbage cans lined up by a short chain link fence along the sidewalk, she read the house number: 10010. She had walked directly to 105th Street SE without even thinking about it. At least she could not remember thinking about it.

Cali fumbled the cigarettes out of her jacket pocket and dropped her lighter. She stood smoking, staring at the house with the Marlboro sticking out of her mouth. Pootin inspected the base of a trash cans. At that moment the front door opened and a woman with dark hair strode down the sidewalk and opened the gate. When she saw the Nike bag she said. “That’s my husband’s.”

Cali exhaled and opened her mouth. Her mind went blank again. She held out the wallet. The woman, looking puzzled, took the wallet and said, “Look Hun, this lady found your gym bag.” Cali turned and faced Albert Anderson, looking every bit alive as his driver’s license photo.

He said. “Oh wow, how cool, where did you find it?”

Cali’s mind ran through a hundred possibilities in a second. She did not want to tell the story of the elevator or the pool of blood. She couldn’t explain that she took it from a dead man who she thought was Charley who turned out to be Albert who turned out not to really be dead at all. She needed to sit, but there was nowhere. Her mind filled with a stream of mental chatter about the conclusions she had jumped and an old saying: to assume makes an ass out of you and me. She swallowed and dropped the cigarette on the side walk, covering it with her shoe.

Anderson’s wife noticed Pootin and bent down to pet him. She said, “Oh, he’s precious, what’s his name?”

Cali mumbled, “Pootin, like the Russian leader, only with two O’s.”

Both Anderson and his wife laughed. Cali continued, “I guess I just found it.” But both of them were petting the dog now and the Andersons did not hear her. They were muttering to Pootin, who had rolled over exposing his belly, and was making little mooking sounds.

The dark haired woman stood up and reached out to shake Cali’s hand, she said, “Well it was nice to meet you…” she paused.

“Cali,” Cali said, taking the woman’s hand.

“Cali,” she continued, smiling. “I’m Meg. Thanks you for bringing Andy’s stuff back.”

“And sorry about the clothes, I know they’re rank.” Andy added, “I was bringing them home last night and I left the bag at the Max stop. I forgot I left my wallet in there.” He was shaking his head. Cali really wanted to light a cigarette.

“I have to go pick up the kids from play practice,” Meg said. “Thanks again.”

While she walked off toward the car in the driveway, Albert opened his wallet and pulled out a twenty, stuffing it into Cali’s hand. It was damp. She opened her mouth to refuse, but closed it again. She wanted to tell him about the blood stain, but could not think of how to begin. He said, “Well then, thanks again. Have a great day,” and walked up the steps and into his house.

Cali stood on the other side of the closed gate until Pootin whined and tugged. He wanted to check out more trash cans, but Cali walked back in the direction of the Max, pulling the crumpled pack of Marlboro’s out of her pocket and lighting one. Pootin trotted a few steps behind her, tongue out and panting.

Arriving at her elevator she jabbed the up button three times. The door opened immediately as though it had been waiting for her since she had left that morning. It was about 12:30 now, Cali’s stomach grumbled. The door closed. Riding up, just past the second floor the ringer sounded on the intercom. The same man answered it before the second ring. Charley said, “Hello?”

The breathy female voice said, “Fuck you Charley, you stood me up.”

He replied, “You didn’t answer your phone, and my car battery was dead. I just didn’t have the energy to ride the Max all the way over there to that shitty bar.”

“Charley!” she sighed, her voice exaggerated like a melodramatic actor. “That was our date, baby. I didn’t wear any panties and I waited for you for an hour.”

“Oh I’m sorry snuggle bottom.” Charley was making kissing sounds into the phone. Pootin, hearing the lip smacking, began barking frantically.

The man on the phone said, “Who is that? Who’s on the line? Sheila, did you get a dog?”

Pootin just kept barking. The neighbors would surely be annoyed. Cali almost yanked on his leash and scolded him. She was tired. She wanted a cigarette. She sighed, Pootin showed no sign of letting up. “Fuck it, let him bark, who gives a shit,” she thought.

As the car reached her floor Cali thought about saying something to the people on the phone, but she realized again that there would be no way to explain her involvement in these people’s lives, her misunderstanding or the drama of the past two days. The door opened and Pootin forgot why he was barking, eager to continue in his accustomed ritual. While she walked down the hallway she looked down at the little dog prancing next to her heal, content to be with her, it made her smile. For a couple of steps she did not think about anything in particular, she was happy just walking with her dog. Before she reached her apartment door, however, the image of all that blood invaded her thoughts. She wondered, “Who was that dead guy and why was he carrying the bag?” Maybe there was something she missed. Pushing her hand into her pocket she felt the scrap of paper from Big-Hair. “Sheila?” The wheels in her mind started to turn.

###

NOTE: This piece appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of The Elohi Gadugi Journal Under the name of Otis’s Lament 

Creative Commons License
Crossing Cali’s Wires by Ron Heacock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://wp.me/4fgRf.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at ron@hillhousewriters.com.

To The Telling

I was looking at my newsfeed and I saw this embedded video of a television advertisement for vitamins. In short, it showed a couple of couples playing strip poker; glowing young folks, fully developed and semi-clad. One voluptuous female loses the hand and begins unclasping her radiant red brassiere, but is frozen mid reach by an older janitor-type in white scrubs – is it worth noting that the guy is stereotypically black and grisly? – he snaps on the lights and says, “Go back to bed!”

When we pan back to the mostly naked poker people, they are all in their seventies. The voice-over says: “Feel young again. Take bla bla bla.” It was cute. The first person I thought of was you, nothing strange about that. We’d often claimed that sharing was the cement that glued us in our long marriage. And Facebook makes this sharing act very simple; there are just so many ways to share! I selected the proper link-button, typed your name in the “Write Something” space and clicked “post.” I could have made it private to you, but I want My Friends to see my stuff. There was nothing private or too risqué about this message.

Knowing where my mind will next go, I scramble to avoid thinking about it. But the well-traveled neuron connections are too ingrained and the next step sends a shock through my head and heart. I guess that’s the way we remember to mourn. We surprise ourselves into grief. Repeatedly.

After two years I am cored in the same cold way. Isense the approach, like the smell of a distant storm, and try to sidestep the dread epiphany, it still surprises. I have almost found a way to live with it. At first I tried to talk myself out of it. Then I went through a period of wallowing – you know, where you try to squeeze all the pain out of your heart like a fat, oil saturated sponge. As if there is a bottom to that bitter well.

Even in the beginning the surprise of your absence burst upon me when my attention drifted– even though really, I thought of nothing but you. Somewhere around one year, I fell into a long mediocre stretch punctuated by these occasional gut dropping shocks. As the time between them grew, I actually began to feel normal – or at least as normal as I’ve been since you vanished – well, maybe normal isn’t the proper word – neither is vanished, exactly. Maybe it would be better to say I became accustomed to the new muted color of life.

Then, in this blur of non-descript exhaustion, something happens and I think (without thinking at all I realize after the fact,) geez, I bet you’d really get a kick out of… and ping! There you would be. I wondered if I was just so tired of the shock, the shock of your loss, the shock of what being really alone was, my brain, in an attempt to save me, was masking the area around your memory like a segment in a tape recording that’s cut out and spliced with scotch tape. Not a very good splice either, the kind that alerts the listener that something was removed – something about a change in atmosphere. Or maybe a stray bit of the expunged sound got left behind, enough to alert the ear that a part was skipped, but not enough to tell what it was. And of course that detection would connect to the whole memory, big and garish and red, just as inflamed and sore as when the wound was made.

I got mad at the phenomenon for a bit. But I know anger is one of the stages, so I worked to let go fast, transmuting the threat of violence into more sustainable emotions. Numbness won out, slow to morph into what your non-being has now become, dull and jaded, yet unexpectedly bothersome as a steel wire splinter in the fingertip.

In addition to experiencing the re-shock of your loss every time I get excited about something, I often find myself waking up from immersive reminiscences. I am not aware of entering into these states, only leaving them, when I realize, again, in less of a balance-robbing way, that oh, yes, we are no longer making new memories together. Though reliving them is a convenient refuge, I am at my core a realist; I see the futility of growing accustomed to escape.

pumping stickyWhen you still breathed, we had an ongoing argument about life. I always thought of it as a disagreement about gusto, but I never mentioned that title to you. And truth be known, I agree with your point. I was taking the side of the devil in order to tease out the details – and I think you knew that. I based my position on a quasi-Hemingway stance, though I have not closely studied his work. From what I have read and pondered, (and why shouldn’t I wonder on Papa’s life and times? He was A Great by many standards, even as the lifetime chairman of the Dead White Guy’s Cannon.) I’ve formulated a simplified philosophy.

Take life by the horns, Hemingway’s carefully crafted image implores, experience all she has to offer with gouged-open, suicidal glee. We are at end, food for worms, and once gone only the echoes of our shrieking in abandonment will remain. Even then, not for long.

But you had a different read on the question. For you, the idea that the physical life was the end-all of reality was a ludicrous notion. Sure, you were an earth mother woman, and lived as close to the center of your power as possible. You’d tell anyone who seemed vaguely receptive that, “Woman is most feminine when she is pushing a fresh lanugo-coated human between hips made oxytocin flexible, expelling her from the largest muscle in the human body, past stretched, slippery vulva lips, grunting radiant into this drafty world.” I have witnessed this, I agree.

It doesn’t get more physical than that, friends. And yet, for you the inner spaces of life offered a more worthy challenge for a cartography of your stature to decipher. You argued that my Hemingway-esk model of standing tall in the rarefied natural world, battling death in the form of big game with big guns, was an illusion.

To be fair, you recognized that an aerial view of the heart, the architecture of human emotion and the fair lands of thought and logic, were all just as imaginary. The main rub, you maintained, was these inner workings supplied the real power. Invisible to the fleshy eye, they are the actual animator of our love, pumping life’s sticky fluid deep into the capillaries of our bodies. For you, recognition of that unlimited world was what powered the true machine.

You would say, “It isn’t important to quantify your worth. It is proof enough to understand your value.” And we would go around and around, playfully: you like a mama tiger circling her den, me poking fun at your nebulous concept of reality, all the while admiring your strength of heart.

Hey, even Hemingway chose the typewriter ribbon over of the thirty-aught-six to tell his story. We are not talking about how he signed the last page of the manuscript, because that is best left to others knowing him and his demons better than I. All writers know that they birth life from imagination. Even attempting the task calls foul on the physical world. The writer casts hopes and dreams out for a depth-sounding in this, our shared solid reality.

We creative types are a conundrum, stumbling through this metaphoric world. Dabbling in the ethereal, we grind pigments from flesh and bone to paint an invisible canvas before an audience of ghosts. Who can say what is actually real?

Probably you, my dear.

From your bodiless vantage, I imagine you have a clearer view this soupy mess. I wonder if you told me, would I understand? And maybe you are telling me, dictating your vision though our unbreakable silver cord, what remains of our bond, in a language only love can decode. As I dip deep into the shimmering void, trolling the currents of the unformed, behind a curtain that only death presumably strips away, maybe I am syphoning your wisdom. Fashioning it into literary sculpture, polished. Lovingly precise, still only revealing the barest essence of the powerful nectar you have become.

I wanted to explain how it feels. Why I post videos on my dead wife’s wall. Maybe I will understand it myself someday; my excitement at discovering a twist or beauty, some new logic that I know would touch your spark. Without a hint or whisper of that familiar precipice, the bottom drops out. And I am shocked again to realize why you will no longer respond.

###

For Karen.

NOTE: Karen asked that I publish this for Valentine’s Day 2014 – It is still very fresh and will probably be revised. This is an early draft. But I think the sentiment comes through. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. 

Creative Commons License
To The Telling by Ron Heacock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://wp.me/p4fgRf-1g.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at ron@hillhousewriters.com.

Falling Forward

You are walking. It is late morning. The sun has that deceptive midwinter angle to it that makes everything look as though it should be warm and inviting, but it is not. It couldn’t be more than twenty degrees. The shadows are sharp-edged, and the air is crystalline. There are no clouds; just a broad curving blue from one horizon to the other. You look at your watch, but immediately forget the time.

On a morning like this, as cold as it is, everything seems possible and unhidden. But like the blue cloudlessness; you know it’s an illusion. The thin band of atmosphere clinging to earth’s surface reflects the sun’s visible spectrum. It’s just a mask for the unimaginably desolate eternity of black space.

Even so, everything is fine on a morning like this; the truth is a comfort in its nakedness.

Your boots have worn in to the point where they do not hurt your feet. And thick wool socks give your toes a packed-in feeling – warm, dry and supported by well-crafted, handmade leatherwork. Your soles scuff the small stones in the parking lot as you stride toward the street, habitually glancing both ways.

blackbirdblueskyA raven, like a cutout in azure construction paper, arrows by above just within your vision field. An itch on the back of your neck should be a signal, but the day is so wide open, you distract yourself by scrunching up the lint inside your glove with the nail of your pointer finger.

You are not planning anything, exactly. More the feeling of falling forward into the slipstream of your life. You enjoy being pulled along into the next continuous now. Feeling content, it’s almost like floating.

As you near the middle of the street, a thought bubbles to surface about a child you once saw through the window of a small meat and three diner in town. A woman, presumably her mother, was dabbing at her young girl’s chin with a napkin. You are overwhelmed in re-witnessing this memory; the love of the gentle demonstration; the silent, insulated viewing through plate glass.

As the panel truck strikes your right side, the same side as the fingernail and glove lint scrunching, and your body is launched into the crisp space above the rough pavement, you focus on the crow, strangely, still suspended above the scene as though it were an element in a collage. Your body’s silhouette is pressed into the metal grillwork of the vehicle. The boots remain where you last stood. Your discarded watch and leather gloves lie nearby.

Though you recognize the coda, there is no pain or regret. A smile curls in anticipation of the symphony’s next movement: You are now all curiosity and wonder. It is the possibility of love’s lingering that you follow forward.

###

NOTE: This story was published by The Pitkin Review in the print issue of Fall 2012
Creative Commons License
Falling Forward by Ron Heacock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://wp.me/p4fgRf-18.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at ron@hillhousewriters.com.