Putting Away Childish Things

cowsWhitey Roy mopped sweat from his forehead with a gear oil-stained red bandana. Everybody knew that the ancient gas pump at Dunnavant’s service station ran slower as the temperature climbed. Though the faded printing on the oversized disk thermometer, nailed crooked to the side of the office door, topped out at 105, its rusty red needle was pinned far beyond that. Whitey figured it was at least 110 degrees.

Across Pigeon Roost Road, Mac Murphy’s hay field wavered like smoke, as though the landscape was smoldering in the late afternoon sun. A few dun-colored cattle stood still as statues, except for the occasional fly-swatting swish of a tail. A puff of breeze raised dust on the gas station’s buckled pavement. It felt more like an open pizza oven than wind. All the while, the faded numbers on the pump rolled slowly. At this rate, he thought, it’ll take an hour to fill this five gallon can.

The pump said: “Klackity-chuff, squeeek. Klackity-chuff, squeeek. Klackity-chuff, DING.” From the tired sound of the thing, Whitey could definitely tell it was running down. He wanted a cigarette and a beer. If the damn gas nozzle still had the auto-clip on it he would have left it stuck in his battered red gas can and lit one up in the shade of the scraggly hackberry tree at the edge of the parking lot. Whitey Roy knew he was not the sharpest tool in the shed, but, as he repeated often, “My momma didn’t raise no dummy.” He could smell the fumes from the 97 octane like he had his face right there in the can. He mopped ineffectively at the sweat running into his eyes and squinted at the hay barely shifting in the blast furnace air. “Ker-poof,” he said, imitating the last sound he would likely hear if he lit a match near that pump.

Everything looked burned around the edges; a comic book portrayal of some rural hell where all the colors were washed out. The grinding innards of the pump slowed noticeably. It was too hot to get excited, but Whitey considered it. He could have gone to the Phillips 66 further up 31 at the end of Buford’s Station, but that would have taken another half hour and he was already behind in raking his hay. He sighed.

A shadow poured quickly like paint, spilled over the station, plunging him into shade. The relief was overwhelming. Before he could look up at the cloud that caused it, the pump squealed to a halt. The numbers stood frozen at three point three gallons. He clicked the handle twice and looked into the nozzle end, shook the thing a few times, and said, “Aw, c’mon!” That’s when he felt it.

At first the rumble seemed to be in the air around him. After a moment, he dropped the pump handle and clapped his hands over his ears, but it didn’t help much. Charley Spits’ beagles started howling and yapping next door. It got darker, and cooler, and the wind rose and threw candy wrappers, empty beer cans, and small stones around the lot in spirals.

“Mus’ be a tornada,” he murmured.

Something hard smacked him on the shoulder and the vibration in his legs felt like an earthquake. The rumble became a violent shaking.

Whitey bent forward with an unavoidable wave of nausea and projectile vomited his turkey sandwich onto the oil-stained pavement. He fell to his knees, grinding skin into the tar and shredding his jeans. The low frequency pulsing was joined by a piercing high note that descended the tonal scale so rapidly that all the glass in his truck windows, the store front, and the face of the pumps exploded, spraying shards of glass .

The pressure grew inside his head; blood leaked from his ears. He opened his mouth to scream, but the sound was drowned out. A barn-sized disc shot out of the dark above him and descended over the hay field and stopped fifty feet above the small herd who did not seem to notice the commotion.

The rumble and squeal blinked out and the wind died. The resultant silence revealed a quieter purring sound that came from the direction of the disc. Cows lowed, tails swished. Whitey Roy tried to catch his breath. He couldn’t.

He was still on his bleeding hands and knees when he realized that the pavement was scorching hot. Jumping to his feet, he wiped at his runny nose and eyes with the sleeve of his dirty denim shirt. He tried to focus on the disc hovering above the cattle. It was at least two hundred feet across. The surface was dull, dark gray, like primer paint. There was no texture or marking on its smoothness.

Whitey wanted to run, but his legs refused to obey. He fought the urge to vomit and defecate simultaneously. The part of his mind that usually held a running commentary about things was mute, struck dumb by the enormity of the thing. His heart felt like a clogged drain. Not enough blood was getting to his head.

As though a vacuum cleaner were switched on, two of the four or five cows flew up into the sky disappearing into the bottom of the disk. One more followed, tumbling head over hind and mooing once just before vanishing. The last two evaporated similarly.

Whitey mumbled, “Cows…”

Without a sound, the disk swooped off at a forty-five degree angle and paused like a hummingbird several miles away. He looked up into the darkness and realized that the clouds he thought had covered the sun actually looked like the reflection of a city in the surface of a river. The disc shot into an opening in the face of this upside-down city. After a moment it began to move away slowly, growing smaller as it receded, the low rumbling was much quieter but still present. Soon it had become small enough for the afternoon sun to shine under it, illuminating the sides of buildings and the sparkling glass of a hundred million windows. Within a minute, it shrunk to a dark smudge in the sky’s bright blue field.

Whitey stood in the glaring sun, mouth agape, for a second. The pump began to gush gasoline, soaking his boots, cuffs and calves. He reached out toward the handle, but before he got it, the pump rang one final time and the flow ceased. The wind picked up again, slightly cooler now, though the sun was just as searing as it had been moments before the darkness approached.

Whitey shivered. His mind was as blank as a flat rock. A scrap of lined notebook paper blew against his chest and stuck there like it was glued to his shirt with paper hanger’s paste. He pealed the sheet off and looked at its surface. It was a brightly colored crayon drawing done by an unsteady child. The picture clearly showed a pink, four fingered hand reaching down toward five tan cows in a field of tall green grass. Whitey Roy’s arm dropped to his side, fingers relaxing. The wind snatched the page away. It shrank to a speck, finally disappearing into Mac Murphy’s field.

›š—

This story is included in my short story collection, Hey, This is it. I’m Going to Die,
published by Libros Igni in 2014.

You can get the book direct from me, or at Powell’s in Portland, OR and if you don’t mind supporting the evil empire, it is also available as a print on demand from Amazon.

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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.

 ###

#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.