Archive | July, 2011

Short Story for the Month – July

25 Jul

One of the fun things we do over at my writers’ group is conduct short story challenges.  These incorporate various themes.  This one had to start with the opening line of a well-known classic – Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights”  -include “cross”, “boots”, and “headphones” in the storyline, and have a word length of between 1000 to 2000 words.  We had two weeks to come up with something.  This was my entry.

If you enjoy reading short stories, be sure to check out Pill Hill Press’ Flash Fiction anthologies – Daily Frights 2012, Daily Flash 2012, and The ePocalypse: Emails at the End – which features several stories from my fellow writing group members and my own “Doppelganger” and “Siren Song”.

HELP WANTED.  APPLY WITHIN

Adult themes.  Some strong language and violence.  Copyright J Dianne Waye April 2011  Badge design:  Tammy Crosby

I have just returned from a visit to my landlord – the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with.  With an urgent wave, he ushered me into his foyer again.  He seemed like a nice guy at first, quiet and shy, but I got the distinct feeling that my very presence – even the act of breathing – was annoying him.  He complained about my music – not the volume, the choice.  He complained about the spicy smell of my foreign cooking that wafted down the hallway.  What was it going to be this time?

“Those boots of yours make a lot of noise on the stairs.”

“Sorry Mr D.”  Girls didn’t wear Doc Martins in the old days.  “Why don’t you come by tonight, and have a nice dinner?  On me?”

“If I have time.”

He always seemed to have plenty of time to complain.  I have no idea what he spent his days doing.  His apartment was piled sky-high with stacks of dusty yellowed file folders.  A huge modern computer system, looking very neglected and out-of-place, perched on an antique roll top desk.  I sighed at the sight of all that technology going to waste.

“Gotta go,” I said.  “Don’t want to be late for work.”  I shoved my headphones into my ears – my concession to him over the music issue – and tried not to thump down the front steps.

I never expected him to show.

“Hello, Mr D,” I said, as the bell over the door tinkled.

He slid onto a stool and propped his ancient elbows on the counter.  I poured him a coffee.  He gave me a sly smile, pleased that I noticed.  How could I not?  His apartment was right on the way out, and always smelled of fresh coffee at strange hours.

“Why do you work here?” he asked.

Great.  It was bad enough that I had to endure him at home, now he was criticizing my career choice.  It’s not like I woke up one morning and decided to be a waitress in a greasy spoon.  It just worked out that way.  I saw the Help Wanted sign in the window, and desperately needed a job.

“Got bills to pay,” I said.  “Like rent.  Now what’s for dinner?”

“You got meatloaf?”

“Oh, Mr D,” I whispered.  “You don’t want the meatloaf.”

“Then what do you suggest?  These dentures aren’t feeling adventurous.”

“You like spicy?  How about some tai noodles?  With shrimp.  Do you like shrimp?”

“Is that what I smell you cooking all the time?  Tai noodles?”

“Sorry if it bothers you.  I just like to cook.”

“It doesn’t bother me.  It makes me hungry.  But an old man like me can’t do more than microwave some Lean Cuisine, and call it a day.”

“You need to lay off that frozen food.  Try something fresh, something that still remembers what it feels like to be alive.”

He laughed.  “Shrimp and noodles it is.”

Maybe he wasn’t a cranky old man after all.  Maybe he was just lonely.  He devoured his hot plate with gusto, barely raising his head as he shovelled it in.  “Good,” he mumbled.

“You want pie, too?  Come on, everybody likes pie.”

“Can’t do the crust.”

“Then just eat the filling.”

He raised an eyebrow.  Apparently this idea had never occurred to him.  I sat with him during my break and had a piece of pie, too.

“You know anything about computers?” he asked.

“Sure do, Mr D.”

“Can you type, fax, convert and scan documents?

“Sure can.  You need some help?”

“Yup.”

“I’ll see what I can do for you.”

“Thanks for the meal.  You be careful now, walking home.  You need a safer job.”

That was true.  My shift ended at two in the morning.  The walk home took me past a half-way house, several derelict old homes, and a graveyard.  The local bum was already sleeping next to his favourite headstone.  I put down a paper bag full of today’s leftovers and shoved an extra green garbage bag under his body.  He would wear it as a jacket, the next time it rained.

I didn’t like my life, but things could be worse.  A lot worse.

The hobo didn’t scare me, but the guy following me home sure did.  Footsteps crackled in the leaves, echoing my own.  I ducked behind a tree and waited for him to pass by.  He didn’t.  I held my breath and slipped my headphones into my pocket.   They were the only thing valuable on me, that and a couple of bucks worth of tips.  Damned if I was going to lose either of them without a fight.  I ran for the next tree, my heart pounding like a hammer, and listened for the longest time.  Nothing.

When I finally stepped out, there he was, blocking my way.

“Leave me alone,” I shouted.

He lunged at me, taking me down by the feet.  I tripped and rolled, pummelling him with my fists as I screamed.  His hands reached for my throat, choking off the noise.  I couldn’t breathe; my vision went all spotty.  Maybe I should have spent my hard-earned money on that self-defence course instead of the headphones.

The creep suddenly flew off me so hard he crashed into the tree.  Leaves rained down from the impact.

“Scumbag,” Mr D said.  “Consider your contract void.”

My assailant grunted and tried to get up.  Mr D smashed him in the face with some crazy karate strike, and his eyes rolled up in his head.  He looked like he was dead, but I didn’t know for sure.  I’d never seen a dead person before.

“Shouldn’t we call the cops?”

“Why?  Over some junkie?  They’ll just drag you down to headquarters, make you wait in a room full of hookers and crack-heads, waste your time, and for what?  To tell you not to walk in your own neighbourhood?  Not to go to work?  You got bills to pay, right?”

Mr D brushed the leaves off a jacket too big for his fragile old frame, and helped me to my shaky feet.

“Mr D – you got some serious old man strength thing going for you.”

He just grunted.  We walked the rest of the way home in silence.

“You want coffee?” he asked.

I was tired after my ten-hour shift, but there was no way I would be able to sleep after what happened.  “Sure.  And thanks for saving my ass.”

He led the way into the old building and opened the door to his apartment on the first floor.  The streetlights played with the stained-glass window, scattering colours across a bizarre collection of crosses on the wall over the fireplace.  Gothic and detailed, they looked absolutely ancient – a museum collection.  I looked them over, fascinated, while he fussed in the kitchen.

Mr D shoved aside a stack of file folders on the coffee table and put down two steaming mugs.  Starbucks beans, fresh ground, so much better than what I served him.  Something else I could never afford.  He plunked down a plate of cookies – stale Girl Guides, but I loved those cookies.

“Mr D – why do you have all these files?”

“You really want to know?”

“Sure.”

“Contracts.”

I pulled apart two cookies, one chocolate and one vanilla, and mashed the frosting sides together.  “Contracts for what?”

“For souls.”

I choked on my custom-made cookie.  Then I laughed.  But his face remained very serious.  Great.  I was broke, working at a greasy spoon in the run-down side of downtown, and my landlord was demented.

He handed me a stack of files.  It was all there inside, signed contracts for people’s souls, names and addresses, birthdates.

“I don’t believe in the Devil.”  I dropped my cookie and rose to leave.

“You should.”  He raised his arms, like spreading wings.  The room went dark.  Outside, the streetlights flickered and extinguished.  Lightning flashed, thunder rumbled.  A swarm of bats flooded though the chimney flu and flapped off to God knows where.

“OK.  I believe you.  But my soul is not for sale.”

He lowered his arms and sighed.

“I don’t want your soul.  I’ve got plenty of those, already.  Centuries’ worth of souls.  The weight of them all burdens me.  Somebody wants to strike a deal and poof!  I drop everything and run.  Never have time for a nice meal.”

“Then what do you want with me?”

“What I need is a bookkeeper, somebody to sort things out.  Maybe scan all this stuff into computer files, so I can actually find what I need.”

“You sure there isn’t some secret contract in there, like I read the fine print and find out, too late, you own me?”

“I’m too old for trickery.  Couldn’t care less, either.  I always get the blame.  You want the job?  You could start by sorting the files into short stacks, A to D, E to G.”

“Oh, Mr D.  You don’t need to sort anything first.  The computer will sort them for you, after I scan them in.”

“Really?  That’s amazing.”

“Let me show you.”

“Can you do me a favour dear, and get yourself some nice quiet shoes with your first paycheque?  Sneakers or something?  Instead of those stompy boots?”

As far as jobs went, this wasn’t so bad.  No toilets to clean.  No walking home at late hours.  All the Starbucks I could drink.  Cookies, too.

Mr D was a pretty nice guy, after all.  Just quiet and shy, and lonely.

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So – You Want My Advice, Do You?

20 Jul

Here’s a good question:  When exactly did I become the Voice of Reason?

Is this something that comes with age, an affliction like aching joints and bad eyesight?  Is it something you are gifted with, like a brick of Christmas fruitcake?  Or is it some kind of award, like “Most Improved”?

Everyone has an opinion, right?  What’s so special about mine?

Offering advice comes with the burden of responsibility.  A few casual comments could change the course of someone’s life.  I hardly ever tell people what they should do, unless they are in mortal danger of being run over by a bus or getting their hand stuck in my biting kettle.  I like to draw out their own thoughts and opinions, help them make up their own mind on the matter.  Force them to take a cold hard look at the pros and cons.  Who will benefit?  Who will get hurt?  What is the price of this decision?

This approach often gives me a look I’ll call The Cold Glare.  Nobody wants this kind of homework.  It’s frustrating, time consuming, and hard work.  All they want is a simple answer – a straightforward direction.  And I hand them a map and tell them to pick their own path.

Am I fence sitting?  Unwilling or unable to make up my own mind?  Or do I realize they’re going to bloody well do what they want to do, regardless of what I have to say?  You tell me.

My character Damon says it best.  “I could tell you what to do.  We could argue about it for weeks.  You need to make up your own mind about it.  Nothing else will satisfy you, in the end.”

After an answer like this, why would someone come back for more advice?

Because while I listen and ask questions, people tell me want they really want, what they really need.  Their passions spill out.  Plans hatch.  Ideas form.  Good ideas take root; bad ideas wither in the harsh light of reality.

The Voice of Reason lives inside all of us.  Listen to yours.  And that’s just good advice.

The Concept of Vacation

12 Jul

Writer’s Block.  Writer’s Cramp.  Writers’ Strike.  What is it that plagues me?

Thunderheads build on the horizon.  The air hangs heavy with humidity; even the sky’s too lazy to bother with rain.  Heat shimmers across the blacktop, bringing on that familiar mirage.  Muscles and bones slacken, like puddles of melting ice cream.  The casual baring of flesh begins:  ties loosen, sleeves roll, shoes lay abandoned on the burnt grass.

A certain lassitude takes over in summer.  Years of school trains the brain to rest.  Oh – the list of excuses could go on, but I can’t muster the motivation to find more than one.

I’m a goal setter.  Every day starts with a list of things that need to be done.  Deadlines are a great motivational tool.  And yet I find myself twelve days into this month without setting a writing goal, without penning a single word of my work-in-progress.

It’s not Writer’s Block.  That implies more of a long-term problem – a lack of passion, a panicked state of impending doom over that blank page.

It’s not Writer’s Cramp.  My hands seem to be working just fine.  I’m penning this, right?

So is it Writers’ Strike?  Would I rather be dipping my toes in a pool, contemplating the sunlight dappling blue depths?  Watching water bugs skim the surface, catching a ride on the current?  Do I want to have an unhurried conversation with my kid about the phases of the moon, or how tree leaves turn over before the rain comes?  Just live in the moment?

Am I worried that this the start of nothingness, that my beloved project will end up unfinished, abandoned, dissolving into inertia?

It’s right there, on page seven of my story.  The words mock me, laugh and dance off the page.

“It was about time I figured out the concept of vacation.”

Versatile Blogger Award

8 Jul

This marvellous honour has been bestowed upon me by two of my fellow writers’ group members.  I’m supposed to list 7 facts about myself.  Here goes:

I am shy in real life.  Yup.  It’s true.  Despite that, I manage to make a living talking to complete strangers all day long.  Strange but true.

I once was a private investigator.  No – it wasn’t fun or exciting.  It was witnessing people on their worse behaviour.  It was bad for my soul.

I’ve been in a bar fight – a real table tossing, bottle smashing, cop busting bar fight.  I didn’t start it, but me joking saying “Aren’t you going to defend my honour?” sure got things rolling.

I am a clutz.  I crush light bulbs when I change them, get my fingers stuck in kettles, get trapped in lawn furniture, and fall off flat objects.  Nobody asks me how I managed it anymore – they just rescue me.

I am not logical.  My favourite saying is “Why do you keep trying to apply logic to the situation?”  For example:  I hate driving.  I hate pumping gas for my car.  Ironically, I will drive miles out of my way so I don’t have to pump gas.

My parental motto is “Nobody dies on my watch.”  Which is a lot harder to apply than it sounds.

After twenty three and a half years, I am still crazy in love with my husband.

The Rapture of Research

6 Jul

Sometimes research is dull and boring.  Mostly it isn’t.  Occasionally the research distracts me from the actual story-writing – a fascinating indulgence amid the mass of hard work that goes into writing a novel.

Serendipity plays a huge part.  I stumbled across the wolf spider, the perfect addition to a scene, while perusing Iberia Nature’s website.  Not a big deal – you’re bound to stumble across something helpful, when you’re deliberately searching for helpful things. 

But sometimes it feels like something is guiding my hand.  I opened my DK Eyewitness Travel Guide to Argentina, scouting out scene settings for a new novel, to find the image of hands on walls, prehistoric cave paintings just like in Altamira.  I shivered, remembering the cave scene from the previous novel.  Co-incidence?  Maybe.  Now both stories have a common thread, an unexpected connection across continents.

Then I had a conversation with a friend about researching mountaineering.  It went something like this:  “Do you remember the name of that book about that guy who climbed Everest, like from a decade ago?”  “Oh yah,” she said.  “I think I have that book at home.”  That’s the wonder of friends.  A conversation can consist of a few random floating thoughts.  She knows exactly what I wanted for research material, and why.

A few days later she presented me with Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air.  I thought it was going to be dry, boring, something to slog through to glean a few facts.  I was wrong.

 I never thought Krakauer would whack me across the skull with the force of a baseball bat in full swing.  Weeks later, the story still resonates in my mind – the larger, more important message than the actions themselves.  The fragile conquest of hopes and dreams, the price paid for crazy obsessions.  Several times I had to put the book aside, caught up in an epiphany.  Eiger Dreams did the same thing, saving the best part for the very last page.

 That’s the beauty and pain contained inside a book – encountering the unexpected epiphany.  That’s why I read, why I write.  That’s the rapture of research.