Story-Matic #63


Lately I’ve been feeling the urge to write short fiction again. Stories that I can dip my toes into and move on from without feeling like I have to explore all their murky depths. Stories that I don’t necessarily feel strongly about, or feel the urge to finish, stories for stretching the legs, for limbering up the ol’ bean, for exploring. That maybe don’t go anywhere, or end satisfyingly, but that tickle my fancy anyway.

Here’s one of them. The prompt: “Bodybuilder, revenge”.

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This is the last straw.

Dimitri slams his locker in disgust, snarling at his phone as he thumbs through his feed. That damned Kurtis. It’s not enough that he’s got the biggest deadlift in the gym (and everybody knows it), that his girlfriend is better-looking than Dimitri’s (and everybody agrees — even Dimitri), or that he drives a nicer car than he should even have access to (an unreleased next-gen Maserati, not even on the market for this year or next, apparently handed down from some Arabian prince. How Kurtis ended up in it is anybody’s guess).

And now this.

In the video, a jubilant Kurtis mugs for the camera. He calls out his haters. He points right into the lens, shouting words of encouragement. He reaches down, locks his meaty hands around a barbell. The camera pans slowly out to reveal that, on the ends of the barbell, superimposed over the weights (but not superimposed so well that a viewer wouldn’t notice that the amount of weights is extravagant, Kurtis, you colossal bastard), is Dimitri’s face. Not a flattering picture, either, but a picture snapped by Erik and Josef some months prior as they burst in on Dimitri in the shower after flushing the nearby toilet. The face is a face full of shock, of pain, of a man betrayed and in doubt over whether there is any goodness at all in the world.

The picture had made the rounds in crude memes slapped together by the crew at the gym, and Dimitri’s embarrassment and anger were tremendous. But as with all things in social media, the picture had run its course — or so Dimitri thought. But here it is. Kurtis has resurrected it on his motivational weightlifting account for thousands to see.

The snarl on Dimitri’s face deepens.

The Kurtis in the video presses the barbell once, twice, five times. It’s a Personal Best for Kurtis (you hell-spawn, you absolute rat-chomper). He howls in triumph, drops the barbell to the mat (Dimitri’s superimposed face wincing as it hits) and runs to the camera, his perfectly symmetrical face filling the frame.

“You can do it too, ja?” says the Kurtis in the video, eyes wide with intensity. “You push the haters around, show them you are strong. That we are strong. Throw them around like they are nothing, ja? You make the power in yourself. You take the power from them.” He flexes. Sneers. Then smiles. He even winks. Goddammit.

It’s nonsense, every word of it, but somehow in Kurtis’s imperfect English and his heavy (if vague) eastern European accent, it sounds like pure honey. In real time, Dimitri watches the likes and the upvotes ticking upward like the numbers on a gasoline pump at the height of the oil crisis.

“What you think of my video, ja?”

Dimitri whirls. There stands Kurtis, leaning against the far bank of lockers, sculpted arms folded across his cast-iron bare chest. Perfection personified, damn him. Dimitri says nothing.

“Your face was so funny in that picture, ja? I had to use it.” Kurtis crosses, plucks the phone from Dimitri’s fingers, scrolls down. “Look at all the comments, ja? ‘Keep pushing, Kurt.’ ‘Don’t let them get you down, Kurtis.’ ‘We do it together, Kurt.’ ‘Kurtis, you’re amazing.’ Isn’t it great?”

Dimitri reaches for the phone, but Kurtis keeps it neatly out of reach.

“And the views, Dimitri. Did you see? Over a hundred thousand this time. That’s a new record too, ja? A personal best for views to go with my personal best for lifting. Ha, ha. It is irony, ja? Think of it, my friend.”

Friend?

“Think of the exposure for the gym, and for us. Isn’t it wonderful?”

Dimitri finally snatches his phone away. He imagines all the things he’d like to do to Kurtis. Many of them involve heavy weights and various sensitive parts of Kurtis’s body. These thoughts make him smile, and Kurtis smiles back.

“They love us,” Kurtis says, and leaves.

Dimitri watches him go, knows he won’t do any of those things to Kurtis. But he can do one thing.

He downvotes the video.

This, too, makes him smile.


Story-Matic #46


Lately I’ve been feeling the urge to write short fiction again. Stories that I can dip my toes into and move on from without feeling like I have to explore all their murky depths. Stories that I don’t necessarily feel strongly about, or feel the urge to finish, stories for stretching the legs, for limbering up the ol’ bean, for exploring. That maybe don’t go anywhere, or end satisfyingly, but that tickle my fancy anyway.

Here’s one of them. The prompt: “Librarian, reunited.”

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Alise reaches for her mug of tea, brings it to her lips, braces for the scalding bite. It doesn’t come. She looks at the digital desktop clock; an hour has passed, and she’s barely registered it. She looks around the empty aisles, sniffs the comforting, musty air, swigs her cold tea, grimaces at the cool grainy mix sticking in her teeth. She stands up.

Seems like her bones crackle and pop and creak more than they did even a week ago. She presses a hand into the small of her back as she begins her familiar plod through the library. This she can do without thinking, and with a glance she confirms that all is as it should be. Too many years spent making this circuit, too many years without a change. The biographies have always been there, the kids’ section there, nonfiction there. Why not switch it up?

Because she doesn’t have the energy for it anymore, she tells herself. As she has told herself before. It’s a nice thought, but it’s not going to happen. At least she has the place to herself; no unshelved books to sort through, no messes at the card catalog station, no strewn toys in the kids’ section. Not unusual for a Thursday, but welcome. Ah, but it’s Thursday, isn’t it? She goes to check on Gary.

She likes Gary. Likes him a lot, actually, which she tells herself must be a little odd since Gary is homeless. But she does. He’s good at conversation, he smiles when he speaks, and he looks at her in a way that makes her feel actually seen, which is a nice change from most of the people she encounters. Still, liking Gary is the problem, because in fifteen minutes’ time she’s going to have to send him away, back out onto the street, knowing that whatever is in his backpack is all he has to get him through the night. And it’s getting colder. Maybe she has enough in her purse to offer him a few dollars for a sandwich, at least. But maybe he’d bristle if she offered him money. She’s thought about it before, but never done it. Doesn’t seem right. Might ruin the relationship they have, whatever that relationship may be.

But Gary’s not here.

His backpack is, though, leaning like a storm-smashed tree against the internet station (ten cents a minute, but she lets Gary use it for free). She looks around — he’s nowhere to be seen.

“Gary?”

No answer.

With a note of worry in her step, she visits all his likely spots — the restroom, the periodicals, the stoop outside the employee entrance — he’s not anywhere.

He must have just forgotten it.

Forgotten his pack that contains, presumably, everything he owns?

She returns to the backpack, eyes it like a dieter eyeing a piece of cheesecake at a buffet. She takes it to her desk, has a brief moment of doubt, and unzips it.

The first thing that hits her is the smell — an unmistakable fog of spoiled food and rain-fouled clothing. She shoves aside some hastily-folded shirts and balled-up socks (slightly damp, she shudders to notice). And then her fingers close on a book. A hardback book with a distinctive plastic covering.

A library book.

Gary never checks anything out, he just reads in the library. For hours at a time. Books would just be more weight to carry around. She lifts it out.

And immediately drops it, her breath catching in her throat.

With trembling fingers, she reaches to pick it up again.

It’s a bit weathered but in good shape for riding around in Gary’s pack. Good shape for being impossible.

It’s a first-edition copy of her unpublished book from twenty years ago. Same title, the same cover she had always envisioned, the pen name she’d planned to use emblazoned on the bottom. Impossible. She opens it, reads the opening lines. Her opening lines.

Lines she never shared with anybody.

“You weren’t meant to see that,” Gary’s voice says behind her.


The Theory of A-Holes


  • Problem: Everywhere I go, I run into a-holes.

I don’t know what it is, but lately, I keep running into a-holes. People cutting in line. People blocking up roads with their cars and grocery store aisles with their carts. People arguing with authority when they are 100% in the wrong (and usually they know it). For a while there, I was thinking I must just be an a-hole magnet: something about me, or my particular effect on my locality of the universe, causes people to act like a-holes when they’re in my orbit.

But I’m a skeptic, so I know that’s ridiculous. And because I’m a skeptic, I started digging into this weird thing I was noticing. And after months of study, I have a few conclusions to share with you.

  • Theory: The dispersion rate of a-holes is high, while the concentration rate is low. Phrased another way: you can find an a-hole just about anywhere you look, but the actual number of a-holes in the population at large must remain a small, perhaps even minute percentage.

We need to define terms, here, or at the very least, define one term: the a-hole. The a-hole is a person (I’m gonna go out on a limb here and wager that they’re mostly men, though I don’t have statistics to back that up — or any other claim in this post for that matter) who routinely puts his or her own interests above the interests of the group in which he finds himself, to the extent that it causes those others pain, discomfort, or inconvenience.

To simplify, the a-hole could be characterized in a single thought: “what I’m doing right now is more important than anything that anybody in the vicinity has going on.”

To clarify, a few examples of a-hole behavior:

  • committing just about any traffic offense
  • blocking the aisle at a grocery store at full Saturday crowd
  • being on his cellphone in the line at Starbucks who hasn’t decided yet what he’s ordering by the time he gets to the front
  • doing the “nice guy” thing by letting you go first even though he’s blocking people behind him from going
  • standing right behind you on the train or in line when there are literally dozens of other places he could be standing that wouldn’t involve invading your personal space

We could go on, and ladies in the audience could certainly give many more examples that I’m sure don’t even occur to me, but the point is, we recognize the a-hole when we see him. (I’m saying “him” from here on just for simplicity, but c’mon. You know.)

We don’t like a-holes in our societies. The non-a-holes dislike them for obvious reasons: they’re inconveniencing us, annoying us, or at worst, actively causing us pain. Other a-holes also dislike a-holes for the same reasons plus a few more: the other a-hole is stealing resources, or making the environment inhospitable for other a-holes, or is just straight-up getting in the way.

Luckily, there are self-correcting measures for the a-holes out there built into our evolution.

  • Big Fishes, Small Ponds

Consider a pond. In this pond are several fish of varying sizes and temperaments. Every fish has to eat. Some fish eat plants, some fish eat bugs, some fish eat other fish. A simple study of the food web you know from third grade will tell you that a small pond can only sustain so many big fish. The big fish does what it wants because it’s the big fish; who’s going to stop it? The big fish gets what it wants by being an a-hole and just taking it. All well and good as long as the big fish is the only big fish.

But what happens when the big fish is not the only big fish?

The moment one big fish takes what another big fish wants, there’s trouble. Now, fish don’t have a lot of tools in their belt: these fish are either going to fight or one of them is going to have to move on. Either way, of the fish in the conflict, one will be forcibly removed from the picture.

One a-hole takes the other a-hole out. The problem rectifies itself; the pond is back to just one a-hole of a big fish.

  • A Bug’s Life

A-holes self-regulate in another fascinating way. Consider the movie A Bug’s Life from the early days of Pixar. In this movie, there’s a colony of ants living together, working hard, storing up food for the winter. But every year, a roving band of grasshoppers demands a share of the food, else they’ll start squishing ants. You know; being a-holes. Now the grasshoppers are bigger and meaner than the ants, so there’s not a lot of point in fighting them; it wouldn’t work. Perhaps more to the point, the ants are generally peaceful and don’t want to fight, so they figure paying a bit of food is worth avoiding the conflict.

Until the grasshoppers make life so absolutely untenable for the ants that they can’t take anymore. The ants rise against the grasshoppers like a tsunami, risking life and limb to fight the injustice. While individual ants might get squished in the conflict, the grasshoppers are simply no match for the unified numbers suddenly coming their way with pitchforks and torches.

An a-hole (or group of a-holes) can push their luck past the point of reason, and the community casts them out.

  • Extra-Strong Charmin

The last resort against a truly nasty a-hole is exactly what you’d expect: toilet paper. (Look, I’m sorry. The metaphor is disgusting. But hear me out. I’ll be discrete.) The toilet paper are those people who hold jobs — often menial, unglamorous, or practically invisible to the average person — that carry a surprising amount of power when it comes to cleaning up sh*t.

Make no mistake, it’s unpleasant being toilet paper. And not every a-hole you come across demands your full attention. But when the TP gets involved, it’s over for the a-hole.

An a-hole running into some toilet paper has options. He could attempt to make himself look small and unassuming and not worth the trouble of cleaning up — but let’s face it, the a-hole isn’t going to do that because, well, he’s an a-hole. No, he’s going to make the other choice: Inevitably, the a-hole is going to go to war with the toilet paper — but anybody who’s been there knows that this particular path isn’t going to go well for the a-hole. The toilet paper has reinforcements. The more the a-hole struggles at this point, the worse it gets.

These are your idiots arguing with cops, acting smug with judges, getting drunk and disorderly in public. And when they act out enough, well … they get forcibly cleaned up.

  • Conclusions

So: a-holes are everywhere. Or rather, there is a self-regulating number of a-holes regularly spaced such that it feels like a-holes everywhere.

But I feel like it didn’t used to be this way, so … why am I suddenly noticing a-holes everywhere?

I see two possible reasons.

  1. I’m a-hole-sensitive. I’m a dad, and I’m trying to keep my kids from growing up to be a-holes themselves, so I’m extra-finely-tuned to a-hole behavior to help me catch it and point it out as Things You Should Not Be Doing for my kids.
  2. I’m an a-hole myself, and I’m extremely conscious of other big fish swimming into my pond.

I guess there’s nothing saying both answers can’t be right.


That’s a Wrap — Kind Of


So I still have this blarg, apparently, even though I’ve neglected it for a few weeks. Which is a nicer way of saying it than to say nearly a month.

But it’s not a desolate moonscape in the creative real estate of my brain. Far from it. In fact, it’s something like kismet that has me writing today on the topic of this post: the word “wrap”. It’s almost like Linda somehow psychically reached out and tapped my headspace and picked up on the juju I was giving off. Because this week — Wednesday, to be specific — I wrapped the first edit on my current project.

You know, the one that, along with a few extra responsibilities at work, ground me first to a halt and then into an anxiety I couldn’t shake to save my life. Panic attacks and existential doubt. A fog of doubt obscuring everything like a thick London pea soup. I didn’t touch my project for something on the order of seven or eight months, which, for a guy who’s always blathering on and on in his online space about the importance of momentum and the good feelings that creating brings, is, to put it lightly, a problem.

So to get back to the project — as I did toward the end of the last school year, in May — and even simply to start getting words on paper again, to be creating the story again, to be making clear, measurable improvements to the work again.

And now it’s done.

Well, not done. There are still fixes to be made, plants to be planted, narrative threads to be sewn up or trimmed, fluff to be excised. But if this novel-writing journey were a walk to Mordor, then this feels perhaps like arriving at Osgiliath. Not quite “almost there”, and certainly there are obstacles — and perhaps some of the hardest obstacles — ahead. But there’s more ground behind me than there is in front. And there’s a feeling about arriving somewhere, even if it’s not the last stop, that clears the head a little, that lifts the spirits. You stop, you relax, you stretch your legs. You check the map, survey the road ahead, start to realize that it’s not so bad, that you’ll be there before long if you can just keep pushing.

That’s where I’m at right now. Wrapping up a first-pass edit is a huge milestone to pass, and for a project I wasn’t sure I’d ever finish, it’s a milestone I am more than happy to commemorate.

Of course, the flip side of that coin is that I have taken a step back when it comes to the ol’ blarg here, and while I’m not particularly happy about that, it’s a tradeoff I can live with. The website has always been something I thought of as a diversion, a pressure release valve, a place to write to clear out the cobwebs or when I need to clean the slate after working on the novel. And, well, there just hasn’t been all that much pressure to release, because I’ve allowed myself to be okay with writing days that don’t go great. With missing days here and there. With spending a little time foundering around, letting ideas marinate, spending writing time just thinking about the project.

And as for writing about something that’s not the novel, well, I’m doing that now with my Morning Pages, where I drivel out a solid 7-800 words every morning, but without the added pressure of feeling like I have to polish and shape those words and keep them on topic for the purpose of posting them online.

Like I said, it’s a low-pressure environment, and it’s working.

And while that makes me think that maybe I need to reexamine what I’m doing with the blarg here, I kinda don’t want to go making new commitments or thinking too hard about something that’s just meant to be a bit of fun.

So I’m going to let it be what it is for now, keep shooting for a post or so per week, but keep my focus on the novel. Because getting a taste of a milestone like this has me wanting more again. I want to wrap this project for real, and I’ve already started the next edit.

All of which is to say, thanks for reading. Sorry I haven’t put as much here lately, but it’s only because I’m putting the words where they count, where (I hope) they’re doing the most good.

This post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday.


The Inevitable Pain of Football Season


Couches around the United States are girding their loins. It’s football season.

You know it because even though the days are still too bloody hot, all of a sudden there’s a hint — just a whisper, a faint whiff — of fall in the mornings before the sun comes up. You know it because school’s been back in for weeks and you just need that release of watching large men knock each other around in a sophisticated war simulation. You know it because you can’t not know it: football takes over the airwaves like a soccer-mom-driven Hummer swooping across six lanes of traffic on I-75.

Football season.

I’m from the South, (you can tell because I capitalize “South” as if it’s an actual place and not merely a cardinal direction) where football is as much a religion as a pastime, so it’s somehow baked into my DNA to get hyped come this time of year. Football season. Hell yes. Burgers and beers and rivalries and lots and lots of hours spent on the couch (and jumping off of it).

Of course, football is problematic these days. To be clear, it’s always been problematic, we just didn’t know quite how problematic until recently. It’s essentially been proven to do some form of brain damage over time to anybody who plays (for a good look at this, I heartily recommend Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History” podcast. Excellent in general, but he did a deep dive on CTE and it’s … shocking to say the least). It seems ethically questionable to partake in such a pastime; it’s not that far removed from the days of the Coliseum when viewed through that lens, except the players don’t die right in front of you, they die years after the fact, wracked by brain disease.

Image by Keith Johnston from Pixabay

And then there’s the question of pain. Not the physical pain of the players, which is immediate enough and severe enough that it should give us pause. But the mental pain of the viewers, the fans. The pain we choose.

I recently read Everything is F*cked by Mark Manson, which is an analysis of pain in the modern world and a treatise on choosing the pain that you can live with. Not about eliminating pain — that’s impossible, claims Manson, and I tend to agree — but choosing pain you can endure. For example, I love my current job teaching theatre to high school students — but there is still pain associated with it that I didn’t have when I was just a run-of-the-mill English teacher: long hours after school, dealing with my students’ emotional issues (which they share with me now on a level I was really not prepared for from teaching English), deadlines and demands on creativity. These things put pressure on me (and by extension, those that love me), but on the whole, the goods outweigh the bads, to oversimplify things to a point of ridiculosity — so I choose that pain.

And to watch sports is to choose pain. Trust me on this. I’m an Atlanta sports fan. I know all about pain from sports, and that’s only going back a few years.

Image result for life is pain

To watch sports is to choose pain. Overwhelmingly so, and for virtually all sports fans. Because, unless you’re an Alabama fan, your team doesn’t win all the time. The nature of the game dictates that they can’t win all the time. In fact, the nature of the game dictates that only one team can win — in the NFL, that’s out of 32 teams; in the NCAA, that’s out of over 100. Everybody else is doomed to lose: either right away so that the losses quickly become demoralizing and sad to watch, or at the last possible moment, so their fans get the exquisite pain of literally tasting victory before having it snatched away, or at any unfortunate point on the spectrum in between.

To watch sports is to choose pain — for almost everybody who chooses to watch, almost all of the time. It stands to reason, then, that we would be mentally happier if we didn’t watch. All that pain — the disappointment, the disillusionment — gone, just by not watching, by not drinking at the fountain of pain.

But because we are human, and we have evolved the dubiously useful skill of acting outside of our best interests, we watch anyway. Despite all the pain. In fact, we seem to relish the pain, to luxuriate in it, even. Which seems supremely silly, when viewed from outside. Yet here I sit, warming up my couch, getting ready to go on the ride again. A fan account for the Atlanta Falcons says the following:

You just know that it’s going to go badly — and probably catastrophically badly — at some point.

But we ride anyway.

We choose the pain.

This is not me telling you that you shouldn’t watch football, or shouldn’t watch sports, period. We choose the pain we can live with. But we can choose it mindfully, knowing what’s in store, rather than choosing it blindly, as if we don’t know the outcome.

Besides, Georgia plays Vanderbilt tonight. Should be a slaughter.

Bring on the pain.

This post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday.


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