Screen door slam. “Ass-hat!” my Tom-Collinsed niece shouts. Her husband follows shaking his pork-belly head. A pile of fried chicken, potato salad, and two empty plates. I ask ol’ tomcat between chews what she meant as they back out of my driveway.
A while back, I was walking to work and heard someone yell, “Hey, buddy! Look up!”
My first reaction was to ignore it and continue on my way. People yell out non sequiturs at each other in the city all the time. I thought maybe he was telling me to turn toward God. Wouldn’t be the first time a stranger expressed concern for my soul. Then I heard brakes squeal behind me, a long car horn, and more shouting. I turned to see a woman—mid-40s and wearing scrubs— clutching her steering wheel in a stopped car.
“Do you have a death wish?” She yelled at a man standing at the curb holding a cell phone. Another woman sat between them in the car’s passenger seat. Apparently the man hadn’t noticed he had walked into traffic because he was occupied with his phone. Aside from the passenger plugging her ears, nobody looked hurt. “How about you keep that phone in your pocket when you’re walking around town because it’s apparent to me that you can’t stare at that thing and avoid getting killed at the same time.” [Writer's note: I've deleted many, many swear words.]
“Sorry,” he muttered and looked back down. I could tell he was embarrassed and trying to avoid looking at the driver, but the fact that he went right back to doing the offending act just ticked her off more.
“I’m so tired of you people making the rest of us responsible for your safety because you can’t be bothered to watch where you’re going. You’re like a 4-year-old walking down the street expecting other people to make sure you don’t get hurt. Should we put some Huggies on you too so you don’t have to stop watching that thing to go to the bathroom?” That’s as far as she got before the car behind her honked. The light turned green. She continued haranguing him as she swerved away from the curb and down the street.
What she said to him made me happy. It put a picture in my mind of grown men and women walking around town with their eyes stuck to their cell phones wearing extra-puffy-at-the-top slacks and being followed by people yelling out instructions you’d usually only hear a parent tell a toddler. Tie your shoelaces before you trip. Don’t run into that lightpost. Stop at this crosswalk and wait for me to hold your hand.
I used to get really mad at people who walked around town with their faces in their phones. But I’ve since adopted saying “Hey, buddy! Look up!” whenever I encounter it. Mostly I say it to people who take a few steps out of the subway station, stop in the middle of the sidewalk, and start tapping away on their iPhones. This habit annoys me because I’m walking past the station—not into it—and they are obliviously standing right in my way. After I tell them to look up, they mumble their sorry and step into an even more annoying spot. That’s when I hear the voice of that angry woman in my head and surprisingly, I soften.
At the risk of sounding like a self righteous jerk, I admit that I soften because I picture them as toddlers. It’s an inside joke with positive effects: I don’t yell and they are politely informed that they are not paying attention. I say, “Be careful with that thing, huh?” as tenderly as I can. The concern in my voice makes them detach from the screen for a moment to look at me. I smile and continue on my way.
I watched as the vapor of my breath hovered and grew heavy, forming into droplets before my eyes. They slowly spun and changed color—pine green, then goldenrod, then cerulean. They were mesmerizing; I couldn’t resist touching them. I reached my hand into their orbit expecting to feel just a nip of a current. Instead, I felt the suction of a whirlpool—its force much stronger than the lazy blue drops suggested.
I yanked my hand back, and at just that moment, they congealed into pellets the size of ball bearings and scattered across the ground. I felt a few stings as some of them pinged off my bare feet.
“It’s amazing. Will you show me again?” I asked my Uncle Jarlath who was sitting on a bench nearby shaded from the midday sun by a large tree. I think I laughed then. “Please?”
I noticed Uncle Jarlath was clean-shaven and wearing his finest suit, which I found odd. He generally favored the casual look of his profession: unemployed inventor. His face soured as if my request had been deemed inappropriate. I quickly looked around and wondered why City Park was so eerily empty on such a pleasant summer afternoon. Probably he’s using his illusions to keep people away. My smile fell as I realized the possibility of ulterior motives. Should I not have shown him that I liked his trick?
The pellets rose up as a group from the grass. They aligned themselves in the air parallel to my body. When the highest of them reached shoulder-height, they flattened, forming hundreds of long, silken threads. A pang of fear shot through me when they advanced toward my body all at once.
I felt them firmly press against my navy blue doublet and pants. I heard a series of high-pitched plucks like violin strings as they broke on my shins. Some broken strings must have reconnected behind me because I immediately felt pressure at the backs of my knees. It became clear that they wanted me to sit. I had no choice as they cradled and wrapped around my arms, my backside, and finally my feet, lifting me off the ground. The blue swing/chair turned me toward my indifferent-looking uncle. I tried to keep calm despite feeling like a marionette, completely entwined in my moody uncle’s newest achievement.
“Now do you believe me?” he asked as he stood and took a few steps toward me.
“Then kindly tell me of what I have convinced you.” The threads dumped me onto the ground before him on all fours. I should have known he hadn’t brought me here just for parlor games. I found myself missing the feeling of wonder I had just minutes ago: back when I thought my uncle was in a kind mood.
“I believe you have invented some way to control air and water.”
“No!” I felt his shoe cover my left hand. A threat. “What do you believe, young man?”
I kept my eyes to the ground. Sweat rose up on my forehead and then floated away. The unnatural way he lifted it off my skin sent chills through my core. Uncle Jarlath has always been quick to anger, I soothed myself, especially when it came to people discounting his ‘genius’. I had talked my way out of situations like this many times before. This trick with water was the only new factor. “I believe you have mastered your powers over air and water, Uncle. It isn’t an illusion; it’s real. And it’s wonderful. You must be the hero we’ve been waiting for,” I cajoled. “But how are you doing it?”
“The answer is simple, young Crannog.” He replaced the anger in his voice with conceit. I saw the tip of his boot brighten from black to a watery green as he withdrew it from my hand.
Originally submitted to yeah write’s Bronze Lounge. You can read the original version here. Thanks again to Mel at My Own Champion, Jennifer K. at Graceful Press Poetry, Silverleaf at Silverleaf Journal, and Kathy at the Giggling Trucker’s Wife Writes for your brains and your time!
This short story was influenced by Erin Morganstern’s novel, The Night Circus.
I’m participating in a writer’s workshop where fellow bloggers provide feedback on stories and blog posts that are submitted to them. This is an early version of a story I asked them to review. I am posting it so that others may compare the before/after.
Feel free to read this version first but an improved version, based on their thoughtful comments, will be posted very shortly.
Also, I’m submitting the newer version to a contest here. I invite you to help us pick a favorite by following the link, reading all of the submissions (most are only 42-words long), and voting for your favorite!
(PS. It’s ok if my story isn’t your favorite. We’ll still be friends.)
(Again, this is an EARLY version of my story.)
I watched the vapor of my breath form into droplets midair and start to spiral clockwise before my eyes. The drops grew larger and started to change color : pine green, goldenrod, then cerulean. The gentle whirling was mesmerizing; I found myself unable to keep my arm at my side. I reached my hand into the center of their orbit, expecting to feel a slight tug like the calm current of a neighborhood pond. What I felt instead was more like a whirlpool. The force of it deeply contrasted the lazy spinning of what had been my breath. Surprised, I pulled my hand back and at just that moment, the spinning blue circles congealed into pellets the size of ball bearings and dropped to the ground.
I felt the pings of several of them hitting my bare feet. For some reason, I thought of the ants living in the hairgrass around where I stood in the eerily empty City Park—their vulnerability to the whims of humans. I thought of the dreadful shadow that passed over them just seconds before the blow of a large piece of hail crushes their thorax. The image terrified and thrilled me.
“Do it again,” I told my derby-hatted and clean shaven Uncle Jarlath sitting behind me on a bench. “Please?”
He had a queer look on his face, like a scientist deeply submerged in a world-altering experiment or a jaguar cat about to pounce on a lamb. My smile fell and I felt unsure.
The pellets, whose color had changed to indigo, rose up from the grass. I realized after a few seconds that they were actually forming a spoke perpendicular to where I stood and the park’s centerpiece—an ornate fountain of Empress Maja. When they reached shoulder-height, they flattened and connected, forming purple threads of silk.
It was only by the way that they caught the light of the midday sun that I realized they were floating straight toward me. I felt them against the bare skin of my arms and calves. I heard high-pitched plucks of violin strings as they broke on my shins and torso. They must have reconnected behind me because immediately after they broke I felt a pressure at the back of my knees. My legs bent to their will; other strings cradled my butt and my arms, lifting me off the ground. I found myself sitting in a sort of swing that was turning me to face my uncle.
“Now do you believe me?” he asked as he stood up from the bench.
“What do you believe?” I saw his eyes avert downward. I fell to the ground before him on all fours. I immediately missed the safety I felt in the care of the threads.
“I believe you have somehow learned to control air and water.”
“No!” I felt his heel crush my left hand. “What do you believe, boy?”
I kept my eyes on the ground. Sweat rose up on my forehead and then floated away. The unnatural way it was lifted off of my skin sent chills through me. Uncle Jarlath had always been quick to anger; this was a situation I had talked my way out of many times before. These tricks with water were the only new factor. “I believe you are the hero we’ve been waiting for,” I said almost shouting, hoping there might be other ears nearby to hear my distress, even though I suspected there weren’t. Other purple threads were at work assuring that this normally busy city park remained empty until my uncle could show me his achievements. “But how, Uncle?”
“Simple, young Crannog.” The anger flickered out of his voice and was replaced by egotism. The only parts of him I could see in my peripheral vision were the tips of his boots, which brightened from black to a watery green. “Algae.”
Everybody wants to be related to someone famous and if they can’t be, then they want someone they know to be related to someone famous so they will always have an interesting story to drop at parties.
My last name is James and I have brothers. It was inevitable that people would tease us about our latest train robbery or shootout with the sheriff. Our neighbor—a short, greasy man who always had a pack of cigarettes ready in the pocket of his t-shirt—would put his hands up whenever he saw one of us. Every single time he saw us. For years. I always wondered why he carried the joke on so long. It’s probably that he enjoyed the idea of knowing people who could be related to famous people.
Another inevitable consequence of having my last name is being asked if I’m actually related to those 19th century hoodlums. I have to admit that it’s the first thing I looked up when I started my research. How could it not be after decades of politely laughing at a neighbor’s joke as though I’d never heard/seen it before? It’s also the first thing family members want to know when they find out I’ve been digging around in our past: Are we related to anyone “good”? It’s probably the first thing anyone looks up when they start their genealogical inquiries. I imagine the ones who actually uncover a celebrity in the family tree must feel like a miner felt when he found yellow sparkles in his pan.
I’ve mentioned before that my dad’s family tree was sparse before I started filling it in. So I had to start with my grandparents and work my way back. That research eventually revealed that my ancestors lived in Harrison County, Missouri—a very rural county on the state line with Iowa. At the same time, Jesse lived just three counties away in Clay County, Missouri. With that knowledge, my heartbeat quickened. It was possible. Not many people lived in that part of Missouri at the time, therefore, families could spread out further with the acquisition of land for farms.
My next step was to look through Jesse James’s family tree, which was easy because his lineage is well documented. All I had to do was look through the surnames and the locations of births and deaths to see if any matched up with my ancestors. I quickly discovered a surprising fact about Jesse James: his family was deeply inbred. Among his and his wife’s eight grandparents, there are only five last names. Yech. And in those five surnames I didn’t find a single match with my family except for the obvious one, which cut off any hopes that I could call the most famous outlaw in American history (arguably) my uncle.
To be honest though, that’s pretty much what I expected. I’d read that most of Jesse James’s family changed their name out of shame after his crimes reached the front pages of national newspapers. The fact that my family kept their last name while living in relatively close proximity has always made me doubtful of any connection.
I cling to the very slim chance of a very distant relationship. Tracking his family’s and my family’s migrations across the U.S., I see a pattern. Both families immigrated to Virginia: mine to Spotsylvania County and Jesse’s to nearby Goochland. Then they’re both found in Kentucky (my family eventually strayed across the river to Ohio) and then they both settled in Missouri. All of these moves to different states happened at around the same time, so it could be that the clan moved as a unit.
When I told my family that there was probably no relationship, they didn’t seem disappointed. But they don’t show any enthusiasm when I tell them of the other connections to famous people I’ve been trying to prove. For instance, we’re most likely sixth cousins (four times removed) to Eli Whitney, the inventor of the cotton gin; and it’s well documented that Susannah North Martin, one of the women hanged during the Salem Witch trials, had a daughter that married into the Porterfield family of Vermont. Chances are strong that that’s the same line of Porterfields in our family tree. I mean, how many different Porterfield families could there have been in Vermont in the 1820s?
Yeah, I suppose those connections aren’t as interesting. But they’re not as inbred either, so that’s a plus.
“How many times did I tell you to be ready by 8? You must hate leaving on schedule as much as you hate cleaning the shower considering how determined you are to ignore me anytime I ask you to do either thing,” Graham spat as he merged onto the expressway. We were beginning a five-hour drive to visit our friends in northern Michigan. It wasn’t going well. Unfortunately, this kind of outburst in the car wasn’t uncommon for us. We had the kind of relationship that required confronting each other shoulder-to-shoulder rather than face-to-face.
“Calm down,” I said. “You’re only 20 minutes off schedule. And those two things aren’t related, by the way. I hate cleaning the shower because I know you’re just going to clean it again behind me.”
“I wouldn’t have to clean behind you if you just did it right the first time.” His tone adopted the confidence of a surgeon reassuring a patient that only he could fix what was wrong.
“I’m not sure there’s anything I can do right according to you!”
I saw my own spittle land on Graham’s green dress shirt. When I looked up, his eyes were locked straight ahead. He looked over me to a gray Toyota in the side-view mirror, then I felt a jerk to the right as he merged us into traffic.
We were silent for hours. The freeway narrowed from six lanes to four. The canvas bags and suitcases in the back seat loomed behind our heads and insulated our anger. We tersely discussed dinner options and then ate at a fast food joint. We stared down at our food and then at our cell phones. Afterward, we jammed our pops into the circular cup holders between our seats.
Somewhere near Cadillac the road stuttered at a blinking stoplight. Its presence signaled a transition from median-split interstate to quaint, country road. As we continued north, the land rippled higher and higher until we could see for miles whenever we crested a hill. The beauty of the landscape managed to soften me, but then I’d remember Graham’s condescension and get angry all over again.
He changed the channel from talk radio to music. Lyrics and beats pumped into our truck that were incongruous to my mood. Lil’ Wayne gloated about his sexual prowess. Some pop star giggled through vapid lyrics. Then Chris Isaak started to bemoan falling in love. On any other trip we’d change our singing voices to make fun of the song’s overdramatic lyrics. I’d adopt the snarl of Elvis Presley, and Graham would pull his chin in, pick his shoulders up, and sing like an opera diva. People in passing cars would look over at us and laugh.
Instead, we brooded, wishing our friends didn’t live quite so far away. The lyrics niggled at me, reminding me that I was usually grateful for this man. To ward off any sentimental feelings, I played back our argument in my mind—inventing better, more pointed retorts. Meanwhile, the world dimmed to night.
Graham followed the road our friends lived on, slowing down every half-mile or so to discern the addresses on the sides of mailboxes. A hairpin curve caused our headlights to illuminate trees instead of road. My head was turned when I heard Graham gasp. I felt the immediate strangling of my seat belt and a yelp of brakes. I saw a pyramid in the middle of the road. My hands came up to block my face. A hollow pop followed.
“You okay, honey?” I asked.
“Yeah, scared the bejeezus out of me, though.” We opened our doors to investigate what we’d hit. I picked up a piece of debris, finding a panel of cardboard displaying a picture of a microwave oven. Graham walked around the front of the car holding a picture of a stand mixer. We could make out about 30 more empty boxes in varying states of collapse.
“Some kids must have meant it as a practical joke,” he said with a wild grin—evidence of the adrenaline having its way with his body. He stood still a second and then I heard his deep-voiced laugh. I started raking the broken boxes out of the road with my leg.
When I started this blog, I promised myself I would post at least 2 articles a week until my year anniversary on February 14, 2015, excepting a week’s vacation about midway through. I’m proud to say that so far I’ve been true to my word, and next week, friends, is that week of vacation.
But it’s just a vacation from doodads and gadgetry. A few months ago, I put a set of short stories about my grandparent’s wedding day aside for other things, but I’ve found a nice group of writers who have given me feedback on it. So I plan to rework them paper and pen style, yo, while I’m at the lake. Then I plan to repost the new and improved versions.
And now that I’ve posted it, chances are much more likely I’ll actually do it instead of whiling away my vacation sleeping on random piers and eating Cheez-its and ambrosia salad.
So off I go, see you in a week or so. Until then, enjoy this lovely scene of children getting ready to take a swim.
I couldn’t understand,
the clamor of hot showers:
crowds bursting to touch hair,
of chin, the hirsute valley
of sternum, jettisoning off the bulb
of penis, then falling away,
like strangers who’d just witnessed
the same crime.
Every now and then I like to sum up a few genealogy-related items I’ve come across in pop culture. I call it The Gene Pool because I’m clever.
Item #1: The Dead by Billy Collins
via book and the Internet
(I came across this poem recently, and wanted to keep it around to read. It nicely sums up my connection to my ancestors while I’m researching them.)
The dead are always looking down on us, they say.
while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
they are looking down through the glass bottom boats of heaven
as they row themselves slowly through eternity.
They watch the tops of our heads moving below on earth,
and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,
drugged perhaps by the hum of a long afternoon,
they think we are looking back at them,
which makes them lift their oars and fall silent
and wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.
Item #2: City of Thieves by David Benioff
In the introduction of the book, the author (who currently heads the writing team of the Game of Thrones series) explains that he kept asking his immigrant grandfather to tell him what life in Russia was like during the Nazi occupation. His grandfather repeatedly refused to talk about it, but gave him a blessing of using his authorly skills to make a story up. Benioff researched the siege of St. Petersburg and then built a narrative around the historical facts. If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know that this technique is exactly what I’m attempting to do with my ancestors’ histories. The result is an incredibly moving tale of two ‘criminals’ and their odd journey through the battle zones of World War II.
This book will stay in my library as an excellent example of blurring the lines between history and fiction. I think you’ll enjoy it too, although, I will warn you that it does not pull any punches when describing the human condition during wartime. I sobbed through several chapters in this book. I am not much for sobbing generally.
For more on my impressions of this book, read my review on Goodreads. Warning: SPOILERS!
Item #3: Who Do You Think You Are?
Not quite literature, I know, but the fourth season premieres on TLC this Wednesday night with Cynthia Nixon of Sex and the City fame. Who Do You Think You Are? is a show that researches a celebrity’s ancestors and then recounts an interesting tale from their findings. The first few episodes on NBC were admittedly dry, but the Mormons over at Ancestry.com who produce it have found a way to jazz it up a bit. The episode on Christina Applegate’s father has stuck with me for 2 years.
Do you know about any history, sociology, or genealogy stories I can use for upcoming Gene Pools? Tell me about it.