Wind blown.

The Language of Thunderstorms

A crowd gathered on the crumbling pavement of the town square. The Leader stood quite still in its center, her unusual silence commanding our attention. Eventually even the men tilling the fields nearby set down their plows and stepped over rows of freshly planted seeds to hear her proclamation.

The Leader held a curiously stretched oval, like an egg made long by the captive hatchling inside. A thin silver rod protruded out of the oval’s side.

“My family,” she boomed, and the breeze played with the hollyhock blooms wreathed throughout her curly brown hair. “Brother Nielwin”—she acknowledged me with a slight nod—“discovered this artifact from deep within the waste mines. Our foremothers called it a ‘radio.’” She offered the crowd a rare smile with her words, then she turned a knob and the thing began to crackle and moan.

Some men leaning against the ruins of a brick wall covered their ears with their chapped hands. Others whispered of wickedness. A child sitting at the Leader’s bathed and oiled feet reached toward the object.

“What do we hear, dear Leader?”

The Leader’s voice dropped from full to half-mast. “That is the sound of our future, my child.”

“Our future sounds like a storm rolling in,” the girl replied, and the Leader stooped to let her touch the wailing gray thing.

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The Art of Distraction

“SO IS THIS WHAT YOU DO HEREmake Rube Goldberg machines?” Jacob said, after I’d spread string, scissors, plastic cups, and a few small peg boards across the breakroom counter. He was sitting at the table eating a sandwich and fries from a styrofoam box. I watched as his paisley tie dipped into ketchup. That’s how new he was to the pediatrician’s office—no one had told him yet that Medical Assistants could dress business casual.

“Huh? No, I’m the Scribe? The one who inputs the doctor’s notes into the patient database? The job’s kinda tedious, so I started pushing thumbtacks into the corkboard behind my desk and wrapping rubber bands around them two at a time. Set up a little maze down the wall for a marble to travel down. Janet, the Nurse Practitionernot Janet, the Lab Tech—saw it and liked it. She started bringing patients by for demonstrations, and then she asked me to build a machine in here.” Stop rambling. Why do I turn into an idiot whenever a hot guy is around? “I’m Ethan by the way.”

“Hi. I’m Jacob. Your machine sounds cool. Where’d you learn to make them? Did you go to an engineering school or something?”

I answered his question by pulling out my college ID and showing it to him, not remembering the terrible picture on it. Scraggly beard, eyelids half-closed, a questionably-high James Franco smirk. Jacob pulled a matching ID card out of his messenger bag.

“We must have just missed each other on campus,” Jacob said.

After that, a pause filled the room. “When you’re done eating, do you want to see the machines?” I asked. Jacob nodded, mouth full of pastrami.

I took him down the long hallway past the exam rooms to the corner where my desk squatted and showed him the machine. I handed him a silver marble and pointed.

“Drop it on the highest rubber band there,” I explained, and we watched as the marble glided across the vertical maze, and down to where I’d looped the final band around the switch of my desk lamp. The marble clicked against the switch and my light turned on, which also caused Jacob to beam.

“Like I said, I have a lot of free time.” I tried not to notice his long eyelashes or his one crooked tooth; I itched my ear instead. “So, yeah, the kids liked it, and pretty much everyone in the office is looking for new ways to distract patients. It was a hit.”

“I see why.”

Two coworkers came out of the exam room next door and asked me to demonstrate my machine again, after which, one of them, Cindy from Billing, said she wouldn’t mind her own machine. I told her I’d see what I could do.

 

AT LUNCH THE NEXT DAY Jacob ventured down the hallway again carrying a milk crate with about a dozen random objects in it.

“Hey, Ethan, I did a little googling and brought you some supplies.” His elbow brushed my shoulder as he set the crate down on my desk. I could feel heat disperse through the ridges of my ears. “I…If you feel like it, I can help you with Cindy’s machine.”

“That would be great,” I said, avoiding his gaze by inspecting the items in the crate. Some dowel rods, duct tape, a hamster wheel, and… “A blender?”

“I figured if we couldn’t use it, maybe I could make us some margaritas? Not here…I mean, back at my place…but, you know, not like that.”

Not like what? A date? I felt tingling in my feet. “Why don’t we just play it by ear?”

The rest of the work day dragged. When it was finally just Jacob and I, we took out all of the things he’d brought. We decided to make a machine that would unfurl a sign at Cindy’s desk. Jacob started pounding pegs into a pegboard. When I caught myself watching the curve of his bicep contract with each hammer blow, I started tinkering with the blender.

“What’s the plan?” he asked.

I told him what I was thinking: dowel rods and a wedge to guide a marble into the bottom of a flat, paint-stirring stick. The stick would jerk and a string attached at the top of the stick would yank a paper clip free from the sign we’d hang from Cindy’s desk.

“Sounds good, but I wonder if we could incorporate her chair somehow or put something on the floor? I saw a video last night where they wrapped an electric cord around a chair les so when someone pulled it out the machine started.”

“We could, but how long do you want to be here tonight?”

He faced me, a grin triggered a set of dimples. That crooked tooth. I knocked something off the desk and was turning my head to see what it was when I felt something swipe my neck. I smacked at it without thinking, connecting with Jacob’s nose and cheek. He had tried to kiss me.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. “Are you ok? I was…um, let’s maybe not kiss? At work, I mean, with the security cameras. But definitely again.” I put my hand on his shoulder and winked. I never wink.

“Well, at least we got that awkward first kiss out of the way, right?”

We quickly set up Cindy’s surprise after that. Jake printed out a picture of a cat with a pink party hat over its ears and a wry look.

We tested the machine a few times and started repacking the milk crate with the items we didn’t use. I picked up the blender still sitting on the breakroom table where we’d left it.

“Hey, you still up for some drinks?”

“Absolutely, but we won’t be needing that.” Jake pointed to the blender. “I just needed some way to ask you out.”

To my NYC Midnight friends, this is an edited version of the story I submitted. Group 54—romantic comedy, a pediatrician’s office, a blender.

Excavation

yesterday I gave you my love to mine

quietly you donned an orange lantern hat

leery to discover the lode you’d find

yesterday I gave you my love, to mine

scorpions, alluvium, quartz or brine?

hopefully it’s diamonds reminding us that

yesterday I gave you my love to mine

quietly you donned an orange lantern hat

gratisography.com

Shoes, or What Not To Do When People Call You Names

As the bus doors opened, a tall man planted his feet wide in the threshold and stretched his long arms to the top corners of the jamb. He wore jean shorts and an old concert tee, and he had what looked like a cold sore on his lower lip. Our eyes locked as he leaned out toward me and my partner standing at the bus stop. A smirk pulled at his mouth and he mumbled as he stepped onto the sidewalk and elbowed past me.

A minute later my partner asked if I’d heard what the guy said. I had. Despite the racket of the idling bus, I’d heard him clearly. He said, in an almost genial tone, “How’s it going, faggot?”

 

The first time I remember hearing that word I was in church. Some dude wearing a cardigan was pulling felt characters of Jesus and sheep and wise men out of a Ziploc baggie, preparing for class. I remember street lights were on in the parking lot outside which means I wasn’t in Sunday school but at Awana, what the Baptists called a youth group but was really just Sunday school on Wednesday nights with a game of dodgeball and a juice box thrown in.

I was sitting in a half-circle of school desks with the other young Christian boys aged 9 to 11. The classrooms in our church basement smelled musty year-round, but especially so in the humidity of that August night in Michigan. To this day, a dank room makes me think of rubbery pancakes and eternal salvation.

The kid next to me told everyone to look at how I was sitting. Hands on desk, left ankle on right knee. He said, “Why are you sitting like a girl, faggot?”

The Cardigan stopped unpacking.

“I’m not,” I said. “My dad sits like this all the time.”

“Haha! Nathan’s dad’s a queer!”

“That’s enough. Let’s get started. Nathan: both feet on the floor, please,” the Cardigan said and then he launched into his lesson, probably the one about turning the other cheek. I spent the rest of that class studying my teacher and classmates, watching how they sat, searching their shoes because, for some reason, I thought they’d tell me what unified them and set me apart.

 

Just like in the church basement, the moment with the tall man on the bus happened in a flash. He was smirking and then he was gone and then I was sitting in the back of the bus kicking myself for not confronting him.

I could have adopted my most winsome Southern drawl, slid an index finger down his sternum and said Why, honey, you interested? Or I could have unleashed a wild grin—each tooth a separate act of defiance—and quipped I’m great, Ass Hole, how ’bout you?  I could have called him the epithet that popped into my head when I saw the scab on his lip. I could have punched him in his willfully-exposed torso or tripped him as he slid past me or I could have simply said “Fuck off.”

But I didn’t.

Thirty-some years after I put my feet on the floor, after the tribulations of reconciling my sexuality with my religious upbringing, after the lonely years post-college believing the ridiculous notion that all gay men ended up sad and alone, after the exhilaration of meeting my partner, after almost 15 years of enjoying a happy loving relationship, a stranger called me a faggot and I looked down at his shoes.

 

 

98H

The Luxury of Time

Margaret groped crusty tissues, two prescription bottles and a Katherine Porter novel to find her tortoiseshell frames. She knew the time of day only by the color of her bedroom; the angle of the sun hit different parts of the color-blocked curtains at different times of day. Orange meant early morning. Candace would need feeding and William will want breakfast when he comes home from his shift, but Margaret continued floating on the island of her mattress.

 

The diner was dark except for the green neon glow of jukeboxes peering from every tabletop. A woman stared at her across a row of cherry red booths, her hair pinned up so a single russet curl fell perfectly above her eyes. She smoked a cigarette as if she were thumbing through a magazine. The absence of waitstaff behind the long counter unsettled Margaret as she strode to join the woman who so obviously expected her. She wished the blinds in the windows were open, even knew it only looked out onto a parking lot and an expressway. Margaret heard the plugging sound of lips on cigarette.

“Well, someone call the press,”—plumes of smokes rose to the speckled ceiling as the woman spoke—“Miss Maggie Jane is in a place that serves Spam.”

“What do you mean? I eat Spam all the time.”

“Not out in public, you don’t. And you hide it behind the orange juice in the refrigerator as soon as you pull it out of the grocery sack.”

“How could you possibly know that?”

“Mothers know things.” After she said it, the shadows on the woman’s face fluttered like moths’ wings and Margaret recognized the curve of chin and the Jayne Mansfield-inspired eyebrows of the mother she’d only seen in photographs. In the silence after the woman’s quip, Margaret heard someone talking, the voice—a young woman’s—muffled by the closed metal swinging doors. A sign of life just beyond this room.

“You aren’t anyone’s mother,” Margaret said. There was a plate of French fries in front of her, but she couldn’t remember ordering or seeing a waitress deliver it.

“Boo hoo, missy. You know, there’s a reason why you only hear children saying “No fair” when the world doesn’t give them what they want.” The woman’s patent leather purse strap fell off her shoulder as she talked. Margaret watched her shake salt into her chocolate milkshake and stir it with her straw.

Maggie couldn’t taste her food; she was too distracted by the eerie quiet of the restaurant. No meat sizzling on a grill, no whir of a refrigerator engine, not even an Elvis song coming from one of the jukeboxes. The only sounds were the woman’s interjections whenever she took a sip of her milkshake—mmm. They grew louder the more of it she drank. Mmmm. MMM-mmm. By the time the milkshake was gone Margaret was relieved the diner was empty because the woman’s enjoyment verged on sounding sexual. The woman plucked several fries from Margaret’s plate, popping them in her mouth, all the while maintaining eye contact. The moans turned into half-screams as she chewed, subtle vowels entered the sounds. When the woman clearly screamed “Mommy,”  Margaret rolled her eyes, but then felt remorse when she grabbed Margaret’s hand and started bawling.

 

 

Margaret’s bedroom shined red, and on the other side of the door a man’s voice lilted above her daughter’s whimpering. The smell of William’s Brylcreem already permeated their small flat. She found her glasses resting on the duvet next to her hand and returned them to the nightstand. She picked up one of the prescription bottles and sprinkled a few over the duvet, careful not to make a sound. Her legs kicked off the sheets and blankets and her arms flung out to her sides, one hand still holding the bottle. She closed her eyes and waited for William to open the door.

The door finally creaked open a sliver, and then immediately closed. She heard William pick Candace up from her crib and walk into the kitchen. She opened her eyes again to the sizzling of bacon in a frying pan.

family records for blog

The Bedweaver

Last week you came into my shop and told me you’d bought a fine new bed, and we agreed on a day and a time. That night I added up the sum total of our conversations, and determined that our last conversation held more words than you’d ever given me before. I slept tight in my chair with that fact over top of me.

Two days ago, I poured water into the washtub and let the sisal rope soak overnight. The dog tried to harmonize with my singing. When I asked him to stop, I noticed he needed a washing, too.

Yesterday I laid the sisal out naked in the June sun, wiped down the parts of my bed key, then I scrubbed my nails clean and used the washtub for myself. My gnarled body went in from the corns on the bottom to the grays on the top. My shabby clothes and shabbier dog followed. After the bath, I walked to Mrs. McLachlan’s garden and plucked some mint without asking. I asked the Lord to forgive my pride for not wanting to tell her my intentions with the mint.

This morning when you show me into your room there will be on the floor your birch headboard, two posts, two long and two short support beams with a row of pegs like upside down thimbles on one side of each. I will drop my sisal and my key and get straight to work. As I assemble your bedstead, I will ask your thoughts of the new pastor. At some point, your children’s voices will run through the open window and around and between us. When the frame is at attention on the plankwood floor, I will say: My, but your bedstead is grand, Mrs. Putnam. You will smell mint on my breath and smile as you leave the room.

After I’ve woven the rope around each peg and used the key to pull slack from the sisal grid, I will tie hitch knots diagonally from the southwest corner to the northeast and slide your horsehair mattress over my work. I will make a point not to think of you as the Widow Putnam anymore. I will tell you as I leave about the knots, that they keep the bed from sagging too soon. But, actually, I am a superstitious man and every little bit helps.

sequoia-274158_1920

Vagabond

The day I moved into the hollow of a giant redwood
the crowberry eyes of a family of martens appraised
my ragged chin, my desperate need for shelter,

and rightly deemed me harmless. They knew the city does not shelter
those that need it most. I unpacked my life, slept below the red wood
sky as constellations of banana slugs appraised

my verdant dreams, and woke to find my nap praised
with larksong. I joined their melody, singing for shelter,
for autumn and spring, for the growth rings of a redwood.

The redwood appraised my plea, and gave me a family in which to take shelter.

 

family records for blog

The Drowning of Vic Garland

Synopsis: Three days after the sinking of the Titanic a young nurse receives a meaningful package.

 

No further updates of the Titanic survivors have been wired.

The White Star agent stops hurling the sentence at the journalists long enough to check for my brother’s name. When he finds it printed on the original passenger list, he mumbles where on the wharf I can find the other families.

Pier 59 teems with thousands of anxious women in crumpled hats, somber gentleman with their hands behind their overcoats, and photographers documenting it all. Most everyone’s heads point toward the White Star pier where the RMS Carpathia broods, but I continue looking for the cordoned-off portion of the dock the agent told me about. I push forward until I find myself under the steel arch that reads “Cunard Line.” My confusion and the near-ice falling from the sky make my progress through the throng of people feel like a morphine dream.

Men use newspapers to shield their eyes; the names of the surviving first-class passengers’ names bulge from the front page. There is no word yet on the lower classes, but reports are grim. Images of my brother, poor darling Vic, drifting in a gulping sea float through my mind. I fear they will continue until the moment I see the ridiculous orange feather aflame in the band of his homburg.

A tall officer with a mustache like a push broom crosses his arms as he shouts, “This section is for families of passengers only, ladies and gentlemen. If you are not relation, please wait for the ship elsewhere.”

I grab the man’s arm and allow my fears to spill out. “My brother, sir, James Garland? He goes by Vic. He’s a salesman, hospital cots. Look at me. Please. I’m his sister. People say we resemble each other. Will you watch for him for me?”

The man’s sparse eyebrows rise higher above the thin bridge of his nose before he says, “Of course, my dear, but until he comes, wait with us. Take comfort in the company of others in your particular quandary.”

A woman standing nearby immediately starts complaining about the Cunard company’s decision to drop off the Titanic’s lifeboats before allowing the survivors to disembark. Others agree. A man with an aristocratic air announces that a few of the survivors with the most pressing medical needs have already been sent straight to hospital, that family members should check with a White Star agent for more information. A matronly woman takes my arm.

“I do hope it’s good news for your brother.” She pats my hand and her touch sets in motion a wave of unsteadiness. “This too will pass away, young lady. Chin up, now.”

Hollow words with good intent. Exactly what put my brother on that abominable boat. I think of the belongings he didn’t take with him, still piled high in one corner of my lodgings. He had asked his man Thomas to arrange the suitcases, boxes, and empty birdcages to look pleasant. When he saw Thomas’s work, he dubbed it the Eiffel Tower and insisted upon addressing every letter he wrote to Mademoiselle Garland.

“Would it help to tell me about him?” I feel the matron’s cool grip on my arm.

No, I think. I can hardly think of him without being reminded of our fight the day I sent him away. I can’t bear to remember the look on his face, hear again the apologies for his crimes, what the police described as “sexual perversions,” the schemes, the aliases, or the promise I extracted from him to leave New York. Searching for a safe topic, I blather on to the woman about his dog, who is likely curled on my kitchen floor, with an old nurse’s uniform of mine for a bed. I tell the woman he named the Boston terrier “Her Majesty” because it amused him to walk through the neighborhood calling it out. I tell her that he wore his dog’s collar around his wrist whenever he left home.

“He sounds like a nice man,” she says. I do not say otherwise.

The Carpathia eventually slides into port and dock hands carry the recovering survivors on stretchers down the gangplank. Everyone on the wharf jostles to see the precious cargo. Photographers flash their cameras. The matron eventually releases my arm when she spots her niece’s face.

Then the survivors who can walk proceed silently down to the waiting crowd. One by one the pale men and women find their loved ones, cries of joy and grief follow, until at last the end of the cortege proceeds up the wharf and there are no more survivors to be seen. 

I collapse into the officer’s arms.

“Come, miss,” the officer whispers. “I’m sure the agency has the finalized list now. Hope is not lost; perhaps your brother waits for you in a nice, warm room at the hospital.” The officer takes my arm, and conveys me to the shipping office. The same agent from before tells me that my brother’s name is still absent from the list, and I feel every vibration in my body—digestion, respiration, cognition—cease. I can hardly find my own hands inside my gloves; it takes the kindness of the police officer to deliver me at home.

 

In the confines of my parlor I unpin my hat and peel off my wet gloves, my coat. I am warming my feet by the fire when someone knocks. Her Majesty starts barking. I find Thomas, the valet Vic gave to me while he was away, standing on the stoop wearing a soot-stained coat and a cockeyed grin. He clutches at my wrist, behavior of which I would reprove under other circumstances.

“The German Hospital, miss. We’re to look for Ludwig Kranz.” He places something in my hand. I find a thin leather strap with three ornate bells attached. I call Her Majesty to me and refasten the collar around her neck.

Update: Feedback from the contest judges:

WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY –

{1589}  I like following this young woman around as she looks for her brother–it’s tense. Nice scene witht the well-meaning old woman. Nice ending.

{1657}  Linguistically lovely! Well-balanced story: background, dialog, description, action. I was intrigued.

{1601}  Good use of specific detail to bring the reader along to the time of the Titanic. Excellent use of the mandatory elements (especially the dog collar) woven into the story. Excellent use of dialog as well.

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK –

{1589}  Give me placement of our narrator at the very beginning, a sentence or two about her.  How would she know what a morphine dream was like?  The fight she had with her brother is not clear. What does she think about this fight? Is she sorry? How does this event affect her?

{1657}  Consider restructuring the story, or refocusing it, to capitalize on the mystery. At present it doesn’t come into play until the very end (and feels a bit forced).

{1601}  I think it might strengthen the story a little if the narrator elaborates a little about her brother’s crimes.