She Pissed on my lap

I was sitting on my friend’s couch in the middle of a crowded birthday party when the cat jumped up on my lap. The woman next to me stopped her conversation to smile at me and say, “You must be a cat person.” Iris the cat purred loudly and nestled in, so I began scratching her chin. “Oh, I am. I grew up in a house where cats outnumbered people,” I told the woman, and then I felt something warm seeping down my inner thigh.

 

I jumped to my feet, forcing Iris to leap to the floor, and a wet spot spread down the front of my jeans. My sudden movement made everyone’s heads snap to me. All I could get out was an incredulous “She pissed on my lap.”

It took a few seconds for the shock to subside, then a couple guests began discussing the best way to get urine out of clothes. After I’d changed and the washer was churning, everyone at the party struck up conversations with me; they already knew my name. As an introvert, I was pretty uncomfortable with the attention, but I had no choice: I was The Guy Who Got Pissed On. But I soon found the conversations that followed were easy, not at all the awkward first conversations I’ve tried to strike up with strangers at parties. My brain didn’t get mired in the social anxiety I’d usually feel. The people at the party and I immediately had a topic to discuss and since it was a shared experience I wasn’t worried about being boring or a nuisance. I made several friends that night. Having a cat piss on my lap turned out to be a positive experience.

Crossing a River

The first time I traveled to a different country I was a junior in high school. Friends had decided they’d rather take the train from Flint, Michigan, to Toronto, Canada, than rent formal wear and a limo and go to prom and invited me to come with.

Being a geography nerd, I fantasized about the trip in the weeks before we left. The only Canadian I’d met before was my grandfather (but he’d been an apple-pie-eating American for decades by the time I came around) so my imagination went wild. I learned from an episode of the Brady Bunch that Hawaiians welcomed travelers with a garland of flowers. So I figured a similar ceremony would greet me when we crossed the border: mounties knighting me with hockey sticks, customs agents anointing me with maple syrup, a dexterous moose pinning a maple leaf brooch on my REM sweat shirt; that sort of thing. I was pretty disappointed when we crossed the St. Clair River and I didn’t even hear a cheer.

grand-trunk-railway-map
(source: wikimedia.org)

The greeting came after we stepped off the train. Hello, strange money. Hello, taxi drivers whipping down Yonge Street using the “wrong” lane. Bonjour French words burbling at the bottoms of signs. When we arrived at the subway station, a man standing on a milk crate was spouting off about the evils of America to anyone who would listen. The Greedy States of America, he’d said, lewdly rubbing his fingers and thumbs together. I pulled my jacket a little tighter as I walked with my friends past the train station pundit, through the crowded platform, and toward the first subway station I’d ever encountered. That was the moment I first realized I had transformed into a capital-F Foreigner. How I had become something so political and mysterious just by sitting on a train playing cards mystified me.

We struggled—my friends and I—to follow the instructions written on the subway fare machine even though they were in English. After a while, a man in a beret approached us: “I can see you are in need of some orientation.” He enunciated each word, then he explained in a very practiced way how to buy a ticket and board the right train.

After a short subway ride, we found our hotel and proceeded to ramble around the city for the next four days completely in awe at the cultural differences we saw. Those differences were, of course, minute—only impressive to a group of 17 year olds who had never known another way of life.

On Sunday we found ourselves stepping into a train on another smoky platform. I felt like I was boarding a spaceship to go home and tell my people all the wonders I’d seen.

screen-shot-2016-11-04-at-12-55-11-pm
Hensall railway station

I didn’t know it at the time, but my grandfather Nelson Harburn and his large family had made the same journey to Flint on a Grand Trunk train 70-odd years before me. The difference was that they had birdcages and trunks, hat boxes and linens with them. They were crossing the St. Clair River for good.

Up until the day they left, the boys in the family had worked in the fields around their house in Hensall, Ontario, to keep the farm going for the new owners. Meanwhile, the women packed up the house, emptied the cellar, and sold the furniture. I imagine they talked about their new lives in the city as they worked. When the family came together for dinner, the women asked the older brothers, who had visited Flint before, to tell them again about the car traffic, the groceries, the department stores.

George, the oldest Harburn sibling, and his new wife were waiting in a little white house for their arrival. Flint, at the time, was a burgeoning industrial hub thanks to the automobile industry. Factory managers practically hired men off the street. My great-grandfather William was probably the one who’d contacted General Motors. In 1919, the conservation legacy of nature lover Theodore Roosevelt still dominated, and the auto industry was in trouble over air pollution. William Harburn farmed and distributed flowers for a living. He or George negotiated a deal to start a farm across the river from the main factory to prove there was no environmental threat. In addition, the Harburns offered their flower inventory to the company’s many social events and landscaping needs. GM agreed, giving them land and a company house.

The new home had only three bedrooms, but the Harburns didn’t complain. They arrived in Flint excited all the same. Imagine 12 people—two married couples!—crammed into a house in the city. Imagine all of the cultural differences the family would have encountered all at once: Canadian to American, country to city, independent to corporate.

And the Harburns, relatively speaking, had it easy. They arrived with a house and a purpose. They spoke the language. They had the safety of their motherland waiting just across the river with open arms.

Click here to see a copy of the record immigration officials took the day my grandfather arrived in Flint.
All relevant sources can be found here.
A short biography of my grandfather can be found here.

Drakkar (A Noir)

“Darling Jesse,” she says—her voice is a bassoonist playing in the back of a concert hall—and then she ashes her cigarette into a waiting urinal.  The wide brim of her sun hat and her five-o-clock shadow obscure her face, but I recognize the mole on her right bicep just below the hem of her puff sleeve. “Where’ve you been, lamb?”

Sleeping on dusty couches in basements. Imagining us on Jerry Springer: me with a chair raised above my head, you appealing to the audience, the cameras. “Around.”

The neon light from the Pabst Blue Ribbon sign in the window makes the sweat in the air glow cobalt blue, and the smell of stale cologne mixes with the smell of urinal cakes. Every kind of Lycra shirt slides by us on their way to the urinal or to hide behind a stall door, but my eyes stay on her mole.

“Mm hmm,” she says and blows smoke into my face. “You could have come by anytime. I don’t hold grudges.”

You stole money from me.”

“Borrowed. I borrowed money from you. I told you about it, didn’t I? You did get my IOU, yes?”

Yes. She’d only written four words to justify taking $1,000: MISS VEE HAS NEEDS. The block capital letters had reminded me of her past life as an architecture student.

“That was no IOU. That was a cry for attention.” The DJ punctuates my words with techno breakbeats.

“Maybe.” She slips the cigarette back between her lips. “Or maybe it was charity.” The beat of a Chemical Brothers song fades and a man’s voice rings through the building. Vee’s show was about to start.

“Right. Stealing money from me was an act of charity.”

“That’s right, lamb, because we both know you weren’t saving that money up to hand off to the nuns.”

“Still. You didn’t have to take my money and kick me out.”

She reaches an acrylic fingernail out to touch my collar bone, and drops her voice low. “You’re welcome back in my hive anytime you’re ready to follow the Queen Bee.”

The MC’s voice echoes down the hallway. “And now let’s welcome Miss Veronique Ahhhhhh to the stage.” The crowd roars. I hear the sizzle of embers hitting the water in the toilet bowl before she glides down the hallway to stand in a waiting spotlight.

Red Dot

“What did your father say?” my mother whispers.

I watch her gaze flit from my eyes to the painting of a peacock on the wall and back to a spot just left of my nose. Her drink is crooked in the hand that isn’t clutching me. I look past her cashmere shoulder to my sister’s television in the corner. Brian Williams is confidently addressing the almost empty room completely unaware that he is muted. The acrylic nails pressing into my wrist are elegantly curled warnings.

In my head: I steer her toward the mirror hanging not two feet away. I use the laser pointer in my pocket to circle the flames of gin in her eyes, the too-young barrette in her hair, and, somehow, the jealousy in her voice. She shakes her head in disbelief. In my head.

“It can wait, Mom.” I whisper back, and then I point toward the dining room. “They’re waiting for us.”

As if on cue my young nephew asks if he can play Red Dot with the cat again before Thanksgiving dinner is served. My sister tells him that he can’t because I have the laser. Where did he go? my nephew whines. To wash up, my sister says even though she knows I am just on the other side of the wall.

“Alex…my Lexy-man, just tell me.” My mother juts her bottom lip out. I know she wants me to take pity on her, but I can’t help thinking of the orangutan I watched on TV late last night who spent the entire episode hunting for grubs in an old banyan tree. 

I shave both words to a point before I speak. “You’re drunk.” 

“I’m not. This is my first. Promise.”

In my head: disbelief. “Ok, then. What the hell.”

My mom brings her hands together to cheer her small victory, forgetting her drink. An olive lanced by a toothpick plops onto my sister’s pristine white carpet. Brian Williams ignores it and continues mouthing words.

“Dad told me that you would try to manipulate me.” I watch her jaw fall slack. “He told me not to be afraid to cut all ties with you until after the hearing.”

She puts her martini glass down on a book shelf and I return to the dining room alone.

Fall Away

No one sees the sun the same
some notice shadows     some the glow
floating in between damask curtains
lenses pinpointing the here     now     today
maybe some regard its power as a threat
fretting ultraviolet     infrared     gamma?
mamas mostly     smearing white chemical
wool over the backs of their babies
seizing any chance to capture time but
what their children will do later     wander
     certain days skipping school on beaches
     reserving time in a tanning bed
     red arms blistering after a road trip
flip the safety switches off and
band the mamas who can only watch their all
fall away and hope their children return

 

Constructive feedback—both positive and negative—welcome. I’m posting this early on in my writing process just to get back into posting regularly again. Interested to know your thoughts on the subject of the poem.

Nip Point

TW: violence, suggestions of rape

Summary: A woman unwittingly falls into the hands of a killer the moment she walks into work.

Liz saw them as soon as she walked into the reception area of the Chippewa Paper Mill bright orange helmets lined up outside the doors to the machine floor. Each helmet sat atop a pile of meticulously folded clothes.

She immediately recognized a turquoise blouse as Autumn’s. There was Marvin’s helmet with the Red Wings sticker slapped crooked on the front from when they’d won the Stanley Cup back in ‘08. She spotted a pair of khaki pants in another pile with a crease so sharp Liz imagined cutting her finger on it. She guessed they were Derek, the night manager’s. And at the end of the line she saw her husband Ron’s black and red striped polo shirt. Eleven piles of clothes and helmets. One for each person that worked the night shift.

This must be a weird joke, Liz thought. She let out a half-laugh when she realized the joke must be meant for her. They knew she’d be the first one in for the morning shift; she and Ron liked to steal time together before he went home and she began her day.

As Liz walked onto the machine floor, she found work boots blocking her way. Someone had tied their laces together and strung them like a gate between the pulp tanks. She noticed red smears on their heels.

“Ron?” she yelled, and the room returned her voice. She realized that this end of the factory was silent the loud agitators in the pulp tanks, the pulpers, the boilers held their breath; the sprayers crouched overhead mid-pass. Yellow and black signs saying NIP POINT stared out at her from the walls, unblinking reminders of how dangerous the machinery was when the mill was fully active.  

“This isn’t funny, guys.” The echo repeated eyes.

As Liz untied the boots, she felt a presence. Derek was standing behind her, naked, pointing a gun at her head. Liz saw that underneath the pressed creases of the khakis he wore he hid a myriad of tattoos. Bible verses twined around his biceps and thighs, circled his pecs, and fell like vines down his abdomen.

“Hands,” he commanded. Liz stuck hers out and Derek tethered them together. Then he marched her down the aisle past the row of freight elevators. One of the doors was cracked open. Liz saw Marvin, the hockey fan, inside as she walked by. His naked body slumped on the floor; the eyes in his severed head stared back at her from the top of the utility table.

“Why did you come in here?” Derek whispered. “You should have heeded my warnings.”

He walked her into the farthest of the freight elevators and used a piece of rope already hanging from the railing to tie her up. Ron was there, too. In the back. He was naked, gagged, and strapped to a chair. Blood pooled at his feet. Liz could see that the blood came from Ron’s hands; all of his fingernails had been removed.

Liz screamed Ron’s name. She fought hard against the rope that bound her hands. Derek quickly pulled the gag out of Ron’s mouth and forced it into Liz’s. He replaced the gun in his hand with a boxcutter he grabbed from underneath the chair, pinned Liz’s legs to the floor and cut at her clothes as she tried to buck him off. He hummed to himself as he worked. When he had ripped her bra off, he left her alone in the elevator.

After a few moments she heard the low hum of one of the machines starting up. She began to tremble. She knew what these machines did. She imagined being crushed or boiled alive.

Liz snapped her mind into focus. Ok, if I can hold him off the rest of the morning shift should be here any minute. She surveyed her surroundings. There was Ron either passed out or dead in the chair, his blood on the floor, and nothing else. The elevator’s operational buttons shone bright just above her bound hands, but she knew the elevator wouldn’t move unless both the wooden gate and the jaws of the heavy automatic doors were closed. Flinging her legs, she reached toward Ron. When she felt the warmth of his blood on her, she used her body to wet the floor.

“Looks like we’re meeting our Lord and Savior together,” Derek sing-songed as he stepped back into the elevator. He slipped immediately in Ron’s blood and threw his hands out to the walls to steady himself. Liz instinctively tried to block his fall with her arms, but the rope strangled her wrists. When she looked up, she saw Derek’s hairy torso above her. He had become aroused. She focused her gaze on the ceiling.

“Tricky girl,” Derek said with a grin. He righted himself and reached over her head to press the button that closed the automatic doors. A NIP POINT sign stuck to the top door blinked into view. When the elevator started moving, Liz remembered that they were in the broken one. It still moved with the gate up.

They stopped on the second floor. Liz knew there was only equipment and nip points to the open vats of the pulp boilers up here. Derek pressed the button to reopen the doors. She waited a beat and then kicked her legs back, pressing the Close button at the same time. Derek fell forward, his head poking through the still-open doors until they clamped down on his neck. Liz heard a crunch before the doors’ safeguard stopped it from closing.

His naked body was angled over her and his arms and legs kept convulsing, grabbing, stretching. She heard the whirrs and crackles of Derek trying to inhale. It only took a few minutes for his arms to fall limp, resting on bloody hips. All she could do now was wait.

This story was a submission to a judged flash fiction contest. Here were the judges’ comments:

WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY –

{1686}  The story sets out on a dark path from the beginning, with the initial misdirection creating a greater sense of alarm when it is revealed that this is no innocent joke.…  {1614}  I like how the protagonist manages to save herself and her husband through resistance and cleverness. While Derek tries to take away her choices, Liz ultimately decides who lives and dies, showcasing great agency.…
{1702}  I like that your hero makes it out alive! Good for her, being super resourceful under intense amounts of pressure. Your story’s pacing is also incredibly fast, which is great. Your descriptions, such as the one about the Red Wings sticker, are fantastic because they’re so specific. Great job there.…

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK –
{1686}  While the events of the story are horrific and there is a lot of violence and action, consider playing with suspense and more understated ways of raising readers’ hackles to bring out a deeper sense of horror. In some places, less may be more; for example, leaving the last sentence off this paragraph could actually increase the sense of foreboding:  “After a few moments she heard the low hum of one of the machines starting up. She began to tremble. She knew what these machines did.”

The beginning is headed this way already.

Perhaps expand on Derek’s ideology or show more subtle signs of his emotional imbalance.…

{1614}  A little more background on Derek and what’s driving his psychopathy would help ground the narrative. Additionally, you might consider revisiting the moments of action and adjusting the prose to read more quickly. For example, taking advantage of more frequent line breaks.…

{1702}  After reading you story, I feel like there were several unanswered questions that, if answered to some degree, might make your story stronger. Why did Derek want to kill the whole night crew? Moreover, how did Derek kill 12 or so people in the span of a few hours without anyone apparently noticing? What’s a “nip point?” Did the broken elevator’s safety not work? Is that how it was able to crush his esophagus? Answering or clarifying these questions to varying degrees could really help strengthen your already strong story.…