18 Jan


Alvaro stood near the pedestrian bridge on the Avenida 10 de Agosto. Barely anyone noticed him. Cars whizzed by on the big, busy road. Drops of milky water fell from the bridge beams. Exactly three cats had crossed the bridge, and Alvaro was waiting for the fourth. Four cats never cross the bridge in one day, the older boys had told him.

Grabbing a stick from the sidewalk, Alvaro tapped out a reggaeton beat on the hollow metal pillar; no one paid him any attention. He’d been counting the cats for days now. In this neighborhood, he’d seen at least 15. Junior had told him not to believe the big boys; they were just messing with him because he was motherless. Kids can be cruel like that.

Let them laugh, Alvaro thought. Murderers. No one was going to talk him out of counting cats. One of these days, he’d see the fourth one. Perhaps he’d have to stay here all day, waiting by the dirty pillars of the bridge, inhaling the clouds of black smoke that spewed from the red and white buses that labored up the road; perhaps he’d have to keep begging food from strangers, to sleep in the shadows of the bridge and befriend its spray-painted pillars while he waited for whichever came first — the fourth cat, or his father, who left and said he was going to the sky to find Mami and bring her back from the place where she lived now, higher than the top of Cotopaxi.

Quechua graffiti on the bridge beams — mostly misspelled and mixed with Spanish — proclaimed the injustice of the city and its crooked politicians. Rats, it called them: ratas, ukucha. She appeared from behind him, the fourth cat. Taking a tentative step onto the stairs, she peered back at Alvaro and meowed at him three times. Under the bridge, Alvaro stood speechless and breathless at what he thought he’d heard: “mijo,” she’d said — my son. Venturing forth, Alvaro extended a tender hand toward the cat, noticing the patch of white on her chest that looked like the snow-capped top of Cotopaxi. Whether or not she’d cross the bridge to the other side mattered no longer; he only wanted to touch her. But the moment was over too soon when some passer-by with a job to go to climbed the stairs and scared the little cat off the steps.

Years have passed since then, and though he has sometimes seen that same cat lurking in the shadows, following him around the city, he has never touched her, never heard her speak his name. Zig-zagging across the busy streets, digging through the trash, and crying for remembered milk, Alvaro has become a cat himself.

The above was another exercise from my MFA residency. The objective: write a 26 sentence story. It has to be in alphabetical or reverse alphabetical order. One sentence has to be one word long; one sentence has to be 100 words long. You can substitute some other letter for x or z but not both.

14 Jan

First Kill

I’m at my first residency for Pacific University’s MFA and enjoying it thoroughly. We’ve gotten a few writing exercises that force us to stretch our writing boundaries a little. Below is the result of one of them.

Somewhere in the woods, a twig cracked. Ryan held his breath. He lifted the gun and waited. And when he heard another crack coming from the west edge of the forest, he scanned the trees for any sign of movement. He heard leaves rustling, an unmistakeable shuffle and pause, shuffle and pause. Snow was beginning to fall, the first one of the year, and it was coming down in icy flakes that crinkled against the papered forest floor. He could smell the snow, smell the decaying leaves and his father’s minty aftershave, probably lingering on his jacket from the other day, when they were out here together practicing their sighting from atop the tree stand. Ryan tucked the butt of the gun against his shoulder, rested his cheek on its cold metal barrel, and felt for the safety. He tickled it but didn’t turn it off yet.

The leaves rustled again, a slow, punctuated wishing noise that came to another full stop. Only deer move like that. Especially in late November when the trees and shrubs are bare of their foliage. They’re scrounging — that’s the word his dad had used — trying to find anything to fill their empty stomachs. They eat the stems of honeysuckle and hemlock, sumac and poplar. They don’t look up. They never look up. And Ryan knew this was true because he’d seen them walk right underneath the tree stand just the other week, before the season had begun.

He peered through the scope, but kept his left eye open; sometimes, they’re not where you think they are. He flicked the safety off. “You’ve got two triggers. Safety’s your first one,” Dad had said. Halfway there. Any second now, the deer might emerge from between the trees. In the woods like this, sometimes you only see a sliver of its body. But sometimes that’s all you need.

He touched the trigger. “Be patient,” Dad had said. He felt his pulse beating hard against the steel barrel. He had to calm down, but in order to do so, he to put out of his mind what it would mean if he got his first kill alone in the back woods. It could actually happen!

And then it was happening. As the icy snow was slicing into his cheeks and casting a ghoulish haze over the leafless woods, he heard the periodic shuffle, saw the body emerge, its light brown fur appearing in the narrow column between the parallel trees. He exhaled, tightened his hold on the trigger, lined the crosshairs on what little body he could see, and fired.

The animal dropped. The forest resounded with the crack of the gunshot, an echoing snap in an empty space. Every shot is the shot heard round the world, the clap of Thor’s thunder. Every shot struggles to take ownership of the future, to be the God of gods. Ryan emptied his lungs of breath, releasing into the air a cloud of vapor like the saunas of Old Scandinavia. He’d done it! Dad would be so proud.

But then he heard Dad, his shrill whistle cutting through the forest like the icy snow. He was shouting something. Something that had the vague rhythm of the cardinals that would begin to sing on warm days in March; a rising pitch followed by a sharp descending tone. At first it sounded like “Rye en. Rye en.” But as Ryan’s adrenaline-induced breaths slowed and the vapor of respiration dissipated, he heard his father’s calls, which were not for him but for their labrador retriever, Lacey. “La-cey! La-cey!”

Panic rushed through him. He squinted into the misty forest, peered again through his rifle scope at the fallen body obscured by trees. Lacey had rested her head on his lap, had greeted him after school with enthusiastic kisses, had interrupted his impromptu games of soccer in the yard. Had he shot Lacey?

Dad’s footsteps became audible; his blaze orange coat cut through the dim woods. Ryan froze, waited for the world to fall, considered leaning forward and letting himself tumble from the tree stand.

But then Dad’s voice cut through the air. “Holy shit! You did it, boy! You got one!”

Lacey came running from the paddocks, panting in that way that made her seem to be smiling.

He had done it. He had pulled a trigger, taken a life. And for a brief second, he had felt united to the forest in some inexplicable way, bound to his kill by some wordless pact. But he had pulled a trigger. And as his dad informed Lacey that the boy was now a man, Ryan saw how helpless he really was.

01 Jan

Top Ten Musical Discoveries of 2009

Well, I wasn’t quite as exploratory with new music this year. I went app-crazy, but we’ve been over that. I mention the apps, though, because one of the big keepers of the year was PandoraJam, which doesn’t do much besides allow you to listen to your Pandora radio stations. Oh, except it also records the songs. So that was a pretty cool discovery.

The result, however, was to take me through a period where I acquired a lot of singles but didn’t get to know artists very well. In some cases, I tried investigating the artist — like Architecture in Helsinki — but wasn’t impressed with most of their music, so I stuck with the one or two songs I had. In other cases, Pandora steered me in the right direction and I got introduced to some great new stuff. Last.fm did the same. And then there was my little brother, who is perpetually a good source of new music.

Not all of the below are new in 2009; they were just new (or renewed) for me.

On last year’s list was Yann Tiersen, who remained a standby this year, too. I got most of the sheet music for his stuff, and I make Eileen play it all the time. It’s some of the only music I can handle when I grade essays. But in lieu of putting Yann on this year’s list for the exact same music, I’ll substitute two others. First, Detektivbyran. I’ll pause a moment for you to sound it out. Detektivbyran. Get it? They’re a lot like Yann, but just a little more electronic and much goofier. Still, good stuff. The other new discovery is much less goofy and almost certainly a big influence on Yann since he’s French and quite minimalist on the piano: Eric Satie. I don’t know why it took me so long to discover Satie, but I really like his stuff.

In keeping with my not-branching-out, I have to include Andrew Bird on the list this year, too. His album Noble Beast came out last January, and it’s one of my favorites. Plus, I saw him in concert this fall and then discovered his live albums, entitled Fingerlings (multiple volumes), which allowed me to relive his stupendous live performance. Andrew Bird has a lot to do with why I now own a violin.

So, too, does Horse Feathers. These guys were a brother recommendation. In fact, he invited me to a free concert of theirs on campus this past fall. With a cello, guitar, violin, saw, and drums, they’re kinda the exact band I’d like to be in. Mainly cuz I’d like to be able to play all of those instruments.

I suppose if I got good at all that stuff, I could be my own band. Just give me a little audio tech savvy and a singer as good as Nataly Dawn from Pomplamoose, and I’d be set. Of course, then my name would be Jack Conte, the other member of Pomplamoose. The thing about these guys is they’re totally on their own — no record label or anything. They put together these wonderful YouTube videos. I could watch them for hours.

I could also watch DJ Earworm videos for hours. He and Girl Talk are the best mashup artists out there. For the past three years, Earworm has put together a “United State of Pop” song, which mashes together the top 25 US Billboard hits of the year. I don’t keep up with a lot of mainstream pop, so I’m not always familiar with the all the songs, but it doesn’t matter. What he creates usually stands alone as a great piece of music. (He’s got a website where he offers all his stuff for free).

Where to go from here is a bit of a toss-up. Going the hipster route, there’s Seabear, Barcelona, and the Dodos. I went through minor stages with all three. Barcelona is pretty similar to Coldplay, though perhaps more chill, less pop. I discovered them via this kick-ass film of an aquarium. Seabear has some pretty catchy stuff, but to be honest, I’m not quite sure if they’ll stand the test of time. Same with the Dodos: a few great ones, but not sure whether I’ll keep coming back to them. Jury’s out.

Another kick-ass internet video (Keith Loutit’s Bathtub IV) lead me to Washington, an Aussie woman with a nice EP (no, that’s not a euphemism). Then, through some sort of roundabout route, I discovered Josh Pyke, another Aussie, whose song Middle of the Hill is addictive.

And to round out this list of over-ten top ten artists, I’ll throw in my final two brother recs.: J. Tillman and the Avett Brothers. The Avetts are sometimes a little too hippy for me, but their latest album was pretty great and didn’t evoke dirty, mooching posers like their earlier stuff did. J. Tillman is the drummer for Fleet Foxes, who I kinda like. But Tillman’s stuff tends to be a little more contemplative, so I like it even more. The song Evans and Falls might top my list for singles in the past year (though it’s actually two years old).

I guess if I’m keeping this list to ten, I might put Washington, Seabear, and the Dodos on the back burner for now as I solidify my opinion of them. That leaves my top ten list as follows:
1. Satie
2. Detektivbyran
3. Andrew Bird
4. Horse Feathers
5. Pomplamoose
6. DJ Earworm
7. Barcelona
8. Josh Pyke
9. J. Tillman
10. The Avett Brothers