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.

18 Jun

Men at Work

Exercise from Day 3: Create a dialogue between two characters who want very different things. This was fun. I got to pick on a certain TV show.

Ted tried the bell, hoping no one would answer.

Brian opened the door. “Hey, man. Thanks for coming.”

Ted threw his tool belt on the floor. It thunked against the wood. “Sure. No problem,” he muttered.

“Um, so,” Brian said, glancing at the tool belt. “I was thinking about this space here.” He pointed to a blank wall. “Do-able?”

Ted examined the area and shrugged. “Seems pretty ambitious to me.” He sighed. “But sure. I mean, it’s not gonna be cheap exactly.”

“Oh, that’s not a problem. Carrie wants it this way, so, you know.”

Ted didn’t mind giving up the occasional weeknight to help out a friend, but did it have to be Thursday? He was missing his favorite TV hospital drama.

“So what’s the first step?”

Ted looked at his watch. 7:00. Maybe he could get out of here quick enough. “Well, you want a floor-to-ceiling unit, right? That’s a lot of wood.”

“Oh yeah. I got more than we could possibly need.”

Shit. “All right. Cool.” This was no small project. The space was about 8 by 12 feet, and the floor was likely unlevel. These old houses were nightmares to renovate. He ran his hand along the wall. It too seemed uneven. “You got a level? I left mine at home.”

“Sure.” Brian disappeared into the basement while Ted sauntered into the kitchen. A miniature TV rested on a countertop. Ted turned it on. Pretty good reception.

Brian returned with the level.

“Hey, you mind if we bring this in the other room and turn it on?” Ted said.

“Sure, no problem.”

Ted got to work measuring the space, snapping chalk lines, and framing the shelving unit. An hour passed quickly, and when the opening credits rolled, Ted fixated on the TV.

Brian followed his gaze. “Oh, this show is the worst. Here, I’ll change it.”

“No, no. Don’t.” Had he sounded too desperate? “I mean, the stupider the show, the better I’ll work, you know? I won’t be tempted to watch. You put on that Terminator show, and pretty soon I’ll be eating chips and staring at the TV instead of installing your bookshelf.”

Brian shot him a knowing smile. “Oh, I know. Terminator. That chick is so hot.”

“Which one?”

“You know, the robot. What’s her name? “

“Oh, right. Yeah. I can’t think of her name right now, either. But yeah. She’s a hottie.”

The hospital show was opening with the typical sentimental narration: “Sometimes in life, you’ve just got to buckle down. Whether it’s studying for a board exam, telling your best friend she’s got AIDS, or sitting through your father’s 12-hour surgery to remove his brain tumor, there’s just no way not to get your hands dirty. And other times, you’ve got to eat chocolate.” On the word chocolate, the scene cut to four college girls in their pajamas having a pillow fight.

“Dude?” Brian said. He hadn’t been watching the TV, but he looked now. “Dude!”

The two of them stood transfixed for the next five minutes. At the commercial break, Brian snapped out of his trance. “Well, we’ve got a bookshelf to build.”

“Yeah.” Ted grabbed some boards and a box of screws and completed as many noise-producing tasks as possible in the next two and a half minutes as the commercials aired. Then the show came back on, and he did a lot of measuring. Quiet measuring. He was hoping to buy time till the next commercial break, but it eventually became absurd. So he readied his drill and lined up the next screw. That’s when he heard the main character shout, “He wants a divorce?” He dropped the drill.