25 Aug

Paternity Test

Need something new here, so I decided to post this fun little experiment from last year. I gave myself the challenge of writing a story in interview format.

If you don’t mind, I’d like to record this rest of this consultation.
Right on.

You’ve made some very interesting claims, Mr. Travolta.
I have.

Is your name really John Travolta?
Sure it is.

Okay. Why don’t we start from the beginning.
Good idea. It’s all pretty crazy, I know. I mean, I never thought this thing would be as complicated as it turned out to be. It was your basic stealth operation. Sneak in, grab the goods, sneak out. I figured I’d dress in black, spray myself with fire retardant, put on my fucking ninja shoes, make Steinman happy.

Steinman is . . . ?
He’s my, uh, employer. From time to time. AKA, my uncle. He helped me and Mom out after our house burned down that one time.

And he told you about this so-called dragon’s lair?
Not right away. He just said there was a cave somewhere in Ecuador that held an ancient treasure. Don’t get greedy, he said. Just bring back a coin or two or you’ll get yourself killed. “Killed?” I said. “What’re you getting me into, Steinman?” That’s when he mentioned the dragon. I almost walked out, but then he told me no one’s ever succeeded. I’m a sucker for a challenge.

You know what’s funny? When a job really excites me, I get a craving for grape Bubblicious.

Grape Bubblicious?
Yep. It was the first thing I ever stole. I was in fifth grade and I’d just gotten glasses. You should see my school pictures. The frames were tortoise shell and they were enormous. They were the size of those ridiculously large sunglasses that celebrities wear nowadays. At recess, this kid named Zach Hardacre kept making fun of me. Called me four eyes and shit. I told him to fuck off. Some teacher heard me and pointed to the door, which meant I was supposed to go inside for detention. Zach laughed and pushed me down. The teacher was scolding another group of kids. She didn’t see. Zach spit on me and ran. Man, that kid was a twat.

At home, I told my parents about it and my dad called me a pansy. He said I had to toughen up. “You, of all people, shouldn’t be scared of some pre-pubescent dildo.” He was pretty foul-mouthed. He jabbed me in the ribs a few times, trying to piss me off. I told him to stop and he started jabbing my head. He didn’t appreciate it when I told him to fuck off. I ran.

I ran out the door and down the street to the Stop-N-Go. Wandering up and down the aisles, it occurred to me that I could take things. I had pockets! So I stole some gum and paid for a small Coke. That’s a good technique, by the way. I’m surprised I did that my very first time. Most amateurs go into a store and then leave without buying anything. Dumb shits.

Why are you telling me this?
It’s a distraction technique. Thieves are a lot like magicians. We get our victims to believe in our innocence or naivete while we steal their cellphones and wallets.

Hey, give me those back.
You ever hear about the Picasso heist in Switzerland? The paintings that got stolen and then showed up at the Children’s Museum of Lucerne?

Or what about that high-end, prototype laptop that got boosted from TGM Microlabs?

In college I used to take kitchen appliances from Sears and sneak them into Macy’s. I picked the pockets of opera-goers and swapped their tickets with symphony-goers. See? I live for the challenge. I’m not out to take what isn’t mine. That ain’t right.

Nowadays, I get hired by rich guys to steal diamonds or rubies from other rich guys. And this dragon, I figured he was just another rich bastard sitting on too much money, you know? I’ve never been caught, by the way.

Impressive. So how did you get to the cave?
Steinman gave me the GPS coordinates. I took a commercial flight to Quito. Had to fly through Houston, where some TSA a-hole confiscated my fire retardant because it was more than three ounces. I stole his wallet but then felt bad later and put it in the lost and found. He was just doing his job, right?

In Quito, I met Abner Greene, Helicopter Pilot. He flew me to within a couple miles of the dragon’s lair, landed on some plateau just outside the tourist town of Baños. I hoofed it from there.

Might this dragon’s lair simply have been a crevasse in the side of some volcano?

That’s the volcano. Near Baños. Apparently, it’s illegal for foreign dignitaries to spend the night in Baños because if Tungarahua exploded, they’d have 45 minutes to get out of town, and, you know, they’re too important to die. You know what my real calling is? I just figured this out. Abolitionist. I should have smuggled slaves out of the South. Wouldn’t that be sweet? You could rob the important people of their source of income: unimportant people.

Did Abner Greene accompany you to the cave?
No. He wanted to stay with his baby, he said. He meant his helicopter. He took a sandwich and a couple of beers out of a cooler and got to work on killing time.

So you were completely alone at the cave?
I know what you’re getting at.

Well. It’s all somewhat hard to believe, you know?
Yeah. It’s also hard to believe that the CEO of TGM Microlabs makes a million dollars a day. It’s hard to believe a Jackson Pollack painting sold for 150 million dollars. It’s hard to believe a lot of things.

So you got to the cave. You saw it. Was there a dragon inside?
No. There was a man.

A man?
Yes. A man I hadn’t seen in 13 years. My father. The asshole. He was sitting in front of a campfire, making origami swans. We’re talking about the guy who was gone on business trips for 20 days out of every month before he finally left me and Mom altogether, and now he shows up in some fucking cave in Ecuador? Shit.

Did you speak with him?
Oh yeah. Here’s where shit gets really weird.

He had a stack of origami squares and as he folded each one, it felt like a pair of hands were tying my internal organs together, making balloon animals out of my intestines and lungs. I told him to stop, but he didn’t listen. I could tell he heard me ‘cause he smiled, but he kept on folding that paper. He smiled that shit-eating smile he used to smile when I told him he wasn’t being fair or when he’d hidden my favorite stuffed animals. You know, all throughout my childhood, the man was under the impression that I idolized him, that I was in awe of his importance and status. I was a kid. I didn’t give a shit that he had more money than God. I didn’t care that he could pull puss like Tom Selleck. But his fucking smug confidence was unshakable.

I told him to stop a second time and he just smiled again. He finished his swan, flapped its wings, and threw the thing into the fire. It felt like a punch to the gut. “See?” he said. “This is kind of fun.”

I knew what I had to do. I clenched my jaw and walked inside the cave. I sat down next to him and started folding my own origami square, knowing it was going to hurt like hell. I made an airplane. It didn’t take as much time as a swan. When I threw it on the fire, I doubled over in pain. “Don’t be such a pussy,” my dad said.

I forced myself to crawl. I heard the crackling fire and tasted bile. My knees dug into the stony ground.

“It doesn’t take much, does it?” my dad said. He laughed. “Too bad you’re not as strong as your old man.”

I kept crawling. He threw the last swan on the fire. I could feel it. It was like a hernia, a kidney stone, a burst appendix. Shit hurt. But I kept moving.

Then I heard him shuffling around. “Hey!” he shouted. “You stole my paper. Bring that back here!”

I was close to the mouth of the cave. I crawled for my life. I knew I wasn’t going to make it, so I threw the stack of origami paper. It fluttered in the air like a swarm of butterflies. A hot wind scorched the back of my neck. And then everything went still.

Were you hurt?
No. Half an hour later, I came to, and I found the ground covered not in origami squares, but in money. Large bills from all over the world. The cave was dark. I didn’t stick around for long; I stuffed my pockets and returned to Abner.

And your theory. Did you come up with it immediately?
No. Not at all. Abner and me were up in the copter probably halfway to Quito when I told him what happened. “Holy shit!” he said. “Your dad’s a dragon.” And I was like ha. Good one. But fuck! It explains some things. Like the house fire after Mom divorced him. Why he liked his meat rare. His restlessness. His superiority complex.

So that’s why you came to us?
Yeah. You do a DNA test on me, maybe I can find out the truth.

And if you find out your father is a dragon?
Well, it’s better than the alternative.

Which is what?
That he’s just a man.

23 Oct

The Magic Lamppost

Remember that time when we decided to meet by the lamppost. And you said which one? And I said, the magic one. And you said okay and walked away to class, and later we met by the lamppost and kissed?

You knew which lamppost was the magic one even though none of them were magic. And I knew how to kiss you even though I’d never kissed a girl before.

And later, when we graduated, and I took you down to the lake and you said yes before I proposed, I couldn’t speak because I was so happy. Do you remember that? I never got a chance to ask the question.

We got married, we got jobs, we had our first baby, we moved, we had a second baby. We never had a clue what we were doing. But somehow we always found our way.

I loved every minute of it.

Nowadays, I wake before dawn. The sky is clear with winter’s approach, and the stars are as bright as they ever were. My bones ache and the bed is cold, so I walk in the dark to the kitchen and put the kettle on the old gas range. I watch the blue light flare and hold my hands to its warmth. And in the glow of that first flame, I think about magic lampposts and your silvery touch.

I miss you, my love.

But I trust you’ll know where to meet.

25 Mar


Above the farmhouse down on Highway C, a raincloud hovers perpetually. Old Mrs. Montgomery, who has lived there for as long as anyone can remember, falls asleep every night to the pitter patter of the rain. When she ventures into town for groceries or a haircut, she is met with a respectful silence from the villagers.

Mrs. Montgomery knows they talk about her. She sees them point and whisper. But, of course, they’re all perfectly cordial. They bag her groceries with care and tip their hats and say good morning, Mrs. Montgomery. They know, as does she, that the very livelihood of the village depends on that perpetual raincloud above the Montgomery house. The water from her roof gathers into a river that runs into town. Along the way, it irrigates the crops, keeps the livestock healthy, and powers the mills.

Here’s what the villagers don’t know: Mrs. Montgomery used to live elsewhere. Her husband was a fisherman, and he came home each night, smelling of sea salt and fish guts. He snored while he slept; it sounded like waves crashing on the beach. He was a hard worker; he made good money.

But then the storm hit. The high winds whipped the sea into a frenzy. It rained without end. When the empty boat washed up on shore, Mrs. Montgomery vowed never to gaze upon the sea again. She didn’t want to face the killer of her dreams. So she moved inland.

The storm followed her. It lost some strength as it crested the mountaintops. It shrank when it crossed the desert. But eventually, it settled on the prairie with Mrs. Montgomery and refused to leave. When something sticks around for that long, you have to come to peace with it. Even if it scares you.

Every once in a while, as Mrs. Montgomery is drifting off to sleep, she imagines her husband snoring. She dreams that he lives with her still, here in this prairie house. She dreams that he wakes early and fishes the river of rain. He sells his fish in town, greeting the villagers with a smile. When she wakes to an empty bed, in the disorientation of early morning, the dream seems true. She storms out of bed, mad at him for leaving without waking her.

Down the stairs she runs, and when she steps out the front door, she shouts, “Get back here!” Only the waves of prairie grass respond, shushing her with their plaintive whispers. In the distance, smoke from a few chimneys curls skyward from the village. She looks up at her raincloud and clutches the collar of her blouse. “I’m sorry,” she says out loud. “Forgive me.” She goes back inside.

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.