The Woman in the Water | Flash Fiction

There was no way he could ever unsee the woman’s body floating at the top of the pond. No amount of mental health copays or bourbon shots squirreled through his novice, flyweight stomach would ever wrest the image far from his mind.

The fact that she was beautiful made it all the worse. Not that beauty in women was a thing he cared much about. Beautiful women never gave him the benefit of their glance or a free moment of idle conversation. He preferred women who were clever or hard working or talented in some useful way. Those women might happen to be beautiful as well but when they were ignoring him on a bus or avoiding him on an elevator or simply floating on a pond, you could never know if they were talented or hard working or clever just by looking.

The beauty of her had made it made awful because it had made her more real. She had been someone, recently. She was missing from the pattern of other people’s lives, but some of those people would not realize it yet. Not enough time had passed for the most terrible truths to settle in. She had not floated long enough to become a bloated, waterlogged pond treasure. She might be a missing person but she might not yet be presumed dead.

But she was. Dead. And Andy was drinking enough to blind himself and split his head as he stumbled across the treacherous path of his living room, the sofa and upright lamp and coffee table all in conspiracy to rap his ankles and pull him down. He fell three times on his way to the bathroom and then realized he had pissed himself well and good long before he reached the toilet.

He lay on the bathroom floor, looking up at the ceiling, trying not to see the memory of the way her face had looked up in that same way. Trying not to imagine what it had been like for her to gaze up through the tangled branches of the bog with flies laying eggs on your eyeballs.

He rolled and puked, his guts clenched against emptiness. Congratulating himself for remembering to roll over. That’s how Jimi Hendrix died. And Mama Cass. And Attila the Hun.

Random facts.

The police had questioned him for many hours. They came back several times, each time with the same questions or slight variations on the same questions asked in different tones of voice and at different speeds. Sometimes the tall guy asked the questions. Sometimes it was the lady. Sometimes the bald dude with the mustache that reminded him of walrus brush. They came at him from all angles, sometimes friendly, understanding, sometimes annoyed and curt.

They were interested in knowing exactly how he had found her. What he had been doing in those deep woods by that lonely pond on that overcast autumn day.

And the fact that he had been taking a walk in the woods, a long walk, because he was the kind of person who enjoyed taking long walks in the woods did not seem to satisfy them. No one does that kind of thing anymore, they told him. Which he kind of believed. Who among the people he had met would chance wandering out far enough to risk losing their precious cell phone signal and LTE internet connection? How could they post pictures of the wondrous things they might encounter? Who would be ready to like and retweet and pin their Instagram feeds?

This was why beautiful women avoided him. His mind had become strange. It was a thing he was only vaguely attuned to when he was in adolescence but now it was even more pronounced. He was weird. It was a thing so real and so true. His weirdness was an island he had made himself so far from shore that no one could see a way to bring him back.

But this was unproductive. The woman in the water had been dead but she looked as if she were only sleeping. Lost in deep repose. Her dreaming deep and dark and rich as the swamp shore loam.

He waited for the nausea to pass. Eventually it did.

And then, the familiar knock on his open front door. He groaned as he sat up, pulled himself to his feet.

He looked at himself in the bathroom mirror, and he did not like what he saw.

A filthy, slovenly, wasteful old man. A hermit. A recluse. A suspect.

More knocks at the open front door. Persistent.

He washed his face. Tried on another smile. Practiced saying slowly, “I’m just the kind of guy who likes to take a walk in the woods.”

He adjusted the smile until he was satisfied. Then, he left the bathroom and called out, “ Come in. The door’s open.”

And then he was standing back in the living room, aware of the overturned furniture, the path of his catastrophic collisions. Two uniformed officers standing at the doorway.

“Come in. Come in,” he said in his most inviting way. “I’ve been expecting you all day.”


Heroic Measures | Flash Fiction

Room 137 of the hospital’s Critical Care Unit is the loneliest place on earth. Life is precarious. All life tenuous. No where is that more evident than the small glass box filled with mechanical tubes, wires and diagnostic panels. The small, patient wheeze of the machine that breathes for her husband. The submarine ping measuring each frail heartbeat with a corresponding digital blip traversing the bedside panel like a steady, robotic sine wave.

And worse still, the orderly transit of nurses who no longer even bother enforcing visiting hour limits or pretending her husband’s care is anything more than mere watch keeping. And the faithful way of the custodian who visits twice each day to sweep this immaculate room and remove the already empty trashcan. And the way the custodial staff can not look her in the eye. Even they know what is very plainly evident. Her husband, Mark, was victim of awful circumstance and there was nothing more to be done. Her husband Mark had a bad heart, and he had come here to die.

It was a four day vigil. The crippling expense of it. The exhaustion of waiting for miracles that stubbornly refused to arrive. The chaplin who made the rounds every afternoon and every evening and seemed, each time, genuinely surprised to find them still lingering there. He had prayed but the words were just words. They went nowhere, failing to escape even the closeted curtained space of this little medical unit.

And on the fourth day, she thinks to pull out Mark’s cell phone to find the number of a longtime friend, to tell the news. But when she turns the cell on, the text messages arrive, landing like a plague of flies.

WHERE ARE YOU?

ARE YOU OKAY?

WHY WON’T YOU ANSWER?

HAVE YOU LEFT ME? ARE WE THROUGH?

She drops the phone. It is a living, offensive thing. Her heart and mind swirling as she puts the plain text of the text into view.

NoNoNo

But yes.

The messages are there when she picks up the phone.

ARE WE OKAY? DO YOU STILL LOVE ME?

This was the deepest kind of shock. She stares at her husband, the unmoving weight of his body, still athletic and seeming fit despite the extremis of wires and leads and intubation tubes.

Not fair. This fine, good, decent man who she has loved her entire adult life, grown up together, raised two kids, worked for charities, helped the neighbors. Good, decent husband. Good, decent wife.

And she knows without knowing there had been much, much more to the story of their life.

Who was she? How long had he known her? How long had this been happening?

A maelstrom of question that would have no answers.

And she looks to the phone, hoping to find some name or other clue about the hidden depths of her husband’s secret life. No name. Just a phone number. And scrolling back, no further texts. The history had been dumped, purged clean.

And that was the creeping horror of it. Exhausted from her four day vigil, hungry and tired and feeling diminished. Now needing to have the most difficult conversation of their marriage only to find herself with half an unanswered conversation with a stranger on her husband’s phone.

She sits there, contemplating her next act when the doctor comes in. He enters the room with practiced determination. It is meant to be an act of comfort, this air of focused purpose when there is absolutely nothing left to be done.

“We need to talk about your husband’s wishes. He isn’t likely to recover. We don’t have to decide anything right now but we need to be ready.”

She looks down at the phone, trying to see the stranger on the other end.

ARE WE OKAY? DO YOU STILL LOVE ME?

She nods, tries to smile through the yawning sickness that has become her whole life. “I know,” she tells him. “Heroic measures.”


Anger is Useful.

I need to get political with you for just a minute. Stay with me. I’m not going to try to sell you something at the end. I just need to be heard.

I was raised in a loving, supportive family that taught me temperance is the greatest virtue. Somehow temperance has become avoidance of anger and an inability to talk about the most difficult things. I have become allergic to anger.

Sometimes anger is the only appropriate response. Anger has to be okay. Anger has to useful.

Jesus was angry. Martin Luther King was angry. Gandhi was angry.

Their anger was useful because they used it.

I am angrier than I have ever been in my entire life.

Our country is broken. I don’t need one more person to tell me it is broken because we have a black, liberal president or because gay people can get married or because transgender people suddenly need a place to pee or because another government official misused her email and tried to lie about it.

Our country is broken because we have been fighting the wrong wars in the wrong places for the wrong reasons.

Our country is broken because some police officers are afraid of black men and are using the authority we have lent to kill them.

Our country is broken because a black man targets and kills white police officers as an act of political speech.

Our country is broken because we answer the spreading problem of gun violence with more guns and an inability to study the problem as a social health issue.

Our country is broken because we can’t talk about income disparity as something that has more to do with accidents of race and geography than it is has to do with the willingness and ability of a person to do useful, meaningful work.

This isn’t a Republican/Democrat thing.

Most of our leaders are failing us. Some of them don’t want to help. Some of them don’t know how.

We have got to stop talking about other people needing to fix our problems. They can’t and they won’t.

This anger I feel is useful, but if I don’t start using this anger someone else is going to use it or me. If I allow someone else to use my anger, they are most likely to be using it against me.


Sobriety | Flash Fiction

A brutal passage through the desert. Merciless sun glowering, baking the earth’s withered heart. Punishing glare and scouring sands push every shade and shadow down into narrow fissures where the scuttling, hard-scrabble creatures clatter and crawl.

Not a drop to drink in weeks.

This was his experience of sobriety.

Miserable. Harrowing. Unending.

He had been walking for hours. Wandering the serpentine dunes in concentric circles away from the wreckage that should have claimed his life.

He had fallen from the sky, wrapped inside a screaming husk of metal. The flaming engines howling their death sirens as the airplane fell and fell and fell. Screams. Pleading. Prayers. But surprising how orderly, how calm they all remained as the plane plummeted from air to ground.

And the hammer punch of contact as the world erupted in flame and darkness swept over even as flame licked his face and claimed the bodies of those around him.

He woke up, battered and badly bruised but amazingly unbroken. For one terrible moment he thought he could not feel his arms or legs because there was no sensation when his hands reached out and then realizing the reason he could feel neither of these was that he was holding the charred and severed limbs of the passenger seated beside him. And then the recognition of what had happened and the realization that he had woken in a mound of burnt and broken bodies. He climbed through the molten crush of plastic, steel and flesh, found an opening nearly big enough to push himself through and emerged screaming and bloody like a howling infant from a catastrophic womb.

Emergence was hard fought. The narrow gash in the plane’s steel frame scraping his skin bloody and raw as he wriggled through. He wriggled through and, once outside, lost consciousness.

Thirty seven days. That was his first thought as he regained consciousness and struggled to this feet.

Thirty seven days. He touched the heavy brass token in his pocket, turned it over between his fingers, comforted only a little by the fact of it. Still there.

Which meant he was still there. Everyone else on the plane had died. He was still alive. It made no sense. He tried to comprehend the improbability of it. He looked up to the sky, expecting to see God. The sky was empty and very far away.

Everyone was dead. This was no time for philosophy.

It had been thirty seven days since his last drink. Thirty seven days of gut-wrenching sobriety.

His first coherent thought followed by the overwhelming desire for the kind, always forgiving oblivion of his next last drink.

He started to walk. Wandering without direction. There was no orientation. There was no direction. He did what the program had taught him. Get moving. Keep moving.

There had to be a drink for him out there somewhere.


Where it Starts and Where it Ends | Flash Fiction

It is hard to know where it starts and where it ends. This lying business. The first one is for self-preservation, an awkwardness avoided, an inconvenience dodged. And then you put two together which is a kind of story, the most basic lie a person ever tells. And by the third, you are well and truly lost, entangled in a web, struggling to remember which parts of it are real and which parts are the ones you made up.

And then you stop struggling. The story has weight and pleasure all its own. And even if it isn’t exactly the truth, it is a version of things the way you wish them to be and who can fault you really for wishful thinking. We are all liars. Some of us just don’t know enough to relax and go with the flow of it. You can remake the world anyway you wish it to be so long as you don’t concern yourself too closely with the costs and consequences.

Bradley pressed the cigarette out, letting the lush gray smoke wreathe him with long, lingering arms. He hoped to never become one of those people who quit smoking. He loved the decadence of it, the strong alchemy. He breathed in anxiety and fire, breathed out cool, detached intelligence.

“Are you finished yet?”

She was starring at him, impatient. He had forgotten she was there. It was an unfortunate fact. He wished he could breathe her in and dispel her with a strong, single blow.

“Almost,” he said. Which was another lie. He was already reaching for another cigarette.

“Another? God in heaven, what is wrong with you?”

Bradley lit the cigarette, real slow and casual. Her question was fair. What was wrong with him?

He shrugged.

“We are already twenty minutes late. We were meant to be there at seven thirty.”

He shrugged again, keeping his face still so she might not see the pleasure he took in her consternation.

“I should have gone without you.”

He nodded. “You could have.” As if to say the whole thing had been her fault all along.

“Honestly. I don’t even know why I bother.”

“Do you? Bother?” Now he was just provoking her, prodding to get a few extra minutes to enjoy this one more delicious cigarette.

“You’re an asshole,” she said.

“Okay.” He couldn’t disagree.

She stood up, smoothed her skirt. She stepped across the porch, her feet almost tangling on the rockers of the chair. She stumbled for a moment but caught her balance.

“Do you even remember what started all of this happening? Do you remember what you did?”

And that was where the lying had complicated things the most. If pressed, he wouldn’t be able to definitively say what had caused these latest skirmishes. Some perceived slight. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Forgetting to call. Forgetting to rinse off the lingering ghost of a lover’s perfume. Forgetting to properly button his shirt in the rent-by-the-hour hotel room mirror.

He smiled. That sly, incorrigible rogue’s smile. She hated it and she loved it.

“Honestly, love. I truly don’t.”


Note to Self: Keep Writing

Once you step off the path, it is difficult to step back on. There are ten thousand satisfyingly specific reasons not to write. You are tired. You are busy. You are distracted by the events of the earlier day. Or maybe you are worried. Or you don’t have the right ideas. Or you are confused a little bit and waiting to figure things out.

This is what I have come to know about writing. Don’t stop. Not for earthquakes. Not for hurricanes. Not for the fiery wrath of God. Your life will always be busy. You are always going to be tired. People are going to continue disappointing you. Keep writing.

You are going to have to let yourself become weird. It cannot be helped. You are already weird. This urge you have to write things is not a normal condition. You are going to have to let yourself get even weirder. You are going to have to allow yourself to believe in things you know are not true. You will need to converse with people who are not there. You are going to cry about things that did not happen and fall out of touch with the things that are happening all around.

One day soon, you will listen to the news or read it or watch it on TV and you will wonder what strange creatures inhabit this planet. And then you will realize it is no real matter to you because you have work to do. Your home is not your home. You are unfit for the life people think you lead. You have made yourself strange and you are swallowed up entirely by the beauty and the wonder and the sheer, brilliant futility of it all.

You are meant to keep yourself writing. Do not step off the path. Don’t waste this delicious weirdness, these delightful quirks which have accumulated over some many minutes, hours and days.

Go down deeper. Get weirder. Stranger. More ferocious. More fierce.

And then, one day, look up and show the world this thing you have made. And give it to them and let them do with it whatever they will. And get back to work. Do it all again.


Stephen King at the Ryman

Stephen King spoke to a crowd of 2000 people at the Ryman Theatre in Nashville last night. I was one of those 2000 people.

It was a pretty special night for a lot of people. Advance tickets sold out in just a few hours. The line to get inside the Ryman wrapped all around the building.

ryman_king

The Ryman itself is a spiritual place, an historic church and meeting place converted into a performance space. Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Taft spoke here. So did Helen Keller and Ann Sullivan, Charlie Chaplin and Will Rogers. Harry Houdini performed here. Lester Flatt, Bill Monroe, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams and later Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and many others performed when country music was just called music.

The night began with a welcome by Ann Patchett, who introduced Donna Tartt, who introduced Stephen King. It was three first-class authors for the price of one.

King spoke for a over an hour, roaming back and forth across the stage, telling anecdotes of his guitar work with the Rockbottom Remainders, the time he had dinner with Bruce Springsteen, and his recovery from the roadside collision that almost killed him.

He took a few questions from the audience, handled the gushing adoration of a few intoxicated fans, and deftly deflected all questions about his opinion of the many movies, past and future, based on his work.

Growing up, I always imagined I would be a famous author some day, and, as famous authors do, I would routinely be having dinner with Stephen King, my family and his family. We would sit and talk about the books we were reading, the movies we were watching and would hash out ideas for things we were working on.

That is never going to happen. For me, last night at the Ryman was the next best thing.

King’s earliest books — Carrie, Salem’s Lot, The Dead Zone, Firestarter and Cujo — more than any other books, made me want to be a writer. Through middle school, I penned short stories in longhand on notebook paper trying to emulate his style. My eight grade English teacher caught this and remarked that I was well on my way to being “the next Stephen King.” I never forgot the compliment, though I realize now that being “the next” anything isn’t what one should strive for. One should work hard to be one’s self.

Emulating a cherished author’s voice is an important part of learning craft but finding your own voice is far more rewarding. That is a constant work in progress. King spoke of the moment a person discovers their talent as a kind of waking up to their life. He talked about Jerry Lee Lewis seeing a piano for the first time. That is what writing is like for him. It is what writing is like for me.

King’s On Writing is one of my favorite books about writing. He offers clear, practical advise about learning to write. It all pretty much boils down to this: There are no short-cuts. You learn to write by writing. You should finish the things that you start, and you should write every single day.

This, I think, is good advice. Still, a person hopes that there might be a secret, some little snatch of code that can be gleaned from a master to make your own journey a little easier. There isn’t. “Writing a novel is like crossing the Atlantic in a rowboat. It is really, really hard.”

There you have it. Stephen King said writing is hard. The fact that I find it incredibly hard doesn’t mean I’m doing something wrong. It doesn’t mean I’m lacking some secret skill or missing some key experience that will make it much easier.

The work doesn’t get easier, but, if you can keep at it, it can be incredibly rewarding. As inspiration goes, it cuts both ways.

Writing is hard. Keep writing anyway.

 

 


A Measure of Grace (Flash Fiction)

There is a thing growing inside his head. It takes the words sometimes. Sometimes there are blinding headaches, brilliant flashes of light. He feels wretched and gets dizzy and pukes until all the insides of him are bruised and slick with bile.

Still, there is joy. While there is life there is joy.

Most days he is content to sit on a chair on their back porch and watch the trees grow. It takes a lot of patience, but if you can muster enough to sit for quite a while, you will be rewarded with the sight of the green branches reaching up and up and up toward the sunlight.

It is the paradox of his last hours, how ever many there may end up to be. That when time is running short, only then he is able to slow down and pay attention, to really notice the ways things grow and change all around.

And she is no exception. He loves to sit on their porch and watch her sitting there with him, perhaps reading a book, perhaps working a crossword. It doesn’t matter what she is doing. He is glad she is doing it here with him.

It wasn’t fair to ask her to spend so much time just sitting, but it was a thing he could not bring himself to mention. Her being here was the only thing that kept him here. He loved sharing these moments, short and fleeting as they were, with her.

He doesn’t read much anymore. Or write. The words had stopped almost entirely. But there was so much goodness in the quality of his observation. The time spent just sitting and noticing.

Someday, soon enough, the abyss will reach up and claim him. And he will pass into that negative space. Not darkness so much as absence. Emptiness. There was the space where he was and then the space in which he wasn’t.

He hoped he wouldn’t feel anything. That the passing wouldn’t be painful but if there was meant to be pain he hoped he might endure it with a measure of grace.

And when he fell into that final dark chasm, he hoped it might not be cold. That is might be warm, welcoming and then erasure.

And how like a dream, that upon waking, dissipates like smoke. And how frail this thing he had come to call his life. And how he hoped upon dying that he would not look back on this time with any kind of regret. The wrong things done. The right things not done.

“Are you thirsty?” she asks him. She has learned not to ask what he is thinking. He is already living in a place where she cannot follow.

Enough to have her back home with him again. To know the joy that comes from being her father and from seeing the strong, powerful, happy creature she has become. Enough to look into the future and see at least a few more moments like this shared. Together. And the touch of her hand on his was solace.

“Yes,” he tells her but not because the thing growing inside his head has taken all the words. Because sometimes Yes is everything that needs to be said.


Value-Added: Be Part of the Journey

When I began my professional career, I took a lot of pride in testing the limits of what I could do. I wanted to be the best reference librarian, the best teacher, the best administrator. I measured my value in exhaustive and exhausting projects and lists. The more accomplishments I could mark off the list, the more presentations I delivered, the more valuable I had become.

I felt a compulsive need to prove myself.

After a few years that wore thin. I still enjoyed turning in my best performance and getting big things done, but the satisfaction of each accomplishment was disproportionate to the amount of energy I was pouring in. I was getting tired, frustrated and more than a little bit bored.

And then something significant happened. I decided to focus less on what I could accomplish and more on what I could help other people accomplish. I discovered the joy of being part of excellent teams.

I lead a great team in my library. Every member of my team has a super power, though a few of them don’t quite realize it yet. The best part of my work is finding ways to help other people discover their super powers and ways to make those powers more useful. I also enjoy the challenge of finding ways to let their super powers increase my own.

Today my team said goodbye to Matthew Ownby. Matthew was offered an excellent opportunity with a major news company. It wasn’t a gift he sought. It was a gift that found him because he is excellent.

Matthew joined my team last September, which means he was with us about 9 months. In that time, he brought fresh perspective, aesthetic talent and good humor to projects we had already been doing. Matthew wasn’t always about doing new things. He was about doing useful things in a new way. He helped make us better.

And now that he’s left, people ask if I’m worried or scared to be back in the hunt so soon for a new team member. The truth of it is, I feel happy. I am proud of we did and excited to see what lies ahead for us all.

Too often, I think, organizations hire people on the belief that they need stability and some mythological thing called “long-term fit”, the person who is going to stay for 30 years. That is, I think, the wrong approach.

Better to hire the person who can move you forward, the person who can add value and help you become what you aren’t yet but need to be. Better to hire the person to whom you can add value as well, and then, when the time comes, part ways better off for the experience. Be it 9 months or 30 years, these are the people you need on your team.

I am grateful to have such people my teams, both in my library and in various projects outside. It is often humbling to find myself useful to excellent people. It is great fun to be part of their journey. Adding value and having value added — both are inspiration and a catalyst for the excellence I so often crave.


The True Work of Writing

Only now, I am beginning to recognize the true work of writing. It isn’t only the words. The words are the craft. The words are the practice. The words are the instrument.

The true work of writing is learning how to dream on command. It is finding that dark, vast ocean inside of you and tapping in so you can drink or drown at a moment’s notice.

The work of writing is meeting people who do not exist and learning to listen to their stories. You will know you are hearing them when you begin to fall in love. And they will follow you into your waking life, the non-dreaming part and they will begin to whisper at the most inconvenient times. And you will have a thousand other things you are meant to be doing. Things that are more important. Things that are more practical. But these people that you now love are speaking with such urgency. Their whispers so lovely, so personal.

And you will live a kind of divided life. A waking life of here and now; a writing life of lovely whispers. And you will carry forward in both worlds, often simultaneous. But your attention is not divided. You are not living two halves of two lives. Your whole life gets richer. You are living a two-fold life. You have made yourself bigger. The characters live in you and you live in them.