Thursday, December 24, 2009


A brutal cold struck against the people huddled at the bus stop, lashing their skin and piercing the threads of their clothing. Just after the bus pulled up, Miriam among them reached for the slick metal handrail and pulled herself up onto the bottom step. Someone pushed her from behind, but not to be helpful. She eased her weighty body into the slurry of people just before the bus moved away.

The air thick with soot and snow coated the windows barely visible in the slivers between the passengers. Oil from last night’s lamp still coated Miriam’s fingertips making it hard for her to hold on to the railing. The bus navigated the bumpy road to the backwater neighborhood where she now lived. The vehicle’s motion tossed her from side to side until she slid into one man, then slammed abruptly against a woman. She murmured a low apology. The muffled thump of a heart softly beat against her own.

At the end of the line, a scattering of collapsing buildings, hills of rubble, and muted light through broken glass welcomed the bus as it disgorged its passengers. A figure in tattered clothes paused to help Miriam step down and then dissolved into the void. Miriam had no coat and only thin layer over thin layer—sweater over sweater under a hooded sweatshirt—protected her from the harsh winds outside. A frayed knit cap over her tangle of curls, the color of night, held the warmth close.

Miriam looked over to see another woman as round as she was ambling slowly, a bag slung over one shoulder.

In this neighborhood, only a few of those born will live through the routine rain of metal and the clawing of hunger, the crunch of small bones, and the bad fortune of being born too small and undeveloped. The survivors will find their ways to a prison cell, or will only leave the confines of a tiny apartment to collect cans along the street to trade for something to eat, or will find moments of comfort in unknown arms and a breath that takes them to an altered state. Only a few will walk the cracked street to its end to find their way to a fate better or worse.

The snow covered the brutally treated fruits of the day’s harvest, those who would not rise again. As she passed, Miriam placed her hand on her belly to still its inhabitant, the owner of the steady beating heart that thrummed against her own.

Reaching the open door of a building a few blocks away, Miriam found the steps and concentrated as she climbed each one, putting out of her mind that there were six flights to ascend. She did not allow herself to worry that she was alone, that someone with evil intent would follow her or wait for her at the top of the stairs, or that the building’s owner might find her there amidst the squatters huddled in each room for warmth.

As Miriam climbed, she softly sang a song of a woman who came before her: The one who makes poor and rich raises up the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap.

Miriam reached the top step. The floor groaned as she moved into the hallway. A rectangle of gray light bled into the corridor from a door ajar and a shadow preceded a figure into the hallway from the open room. The gangly figure made its way toward her and she hesitated, waiting for her eyes to adjust. The rhythm deep inside of her slowed. Jose in a threadbare sweater took her into an embrace, pulled her close to him and did not say a word. A moment passed and he took her hand to lead her to a safer place.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Mrs. Stopheles' Revenge

In the Southern United States, when the sun shines while it rains, it’s said that the devil is beating his wife. This is the wife’s story.

You all stood around while it happened—mouths gaping and drops sizzling on your burnt shoulders. No consideration for my bruised skin, my dazed expression, or the slap of his red palm. You were amazed and mildly amused and fully aware of the cause.

Your picnic baskets open, lazing on beach towels, skimming over the surface of a lake—what you thought was a meteorological phenomenon briefly caught your attention. But unlike you I take no pleasure in this day, in this sun shining and this rain falling. I take only abuse. How would you like to share your bed with a barbed tail and a horned head on your breast?

It’s gone too far. I’ve had enough.

Hold tight to your piece of ground. I’ll pluck the earth’s core—his domain— send it hurdling through space and dash it against that forehead, between those obsidian eyebrows, over those inferno eyes.

When I’m through, just call it the second big bang.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Friday Flash: Exile

The wooden sill below the third floor window bears the scars made by his coffee cup. One ring joins another, each one etched into the peeling paint. The most visible appears alone at the window’s edge.

Each morning she awoke to find him there with his fresh-brewed coffee, his eye trained on something in the distance. He was illusive, a specter, a ghost made up of diesel smoke from city streets and dust from rural dirt roads.

He never learned to pronounce her name, even after months of knowing her and weeks of sharing her life. She suspected that the name he gave himself was fiction, a name created to avoid detection, connection to family in that place far away. In that faraway place, he taught at the university. Sociology, she thinks. When she met him, he worked at a gas station where he washed grease away from the concrete and scrubbed human waste from the bathroom porcelain fractured like bone.

She will always remember him as the moon. Lines, ridges, tiny craters marred his body. Her eyes feasted upon it only during those nights that white light illuminated the room. Her hands were always afraid of what their touch would find.

The window is now empty. He no longer works at the gas station, leaving behind a week’s worth of pay. He is not at the shore staring at boats going out to sea, a place she found him once before. The window now is empty both day and night.

She never expected him to stay forever. There is so much distance between the moon and where she plants her feet each day. Now, under crisp sheets, she sleeps alone. And each night, she waits to be bathed in moonbeams.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Short Story Class in Taos with Pam Houston and Fenton

I was fortunate last July to take a short story class with Pam Houston (Cowboys Are My Weakness, Waltzing the Cat, Sight Hound) and her Irish wolfhound Fenton. One of the class assignments was "write a story based on a list." I decided to create a story based on a chronological list of events in the life of a troubled writer who makes all the mistakes that writers can make but somehow parlays a fourth grade essay into a successful conclusion.

And here it is...

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

My Life in Publishing: A Fictional Autobiography

Fourth Grade: Essay, “What American Freedom Means to Me,” receives award and my picture appears in the local newspaper. Family is proud. Writing future looks great.

Ninth Grade: Write deep serious novel about young people in peril. Future as writer appears rosy.

Eleventh Grade: Draft play about 35 troubled young people who speak cryptically to make a point. Give it to fellow member of Methodist Youth Fellowship for review. Four days later, the manuscript is returned; reader and former friend does not understand it. Give up writing.

Freshman, College: Fall in love with troubled poet with coffee addiction; take up poetry writing. Poems appear in magazine edited by troubled poet. Evasive when mother requests copies. Future is guarded.

Sophomore, College, First Semester: Request for “What American Freedom Means to Me” to appear in patriotic anthology. Mother sells 37 advance copies. Writing career back on track.

Sophomore, College, Second Semester: Break up with poet after his coffee addiction spirals out of control and I discover poet “editing” freshman English major. Switch back to playwriting.

Junior, College, First Semester: Return to rewriting discarded play; cut back characters from 35 to 20 and try to revise most cryptic dialogue. Switch major to finance as a fallback.

Junior, College, Second Semester: “What American Freedom Means to Me” essay pulled from anthology when “obscene and incendiary” published poems discovered by anthology editors. Commit to fiction by resurrecting novel about young people in peril with plan to rewrite it for romance market during summer break. Put aside play for later revision.

Senior: Concentrate on finishing degree; will focus on writing after graduation.

Twenty-one: Take job in accounting department of auto parts store chain. Vow to use experience as material for writing.

Twenty-five: Receive last of 60 rejections of romance novel; two rejection letters not photocopies mention (1) the short (130 page) length and (2) the puzzling relationship between the two main characters. Give up writing.

Twenty-six: Eureka! Article on Cancun drinking games published in local alternative weekly. Return to revision of play. Consider pursuing nonfiction again.

Twenty-seven: Marry manager of auto parts store. Quit job to write full time.

Thirty: Complete 175,000 word novel. Give to husband to read. Husband does not understand it, but after finishing only the first 500 pages.

Thirty-one: Enroll in cooking school.

Thirty-five: Drop out of cooking school to focus full-time on writing. Publish several articles for auto parts industry publication. Marriage deteriorates due to lack of common interests.

Thirty-seven: Single again; go to work as barista in coffee shop of chain bookstore. Use cooking skills, proximity to literature, and discount for purchase of Writers’ Market to launch new life. Suffer for art.

Thirty-eight: Former poet lover perishes in haiku accident. Grieve by returning to poetry. Begin relationship with follower of Chuck Palahniuk.

Thirty-nine: End relationship with follower of Chuck Palahniuk before acting on homicidal fantasies fueled by eleven months of his repeating lines from Fight Club. Write up experience; essay is published in Lady Biker Magazine. Abandon fiction and poetry for career in free-lance magazine writing.

Forty: Start job as a mortgage broker.

Forty-five: Play is finally finished. Local suburban theater group stages play with local actors in multiple roles. Play closes after one night.

Forty-eight: Fortunes change: rake in profits before sub-prime market collapses. Marry wealthy natural gas distributor. “What American Freedom Means to Me” published in Chicken Soup for the Patriotic Soul.

Fifty: Start new novel / memoir / cookbook while living in house with view of wind farm. Live happily ever after.

The Quote in the Title

All right, so the quote in the title is a tad gruesome. But if you're a writer, this well-known quote captures the head-banging frustration behind writing (or maybe more the struggle of getting published) and the head-swimming elation of the process of putting words to paper. And my sister gave me a t-shirt for Christmas with this written on it.