Archive for April 2010
Readers: Hey… I’m finally getting this blog to look the way I want, all courtesy of WordPress For Dummies (which does not have my picture on the front!). I hope you dig the new look.
Also, here’s the debut of fiction on The Seeker. It’s the piece of flash fiction I was talking about in Itchin For Some Fiction pt. 5. I hope you enjoy it– I had a lot of fun writing it. Don’t worry… it’s short!
By Jeff Burd
It smelled like lemons in Will’s car. He had bought a lemon cream pie at a bakery, and it was sitting on the passenger seat of his Buick as it rattled down the street. Will loved the thick sweet smell of the pie and pulled it in with deep breaths. He wanted to dig his finger into the succulent dessert and scoop out a bit of the gooey yellow filling. Instead, he took a long drink from a quart of beer he picked up at a package store next to the bakery. He had never grown used to the taste of beer, as so many of his friends had within a few years out of high school or during college for those who had gone. But this afternoon, the carbonated bite and taste of barley were welcome sensations.
Sitting at a stoplight, he watched water crash down the gutter at the curb across the street. A guttural gurgling sound echoed from a grate where the run-off disappeared, dragging shreds of paper and plastic bottles and cigarette butts with it. A broken tree branch was stuck awkwardly in the crossbars of the grate. Its leaves wavered helplessly under currents of water that washed over them.
Will had passed several sanitation crews since the bakery, each clearing a mess from the storm that had pounded the town overnight. There were power lines and trees down in a dozen places, but the sun had been out for hours, a breeze was blowing, and the crews were intent on their tasks. Before long, the only memory of the storm would be in newspaper headlines.
Will turned left at the light, and then left again on the street where his house stood four blocks down. The pie was there next to him, smelling heavenly, the same way Lenora had when he was still courting her, as Will’s grandfather liked to say. Funny word, courting. It’s old fashioned. It was funnier still that court was exactly where their relationship was heading. Will pulled to the curb behind a dozen cars that branched out from his driveway. The garden club had arrived, each woman parking in a polite line down the street. Will took another long swig of beer, grabbed the pie, and stepped out of the Buick.
He was halfway to his house when he saw Dennis’ car parked on the left side of his driveway. He returned to the Buick and rumbled in cockeyed next to the maroon Sebring convertible. He put the pie on the hood of the car, chugged the rest of the beer, and tossed the bottle into the back seat. He could feel his bladder pulsing against the wide belt at his waist. It felt for a minute like he would lose control of it. Grabbing the pie again, Will walked down the sidewalk that led to his back yard.
He was one step inside the gate when Dennis saw him. “Will. What are you doing here?” He sounded like the lord of the manor and Will had no business on the grounds. It was the same tone he used last night when Will tried to talk to Lenora on the phone: “Will? What does he want?”
He wanted to talk to Lenora about their marriage. To apologize for his shortcomings. To tell her he wanted to help her with the garden. To hear the voice that used to make him smile.
Instead, he got Dennis’ voice in the background, animating Lenora like a puppet master. “Tell him you’re busy,” he called out. “Tell him you’ve got to get the roses ready for the garden party.”
Then, Lenora’s voice: “I can’t talk. The roses have to be ready for tomorrow. Me and Dennis, we…”
We. It had been “we” in the six months since she went to Dennis’ roses lecture at the library. He called the next week, and that’s when it began. Lenora and Dennis. Dennis and Lenora. The garden club. Home and Garden shows. Greenhouse tours. You wouldn’t be interested, Will… it’s not your thing… it’s just me and Dennis and some of the garden club ladies… Then it was Longaberger baskets. Tastefully Simple. Trade in the Saturn for a VW. There was talk. Dennis and Lenora straying behind the others on a garden walk, whispering and giggling. Lenora and Dennis sipping Margaritas at the flower shop boutique. An old man at the hardware story scratched his head and supposed that maybe they were wrong about Dennis’ preferences.
“We have to talk, hon,” Will said.
“I don–.” Lightning flashed outside. The line went dead. The storm had finally begun. The clouds had clustered and collided for hours, pressing the air down on the houses and trees and people who fitfully eyed the roiling mass looming over them.
“Well?” Dennis demanded. A handful of garden club ladies turned and looked at Will from beneath the floppy brims of their hats. “What do you want?”
Will’s heart thumped. His bladder pulsed. He used the most timid and innocent voice he could. “I bought this pie for you.”
“That’s for me?” Dennis’ brow furrowed. He extended his hands and stepped to Will.
“Yes.” When Dennis was point-blank in front of him, Will twisted his wrist in one quick tic so that he wasn’t carrying the pie in his palm but pushing it with the force of his arm. He smashed it into Dennis’ face. Whipped cream smothered the mug that Will despised. Thick yellow filling splattered against Dennis’ white shirt and tie and seersucker blazer.
A garden club lady gasped and fanned herself furiously with her gloved hand. Another stammered, “How rude!”
Lenora was across the yard but had seen what happened and rushed to Dennis with a paper towel. “Will! You didn’t need to do that!”
“You’re one to talk.” Will pushed past Lenora to the platform that had been set up using his tools. Dennis had neatly placed a dozen different rose arrangements around the little raised stage. Other garden club ladies had been cooing over them, but turned to see the commotion and were now watching Lenora as she wiped lemon cream from Dennis.
“Call the police!” Dennis shrieked between wipes. “He’s an animal!”
Will looked back at him over his shoulder as he loosened his belt and took down his zipper. A minute later, he had sprayed most of the rose arrangements and the platform.
By the time he had adjusted his pants, Lenora was at his back. She clutched his arm and spun him around to face her. Her eyes blazed. “What are you doing?”
“The same thing you did.”
Their eyes locked. Color engulfed her face. She stuttered to say something, but couldn’t get it out. Will smiled, and then strutted to the gate. On the way back to his Buick, he heard a chorus of protests from the garden club. One indignant voice sounded above the crowd, and it replayed in his head as he drove back to his parent’s house: I knew those two couldn’t be trusted with this. Will agreed.
You can’t say I didn’t warn you, Carlos. But you can say that despite the warning, sending you to the bullpen was completely unexpected. I don’t know how else to explain it.
I mentioned in three straight posts that your pitch count is too high. You can barely make it out of the sixth inning, and that’s only after throwing enough pitches for a complete game. You wear out the bullpen when you start and your ERA is gaudy. The Cubs had two options: Let you keep pitching and wear your arm out for the year in June (thus negating your trade value), or put you in a limited role and hope somebody will pick you up. Either way it’s an ugly situation, and though I think it’s ridiculous to be paying you $18 million to throw 4 innings a week, I’d rather see the Cubs do that than let you wither away and become one of the biggest jokes in franchise history.
The good news for you is that teams are always willing to take a risk on a promising pitcher. And you still have that promise, if you keep your head. If you follow your diet. If you hydrate between innings. If you worry less about your batting average and more about your earned run average. If… if… if…
A team in the playoff hunt or driving for the pennant will pick you up. My gut feeling is that the Dodgers will be your next team, and you’ll be playing for them in July. I have another feeling, too: You’ll provide your next team with some quality pitching at critical times.
Let’s not forget that you’re not the only problem here, Z. You aren’t the left fielder, who we have signed for 4 more years, who can’t catch, doesn’t run, and who most days swings a wet noodle. You aren’t the third baseman who is hitting an anemic .127 and who only ever plays as good as the team is playing. You aren’t the has-been coach riding out the last year of his contract. You aren’t the general manager who is bathing 8 players in about $111 million dollars until the end of next year. But you are the only one amongst the posse of clowns who the Cubs can get anything out of. So, the Ricketts are going to protect their investment as they show you the door.
It doesn’t matter. With you or without you, Carlos, the season is lost. Ryan Dempster and Ted Lilly will provide some decent pitching (and Carlos Silva hopefully will continue to emerge), and the players up the middle will play solid ball. But St. Louis isn’t going to falter, and there are too many other teams that are too hungry for the Cubs to stop. If we’re .500 at the end of September, I’ll consider it a miracle.
P.S. You got the last laugh in the end, Carlos. I thought I had the perfect serial for the summer. Now I have to find something else to write about.
Game 4 – Cubs at Mets – April 20, 2010 – 6:10 PM
|Game Stats||Season Stats|
|Strikeouts||9||ERA||7.54 (– from 9.45)|
|Earned runs||2||WHIP||1.88 (– from 2.03)|
It’s only the third inning, Z, and I’m checking in. You just walked the pitcher and gave up a two-run triple. George F. Will says he can tell how well a pitcher is doing by how many first-pitch strikes he throws. Right now, you’re 6-14.
It might hearten you to know, Carlos, that you’re not the most compelling problem on the Cubs right now. That honor belongs to Pinella. Didn’t he come with a “buyer beware” sticker from Tampa Bay? I’m tired of his lack of intensity. I think the rest of the team cues on that. How else do you explain losing 2 of 3 at home last weekend to the worst team in the NL?
I’m not blaming you for this loss, Z. You killed the lead-off hitter tonight (1-6, 2Ks), and plowed through the heart of the order (0-8, 1BB, 5Ks), but your team only got you 2 hits for support. Even though your pitch count was high again (and you were 13-26 on first-pitch strikes), these are the types of performances we need to see from you every time you take the mound. Still, it’s the bottom of the first inning for this season and you haven’t helped yourself.
Readers: Thanks for checking out the new home of The Seeker. I hope you’ll continue to stay tuned and inspire me with my writing (check out the panel to the right– you can enter your email address and have new postings from The Seeker sent to you!). In light of this debut, I thought posting a winner would be a great way to start things off. Yesterday at the Illinois Association of Teachers of English Writing and Revision Conference, I was announced as the winner of the Moonlighting Writing Competition. My entry is posted below.
A Patch of Skin, an Ounce of Zen
by Jeff Burd
I nodded my head at the dermatologist and followed him with my eyes as he inspected my dermal landscape under a magnifying glass and by Braille. He had already looked at moles on my back, stomach, and head that would need to be cut off and biopsied. I had drawn his attention to my scalp, which at the time still had some bristly hair over the ears and around the back. The top had been sparse for seven or eight years, but I hadn’t yet started to shave the entire expanse with a Gillette Mach 3.
I had noticed a patch of darker skin on the top of my head for over a year; a pointillism in flesh tones with no defined borders. It had crept down to within two inches above my right eye. None of my friends or family had ever commented on it, but I acknowledged it and it was my skin so I might as well mention it.
“I’ll give you a cream for it,” he continued. “Cover up when you’re in the sun. Sunblock isn’t enough. You need a hat, too.” I nodded again. Hats are a fact of life when you’re bald. The skin on your head freezes quickly in the winter and heats up just as fast in the summer. You’ll not soon forget any time you sunburn your scalp, and if someone asks you why it hurts so much, they’ll probably hear some tension in your voice as you recall the tenderness and itch when you explain because your scalp is almost never completely exposed to the sun and it’s hypersensitive– think about what a sunburn on the bottom of your feet would feel like. Same thing.
Like pointillism, the hyperpigmentation began a few specks at a time. I’m certain they debuted, unremarkable, one August a decade ago when I moved to an apartment complex that had twin sand volleyball courts. I was at least fundamentally skilled in volleyball and spent some time the remainder of that summer plodding around in a few pickup games. The specks probably gained a solid foundation on my flesh by the end of the next summer, after I had exploited the courts to pass time on the weekends and establish a new set of friends. They probably mirrored my volleyball game: kind of there, easy to dismiss.
A year later, I had fallen in love with the carefree, sun-soaked volleyball lifestyle and scheduled my summer life around it. Games would start around noon on Saturdays and Sundays and run until dusk. If I wanted to play as much as possible, all I had to do was win. To do that, I had to be able to play with the best players on the court. The status quo of my game, though, didn’t allow for that. The sand seemed to suction my feet to the ground. I couldn’t spike the ball as I had when I was in my early twenties, and the other team hit it to me when they needed to score. Discovering how to win, then, was a transcendental process.
It meant I had to recreate myself into the best player I could be for my size, age, and ability. It meant abandoning everything I thought I knew about volleyball and focusing on the single most fundamental action in the game: Passing the ball. My goal became to do it perfectly. When I stripped away all desire to conquer others with sheer power and made it my sole focus, passing became a steady, peacefully trickling spring that fed other parts of my game. When I lunged to get my entire body behind an incoming serve, my ability to block spikes leaped up a notch. When I shifted my sandy feet to feed the setter anywhere on the court, I mastered three different ways to serve. When I locked my eyes on the wobbly leather sphere and watched it ricochet off my splayed forearms, I dug wayward balls out of the net with such ease that they may as well have been beach balls.
Once the process of passing the ball flawlessly became innate to me, I realized I had discovered my Zen. Ankle deep in hot sand, with sweat coursing down my face and chest, my mind cleared of distractions… my breathing steadied… my thoughts became linear… I became prescient. The whole game moved in slow motion around me; I knew exactly what was going to happen on each play, and I seemed to always be in the right position to react. In the midst of a do-or-die rally, I experienced epiphanies about life’s troubling issues, as if the answers were there the entire time in neon print on huge billboards in my mind and all I had to do was look at them. Every minute I played in the sand erased ten times the amount of lingering pain from an awkward adolescence in which I ran too slow and struck out too many times. The pleasure I routinely experienced kept me on those tiny patches of desert for what felt like an eternity each day.
Each evening I dragged myself home caked in salt and sand, I knew I had not used enough SPF 30 on my legs, stomach, back, shoulders, arms, or head. Each evening, the enduring euphoria of Zen pushed the thought from my mind.
I didn’t know that my bare scalp, a neophyte in the cult of sun worship, wouldn’t recover from the ravages of the sun. I didn’t know that hyperpigmentation would be the price tag on my passing Zen.
I do know that if I could, I would do it again and pay the same price.
Game 3- Brewers at Cubs- April 15, 2010- 1:20 PM
|Game Stats||Season Stats|
|Strikeouts||7||ERA||9.45 (- from 11.88)|
|Earned runs||3||WHIP||2.03(+ from 1.92)|
Welcome back to Wrigley Field, Carlos. Stop by again when you can’t stay so long. Today was horrible. Though you cancelled one of the hottest lead-off hitters in the NL, that was the only bright spot (Rickie Weeks was hitting .345; you struck him out twice). The leadoff hitters overall went 1-4 and earned a walk, which isn’t terrible, but the heart of the order went 3-7 with 2 BB, a HR, and 3 RBI. You threw a whopping 121 pitches in just 5 innings, and that included 2 wild pitches. You threw 110 pitches last Saturday, and I fear that at this rate, your arm is going to be dead by the middle of summer.
It’s a shame, Z. You were in position to help the Cubs sweep the Brewers and go above .500 for the first time this season.
Teams have figured you out, Carlos, and it wasn’t hard to do. They’re going to make you throw a lot of pitches, until you meltdown and let in bunches of runs. If it feels like they’re in your head, maybe the team psychiatrist can help. I heard the new owners brought one on board as an amenity for the club.
Game 2- Cubs at Reds- April 10, 2010- 12:10 PM
|Game Stats||Season Stats|
|Strikeouts||9||ERA||11.88 (–from 54.00)|
How bad are things for you, Z, when the opposing pitcher got beat up in his last start, but his ERA is still 10% that of yours (Aaron Harang; his ERA was 5.4)? All in all, you had a pretty solid game. You punished the leadoff hitter all day long (1-6, 1 BB, 3 Ks), and the heart of the order struggled (1-7, 2 BB, 1 HR, 2 RBI). The only damage was Brandon Phillips’ dinger. Your pitch count was pretty high for 7 innings of work, but that’s going to happen when you whiff 9 batters. I’ll give you credit here, Carlos. This was an excellent bounce-back for you from the last start. Most importantly, you put the Cubbies in position to finish the road trip at .500. But don’t get crazy… you’re still only mediocre on the year.
Few things will help you learn how to do something like teaching it will. I realized this my first semester– hell, my first week– as a teacher. If you don’t know how to do it, you can’t teach it. And if you know only how to do it, then your students most likely are only ever going to do it like you do. So you’ve got to have a pretty deep understanding of most anything you teach. That means knowing without a doubt the fundamentals of what you’re going to teach; the building blocks.
I was thinking about that yesterday as I got to thinking about the first draft of a piece of flash fiction I just finished (flash fiction refers to short stories 1500 words and below, though 1500 is not a fixed number). We’ve been taking a long look at flash fiction for about a week now in one of my creative writing classes, and have read a handful by a few short story masters (Raymond Carver, Anton Chekhov, Ray Bradbury). We’ve also been referencing some guidelines layed out by Roberta Allen in Fast Fiction. That has helped us identify a few fundamentals, such as identifying the type of story we’re dealing with (Allen posits that there are basically 4 types of flash fiction: single incidents, stories that reveal a mind, stories that compress time, and stories that defy ordinary reality). We also decided that surprise endings were preferable (also covered by Allen). Of our own accord, we recognized setting as acting symbolically, and usually other strong symbols at work.
I guess we created a template or formula from which to work. I do the same thing when teaching basic writing to students, so it’s nothing new (something like the 5-paragraph essay is a template). But then I used the template myself and liked what I came up with. I have a single incident (with a very brief flashback), a surprise ending, and a strong central symbol (along with at least 3 sub-symbols). I like how they work to tell the story for me. Since it’s flash fiction, they seem to be swinging the bat extra hard. As I’ve said before (Itchin’ for some Fiction pt. 1), I’m a stranger to using symbolism in my prose. I guess I’m not a stranger now so much as a neophyte.
I’m waiting for some workshop feedback from LakeSideInk and to find the time to do at least another draft, and then I think I’ll post the story here. I’d mention it by name, but it doesn’t have a name… yet.
I guess I’m getting a lot of mileage out of the short forms (or super-short forms, in this case). I like their shorter and easier to manipulate, which helps as I work on my fiction chops. It’s also putting me in a mind to keep working on short pieces of creative nonfiction.