The Seeker

A Meta-Cognitive Journal About Writing… Plus Other Stuff

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Thanks, Ray

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I got another story published.  Dare I say this is becoming routine?  I might dare if I might dare fate and the muse, so out of respect to them I won’t dare to say this whole thing is becoming routine.  But I am glad to say it is feeling routine, and I have Rumble Fish Quarterly to thank for this one.  They accepted my story “The Return” and published it two weeks ago (page 18 if you’re peeping it just now).  There’s a greater entity at work here, though, greater than fate and the muse and the kind publisher: Raymond Carver.

This is all about imitation.  It’s something I preach to my students, and even enforce it by way of transcribing poems and passages from prose readings.  I doubt at their age they get as much out of it as I have since I stopped fighting my professors about it and really tried it; still, I impress with them that imitation is the road to your writing identity.  It works this way throughout the arts. You create your voice by channeling the voices that influenced you. Carver is but one of those voices for me. There’s Chekhov (who influenced Carver). There’s O. Henry. Thomas McGuane.  John McPhee. Jack Ridl. Kay Ryan. This idea of imitation is not a hard sell for adults, but it is for my students. I end up asking them if you’re on the football team, tell me their favorite player. Do you try to play like him? If you’re constantly watching NBA videos on YouTube, do you try to play like Kevin Durant?  Sure you do. Michael Jordan? I hope not because I can’t stand MJ. So they are familiar with the concept, but something disconnects with them when I not only encourage them to do it but mandate it.

So I was in full imitation mode as I drafted “The Return,” and it felt so smooth and natural that I never bothered to turn it off.  I did, however, have to find variations and add my own seasoning so editors who looked at it wouldn’t shrug it off as another in what I’m sure is an endless flow of Carver stories they receive.

The first and most obvious “borrowing” was from Carver’s story “Kindling.”  I read it years ago when I was starting out as a writer, and it left an impression on me.  The idea of a character having to accomplish something rang a note of empathy in my head. In the story, Myers is on the mend from drinking and a lost relationship and sets to the task of chopping a load of wood for a couple who is leasing him a room.  The idea of what doing something physical and earthy represents for a distressed character, what it does for the person emotionally and the confidence it gives him to move on with life, is something I think we can all identify with. The symbolism is natural and easy to grasp, yet profound.  It’s accessible to all ranges of intelligence, making the story appealing to a broad range of readers. For “The Return,” I have Sam in a similar circumstance with drinking and a broken (but not lost) relationship. If somehow he can get his yard together, he’s got a puncher’s chance at getting his life and his wife back.  But this doesn’t come together until the end when the narrator who is watching and eventually helping Sam finally connects the dots with what is happening next door to his own life and relationship, which isn’t as troubled as Sam’s but is on the decline.

I went back and reread “Kindling” last week after I was notified of publication, and found it lacking in ways (what do I know, anyhow?  it earned a sixth O. Henry Award for Carver, albeit posthumously).  There’s a third-person omniscient narrator, which is unusual for a short story, and frankly a good deal of needless material like scenes that don’t need to happen and relatively meaningless description.  Despite all that, the major symbolic action worked for me and made its way into my toolbox.

A solid piece of symbolic action, though, didn’t feel like it would be enough to carry the story.  I needed a direct redemption. I needed Sam to win at the end, but even that wasn’t going to be enough.  In fact, it felt early on that the mere fact of Sam winning was going to be cliche (it’s worth saying that it’s okay to write in cliches.  Moving through typical models of writing while you practice is valuable, but I’m also at the point of not wanting to call so much of my writing practice).  Since my mind was already on Carver, I thought more and more about one of his best known stories: Cathedral.  I’ve had a few encounters with it through the years, and the redemption the narrator experiences has always stuck with me.  In fact, the narrator is pretty much an ass until he has his moment. That was Ronnie for me. He’s standoffish with Sam and struggles to put the pieces together with what has happened next door, preferring instead to sink into himself in his garage and behind his fence.  He even isolates himself from his wife. Even when he realizes what has happened next door, he still operates mostly on his gut feeling rather than eloquent internal psychology. Ronnie isn’t much capable of eloquent internal psychology, but the reader is when they put together the pieces as he reports them.  The reader doesn’t need Ronnie to connect all the dots for him, and in fact is drawn deeper into the story when they make their own inferences.

The end result was the psychologically deepest story I’ve written. I was satisfied with it, but self-satisfaction is a false litmus test when you’re interested in getting something published.  The rejections started rolling in, and I started to have doubts about the story being too Carverish. I was also worried about overusing symbolism. For chrissake, what was I thinking? The lawn, the gin bottle, the fence, the gate, the water sealant…  how many symbols could I jam into a single story? This doubt and these frustrations are pretty much what writing is about. If you can’t manage them, you can’t write. I made it through this time, so I guess I might as well keep at it. It’s a crazy thing, writing.

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Written by seeker70

May 29, 2019 at 10:54 pm

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Winning Season

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The Cubs are 1-6, and I’m already calling this a winning season—the reason being that we’re on the right path for the franchise to fire Joe Maddon, and I’m all in favor of that for the Cubs to move forward.  Very little has changed since I last railed on the Cubs, and it’s easy to see at this point that that which didn’t work last season is not only going to not work this season, but is going to be a resounding failure.

Still fits.

Let’s talk tactics.  The most damning aspect here is these dolts are still without an everyday leadoff hitter.  What we have is leadoff platoon with a likely candidate to be an everyday leadoff guy–Albert Almora.  He hit .286 last year over 152 games.  So, rather idiotically, the Cubs alternate him with a 37-yr old who should be little more than trade bait at this point.  But instead, Joe Maddon keeps getting to play mad scientist and switch lineups on the daily, and he keeps around a guy that did real well for him during the World Series run in ’16.  How long until he pulls the Rizzo-at-leadoff stunt?  Gimmicks don’t win titles, Joe.  They might win individual games at critical points in the season and pull you out of slumps, but that’s about it.

This is not to say that Almora is the solution.  I don’t know that he is.  The real solution is having an everyday leadoff hitter, which the Northsiders haven’t had since Dexter Fowler took I-55 to St. Louis two years ago.  Somehow Joe has Theo Epstein convinced that the platoon approach is going to work.  But I’m not sure what pressure is on the organization to address the most critical issues that face the team.  The Cubs ran for 108 years on the fumes of nostalgia, and the games are still going to be sold out on the daily.

There are greater concerns than leadoff hitter, though.  There are matters of the integrity of the franchise, and that’s where the baseball gods are again throwing down lightning bolts.  How far will they allow the Cubs to go now that they are inclined to shelter domestic abusers?  The situation is so profound in the #metoo era that it’s perfectly reasonable to think that Larry Baer’s confrontation with his wife was actually a public audition for a position in the Cubs’ front office.

The racist and Islamophobic communications of Tom Ricketts also figure into how I’m viewing the Cubs these days.  Another Ricketts is overseeing fundraising for the re-election of the current PO(tu)S, and I’m left wondering how long a blue-collar city in a blue state will tolerate these right-wing and extreme positions.  I’m already tired of the bullshit, but I don’t speak for the city.  At what point do all these concerns overpower the strength of the nostalgia that has gripped generations of Cubs fans and result in a revolt that forces changes in how the organization is run?

You might be asking, too, why I’m even concerned about it.  That’s a good question.  I have a dual-citizenship in baseball, and my “other” team is 7-1 and scored thirteen runs last night against the tail-chasing Cubs.  All of this is telling me I need to spend my baseball money this summer north of the border rather than on the north side.

Written by seeker70

April 6, 2019 at 10:39 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Jackass Stubborn

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Parhelion Literary Magazine published my essay “Never Enough” two weeks ago.  It’s nice to return to writing creative non-fiction worthy of publication (back in the day I actually studied CNF as my focus at Northwestern).  To be clear, I’m not lamenting my lack of CNF publications—more like I’ve been wondering when I would write something “true” again. Alas, the muse of truth and writing shat upon me about a year ago and I found my way through, eventually.  I guess it was a matter of waiting patiently while I was busy writing a shitton of other stuff, mostly flash fiction for a few venues and endlessly practicing poetry.

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The muse could have taken a gentler shit and I wouldn’t have complained, but maybe it needed to be weighty and delivered with some velocity to get me to explore some undiscovered country.  Still, the emotional toll of the piece made writing it a real slog at times, especially after the eleventh draft and 8th month of shaping and the fourth rejection.  

That’s right:  Rejection. Four of them before I withdrew it from every other publication I submitted to, and three more even after I wrote v12, resubmitted it, and before PLM picked it up.

The problem all along was that the piece lacked emotional resonance.  To portray the facts of the attempted suicide I witnessed, I settled on a straightforward narrative in past tense.  Writing that was difficult enough across 1800 words, but it also caused the piece to lie flat and two-dimensional on the page.  Past tense hinted that the situation was resolved, varnished, and sanitized. But even months after it happened, I wasn’t feeling varnished and sanitized about what happened.  So how do I communicate that in my writing?  I needed something to distinguish my narrative, and I needed to be honest about where I was in my head with what happened, regardless of how uncomfortable that was.

Thankfully, I’ve taught a creative writing class for the last thirteen years.  And thankfully, too, I sometimes listen to myself when I endlessly harp to my students about some things.  One of those things is how poets use the shape and structure of their poem to convey meaning beyond the words.  A simple example of this the poem “Raking Leaves” by Brian Fanelli. We take a good look at this little gem and talk about all the ways we feel the action and low-grade exertion of actually raking leaves.

There is something soothing about the scrape of a rake,
the rhythmic process of pulling dead leaves,
bending to pick them up, dumping them
in curbside lawn bags,
something soothing about the way the sun
warms your hair one of these last
seventy-degree days as you labor past
soreness in your arms, until you forget
emails to send, reports to file,
take-home work you left at the office,
until you forget the splendid mums will shrivel,
the tree that sheds now will wear nothing soon,
and you will curse the cold.

I constantly harp to my students, too, that what they learn writing and studying poetry should translate to their other writing.  So how does shape and structure translate to a different genre?  By fragmenting the narration.  Once I broke my past-tense narrative into discrete episodes, some as short as a few sentences, something broke loose in my thinking.  I started to feel on the page the emotional dissonance I experienced as the suicide episode unfolded.  I think, too, that perhaps I didn’t have a grasp on  how the whole incident affected me even a few months after as I was still writing the first version.  If I didn’t know the extent of it, how was I going to convey any solid meaning to the reader?  Changing the narration to present tense helped give it a documentary hand-held camera feel and keep the story happening right now with little or no hope of wrapping it up and putting a neat bow on it.  I already had a solid symbolic ending I caught by paying attention to the ordinary things happening around me as I processed the issue, and the present-tense narration really helped emphasize it.

What counts the most, though, beyond these elements of craft that worked pretty well, beyond finding meaning in what happened, was reclaiming “Never Enough” from the endless void of rejected and unpublished writing that I all too often contribute to.  I’ve never reached into the void before and snatched a piece back.  Hell, I never had the experience before where the remedies donged like a bell in my head while I was teaching and encouraged me to reach into the void.  But I’m nothing if not stubborn, and I wasn’t willing to let the story go until I had another say in the matter.  If only I could find a way for my students to be so stubborn about something that doesn’t involve their behavior choices or their phones.  Maybe I could get them to run Cross Country.  They’re still at that age, and doing that is definitely what made me so damn stubborn.

Written by seeker70

February 16, 2019 at 4:31 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Fuel Town Christmas (pt.3)

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…continued from yesterday…

Tracy woke to the sound of Linda tearing open packs of plastic plates and cups.  She’d found napkins and plastic knives, forks, and spoons, too. “Why don’t you join us, honey?” she asked Tracy as she set the table.

Tracy wasn’t sure what to say.  Her phone rang. The caller ID read “Mom”.  “I’m not really hungry,” she told Linda as she pressed “ignore” on the screen.

“Nonsense,” she said.  “Have you even eaten today?”

“Yes,” she lied.

Linda walked away and returned a few minutes later with a half-dozen packaged turkey sandwiches that she opened, cut into pieces, and arranged on one of the plastic plates she had set out.  She opened several bottles of water and filled the plastic cups. She then produced a large bag of snack mix and filled several bowls. She had found a few votive candles, too, and lit those with her cigarette lighter.  When she appeared finished with setting up the table, she looked at Tracy and said, “Wait until you see dessert!” She scooted back into the booth, rubbed her hands together, and smiled.

Cuddy reappeared a few minutes later.  His eyes gleamed. He spread his arms out and presented himself.  He beamed widely, and his face was almost like a star on top of a Christmas tree decorated entirely with trucker clothing.  You can actually see his face, Tracy thought. He’d combed his hair and shaved. The scar was like a faint purple line someone drew on his face with a marker.  Linda looked him up and down, winked at Tracy across the table, and asked, “Hey, mister—have you seen our friend? Grubby-looking old scamp. You’d smell him before you saw him.”

A smile cut across Cuddy’s face, and he said to Linda, “I’m sorry, miss, but I think that old scamp is dead or something!”  

“There’s only one thing missing,” Linda said.  She pulled a red Santa hat out from her bag of table settings, scooted out of the booth, and tugged it onto the old man’s head.

The old man felt the white ball on top, and then flicked it with his fingers.  “Let’s eat,” he announced. He sat down next to Linda and across from Tracy. “This looks great, Linda,” he declared.  “And miss,” he said, looking at Tracy, “we’re glad to have you at our Christmas dinner.”

“Oh hush, Cuddy,” Linda told him.  “She ain’t even hungry.”

“I bet she’ll eat,” Cuddy said.

He was right.  Tracy gave in and reached across the table for a piece of sandwich.  Once she got started, she couldn’t believe how hungry she was. The three of them ate in silence until their cache of food was almost gone.  Cuddy finally leaned back in the booth and exhaled. The white ball on top of his Santa hat had sagged forward while they were eating, so he flicked it back over his head again.  He looked at Tracy, searching for something on her face or in her eyes. Tracy felt her face get hot again and looked down at the table. She poured herself more water, and quietly said, “Thank you, mister.”

When she looked up, Cuddy was still looking at her.  He was running his finger along his scar again. Linda looked at the two of them and finally broke the silence.  “Dessert?”

“Yes,” Cuddy said.  “I’ll get coffee.”

Linda came back with a pint of ice cream and a box of chocolates; the old man with three coffees.  He sat down, dug in a pocket in his new jacket, and pulled out a small bottle of whiskey. He poured some of it into his coffee, and then returned the bottle to his pocket.  The three of them ate again in silence until all that was left was their coffee to sip. “That was nice,” the old man said.

“Sure was,” Linda added.  She pointed out the window and said, “Looky there.  Here comes a plow.”

Tracy and Cuddy turned to look and saw a white strobe light flashing on top of a red dump truck.  Snow sprayed out into the shoulder of the road as it rumbled past. It left a trail of salt in its wake.

“I think that means it’s safe to head out,” Cuddy said.

“Sure does,” Linda added.  “I’m going home.”

“I’m supposed to be at my son’s anyhow,” the old man said.  “Guess I can bring some presents, too. They have some nice looking toy trucks on the shelves here.  Think I’ll check them out.”

Tracy felt her face get hot again, hotter than it had been since she arrived.  She reached for her cigarettes and tapped one out of the pack. She got up without saying a word and walked briskly out the front door and around back.  She smoked a cigarette, and then another as she watched snow blow off the roof of the truck stop. It was quiet except for the sound of her heartbeat in her ears.  She looked at her phone again and thought about calling her mother back, but what good would that do? The sun would rise on Christmas morning, and she’d still be at Fuel Town.  She ran her fingernail along her thumb again until she felt the groove she’d worn into the flesh. The spot was still tender to the touch, but she dug her nail in anyhow and worked it until she felt blood on her fingertip.  She allowed herself to cry, finally, and felt hot tears chill on her cheeks in the winter air. Before long, her nose was running.

She heard snow crunching around the corner of the building, and a few seconds later Linda appeared.  She approached Tracy, took her chin in her hand, and said, “There’s a cab here, dear.”

“You’re leaving?” Tracy asked.

“We’re leaving,” Linda said.  She registered the confused look on Tracy’s face, and explained.  “Cuddy left money for us to get where we need to be. That’s just a few blocks for me.  It’ll be longer for you, of course.”

She took Tracy’s hand and walked her back into the truck stop and to the bathrooms.  She ran the water in a sink until it was hot, wet some paper towels, and gently dabbed Tracy’s face.  “I’m just gonna wipe the stress off, dear. You’ll feel better. You’ll look better.”

Tracy stood still and closed her eyes, trying to remember the last time someone took care of her.  The memory didn’t come, but she let her mind go blank. The water was warm on her face; Linda’s touch gentle.  When she opened her eyes, Linda was smiling at her. She smiled back.

“I knew you had one of those,” Linda said.  “It looks beautiful.”

“Thank you,” Tracy said.  She took Linda’s hands in hers and squeezed them.

“Are you ready to leave?” Linda asked.

“I am,” Tracy said and let Linda lead her to the cab.

They walked through the truck stop and past the cashier, told him good night and Merry Christmas, and made it to the cab.  As soon as they closed the door, the driver pulled away from Fuel Town. When they reached the highway, another snow plow sped past.  Tracy watched the red brake lights trail into the distance.

They rode a half mile up the street and dropped Linda off.  She hugged Tracy sideways as the moved to get out of the vehicle.  “Merry Christmas,” she said. “And good luck.” She was a large woman, but soft and warm to the touch.

The cab pulled back onto the highway.  The snow made it hard to see the houses they were passing, but red and green and white lights twinkling through the snow gave each one away.  Tracy thought about the families sleeping inside them and kids who couldn’t wait for morning.

The cab slowed almost to a stop as they approached an intersection where a blinking yellow light hung over the road.  Tracy glimpsed down the intersecting road and saw a flash of reflective yellow. It was Cuddy tromping through the snow with a bag over his shoulder and the red cap on his head.   He raised his arm, somehow knowing it was her passing by. He couldn’t have seen her. Not with all the snow. And he was too far away. Tracy raised her hand in the window nonetheless and imagined a gleam in the old man’s far-away eyes as the cab picked up speed and continued south down the highway.

Written by seeker70

December 16, 2018 at 8:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Fuel Town Christmas (pt.2)

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…continued from yesterday…

She turned and looked at the fat lady and the old man, who were feeding the machines like they didn’t care about money.  It was stupid entertainment. They fed bills in, the machines lit up and whirred, and they hit buttons. The old man kept running his finger up and down the scar on his face while he played, like it was itching him.

The fat lady said, “Why are you here tonight, Cuddy?”

“On my way to my son’s,” he told her.  “‘Sposed to be there right now, matter of fact.”

“Bullshit,” the fat lady coughed. She glanced over at the cashier real quick.  “You ain’t going like that. Look at you.”

“What?” the old man said.  “Don’t matter. He’ll give me hell anyhow.”

“I would, too,” the fat lady said.  “Show up like you were working in a barn all day.  Why are you here?”

“Tryin’ my luck,” the old man told her.  “Same as you.”

“Yeah.  We’re a lucky pair, ain’t we?”  The fat lady laughed until she coughed.

An idea came to Tracy.  She walked over to the pair and asked if either of them had a phone charger.  The old man didn’t respond. The fat lady said she had a flip phone. Did that help?

“No,” Tracy said.  “It doesn’t help at all.”  She pulled her phone out and held it in front of the fat lady.  “Mine is newer.”

The fat lady looked at it and said,  “I don’t know what kind that is. But look around.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Tracy replied.  “I got no money. That asshole that took off stole it.”

“Don’t worry about that, honey,” the fat lady told her.  “Look around.”

Figuring it would at least give her something to do, Tracy walked up and down the aisles in the truckstop and found what she guessed was a typical setup for truckers.  Shirts and pants. Cowboy hats. Porno magazines. Knives under a glass case. Bandanas. Rubbers. Zippo lighters. Blankets. Fake leather vests. Any kind of crap truckers would buy if they needed it or wanted to blow some money.  They did have a charger for her phone, though. The fat lady waddled down the aisle and saw Tracy holding it as she checked the package. “Is that it?” she asked.

“Thirty-five dollars for the damn thing,” Tracy told her.  

The fat lady shoved a pair of $20 bills into her hand.  “My dead husband’s pension,” she said. “Might as well put it on a sure bet.”

A minute later, Tracy waited as her phone charged at an outlet by the booth where she had sat earlier.  Linda and the old man kept feeding the machines. The cashier sat behind the counter and stared out the window at the parking lot, where nothing moved but snow falling from the sky.

Once the battery was at a decent level, Tracy dialed her parents.  Her mother’s rough voice came to her ear after the third ring. “Hello?”

“It’s me, mom,” Tracy said.

“Tracy?” she said.  “Honey, it’s almost nine o’clock.  You and Roy were supposed to be here.”

“I know.  I left a message earlier.”

“Is something wrong?”

“Yeah, mom,” she said.  She felt her face get hot again and dug a fingernail into her thumb to distract herself.  “Yeah. There’s a lot wrong. I’m at a truck stop near the state line.”

“What?” her mother said.  “Tracy, what’s going on? Is Roy there?  I tried to call you at home. He hung up on me.”  Tracy could hear the strain in her mother’s voice, like she wanted to get mad but didn’t dare.

“Roy’s not coming, and I don’t know how I’m going to get there.”  She paused to breath, surprised that for some reason she was out of breath.  “He was drunk when I got home. Said we’re not coming down. He wanted to fight, so I got out of there as fast as I could.”

There was a long pause on the other end.  “Did he hit you again?”

Tracy paused and clenched her jaw.  After a few seconds, she said, “I told you he’s off that.”

“You told me he’s off the booze, too, Tracy.”  Merry Goddamn Christmas, Tracy thought again.

“Okay.  It doesn’t matter,” Tracy said.  “I left. I got a ride this far. Hang on a sec.”  She brought the maps up on her phone and put in her parents’ address.  “Blue Island is like seventy miles. Can you come get me?”

“What?” her mother said.  “Have you looked outside? We went to the bar after your father got home from his shift.  He’s asleep on the couch.”

“Well what am I going to do?”

It was quiet on the phone, and Tracy thought for a moment that the call had dropped.  Her mother’s voice returned. “I don’t know, dear.”

Tracy felt her face getting hot again, but her thumb hurt too much to keep digging her nail into it.  She said, “Look. I’ll call you back.” She hung up without saying when.

She noticed the video machines were quiet when she hung up.  She looked over, and Linda and the old man were looking at her.

She looked away and thought to answer a call on her phone so she’d look occupied.  She pretended to talk until the eavesdroppers were back dumping money in the machines and there was electronic noise instead of silence.  She wrapped up the fake conversation, and that’s when it happened.

The first thing she heard was, “Goddammit!  Goddammit! Look at that!” It was the old man.  He was dancing in front of the machine he’d been playing.  Lights flashed, a siren whirred, and the sound of coins clinking in a bucket blared from the speakers on the game console.  “Good God! I did it!” the old man yelled.

Linda stood up, looked at his machine, and said, “My god, Cuddy!  Merry Christmas!” She looked over at Tracy and said, “Two thousand dollars!”

“Goddammit!” the old man yelled again.  “Goddammit! I won! I won! I won!”

The cashier walked over from behind the counter.  He looked at the machine and said, “Congratulations, Cuddy.  Cash out if you want.” He gestured to a machine next to the game machines.  Cuddy stood up, snatched a slip of paper that came out of the machine he was playing, and slipped it into the other machine.  The cashier watched him, and once the cash came out, told him, “I’m happy for you, but can you stop swearing so much?”

Tracy could see the old man’s gray-blue eyes gleaming.  Tears streamed down his cheeks. Linda came over and sat down across from her in the booth.  “Can you believe that?” she asked.

She couldn’t.  Dumb luck. Tracy had hers that got her to Fuel Town, and the old man got an entirely different kind.  “I wonder what he’s going to do with it,” Linda said.

“I know what I’d do,” Tracy said.  She looked back out the window at the snow falling and covering everything.  It was kind of peaceful the way snow had of covering up all the ugly stuff a person would usually see.  She didn’t know what the place looked like in the daylight, but it didn’t look bad with the snow covering it.  There were still no cars, and she could barely see the other side of the highway. She looked and looked for a long time because it was better than seeing that old man jump around.  Linda sat there next to her. Tracy could hear her breathing. The old man came up to the booth and announced, “Hot damn!”

Tracy turned to look at him.  “Look at what I got,” he said.  He had a load of stuff in his arms that he laid on the table.  A pair of dark gray Carhart pants, packs of undershirts and underpants, and a red flannel shirt.  He also laid down a little bottle of shampoo, a bar of soap, a small bottle of shaving cream, a razor, and a comb.  “That ain’t even all of it,” he said. He skipped over to the counter and came back with a pack of socks, a pair of insulated boots, and a heavy brown Carhart coat with a hood.  He ran his finger up and down the scar from his cheek to his throat as he grinned enormously.

Linda laughed out loud.  “Damn, Cuddy,” she said. “This is probably the best stuff you could buy!”

“Tell you what I’m gonna do,” the old man said.  “I’m gonna get me one of those showers back there–” he stopped for a minute and yelled over to the counter.  “How much are those showers?”

“You can have a free one,” the cashier called back.  “You just spent all that money.”

“You sure as hell need it,” Linda said.  She laughed until she coughed. She looked at his pile of stuff and asked, “Why don’t you get yourself one of those reflective yellow coats instead?”

The old man thought for a minute.  He walked over and swapped the brown coat for the kind Linda described.  He came back and said again that he’s gonna get a shower. “A nice, long, hot one, too,” he said.  He looked around, taking in the entire truck stop, and then his eyes came back to the table at the booth.  “How ‘bout Christmas dinner?” he asked.

“Ain’t no place open, you old fool!” Linda said as she coughed again.

“I know,” the old man said.  “There’s food around here.” He pressed some money into her hand.

“Alright, Cuddy,” she said.  “Go shower so you’re nice for dinner.”  Linda scooted out of the booth and the old man disappeared down the hall past where Tracy had found the bathrooms earlier.  Her face felt hot again, so she rested her head on her arms on the table and closed her eyes. She felt a dull thumping in her temples.

continued…

Written by seeker70

December 15, 2018 at 8:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Fuel Town Christmas (pt.1)

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Note:  I somehow cranked this story out in the midst of the PAD Challenge last year.  It kinda hit me around this time when I stopped in a local gas station and noticed the gamblers trying their luck on the machines that seem to be everywhere these days.  I never did much trying to publish it, but it is Christmas-themed, so it’s good to post here.

Fuel Town Christmas

Tracy had already told Mick three times to take his hand off her thigh, and they were only twenty miles out from the truck stop in Racine.  She tried to move over in the cab of his semi, but each time he dug his fingers into her leg and pulled her back towards him. His fingers had found a hole in her jeans, and she could feel his rough skin on her.

“Look,” she said.  “Thank you for the ride.  I have a little money bit of money I can give you, but that’s it.”

He shot her a quick look.  “Don’t make up your mind so fast,” he said.  “Look at how it’s snowing. Who else is going to pick you up?”  He was right. Fat flakes of snow were slanting through the night sky almost like rain.

She had tried at the truck stop in vain for over an hour, asking anybody who looked safe.  The place had been busy with vehicles heading south, each one full of kids and presents and pets.  Nobody had room, though, even if it was just her with no bags or anything. Mick had overheard her and approached.  He had adjusted a black stocking cap on his head like he was making some kind of greeting and told her his name. “I’m heading to South Bend,” he added.  “Gotta go south before I can go east. I can drop you at Blue Island.” He seemed safe, and with the snow coming down like it was and the day creeping into evening, he looked like her only chance.

He was right, but in her mind that didn’t mean she had to give him anything but money for the ride.  “Just stop it, okay?” Tracy said. “Please.” She pulled his hand off her thigh and pushed it back towards him.

Mick sighed heavily and muttered something about Christmas that Tracy couldn’t fully hear.  A minute later, he pointed off to the west at a yellow glow that Tracy could barely see. “Fuel Town,” he said.  “I gotta top off so I can make South Bend without stopping. Except to drop you off.”

They drove past someone walking on the shoulder as they slowed down to turn in to Fuel Town.  Tracy had barely seen the person and wasn’t sure if Mick had since he was downshifting and maneuvering the steering wheel.  Once they were under the canopy at a pump, he told her, “Use the potty if you need to. Grab a snack.”

Tracy dug for a moment in her purse and pulled out a ten dollar bill and two wrinkled fives.  She held it across the cab to him. “It’s all I have.” Mick took the bills and stuck them in his pocket.

They both got out, and Tracy walked toward the station.  Whoever they’d just seen along the shoulder had made it to the parking lot.  It was a man walking out of the thick snow like some mystery figure.

Mick yelled out from over by the pumps.  “Hey! You’ll get your ass run over!”

The man waved his arm.  He got to the door before Tracy and held it open.  She knew she was under-dressed for the weather, but didn’t have a word for what he was.  She could see his socks through holes in his beat-up work boots. His jeans were ripped out at the knees, and forget about a coat—he wore a green flannel shirt and a pair of hoodies.  His splotchy beard did very little to hide the scar that ran from his left cheek down to his throat. She couldn’t tell if his hair was wet from the snow or greasy, but nevermind because he needed to run a comb through it.  He pulled an empty whiskey bottle out of one of his pockets, threw it in the trash barrel next to the door, and said, “Merry Christmas.”

Tracy told him thank you and tried to hold her breath as she walked past him.

The cashier saw both of them and called out, “Happy Holidays!”  He looked at the old man and said, “Cuddy, you old cuss! Merry Christmas!”

The old man grunted something and walked over towards the video poker machines while he dug his hand into one of his pockets.  Tracy walked back to the restrooms, where the smell of bleach was strong enough to come under the door. She came out a few minutes later, glad to breath air that didn’t burn her nose.  The old man had settled into a stool at the video machines. A fat lady sat next to him.

Tracy thought to get some cookies and juice, but remembered Mick had the rest of her money.  She walked to the door and looked out across the parking lot under the canopy. There was nothing except big fat snowflakes falling on everything.

“Holy fuck,” she said.  The cashier shot her a look.  She approached him at the counter.  He looked up at her behind a pair of glasses that had slid down his nose.  “Where did that semi go that was out there?”

The cashier looked outside.  “I don’t know.”

“Do you know the son of a bitch who was driving it?”

“Probably not,” he said.  “I didn’t see him.”

“You didn’t see him?  You don’t know him? All you Fuel Town people don’t know each other?”

“No, m’am,” he said.  “He left. He didn’t even buy gas.”

“Call the cops,” Tracy said.  “And tell them he stole my money.”

“I could, m’am, but it’d be best to wait a bit,” the cashier said.  He pushed his glasses up his nose and pointed to a radio next to him on the counter.  “They’re busy. Accident at the state line. It’s on the scanner. You just missed it.  Lucky.”

Tracy gave him a hard look, but he didn’t notice.  He pointed at a set of small monitors and said that he could check the cameras when the owner comes by in the morning.

“Good.  I can tell him about the excellent customer service here at Fuel Town,” Tracy said.  “It looks like I’m going to be here anyhow.” She gave him a hard look again, and then said, “Forget it.  I’ll call the goddamn cops.”

“You’re welcome to do that,” he said.  “But could you do it outside so we don’t have to hear all your cussing?”

Tracy stepped outside and pulled her phone out of her coat pocket, but couldn’t turn it on.  She checked her purse for the charger, but stopped when she remembered she had left it on her nightstand when she rushed out of the house in mid-afternoon.  There she was at Fuel Town with no money, a dead phone, and no charger. She reached into another pocket and felt for her cigarettes. Half a pack. Merry Goddamn Christmas.

She lit a cigarette and stood there watching the snow fall so thick she could barely see the tracks where Mick had pulled in.  There was a pounding sound on the window behind her, and then the cashier’s voice yelling to go around back to smoke.

Tracy walked around to the back of the station.  Snow crunched beneath her feet with each step, and she felt wetness seep through her shoes.  When she turned the corner, the fat lady who had been playing video poker next to the old man was standing there puffing on a cigarette.  She was so fat that she couldn’t even zip her coat, so she stood there with it hanging open. The place smelled like grease and rotten food, and Tracy was grateful for the stench of tobacco smoke.

“Merry Christmas,” the fat lady said.

“Yeah,” Tracy said.  “If that’s what you call this.”

Tracy could feel the fat lady’s eyes on her, like they were glued to her as if she was some kind of Fuel Town freakshow.  Was the poor little abandoned girl the evening’s entertainment? She purposely looked away from the fat lady, and even pretended to check her phone.  She finally decided distance was the best option, and took several steps away. The fat lady was unshakable, though, and kept drilling Tracy with her eyes.  Finally, she broke the silence. “Are you in some kind of trouble, honey?”

Without looking at her, Tracy replied,  “Don’t concern yourself.” She let silence fall between them again, and then turned back to the fat lady.  “Got a car?”

“Can’t help you there,” the fat lady said and coughed into her hand.  She dropped her cigarette and ground it out with her foot. She brushed some of the snow out of her blonde brush-cut hair.  “My name is Linda,” she said. “If I can help you, just ask.” She went back into the station. Tracy stood there alone and thought back on all that happened since she came home from work in the middle of the afternoon.  Her face felt hot, but she was determined not to give in to her emotions.

She finished her smoke, went back inside, and sat down in a booth near the video machines.  She needed to call her parents. It probably wouldn’t help, but they’d be worried by now. And how was she going to call them?  Their damn number was on her phone.

continued…

Written by seeker70

December 14, 2018 at 4:43 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Plan B / The Last Hurrah (repost)

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Note:  This story originally appeared as a two-parter way back in 2010, shortly after the events that inspired my writing.  My good friend Joel Hutson is featured prominently in the action; unfortunately, I received word two weeks ago of Joel’s unfortunate passing.  Today is his memorial, so I thought it would be a good chance to repost this and remember my friend in the way I would like everybody to remember him.  Godspeed, Joel.  I miss you.

Monday, August 9, 2010

11:10am – New Buffalo, MI (approximately)

I’m sitting in the passenger seat of my silver 2002 Saturn SL.  Joel Hutson is driving.  We just switched places, and he’ll drive until we get to Detroit.  Signage indicates we are 240 miles away and closing.

When Joel drives, he sits closer to the wheel than anybody I ever met.  I’m not sure why.  He sits straight up, too, but I do know why:  He’s had back problems the last few years, and sitting like that helps his back.  He looks rather intense as he’s driving, even though he’s pretty laid back right now.

 

I drove out of Libertyville this morning starting at 9am, until we hit Michigan and stopped to refuel.  We’re heading to Detroit for the ballgame tonight, and we’ll head back to Chicago afterwards.  It’s a ways to go to see a sub-.500 team (almost 700 miles round trip), but this is what you do when summer is packing in its tents in a mere two weeks and you’re heading back to school (in my case), or when your wife and daughter head to Minnesota to visit family for the week and you’re left with nothing to do but hit the gym and study for the GRE (in Joel’s case).

Joel is from Michigan and has never been to Comerica Park, even though he’s a lifelong Tigers fan.  I’ve sold him on the idea that it is the best park in baseball, and we need to make the trip to see it.  This will be my fourth time.

12:12pm – Comstock Township

Joel wants salsa with the chips we’ve opened and put on the dash.  I can’t find a good place for the jar, so I tell him to put it between his legs.  He hesitates, “Is the jar cold?”

“Why does it matter?  Are you planning on having kids and you gotta keep your nuts within range of some mean temperature?”

He holds the jar in one hand and dips his chips with the other.  As he drives.  In the rain.

We’re listening to Feelin’ Alright:  The Very Best of Traffic on the stereo.  I’m lost in taking some notes on what we’re doing.  A few songs play, and then Joel comments, “It’s always good to reach climax.”  I look up from my journal and see him smirking.  He points to a road sign, and I see that we’re passing the exit for Climax, MI.  He’s amused with himself.  I don’t feel anything.

12:22pm

It’s raining hard.  I’m worried that the game might get rained out.  I’ve been to over 75 baseball games and never had a rainout.  I wonder if luck is catching up to me.

Joel and I used to work together.  He used to teach Science at ZBTHS, where I’m still a Reading Specialist.  We’ve been friends since 2004, at least.  My first memory of our friendship is him showing up at the pub crawl I host.  My second memory is the first time we went to a ballgame.  The Brewers were hosting the Mariners.  Ichiro went on to break George Sisler’s single-season hits record that year.  It was easy to see how he did it:  He laid down a bunt in the 7th inning, and was half way to first before the ball hit the ground.

I can’t remember how or why Joel and I became friends.  My best guess is that when he started teaching, we got into a conversation about something; saw each other around school a bunch of times.  Maybe we were with a bunch of other teachers for drinks after work and started palling around.  Most of my work friendships start that way.

12:45pm – east of Battle Creek

We make a pit stop at a Love’s gas station / convenience store.  I see a Lindt Black Currant chocolate bar, which I’ve never seen before.  I buy it.  It’s pretty damn good.

We’ll arrive in Detroit far ahead of the 7pm game time, which means we can walk around the stadium and Joel can take it all in.  I keep telling him that he’s going to be stunned when he witnesses the awesomeness of Comerica.  I guarantee it.  We can also watch batting practice, which I haven’t done for I don’t know how long.

Each summer, Plan A is always to take in a good deal of ballgames in Milwaukee and Chicago.  I usually manage 8-10, but those numbers have fallen since I’ve been saddled with a  mortgage the last four years.  Plan A is still in effect, but I’m feeling stale.  I haven’t made it to Wrigley yet this year, and I may well not given how god-awful the Cubs are playing.  I refuse to patronize the park, though if tickets happen my way, I’ll probably take them.  As for Milwaukee, I’ve just burned out.  They still have a hearbeat this season, but I’ve been to Miller Park five times already and need a change of pace.  So why not coax one of my buds into making a roadtrip to Detroit?  I call it Plan B.

Since we’ll get to Detroit so early, I think it will be a good idea to hit the casino.  Some winnings might pay for our tickets and more.  Otherwise, we’ll scalp some tickets.  If the game is cancelled because of rain, we hope that tomorrow is a double-header.  We’ll get a hotel room for tonight and go to both games tomorrow.

4:30pm – MGM Grand Casino, downtown Detroit

It takes me a half hour to lose $60 playing penny slots.

6:30pm – between Hockeytown Cafe and Comerica Park

I’ve done little more than aggravate most of the scalpers around the ballpark for the past ninety minutes.  They’re looking for more tickets, and we’re looking for any tickets.  We try to stay ahead of them as we walk around and see who has anything they want to get rid of.  They keep soliciting me; I keep waving them off.  One scalper offers us some super-cheap seats, “just so you’ll get outta my way,” he grumbles, but I refuse his deal when he changes his price as I reach for some cash.  Eventually, we settle for a pair of cheap seats in the 300s.

7:30pm – section 337, row 12, seats 3 and 4, Comerica Park

Joel just finished an entire 14” cheese pizza, minus one piece I ate.  I am never short of amazed at how dude can pack away the food.  I had to tempt him to even try the chocolate—“I don’t eat sweets”—but he inhales an entire pizza?

It’s not the first time I’ve witnessed Joel’s power-eating skills.  If you ever make it to my Casmir Pulaski Memorial Poker Game, be sure you eat some chili first thing, because once Joel starts on it, it will be disappear like water down a drain.  A few years ago, Joel busted early in one round and went for some food.  When I walked into the kitchen a little later, he was licking chili off the insides of the crock pot.  He looked up when he heard me enter.  His eyes were glazed.  Bits of tomato and onion were stuck to his face.  Beef juice ran down his neck.  I told him I had a snorkel he could use if he thought it would help him.

Since then, he has never stopped obsessing about that chili.  His wife says he brings it up at least every week.  His other obsessions include Mars Cheese Castle and digging up dinosaur bones.  You might say he’s a bit unusual, but that doesn’t get in the way of him being a good friend.

What continues to amaze me about Joel is that he is the most physically fit person I know– he’s 5’9”, 150 lbs, and has a chiseled six pack; even the most hulking muscle heads at the gym eye him with envy.  He still wears clothes he bought when he was in high school.  Yet he inhales food in a way that most of us would regret if we tried it.

9:45pm – bottom of the 8th inning

Jeff Frazier cranks a homer over the left field wall.  It’s enough to pull the Tigers within one run of the Rays and for us to hope we’ll be in for an exciting finish to what has been a pretty decent game.

10:05pm – top of the 9th inning

The Rays score two runs on four straight hits.  The game is now out of the Tigers’ reach.  They fall 6-3.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

12:30am – 15 miles east of Benton Harbor, MI

I think my Saturn can go 400 miles on the tank of gas we bought yesterday morning near New Buffalo.  I’m not sure, but I’m interested in trying because I like to test limits.  Joel isn’t as excited about this as I am.  He suggests several places to stop and refuel.  I ignore him.

The odometer reads 394 when a Michigan state trooper pulls us over.  As he approaches the car, Joel quickly informs me, “He can’t search your car unless he has a warrant or if you give him permission.  Don’t let him tell you he’s going to search it; he doesn’t have that right.”

The trooper taps on my window with his flashlight.  I roll it down a few inches.  He stoops, makes eye contact, and asks, “Are you in a hurry to get somewhere?”

“No.”

“Do you know what the speed limit is?”

“Yes.”

“What is it?”

“75.”

“It’s 70.  It’s not 91.”  I don’t react.  He’s waiting for me to comment or agree or apologize or I don’t know what.  This is true to cop form when they nail you for speeding–  they try to get you to incriminate yourself.  He wants an angle or an excuse or something more that he can act on, but I don’t budge.

He takes my license and registration back to his car.  I tell Joel I’m probably going to get a ticket since I’m out of state.  Joel suggests that I roll my window down all the way because not doing so is disrespectful and is pissing off the cop.  I don’t think the cop is particularly pissed; nor would I say he is happy.  I don’t move the window.

The cop returns.  “Have you guys been drinking tonight?”  His tone of voice tells me he’s mastered what I suppose is a critical skill for a cop– making an accusation sound like a question.

“No.”

“Roll your window down some more.”  I roll it down more than half way.  “Are you trying to hide something?”  Again, an accusation.

“No.  Nothing to hide.”

He hands me my license and registration.  “Let’s slow it down.”

“Sure thing.”

We stop six miles later and fill up.  There was still a gallon and a half of gas in the tank.  We could have gone 450.  I smile and laugh, “I just got out of a huge speeding ticket!”

A flat smile breaks across Joel’s face.  He shakes his head, turns the engine over, and we start the final leg of the trip.

Before we got pulled over, we had spent an hour and a half talking about relationships, responsibilities, missed opportunities, and rare but satisfying victories.  Those conversations are half the purpose behind these trips; the other half is to experience the freedoms of life that sometimes fall in our laps.  Our karma gets jacked up, and sometimes crazy good things happen.  We’ll remember what we did as much as what we said within in the confines of my Saturn.  This is how men do it; not with cosmos while watching Steel Magnolias or while sipping a latte at Starbucks after a day of shopping, but in the wee hours on a dark highway after we’ve gnawed off a big raw hunk of life, while our hands are grimy and the juices are still running down our chins.

3:15am – Gurnee, IL

I collapse on my bed, no worse for the wear of the day other than being extraordinarily tired.  My cat nuzzles me and purrs.  It’s nice to know I was missed.

The deed is done.  Joel and I will still talk about this in ten years.  He’ll add it to his list of obsessions, below the chili and Mars Cheese Castle—his cerebral experiences will never outrank the physical sensations of food in his mind.  He’s a bit unusual, but a good friend.  As for me, I can wrap up summer and head back to school confident that I scored a substantive last hurrah.  Right now, I need sleep.

Written by seeker70

November 18, 2018 at 6:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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