Sunday, September 23, 2007

Time Stops Here

The following was submitted to The First Line last January for their very specific needs. If you're not familiar with this particular lit journal, they give you the first line and you have to write a story from there. Below is my attempt:


Time Stops Here

In Pigwell, time is not measured by days or weeks but by the number of eighteen wheelers that drive past my house. So, my guess is when the factory shut down, time couldn’t help but stop.

Don’t it seem like nothing ever stops all at once? This place really ain’t any different. What happened here was more like the last puddle in a drought, though; it just gets smaller and smaller until there ain’t nothin’ left but mud. One month the trucks were flowin’ by—headed west with steel and wire and crates of who-knows-what; headed east with big boxes of stuff from the factory. The next month, the trucks were only headed east. Last time a semi went through here, it didn’t carry anythin’ but the innards of a man’s gutted future.

Pigwell never was great or sprawlin’ by anyone’s standards, but after the factory went belly-up, this town rolled over with it. Since pretty much everyone who lived here worked there, it wasn’t really any big surprise. At least not to me it wasn’t. I saw it comin’. All those people without any money, and the stores couldn’t help but dry up and blow away, like the dust of a ruined riverbed.

You know what they say: “Last one out’s a rotten egg.”

Looks like I’m gonna be the rotten egg in this one.

If I didn’t own the only bar left in this town, I probably woulda blown away like all the rest of ‘em. But no matter how tight a man’s pocketbook gets, it’s never so empty he can’t squeeze out a little cash to get himself tight, too. Like my daddy always said, “Booze don’t make the hurtin’ go away but it sure does lubricate the trip.”

I suppose when the money dries up completely, I’ll be outta here myself.

When Frank Petrie came here a dozen years ago and built his factory out in the scrubby fields, I bet he never saw this comin’. Of course, the Frank Petrie I met years ago wouldn’a been able to see it. He was so damn full of life then, he fairly crackled with it. The whole mess is too damn bad if you ask me. A man puts everythin’ he is into buildin’ his dream—into breakin’ out on his own—only to see it crap out on him; that, sir, is a horror no man should hafta face. Frank faced it for as long as he could, I guess, but finally, he couldn’t take it no more. I saw him leavin’ town a while back. He stopped in here for one last belt.

He wasn’t cracklin’ anymore; he was crawlin’.

The other day, Danny Watkins—he was Frank’s foreman once upon a time… Well, Danny was in here, sittin’ at my bar, doin’ his best to crawl into the bottom of one of my whiskey bottles. All of a sudden, he started goin’ on and on about how Frank Petrie was a crook, and how he’d screwed Pigwell. Before I knew it, I was mad as a wet cat. I cut him off of my booze, then I told him to get the hell out of my bar. That shut him up, and he got real sorry then, but he shoulda known better than to talk that kind of trash in my place. He’s banned for life. Well, he’s banned for as long as I own this place, which don’t look like it’s gonna be too much longer.

Don’t get me wrong. Danny was one of the only people left in town with money, but no amount of money from him or anyone else is ever gonna be enough for me to put up with that crap.

Especially not in my own place.

After all, Danny Watkins’s kind of thinkin’ is what got folks into this mess in the first place, only they don’t know it. Don’t shake your head at me. I’ve had more than my fair share of time to think about it. It’s what killed the factory, and this hole some idiot christened Pigwell along with it.

What most folks don’t know is that a man can work himself damn near to death buildin’ something for himself and while he’s doin’ that, other people can work along with him—each profitin’ from it in their own way. Frank worked his ass off for that place. All the folks here, as long as they were willin’ to put in the work, got pretty comfortable off Frank’s place. Everything was goin’ fine until one day, those fools got to thinkin’ that because they worked so hard and all, they were entitled to somethin’ more.

Old foreman Danny got them all together and decided they were gonna ask the owner for a cut—their share of the money, they said. The damned fools didn’t know they were already gettin’ a cut every time they got a paycheck. I mean, Christ, half of them guys didn’t even graduate high school and they were makin’ more than some college fellas I know.

Well, this little… uh… idea of theirs came right after they’d all gotten their fat yearly raises, but the money still wasn’t enough. They saw the owner driving a Mercedes while they were driving Chevys; they saw him living in a big house in the valley while they were living in town. So, they figured they deserved a bigger piece of the pie. Of course, when they asked Frank he said ‘not yet’. He wouldn’t have minded, but it wasn’t the time for spendin’ money. Seems he was waitin’ for a big order to come through, and he had to sink every spare penny into buyin’ raw materials.

Did anyone here think of that? Nope. Everybody at that meeting came back to town and what they’d heard him say was ‘No’; he didn’t say ‘No’, mind you, he just said ‘not yet’, but that wasn’t what they heard. Or maybe they heard him right and just didn’t care.

The next day, the whole lot of them got together—right here in my bar—and after a dozen beers, they hemmed and hawed and belched and burped, and when it was done, they’d voted to go on strike. Then they all patted each other on the backs and staggered home to sleep, or to pass out, or whatever those idiots do when they’ve drunk themselves stupid.

Now, they didn’t strike right away. No, they waited until the moment was perfect; when they could do the most damage. It was right about the time when the factory was due to fill that really important order, actually. Then, the whole crew walked away from the line. Before Frank even had a chance to blink, they sent Danny up to the office with a list of what they said they needed, and one demand: pay up or else.

What the hell was Frank supposed to do when they had him by the short hairs like that? He melted quicker than a snowman in April. The whole lot of them got raises, better bennies, longer vacations. Jesus, they were livin’ like kings. Some of them guys were makin’ twice what I was makin’, and I owned my own place.

Lucky for them, the order got out on time, and the company got paid for it. But in the end, the company paid for it—if you know what I mean.

Before anyone knows it, the factory is slowly bleeding to death, and I’m ashamed to say, a lot of their blood was seepin’ into this place. I’m not complainin’ about that part, mind you. I’m just sayin’.

Then, all the boys from the factory start showin’ here up at any time of the day. I asked Hank—he worked on the assembly line—what he thought he was doin’ playin’ hooky in the middle of the day, and he just winked at me. Another one of the boys told me they could do whatever they wanted and if Frank had a problem with that, they’d make sure to hold up some orders, just to teach him who was really boss.

It wasn’t long after that the trucks stopped and time petered out for Pigwell.

I don’t expect to be here much longer. Most folks who had any sense have headed out, looking for wetter places to put down roots. Hell, I heard even Danny went east to find work. And old Hank? Last I heard, he’s moppin’ floors at some place up near the city, makin’ half of what Frank was payin’ him, even before the big strike-raise.

Me? Oh, I’m headed out, too. Time is stoppin’ in too many places around these parts. Too many other Franks are gettin’ showed who’s boss, I guess. I heard tell of a place somewhere up in the mountains where things aren’t so bad. Maybe I can open another bar; put down roots of my own, you know. Maybe I can go up there to wait it out, and hope time starts back up again.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Bad Fluffy Bunny

Below is the pre-cursor to a cute sci-fi story I have brewing in the back of my head. It's the story of attempted conquest by a race of vicious conquerors, and how mankind is saved by one of its inventions.

Oh, and I forgot to mention... The vicious conquerors look like cute, fluffy bunnies.



Bad Fluffy Bunny

"I have achieved my objective. The atmosphere here appears to be quite breathable and I am outfitted for the long journey into one of their metropolitan areas. I will probably be out of radio contact for a short while and then I will contact you with my coordinates. Do you have any further instructions before I set out?”

The radio crackled once and then there was silence. Bob waited patiently; he knew that transmitting a signal through layers of atmosphere could sometimes be difficult. They would make the proper adjustments soon enough. Bob was right and the radio crackled into life. "Commander Bob, we have received orders that you must reach the metropolitan area by nightfall. It appears that some of the leaders are beginning to lose their appetite for this mission, and if you are not able to achieve some measurable and immediate progress on your own down there, they may pull the plug. Do you understand what is at stake in this?”

Bob shook his head. This was just like those lily-livered pansies. No guts for what needed to be done. “How many other worlds have I landed on and accomplished the objectives they’d set before me?” he thought. “This world with its backward technology will be like any other. Walk in. Set up base camp. Find a suitable area for landing the armada. Piece of cake.”

“I understand what is at stake, sir.” Bob said. “It will be no problem to reach the nearest metropolitan area and set up base. If research is as correct as it has always been then we should have control of this world long before the nay-sayers get any foothold with the world council.”

"Then go to it, Commander. And may the gods watch over you.”

More and more often, it seemed, the leaders of the world council were losing their stomach for this kind of work. Some of them seemed to think that they no longer had the right to take what they wanted, to do as they pleased. A few even suggested that they had never had the right to do it.

“Bah!” Bob said aloud as he stepped over to the airlock door. He could see the image of himself in the glass, and admired the handsome face looking back at him. The airlock buzzed and then opened onto a still and quiet morning in the forest glade he had chosen for his landing site. Bob walked forth and breathed deeply the clean fresh air. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a brightly colored flash moving past him. He watched as it landed on a branch and began to sing. He quickly pulled something from his pack and then just as quickly replaced it. Humming to himself, he was walking out of the glade by the time the cardinal’s body dropped from the tree.

The travel was easy in the countryside, and he made good time. Bounding between the tall trees and over the moss covered rocks, Bob didn’t have time to notice the other creatures quietly watching him from their hiding places. He didn’t have time to wonder that some of them looked curiously like his own race. The long ears and twitching noses of any heathen impostors held no interest for him; he had work to do. His legs worked furiously and he covered the ground as he never had before.

When he stopped briefly to rest, he reflected that this world seemed as if it had been built for his people, and if circumstances were different it was a world upon which they could have lived quite happily for many generations, but that was not the plan. Soon, his people would have harvested everything they wanted from this world and then, like so many worlds before it, they would lay waste to those things they did not want. Bob smiled at the memories of the dozens of worlds that lay behind him—scorched and dead—and the hundreds more that lay ahead.

The sun was high overhead when he finally reached some sign of the civilized races that inhabited this world. “Civilized?” he thought as he reached a hard gray surface, painted down the center with parallel yellow lines. “Bah,” he exclaimed as his weapon appeared once more and blazed a hole through the center of the road. “These beasts will soon learn what civilization is all about. When my people come and take this world, they will see.”


"Ah was born to be a truck-drivin’ cowboy,” Hank sang from his perch over the 330HP diesel engine of his Mack. “Ah was born to be a cowboy drivin’ truck!” His voice filled the cab; his only accompaniment, the sound of the highway beneath his wheels. “An’ if Ah die today, pleeze let the good Lord say… Sunuvabitch!” His song stopped abruptly as he whipped the steering wheel harshly to the left, narrowly avoiding a sinkhole that had developed in the road ahead.

His brain barely registered the critter trying to get out his path.


“Mission Control to Commander Bob, come in Bob,” the radio at the ship crackled to life, but the ship itself was cold and silent.

“Sir. We have been unable to reach Bob for several weeks now. How should we proceed?”
Inside a vast metallic ball hidden safely behind the moon, a large gray rabbit stood thoughtfully scratching the fur between his ears. It was unlike Bob to stay out of contact with the ship for longer than it took to complete his mission, and his mission should have been completed within several days not several weeks. Although he was loathe to abandon Bob, he had to admit that if no word had been received from the commander by now, no word would likely ever come.

The captain stood in thought so long that the young communications officer was afraid the old buck hadn’t heard. “Sir?” he ventured. “About the mission? Homeworld is expecting an answer. We need to…”

“I’m well aware of what we need to do, young one,” the gray said quietly but firmly. He’d been at this game too long already, and he was one of the many who had lost his taste for the job of conquest. Still, he’d worked with Bob too long to just give up. On the verge of commanding another sweep of the surface, he stopped. He knew already what the answer would be. No sign of his advance officer. No sign but the soft crackle of a radio in a ship that would never be used again. After all this time, he had to finally admit to himself that Bob was dead.

"Tell Homeworld that the mission was a bust. Announce this world as unconquered and unconquerable.”

"Sir? Why? We’ve never had to do that before.”

"Any world that could take out Bob, is more world than we can handle. Initiate auto-destruct for Bob’s ship. We cannot leave any trace behind.”

Later, in his quarters deep within the metallic ball rolling quickly through the galaxy on its way home, the captain sat in thought. After some time, he began a job he never thought he’d have to do, and prayed he’d never have to do again. He needn’t have worried. This would be their last mission—their last attempt at conquest. The mission had failed and it was that failure that had finally swayed the great Homeworld council to leave behind the days of conquest and pillage.

But not only had the mission failed, a great warrior had been lost in the process.

"Let it be written on this day, that Commander Bob was sent forth to scout the fourth planet from the star in the system locally known as Sol with the intention of initiating a landing zone for our armada. Let it also be written that the commander was lost during this mission to forces on that planet which were beyond his abilities. The planet, known locally as Earth, is hereby posted as ‘Off Limits’ to all of our brethren and our allies.”

"If we cannot have this world, let no species have it. Bob would have wanted it that way.”

Friday, September 7, 2007

Upon the Stage

This piece was written years ago, more as a recorded memory than a fiction piece. Think of this as flexing my writing muscles. This was one of the many first exercises before I completed my first novel.

Upon the Stage

Peering through the crack in the door she could see the auditorium filling and she flexed her fingers. After four years, one would think she wouldn’t be so nervous before the annual Spring Concert. The year before she’d risen to the honor of first chair flute and had been the soloist. She’d been nervous then, but this was something different. Maybe because it was her last year; maybe it was because she was playing piccolo this year instead of flute. She wasn’t sure.

She turned away from the door again, but the band room didn’t hold any appeal. She could hear the various other instruments tuning up and practicing one final time. If she went over the piece one more time, she could make certain of those trills, but the thought caused the butterflies in her stomach to break mach 3. Maybe she could straighten her uniform for the millionth time.

As she entered the bathroom, she caught a glimpse of herself – blue trousers, blue suit coat, tuxedo shirt – complete with ruffles, bowtie. She looked awesome. Taking her brush out of her purse, she brushed her hair to a sparkling glow. It was time.

Back in the band room, her friends and fellow band members were lining up for entry onto the stage. She waved at Janine who shifted her oboe and waved back. Janine would soon be headed off to Michigan State. She nodded to Joe who smiled and went back to practicing fingerings on his sax. He would be off to U of M. Many of them would be leaving high school soon – off into the world and the future.

Taking her place, she turned to look at Don – the new first chair flute – and smiled. She thought about the day when he had won the chair position from her. He was good; he practiced hard; he deserved to lead the flutes. She hadn’t tried to beat him – which bothered her still – but she already had her sights set on taking the piccolo position. It was a simple shift, and she still lead the section. Tonight would be her first public piccolo performance of the one piece that had scared her four years ago. On the flute, it was difficult; on the much smaller piccolo, it was excruciating.

As they ascended the stage, she scanned the crowd. Far in the back, she could make out her other friend, Maria, who had come for moral support. She suppressed the urge to wave. Concert flautists didn’t wave and she was ‘in the zone’. In the middle to the left she spotted her parents. Dad was wearing that powder blue suit coat, which would have bothered her at any other time, but was strangely comforting tonight. Mom looked great.

The entire band took their places, standing straight and proud before their chairs. The teacher nodded and as one they took their seats. He raised his baton and the music began. Each piece sounded flawless to her ears and she was playing better than she had ever played in her life. But she knew that those pieces were nothing compared to what was scheduled for the last piece.

Finally, the program was coming to a close. It was nearly time. The conductor tapped his baton on the podium and they raised their instruments to their lips in one fluid motion. Her body was poised in the perfect shape of an L – back straight, head held high. And Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever began.

She was never so proud in her life. The notes were coming from the piccolo as if it had a life of its own, but she knew that she was the one who gave it life. Never before – and never since – had she played with such precision and such clarity. The trills, which had always given her trouble, were easy beneath her fingers.

When the final notes were still lingering in the air, the conductor lifted his arms and they rose again and bowed. He nodded and the senior members of the band walked to center stage. The crowd rose to its feet and the applause was deafening. She bowed one last time upon the stage and lead her band slowly down the steps.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Reflections of an Unpublished Writer

Below is an essay I wrote for a writers forum I belonged to last year. This got mixed reviews. Some people thought it was uplifting; others thought it was depressing as hell. I fall in the former category. This business of writing can only get you down as long as you let it. This is the story of breaking free of the vicious circle of depression and writer's block, of moving forward past the pain.

I hope you'll find it as uplifting as I do.

Reflections of an Unpublished Writer

After weeks, or months or years, sitting at your keyboard trying to get a story out of your head, you type those most wonderful words: The End. You’ve finished your first book! You feel like dancing around the house (and maybe you do, just because you can). You open a bottle of champagne (or a beer, or a bottle of Boones Farm) and bask in the glow of being amongst the few who started writing a book and actually finished it. Feeling pretty proud of yourself, you strut around your house like a god. (And why not? You should be damned proud of yourself because you have accomplished a great feat.)

But eventually, the inevitable question arises: What now?

Maybe you pick up The Writer’s Market and start attaching sticky notes to every agent who looks like they might represent you. You know you aren’t really sure what you’re doing, but you shrug and pick the one absolutely perfect agent who is certain to love your book as much as you do.

You read a little bit about what the agent wants you to send, mainly because you know there’s got to be some kind of procedure for this. Then you think to yourself: What in gods’ name is a query? You shrug and put together a reasonable looking business letter, and mail it off with a return envelope. (Assuming you’ve figured out what SASE stands for, that is.) Time passes and your envelope comes back. Your heart swells with expectation, never thinking its contents could be anything but glowing praise, only to find a nice letter inside telling you while your work isn’t for them, they’re sure you’ll find an agent in no time.

Bruised but not broken, you whip out your big book of agent names, and pick a few more. After all, Perfect Agent was sure one of his brethren would snap you right up. Same letter, different names and off they go into the blue box on the corner. And you wait.

A few more days (weeks, etc.) pass and all your little envelopes find their ways home with more rejections—all pretty much worded the same as the first. More queries go out; more rejections come back. You kick yourself, and cry a little maybe. You throw your big book of agents across the room, and curse the day they were born. You go through all the phases of loss: Anger, Denial, etc. until you get to the inevitable Acceptance.

You suck. Now you're cursing the day you were born.

Weeks go by, and dust covers your keyboard. You thought your words glowed like the sheen of love on a young girl’s face. Now you just think you’re a hack.

Finally, however, your creative juices reach their boiling point. You can’t take it anymore; you can’t NOT write, so you sit back down at your computer. You start writing your next book.

But your confidence is toast. When you started out the last time, you knew without a doubt that you could write. There was nothing to it, and the words flowed out of your fingers like a dam had burst somewhere along the Colorado River. Now, it’s like Death Valley.

Hopefully, a little light bulb goes off over your head. When you first started writing—way back when you were in 2nd grade and your teacher made you write about your summer vacation—you were learning how to put words together to make some kind of cohesive story. It was a learning process then; it is a learning process now.

Hopefully, a little voice in your head tells you to figure out what went wrong with the last book. You do some research. You pick a whole new list of agents who really do represent your genre. You find out what a real query letter looks like. You find out how to write something called a hook. You read everything you can get your grubby little hands on. When you’ve learned everything there is to know about the business, you try again.

In the meantime, maybe you realize your writing, as wonderful as it is, needs some fine tuning and a little more polish. While revising and editing your first book, you keep writing your second book, tweaking and shining until it really does glow. A short story or two come to mind, and you pour those words onto the paper while you mull over your novels.

You never quit. Because NOT writing would be like not breathing.

Maybe you’re still waiting for your acceptance letter to come. Maybe it’s waiting in line behind another slew of rejections. Or perhaps, it’s waiting because you just haven’t queried the right agent yet. But no matter what happens, if you’ve done your work, you have done your best to kick the obstacles out of your way. And you can come to realize no matter what has happened or will happen...

You are a writer.