Memories of Ligea, (excerpt 3)

[Janelle’s Dream, a mad ride]

It is the summer of 1969 and Janelle is a pink and blonde blur as she crests the hill on Temple Avenue and her bicycle begins to pick up speed. A electric thrill shoots through her like the spray of foam topping a surging wave of fear.

In her mind, she hears her father’s voice, “Well you did it today, Janelle. You took one too many chances and now you’ve gotten yourself in real trouble.” But between panted breathes she answers him aloud, “They won’t catch me today, papa. They won’t!”

She bites her tongue and tastes the copper of blood as she flashes past the playground, nearly catching a pedal on the curbing as she streaks through the turn onto Temple Avenue. Just a second behind, Joey and Benny flash past like bicycle banshees chasing her bobbing blonde ponytail, just out of reach, taunting them. She pedals furiously, leaning over the handlebars and catches a glimpse of them when she ducks her head and looks back.  She pumps the full weight of her twelve-year old body with every stroke and stretches away from them down the tree-lined street.

***

[posting this as I finish it]

Advertisements

Sage Advice

[how i generally react to even the sagest advice offered me about writing as craft]

Topic II – As Much as any Writer, Characters Need a Reason for Being

Lesson A: Waitresses

The sage says, “You can’t have a waitress simply walk into your story, take an order, then walk out. She has to be there for a reason. Otherwise, why bother writing her in?”

Indeed.

***

Kim fishes a Camel from Tim’s pack and lights it. “We’ve been waiting for hours. What’s so important we had to come to a diner? I could have cooked.”

“Just give it a minute more.” Tim smiles wanly and stares towards the door to the kitchen, fairly willing it to swing open at any moment. His head throbs. He rubs his temple but smiles at Kim.

“Look!” Kim crushes out her cigarette. “That pizza place across the street seems nice. See the people walking out? They look contented. Full. Some even have leftovers. Jesus! That’s it. I’m going across the street.”

Kim knifes her hand at Tim’s face and stands. “This is why,” she says, “this is why we never go out. This… this-right-fucking-here.” She lights another cigarette and blows smoke in his face as she passes. She  swings the front door open, and says (more to room than to Tim), “Leave it to you to pick the one goddamn place in the city without a single fucking waitress.”

The doors swings shut and Tim’s stomach growls miserably. He smiles in the empty diner and wishes for a waitress.

 

Remember

 

“Do they grow stones here, daddy?”’

This question from my daughter in stiff black dress and red canvas shoes. She points across the field as she looks up at me with her mother’s bright green eyes. I follow her hand but see only gravestones. She has her mother’s imagination.

I bend to retie one incongruous red shoe and remember this morning in her bedroom, standing in a soft pool of sunlight, talcum powder, and cotton. She silently accepts the dress slipped over raised arms. Little fingers work buttons, big fingers work laces. She accepts the dress as I accept the shoes, quietly, without remark, neither of us wanting to disturb the increasing silence of our home.

Her mother wore red shoes as we folded into each other in a field like this, warm sun and youthful passion dissolving clothes, grasses joining us in embrace.

“Why do we remember, daddy?”

I smell earth and carefully tended grass. Why do we remember? Do we remember to deny the hours passing since powerless hospital men covered the world with a sheet? Are these litanies of rote remembrance for the departed? Ourselves? For whom?

Endlessly we walk the same paths until remembrance, rutted and worn, no longer stirs the heart, and feet stumble free.

“Come on daddy. Everybody’s waiting. We have to remember mommy.” Her face puzzles at my tears, then those bright eyes, her mother’s eyes, have the answer. “It’s okay daddy. I know why we remember.

So we won’t forget.

Conrad, (excerpt 7)

*** Conrad ***

The Company Termination Order appears on his display and Conrad jots down the names in his notebook as quickly as he can. He’s seen CTOs before but never one with this many names. Twenty, maybe thirty names. Names Conrad has no recognition of until the point of his pencil snaps as he writes: “Conrad White.” The fingers of his left hand stumble over the keypad and his green status light begins to blink, about to flash yellow, alerting a Surveyor. Conrad takes a deep breath and reads slowly, “Conrad White, Sector ///-/, High Overlord Companion.”

Terror wells up in Conrad’s mind and he attacks his keypad with both hands, turning his status light solidly green. Conrad knew an unfortunate worker was usually listed on a CTO with his job description. But Conrad worked in the Company’s Data Transcription section. What his exact job title was even he wasn’t sure since the Company moved workers around and changed job duties so often it was impossible to keep track. And Conrad realized it didn’t matter because he, like thousands and thousands of others were simply workers, working for The Company, how the Company chose to describe the menial jobs they did, was of no consequence. But this CTO listed Conrad’s extra duty as High Overlord Companion and that was very unusual. In fact, being the High Overlord’s Companion was something that was barely spoken of, much less written about in an official Company transmission.

Questions raced through his mind as documents flashed by unnoticed on the display. Why terminate him? If he had committed any offense, there would be a record of the charge, and surely one of the mysterious people from the notebook drops and the extra rations would have warned him. But he’d received no warning. Not that there were anything he could have done about it if he had. But a CTO? He couldn’t understand it.

Conrad knew from the messages he intercepted every day that the decision to put a worker on a termination order required a meeting of the Company Regional Council before the council could advise the High Overlord, who would then issue the order. The Company was nothing if not extremely bureaucratic in its decision making. Conrad knew that the council’s next monthly meeting wasn’t for another week and even then it would takes a week or two more after that before the recommendation would be presented to the High Overlord.

Conrad glances around quickly and pulls out his notebook. There was no date on the CTO. The Regional Council would have dated it. He would have recorded that in his notebook. His alarm increases as he realizes that the CTO must have come, not through the regular channels, but from the High Overlord herself. Conrad hides the notebook again. He imagines he has only minutes before the Overseers, Surveyors, and Guardians receive the message across the alert system and they come for him.

Surely, of all people at the factory, Conrad was safe. As the High Overlord’s recreational companion, the things he had done for her should have purchased him safety. She seemed satisfied with her pet. He hadn’t noticed any change in her behavior at last week’s session. She still screamed and wailed with lurid delight at the disgusting things he did to her. If she had been thinking of terminating him, Conrad would have noticed. Besides, letting him know that she wielded that kind of power over him would have heightened her pleasure. But what then? He scans the rows of workstations, careful to move only his eyes and is startled when a Surveyor’s face looms beside him. It wasn’t a face Conrad recognized, not one of the usual Surveyors.

The Surveyor smiles, revealing yellow, uneven teeth. “The High Overlord will see you now. Don’t keep her waiting.” Then he leans to Conrad’s ear and whispers, “Use the maintenance lift.” The Surveyor places his hand on Conrad’s arm, a rectangular ID card is hidden in his palm. “Take this. Go quickly.”

***

Conrad’s face is placid as he walks the corridors to the High Overlord’s suite, but beneath the surface, his mind is a whir. The CTO and his name on it lurches up in his thoughts like dangerous rocks in an angry surf. If the High Overlord had put Conrad’s name on the list, he’s sure to find out during their session. She may even be planning to reveal it to his face to satisfy her sadistic whims. Conrad’s face is a blank mask over his thoughts as an Overseer scans the chip in his palm. Conrad steels himself for the scanner to alarm and for the Overseer to level a weapon at his chest, but he’s waved through the checkpoint and quickly disappears around the corner. He feels the ID card in his pocket and wonders why the Surveyor would give it to him. Who was he? Conrad suspects he has something to do with the notebook drops and extra rations, but there’s no way to be sure. The one thing he is sure of is that by going to the High Overlord’s chambers by the maintenance lift, he’ll avoid a number of checkpoints. Conrad slips the ID card into the reader outside the maintenance lift and steps inside the steel box. The door slides shut and Conrad feels the lift propelling him up the many floors to the High Overlord’s suite.

Now, Conrad stands outside the High Overlord’s suite. Behind him, at the other end of the angling, featureless hallway with its security scanners and seamless walls, and far below, lies the featureless gray of the factory, while in front of him, the doors to the High Overlord’s suite are gleaming polished steel. Conrad angles to see his reflection as he runs his fingers through his hair. Above both doors a placard shouts, “Vanity is Idolatry. Idolatry is Vanity.” Fitting for the High Overlord, Conrad knows. There are no mirrors in her chambers. The doors slide open and Conrad proceeds down the hallway to the checkpoint outside the Great room. He places his palm on the scanner and the display reads, “Please join the High Overlord in her chambers.” He palms the angular pill from his pocket, takes a deep breath, and strides into the polished granite room, certain that he is being watched. He crosses to the bedroom door and opens it with a flourish, tossing the pill into his mouth and grinding it to bitter powder with his teeth.

Conrad steps into the garish, red room and the High Overlord stirs in her recline on her bed. Her white hair hangs limp against her pale skin. The mottled flesh of her arms and the rolls of fat draping her back and side are pressed smooth against the polished granite of the headboard. She presses a button on a device at her side and the security monitor beside her bed goes dark. She clutches a red, silk sheet to her chest and smiles at Conrad contemptuously. She feigns modesty as she says, “It’s good to see you, Conrad,” then lets the red silk fall. Conrad forces a smile. Her body is a mass of overfed flesh, barely resembling a woman’s at all. She’s always had access to any food she wanted, types and varieties that Conrad can only vaguely remember. All her life she’s been able to feed on what she wanted, when she wanted, and there’s never been anyone to tell her to stop. The skin on her arm waggles as she pats the mattress beside her. “Take off those clothes and get over here. You’re late.” Conrad does as he’s commanded, slides into the bed and begins. The High Overlord rolls onto her stomach and moans in anticipation. A knot tightens in Conrad’s stomach.

Conrad has outlasted by many years, every one of the High Overlord’s companions for two reasons; his ability to cast himself out of himself, to vanish into a fog of emotionless nothing; and the small blue pills he discovers at intervals in his extra rations. The pills are the only way Conrad can perform the things the High Overlord demands of him, without an ounce of willingness. Not many men could, or for very long. Conrad was different.

He thinks of the factory, his workstation, the monotony of the typing from the display screen as the chemicals in the pill begin to have their bitter effect. He tries to ignore the building warm pressure between his legs. He knows it from rote memory. Pleasurable at first, and in any other setting, Conrad might welcome the sense of slow uncoiling and increasing hardness the chemicals coursing through his veins caused. But in this setting, the levy-breaking surge of blood, the building of pressure with each thundering heartbeat brought self-contempt. And yet a quivering release of pressure.

Deadline

 

He wrote from experience but this time was different. His hand quivered as he checked his watch. His chest burned. ‘Running out of time,’ he thought. ‘Better hurry.’ His fingers fell to the keyboard, typing quickly:

Jill, slammed the front door – hard. “I’m home!” she announced.

John called over his shoulder, “I’m in the study…” Then under his breath added, “working.” His friends called him “John.” Stan at the ad agency, and Jill, his wife of six months, called him “Jack.” He quickly opened his work file.

“You better be working, Jack. You finish that thing for American Airlines yet?” She rummaged through a drawer in the kitchen.

He sat back and took a drag from his cigarette, blue-gray smoke twisting in the soft light of his laptop. The cursor blinked at the end of the sentence.

He knew he didn’t have time, but it didn’t matter. He gulped a mouthful of whiskey and closed the American file. It seemed inconsequential now. He typed:

Jill bounded up the stairs and into the study. She looked past him to his laptop.

“Working on the American project?” Her eyes narrowed to slits as she studied the writing on the screen.

He waited for her eyes to meet his, but she only stared at the screen.

“What the hell is this? She pointed an angry finger at the screen. “One of your stupid stories? You finish American?”

“Not exactly. I was taking… taking a break.”

She stepped closer, looming over him. “You better get it finished. The deadline is tonight.” She turned to the door and added, “Oh! Daddy talked to Mr. McGintry at the Mercedes dealership. I’m picking up the CLS Monday! Forest Green Metallic.”

He started to speak, but she cut him off. “Daddy got me a deal. Besides, it doesn’t affect you anymore.” She laughed dryly. “You just put that nonsense away and finish your assignment.” Her voice went shrill on “nonsense.” She stopped at the door. “You understand?” Her eyes narrowed. Bright veneers, new and menacing, gleamed through her smiling lips. “Get. To. Work.”

He thought of the airline ticket in the glove box of his car. He waited until she was gone, then went back to his story.

He reached for the whiskey but the pain in his side nearly stopped his hand. The Percocet was wearing off. The glass trembled against his lip as he slipped his other hand into his armpit. It was warm and wet. He washed down three more pills and continued typing:

He leaned back and admired his story, stretching his hands over his head, pleased with himself. He heard her blouse rustle an instant before the mule kick exploded against his side and white-hot pain shot through his chest. He took a ragged breath and heard gurgling under his shirt. Jill stood beside him. He coughed, then collapsed.

He came to, slumped at his desk, his face on the keyboard. Jill stood next to his chair, the steak knife in her gloved hand dripping red blots on the desk. Blood pulsed from the slit between his ribs. Each breath filled his chest with fire. In the glare of the pain, her teeth looked yellow, her lips cracked.

“I found your suitcase, you piece of shit.” Her tone was eerily calm. “You think you can leave me? Oh no! I could never let that happen.”

The screen slipped out of focus and he blinked his eyes. He had to keep typing.

“Where did you think you were going to go? Remember the prenup you signed, genius? I called Daddy. He already transferred your accounts. Go ahead. Write your stupid fiction, your stupid fantasy stories. Daddy was right about you; you’ll never amount to anything. And now it looks like you never will.”

The white came back to her teeth and she grinned, “You’re dying, asshole.”

He shook his head. She lay in the corner of the room, her head twisted awkwardly, a brilliant, scarlet gash across her throat. White powder dusted her hair. He typed:

He whirled around and leapt from his chair, grunting hard against the pain ripping through his chest. He clamped both hands on Jill’s wrist and drove her across the room and hard into the corner. Her head hit the wall in an explosion of plaster and her knees buckled. She dropped the knife and he straddled her as she screamed, “What the fuck do you think you’re doing. How dare you? You fuck!”

He reached for the knife. She stared at him, her lips pressing hard together. Her pupils were almost red. “You fucking…” He slashed the knife across her throat in a vicious backhand. Blood sprayed the wall. Her lips continued moving and mute breath gurgled from her neck.

He gulped air in short, agonizing breathes. His heart pounded. His vision went dark with each stabbing pulse that echoed in his temples. He dumped her purse and grabbed the Percocet, shook four pills into his hand, and struggled to his chair.

The dial of his watch slipped in and of focus. Blood ran down his thigh and pooled on the carpet, wet and matted under his feet. His finger smeared blood as it traced the words on the screen.

I just wanted to write… His lips moved but the words were only in his head.

THE END

Sleep of the Lion, 3

A few moments later she was just lowering her hand from pushing a golden shock of hair from her face when the door opened. Though she did not immediately recognize him, she smiled at the man standing there. He wore a floor-length smoking jacket of blood red silk, emblazoned from hem to shoulder with ornate embroidery like elaborate jade fire. His face wore a pleasing inquisitive look.

“Dr. Leoniss?” she asked, hesitantly. “I’m here with your book. To return it.”

For a moment, their eyes fixed on each other and she was certain the man was Dr. Leoniss. It was his eyes, she remembered, that first drew her to him, warm eyes like pools of fine whiskey, a rich amber color sparkling with  light and energy when they were fixed on a thing, when they studied something intently, as they were studying her right now. Patient eyes, full of the wisdom of long experience, watchful, content to wait for what they wanted.

His silver hair was combed back along his temples, its natural wave restrained by comb and brush only to become a luxurious tangle in the back, flowing over the collar of his jacket.

He took the book from her and held it to read its spine. He spoke softly, almost to himself. “I’d almost forgotten where this one had gotten to. It’s very rare. How did I ever lend it out? Thank you. You’re very kind to return it.” He stepped aside and, still looking at the book, motioned her into his apartment.

Beyond his outstretched hand, the apartment presented a long, unlighted corridor stretching away from the door. The corridor was unremarkable, and with the exception of a few doors and arched doorways, featureless. The lines of intersection between walls and floor and ceiling converged in perspective to some imagined meeting point away in the darkness.

She hesitated before stepping inside, dizzy and just a bit alarmed, though she didn’t know by what. She was uncertain; the impulse that stopped her feet was sharp but too momentary and faint to be easily defined. The apartment, framed as it was by the door casement, seemed to materialize like a time-lapse movie of a painter’s canvas or the slow unfolding of an origami swan.

Some sense within her was disoriented by the apparent spaciousness of the apartment within the doorframe and what seemed possible given the building’s and the outside hallway’s dimensions. She looked down the hallway then back at the apartment, back and forth, several times, dumbfounded by the trick of depth perception.

The hallway outside his apartment extended to the left twenty feet at the most. Midway down the hallway, a single, bare fluorescent bulb blinked and stuttered, casting everything in a sickly yellow strobe. At the end of the hallway was a dirty window and through it she could see several windows of the apartment in the next buildings, only feet apart across a narrow alley. Yet, the corridor leading through his apartment seemed to extend forever.

The hallway seemed to close in around her. The man patiently extending his hand in welcome looked pale and drawn in the flickering yellow light. He smiled.

“Please,” he said, “Come inside. Escape that hideous light.”

She stepped into the room and felt the space expand to accommodate her.

“When did I give you this?” he said, passing the book in front of her face, as if trying to distract her from looking around his apartment.

Sleep of the Lion, 2

Three men had been killed and the city was ablaze in panic and fear, but before that, not a day went by, she was certain of it, when a woman wasn’t killed or assaulted in the city. She shook her head and glanced at note in her hands. She looked up at the building in front of her. 137 Lion Street.

***

To the casual observer, Lion Street presented a seamless facade of gentrification, smooth and pleasing to the eye. But to Madeline it was a sterile place. Lion Street had once been a thriving center of commerce in the city, but the vitality of it had been slowly asphyxiated, year over year, by unimaginative urban planners who could only see profits.

Where there had once been airy workshops and small retail stores, each building different, built by different owners for different purposes, unique in character, scents, and sounds, now the buildings oozed a mute, uniform sheen, the colors, shapes, and textures of the building materials and designs seemingly chosen to present no particular distinctiveness, like items selected from a mail-order catalog. All marble and hand-polished woods of foyers and entranceways for the high-end condos and loft apartments above.

“Living space for the affluent dead,” she thought.

As pervasive as the gentrification was however, it was incomplete, and Building 137 represented the exception that proves the rule, one jagged, yellowed tooth in the otherwise perfect smile of the street.

Set back from the street and shorter than its neighbors arching into the black above it, the building at 137 Lion Street cowered in shadow with the air of a desolate high mountain pass.

The black door with its small brass numerals and silver pull, sitting plainly as it did unadorned in the center of the building’s facade, could have been the entrance to a building, a cave, or another dimension. A faint acrid odor wafted  in the air, a reminder that long ago the building had been a tannery.

The front door was unlocked and opened to a small stairway landing. No hallway, no elevator, no marble or polished wood. Nothing except a well-worn wooden staircase confronted her. The original entrance to the tannery was, she presumed, at the back of the building.

At the top of the three flights of stairs, she paused a moment to catch her breath. The climb wasn’t a difficult exertion for her well-toned body, but her heart raced nonetheless. As she stood in the shabby hallway at the top of the landing and looked at the door to Dr. Leoniss’ apartment, one of the few memories of the party returned to her.

The door presented a singular appearance.  Many coats of brown of paint haphazardly applied over many years gave it a scumbled effect, making the facets of the cut crystal door knob gleaming in a polished brass setting seem entirely out of place. She remembered the door. It had been months ago, but it could have easily have been years. She raised her hand and knocked.

The Artist, 3

The architecture of the mind is perversely corniced, ornate and intricate, and describing only death.

Unknown

The young man stopped in front of a black iron gate in the middle of a thick hedge. The cobblestone of Monument Avenue continued in both directions into the distance, flanked on either side by tall antebellum houses disappearing in a mist that hung in the air, cold and unsympathetic like the tears of the dead. The hedge hid the lot from his view He compared the number on the scrap of paper in his hand with the plaque on the rain-streaked iron gate. The width of the lot, nearly three times wider than those around it, and the houses towering at either side, gave him the impression as he stepped through the gate, that he was walking into a low place, a valley of some sort. He tucked the paper in his coat pocket and pushed the gate closed.

The yard was thick with untended brush. Weeds grew up between the paving stones and bloomless dogwoods and azaleas loomed over him as he followed the path. He stepped carefully on the uneven stones, tentatively, like he was walking down a staircase in the dark, testing the ground beneath him with each step. His right leg ached with each step, the cold seeping and congealing around the tungsten rods holding his leg together.

He turned back towards the gate and realized the street and the buildings surrounding him had all but disappeared. It was colder here, the mist thicker, clinging to the air which smelled of fetid earth. He looked up and saw the house.

Wide marble stairs arced from the sidewalk glistening of a spring that was unwilling (and it seemed), unable to bloom. Granite pillars stood mute guard at the ends of a wide portico. Plants in leaden pots marked each step. Hanging above was a massive pediment, corniced and with a delicate frieze of urns and torches and bowing figures that put him in mind of Poe’s House of Usher.

At the top of the steps, he brushed the creases of his pants and straightened his jacket against his reflection in the beveled glass. He rang the bell.

Insane

50 words

How long has this house stood hollow, glass-eyed twin gables staring blank, supping termites at its attic joists – mandibles and glistening digestive lubricant – how long has this chimney choked out wispy tendrils like morphine coiling around the heart, no warmth or light from the embers of its hearth: berserk.