Here are two story-starts I worked on this semester. I don’t see a bright future for either, but I might come back and tinker with the lengths. I’m a very slow writer, and publishing is a very slow business, but I’d like to have something on the blog. So, here are two short pieces I’ve had fun writing. Not all my work is this incomplete! Just the stuff I’m allowed to publish myself (because of The Industry).
Thank you for reading. Your encouragement keeps me writing bigger, longer, more exciting things.
I saw the café racers only once, a roaring pack cresting the dark empty street a half mile away. They are outcasts, scofflaw, champions of street justice on the empty city streets. The 3 a.m bar door closed behind me and I stood on the sidewalk, wobbly and starving for salty foods. Then I heard it. The sounds came from far away, carrying from almost a mile away up the street where no cars were out at this time of night. The pack came over the summit of the hill, each in a polished bright helmet that turned their heads into glossy beetles, striped creatures fresh from the undergrowth and out into the night. Their bodies were low and folded over the bikes, quick, angular things with stiff handlebars and paintjobs that matched every sexless rider’s outfit, as if rider and machine budded from the same exotic plant. There must have been forty riders altogether, speeding down Broadway as fast as they could in a huge coordinated swarm. I balanced on the sidewalk curb and held my hands out to feel the rush of air as the café racers zoomed past—BMWs, Moto Guzzis, Yamahas, one very rare Ducati—and it was over as soon as it began. In their wake, their collective smell traveled so fast I had to lunge into the road to catch the scent. There it was. Vinyl, gasoline, hot rubber, and a grab bag of other scents less powerful but more distinctive. Before I could identify them, they were gone.
I’m told it takes no effort to fall asleep. “Just lie on your back and close your eyes,” sleeping partners have instructed me over the years. But I have yet to sleep with, beside, or in the vicinity of someone cursed enough to face the same vertiginous experience of falling asleep. Nights of peak neurosis, I feel as if I am plunging toward my final sleep. Yet doctors have discovered no reason to believe I, at a healthy 30, will die unexpectedly and of natural causes. But this doesn’t help me at 1 a.m when my muscles are wound tight as steel cables and my brain is coked out on irrational fears. I grind my teeth all night, anticipating the next heartbeat in my ears will be my very last. When my jaw aches and my eyes sting from concentrating on the ceiling fan above my bed, the work to rebuild my life can begin.
My nightly routine includes a Wellness/Financial/Personality audit of my life to date. First on the agenda is Wellness, so I tap each tooth with my tongue to feel for stability and assess the status of my periodontal health. I pinch each of my fingers and toes to check for numbness in the tips and areas of potential instep pain. I grip my receding pelvic bones and vow to run the next morning, 5 a.m, no excuses this time. My hands hunt for lumps, scars, skin tags, and bruises, welcoming back the familiar textures and analyzing newcomers for threats. Everything usually checks out ok and I begin the stage two: Financial audit. This is the hour of multiplication and division, strategies to make more and spend less, analysis of the most recent items purchased. Did I really need a summer coat? What about food—that time I offered to pay for Lindsey’s drinks. That time I threw away half a tomato I swore I’d finish, what a waste. The financial audit is the most circular and ultimately pointless, so for me, it’s counting sheep. The only dramatic change I’ve ever made after a night of considering my monetary worth was returning the glass bottles with the $2 deposit that had sat in my kitchen for almost five years.
Neither of these audits compares to the Personality audit—the tedious and soul depleting task of digging up to examine with exhaustive scrutiny gunk and regret buried deep by time, maturation, and pure denial. Oh it’s in there, I know it. That girl I pushed into a hedge when she told me I had a rat tail, leaving my brother behind on the playground to be eaten by fire ants, lying to my family so often they took me to a priest. I experience an elliptical rotation from my morning attitude—I easily blame everyone else for my problems when the sun is in the sky. But this changes at night. What the hell is wrong with me, like, on a spiritual level? I think about dozens of relationships, broke apart or wasted, people irreparably damaged because I appear in their lives, exaggerated, mean, a fount of unfortunate behavior. There are two types of personality audit. Type A is the audit that lasts all night until I pass out twenty minutes before my alarm. Type B lingers through the following day, referencing all my bad decisions as I make new decisions in real time. I close my eyes in bed and try to wrap up the Personality audit. I picture everyone I’m too embarrassed to speak to ever again. All those eyes staring, waiting to approve a confession. By the time I’m finished, it’s almost 3 a.m and I’m free to think of other things.
I thought about Louise and her neighbors, Dorothy and Lloyd. According to Louise, Dorothy, from across the street, has “a Jehovah’s witness knock.” Three forceful raps and then she lets herself onto the screened in porch and raps again on the window. Louise told me she is either half clothed, working on her cobblers bench, or smoking pot, so she hides in the broom closet until Dorothy leaves her baked goods at the door. Wholesome things like apple cake and ginger cinnamon cookies. Louise says she suspects Dorothy watches for her to come home through her old lady curtains before she runs across the street to deliver more baked goods.
Her next door neighbor, Lloyd, is an old Confederate weirdo. For some reason, he has Louise’s number (some drama with the washer and dryer in their basement belonging to him, on a loan to the landlord, and some debt has not been paid in their tenure) and he will call Louise at times of the day when she is not prepared to take a call. “I seriously think this guy is on drugs. He calls me and talks my ear off about nothing.” Sometimes though, it’s about the neighbors. There’s only about six occupied houses on that off-path cul-de-sac. In one yard, a rebuilt 1985 Norton Commando sits tilted to the left on a kickstand. I imagine it will come to life with a “screech!” Lloyd says, in his mysterious way, “we all got each others’ backs out here, you know? You gotta look out for your neighbors around here like they kin.” Louise, who had just ingested a small amount of acid when Lloyd called, had no way to respond to this manifesto. Maybe if I imagine a conversation between Louise on acid and Lloyd on whatever Lloyd takes, I’ll tire myself out enough to fall asleep. The phone rings. Louise stomps over to the coffee table. Across the street, a curtain parts in the window. The phone rings again and she answers it just as she hears a loud rap against the door…
I blink at the dark ceiling, awake. Where was I going with all this? I run my hands behind my neck and over my face, pressing palms against my eyes until the dark gives way to a bright red sky. I open my eyes and they adjust back to the black room. The neighborhood is quiet except for the inconsistent rustle of possums through dried leaves in the yard. The time is 3 o’clock. Some nights I try too hard to fall asleep and I never fall asleep. For years, I have been awake enough times at enough quiet hours to hear the café racers speeding down Broadway. It’s late February, but there had already been a series of warm days leading up to the weekend. I hear a motor scream, a high pitched roar that starts far away and continues for a long time after whatever passed was blocks away. But I never got out of bed to locate the source of the sound, or why it seemed to occur at the same time each evening when all the roads in Midtown should have been completely empty. I’m awake for so long, it’s just a matter of time before I hear the racers again.
If I’m still awake after I hear the café racers pass, I begin the auditing process all over again. Wellness: revisit the irregular lump behind my ear. Are you sure that isn’t a mole? What about the new dimple inside my thigh? I should start going to the gym. If I do fifty crunches a day for two weeks and run one mile a day at least three times a week, will I fit into the shorts I bought last year or will I overcompensate and get too tone for the tight cuffs around my thighs? Is that really an issue I’m worried about—getting too muscular for my clothes? Has this ever been a problem before in my life? God, what an ego. Might as well segue into the Personality audit from here. Why did I tell that stranger at the post office what kind of earrings I was wearing? Not everyone has been fortunate enough to own sapphires, even if those sapphires were a gift from my father before I even had my ears pierced. She looked at me like I was a god damn colonialist. Did my dad know I didn’t have my ears pierced? Was I about to get them pierced? What did he say to me when I opened the black velvet box on my 7th birthday? Something along the lines of: “Those belonged to your great grandmother, Penny King,” and smile at me, in one of his rare good moods the year before he and mom finally got a divorce, and his hair wasn’t fully gray that year and he still thought my brother might get the hang of the football team. And didn’t I, in this unexpected glimmer of compassion and family intimacy, say something like “Ok thanks for the old lady earrings, dad.”? I remember my father’s face falling to pieces two years later when I came home with a black eye and fat lip from a fight on the playground. “You’re too pretty to fight like that,” he said, even though he knew I had bucked every feminine convention thrown at me since my youth. Maybe that’s why he chose to give me earrings, these delicate blue sapphires set in soft white gold, dark and glittery in the right light, on late nights when I wear my hair to the side and lightly perfume the white tendon of my neck. How much could I get for those earrings if I sold them to the right buyer? Would I make enough for a car payment, a bag of food, or new glasses? How much do I have in the bank now? If I spent $22 on food last night and $18 on gas this afternoon, and the rent has gone through as of this morning, how much does that leave me until payday next week? I should cancel plans for the next five or ten days and sit at home, think about all the ways I’ve failed myself and the people I love in the daylight. That would be the polite thing to do.
The clock says 5 a.m and I am exhausted. Without warning, my thoughts shut down. Deep in the survival part of my brain, the switch turns off and I am able to sleep in jerking waves for about thirty minutes. I wake up at a time when the light feels lifted from a dream, and I hear an unexpected sound. Throttles. Revs. A sound like the road is peeling away from the ground. They return to the streets in another swarm and I leap from the bed. I fling open the window and lean out to bear witness their return. Once more, the café racers speed by, prodigal, mysterious, their long exhale a scream for atonement in the endless night.
King of the Fish People
Two carnival tents pop up on the wharf during the last weekend of summer, taking over the moldering boardwalk with creaky rides, grease traps, and gaunt ride operators whose exhausted yet skittish appearance made them seem neither dead nor alive. Low concrete dikes divide the water from the carnival grounds, supporting the considerable proliferation of goose barnacles and mussels adhered to the algae-slick surface. Here, the ocean surf carries carnival waste out into the open water, sweeping up sawdust and tickets and candy wrappers that are lost among the coastal isopods and predaceous worms. The temperature ascends to the mid-nineties and by the early afternoon, visitants of the carnival squeeze together inside one of the two tents, beneath the broad shade that covers pageantry as exciting as portrait painting elephants, acrobatic septuplets, and the Fish People.
The sawdust floor in front of the Fish People is mostly undisturbed, since their modest booth is placed unfavorably equidistant between the public restrooms and the pen of tattooed pigs. When the spectators come to the Fish People, they don’t know what they are, where they came from, or what they do, but they rarely stick around for the answers to these questions because the smell from the pig pen and the public restrooms is, understandably, unbearable. Fish People are patient and amiable, which comes in handy during long hot hours filled with pungent waiting. They need no supervision, no gregarious ringleader to whip aside a velvet curtain and broadcast the Fish People’s story to a crowd. They need no traveling hype man to communicate the difference between the Fish People and the rest of humanity. In fact, the Fish People can speak for themselves, although their language is muddled and flecked with unfamiliar vocabulary used to describe what we might consider negligible conditions of water and light. But they’re easy enough to understand if the listener is attentive.
The Fish People sit on uncomfortable folding chairs with their feet in an inflatable pool. There are three here today. At a distance, the Fish People resemble children, but as you approach, you begin to notice big differences between the Fish People and humans like you and I. Their bodies are squat, and their shoulders create a gentle slope connecting their necks to their torsos, cutting a shape like the soft peak of an egg. Their eyes, while on the front of their faces like a person, are slightly farther apart, giving the Fish People a countenance of perpetual surprise—even dimwittedness. But above their delicate, rubbery lips, their eyes can see just fine, and Fish People enjoy better peripheral vision than the average human. This is convenient underwater, because Fish People are able to move in a nonlinear swimming pattern the landlocked do not fully appreciate. The Fish People can live for periods of time on dry land, but after a while they are susceptible to sloth and depression, often gaining an obscene amount of weight in as little as a month. Most prefer to live in the water, but there are some who migrate onto land, searching for a better life under the rules of democracy and the free market.
Of the three Fish People at the carnival, one is a full-time land dweller. He left the ocean in his youth to start a business selling boat lacquer to seamen. He has become obese and a little depressed, but he has also become financially comfortable. People assume this Fish Person makes his sales by swimming under the boats that need new lacquer and performing his assessment up close, but he has not gone for a swim in the ocean since his younger days and, frankly, has no desire to return to the water. He is not married and never reproduced or cared for a domestic animal, but he has a compact car with internet radio that he upgrades once a year with his expendable income. The lacquer business has had a fine quarter. The Fish Person suspects changing sea temperatures are having a negative effect on the old boat lacquers covering most commercial vessels, and has toyed with the idea of launching his own line of lacquers designed to counter these effects—with a chemical obsolescence of around five years to keep demand high.
He has come to the carnival booth at the behest of his sister, the second Fish Person at the carnival. She remembers their youth together—her brother always stiff and rule abiding, but a great orator with an excellent memory for historical events. She is here at the urging of her son, who plucked a watery advertisement out of the surf and begged her to let him perform. She surrendered to his insistent pleas, but even after her brother agreed to provide the story for their show, she still cannot understand why he left the sea to become a lacquer salesman. She does not like to leave the water for too long. Sudden oppressive gravity is not a joy for everyone to experience, and she can already feel her mood falling as the day in the tent drags on. The third Fish Person, her son, is an inarticulate youth who performs the Fish People’s story in a costume woven of shells and sea grass, with a crown of dead starfish on his round head. Sea lice entwine in and out of the damp ensemble. Together the Fish People wait in their little booth for an audience, and when a timid family wanders over from the public bathrooms, the youngest Fish Person jumps out of the pool and sets the stage for action.
This is the story the Fish People tell in their muddled underwater language while the youngest performs a choreographed dance, donned in his salt-encrusted costume.
The King of the Fish People
Down below the turquoise waters there is a region that—from the point of view of a scuba diver or aquatic outsider—seems Utopian. Long shoots of eel grass outline the kingdom’s borders. Acres of dense coral colonies fade into cool blue drop offs and through underwater meadows of a rich green weed. Like the Fish People themselves, the kingdom is so idyllic and safe, it appears dull. When he came into power, the King of the Fish People ruled inside his tunicate guarded by sea urchins. Monarchy had been the way of the land, and the royal family’s influence seeped like oxygen into every part of daily life. But the altruistic king died at the fantastic old age of fifteen, leaving his draconian son in power. In his first afternoon on the anemone throne, the young king consumed the queen and all the amber eggs cemented to the royal nursery. He ordered the echinoderm army loose from behind bars—an ancient skeletal prison made from the carcass of an unlucky sea lion. The thirteen-armed starfish, now free to follow their only instinct, devoured the young and elderly Fish People with protruding stomach acids, capturing all they crawled across in their muscular arms. They leveled the kingdom in a few days, creeping silently along the ocean floors at night and raiding the once-protective corals with fleshy, destructive appendages. Here in the story, the young Fish Person flopped to his stomach and inched along the floor, nipping at the exposed ankles in the audience. Once the Fish King had destroyed the region and most of its population, he called patrol away from the borders and opened the kingdom to hunters. Raids and slaughters continued as rapacious predators got wind of the open season, and the Fish King capitalized on his immunity by offering up the newly raped land to violent carnivores who could make the region fearsome again.
Few Fish People survived the feeding frenzy that ensued, but the ones who escaped with their families to deeper waters were too ill-suited for the light and temperature changes to thrive. Refugees grew weak in the cold dark depths, or else washed up into tide pools and baked in the summer heat. A number of Fish People tried their luck on land in temporary relocation tents along the coastline. But these colonies suffered a failure of constitution, succumbing to the harsh gravity while grappling with the grief over their loss of a homeland. In the dusty dimmed light of the carnival tent, the young Fish Person slumped onto the ground and wept into the sawdust, then shot up and wheeled around to dance the disorienting imbalance grief exerts on a fragile spirit. He collapsed on the ground, shaking loose sea lice that skittered back into the pungent green folds of his costume.
The audience stood still, waiting to hear the end of the story. But the Fish People were quiet, and both audience and entertainers looked at one another with dumbfounded expressions, each awaiting a conclusion neither party knew to offer. Eventually, the timid family walked away, whispering on their journey to the tattooed pigs, who grunted in greeting as their first audience approached. The youngest Fish Person picked himself up off the ground and brushed the sawdust off his costume. At the end of the day, the lacquer salesman checked his watch and put on his coat, said a one word farewell to his sister and nephew, and made his way out to the car.