Fall 2016

11/9/16

Merry stepped onto the concrete deck in the rear yard of the home she shared with her husband Bernie. Although they had celebrated their silver anniversary that spring, the couple were still getting used to living alone together, after their youngest child had started college at the end of August. Each had hobbies and activities that kept one or the other of them out of their house nearly every night. Dinner conversations were often awkward. Especially over the past two weeks.

Bernie was sitting on a deck chair, his head titled over the chair’s back, as if he saw something of interest in the starless sky of the warm Chicago evening. Knowing her husband was easily startled when lost in thought, Merry scruffed her feet along the deck, making a noise she expected Bernie would hear. He did not acknowledge her approach, but just as she was about to clear her throat, he sat upright, and turned to his wife.

“How was the meeting?”

“Very meeting-ish,” Merry replied. “The Christmas play will be the 10th, instead of the 17th. What did you have for dinner?”

Bernie shook his head, and raised the plastic tumbler in his hand. “Wasn’t hungry. I was actually watching the news, until I heard your car pull into the garage.”

“I see. How’s your hero today?”

Bernie drew in his breath, and his face filled with disgust, as if he were about to spit. “For Christ’s sake, Merry — ”

“And now you’re even talking like him.”

“You said it yourself, it was a choice between two evils, and I chose the lesser. If it makes you feel any better, he didn’t win Illinois — ”

“He’s the president, Bernie. Or will be, in a few months. You’ve been calling him a charlatan for two years, right up until a few weeks ago. And people like us helped him get elected.”

“I thought you voted — ”

“Voting has nothing to do with getting someone elected. Don’t tell me you don’t understand; we’ve been members of this church for two decades, and from the moment we joined you’ve complained to me about the conservatism, the implied endorsement of candidates, the subtle political agenda. We’ve supported an environment that was complicit in the election of that amoral sociopath — ”

“Enough!” Bernie stood up swiftly, the tumbler falling from his hand and bouncing off the deck as he turned to face Merry. “I did a protest vote against the Clintons. And if I thought there was any chance Trump would win, I would have voted differently, even though as far as the Electoral College is concerned, my voting either way meant nothing. But that was yesterday, Merry. It’s time for us to move on.”

“Agreed.” Merry hugged her arms across her chest. “And that’s why I resigned from the Events Committee this evening.”

Bernie’s eyes narrowed, and he leaned towards his wife. “Resigned.”

“Yes. And I’ve decided it’s time to leave the church, as well.”

“Leave?” Bernie’s hands raised to his temples. “You can’t — Merry, we’ve been there twenty years. Our children grew up there.”

“Don’t you dare use our children against me. They’re adults, and can make their own decisions on where to worship. And if you want to continue going there, that’s fine too. But I’ve made my decision. I now realize I’ve spent too many years in our comfortable suburban home, watching too many melodramas in my comfy recliner, as the world around us fell into madness. I need to fight for a better world, rather than just enjoy the fruits of our own good fortune.”

A low-flying airplane soared high above their heads. In a neighboring home, a garage door began its mechanical descent to the concrete floor. The headlights of a car shown onto the back yard, until the car went further down the street.

“Merry.” Bernie held out his arms. “There is no place I want to go, where you do not feel welcome.”

Tears falling from her eyes, Merry stepped across the invisible wall between them, and let Bernie embrace her. They stood on the deck of their comfortable home, a house filled with more love than equity, and cried, both of them, in the dark of a cool autumn evening.

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Fall 2007

[A continuation of a writing exercise begun last week. This entry is from Merry’s journal]

9/23/07

Bernie’s drinking again. He’s not even trying to hide it anymore. He goes up to his study after dinner with a can of beer and gets on his computer. He comes down one or two times in the evening, to get more beer.

I went to his office door last night, after the children were in bed, and Bernie had just come down for his fourth beer (he often drinks more on Saturday nights). I tapped on the frame, and asked if I could come in.

“I keep the door open so you and the kids know you can always come in,” Bernie said. “So you’re asking permission tells me you have something you think is important to say.”

“I do,” I told him. “I’m worried about you.”

He pointed to the beer can on the desk, next to his keyboard. “I know, I need to cut down.”

“It’s more than just the drinking,” I replied. “It’s your mood, in general. You’re so short-tempered with me, and the kids. Most evenings we have to walk on eggshells around you, afraid the slightest little provocation will set you off.”

Bernie nodded. “I’m sorry. Work’s been really difficult lately.”

“I know, Bernie. I used to work in IT myself.”

“At least you had the sense to change careers.” I could hear the self-pity in his voice, and knew he was headed to a dark place in his mind again, and might not come out of it for several days. I didn’t want him to go there, so I told him again that he should go back to graduate school, and finish his doctorate. He said he didn’t want to go into teaching, but I told him that wasn’t the issue.

“I don’t want you to get your doctorate so you can become a professor of literature,” I told him. “I don’t care if getting a PhD does nothing for your career. This isn’t about getting a better job, Bernie, it’s about you accomplishing a goal you’d set for yourself from the time before we were married. You’ve never forgiven yourself for not completing your graduate studies — so why not get rid of that guilt, instead of hiding from it.”

Bernie looked at me a long moment. Then he shook his head. “Merry — the day we decided to have children, was the day I decided to put aside my selfish ambitions. My family’s the most important thing in my life.”

I walked over to him, and laid a hand on his shoulder. “I don’t think going back into graduate school will change your priorities. You’re too good a man for that.”

He grabbed my hand, and held it up to his lips. After a gentle kiss, he released his grip on my hand. “A couple nights ago, I read my journal from those two years in graduate school. You know what I saw?” I shook my head. “Loneliness and fear. Those were probably the worst years of my life, and I don’t know if I can face going back.”

“But you wouldn’t be going back, not in the same way” I replied. “Me, the children, our church — you’ll have support that wasn’t available to you.”

When he got up from his chair, I knew Bernie was done talking. “It’s late, and I’m tired,” he told me. “I don’t want to miss church again tomorrow. We can talk more, after dinner tomorrow. Does that work for you?”

I pulled him up to me, and kissed him. I didn’t want to tell him about my own misgivings about his returning to graduate school — I don’t know if he’ll find what he’s looking for. All I know, is that he needs to find some reason to stop spending so much time up in his office.

Summer 1997

8/8/97

I almost said no.

That night Merry called and invited me over, for popcorn and “Star Trek.” I already had one foot out the door of my apartment, headed towards the elevated and another night of drinking with my graduate school buddies. Curious I still call them buddies, seeing as I haven’t seen any of them since the wedding seven years ago.

Merry and I had been dating for a few weeks, and I wrote in my journal how much I enjoyed being with her. But I also wrote that I didn’t think I could ever be anything more than a good friend to her. There was Ginny, as well; I was attracted to her in a way I didn’t think I could ever feel about Merry, and Ginny was going to be at the bar that evening.

It wasn’t a voice a heard, a call from the clouds, but more of a feeling that came to me when I heard your offer to watch the adventures of Jean-Luc Picard and Lieutenant Commander Data. Ginny will never be interested in me. The other graduate students think I’m an intellectual light-weight. Why do I want to waste another evening with people who don’t care about me?

And that’s when I heard myself saying that I’d be right over.

***

I waited until we were engaged before telling you how much I wanted to kiss you that night. And I’m really glad you waited just as long to admit how you wanted me to force my lips onto yours.

We were so awkward. Neither of us had been in a relationship before, so we had no idea what to do. I’m glad now that we were patient, letting each other grow accustomed to these new feelings.

Sometimes I wonder if I should have remained in graduate school long enough to get my doctorate, but the decision seemed right at the time. I didn’t need your insight to realize the toxicity of that environment, but your support made it easy for me to turn down my assistantship after completing my masters. And how long would I have been on that acne medication if you hadn’t convinced me how belligerent and despondent I’d become since starting the prescription? I was a wreck, financially and emotionally, when we started dating; how long would my misery have continued, if I had listened to my darker instincts and pushed you away?

I was driving home drunk, hoping to get pulled over and have a DUI put an end to the sham of a life I was leading. I can only thank God for sending you into my life, Merry.

***

Three kids, a home in Naperville, and major career changes for both of us. You were just as wise to end your divinity studies (you’re wonderful Merry, but you are not a minister) as I was to give up on the world of trade journals for the more challenging, and lucrative, field of information technology. Now that we’re done churning out offspring — yes, we’re done, Merry — I’m excited for you to find your new passion.

Ten years ago, before the night of that call, I couldn’t imagine being where I am today. There are times I feel I couldn’t possibly be happier.

And yet… it’s not that I’m dissatisfied, or want any more out of life. The only way I can express how I feel, is to say that I have a compulsion to be different.

Too often I feel like a face in the crowd, a robot, a clone. Just another middle-class WASP from the suburbs. And yes, that feeling is most powerful when we’re at church.

That’s why I’ve been writing fiction lately, to express that side of me. I focus on outcasts and outsiders, characters who see things differently. Who want to believe, but struggle with faith in the face of reality. I know you keep asking me why I keep with this theme — what am I trying to prove? And all I can say is, please believe me when I say I don’t know. I’m not trying to make a point in an intellectual sense; I’m trying instead to express, to evoke, an emotion. How I feel about faith in this day and age.

I know you think I’m a pessimist, that I look for reasons to doubt. And yes, maybe I think too much, make things worse for myself. I’ve always been my own worst enemy.

But this is me. I am the skeptic, the devil’s advocate. I cannot accept without first scrutinizing. There is room in God’s kingdom for questioning as well as belief.

So I will continue to write, continue to question.

But Merry, my love for you is as strong as it was when I proposed to you that night at the lakefront. I will never turn my back on you, or our children. You are my rocks. And I can’t imagine being happier anywhere else.

Fall 1988

11/19/88

I’m in my third year of graduate school, a year of coursework away from starting my dissertation. I drive down to campus for a night of reading academic journals, but on the way to the library I meet four other graduate students (two I liked, one I despised, and Ginny, whom I have yet to realize has no interest in sleeping with me), who talk me into having a drink.

We go to a bar, cracked linoleum floors slick with grease and watery beer. Offer an opinion on Dukakis or Derrida or something like that, a Miller Lite argument, jocular and ill-informed, fully krausened and beachwood aged, utterly devoid of logic. The silly-jism is rejected with the mocking disdain it fully deserved.

Parked two blocks away. Stagger past the elevated station, consider riding back. How man, four? five? “You all right?” Hey pal, you’ve had more than any of us. See a crack in the sidewalk, place my right foot at the start, extend my arms wide — eloi eloi lama sabachthani, muddafugga — and walk across the crack like a canyon-spanning Wallenda. Don’t miss a step. All right, one. Close my eyes, extend my right index finger, pull back my hand, touch my nose. Bitchin’!

Get in the car. Five stoplights in the city. Can’t go too fast, or too slow either. Stay way behind whoever gets in front of me. Whatever you do, don’t swerve. Pass the fifth light, steer into a wide curve leading into Evanston. Nobody beside me… think I’m still in my lane. Three additional lights, two stop signs. Driven this road long enough to rely on muscle memory. After the third light, hang a left onto my street. Pull into the alley behind my apartment, find my spot. Made it.

Step into the apartment. Cold night, so my glasses fog when I get inside. Take the glasses off, put them in a jacket pocket. Look around; roommate’s home with parents. Alone, in the dark. Take off the jacket, hold it in right hand. Think about trip home. If a cop stopped me, would have been a certain DUI. Lose license, hefty fine, night in jail. A swift end to the life I’d been living.

I realize that’s what I had wanted. And I failed, just like I was failing at everything else.

I lift the jacket above my head, and fling it down on a metal chair. It’s not until the next morning that I realize my glasses, stored in a pocket, had been shattered.

***

Between January 1987 and November 1990, I did not wrap my car around a tree, get tossed out by any of my roommates, lose my graduate school stipend, have my stomach pumped in an emergency room, get fired for showing up late to work, have a sexual harassment complaint lodged against me, stumble into Lake Michigan and drown or suffer some other embarrassing accidental death on the streets or rail stations of Chicago, or have my ass kicked within an inch of my life by someone who decided I needed help with my self-destruction.

Which demonstrates yet again that it’s better to be lucky than good.

Life is composed of a number of transitions, and this one was a doozy. A curious five-year spiritual journey had ended at the same time I started graduate school. I was faced with a entire series of new experiences: managing my finances, sharing an apartment, teaching, working as a proofreader. I also declared myself ready for a serious romantic commitment, despite my fear of commitment. I wanted love, demanded it of the world, without knowing how to offer it.

I was also on an acne medication which has been linked to an increase in depression. An increase in alcohol consumption, a prerequisite for graduate study at my university, most likely compounded that side effect.

There were many new challenges to face at the start of my graduate studies. And a combination of poor decisions, bad luck, and unfortunate timing led me to a dark mental state which I never hope to visit again.

***

Her name was Meredith, but everybody called her Merry.

Actually nobody called her Merry, because her name wasn’t Meredith, since I’ve never known anyone named Meredith in my life. Meredith is a fiction, an amalgam of several women I knew at this time. Some of what will be written about Merry is based on reality, and some of it is entirely fictitious. , Merry was created in the hope that none of the women I actually knew at the time will be embarrassed at seeing herself in this melodrama.

Merry was from Nashville, and we didn’t attend the same college. She had moved to Chicago after graduation, and was a member of the church I attended between my undergraduate and graduate students. We became friends through the church’s young adult programs, but after I left the church I didn’t see her for two years. Towards the end of my first year of graduate study, we wound up on the same bus rout. I found Merry to be as bright, articulate, and fun to be around as I remembered, and we exchanged phone numbers.

We saw each other a few times over the course of six months. We enjoyed each other’s company. She knew I had left the church, but didn’t press me for an explanation; she saw I was struggling with dark emotions, but offered support rather than judgement. The problem, though, was me. I was desperately lonely, but too afraid to let anyone see how much of a mess I was. And she was committed to a church I had sworn never to visit again.

I stopped calling Merry. She left a couple messages I didn’t return. Perhaps Merry realized how messed up I was, and stopped calling because she knew what I needed at the time was not a girlfriend, but professional help, or maybe she decided it was time to move on. Whatever the truth might be, all I know for certain is that, after a few more random encounters at libraries and grocery stores, I haven’t seen Merry in over three decades.

***

After four years of stumbling, I finally got myself straightened out. I went into counseling for my depression. I switched my acne medication, and moderated my alcohol consumption. I got a job, which provided the stability I desperately needed. I started dating, and enjoyed learning about the women I met. By the time I met the woman to whom I’ve been married for a quarter century, I had controlled my self-destructive impulses.

I don’t believe in looking back, and wouldn’t change a thing if such an impossibility were available. So in order to complete the writing exercise I was recently assigned, I’m going to create another fictional character, one who’s much like me but managed to not push Merry away. Let’s call him Bernie, and imagine he allowed Merry to help him get straightened out a few years earlier than when I actually did. I want to see where Bernie ended up, after deciding to turn left instead of going straght.

Ten Openings

While reading through my journal in preparation for an experiment in alternate reality, I came across an exercise I completed over twenty years ago from a book on writing called “What If?”: come up with the opening lines of ten different stories. I kinda like what I came up with at the time.

  1. He had thought on the first day of class that he’d eventually fall in love with Janine, but by the end of the third class he knew he had fallen in love with Connie.
  2. John raised his hands in victory on the treadmill as the digital readout told him he had finished his mile in under 10 minutes.
  3. Humphrey snorted a laugh at the error message on the blue screen and, turning to Gillian with a sniggering grin, said coolly, “You’re screwed.”
  4. I was watching Wheel of Fortune when my father walked into the room and, turning the television off, said that my grandfather had just died.
  5. I hate broccoli, which is why I make it a point to eat it at least once a week.
  6. “A week. Ten days, even. Probably no more than two weeks.”
    “That’s how long it takes?” asked Daniel, scratching the back of his head even faster now.
    “That how long I take.”
  7. He was the first hitchhiker I had ever picked up. I want you to keep that in mind, because the rest of the story depends on the fact that I’m a newcomer to such activity.
  8. “My name is Helen Smith, and all I want to do now is go home.”
  9. Cafeteria, 7:48. Time for a quick note before facing another hour with those runny-nosed shits.
  10. Maxine’s shoulder was still sore from racquetball the other night, so when the stranger grabbed her there her first instinct was to scream. Which she did.

I even came up with an eleventh, which I just very well might turn into a full story:

11. I can’t say I’m wild about the title of Vermin Control, but yes, I am the one who’s called in when one of our employees turns into an insect.

Two Voices

[Another exercise from my short story workshop: write a conversation between Voice A and Voice B]

A: How much gas do we have?

B: Enough to get us to the next service area.

A: Well, I have to pee.

B: It’s only seventeen more miles.

A: Why don’t you want to stop here?

B: The next service area’s better.

A: Jesus Christ, it’s a service area. Gas station, vending machines, a convenience store and food court that will be closed at this time of night. But the restrooms will be open.

B: The one here has a Roy Rogers and an Edy’s, but the one in seventeen miles has a Tim Horton’s, and the sign we just passed said it was open 24 hours.

A: You could have said you were hungry.

B: I don’t know if I’m hungry. I won’t know until I see what they have.

A: You’re going to Tim Horton’s to browse the menu?

B: I just want to keep going.

A: And I really need to pee. Let’s compromise — we pull over here, but you park at the curb while I run inside.

B: I though you went to the bathroom last time we stopped.

A: That was two hours ago! Can we just —

B: Aw screw it. [flips the turn signal to enter the service area] Not hungry anyway.

Time for a Turn

An exercise from a short story workshop I’m taking: Think about a time you had an opportunity to turn left, but chose to keep going straight. Write a story in which you decided to turn left instead.

As soon as the instructor gave the assignment, I knew what my topic had to be. It’s actually something I’ve written about in the past, and thanks to a writing habit I’ve maintained for close to four decades, I have a good record of the moment I kept going straight.

Since my sophomore year in college, I have maintained a journal in a series of spiral-bound notebooks, which I’ve kept with me through the years. The journal has served a number of purposes over the decades; should I ever grow curious about my monthly expenses from 1991, where and when I went on vacation in 2012, how I felt after the first day at my new job in 2004, or my general emotional state from just about any year, I can pull out the notebooks from that time and see what a younger version of me thought at the time.

Although I didn’t recall the exact date, I was pretty certain the moment about which I wanted to write occurred sometime during the notebook started at the end of 1986:

After flipping through a few dozen pages, I found the journal entry which began this story: March 17 of the following year. If you look to the upper right, you’ll see a few words that show that yes, this story is about a girl who I let get away.

But what makes this moment so right for this exercise was that, several years later, I used my journal to imagine what would have happened if I hadn’t let her get away. I knew it would be interesting to see what I thought back then, and see how those thoughts may have changed in the following years.

Problem was, I couldn’t recall when I wrote that “what if” scenario. It definitely seemed like a multi-page entry (most of my journal pages contain two or dated entries), and I was pretty sure I had made it after my children were born. By starting at the turn of the century and skimming forward through my notebooks for lengthy entries, I figured it wouldn’t take long to find that entry.

Several hours later, I was flipping through the 2016 journal, and starting to wonder if I had skimmed past that entry. Surrendering to my fatigue, I set the journals aside and went to bed resigned to the thought of abandoning the search for that second journal.

But on a whim this morning, I went backwards from the turn of the century, and quickly found a reference to “that ‘what if’ exercise I went through a while back about me and Marie” (and yes, I’m changing her name for these blog posts). Inspired, I kept flipping back, and eventually found it: multiple pages, over several days, a fully imagined scenario where she and I stayed together. The journal was from the year between my two children were born — several years earlier than what I believed, but I was relieved at not having to go all the way back to the 1980s.

Later tonight, I’ll read those journal entries. Much will be very familiar, yet I’ll be surprised at what I’ve forgotten. The “what if” scenario I wrote a decade after the event will be my starting point, but now that I’m more than two decades older, this will be a new story. I feel fortunate to have so much material to work with, and also excited to start with an empty page:

Half Way There

Earlier this year, I announced a goal for my short fiction — start the submission process for seven stories I felt had potential. Now that the year’s half over, it’s time for an update.

Since I’m ambitious to a fault, I’ve added an eighth story to the goal, and as of the first Friday in July, I’ve submitted four to journals. Four done in six months, four more in the next six. This could actually happen.

But I’m already starting to feel fatigued. After submitting the story last a week ago Friday, I dove right in to the next story, largely because I wanted to submit it to a short story workshop I’m currently taking. That turned out to be a mistake; I needed some down time between stories, as well as a day a week when I don’t fire up the engines of creativity.

I’ll push through for a few more weeks, until the workshop is over, and get that fifth story out for submission. Then it’s off to a cabin next to a wooded lake for a long weekend of not doing much at all, and when September comes, pick up the pace again.

The Adapter

PHOTO PROMPT © Dale Rogerson

We thought our plan was foolproof.

After connecting to the province’s electrical grid, we would absorb enough energy into our capacitor to power our crippled spacecraft, and return home.

To convert the electricity into an energy we could use, we created three connectors, each adapting separate electromagnetic frequencies into the capacitor.

We tested the adapter, and ran our plan through thousands of scenarios on our computer, which calculated a 99% chance of success.

But the province’s grid failed under the stress of our power draw. We had to abandon the mission, leaving the adapter behind to remind us of our folly.

Friday Fictioneers is a weekly flash fiction contest, where the challenge is to write a complete story of 100 words or less based on a photo prompt.

Rules for Reviewers, Part 2: Don’t Do Any Favors

A little over a month ago, I started what I hoped would become a series of posts on working with writing groups. Not sure how many posts constitute a series (two would be a couple, three a set — four, perhaps?), but at the very least, I don’t want to make an orphan of that first contribution.

Empty Praise Is Not A Favor

The writing groups I belong to are composed of novice writers, people with few if any publishing credits. Because we are passionate and generally well-educated, many of us will produce work of high quality, at least some of the time. But novices, by definition, are new to the craft. We make mistakes, and those mistakes are actually a good sign, as they show a willingness to experiment, to take risks. Our work will often be uneven, brilliant flowers of language sprouting in the midst of a dull field overflowing with platitude and cliche.

Some of the writing I review in these groups is great. Some, not so much. And while it’s important to emphasize what is good, it’s equally important, as a reviewer, to point out the weaknesses in each work.

I provided an anecdote in my first post, but this time, in order to avoid anyone stumbling across this blog and thinking I’m calling out their deficiencies, I’ll use a hypothetical. My imaginary friend Conrad is writing a historical fiction novel about the American Revolutionary War. He’s a good man, someone I enjoy seeing at each of our monthly meetings, and his writing is often good. Conrad also has been very complimentary of my own work, and has provided many suggestions which I have used to good effect. This month, Conrad submits a chapter on the Battle of Bunker Hill, in which his central character, colonial officer Wing Miller, is shot through the shoulder, and falls unconscious. As the chapter concludes, British soldiers advance against the colonials… but just before he is taken captive, Miller is wakened by the spirit of Constantine Goody, a comrade who had been killed two chapters earlier. “Run, Wing!” the spirit commands, as Miller staggers to his feet and joins the fleeing colonial soldiers. This is the first supernatural occurrence in the novel.

I have a variety of responses to choose from:

  1. “A ghost? Really? Sounds like you got stuck trying to figure out how to get Miller out of the battle, and pulled something out of your ass. This sucks — change it.”
  2. “This is chapter 14, and there have not been any supernatural beings in the preceding chapters. Having Constantine show up as a spirit here seems out of place in the world you’ve created for the reader. You risk confusing your reader here.”
  3. “This wouldn’t have been my first choice for concluding this scene, but good for you for taking a risk!”

The smart-ass in me, that over-educated voice of critique, would relish giving the first answer, but I try to keep that voice to myself (and most times, I succeed). And the person who enjoys Conrad’s friendship wants to give him the benefit of the doubt, and go with the third answer. He won’t be motivated to revise the ending of chapter 14, but he’ll feel good about himself — and we’re supposed to support each other in writing groups, right?

But here’s the problem. Conrad has only two more chapters to write, and is planning to send his manuscript to literary agents as soon as they’re complete. And my instincts tell me that if he has that ghost show up out of nowhere in chapter 14, agents are going to question his judgement. Somebody needs to urge Conrad to reconsider how he gets Miller out of his predicament — and honest criticism from a friend will be much better for his career than an impersonal rejection notice from an agent.

Yes, we need to support each other in our writing groups. But we also have a responsibility to provide useful criticism where it is warranted. Because in the end, we’re here to help each other.