At thirty minutes before the start of the tournament’s first bout, the gymnasium floor bustled with activity as fencers ran laps, stretched on the floor, and engaged each other in practice bouts, the buzzing of scoring machines rising on occasion above the susurration of voices.
Calling Annie a confident teen did not adequately convey her self-assurance. She would contact boys for dates before they worked up the courage to approach her; she anticipated and completed work for her classes before they were assigned; she only applied to one college, knowing she would be accepted by that school. While her peers used their past experience to guide their actions, Annie acted from a more proleptic instinct, certain in the memory of her future success.
A few weeks ago, I began an exercise from a fiction writing workshop, using entries from over three decades ago in my journal as my starting point. This lead to the creation of a fictional couple, Merry and Bernie, and vignettes from their marriage.
The first and second vignettes were promising, but my final entry was disappointing. When they’re left with themselves after their youngest child leaves for college, their struggles need to be more dramatic. Bernie needs to resent being tasked with obligations he never wanted, and Merry has to fight against the restrictions imposed on her intellect and desires. Both need to think about the lives they could have lead, and come to terms with their abandoned ambitions.
But as much as I want to explore those ideas, now is not the time for completing this project. I’ll set it aside for now, and return to these two very interesting characters when I want to further develop their rich voices.
The seaplane descended towards the lake with deliberate intent, like a hawk hunting a mouse in a field. The floats hit and skidded across the water, leaving a wake no higher than most power boats.
The propeller came to rest, and a canoe with two paddlers approached the plane. A woman stepped out of the pilot door, and handed packages down to the canoe.
The rear paddler waved, and the woman waved back before stepping back into the plane. The canoe paddled away, much slower than it had approached earlier. Before they reached shore, the propeller twirled back into life.
Yes! My entry for this week’s Friday Fictioneers is exactly 100 words!
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.
[A continuation of a writing exercise begun last week. This entry is from Merry’s journal]
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- John raised his hands in victory on the treadmill as the digital readout told him he had finished his mile in under 10 minutes.
- 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.”
- 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.
- I hate broccoli, which is why I make it a point to eat it at least once a week.
- “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.”
- 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.
- “My name is Helen Smith, and all I want to do now is go home.”
- Cafeteria, 7:48. Time for a quick note before facing another hour with those runny-nosed shits.
- 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.
[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.
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.