The Most Valuable Commodity

Submitted another story recently to the weekly Reedsy Prompts contest. I was pretty satisfied with most of it, but the ending was a little weak. I’m enjoying the occasional prompt contest as it seems to engage my creativity and give me energy to work on my other stories. And who knows, maybe I’ll win one of these weeks if I keep at it. Fifty bucks ain’t much, but I’m not playing this game for the money.

The Malahat Review

The latest in my weekly reviews of literary journals and genre magazines.

Founded by professors at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, The Malahat Review is published four times a year.

What they say about themselves: The Malahat Review, established in 1967, is among Canada’s leading literary journals. Published quarterly, it features contemporary Canadian and international works of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction as well as reviews of recently published Canadian poetry, fiction, and literary nonfiction. On occasion, it also publishes interviews, essays, and issues on a single theme or author,… Malahat originally bore the subtitle ‘An International Magazine of Life and Letters,’ reflecting the founding editors’ background in European literature and connections in the international literary community. Under succeeding editors and in step with the growing of a truly national literature, the journal became more strongly Canadian, with a focus on Canadian and international poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction rather than belles lettres and critical work.”

Issue reviewed: Issue 212 (Autumn 2020)

Genre: Literary Realism

One Story I’ll Remember Not to Forget: “Asleep Till You’re Awake,” by Francine Cunningham. An anonymous first-person narrator keeps falling asleep in public places, and when he visits a doctor’s office about his condition he sees an unexpected person in the waiting area. A quirky yet engaging story about grief.

Clapperboard Rating: One Klack. The stories favor insight and empathy over suspense and action.

Profanometer: Dammit. The adult language is certainly there, but never seemed gratuitous.

Day 273

Some good news, finally. The first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines arrived in our state today, and health care workers are in line to receive the first shots. This likely won’t slow the spread of the pandemic — the number of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths is worse than ever — but it should provide some needed relief to the doctors, nurses, and staff who’ve been asked to work at great personal risk.

I don’t expect to receive a vaccine for at least a couple of months. That means I’ll need to keep wearing a mask in public and avoid going out as much as possible during these long and cold winter days.

***

One of the simple pleasures I most look forward to resuming once this pandemic ends is eating at a restaurant.

There’s a Brazilian steak house about 20 minutes away from my home that my family and I used to enjoy a couple times a year. After the pandemic began and restaurants re-opened after the initial lockdown in the spring, my wife and I would order take-out from there a couple times a month. The quality of meat is still very high, but serving ourselves out of plastic containers is hardly inspiring. There’s something to be said about having people come to your table with skewers of sizzling beef then taking a long knife and slicing a serving onto your plate; you can’t replicate that feeling at home.

We ordered from there again last week after our younger son came home from college for winter break. He offered to pick up our meals this time, and when he came back he reported how horrified he was at seeing how many people were sitting at actual tables. I’d noticed this as well when I made the carryout run, which is why I got the hell out of there as quickly as I could each time. My son, though, spent more time looking around. He said the interior of the steak house looked exactly like he remembered, other than the wait staff being masked. At one group of tables there appeared to be at least twenty guests celebrating a birthday party.

There are too many people around us who don’t believe the virus is dangerous, or simply don’t care. Most of them will probably decline to be vaccinated, thereby allowing the virus to continue living among us.

A friend of my wife has gone on Facebook several times and called for a way to identify the non-believers and bar them from receiving medical treatment. I trust he’s being sardonic, but this pandemic has produced all kinds of wild beliefs. Remember when The Fraud wondered whether injecting bleach could be a cure? Maybe he was joking, maybe he wasn’t. I’m just looking forward to having him out of the most powerful position in the world in a little over five weeks.

Returning to the ostensible topic of this journal, I know I won’t be vaccinated in five weeks, nor will I be eating at a restaurant. It’s going to take some time before this pandemic is controlled enough for me to feel comfortable engaging in simple pleasures once more.

Old Friend

PHOTO PROMPT © Roger Bultot

When I was a child, this park was but a quarter of its size at its largest. But that was twenty years ago. Since its heyday it shrunk by half, still larger than my childhood’s imagination.

And next week, it’ll close forever. The developer who purchased the bankrupt park will demolish the rides and pools, and raise apartments and condominiums in its place.

I can’t bear walking into the park again. But just outside its gates is a burger shack with picnic tables outdoors. The view of the park is good enough to say goodbye to an old friend.

Friday Fictioneers is a weekly flash fiction contest.

Asimov’s Science Fiction

At the beginning of this year, I made a commitment to write a review of a literary journal or genre magazine each week. Now that we’re in the middle of the final month of a very tasking year, I’m glad to have only a few more reviews to write. Asimov’s Science Fiction has published monthly issues since its founding in 1977. What they say about themselves: “From its earliest days in 1977 under the editorial direction of Isaac Asimov, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine has maintained the tradition of publishing the best stories, unsurpassed in modern science fiction, from award-winning authors and first-time writers alike.  In recent years, Asimov’s has placed more stories on the Final Hugo Ballot than all of its competitors combined, and more than twice as many as its closest competitor. Bestselling author Robert Silverberg calls Asimov’s ‘a truly distinguished magazine, worthy of being set beside such classics of the earlier golden ages as John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction of 1939-42.’  The Austin Chronicle lauds Asimov’s as ‘the most consistently innovative and readable SF magazine on the newsstands today.’Issue reviewed: Volume 44, Numbers 11 and 12 (November/December 2020). The magazine prints novellas and novellettes in addition to short stories; my review is limited to the latter. Genre: Science fiction and fantasy One Story I’ll Remember Not to Forget: “Grief, As Faithful as my Hound,” by Marissa Lingen. As the Earth is visited by a species of non-communicative aliens, Rina sits with her dying mother in a hospice. Her grief takes on a new dimension when one of the aliens begins following her. Both poignant and funny, this is one of the best stories I’ve read during this year-long exercise. Clapperboard Rating: Two Klacks. The stories present interesting characters in highly imaginative situations, and don’t rely much on conflict or suspense to propel the narrative. Profanometer: Shitfuck. As one of the stories featured a self-indulgent amount of profanity, I hereby use this designation for the first time.

Day 266

My tone in this ongoing pandemic journal has been decidedly pessimistic for quite some time, at least since infection rates began climbing again over the summer. There’s plenty reason to be concerned, and I’m pessimistic by nature. But I still get up in the morning, work three part-time jobs while volunteering and writing. Want to spend some time today identifying the reasons that keep me going.

(Most of my comments are going to be specific to not only my country but also where I live and my own highly fortunate position. Expectations in other countries and other parts of the United States could be far different.)

Help is on the way. Highly effective vaccines are about to be released, and the infrastructure for their widespread delivery is intact. It could take a year to get everyone inoculated (at least those who want to be… more on that in the next paragraph), but we’re going to get there.

Smart people may not be as loud as the deliberately uninformed, yet they are more numerous and powerful. The number of people who don’t believe COVID-19 is serious and/or will refuse to take the vaccine is astonishing. Fortunately, they won’t be able to stop those who believe in science and public health from doing what’s necessary to stop this pandemic.

Bust-and-boom is pretty much the economic standard. We’ll have to wait until The Fraud leaves office next month before we get an accurate assessment of the financial mess we’re in, and the truth that finally comes out will be very ugly. But I’m old enough to remember chronic stagflation during the 1970s, Black Monday in 1987, the S&L crisis of the early 1990s, the dot-com bubble bursting at the turn of the century, the subprime mortgage catastrophe in 2008. At the risk of sounding smug, I gotta say I’ve seen this movie enought times to be confident in its ending. This recovery could take longer than usual, but it’s going to happen.

Needs to be said again — I’m writing from a privileged position. Thanks to beneficial roles from the genetic dice, wise and generous parents, and several good decisions, my wife and I are going to get through these hard times pretty well, as will our extended family. Not everyone will be as fortunate, and it’ll be up to people like us to lend a hand.

Better days are coming, though. And if that doesn’t sound overly enthusiastic, well… that’s going to have to be good enough for these days.

Eight

“How odd,” Johnson observed, stopping and looking down at the sandstone pavement.

PHOTO PROMPT © CEAyr

Henrietta followed his vision and saw the object which had attracted his attention. “Just some string,” she said disinterestedly.

“But in a very specific shape,” her husband countered. “A near-perfect figure 8. Hard to believe it would’ve just fallen into such perfect order.”

“So you think someone took the time to lay it out as an eight, knowing it would likely be kicked by someone walking or dragged by some animal?”

“Why is that so hard to believe?” asked Johnson.

“What’s hard to believe is your fascination with mundanity.”

One thing I’ve learned from participating in Friday Fictioneers is an appreciation for contractions. They really help in meeting the 100-word barrier!

Youth Imagination

I recently created a spreadsheet to keep track of my weekly reviews of literary journals and genre magazines. That list now takes up almost two full screens. Since 2013, the online magazine Youth Imagination has published new issues monthly. What they say about themselves: “Youth Imagination is interested in creative fiction stories by teens as well as by adult authors. Make the stories awesome, inspiring and engaging. Our goal is to publish the best writing for and by teens. We particularly love stories exploring their issues, such as bullying, drugs, romance, school, parental issues, teacher issues, etc., as well as about the grit and character of teens and young adults. We accept most genres of fiction, including modern, urban or classical fantasy, as well as sci-fi, slipstream, literary, action-adventure or suspense… Give us something unexpected and well written.  Technique, voice, characterization, and language will all play a part in our decision to publish.  Amaze us with your writing, use of language, sense of story, and memorable characters.  Give us a story readers will not be able to forget and will eagerly recommend to others.” Issue reviewed: Issue 90 (November 2020). The magazine publishes several ongoing series in addition to individual short stories; my review focused only on the latter. Genre: After scrolling through several of their back issues, I have to agree with their above statement about themselves — they’re open to anything. One Story I’ll Remember Not to Forget: “Essay Question #3,” by David E. Poston. Written in the form of a college application essay, Charisma is tasked with explaining how her family has helped her determine her goals. Limited to 600 words, she relates a story about her half-brother Trace, a police raid, and a python. Quirky, yet socially relevant. Clapperboard Rating: Three Klacks. The stories feature memorable settings and characters. Profanometer: Gee Willikers. Not a single f-bomb in the entire issue? A breath of fresh air, if you ask me.

Day 259

COVID is disrupting or outright eliminating many of my usual exercising activities, which makes the coming of winter and reduction in outside activity even more ominous.

I haven’t been to my fencing club in several months. Classes and private lessons are still being offered, but with the requirement to wear a cloth mask under our regular metal face coverings. I’ve heard of studies that have demonstrated masks don’t significantly inhibit oxygen intake while exercising, but I’ve never felt comfortable wearing a second mask while fencing. I feel like I’m suffocating… I believe and respect those who say it doesn’t bother them, but the experience is completely unsettling to me. People need to wear masks, even when fencing. I totally get it. And while it pains me to step away from the sport until the pandemic is under control, I don’t see an alternative.

My wife attends Pilates classes regularly, and at the start of 2019 got me interested in the activity. I enjoyed the strength and flexibility training, and attended a class with my wife one morning a week. After a two-month COVID shutdown in the spring, our Pilates studio reopened with smaller class sizes. Masks weren’t required by all instructors; we chose those who made them mandatory. I didn’t encounter the breathing problem I had with fencing, both because the physical effort wasn’t as great and there wasn’t this large metal shield over the mask. I looked forward to the Wednesday morning class… and then the Pilates studio closed, for good, at the beginning of November. Another small business casualty. There are other studios within driving distance, and while my wife has been making the trip, I haven’t wanted to start over again. Not yet, anyway.

There was still the community gym, also operating at reduced capacity and with stricter masking requirements. After a few weeks of experimenting with different times, I found late mornings to be the least crowded. According to the center’s web site, the building is still open. Yet with last week’s directive to stay at home whenever possible, it doesn’t seem right to be going there.

There are opportunities at home. For several years I’ve been using a recumbent stationary bike in the living room (“you have to put it where you live” — best sales advice I ever received), and have been using it more as outside options began disappearing. I also have a fencing workout area set up in the basement, which I’ll resume using once my enthusiasm for the sport returns. We also ordered a Pilates machine (they’re called reformers for some odd reason) last month that should finally arrive this week; demand for home exercise equipment has far exceeded supply. It’ll take up a good deal of space in the sunroom, but that’s a sacrifice we’re willing to make.

There’s been talk that many remote workers won’t want to return to the office once the pandemic restrictions are eliminated. I don’t expect the same will hold for exercising. There’s an energy I get when I’m surrounded by people focused on exerting their bodies, and I hope to feel that energy again sometime soon.

World War Z

Max Brooks’ 2006 novel was the third and final work I read for a recent reading workshop on “contagious fiction.” This lacked the philosophical insight of The Plague or the literary artistry of Station Eleven, but for all its emphasis on gore and action, it still has moments of insight.

The devastating plague in this work turns its victims into flesh-eating zombies, and the uninfected fight a desperate global war for survival. From a strictly literary perspective, zombies make difficult antagonists. They are easy to fear, but difficult to hate since they have no personality. And the fear they generate is purely imaginary; the reader can fear a killer virus or a nuclear conflict depicted in fiction because those are potential events, but being afraid of zombies is like being afraid of dragons.

Fortunately this book features some villainous humans, characters we can truly despise because they are so real. Breck Scott is a con man who makes a fortune pitching an ineffective “cure” for the zombie virus, one that sounded very much like the hydroxychloroquine craze over the COVID summer. Grover Carlson is a White House official who freely admits the government withheld the truth about the zombie threat, similar to how the United States government now admits it lied to its citizens about COVID back in February.

In other words, while “World War Z” might not compare well aesthetically to the two other works I read in my workshop, it did a much better job of foreshadowing the actual events we’ve experienced this year. There’s something to be said for that.