SHORT STORY—DELPHINE’S PILLOW

Writing

I’m participating in a flash fiction competition where we’re given three prompts—a genre, a location, and an object—and must write a short story of 1,000 words or less. For the first challenge, my prompts were historical fiction, swamp, and pillow. I’m really happy with the result:

The swamp was different in Ohio, different from what they’d crawled through in Louisiana. 

Down there they were wet more often than they were dry, waist deep in the muddy water, weaving between cypress trees draped with spanish moss. Snakes big around as a man’s arm hung from the trees, and the hot, thick air hummed with mosquitos. 

Third night on the run a gator took Leon. He was six years old. One minute he was stepping down off one of the rare dry, grassy hillocks where they had stopped to rest, trying not to lose his footing on the slick cypress roots and go under. Then a gator had its jaws clean around his narrow chest and started to roll, tail thrashing, roiling the water, red blood mixing with the brown. 

Judah planned their escape for months, starting right after his wife Mina died of an infection that went bad. The overseer had begun to take an interest in his daughter Delphine, not yet thirteen. Judah could not abide that. He gathered what food he could—they would have to make it through the swamp and all the way to the station in Jackson. An old woman named Maria had helped keep an eye on Delphine after Mina died, and Judah promised to take her and her grandson Leon along. 

The four of them slipped away quietly the night of a party at the big house, lost themselves in the festive chaos. Judah had the food and the clothes on his back, Maria a small bible. Delphine carried a burlap sack that held her mother’s pillow.

The pillow had been Mina’s prized possession, a gift from the boss’ grandmother she tended to. It was down filled, trimmed with lace. Judah told Delphine she had to leave it behind, but she was adamant. She said, “Papa, this is all I got left of Mama. I’ll carry it, you don’t have to. Mama never laid a free head on that pillow. I’m gonna keep it wrapped up safe and clean, and I won’t lay my head on it until I know we’re free.” Judah started to argue, but he saw the same fierce look in Delphine’s eyes he used to see in Mina’s, and he let it be.

Delphine was true to her word. She kept that pillow swaddled like a baby, kept it dry through the swamp and all the way to the Jackson station. They were taken in there, given a hot meal and a place to sleep. From there they made their way to Montgomery, then Nashville, and Frankfort, Kentucky. In Frankfort they heard that two teams of slave catchers had been hired to track them. It was decided they had a better chance if they split up, and Judah and Delphine continued on alone.

They crossed the Ohio River near Cincinnati, huddled in the bottom of a jon boat, covered with a tarp. A preacher dressed as a farmer met them with a hay wagon on the Ohio side. The wagon had a false bottom Judah and Delphine crawled into, stifling hot, black as pitch. They were stopped twice on the way north. Judah held his daughter close, both of them numb with fear, as they listened to slave catchers try to bully the preacher. The preacher remained calm, serene, unflappable, and in both cases the slave catchers finally walked away, frustrated.

They parted ways a little north of Lima. They were staring at a wall of trees that went on for miles in both directions. The preacher said, “This is the Great Black Swamp. There are easier ways to reach Lake Erie, but this is the safest. Not even the slavers will follow you in there.” The preacher handed Judah a compass, and they shook hands. “Stay north. When you come to the Maumee River, follow it to the mouth and wait. Stay hidden. A week from now, a fishing trawler will anchor in the bay, with three lanterns hanging in the bow. They’ll take you to Canada.” They shook hands again.

If the Louisiana swamp was unending muddy water, cypress trees and hidden dangers, the Great Black Swamp was mud. Cottonwood and sycamore forests, the trees so close together you could barely squeeze through, grassy lowlands, and everywhere deep black mud that sucked at your feet, sucked the energy, the very life from your body. One thing was just the same as the other swamp, and that was the mosquitos, great clouds of them. 

When they finally reached the Maumee, Delphine burst into exhausted tears, and Judah felt his own eyes well up.

They had been holed up for three days in a grove of trees on the banks of Maumee Bay when the trawler arrived, three lanterns shining brightly in the dark. Judah and Delphine were both sick with fever, half starved. A small skiff rowed in to take them out to the larger boat. Delphine hugged the burlap sack to her chest.

Lake Erie looked like rippled grey glass beneath a canopy of stars. The ship cook fed them bowls of stew until their bellies were full. The captain offered them a place to sleep below deck, but they chose to stay above, settling in near the bow, the lanterns above them. “Are we really free, Papa?” Delphine asked. 

“We are,” Judah answered. “When we dock, we’ll be in Canada. We’ll make a new life. It’s what your Mama would want.”

“Then I think it’s time,” Delphine said. She untied the twine that held the burlap sack closed, and removed the pillow. It was clean and dry. Delphine made a nest in a pile of fishing nets on the deck. She placed the pillow carefully, and laid her head down. As she drifted off to sleep, Judah heard a whispered, “I love you, Mama.” Judah was soon asleep himself.

FROM THE VAULT—MORE 9TH GRADE POETRY

Writing

Here are a couple more examples of the poetry I was writing when I first started writing poetry. Is it good? Nope. But it started me writing, and I will always be happy about that.

THE KINGDOM OF CADABRA

In the air beneath the surface of the golden lined clouds,
In the turning, brewing breezes like a falling silver shroud,
In the burning of the thunder, in the freezing of the night,
Lies the Kingdom of Cadabra, spreading far to left and right.

It’s a land where time is twisty, where years are but a jumble,
Where gypsies do their dances while they prophesize and mumble.
It’s a land where fire-spitting rockets fly alongside brooms,
And atoms vie the esper force in many-crystaled rooms.

Pilgrim prudes and pagan gods coexist so nicely,
And beggars beg for glowing gems, expensive, even pricely.
The royals frolic merry at their happy final fling.
In the burbling wine of apricots fly dinosaurs with wings.

Witches brew and white-foamed beer mix in velvet lined seas,
And pinkly glow the elephants, with tiny, dimpled knees.
Schooners fit with milky sails fly ever swiftly by,
In the Kingdom of Cadabra, in the softly glowing sky.

THE GRAVEYARD

A wrought iron fence, tall and black,
encloses the graveyard—
a twilight boundary between different worlds.
The gate is rusted. It comes open at a touch
with a flurry of fine red dust.
Slippery with dew, the gravel path is unkept, overgrown,
nearly invisible beneath the moonless night.
It twists and turns into the rustling grass,
into obscurity.
Shadows flit between trees in imitation of lost spirits,
or spirits in imitation of shadows.
The headstones are islands of marble
in the low-lying sea of mist.
Crimson-veined and distant,
monuments in the corridors of time.
In the far corner something moves.
The mist parts to reveal a woman bent over a grave,
the angled planes of her shoulder like atrophied wings,
taut against the faded fabric of her coat.
She lays wilted flowers beneath a wood cross,
not marble like the others,
and falls against it.
The mist swirls, closes.

SONG LYRIC—LOVER IN DISGUISE

Writing

An unabashed, yearning love song. Not my usual style, but every once in a while I write one.

so here we are again like so many times before
you crying in your beer, me trying to ignore
how the bar lights sparkle in your eyes even through the tears
how many times I’ve heard this same old story through the years
so I hold your hand and tell you things will work out for the best
and I ask myself again how I got into this mess

(CHORUS)
baby I got heartstrings that never been played
I try to see you differently but these feelings just won’t fade
come on hold me close and feel the heat begin to rise
I can’t be just your friend, I’m your lover in disguise
I need to be your lover, your lover in disguise

so here we are again like so many times before
spending all night talking, sharing hopes and dreams and more
I wish that I could reach out, cup your face between my hands
tell you I won’t hurt you, tell you let me be your man
I won’t take your heart for granted, and I won’t tell you lies
so look at me and try to see this lover in disguise

(CHORUS)
baby I got heartstrings that never been played
I try to see you differently but these feeling just won’t fade
come on hold me close and feel the heat begin to rise
I can’t be just your friend, I’m your lover in disguise
I need to be your lover, your lover in disguise

(BRIDGE)
so here we are again like so many times before
but now my heart is open wide and I’m standing at your door
take me in yours arms and try the two of us on for size
and spend a little time with your lover in disguise

(CHORUS)
baby I got heart strings that never been played
please try to see me differently ’cause these feelings just won’t fade
come on hold me close and feel the heat begin to rise
I can’t be just your friend, I’m your lover in disguise
I need to be your lover, your lover in disguise

FLASH FICTION—PINE TREES

Writing

I wrote this piece of flash fiction to be a bit of a short, sharp punch to the gut. I hope it succeeds. It first appeared in a literary journal called Iceberg.

The girl surfaced into consciousness briefly to the smell of pine trees, eyes still squeezed tightly shut. Her body lurched violently and a wave of nausea washed over her. She sank back into darkness.

She choked back the urge to vomit the next time she came to and cautiously opened her eyes. Her vision swam, doubled, refused to clear. There are the pine trees, she thought. But why are they growing in the sky? Darkness again.

When the girl awoke for the third time the nausea had subsided and she could see, but that only made things worse. She was in the back of a van. The pine tree sky forest resolved itself to be dozens of pine tree shaped air fresheners hanging from the ceiling. They bounced and swayed together with the movement of the vehicle. The van had been stripped to bare metal, the walls and floor filthy, caked with rust and dirt. The pine trees could not completely mask a foul smell that filled the small space.

The girl was sprawled on the floor as if she had been thrown there. Her head throbbed, and a sharp pain burned between her shoulder blades. She tried to sit up and realized her hands were tied tightly behind her back. Her legs were bound, knees to ankles, with duck tape. The girl pushed with her feet until she was wedged against one wall, and managed to sit up. She looked toward the front of the van. She could see through a half-open metal door into the cab, where a middle-aged man was driving. His hair was cut short, and he wore old-fashioned black-rimmed glasses. The girl noticed that one corner of his glasses was wrapped with tape. The man was wearing dirty coveralls, and leather gloves even though it was stifling hot in the van.

The girl did not panic. She had been trained for this. She knew exactly what to do, what to say.

“My father will pay whatever you want, as long as you don’t hurt me,” she said in a strong, clear voice. Her father was very rich, and had long been fearful that someone would kidnap one of his children. He had drilled them all on how to act should the unthinkable happen. Be cooperative. Be respectful. Do not show fear.

The man glanced back at her in the rearview mirror. “What’s that, honey?” he asked.

“I don’t know how long we’ve been driving, but I’m sure my father knows I’ve been kidnapped by now. He’ll be waiting by the phone for your ransom demand.” The girl tried to sound brave, but she heard a little quaver in her voice and it annoyed her.

She could see the man smile in the rearview mirror, and she thought, it’s going to be alright. She forced a smile of her own and said, “Please, sir. I’d like to go home now.”

The man turned his head so he was looking at the girl directly. “Darlin’, you got it all wrong,” he said. “I don’t know who your daddy is, and I don’t care how much money he has. There’s not gonna be any ransom.” He turned back to face the road and said, more to himself than to her, “That’s not why I took you.”

SONG LYRIC: BE MY GRAVITY

Writing

Flat on my back staring up at the sky
watching the cloud caravan sailing by
holding the grass as the earth spun around
feeling the dew still wet on the ground
I closed my eyes tight, imagined myself
spinning through space on a trip somewhere else
my feet like a comet burning a trail
light years behind me, straight as a rail
then a shadow crept in and eclipsed the sun
I opened my eyes and knew you were the one

pull me down, hold me down
plant my feet on solid ground
baby be my gravity
can’t you see I need you to be
my gravity
can’t you see I need you to be
my gravity

there I was flat on the bottom of the pool
holding my breath like some kind of fool
thinking about God, thinking about death
thinking I should open wide and drink a deep breath
I imagined my friends all gathered around
and me in the coffin, not making a sound
they’d stop one by one to pay their respects
then move on, my dear dead soul to dissect
but a face swam above me, bright as the sun
I opened my eyes and knew you were the one

pull me down, hold me down
plant my feet on solid ground
baby be my gravity
can’t you see I need you to be
my gravity

please pull me down, hold me down
plant my feet on solid ground
baby be my gravity
can’t you see I need you to be
my gravity

POEM—SAILOR ON AN ALIEN SEA

Writing

I woke to the pitch and the roll of the deck,
with a rope at my neck and rough planking beneath me,
the foaming white sea spray trying to reach me,
the sky a dark yellow that whirled above me,
and two pale red suns that the sky bled and ran.
I felt a soft touch and my fingers met silk,
and a girl with no eyes took me up by the hand.
Guided by fingers that slid along railing,
her hair whispering back to the sea wind’s lost wailing,
she led me past crewmen that bent at their oars.
With lean muscles straining and braided hair trailing,
they sliced at the water that tumbled and roared.
Each face looked up as we walked slowly past,
and each face was eyeless, from one to the last.
She led to a place at the end of the oars.
I sat and took hold of the long wooden handle,
and lost myself soon in the rhythm and pull,
in the flapping of wings and the screaming of gulls,
in the slapping of water ‘gainst the barnacled hull,
in the two suns that set and the three moons that rise,
in the dark yellow sky that whirls and sighs.
I am a sailor on an alien sea.
I have only the gulls to talk to me.
I have only the wind to hold me up straight and tall,
only my eyes to search for a shore that we never will see.
And a long ago dream that answered the call.

SONG LYRIC—HEAVEN (BETTER BE SOMETHING SPECIAL)

Writing

We haven’t spent a night apart
Since I first took your hand in mine
Our lives forever joined together
Like grape vines intertwined
We’ve driven down some bumpy roads
Without a light, without a map
The two of us we always knew
We’d somehow make it back

(chorus)
I don’t need a choir singing
I don’t need angels winging
I don’t need a cloud with a view
Heaven better be something special
To be half as good as life on earth with you
I don’t need those golden gates
I’m in no hurry, I can wait
I don’t need a sign to know it’s true
Heaven better be something special
To be half as good as life on earth with you

Images of days long past
Like breadcrumbs floating in wine
Surface now and then
Golden moments out of time
Every time I lose myself
In long forgotten memories
And travel back on through the years
Your smiling face is all I see

(chorus)
I don’t need a choir singing
I don’t need angels winging
I don’t need a cloud with a view
Heaven better be something special
To be half as good as life on earth with you
I don’t need those golden gates
I’m in no hurry, I can wait
I don’t need a sign to know it’s true
Heaven better be something special
To be half as good as life on earth with you

BALLAD—DARILYN, BEGIN AGAIN

Writing

In my head, I’ve always heard this one as a strummy but driving folk song, something like what the Indigo Girls might do.

On an island not on any map, on a rocky, windswept bay,
sits a rough and tumble harbor town that goes by Devil’s Cay.
The fishing boats set out each day with morning still a dream,
and straggle back long after dark, another day redeemed.
The longshoremen and sailors come with pockets full of pay
to Darilyn’s, the finest tavern in all of Devil’s Cay.
They come to drink, and talk, and fight, and tell a tale or two.
They come to laugh at stories that were old when they were new.
But every night at ten o’clock, wherever she may be,
the dark haired beauty behind the bar looks out across the sea.

Then Darilyn begins again
to sweetly play her mandolin.
Her fingers dance upon the strings,
she sings about her true love Jim,
with eyes cast down she looks within,
and dreams of how it might have been,
her song so sad that eyes begin
to well with tears for her and him.

They say it happened long ago, when she was just a girl,
and a sailor name of Captain Jim was the center of her world.
Jimmy was a handsome lad, and many a lady tried,
but the slender waif named Darilyn was the apple of his eye.
He pledged that they would marry on the day she turned eighteen,
but all that ended one March night when the wicked sea turned mean.
Jimmy saved a dozen men, then saved a dozen more.
As the clock struck ten his ship went down and Jimmy was no more.
Now every night at ten o’clock, wherever she may be,
the dark haired beauty behind the bar looks out across the sea.

Then Darilyn begins again
to sweetly play her mandolin.
Her fingers dance upon the strings,
she sings about her true love Jim,
with eyes cast down she looks within,
and dreams of how it might have been,
her song so sad that eyes begin
to well with tears for her and him.

Tonight there’s something magic in the air at Darilyn’s,
and all eyes are upon her as the clock approaches ten.
Now the door swings slowly open on a ghost from days long past,
and Captain Jim says, Darilyn, I’ve made it home at last.

Then Darilyn begins again
to sweetly play her mandolin.
Her fingers dance upon the strings,
she sings about her true love Jim.
With smile wide she looks at him,
and wonders what tomorrow brings.

With smile wide she looks at him,
and wonders what tomorrow brings.

SONG LYRIC—I’D RATHER GO CRAZY (THAN NEVER GO ANYWHERE AT ALL)

Writing

I can’t play or sing a lick, but I’ve been lucky enough to have a few songs recorded by various singers/songwriters. This one hasn’t been, but it’s one of my favorites, so I’m keeping my hopes up it will happen some day.

when I first met Tracy she was walking the ledge
outside my window, toes over the edge
she tapped on the glass, threw me a smile
that was a little bit crooked, a little bit wild
she stepped through the window like she did it all the time
said, hey how are ya, thanks I’m fine
or so I’ve been told–then she started to laugh
and that’s what I remember when I think about our past

she said, I used to walk the tightrope and swing on the trapeze
well, not really, but don’t you think that’s a cool thing to be?
did you ever tap dance ten floors up and know you just can’t fall?
you know, I’d rather go crazy than never go anywhere at all

we talked that night for what seemed like hours
but when she left I didn’t know a damn thing about her
can’t really say that night was the start of some big love
but that crazy girl with the crooked smile fit me like a glove
Tracy had her problems, I knew that going in
I could live with her addictions as long as I was one of them
I get high on life, she’d say, but smiling when she said it
there’s a lot of turns I’ve taken wrong, but I never will regret it

she said, I used to walk the tightrope and swing on the trapese
well, not really, but don’t you think that’s a cool thing to be?
did you ever tap dance ten floors up and know you just can’t fall?
I believe I’d rather go crazy than never go anywhere at all

she’d disappear for days on end, never tell me where
huddle in the corner, say, you know life’s just not fair
from the giddy heights of ecstasy to the bottom of her soul
Tracy was the pilot, but she never had control
I knew one day her dance would take her too close to the edge
I knew one day her fingertips would slip off from the ledge
I knew our time together was a trip that had to end
but I didn’t know how much it hurts to lose your dearest friend

Tracy used to walk the tightrope, and swing on the trapese
and if she said she did it, well, that’s good enough for me
I never learned to tap dance and ten floors is just too tall
but I think I’d rather go crazy than never go anywhere at all

SONG LYRIC: HELLBOUND

Writing

This is my attempt at a sort of noir song lyric. I always pictured Johnny Cash singing it.

smoke on the horizon, wind in the trees
high whine of sirens following me
back country roads, gravel and dirt tracks
carry a full load, U-turns and switchbacks

I’m hellbound, and I can’t be found
hellbound, holed up in hell town

smoke on the horizon, wind in the trees
trying to get by but nothing is free
across the state line, getting lost in the shadows
biding my time, retreating from battles

travel at night, sleep through the day
stay out of the light, finding my own way
keeping in touch with the man with the money
playing my hunches, sometimes it’s funny

I’m hellbound, and I can’t be found
hellbound, holed up in hell town

smoke on the horizon, wind in the trees
no one can follow what no one can see
doing my work, each job as it comes
wherever they lurk, just keep myself numb

slipping through shadows, feeling the fear
nothing worth loving, nothing held dear

I’m hellbound, and I can’t be found
hellbound, holed up in hell town
hellhound, holed up in hell town

Trapped in Lunch Lady Land

Writing

In 2013 CBAY Books (which, I was happy to discover, stands for Children’s Brains Are Yummy Books) held their first writing contest, and I was the first winner in the Middle Grade category. The manuscript I won with clocked in at 15,000 words, but my wonderful editor, Madeline Smoot, suggested it would be a much stronger novel at 30,000 words. Turns out she was right.

Fast forward to 2014, and Trapped In Lunch Lady Land was born. Did my life change? Was I able to quit my job and become a full time author? Nope. But having a published novel was way up there on the bucket list. I had a book signing event at my local Barnes & Noble (no indie bookstores in my neck of the woods, unfortunately), which was a blast.

The very best part of the whole publishing experience, though, was doing school visits. I did a bunch, reading to kids from kindergarten through fifth grade, taking questions, and generally being flabbergasted by just how smart and funny they were. Kindergartners wanted to know what kind of pets I have, and told me in great detail about theirs. By fifth grade they were asking how advances work.

So what’s Trapped In Lunch Lady Land about? Here’s the elevator pitch:

Josh and Patty Anne aren’t exactly the best of friends (ok, they detest each other), but after they both end up trapped somewhere beneath their school in a land made completely of school cafeteria food, they quickly learn they have to work together if they want to survive. With the help of some unusual friends they meet along the way, the two must brave countless dangers unlike anything in the normal world. If they can survive the skybeater, the canisaurs and the tater-tot throwing ladle monsters, Josh and Patty Anne might just make it home alive.

Interested? Know an eight to eleven year old boy or girl who might be interested? You can check it out on Amazon at:

Here I am doing a school visit!

FOLLOW—A BALLAD

Writing

My SUV gave up the ghost just outside Junction City
Left it there, no burial, I guess death is never pretty
Walked twenty miles through corn and wheat as far as the horizon
I know that it’s good exercise, but I wish I was still drivin’
Sad and sleepless in a Motel 6, waiting for the break of day
Out of luck, and that damn girl is still half a state away

She said,
Call me a dreamer, call me a fool
Prove that you love me as much as I love you
Come climb a mountain and lay down beside me
Follow the trail to the love deep inside me
Leave that life behind and start everything new

Come on, she said, let’s run away and keep on running for a while
I shook my head and silenced her with an absent, condescending smile
She was gone next morning, left behind a map from Triple A
That led to Colorado, where she wrote, “I’m heading this way”
And she left behind a letter that cut right to the heart
And I knew I better hit the road ’cause she had a good head start

So here I am with thumb outstretched and not a car in sight
But I think I crossed into Colorado sometime late last night
There’s a mountain in the distance that I know I’ll have to climb
You know, it’s worth the trouble if it makes that dreamer mine

She said,
Call me a dreamer, call me a fool
Prove that you love me as much as I love you
Come climb a mountain and lay down beside me
Follow the trail to the love deep inside me
Leave that life behind and start everything new

SONG LYRICS THAT INSPIRE MY WRITING

Writing

I like poetry as much as the next fella. I even write some myself. But there’s something about a perfectly written song, a set of lyrics that speaks to your head and your heart, words that ride a melody like a longtime lover (or a brand new one), that makes me want to put pen to paper.

Here are some lyrics that speak to me, and, to be honest, lyrics I wish I had written. These were the first songs that came to mind. I’ve just scratched the surface. There are so many more, and I’ll probably do this again.

NEW YORK, NEW Y0RK Ryan Adams

I remember Christmas in the blistering cold
In a church on the Upper West Side
Babe, I stood there singing, I was holding your arm
You were holding my trust like a child

CAR WHEELS ON A GRAVEL ROAD Lucinda Williams

broken down shacks engine parts
could tell a lie but my heart would know
listen to the dogs barkin in the yard
car wheels on a gravel road
child in the backseat about four or five years
lookin’ out the window
little bit of dirt mixed with tears
car wheels on a gravel road

RICH MAN’S WAR Steve Earle

Bobby had an eagle and a flag tattooed on his arm
Red white and blue to the bone when he landed in Kandahar
Left behind a pretty young wife and a baby girl
A stack of overdue bills and went off to save the world
Been a year now and he’s still there
Chasin’ ghosts in the thin dry air
Meanwhile back at home the finance company took his car
Just another poor boy off to fight a rich man’s war

THE ONLY FLAME IN TOWN Elvis Costello

But you blew hot and cold
Turned my heart to a cinder
And with each passing day
You’re less tender and more tinder
Now you’re not the only flame in town

32 FLAVORS Ani Difranco

and god help you if you are an ugly girl
course too pretty is also your doom
cause everyone harbors a secret hatred
for the prettiest girl in the room
and god help you if you are a phoenix
and you dare to rise up from the ash
a thousand eyes will smolder with jealousy
while you are just flying back

EVERYBODY KNOWS Leonard Cohen

Everybody knows that you love me baby
Everybody knows that you really do
Everybody knows that you’ve been faithful
Oh, give or take a night or two
Everybody knows you’ve been discreet
But there were so many people you just had to meet
Without your clothes
Everybody knows

TENNESSEE Arrested Development

Outta the country and into more country
Past Dyesburg and Ripley
Where the ghost of childhood haunts me
Walk the roads my forefathers walked
Climb the trees my forefathers hung from
Ask those trees for all their wisdom
They tell me my ears are so young
Go back, from whence you came
My family tree, my family name
For some strange reason it had to be
He guided me to Tennessee

WHEN I WAS A BOY Dar Williams

I was a kid that you would like, just a small boy on her bike
Riding topless, yeah, I never cared who saw
My neighbor come outside to say, “Get your shirt,”
I said “No way, it’s the last time I’m not breaking any law.”
And now I’m in a clothing store, and the sign says less is more
More that’s tight means more to see, more for them, not more for me
That can’t help me climb a tree in ten seconds flat

POEM—MAN BOWS OUT

Writing

The closing jaws of entropy

that snap and foam and say to me,

you are the stumbling primate, tamed.

Kindling for the star-fed flame.

The slow and terrible unwinding,

the fabric of the void untwining.

God’s hand draws the star strings tight.

You huddle with your feeble light.

You rattle a tired fist and curse

the gods and all the fates diverse,

and rant at the darkness that slowly comes,

and the stars that blink out one by one.

The last man dies, insane and alone,

and his scream is the voice of Gabriel’s horn.

DO DIFFERENT TYPES OF WRITING MAKE ALL YOUR WRITING BETTER?

Writing

When I talk about my writing here on the blog, I’m talking about fiction writing. Whether writing for kids, or writing science fiction, fantasy or horror for adults, fiction is my favorite pool to splash around in.

What I don’t talk about much here is my day job, which I’ve done now for almost forty years. I’m creative director for a small, close-knit ad agency here in beautiful Cleveland, Ohio (And no, I’m not being sarcastic. I love this city, except for the weather.). Funny thing is, if I add up the minutes, I spend more time writing for work than I do at home. Don’t get me wrong, my main gig is graphic design, but in any given week I write radio and TV scripts, website copy, blog posts, print copy—the list is long. My co-workers are aware of my fiction writing, and insanely supportive, which is very cool.

The questions I find myself asking are these: Does the fiction writing make me a better advertising writer? Does the advertising writing make me a better fiction writer?

I don’t know for sure, but I think the answer to both questions is yes.

My fiction tends to the fantastic, to flights of fancy, often to humor. I lean on my imagination pretty hard. I would argue that all those things come into play when I’m writing advertising copy, because I try to look past the first, more mundane ideas, and aim for somewhere near left field. I might be selling sewing machines, or home heating and cooling systems, but that doesn’t mean I can’t find a fun and unique way to make that sale. The skills I’ve learned writing fiction help me do that.

Conversely, When I sit down to write fiction, the skills I’ve learned writing advertising copy come into play. I’ve had to learn to make a point clearly, succinctly, in as few words as possible, to describe something so that the mind’s eye can see and understand it. I find this really helpful when writing action scenes in particular, the ability to keep all the pieces moving without the story desolving into a muddy stew of imprecise verbs.

So, in a word, yeah. I think writing a lot makes me a better writer in both my day and night jobs.

I would love to get some other opinions here. Do you agree? Disagree? Let me know!

SONG LYRIC—TOO DRUNK TO REMEMBER, TOO COOL TO CARE

Writing

Look at you now,
sprawled out on the floor.
Tried to reach the bathroom
only made it to the door.
When you left last night
you were looking so fine,
I would have told anybody
I’m so proud that he’s mine.
Now your tie’s around your head
and your shirt’s buttoned wrong,
and I can see from your position
that your underwear’s gone.

You were too drunk to remember,
and now you’re too cool to care,
and you’d like to ask me what you did
but baby you don’t dare.
Now, that lipstick’s such a pretty color,
but it’s not one you should wear.
You were too drunk to remember,
and now you’re too cool to care.

The cops left here
about an hour ago.
From the story they were telling me,
you put on quite a show.
I understand the bloody nose–
sounds like you saw some stars.
But where’d you get that haircut,
and where the hell’s the car?
You left home with a Rolex–
Now you’re wearing Mickey Mouse.
From the buzzing cloud above your head,
you’ll have to be deloused.

You were too drunk to remember,
and now you’re too cool to care,
and you’d like to ask me what you did
but baby you don’t dare.
My bags are packed, I’m leaving,
and I would probably tell you where,
but you were too drunk to remember,
and now you’re too cool to care.

My bags are packed, I’m leaving,
and I would probably tell you where,
but you were too drunk to remember,
and now you’re just too cool to care.

LULU HAS—A BALLAD

Writing

Lulu has a plastic Jesus on the dashboard of her car
she likes to think that maybe he protects her
Lulu sees the eyes of angels when she looks up at the stars
she says that sometimes late at night the statue smiles at her

Lulu has a radio on the nightstand by her bed
she spins the dial, searching through the static
Lulu hears the voices of the saints around her head
she says that if they ever stop it would be so tragic

Lulu had a mother, hung herself in Lulu’s room
promised everlasting joy if she would join her soon
promised that the hand of God would pull her from the tomb
people say that Lulu’s mom was crazy as a loon
now they say the same about Lulu

Lulu has a bible that she carries like a shield
she parries each attack with verse and chapter
Lulu reads aloud from it as she walks across the fields
she says what others think just doesn’t matter

Lulu has a television, the on/off switch is crossed with tape
she says the devil lives behind the screen
Lulu turned it on just once, a very bad mistake
now she sees the devil in her dreams

Lulu had a daddy, used to visit Lulu’s room
Lulu would lay very still and look up at the moon
finally he just up and left, and not a day too soon
people say that Lulu’s dad was crazy as a loon
now they say the same about Lulu

Lulu has a scrapbook filled with clippings from the paper
she says the rapture hides between the lines
Lulu says she doesn’t really care if people hate her
the earthly ones are the only ties that bind

Lulu has a journal where she keeps her secret thoughts
she sits each night and writes ’til long past dark
Lulu keeps it locked up tight, afraid that she’ll get caught
she says she fears the dog that doesn’t bark

Lulu had a boyfriend, never came to Lulu’s room
the time he spent with Lulu was like watching a cartoon
he only ever held her hand, but people just assume
people started saying he must be crazy as a loon
he would never say the same about Lulu

INSIDE-OUT BOY—SPEC SCRIPT

Writing

Do you remember the TV show Inside-Out Boy? It was an excellent piece of claymation that ran on Nickelodeon for a few years in the late 80s/early 90s. Fast forward to a couple of decades ago, and I had an idea for some new stories set in the Inside-Out Boy world. Not content to sit on an idea I liked, I wrote a few spec scripts, and hunted down the production company that had produced the original series. As it turned out, they liked it. We started talking about the possibility, and it was a slim possibility, that we could move forward with the idea. Then…then 9/11 happened, and they were in New York, and that was it. But I still like the idea. Here’s one of those spec scripts.

Inside-Out Boy In:

The Grass Is Always Greener On The Inside-Out

SCENE: Bird’s-eye view of a suburban neighborhood at dusk; kids playing, lawns being mowed. This wholesome vision is shattered by the sound of a—

YOUNG GIRL’S VOICE

Help! Leave me alone, you bullies!

CUT TO: An access alley behind a garage with garbage cans, etc. Two punky looking teenage boys are teasing a cute young girl (Carla). They have taken her bike.

CARLA

Give me back my bike or I’ll tell my dad!

BOY A

Ooooh, I’m really scared! She’s gonna tell her daddy!

BOY B

Not if we put her in a garbage can…come on, Stu, let’s get her…

They approach her menacingly.

CUT TO: Close-up of Carla, looking terrified, as the shadows of the boys fall across her. She trips and falls.

CUT TO: The two boys approaching, from Carla’s P.O.V.

VOICE FROM OUT-OF-FRAME

Hey! Why don’t you dorks pick on someone your own size!

The punks look around puzzled.

BOY A

Who said that?!

VOICE FROM OUT-OF-FRAME

 I did!

Inside-Out Boy leaps down from the garage roof, landing on top of a garbage can. He waves his arms and sticks out his tongue at the boys, making loud noises, exploiting his inside-out-ness. The punks become scared little kids and run away screaming. Inside-Out Boy watches them go.

INSIDE-OUT BOY

Hah, that’ll teach ‘em.

I.O.B. turns back toward Carla, and really sees her for the first time.

CUT TO: Close-up of Carla’s face as I.O.B. sees her…she’s a blonde vision, light radiating from her face.

CUT TO: Close-up of I.O.B.’s face with a dumb smile and faraway eyes. He is clearly smitten.

CUT TO: I.O.B. kind of shakes himself, realizes he’s staring. He reaches to help Carla.

INSIDE-OUT BOY

Here, let me help you up.

Carla recoils from his touch, tries to hide the look of revulsion that crosses her face but does not succeed. She scrambles to her feet, keeping her distance. This is one girl who does not think I.O.B. is cool.

CARLA

No, no, that’s okay. I’m fine, really.

Carla hurries past him, jumps on her bike. She pedals away, one bent wheel squeaking.

CARLA (OVER HER SHOULDER)

Um, thanks and everything.

CUT TO: Close-up of I.O.B. He realizes what has just happened.

INSIDE-OUT BOY (TO HIMSELF)

Wow, she was scared of me. I, I think I grossed her out!

CUT TO: I.O.B. walking home, slumped and dejected, as indignities are heaped upon him. Dogs and cats follow him, sniffing. A bird lands on his head, begins to peck. An elderly woman carrying a big pie to her neighbor sees him, screams and flips the pie up in the air; naturally it lands on his head.

INSIDE-OUT BOY (HOWLING TO THE HEAVENS)

I’m tired of being inside-out!

A gopher pops his head out of his hole, sees I.O.B., lets out a loud EEEK and dives back into his hole. I.O.B. hangs his head and sighs.

DISOLVE TO: The next day at school, I.O.B. sits in class, still grumbling. His teacher enters with Carla in tow, and I.O.B. perks up immediately.

TEACHER

Class, say hello to your new classmate, Carla Calloway.

CLASS (HAPHAZARDLY)

Hello, Carla…

TEACHER

Carla, why don’t you find yourself a seat.

I.O.B. realizes there is an empty seat next to him. He looks at Carla and smiles hopefully. Carla sees him and ducks her head. She heads for a desk on the opposite side of the room. I.O.B. drops his head on his desk.

DISOLVE TO: I.O.B. eating lunch with his best friends; Darcy, who lives next door, and Thomas, a bit of a nerd who thinks of I.O.B. as his own personal science project. I.O.B. gazes longingly across the cafeteria at Carla.

DARCY (TO THOMAS)

What’s with him?

THOMAS

He’s in love with that new girl, Carla, but she thinks he’s gross!

INSIDE-OUT BOY

Shut up, Thomas!

Darcy looks daggers at Carla. She’s been carrying a quiet torch for I.O.B. for years. She thumps I.O.B. on the head to get his attention.

INSIDE-OUT BOY

Huh? Ow! What?!

DARCY

If Blondie over there can’t see what a cool guy you are, even inside-out, then she’s not worth the time of day!

INSIDE-OUT BOY

You’re just saying that ‘cause you’re my friend.

DARCY

Ooooh!

Darcy storms off, upset.

INSIDE-OUT BOY

What’d I say?

THOMAS

Man, you really have a way with the ladies.

INSIDE-OUT BOY

Shut up, Thomas!

DISOLVE TO: Later that day, after school. I.O.B. and Thomas sit on the playground swings, talking.

INSIDE-OUT BOY

Where’s Darcy?

THOMAS

She went home. She’s still cheesed off at you. You know she kind of likes you, right?

INSIDE-OUT BOY

You’re crazy! Me and Darcy have been friends forever!

THOMAS

Yeah, whatever.

They sit in silence for a moment, I.O.B. deep in thought.

INSIDE-OUT BOY

Hey Thomas…I don’t want to be inside-out any more. Can you find a way to change me back?

THOMAS

Are you sure?

INSIDE-OUT BOY (DETERMINED)

Yeah, I’m sure.

THOMAS

Well, I love a challenge. Let’s go to the lab.

DISOLVE TO: Thomas’s room. It’s a nerd’s paradise, with computers, test tubes, Bunsen burners, etc. Thomas is wearing a lab coat, the pocket bristling with pens. I.O.B. looks apprehensive.

INSIDE-OUT BOY

Now what?

THOMAS 

(WITH A BIG SMILE ON HIS FACE…

HE’S BEEN WAITING TO DO THIS FOR A LONG TIME)

We have to run some tests.

Collage of scenes, one dissolving into the next, as I.O.B. is subjected to all manner of silly tests while Thomas takes notes. He’s poked and prodded with odd-looking instruments. He’s hung upside-down and spun in circles. He hops on one foot while holding a goldfish bowl in one hand, balancing an umbrella on his nose and singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”

CUT TO: Thomas pressing the ENTER button on his computer keyboard, while I.O.B. looks on, exhausted.

THOMAS 

Keep your fingers crossed, here it comes.

A sheet of paper slides out of the printer. Thomas picks it up, not letting I.O.B. see it.

THOMAS 

Hmmmm…why didn’t I think of that?

INSIDE-OUT BOY

What? What’s it say?

THOMAS 

You have to swing up over the bar backward.

INSIDE-OUT BOY

You’re kidding…

THOMAS 

Nope.

INSIDE-OUT BOY (WITH CONVICTION)

Let’s do it.

DISOLVE TO: The swing set. I.O.B. takes his seat as Thomas and Darcy look on.

DARCY (STILL MAD) 

I hope you know what you’re doing. What if you turn inside-out again? You’ll end up being a big gooey mess.

INSIDE-OUT BOY 

I’m already a big gooey mess…besides, that’s not going to happen, right, Thomas?

THOMAS 

Um, right. At least, I don’t think so. So, you ready?

INSIDE-OUT BOY (HOLDING ONTO THE CHAINS)

Yep.

Thomas and Darcy get in front of I.O.B. and each grab a side of the swing. They back up, pulling the swing forward as far as they can.

THOMAS 

On three. One, two, threeeeee!

They rush forward, flinging I.O.B. backwards. The swing goes up in a big arc, almost parallel to the ground, before heading back.

INSIDE-OUT BOY 

Almost, keep pushing!

Thomas and Darcy keep pushing, the swing inching higher and higher.

CUT TO: Close-up of I.O.B. as he finally loops over in slow motion, upside down, chains slack. As he comes over the top he begins to transform, turning right–side out. He comes to a bouncing stop, looks down at himself and lets out a loud

INSIDE-OUT BOY 

Yeah! It worked!

Thomas and Darcy join him in cheering.

THOMAS 

I knew it would work! At least, I was pretty sure. Science triumphs again!

DARCY 

So now what? You going go tell your family?

INSIDE-OUT BOY 

Yeah, they’re really gonna be surprised!

DISOLVE TO: Mom and dad hugging I.O.B. in a stranglehold.

MOM 

Oh honey, we love you no matter what. Plus, now I can take the plastic off the furniture.

CUT TO: I.O.B. with his little sister, Shelly. She pokes him experimentally.

SHELLY 

Hmmm. You’re not sticky anymore. I’m gonna miss that.

She looks at him with a frown, then bursts out laughing and hugs him.

SHELLY 

Just kidding!

CUT TO: I.O.B.’s big brother Steve. He looks I.O.B. up and down, then bops him on top of the head and walks away.

STEVE (OVER HIS SHOULDER) 

Inside-out or not, you’re still a dweeb.

I.O.B. sighs, rubbing his head, then smiles.

INSIDE-OUT BOY (A LITTLE SARCASTICALLY)

There’s no place like home…but now there’s a certain blonde girl I have to go see.

DISOLVE TO: I.O.B. in a jacket and tie, a bouquet of flowers in his hand. He’s obviously nervous as all get-out as he walks up the porch steps of a nice house and rings the doorbell. Carla answers the door. She looks at him dismissively through the screen door.

CARLA

Can I help you?

INSIDE-OUT BOY

Um, yeah, I mean yes. (HOLDS OUT THE FLOWERS) These are for you.

CARLA

Who are you?

INSIDE-OUT BOY

It’s me, the kid who saved you when those older boys took your bike. I guess I look a little different now. Anyway, I was wondering if you’d like to go to a movie or something.

CARLA

As if. So you’re not inside-out any more, I still don’t owe you anything. You really thought I’d go out with you? Yuck!

Carla slams the door in I.O.B.’s face. I.O.B. slinks away, crushed, and the night just gets worse. He runs into the elderly woman who had the pie before and tries to scare her out of spite. She hits him with her umbrella. A gopher pops up out of his hole and bites him on the ankle. Finally, as he crosses an alley, the two punks from before grab him up, pulling him into the darkness. We hear loud banging sounds, then the punks exit the alley, dusting off their hands, laughing.

CUT TO: I.O.B. in a garbage can, banana peel and miscellaneous trash on his head.

INSIDE-OUT BOY (DEFEATED)

I guess there’s only one thing left to do…

DISOLVE TO: The playground, late at night. I.O.B. peeks up from behind some bushes, scanning the playground. He zips from bush to tree like a ghost, making his way toward the swingset. When he’s sure the coast is clear he gets on the swing.

INSIDE-OUT BOY

Here we go again!

I.O.B. begins to swing, higher and higher. As he climbs into the sky, his determined frown is gradually replaced with a smile. Finally, with a triumphant yell, he loops over the top and turns back inside-out. He leaps off the swing, plants his feet and raises his hands into the air.

INSIDE-OUT BOY

Inside-Out Boy is back!

DISOLVE TO: The next day in the school cafeteria. I.O.B., Thomas and Darcy are sitting together, I.O.B. inside-out as can be. Thomas is shaking his head.

THOMAS

I just don’t get it. I can’t figure out why you turned back inside-out.

INSIDE-OUT BOY (WITH A SLY SMILE)

It’s a real mystery all right.

DARCY

So what’d your family say?

INSIDE-OUT BOY

Oh, you know. Steve bopped me on top of the head, Shelly loves me no matter what, and Mom put the plastic back on the furniture. I guess life is back to normal. So who wants to hit the playground for some kickball?

THOMAS

I’m in. Darcy?

DARCY

You guys go on, I’ll be there in a minute.

Darcy reaches into her pocket and pulls out a big, juicy worm.

INSIDE-OUT BOY

Darcy, what’s that for?

DARCY

That Carla girl is looking a little pale. I think she needs more protein in her diet, so I’m gonna add this to her spaghetti.

Darcy and Thomas high-five.

THOMAS

You go girl!

DARCY

No one messes with my boy—best friend. (SHE BLUSHES)

CUT TO: Close-up of I.O.B., a big embarrassed smile on his face.

INSIDE-OUT BOY 

Shut up, Thomas.

THOMAS

I didn’t say anything!

INSIDE-OUT BOY

You were going to…

THE END

THE BALLAD OF TRIXIE DELIGHT

Writing

I never tried my hand at a ballad before, and this may not be the usual subject matter for the form, but it was really fun to write.

they say there’s a corner of heaven reserved

for priests, politicians and barkeeps

we spend our time helping the people we serve

though sometimes their problems run chin deep

I’ve tended this bar for near twenty years

and I’ve seen more than I care to tell

I suppose that I’ve poured out an ocean of beer

and drunk more than my share as well

I’ve heard the confessions of killers and fools

and downed shots with a couple of saints

I’ve had punks strut in who thought they were cool

and watched them leave knowing they ain’t

of all the nights spent with one eye on the till

and one ear with some clown on the make

there’s one magic moment that stays with me still

one memory I can’t seem to shake

a hard rain had pounded the city all evening

and business had been pretty slow

one hand on my coat, I was planning on leaving

when a voice at the door said, don’t go

an old woman entered with slow, measured steps

took a stool at the end of the bar

her gaze when I caught it was none too direct

like the road she had traveled was far

I gave her some time to get settled in

a good bartender knows not to hurry

one good look at her face told me she favored gin

and I could see every bottle she’d buried

I’ve got a small problem, she said in a whisper

I had to lean close just to hear

if you’d pour me a drink I’d be grateful, mister

but I don’t have a penny to spare

the thing is, I’m not one for charity

I can set things right, given the chance

I offer you something of heart stopping rarity

if you stand me that drink, I will dance

I guess my face betrayed my thoughts

and she put me to the test

if you don’t know about it, you shouldn’t scoff

there was a time when they called me the best

the name I was born with is Mary McDevin

but my stage name was Trixie Delight

I gave more than one boy his first glimpse of heaven

and haunted a thousand men’s nights

then she slid off the stool and stood herself tall

walked arrow straight to the jukebox

she punched up one song, leaned back to the wall

and the whole damn place started to rock

she started off slow, just a sway to the beat

like each note was her own private lover

I will swear to this day she was giving off heat

and I thought about diving for cover

she threw off her coat with a flick of one wrist

shimmied out of her dress like a cat

and if someone asked me I’d have to insist

I no longer knew where I was at

I could blame it on the hour, or blame it on the beer

or maybe it was just a trick of the light

but I swear right now on what I hold dear

for that one brief moment she was Trixie Delight

the music faded and she quickly dressed

and an old woman sat down at the bar

I knew in my heart that I’d just seen the best

that I’d been entertained by a star

I poured her a double without saying a thing

and she knocked it right back like a pro

I was thinking about all of the joys this job brings

when Trixie said, it’s time to go

as she opened the door to let herself out

she turned and favored me with a wink

I may never know what that night was about

but I sure as hell know what I think

POEM—TRIPTYCH: ARMAGEDDON

Writing

1.

standing on the broken summit of the hilltop

surrounded by his disciples

the mad prophet rants

feet planted in hellfire

head spinning in a fever dream

hecklers come to laugh at the crazy-eyed fool

in the death-dusted robe and the halo of pity

who is overstepping set bounds

scorn for a man who does not know the limits

the sky shatters

opens great cracks and rends in the clouds

that slowly reveal the night sky

disciples chant at the insane stars

the hecklers inch back from the frenzy

the mad prophet opens his eyes

hear me

he screams at a world

that for him is coming apart at the seams

hear me

he shouts at the lost sheep who cower about him

i am god!

a tear opens in the sky

allows passage for a searing bolt of lightning

a moment later an acrid stench and a rumbling echo

the crowd slowly disperses

no praise for wind-blown, smoldering ash

2.

now there are more

and the light in their eyes is a secret shade of madness

the hecklers scoff from hidden places

hesitant

not sure if the limits matter any more

afraid that the boundaries have been forgotten

in place of the death-dusted robe

a legion of uniforms

gold buttons and blood-stained medals

the halo of pity has been thrown to the wolves

and the odds have been evened

thousands of turrets

and shafts and gleaming barrels

that catch and splinter the sunlight

banks and rows and bunkers and stockpiles

all pointed bristling at the sky

that say

more eloquently than words

we are god!

fingers poised over switches

punch down in savage haste

all the sounds of destruction fill the air

the machineries of war clash

tangible grinding against intangible

the oceans erupt in their rocky basins

the hot lands shake apart

the walls of the world tumble down

the walls of heaven fall away

and nothing left in either place

3.

a cockroach struggles up

through ash and rubble

and decaying layers of the past

it breaks through to the surface

stretches to full height against the pale red sky

looks about with slow comprehension

says in a small brittle voice

i am god?

there are none left to refute it

SHORT STORY—”CLOSING FOR THE NIGHT”

Writing

I’m really proud of this short story. It first appeared in a middle-grade anthology titled Side Show 2: Tales of the Big Top and the Bizarre.

CLOSING FOR THE NIGHT

 Darkness crept up on the carnival like an old tom, slow and easy. A sign hung over the entrance gate: JOJO’S ALL-MECHANICAL CARNIVAL. The sign hung sideways, a confusion of peeled paint and rain-warped wood, the colors washed out by the passing years.

Gent permitted himself a faint metallic sigh as he rose to his feet. He let the rocking chair fall back and settle itself. Another night, another closing. Knee joints squeaking, Gent walked down the three wooden steps to the parade grounds. It had rained earlier in the day, and the ground was still muddy. Water splashed up to soak the edge of his tattered cape, and brown-spotted his tarnished brass legs. 

The small clapboard house that was Gent’s home sat in the shadow of the Ferris wheel. He pulled back on the switch, and the big ride ground to a halt. Lights, the ones that still worked, blinked out one by one along the wheel, dropping it into silhouette. 

Gent made his way from ride to ride, shutting them down. At the merry-go-round he had only to turn off the music. The ride had long-since ceased to turn. The tape was worn, and the tinny melody ground out slowly, in fits and stops. Gent let it play for a while as he wandered through the patterned labyrinth of his memory, where laughing knights rode to battle on their gaily painted steeds, and the music rang out to announce their coming.

So many memories. Gent had been the caretaker of the carnival in its heyday. He had strolled through the crowd, joking with the men, complimenting the women. His pockets were always filled with candy for the children. Gent’s sculpted ivory handlebar mustache curled to pinwheels at the ends. His ivory hair cascaded to his shoulders like the froth of a mountain stream. His white top hat was always tipped in greeting.

Gent shook himself, alarmed to hear a loose rattling sound. Enough. He had a job to do. 

He stopped the last ride, then crossed to the long, low sideshow building. The crude paintings on the outside had worn away, leaving only the barest outlines of the spider girl, the lobster man, the bearded lady, the alligator boy, the many others who had steadily pulled in the marks. 

Jojo had at first tried mechanical sideshow attractions, but it had not worked out. People came to a sideshow to be repulsed and shocked. Mechanical attractions could not do that. So he brought in human performers, the best, pulling them out of retirement in a celebration of deformity. The customers did not seem to mind that this one aspect of the carnival was not mechanical, and Jojo saw no reason to change the sign.

Open resentment existed between the humans and the droids, at least at first, but year by year their relationship mellowed. Gent felt true sadness when they left. They were all gone now, left with the last wave of colonists, gone to the stars.

Gent entered the sideshow. He walked down the row of parted, threadbare curtains to a small booth at the end. The only one who had not left—a two-headed baby floating in a large jar of formaldehyde. Its limbs had atrophied, skin wrinkling back from bone. Four eyes glistened like milky pearls. It stared into the darkness, lips pursed in identical frowns.

Gent had put off giving the baby a proper burial. It was his last, pitiful link with humans.

The slow, mournful wail of a harmonica drifted in on the night breeze. Gent left the sideshow behind and headed for the midway. This was the worst part of closing for the night. His fellow droids, the ones still operating, were all too human in their suffering.

Gent followed the sound of the harmonica to behind the first trailer. Kentucky’s brass skin had been inlaid with polished teak. Now the teak was discolored, the brass spotted, but a black felt derby still perched on his head.

Kentucky tipped his derby as Gent came into view. He dropped the harmonica into his lap. “Good sir, would you sit for a story? A bit of excitement to color this drab evening?” Gent heard a note of pleading in his voice.

Kentucky was a storyteller. It had worked fine in the old days. People would wander around back of the trailer, pulled in by the haunting sound of the harmonica. When enough had gathered, Kentucky would begin.  He knew a thousand stories. Tall tales and breathtaking adventures, stories to quicken the pulse and touch the heart. Pirates and ghosts, fair maidens and fire-breathing dragons, dastardly villains and heroic children.

And if the crowd thus gathered was just right for the pickpocket’s trade, it was a fair price paid for the entertainment given.

“Not tonight, Kentucky. Tomorrow. Right now, it’s time to shut down.”

Kentucky grabbed Gent’s arm, held tight. “Please, Gent. I’m getting tired of telling myself the same old stories every day. I need to look in someone’s face and see them smiling, or crying, or anything! The back of this trailer ain’t much of an audience.”

“Yeah, Kentucky, I know. And you’ll have an audience, just wait, they’ll be back. But right now it’s time to shut down.” Gent slid his hand to the back of Kentucky’s neck and eased down the switch. Kentucky drooped forward. The brightness in his eyes died and his arms dropped into his lap. Gent curled the fingers of one hand around the harmonica.

Gent never got used to the wide, desolate midway. Without a laughing throng of people, it was just sad. All that’s missing are tumbleweeds, he thought. 

The gaming droids had long ago rusted away. They were buried in the plot of swampy land beyond the row of trailers. They had never been more than simple machines. Jojo knew that no droid, no matter how complex, could top a human hawker. But the sign said ALL-MECHANICAL, and except for the sideshow it was so.

The gaming droids had squatted on casters and shouted, “Try your luck!” in a hundred different voices as they proffered darts and balls, rings and hoops. When the people left for good, they rolled into corners and shut down. Perhaps, Gent thought, they were the lucky ones.

Most of the trailers along the midway were tightly shut, the heavy corrugated shades pulled down and welded in place. Gent made his way past them, to the lair of Stupendo the Great.

Stupendo sat back in shadow, his cape billowing, his high top hat tilted at a jaunty angle. Stupendo had been a marvel in his day. His golden hands flashed to and fro, creating illusion after illusion with dizzying speed. His polished obsidian eyebrows were always raised, as if in surprise at his own mastery. Now when Stupendo moved into the light, Gent saw that the top hat was brimless, the cape a rag. His left eyebrow had broken off. And scrambled circuits, besides.

Stupendo fanned an incomplete deck of tattered playing cards before Gent. “Pick a card, any card at all.” Gent smiled as he took a card. The three of hearts. Stupendo tapped the deck with his magic wand. “Ah ha!” he shouted triumphantly. “Your card is…the queen of spades!”

Gent smiled again as he slipped the card back into the middle of the deck. “Right again, as always. But now it’s time to shut down.” Stupendo chuckled to himself as Gent flipped the switch.

Gent made a wide detour around the geek pit. When the geek had ceased to function, they had left the body there, unable to lift it from the pit. It lay there now, overgrown with fern and ivy, surrounded by the bones and severed skulls of chickens and rats.

The geek had been a prime draw. Built with its software purposely corrupt, it was a wild thing, truly dangerous, and the deep pit with its close-set bars across the top was a necessary precaution. Its iron skin bristled with spiky hair. Its body was corded with muscle, arms long and snarled. It walked with the sideways gait of an ape. Its eyes burned with a red, hateful fire.

To Gent had fallen the task of running the geek show. Four times a day he stood on the bars over the center of the pit and gave his spiel. Then, averting his gaze, he dropped in a live chicken, or a sleek black rat. The geek would fall on the animal with a guttural roar. Grasping the animal at the neck with steel teeth, it would shake its head back and forth in a frenzy until head parted from neck in a bloody shower. Foam running down its chin, the geek would proudly display the headless, jerking body. Men screamed and women fainted, but they kept coming back for more.

Gent was dragged back to the present by a shrill, cackling laugh. Madame Blatsky, the only other droid still living, and she was raising a ruckus.

By the time Gent reached her trailer, Madame Blatsky had quieted down, though her eyes still sparkled, and her carved mahogany cheeks seemed flushed if that were possible. Madame Blatsky reclined in a womb of Turkish rugs, the colors now muddled and indistinct. The faded sign above her read, Madame Blatsky, Palms Read, Fortunes Told, Prophesies Given.

Before Gent could say a word, Madame Blatsky began to talk, and the words poured out like thin wine from a goblet. “I saw a vision! They’re coming back, the people are coming back, they’re coming in their great silver ships, and they’ll reward us for waiting. They shall bedeck us in riches, in fine silks and spun gold, they’ll encrust our bodies with jewels and precious metals, and they’ll carry us in splendor…”

Gent turned her off. It was always the same. Each day she shut down her senses and entered a trance. At twilight she woke with a yell, convinced she’d had a vision. Madame Blatsky had begun to believe in herself. At least she still had some faith, some hope. 

Gent made his way slowly back to his house. Tonight had been a bad one. They were all nearing the edge, and it was only a matter of time before they slipped over. Perhaps they had been built too well. Loneliness, Gent thought, is a curse that man could not have wished upon us.

Gent looked up as a tendril of cloud snaked across the moon, sending a shadow racing along the ground toward the merry-go-round. He closed his eyes. For a brief moment it had looked just like a small child running to catch the ride before it began.

SHORT STORY—”BAGGED”

Writing

This story was first published in an anthology titled Nasty Snips, a collection of short horror. This one is indeed short, clocking in at a little over 500 words.

BAGGED

It was the witch’s fault.

There were other contributing factors. Paul’s friends had convinced him that a new club in the Industrial Flats was the place to be for a steamy summer night costume party. They had goaded him into wearing the wool Sherlock Holmes costume that was now causing him to sweat and itch uncontrollably. Yes, his friends were partly to blame. And alcohol had been involved; enough said about that. 

It was the sight of the witch across a dance floor crowded with trendy, costumed partiers, however, that had caused his present predicament. He had caught just a glimpse of her; alabaster skin, raven black hair that refracted the spinning lights like a prism, the flash of a slim yet curvy body between the folds of her black satin cape. Beneath the cape a Moebius strip of leather, lace and chrome that revealed more than it concealed. Her boots were leather, intricately laced; wickedly high heels that pulled the sleek muscles in her calves taut. She held a mysteriously oversized black leather purse protectively against her body.

The witch was dancing by herself, spinning in slow, looping circles. Her body seemed to catch and hold the music, like each note was her own private lover. Paul watched her with an attraction that bordered on physical need; he felt like a small planet in orbit around a novaed sun. Their eyes caught just once. She held his gaze with eyes the color of anthracite, until he had to look away, dizzy.

When she left the club Paul followed, helpless.

He was lost. Paul had no idea how long he had been following the witch. It was as if he was hypnotized by her impossible beauty, a moth drawn to her black flame. He vaguely remembered scrambling up and over a concrete bridge abutment, scraping his hands raw on the rough edge. He had crossed a railroad trestle above water mossy green in the moonlight, making his frightened way in the dark from one precarious foothold to the next. There was a long-deserted factory, rusted scrap metal piled into angular mountains. The witch moved with fluid grace, always too far ahead to catch, yet always in sight. At some point, they went underground.

The witch stopped. Paul stepped into a cavernous room where old fluorescent lights sputtered fitfully, sending hard-edged shadows careening across the space. Shapes moved in the darkness all around him. As they staggered into the spastic light, the shapes became people, dozens of them, dressed in rags and cast-offs. They carried bags or pushed squeaky shopping carts filled with bags and trash. They’re just bag people, Paul thought, and started to laugh. He had been spooked there for a minute. 

The first rock caught him by surprise. He was on the ground before he realized what had happened, blood running into his eyes. They advanced methodically, stoning him with surprising precision. When they stopped, the witch was standing in front of him, smiling. She set her bag down next to him with great care. Something moved inside it.

The last thing Paul saw before his connective tissue began to dissolve was the creature that oozed from the bag. It wrapped its many arms around his body, releasing a fluid that burned like napalm.

When Paul’s body was suitably prepared, the witch’s master laid eggs in the flesh jumble. The bag people danced long into the night, in celebration of the birth to come.

WRITING AS EXORCISM AND CATHARSIS

Writing

Why do writers write? That question comes up once in a while on the Twitter #WritingCommunity, and as you may imagine the answers are as varied as the folks answering. Some write for that elusive fame and glory, some to illuminate a particular passion, some because it feeds the creativity monster that lives inside them. For me, the answer is pretty simple. Writing makes me happy. I’ve been doing it since roughly junior high, and I still get a happy little rush from crafting a pretty sentence. And on rare occasions, when my brain is bubbling with ideas and words are sparking out of my fingertips at a feverish pace, that happiness approaches something very much like joy. I can reach that same joy by drawing but it’s trickier, because there are more tools involved, more variables between my brain and the final result.

There’s another reason people, including me, write, and that’s because they have to. Because the act of writing keeps the darkness at bay, because it expels inner demons, because it brings relief and release. They use writing to work through issues, and maybe so that they don’t surrender to those issues. They write because it’s better than screaming into the void.

Looking back at my own work, I can recognize the moments when I wasn’t writing for fun, but was instead writing to alleviate…something. It might be an entire story, or a poem, or just a fragment or even a single line. To the reader it may not be readily apparent that I wrote those words as a way to exorcise some beast clawing at me from within, to justify or maybe apologize for an experience that haunts me. I can see it, though. I remember.

I’m not, as a rule, particularly tortured. I have led, and continue to lead, a relatively happy and fulfilling life, with a loving family and good friends. That doesn’t mean the hopelessness never comes to call. I’m lucky in that, when it does, when I’m feeling overwhelmed, I have a way to battle back. I don’t think I’m at my best in those cases, when I’m tearing the words out of my soul one barbed letter at a time. To me, my best writing happens when the creative flow is wide open and I’m just going along for the ride. But I cherish each and every one of those painful sentences.

It’s comforting to know that the next time the darkness descends, words are waiting to shield me.

SONG LYRIC—GAVE ALL THAT UP

Writing

I can’t play an instrument, can’t sing a lick, but oddly enough I love to write song lyrics. I’ve had a few recorded by local bands and singers, but if any singer/songwriters out there are interested, I have a notebook full ready to go. I’ve always really liked this one.

GAVE ALL THAT UP

I had this little walk-up flat down in Chinatown
above the sidewalk vendors selling magic by the pound
neon pulsed outside the window like crickets in the night
and the bar girls walked home all alone through the early morning light
from my fire escape I’d watch the parade, check the pulse of the city around me
open myself to the beat and the roar, let the sounds of the city surround me

but Chinese food gives you a headache
and smoggy air gives you the flu
so I gave all that up for you…
and now we’re through

I had the kind of lifelong friends that people sing about
however deeply in I went, I knew they would pull me out
call us Musketeers or Stooges, we never really cared
the three of us would ride a passing comet on a dare
side by side we fought and cried and propped each other up
I considered knowing them the source of all my luck

but Pauly makes you nervous
and Ronnie drinks more than a few
so I gave all that up for you…
and now we’re through

I had a life that fit me like a well-worn overcoat
and then you came along and rocked my happy little boat
I took your hand and turned my back on all the things I knew
I gave all that up for you…
and now we’re through

I can’t remember now if you even asked me to
but I gave all that up for you…
and now we’re through

SO CLOSE, AND YET—THE TWO DECADE JOURNEY OF A SINGLE MANUSCRIPT

Writing

Way back in 1999 I wrote a picture book manuscript that I really liked. It was a silly, rhyming (Yes, I know, rhyming picture books are perennially out of favor, but mostly because there’s so much bad rhyme out there, and my rhyming is pretty good, if I do say so myself. But I digress.), 313 word picture book called Up Ned’s Nose. Yep, it was about a kid named Ned with an alarming number of things stuffed up his nose, and his older brother’s attempts to extract said things. The book had no moral, no lessons too impart. It was goofy and funny, and like I said, I really liked it. As an illustrator, I knew it would be stupid fun to illustrate.

Earlier that year I had entered a story in the Writer’s Digest annual writing competition, and placed in the top 10, which was pretty cool. So, not really expecting much, I entered Up Ned’s Nose in the 2000 Writer’s Digest competition.

I won the grand prize!

Crazy. Not sure what you get now for winning now, but back then the prizes were pretty spectacular. I got a nice check, which was great, but the rest of the prize was, well, life changing. Writer’s Digest sent my wife and I to New York City all expenses paid, accompanied by one of their editors, who was altogether delightful. That’s still not the best part. Included in the trip was the chance to meet with three editors of my choice, in their big, fancy NYC publishing house offices. All three were welcoming, supportive of my work, inspiring, and full of helpful tips. On days when I’m down on myself and thinking of hanging up my keyboard, I still think back to that trip.

Did any of them make an offer on Up Ned’s Nose? Nope. But that was okay. In the several months between winning the prize and taking the trip, I decided to try subbing Ned. And the first publisher I sent it too, the very first, liked it and offered a contract. The publisher was Smallfellow Press, the kids division of Tallfellow Press, founded by Larry Sloan and Leonard Stern, of Price Stern Sloan fame (Sloan and Stern have sadly both passed away since then.). They paid me the first third of the agreed upon advance, as stated in the contract.

So did the book get published? Nope. A funny thing happened. One of the partners at Smallfellow became worried that a little kid would be unduly influenced by my silly story and stuff a toy truck up their nose, and they would be held liable. They went back and forth. Eventually my manuscript was sent to Alan Isaacson, the lawyer played by Ed Norton in The People vs. Larry Flynt, to get his opinion on the matter. At least my story was meeting famous people.

A couple of years passed. I never did hear what Mr. Isaacson thought about the issue, but Smallfellow eventually let the contract lapse.

In the intervening years I’ve submitted Ned a couple of times, and had some interest, but nothing has come through. Truthfully, after everything that’s happened, my heart hasn’t really been in it. This past summer a writing conference came to Cleveland, my home town, and I pitched Ned to an agent. She asked me to send her the manuscript. I haven’t heard back yet, but I’m going to give it a bit longer.

After all, what’s a few more months.

SONG LYRIC—MOTHER MUSIC

Writing

I can’t play an instrument, can’t sing a lick, but oddly enough I love to write song lyrics. I’ve had a few recorded by local bands and singers, but if any singer/songwriters out there are interested, I have a notebook full ready to go. Here’s an example:

MOTHER MUSIC

I first heard Mother Music as a child in the south
calling through the screen door from the woods behind my house
barefoot in the dew-wet grass, blanket wrapped around me
deeper still among the trees I felt her voice surround me
I came into a clearing hung with early morning mist
sat back and watched the treetops that the sun began to kiss

(chorus)
and Mother Music sang to me from deep within the earth
a song of new beginnings, of cleansing and rebirth
Mother Music sang to me from leaf and branch and stone
a song so bold I thought the skin would lift right off my bones
Mother Music sang to me in a voice of pure white light
left me dazed and satisfied, possessed of second sight

my intervening years are filled with restlessness and yearning
the need to hear her song again rests within me, burning
I’ve slept beneath the stars above more times than I can say
from mountain top to desert floor I’ve watched the break of day
I catch a whisper now and then, like an echo out of time
and it brings me back to dew-wet grass and Mother Music’s rhyme

(chorus)
when Mother Music sang to me from deep within the earth
a song of new beginnings, of cleansing and rebirth
Mother Music sang to me from leaf and branch and stone
a song so bold I thought the skin would lift right off my bones
Mother Music sang to me in a voice of pure white light
left me dazed and satisfied, possessed of second sight

(bridge)
Mother Music, sing to me
Heal my heart, set me free
Mother Music, sing to me
My eyes are open, let me see

I’ve traveled down so many roads to find this humble truth
that I was touched by magic one sweet morning in my youth
but you can’t recapture magic and you can’t bring back the past
so I’ll spend my time contented ’til I leave this place at last

(chorus)
then Mother Music will sing to me from deep within the earth
a song of new beginnings, of cleansing and rebirth
Mother Music will sing to me from leaf and branch and stone
a song so bold I think the skin will lift right off my bones
Mother Music will sing to me in a voice of pure white light
leave me dazed and satisfied, possessed of second sight

SONG LYRIC—IF THERE’S A JUKEBOX IN HELL, IT’S PLAYING OUR SONG

Writing

I can’t play an instrument, can’t sing a lick, but oddly enough I love to write song lyrics. I’ve had a few recorded by local bands and singers, but if any singer/songwriters out there are interested, I have a notebook full ready to go. Here’s an example:

IF THERE’S A JUKEBOX IN HELL, IT’S PLAYING OUR SONG

I was drunk our wedding night, couldn’t get it up
you did my best man in the bathroom, beat him like a pup
we headed south to honeymoon where tropic breezes blow
I can understand the hurricane, but why’d it have to snow?

there’s so many places where our love went wrong
if there’s a jukebox in hell, it’s playing our song

we lived above a laundromat just a stumble from the bar
even so, some nights I just couldn’t crawl that far
when I heard your ass was for the asking, I didn’t really care
let’s just say I wasn’t caught completely unaware

there’s so many places where our love went wrong
if there’s a jukebox in hell, it’s playing our song

I walked in one afternoon and caught you dead to rights
you said, honey wait your turn…it wasn’t worth a fight
you picked up the bottle, I picked up young girls
we’d meet at night and hold on tight to our sad and lonely world

there’s so many places where our love went wrong
if there’s a jukebox in hell, it’s playing our song

we’ve lost our friends down bad dead ends, lost our self respect
lost whatever we once had to pity and neglect
consider this an invitation to put our lives to bed
it really couldn’t be much worse with a bullet in the head
I’m leaving in the morning… I hope you’ll come along
this bus is heading straight to hell, and I hear they’re playing our song

there’s so many places where our love went wrong
if there’s a jukebox in hell, I hope it’s playing our song

there’s so many places where our love went wrong
if there’s a jukebox in hell, I hope it’s playing our song

If You Give a Hummingbird a Hatchet

Writing

“If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” is a classic children’s book that spawned several sequels. None of those sequels, however, went in the direction of horror, and I asked myself, what would that look like?

IF YOU GIVE A HUMMINGBIRD A HATCHET

If you give a hummingbird a hatchet,
he will plummet to the ground from the weight.
That will piss him off, and he’ll seek revenge.
He’ll probably notice that the hatchet is dull
and ask you for a whetstone to sharpen it,
because dull hatchets are not suitable for revenge.
If you give him a whetstone,
because he’s a cute little hummingbird
who couldn’t possibly hurt anyone,
he’s sure to ask you for some water for the whetstone.
If you give him the water he’ll sharpen the hatchet to a wicked edge.
Then he’ll probably ask you to bend down close
and accept what you have coming to you.
At this point you may feel the first shiver of fear
creep up your spine, so you’ll run.
He will absolutely chase you,
the hatchet thumping against your hardwood floors
as he drags it behind him,
his little claws making scritch-scritch sounds
that fray your nerves like nails down a blackboard.
Just when you think you’re going to make the front door,
as your outstretched fingers brush the knob,
you’ll probably hear something that sounds very much like an evil cackle
as your legs suddenly stop working in a rush of blinding pain.
He may crack a smile then, just a hint, and he’ll ask you what it feels like
to have your achilles tendons severed.
Then he’ll go to work with the hatchet.
When he’s done he’ll ask you for a mop to clean up the mess.
But you won’t be able to answer.
This will piss him off all over again,
And he’ll probably head for your neighbor’s house.
Let’s hope they have a mop.

WHAT I’M WRITING NOW—TV SERIES IDEA

Writing

I started writing my first YA novel a while back. It was challenging—I was writing in first person as a teenage girl, which as it turns out I am not and never have been. But, I have two daughters, ages 19 and 24, and I’ve been listening to them and their friends talk for years. That proved invaluable.

However, a funny thing happened several chapters in. I realized my idea would make a better TV series than a novel. I know nothing about creating a TV show, but I have an ace up my sleeve. My sister (hi Donna!) is a talent agent in Chicago who reps both actors and writers, so she was able to walk me through the process. So far I’ve written the pitch document that lays out the show—what it’s about, who the main characters are, the story arc of the first season. Next comes the show bible, then a pilot script. I’m flying blind here, but with my sister’s help, hopefully I can figure it out.

Oh, what’s the show called? Nope, I can’t tell you. It’s too good.

WHAT I’M WRITING NOW—RAT AND ROACH

Writing

I had ideas for three different stories rattling around in my head for years. At one time or another I started all three, but ran out of steam a few pages in, frustrated that they just weren’t working.

As it turns out, the problem was that they weren’t meant to be three different stories, they were actually one story. I had just been seeing different parts of it. Once I twined the three threads together, there it was.

This new story, titled Rat and Roach, is humming along nicely now. It’s dark. Really dark. I haven’t written horror for awhile, and I’m really enjoying it!