The First Time

New Orleans Writing Marathon

Day Two, Tuesday, July 11, 2017

One snippet of what I wrote that day.

The first time Jambalaya Joe cooked for us he made – of course – jambalaya. A great black cast iron kettle, suspended over a ring of roaring blue gas jets fed by a rusty steel bottle mounted on his trailer, bubbled furiously and steamed like a witch’s cauldron into the humid Louisiana air.

Rice, mysterious lumps of meat, and bags of vegetables went in – to roil and cook.

Then Jambalaya Joe looked around as if to make sure nobody was watching (though we all were – ravenous after a long, hard working day) extracted a large tin box from a stained canvas bag, lifted it over the boiling pot, and opened the lid with the creak of old hinges.

A cloud of red spice tumbled out to disappear into the boil below. It changed the color of the stew from a flat brown to a fiery red.

“That’s his famous secret spice mix,” said some random stranger next to me, complete with a wink and a subtle elbow to the ribs.

Jambalaya Joe cooked the evening meal for us every night, hired by The Company to feed the work crew until the job was finished.

He made something different each night. Jambalaya became gumbo, then red beans and rice, Irish stew, chili, then spaghetti and meatballs… on and on – visiting every cuisine of the world. I never imagined a cast-iron kettle could be so versatile.

But every meal he dumped the exact same tin box filled with the same secret spice mix into the pot.

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Sound of Schoolkids

The other weekend we had another Writing Marathon. We met in Klyde Warren Park and walked across to the Dallas Museum of Art. The idea was to use the paintings as inspiration.

I’ve done that in the past… writing some fiction while sitting and looking at works of art. So I did it again – started a piece of fiction using objects and themes from a handful of painting that spoke to me that day. After pages of furious scribbling I came to a stopping place, the well had run dry.

So I switched to a bit of non-fiction, writing about what I saw, felt, and heard right then… as a little bit of writerly palette cleaning, a way to keep the pen moving, and to help remember the day.

This is what I’ve typed up out of my Moleskine:

There is a sound of a group of schoolkids moving through the gallery. The chatter, the echoing around the corners, the occasional squeak of a plastic sole scraped across polished wood.

An art museum is a place designed for the eyes, but it is a unique sound collection. Close your eyes and listen for the ping of the elevator door, a distant infant cry echoing through the labyrinth, a close jingle of keys.

The guards have rubber soled leather working shoes – silent as death and strong enough to stand in all day. I imagine their feet are sore and tired when they go home at the end of their shift.
Close your eyes and you can still feel the power of the art. There is so much time trapped in the layers of oil and pigment, drowned in the waves of brushmarks.

Open your eyes and look at the color. That blue robe is over four hundred years old – still as bright as the day it was layered down.

Nicolas Mignard  French 1606-1668 - The Shepherd Faustulus Bringing Romulus and Remus to His Wife - 1654

Nicolas Mignard, French 1606-1668 – The Shepherd Faustulus Bringing Romulus and Remus to His Wife – 1654 (detail)

Stand in front and extend your hand (not too close!) and feel yourself standing in the spot and position of the artist – though he had no electric light, no air conditioning. Next to the painting, on a little card, is a plaque with a number… Five Hundred (let’s say).

Jacques-Louis David, French, 1748-1825, Apollo and Diana Attacking the Children of Niobe, 1772

Jacques-Louis David, French, 1748-1825, Apollo and Diana Attacking the Children of Niobe, 1772

Pull out your phone, go to the indicated website (the museum has free WiFi, of course) and type in the number. (The museum posts this web address, dma.mobi – that contains so much information in a mobile interface… this is truly the best of all possible worlds). There, in your palm, appears a portrait of the artist – the tiny tinny speakers (forgot your earbuds again, didn’t you) speaks to you – a famous art historian lectures on those ancient times.

The glowing screen in your palm now changes every few seconds with a new image – a series of paintings by the same artist. This is too much. You can’t help but wonder what those ancient geniuses with their candles and oil paints would think of the tiny glowing screens. Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Una Battaglia – Friday Snippet

Una Battaglia (A Battle) – Arnaldo Pomodoro

The Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden – New Orleans Museum of Art

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city

R’leigh and Sansom started their climb in the pitch black pre-dawn darkness. The lights mounted on their helmets cast yellow ovals that would dim after every few minutes. Then they had to pull them off and crank the little handles in the dark for a new charge. R’leigh would shiver as she felt the cool air off the vastness beyond the cliff blowing her hair and the tension in the unseen ropes holding her to the metal pins Sansom hammered into cracks in the rock while she worked at the generator built into her helmet light.

It seemed like forever, but they had moved about a third of the way on their way to the top when the sky began to glow salmon through the thick clouds. The rising sun itself was hidden but the faint glow of dawn was replaced by the slate-gray light of every day under the globe-girdling smoke cloud that had choked the earth from times before R’leigh was born. At least they could climb without the headlights and R’leigh rested against the rough granite while Sansom pulled their heavy equipment up from the base of the cliff far below. He then reeled in all the extra rope – now that they could be seen, they could not be reached.

The day settled in to a long, exhausting routine of Sansom pounding in pins above, then the two of them moving up in turns, each belaying the other in case one fell, then Sansom pulling up the equipment over the height they had gained.

While R’leigh braced herself safe and still and watched Sansom work she thought of a time three years ago, not long after they had started planning and training for this day. The two of them were on a school outing to a rare grove of trees preserved in a museum on the 598 level. The museum had done its best to duplicate at least a piece of a real forest, distributing the trees in a thick, random pattern over a rolling hill – artificial light streamed down from a ceiling painted an unreal blue.

The teachers had let the students wander around in the trees and told them to try and imagine a time when forests like this covered a large part of the earth – they went on for thousands of miles. R’leigh found that hard to believe and didn’t really understand what the big deal was – but Sansom pulled her into the center of the cluster of trees and then down a little gully away from the crest of the hill. There the grove was at its thickest.

He spent some time looking carefully up and around, until he had satisfied himself that they were hidden from the handful of cameras set up to keep an eye on the precious trees. He had already begun his secret training and was quickly becoming an expert on avoiding the surveillance. Looking straight at R’leigh, he slipped a hand into his jacket and pulled out a small, silver object which unfolded in the center.

“A pocketknife,” he said quietly. “The cell, we all made these out of scraps of cooling duct.”

He turned and moved the knife quickly and surely across the surface of the tree, slicing the bark in confident, sharp lines. R’leigh saw liquid welling up in the cut lines. She didn’t know that trees would bleed. Instead of red blood, though, the sap oozed out in a series of little clear globs, strings of sparkling jewels like a living necklace along the lines that Sansom was carving. The air quickly filled with a sharp smell – the life of the tree leaking into the air. She was so intrigued by the crystal-like sap she didn’t even notice what he was cutting out.

Before she realized what he was doing, he stopped, then stood back and, with a self-satisfied smirk, gestured as his work. He had carved the simple outline of a heart with the initials, SS + RL inscribed within.

“Look quick, hard and close, I want you to remember this. But we need to go before they find us and see what I’ve done.”

R’leigh felt her pulse quicken and she let out a gasp. The risk he was taking; they would scrub the both of them if they were caught damaging anything as precious at that tree. She allowed herself five seconds to memorize the heart, the letters, and the gleaming jewels of sap until it was burned in her mind forever. In the three years since, she had been tempted to return to the museum and the grove of trees and see if the design was still there but neither of them dared – they might be watching to see who comes back.

Her reverie ended when Sansom jerked on the rope and it was time to continue moving upwards. She allowed herself a second to look out over the landscape that was opening up beneath and around them. They were high enough now, almost to the top of the spire, that they could see a vast panorama of dead twisted gray rock reaching up from endless beds of sterile gravel. This was the world that they lived in.

Within another hour they reached the flat top of the rock spire. It had taken half a day of climbing. Their years of training in every spare hour had paid off – her arms were tired but she had enough energy to feel excitement at their accomplishment. Sansom disappeared over the edge above her, and then his head reappeared as he reached down to help her up and over. Then the two of them worked together to pull and wrestle the equipment bags over the edge and spread them out away from the sheer cliff edge that they had just climbed.

Only when the equipment was safe did they walk the few steps to the opposite side of the rock cap and look out at the city. It had been hidden from them by the bulk of the spire while they climbed the opposite side, as the rock had hidden them from the watchers on the high walls. R’leigh had, of course, never seen the city from this vantage point and she gasped at its size and beauty.

The city was made up of two parts. Down below, was the huge and squat old city – burned, torn, and rendered from the war. Enormous hunks had been blasted away from the sloped sides of the square bunker shaped edifice. Great cracks wandered over what was left behind, though they could see the ugly patches that had been applied to keep the remains from crumbling apart.

Above this wreck rose the high shining rectangular tower of the new city. Built after the war on the remains of the old, this gleaming monolith reached upwards beyond the height of even the tallest rock spire which they had climbed, still being built as floors were added to the unseen top.

R’leigh and Sansom set to work quickly, unloading the equipment bags and assembling the heavy tripod first. They had practiced this many times and R’leigh found herself stealing looks at the immense and distant city as they worked; her arms and hands moving with familiarity over the tubing and fasteners almost without her conscious knowledge.

She realized she loved the city. It had been her home her entire life and she could count on one hand how many times she had been outside that gleaming tower before today. Inside, a person could not understand or comprehend its size and simple beauty. It took her breath away to see it like this – she found herself staring at it every second, even taking her eyes off Sansom as he worked alongside her, something she rarely ever did.

Soon, the tripod was complete and using the ropes they had climbed with and a pair of long, strong poles assembled from sections in the equipment bags the two of them lifted and levered the heavy tube onto the tripod and fastened it firmly in place.

R’leigh stepped back while Sansom tightened up all the bolts and began final adjustments of the apparatus. There, in front of her were both Sansom, sweating with effort and concentration while he worked, and in the distance beyond, the lustrous metallic surface of the city. R’leaih’s heart began to race, both at the excitement of what they were about to do and with the sheer beauty of the scene.

She loved what she was looking at, but she thirsted for destruction, and after years of careful planning and preparation, she was about to drink. Sansom had finished and he came back to where she was standing, holding a small metal box trailing a fine wire that spooled out of the apparatus.

He placed his arm around R’leigh’s shoulders and looked like he was trying to think of what to say.

“There’s nothing to say,” said R’leigh, “we’re ready now, it’s time for the completion of all our work.”

“My love, here, push the button,” Sansom said as he handed her the box. It had only a small red circle on one face.

“Are you sure?” she asked.

“Absolutely.”

And with that she pressed the red circle. Immediately the rocket ignited and with a flash and a roar loud enough to make them jump it moved out, surprisingly slowly at first, but gathering speed at a frightening pace. The small rocket soon disappeared in the distance but the mane of black smoke showed its progress as it arced up into the gray sky and unerringly flew into the city.

Within a few minutes it had jumped the long gap between their rock spire and the gleaming city and struck right where it was intended, about a third of the way up along the huge structure. Its initial strike was not much more than a pinprick but the missile was designed to penetrate the skin of the structure and explode within.

The small but efficiently powerful fusion device in the rockets nose cone exploded inside the city and the entire edifice began to shake. Huge cracks appeared in its carefully polished surface, glowing with orange fire as the reaction began wreaking its destruction. The city was now tearing itself apart from the inside, mortally injured by the power of the tiny missile which had started a chain reaction which doomed the gigantic edifice. It took several minutes for the sound to reach them, but the massive explosions would shake the very stone that they were standing on.

R’leigh and Sansom stood together, their arms wrapped around each other as they swayed slightly back and forth, watching the beauty of what they had done.

Sunday Snippet – Benjamin

I’m doing more editing now than writing. The worst part of editing is trying to decide if something you wrote some time ago is worth rescuing… or finishing… or should be plopped in the digital dumper.

Here’s a piece of text that I was enthusiastic about when I wrote it… but now, not so much.

I don’t know, there might be something here or there might not.

Benjamin

With a resigned expression and a clumsy attempt at a dramatic flourish, Beauregard Evans slapped a crisp new bill down on the linoleum table. The small motley group that had gathered around leaned over for a good look. There was a collective sigh followed by a sucking in of breath as the implications began to sink in. Sam pushed between Sally Pumpernickel and Joshua Jones to get a better view of the fat aging hairy hippy, Beauregard, leaning over the table so far his belly pushed out under his dirty tie died T-shirt onto the table, almost touching the bill itself.

“Benjamin,” Sam mumbled to himself.

“A brand spankin’ new one hundred dolla bill,” Beauregard began his spiel, “Raught ‘dere. It goes to the first one to try the thing out. I needs ah test pilot. I need someone with the balls to ride da wild horse. Come on ya pussies! Who’s gonna give ‘er a shot.”

“Man, a hundred dollars won’t buy enough beer to wipe the horror of ridin’ that thing out ‘yer brain, that’s for sure,” said Jimbo. He stood off to the side, smelling of grease and ozone, still wearing his thick leather gloves, his welding helmet tipped up on top of his head, like some sort of degenerate knight, resting after a joust that had gone terrible bad.

Sally Pumpernickel said, “Well a hundred dollars will buy something more powerful than a sinkful of that cheap horse piss you call beer… that’s for sure too.” She blurted out a dizzy giggle at the thought of whatever she could plunk the c-note down on. She wriggled a bit as she imagined it hitting her bloodstream.

Sam broke away from the others as they were beginning to get restless, churning and murmuring, and crossed the room to the open porch, feeling the rough floorboards give with an aching creak as he walked. He looked out over the porch to the slopes beyond. Bits of the morning mist was still tumbling down the mountain, giving the park a surreal, blurred look. But the mist couldn’t hide it – there it was, blue as blue could be… right in front of his nose. The bright artificial blue of fresh paint, still giving off the soybean and solvent smell of drying enamel – the brushes tilted up from drying pools of leftover paint at the bottom of the abandoned open cans.

It was basically a huge iron tube, running down the side of the mountain. A sluice gate had been installed at the top, diverting a strong stream of the ice-cold water from the high spring-fed pool they called “The Dragon’s Cave” into the top of the steep metal pipe.

Sam tried to think it through. Really it was only an enclosed water ride, nothing much more. They had a half dozen just like it already. Jimbo and his crew had taught themselves how to weld the surplus plate steel, boiler iron, and ancient drill pipe they had scrapped and salvaged together into twisting and turning water-courses. The drunk, high, and poverty-stricken customers that on hot summer weekends enjoyed the cut-rate aqueous entertainment the park offered would throw themselves with abandon into the dark sewers – the longer, faster, twistier, scarier… the better.

The most popular enclosed slide was a real piece of work called, “The Devil’s Backbone.” It ended right behind the crude cabin that served as a workshop. The crew liked to hang out on the porch, drink, pass the bong and watch the customers tumble into the pool at the end of the ride. A particularly violent and unexpected isosceles twist right at the end tended to yank suit bottoms down and dislodge all but the most tightly secured bikini tops. It was great. Everybody, even the customers… especially the customers… loved it.

It had taken Jimbo a year to get the proper hang of the welding, and a lot of customers had been sent down the mountain to the emergency room while he was learning. He had been showing signs of mellowing… but now, this.

They had not named the new ride, the one that Sam was staring at, the one they were offering all the cash for the first one stupid and desperate enough to leap into. It was so simple. A simple tube running straight down the mountain at a very steep angle for about three hundred feet. It needed the run, it needed the speed, for at the bottom was a simple, elegant, round loop in the tube, shooting up about thirty feet in the air before looping back down and discharging into a generous pool at the bottom.

“Are you thinking about taking that thing?” asked Joshua Jones. He and Sally had followed Sam out on to the porch and leaned on the railing beside him.

“Yup.”

“You know what happened to the test dummies that the ran down there?”

“Yup.”

Jimbo had gone into Trinidad for a salvage sale at the “Platform Fashion Boutique” bankruptcy and bought their entire stock of realistic mannequins to use in testing out new rides. The water would wash them out of the bottom of the looping tube with their arms and legs detached, their necks bent at unnatural angles.

“Not a good test,” Beauregard Evans had said. “Those dummies don’t have no brains, no muscles, no reflexes. A human bean can wiggle through no problema. We’ll grease ’em up with Crisco to get em over the hump and make sure they keep their arms crossed over their chests.”

Now Sam, Joshua, and Sally leaned on the rail, looked at the tube, and thought of the crisp currency on the table and on the pieces of old mannequin stacked up behind some bushes.

“You still thinkin’?” Joshua asked Sam again.

“Yup.”

“You’ll never ride that thing,” Sally Pumpernickel said. “You don’t have the guts.”

Sam let out a sigh. No use thinking any more; now he had no choice. There was no way he could live the rest of his years… no matter how short, with Sally Pumpernickel thinking and saying he was a chicken. He pushed away from the railing, turned and walked briskly into the maintenance shed. He had to push the crowd aside – but he didn’t have to say anything – just reach out onto the table and snatch up the hundred dollar bill.

Sunday Snippet – Night Guitar (opening scene)

This week’s snippet is the first scene from the worst short story I’ve written in the last few years. It’s so bad I should simply delete the files and get on with my life, such as it is, but I haven’t done that yet. The mere existence of that pile of silly randomness bugs me like a hangnail and I can’t help but pick at it. I’ve taken it apart and am editing some of the parts that might work sometime and trying to create a creaking framework to hang everything on.

And because I am just too damn tired to come up with anything worthwhile this evening I give you what I’ve written for a opening scene so I can humiliate myself and you can wallow in some shallow schadenfreude before you click away.

Night Guitar

Copernicus Mayhem was the lead singer and guitar player of the band Sweetmeat Valentine. He made damn sure nobody called him anything else. The name his parents had chosen for him was Doug Chandler. But nobody called him that. Not any more.

“Oh, come on Copernicus, please, pretty please, let’s go. I wanna go,” said Serena Twist. She was his West Coast girlfriend, and that was where they were, so she was his girlfriend.

“Oh, babe, I’m beat. This is the first three days off I’ve had in a month. Let’s stay here, the suite’s big and nice, hit some weed, soak in the tub.”

“Hit some weed and soak in the tub? That’s all you wanna do. I’m bored. I’m bored. Let’s go.” Serena had switched her voice into her high sniveling mode – like fingernails on chalkboard. Copernicus knew that he would be giving in, but he wanted to hold out for a minute or two. Have to keep up appearances. He had a sliver of pride left – or he hoped he did.

“What kind of stupid concert is this anyway?” Copernicus asked without any intention of listening to the answer.

“It’s classy. It’s classical. This composer, Tyrone Page, has done a new symphony. It’s never been performed before. You’ve been invited and I want to go. It’s a humongous honor.”

Copernicus had heard of Tyrone Page though he had never actually heard his work. Page was a mystery, an enigma, nobody knew who or where he was.

The scores of Page’s works arrived on the desks of famous conductors at random intervals. Copernicus wondered why he had never heard anything written by the infamous mystery composer… then he remembered. Page never allowed his stuff to be recorded. It had to be heard live. And though the composer was hidden, his lawyers weren’t. Nobody dared put the sound down on tape, or disk, or anything else.

Copernicus was interested. Now, he actually wanted to go; intrigued. It had been a long time since he had felt intrigued.

“Ok, ok, If you want this thing so much, I’ll go,” Copernicus said. “But I want you to call Skinner and make the transportation arrangements. I want a stretch this time, no van. And I want some weed in the car and a bottle of Maker’s Mark. And plenty of ice.”

“Sure honey, I’ll set it up. Thank you, Thank you.” Serena seemed truly grateful.

“Yeah, you do that. And Serena? I’m gonna be hungry when we get back. I want some good room service this time. Not that usual stale crap. Oh, and please change. If this is a big deal like you say, I want you to wear something… something shiny.”

Sunday Snippet – The Red Tail

A quick first draft I hammered out on a break from work. There may be something here, but I’m not sure what.

Walter ran through the corn. It was higher than his head and he knew he was invisible. The stalks stood thick, but there was room to run between the rows. He realized he still had the gun in his hand and that it was slowing him down, affecting his gait. He raised the gun to his face and realized that it was giving off a burned smell and that the barrel was hot.

He threw the gun away into the corn.

He wanted to start running again, but Walter had lost his way. The high corn hid him but made it impossible to see where he was going. The noon sun was directly overhead and he realized he didn’t even know what direction he had come from.

So he just ran.


When he was a child, Walter Skopsky’s father gave him a gift. He didn’t know it at the time but that moment was to shape the rest of his life. His father was a struggling alcoholic insurance underwriter and was hunched over his desk balancing the family’s meager bank accounts late one evening – trying to finish so he could reach for his second bottle. Walter was out of paper for his school work and was pestering his father for a sheet or two when the old man reached into a drawer and fell upon a pad of graph paper. He threw it and told his son to leave him alone for the rest of the night.

Walter still remembers the cool, green color of the pad, the thick blue and fine red lines crisscrossing in a grid of such heavenly precision – the repeating pattern of the axis implying an infinite steadiness and surety reaching out past the edges of the sheets into infinity to the left and right, back from the past and forward into the future.

It was the most beautiful thing Walter had ever seen.

A shy, nervous, and delicate boy, Walter took refuge in his graph paper. Once he committed something to the Cartesian Predictability on the single plane he felt he had the world under his control.

He was terrified of the long drives his family would take every holiday to West Virgina – to spend time with his mother’s large, diffuse and complex, intertwined family. The visit was a blur of loud and unpleasant confusion to Walter, but the drive up there and back was horrifying. Walter did not have access to accurate statistics on driving fatalities, but he watched the evening news and read the paper. He knew that a lot of people were meeting a gruesome end on the roads. Walter made guesses as to the percentages of deaths per thousand miles of driving and would graph the family voyage along with his estimate of his odds of dying in a fiery crash.

During the trip he would look from the back seat of the car over his father’s shoulder at the odometer and would then retreat and mark their progress on his graph and reduce his estimate of fatality until, pulling into the weed-infested gravel driveway of his aunt’s doublewide, the two lines would move to zero and he could breath easier until it was time for the trip back.

As the years went by Walter became increasingly unsatisfied with his simple linear graphs. The world was getting too complicated. That was when, on a whim, he fished the teacher’s guide to a set of standardized progress tests given out to his entire grade level out of a classroom trash can. He slipped the guide into his notebook and surreptitiously sneaked it home like it was a set of state secrets. That night he removed the clear cellophane from the unread thin pamphlet and devoured it cover to cover. There, he discovered, for the first time, the concept of the bell curve.

The simple curve resonated with Walter and he felt, finally, that he had learned a concept that explained the world to him. At first the librarian dismissed him, but he kept bugging the woman until she led him to an introductory statistics textbook that had a long chapter on the normal distribution. The mathematics were above him, but Walter began to understand the curve itself in its graphical form, with the large number of “normal” points arranged around the center and the two, rare, special, “tails” extended out to either side.

Walter copied the curve onto an entire pad of graph paper and then began to fill in the areas with highlight markers, so he could still see the lines underneath. He used the most common yellow markers on the vast territory of the center hump of the curve. The top one percent of the tail, he colored green and the bottom one, he colored red.

He stared at that upper green tail and swore he would always be in there, no matter what it took. If he couldn’t make it there – he would move on. He entered into a long period of studying. He would graph his test scores and his mid-semester and final grades – making sure he was in that top one percent. Anything less would be represented by a big blotch in that vast yellow mediocrity of the curve and Walter would be up late at night, sweating in his bed, and staring at that mark of self shame.

In English class one day, they read Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” and Walter wrote a long heart-felt essay about how the two roads led to the left and right areas of his beloved bell curve, and the “Road Less Traveled” led to the right-handed, green tail. He even stapled one of his beloved graphs to the back of the paper, carefully labeled with sections of the poem. He let slip a rare grin of self-satisfaction as he handed in his paper, sure that the teacher would be impressed by his understanding of the relationship between statistics and literature.

Walter was mortified when the paper was returned with a “C-” and the notations, “Well written, but does not make sense,” and, “Does not follow instructions.” Tears welled up in his eyes as he made a mark slightly to the left of center in the vast hated yellow land of the bell curve.

He kept staring at that graph… as time and again he kept ending up in that yellow center. It was horribly frustrating and he became more and more discouraged. Walter needed to be there in that green tail – the top one percent. But, try as hard as he could, he kept falling short. Slowly, inevitably, he began to think about the other end of the graph, the red end. The bottom one percent. What would life be like down there?

It was about that time that Walter’s father fell asleep in his car in the garage with the engine running. There was a lot of talk about whether he had done himself in or had simply made another drunken mistake… his last one. Walter didn’t think it made much difference either way.

In the confusion after his father’s death Walter was able to sneak into his parent’s bedroom and find the black plastic case hidden under the shoe stand. Walter’s father had proudly taught his son how to use the snub nose revolver and the two of them had spent some time out in the country, target shooting at whiskey bottles stuck between strands of barbed wire.

The gun was the only possession of his father’s that Walter cared about. He was able to keep it hidden away under his mattress. Nobody ever payed much attention to his room and after his mother disappeared and he was sent to live with his aunt in West Virginia nobody payed any attention to him at all.

Walter had grown into a tall, lanky, quiet youth. He wasn’t too quick, but he was fast, and he had some stamina. At first, he did well in math, which made his teachers like him and the other kids stay even further away.

He was still making his graphs, and his bell curves, but he had stopped coloring in the green tail on the right hand side. His mind began thinking more and more about the red end to the left and began to rejoice as his marks were drifting lower and lower, moving in that direction.

Finally, one summer he decided to take the plunge. He began thinking more and more about a little gas station out on the highway. A dirt road ran to the east from his aunt’s trailer and was separated from the gas station by a wide, flat, corn field. He was tall, fast, and though it was wide he knew he could run across that field in less than five minutes.

A girl from his high school worked out there on the weekends. Her parents owned the place. She was a senior and a cheerleader and everybody knew who she was though Walter was sure she had no idea who he was.

All Walter had to do was wait until the corn had grown higher than his head.


He didn’t know where he was going, but Walter still ran through the corn. His pockets were stuffed with cash which seemed heavier than it should have been.

Walter realized that this must be what it felt like to be down in the red tail of the bell curve. Lost, running, desperate. This wasn’t what he expected but he wasn’t sure if it was what he wanted. He did know that now he was there, down in the red tail, that he was there for good.

Sunday Snippet – Historical Fiction

Today’s bit is from a confused collection of text that I have been working on for a long time. It was intended to be a piece of historical fiction – a form I love to read but have never really had luck writing.

I think I’m going to give up the historical aspects of this story and move it into the present day. That means I can remove everything from the past and tell it as a complete lie. Trying to do proper research and insure historically accurate details and language was more time than I wanted to waste and more energy than I wanted to expend.

The following is the end of what I used to mess with and it will have to go. But I thought I’d let you take a read before I send it up to that great delete key in the sky.


“Up, Up!” For the second time in the last day, someone was shaking me and shouting into my face. “We must go now!” It was my father. He was in such an agitated state I almost didn’t recognize him.

It took me a minute to get my bearings, to remember and start to understand why I was in bed yet still dressed. The clock showed it to be late afternoon. My face ached terribly and I gingerly touched my mouth and cheek, feeling the dried blood, which stained my shirt with an irregular dark streak. Father ignored my awful appearance, threw an old overcoat around my shoulders and dragged me out the front door.

The Beauregards and the Carrolltons were waiting there, on horseback. Carson held the reins of two more steeds, one for me, one for my father. Before we could mount, my father grabbed me roughly by the shoulders and shoved his face inches from mine. His usually deep and reserved eyes were swollen and bulged out, his cheeks red as beets, his hair, once carefully groomed, now dirty and wild. With a disturbed cracking and rising voice that I wouldn’t have believed could have come from that cultivated and meticulous man he screamed into my face.

“Listen! Listen to me. No matter what happens, no matter what they say or what questions they ask… remember, nothing could have been done! It was God’s will… an act of God alone!” “Do you understand.”

He said the last three words not like a question but as a statement of fact. With that I was grabbed roughly and pulled onto a horse and immediately the group rode off along the road. The rain had let up; only a light misting remained of the violent storm. Everyone was silent as we moved along behind the row of cottages. I couldn’t look out at the lake, it was screened from view by the buildings and landscaping, plus I had to pay attention as the horse worked his way through the deeply rutted road, maneuvering around the many small ponds of standing water. Before long we emerged before the bridge over the spillway but instead of crossing it to the dam the others were turning onto the rough path that led away into the woods. I followed.

They all halted and turned, staring out over the lake. I halted my horse and turned also. I’ll never forget the chill that struck all the way to my very core — the horrible sight that my eyes saw from that road.

The lake was gone. The view was so shocking and unexpected it took several seconds for my mind to comprehend what I was looking at.

Above the old waterline, everything was as it always was; the cottages lined up, the big lodge house, smoke still curling up against the light rain from its cluster of chimneys. The boardwalks still ran along the edge, extending out to the fishing and boat docks, which still stood in place. The hills still ran up and away, covered with the green growth of spring, the blue mountain mists still licked down the hollows to the old waterline.

Below this line, however, everything was horribly, horribly wrong. The lake was replaced with an enormous black wound in the earth. To look down, down into the gaping maw of mud, to see small rivulets of filthy water still running down the impossibly steep sides was to stare into the very depths of hell. I couldn’t stand it. I turned my head away and looked over at the dam itself and saw that it too, had simply ceased to exist. The huge earthen wall was represented now by two small, steep hillocks at each end of an immense chasm. The dam had been neatly sliced away entire by the unimaginable force of the water confined behind it.

Instinctively, I looked back at our own cottage. The dock still stood, except now it was perched high in the air, on stilted legs above an obscene slick, barren hillside. My sailboat hung from its mooring line at the bow, dangling in mid air, swinging in the breeze. Something else moved down there, and I had to look closely to make out the Italian workmen, wading down into the mud. They were grabbing the stranded fish, the bass flopping around helpless, and stuffing them into canvas bags.

For one second I felt sorry for myself. Our wonderful cottage, my beautiful boat, the summers all ruined. That instant of self-pity was drowned by a clear voice that welled up from somewhere deep within me, a voice of awful clarity in the confusion. That voice simply asked, “Where did the water go?”

The lake had been several miles long and up to seventy feet deep. Millions and millions of tons of water had rushed out in what must have been little more than minutes, carrying with it the untold tons more of earth and rock that made up the dam itself. I shuddered when I thought of the power of that giant wave, of how it would grow in deadly fury as it rushed down the mountainside, picking up trees, rocks, roadway… any thing that stood in its inexorable path.

I thought of the narrow canyon that carried the stream down off the mountain, the very valley that I had fought my way up the day before. There was nothing along that way to halt or even slow down the wave; it would actually focus the power, help it to build up upon itself.

Finally, I thought of the city of Johnstown far below. It was already flooded, waterlogged, completely at the mercy of the disaster that fell from the mountains above. The remains of the lake would descend upon the town like a falling mountain, a moving mountain of water and debris, a flying, boiling unstoppable wave of violent death.

Finally, I thought of Maggie in her little shack, perched right there on the bank by the water. Right where the Conemaugh River opened up into the doomed helpless hopeless city.

I let out a cry, a shriek like that of a pitiful useless animal and began to shake uncontrollably. An icy coldness held me in a merciless grip. I couldn’t move. My father saw my state and, still muttering “Act of God, nobody’s fault, Act of God” grabbed the reins of my horse and led us all away into the woods along the rough path.