Short Story Of the Day, The Reluctant I by Bill Chance

Oscar had, on the other hand, been working there forever. He was as grumpy as Cynthia was cheerful. Still, he knew everything and was the person you wanted around when things were going South.

—-Bill Chance, The Reluctant I

Sculpture and Building
Downtown Dallas, Texas
Near the Arts District DART Station

 

I have been feeling in a deep hopeless rut lately, and I’m sure a lot of you have too. After writing another Sunday Snippet I decided to set an ambitious goal for myself. I’ll write a short piece of fiction every day and put it up here. Obviously, quality will vary – you get what you get. Length too – I’ll have to write something short on busy days. They will be raw first drafts and full of errors.

I’m not sure how long I can keep it up… I do write quickly, but coming up with an idea every day will be a difficult challenge. So far so good. Maybe a hundred in a row might be a good, achievable, and tough goal.

Here’s another one for today (#17). What do you think? Any comments, criticism, insults, ideas, prompts, abuse … anything is welcome. Feel free to comment or contact me.

Thanks for reading.

 

 


Today, I writing using a writing prompt from the book by Brian Kiteley, The 3 A.M. Epiphany. It… and its companion, The 4 A.M. Breakthrough, are unusually useful collections of prompts in that each one is designed to teach a lesson – rather than some random idea seed. The prompt I used this time happened to be the first on in the book.

Description of this week’s Writing Prompt #1

The Reluctant I

Write a first-person story in which you use the first-person pronoun (I or me or my) only two times – but keep the I somehow important to the narrative you’re constructing.  The point of this exercise is to imagine a narrator who is less interest in himself than in what he is observing.  You can make your narrator someone who sees an interesting event in which he is not necessarily a participant.  Or you can make him self-effacing, yet a major participant in the events related.  It is very important in this exercise to make sure your reader is not surprised, forty or fifty words into the piece, to realize that this is a first-person narration.  Show us quickly who is observing the scene.  600 words

 


The Reluctant I

I was sipping at a morning cup of strong coffee, filling a sheet of paper with my checklist of things to do for the day, and looking out the window, thinking between items. The sky was an amazing and unusual crystalline blue. The plane was so small at first and it looked oddly low. It came on fast, growing and growing until I could see the rivets around the pilots’ windows.

Then at a huge speed it disappeared around the corner of the building an there was a tremendous crash followed by an impossibly intense crunching and cracking. The building bent to the side. People that work that high off the ground are used to swaying in the wind but this was far beyond that. The windows blew out and the building came still after a few seconds.

Cynthia sat at the next desk and Oscar at the one beyond that. They both leaped up and ran towards the stairwell at the center of the building but were driven back by a solid wall of acrid smoke spilling from that direction.

Cynthia was new, she had only been there for two months, transferred from the Philadelphia office. She brightened up the place terrifically and her effortless good looks and cheerful disposition helped everyone look forward to coming to work more than they otherwise would.

Oscar had, on the other hand, been working there forever. He was as grumpy as Cynthia was cheerful. Still, he knew everything and was the person you wanted around when things were going South.

Cynthia was covered with black soot and ran to the shattered windows to try and get some breathable air. Oscar was slower and didn’t retreat in time and his suit was burning. He fell to the floor and rolled but was unable to extinguish the flames. Suddenly, he rose up and ran straight into the smoke and flames to his death.

The smoke was advancing and getting thicker and it was becoming impossible to breathe. Crouching flat on the ground right next to the open hole in the wall helped but it only bought a few short seconds.

The look on Cynthia’s face was horrific. It was a mix of unbearable fear and hopeless resignation that I had never seen before. The heat was beginning to rise and the tatters of curtains overhead were bursting into flame. The black smoke began to shut out the entire world. The scream from Cynthia was awful as she succumbed to the flames. It wasn’t very loud because she couldn’t inhale enough air for that, but what floated abouve the din of the burning office contained a thousand lifetimes of agony.

There was only one choice left.

Anyone that works in a high rise building, especially the few that work in the rarefied air over a thousand feet off the ground inevitably thinks of the fall.

First there is the feeling of weightlessness. There is the comfort of being away from the heat and burning smoke, the air fresh and clean, the sky blue and the sun shining. The column of smoke is now high, high overhead and starting to retreat quicker and quicker.

The air, so comforting at first, begins to rush and push and it feels like being held in a soft cushion or giant hand. There is a quiet, peaceful space and only the sound of the ever increasing wind is heard and that isn’t as loud as you would think.

There isn’t much time, but there is enough for the fresh fast breeze to start to clear the burning from lungs and nose and the eyes to clear and truly see. There is a desire to twist around see below and there it is… rushing up, coming close, impossibly fast until….

Sunday Snippet – A Ring in a Cup of Tea

After a period of time he decided to choose a different coffee shop, one that was not quite as mysterious. He knew he would miss his waitress, but there would be another in the new shop and he didn’t want to get to the point that his harmless crush would seem creepy.

—-Bill Chance, A Ring in a Cup of Tea

Mojo Coffee, Magazine Street, New Orleans, Louisiana
(click to enlarge)

I don’t usually use writing prompts – but I was suffering from a moment of writer’s block and picked one out of a list. It said “A man finds a ring in a cup of tea.” OK

Sunday Snippet

A Ring in a Cup of Tea

There was a ring in his teacup. He looked around the coffee shop. At every table there were people doing what people do in a coffee shop on a Saturday morning. One middle aged man reading a newspaper… a few couples discussing the upcoming day… more than a few people confessing their sins of Friday night. What there didn’t seem to be was anybody that would have slipped a ring into his teacup.

He looked at the waitress. It was the same woman that he had bought tea from many times before. She was young and attractive in a coffee shop waitress sort of way. A world-weary smile that looked like it belonged on someone older than her. Slim, despite being around pastries and calorie-stuffed sugar-loaded specialty coffee drinks all the time. Short hair that bobbed a little when she turned her head. Odd glasses with heavy frames with a line of rhinestones on the side – glasses that have been out of style for fifty years – so out of style they looked cool in a hipster post-modern coffee shop on a Saturday morning.

Could it have been an accident? The waitress had brought the cup empty and he had picked a teabag out of the big wooden box that she presented to him – taking his time as long as he dared in order to enjoy the waitress bending over slightly in front of him. She then unpeeled the bag and said, “Good choice,” like she always did, even though he knew nothing of tea and picked the bag at random. She then had filled the cup with clear hot water, setting down the pot and leaving before the leaves had a chance to turn the water semi-opaque.

If the ring was in the cup she would have seen it. He might have, except he wasn’t looking at the cup.

He picked up the sugar spoon and fished the ring out of the hot tea, setting it on the table for a second to cool. He picked it up, still a little warm and examined the plain gold band. A fan of fantasy fiction he almost expected to see glowing writing in an elvish hand around the circumference – but it was an ordinary , plain, non-magical ring. No special power there.

He held it up to his eye and waved it around a bit – not enough to be obviously nuts – but he hoped that if it belonged to someone, had slipped off a finger into his cup, unseen, they would see him brandishing it and would say something.

“Excuse me, is that my ring?” they would say.

“It must be, it isn’t mine,” he would reply with a bright chuckle, “It must have slipped off your finger and fallen into my tea.”

“Well, then, sorry, let me pay for a fresh cup,” would be their slightly embarrassed reply.

But there was only silence.

He didn’t know whether to drink his tea or not. After looking carefully at the ring, he decided it was clean enough and gold isn’t going to wear off into hot water so he drained his cup anyway. Then he carefully slipped the ring into his pocket and stood up to leave. He looked around, put his coat on, expecting someone to come up to him and explain the joke of them slipping the ring into his tea.

But there was only silence.

At that point he couldn’t think of anything to do except to go home. He thought of leaving the ring in his cup, but that was crazy. At his place he rolled it up in a ball of socks (bright purple ones – a present from an old girlfriend – so ugly that he never wore them – but the woman brought back fond memories so he kept the pair) in his underwear drawer.

The next day, and every day for a week he stopped by the coffee shop and checked the bulletin board carefully – checking for a notice of someone looking for a lost ring.

But he found nothing.

After two weeks he decided to choose a different coffee shop, one that was not quite as mysterious. He knew he would miss his waitress, but there would be another in the new shop and he didn’t want to get to the point that his harmless crush would seem creepy.

He lived for many, many years and when he died his nieces and nephews were given the task of going through his things. He was a man of simple tastes and it wasn’t an overwhelming job. For some reason, though, his favorite niece decided to unroll the balled-up purple socks, so out of place, and found the ring inside.

The family talked for days about this discovery.

“I’ll bet he proposed marriage and she jilted him, wouldn’t even take the ring.”

“No, we would know about that. He probably just loaned some money and the ring was collateral and the loan was never paid back.”

“Maybe it was his mother’s?”

“No, it is too plain for her.”

They speculated over and over again. Every explanation for the ring was offered up and rejected.

Except nobody could possibly even imagine that it simply showed up in a cup of tea.

Writing Prompt

At other times I find pages that I not only don’t remember having written, which in itself doesn’t astonish me, but that I don’t even remember having been capable of writing, which terrifies me.
—-Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

Newspaper taped to a window, Deep Ellum, Dallas, Texas

Women Trampled as 26 Manhole Covers Burst

Shoppers Flee Terror-Stricken as Sky is Alight With Flame; Windows Shattered for Blocks

Hubert hated being the intern. Of course, he would be the one that the editor ordered back to the scene of the explosion, after all the excitement had died down, “Get the Hell back there and you count every one of those manholes!” the editor screamed, turning a deep shade of beet red. “I want to know if it was five or five hundred…. and be exact! And no Goddamn Lollygaggin’!”

Everyone in the newroom laughed at Hubert as he hung his head and slumped toward the door.

“Be sure and count them exact! Har! Har!” smirked Simpson from his typewriter. Hubert ignored him but glanced at the copy as he trudged by, “Injured, cut, and bloodstained…” was all he had typed.

What a crappy day – they would all be writing lurid copy while he was out counting manholes… getting them exact.

———–

“Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen….” Hubert counted as he walked along the street. He carried a small notepad and a pencil that he had pulled down from his hat, labelled “Daily Digest” after the paper he interned for.

“Hey, you! Are you a newspaperman?”

The loud, sharp, and unexpected voice broke his concentration, but he was able to scribble down a quick “19” before he forgot and had to start over.

“Not exactly,” Hubert started to reply, “I’m an inter….” Then he looked up to see what he was sure was the most beautiful woman he had seen in his life striding toward him. “Ummm, I’m the head reporter for the Daily Digest,” tapping his hat, “I’m down here to find out what happened today.”

(and at this point I had to go, maybe I’ll write more later)

A Month of Short Stories 2014, Day 26 – In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried

A year ago, for the month of June, I wrote about an online short story each day for the month. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today’s story, for day twenty-six – In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried, by Amy Hempel.

Read it online here:

In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried

Amy Hempel is one of only a few writers that work exclusively in short stories or other minimalist pieces. I like that. There is truth in brevity. There is efficiency in conciseness. There is power in knowing you don’t have the space to wander around.

In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried is the very first story she ever wrote. It came from Gordon Lish’s famous writing workshop – apparently in response to the prompt, write about “the ineffable, the despicable, the thing you will never live down.”

I don’t know about writing workshops (I suppose you can learn a lot – but it doesn’t take away the need to write for ten thousand hours) or about writing prompts (an icebreaker or maybe a handy crutch at best) – but this is one hell of a first story.

It’s definitely something that would be impossible to live down (although it’s something any of us would be capable of doing). How do you ask forgiveness of someone that isn’t alive any more? And who else would your really have to ask?

“Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting,” she said. “Make it useless stuff or skip it.”

I began. I told her insects fly through rain, missing every drop, never getting wet. I told her no one in America owned a tape recorder before Bing Crosby did. I told her the shape of the moon is like a banana—you see it looking full, you’re seeing it end-on.

The camera made me self-conscious and I stopped. It was trained on us from a ceiling mount—the kind of camera banks use to photograph robbers. It played us to the nurses down the hall in Intensive Care.

“Go on, girl,” she said. “You get used to it.”

I had my audience. I went on. Did she know that Tammy Wynette had changed her tune? Really. That now she sings “Stand by Your Friends”? That Paul Anka did it too, I said. Does “You’re Having Our Baby.” That he got sick of all that feminist bitching.

“What else?” she said. “Have you got something else?”

Oh, yes.

For her I would always have something else.