Short Story of the Day, “Sea Change” by Nancy M. Michael

But those in the mix know what blood tastes like.

—-Nancy M. Michael, Sea Change

Approaching Storm, Dallas, Texas

I used to take a month each year to comment on and link to short stories published online.

Short Story Months:

Day One 2013

Day One 2015

Day One 2017

I haven’t done that for a while, but have been thinking about it. That doesn’t keep me from reviewing them one at a time. Last year, I wrote about Driven Snow by Nancy M. Mitchel. The author commented on my blog entry (with the surprising revelation that the story was true and the woman survived). She mentioned that she had another story on the Akashic book website, Sea Change.

Go read it – a short, pithy read. Then you can come back and read the rest of what I wrote.

It’s of an interesting construction in that the protagonist isn’t directly involved in the action. Stories like that are cool because there are two stories – the main, observed action… and the reaction of the observer. It’s quite a feat to accomplish this in so few words.

 

Red Molly in a Leather Jacket

Says James, to Red Molly, “Here’s a ring for your right hand.
But I’ll tell you in earnest I’m a dangerous man;
For I’ve fought with the law since I was seventeen.
I’ve robbed many a man to get my Vincent machine.
And now I’m twenty-one years, I might make twenty-two.
And I don’t mind dyin’ but for the love of you.

—- Richard Thompson, 1952 Vincent Black Lightning

I’ve stolen something. There is a bar that I visited last year, one that had an old fashioned photo booth back in the back, next to the filthy bathrooms. On the wall by the booth was a torn up cork board. A lot of people thumbtacked their strips of four photos into the cork, leaving them for posterity. I picked up a handful that looked interesting and stole them.

I’ve scanned the strips and I think I’ll take them, one at time, four photos at a time, and write a few words about the people in the photographs. Or, more accurately, what I imagine about them.

I wrote a story about the first strip here – here’s the second, and now, on a riff about a song by Richard Thompson I heard lying in bed, is the third.

 

They all had one incredible thing in common, they were all, all four, born on the same day. The twins, Molly and Tandy Vermilion, Michelle McQuade, and, of course, James, James Aidee. All three girls loved James, loved him as long as they could remember. When they were little kids it didn’t matter that there were three of them, it was just something that they shared.

But then, as they reached their twenties, it began to change. Each one wanted James to himself. They set aside their differences on their twenty-first birthday and had a four-person party down in the bars by the waterfront. They crowded into a photo booth to remember the day. They smiled at the lens, not realizing how few happy days were in front of them.

It was time to start their lives. To the shock of the other three, Michelle joined the police force. She was always a big girl, and a bit shy, but she found a hard discipline inside herself that worked well with her on the front lines of the toughest parts of the city.

All three, women now, thought of James all the time, but he loved Molly. He loved Molly with a burning fire.

But James wasn’t worthy of all their attention, he was lazy and shifty and would do anything to avoid having to work for his money.

Somehow, when Michelle became a cop, that cut the ropes that were keeping all of them in check and things quickly began to spin out of control. James worked a deal with Molly’s sister, Tandy, borrowing all her savings (and she, unlike her sister Molly and James was a hardworking, honest woman) with some harebrained scheme to buy some brown heroin from the next town down the interstate and turn it into a big profit. Tandy never would have done the deal if she wasn’t blinded by her passion for James… there were some vague promises made – never intended to be kept.

He lost his nerve and blew Tandy’s money on a classic motorcycle, a 1952 Vincent, and a custom leather jacket for Molly, who dyed her hair bright red for the occasion. Tandy was furious, though she never showed it outwardly. Molly and James were the talk of the town… A red haired woman in a leather jacket on the back of a vintage motorcycle… quite the scene.

But the Gomez brothers were upset the deal never went down. They had made some upfront deal that left them holding the bag and they weren’t who you wanted to piss off. Officer Michelle McQuade heard rumors through her network of informers and tried to warn her old friend James, but he wasn’t hearing any of it.

Finally, one evening Tandy had enough and sent word to the Gomez brothers of a place that James would head out at night. She said she was sick and made sure her sister Molly stayed with her while James rode away, saying she didn’t always need to go, it would be all right, “Just this time.”

They blasted James with a shotgun and Molly barely got to him at the hospital before he died. His last act was to give her the keys to the undamaged motorcycle.

Now the two sisters, Molly and Tandy ride the bike together with Molly in front still wearing her leather jacket. They are the talk of the town. Sometimes they go too fast but Officer McQuade makes sure the tickets get squashed.

 

Live Through the Night

“Yet, as only New Yorkers know, if you can get through the twilight, you’ll live through the night.”
― Dorothy Parker

Somewhere in the Caribbean

 

The light leaking between the curtains was gray twilight. He didn’t know where he was and the only clock read six seventeen with no AM/PM indicator. He didn’t know if it was six in the morning or in the evening.

All he could do was to stay motionless, staring at the gap between the curtains, waiting to see if it grew lighter or darker.

I See the Top Of the Chimney

“I have never felt like I was creating anything. For me, writing is like walking through a desert and all at once, poking up through the hardpan, I see the top of a chimney. I know there’s a house under there, and I’m pretty sure that I can dig it up if I want. That’s how I feel. It’s like the stories are already there. What they pay me for is the leap of faith that says: “If I sit down and do this, everything will come out OK.”
― Stephen King

American Beauty Mill, Dallas, Texas

King Rat

The Window at Molly’s, the street (Decatur) unusually quiet, with notebook, vintage Esterbrook fountain pen, and Molly’s frozen Irish Coffee

“There is only one place to write and that is alone at a typewriter. The writer who has to go into the streets is a writer who does not know the streets. . . when you leave your typewriter you leave your machine gun and the rats come pouring through.”
― Charles Bukowski, Notes of a Dirty Old Man

This summer, at the New Orleans Writing Marathon I found myself at the window at Molly’s at the Market trying to think of something to write about. I decided to put down on paper the struggle I had against a rat infestation and the King Rat behind it all. It didn’t seem very interesting (and a little embarrassing) to me, but when we read everyone seemed to like it.

So, I’ve typed it up from my notebook. Without further ado……

Molly’s At the Market
July 10

I live in Texas so every now and then there is a rat in the house. The most common are the tree rats – smaller grey slick-looking – they resemble large mice with longer tails. They are arboreal and often enter a house by dropping onto the roof from an overhanging tree. Like all rats and mice they can squeeze through any tiny, impossible space. Less often seen are the big ugly sewer rats, black and spiky. I’ve never seen one of those at home – but I live alongside a wooded creek – with my garage facing the trees so I’ve always had tree rat invaders.

Usually one or two – and handled with a trap or a bit of poison – which would leave a dead critter putrefying in the wall – stinking things up until the really warm weather arrived.

One summer, however, I had an infestation. I don’t really know how it happened – maybe I ignored the early warning signs – maybe I was lazy – but eventually I realized that there were rats everywhere.

I was feeling emotional so I read up on the most humane way to exterminate rats – even looking on Buddhist websites for ways to deal with vermin without destroying your Karma. Poison was out – too cruel. Some people like live traps but if you don’t release the trapped rat more than a mile away – they will come back. Rats are very territorial – if you take them beyond their territory they won’t last a day.

So the Internet recommended the old-fashioned snap trap – it kills, but it kills quickly. The big problem is that we have two dogs and any traps had to be kept away from them. Our dogs were old, blind, and lethargic – useless as ratters, but we didn’t want them to get hurt by a trap.

I bought a big jar of peanut butter and a collection of snap traps – a few old school wooden ones – though I had better luck with the modern plastic traps that have a platform for the rat to step on. I arranged these throughout the garage and in some spots (behind the refrigerator, inside drawers, and in the hot water heater cabinet) where the dogs couldn’t set them off.

And the slaughter began. My morning routine would be to carry traps with rats across the alley and let the limp body drop into the thick weeds under the trees. One morning there were two rats in the same trap. The bodies were always gone the next day – I guess the coyotes were coming up at night for a quick snack – a rat buffet.

I killed… maybe thirty rats. Over this time, they were getting smaller and smaller – until they looked more like mice to me.

We have hired a frighteningly effective exterminator at my work. He rid our million-square foot building of rats in a couple months. We call him, “The Rat Whisperer.” I asked him the difference between tree rats and mice.

“How long are their tails? Are they longer than the rest of their body?”

“Yes.”

“They are rats.”

I explained how the rats were getting smaller and smaller – and how I thought that soon they would all be gone.

“What you don’t understand,” the rat whisperer said, “Is that there is one big smart King Rat. He is sending those other rats out to bring food back to him. You will kill all the others until he is the only one left. He will be almost impossible to kill because he is so cautious and smart. That is how he became the King.”

The Rat Whisperer was exactly right. The traps were empty every morning but there was still an aggressive rat in the house. I would put, say, a strawberry down with four snap traps surrounding it and in the morning the fruit would be chewed or gone and the traps un-fired.

I decided that I had no choice but to bring out the big guns.

I spread talcum powder on the kitchen floor and looked for tiny footprints in the morning. There was a tiny gap in the molding by the dishwasher and the prints always lead to or from there. I put up baby gates to keep the dogs out of the kitchen and a big sheet of a sticky trap in front of the tiny hole. I woke up in the middle of the night to a tremendous racket. It took me a minute to get the nerve to go look – and that was too long. The sticky trap was in the living room, beyond the barrier of the baby gate, and covered in rat hair.

No King Rat.

And for weeks there was no sign. I figured he had been injured or frightened enough to go elsewhere. I was wrong… he was waiting me out.

So after a long time, he was back. Again, no food was safe – he nibbled everything that was not sealed up tight. So, again with the baby gates… again with the sticky trap – I went out and bought an ultra-strong professional premium version this time. Again, three in the morning, a huge racket from the kitchen. I ran to the sound, snapped on the light, and there was the biggest rat I had ever seen with the sticky trap on his back, trying to get back into his little hole.

And I realized I had not thought about this enough beforehand. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to touch the rat – he was way too big and mad and scared and would surely bite me if I got too close. If I did nothing he would soon yank himself off the sticky trap (like he must have before) and escape… and I didn’t want to go through this any more.

My mother in law had this grabber thing she used to pick stuff up without bending over – I fetched it from the closet and used it to grab the rat. Of course the sticky trap stuck to the grabber. I threw the trap, the grabber, and the giant rat into a bucket we keep to mop the floors. The sticky trap now, in addition to the rat and the grabber, stuck to the inside of the bucket. The whole mess shook with the struggle of the rat… every now and then a rat head would stick out the top and snap its rat teeth.

I gingerly hauled the whole mess out to the creek and threw it into the water and watched it move downstream and slowly sink in the moonlight.

It’s been a year and a half now and I haven’t seen sign of a single rat. We have new dogs now, they are more aggressive and larger and probably scare any new vermin off.

I am still haunted by nightmares of a giant skeletal ghost rat, the specter of the King, with a rusty bucket and a broken grabber stuck to his bones, shambling up from the creek, returning for his revenge.

I Build a Writing Machine

“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”
― Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

My Raspberry Pi writing machine sitting on top of my secretary. The top folds shut holding the wireless keyboard and mouse inside. I still can use the secretary for handwriting, note vintage Sheaffer Triumph nib fountain desk pen, ink bottles, and stack of filled Moleskines on the left.

 

I am always involved in a quest for writing machines. I have a couple of laptops (one Linux, one Windows) that I use all the time. But they have web browsers, graphic programs and all other sorts of diversions and I wanted something that would work perfectly for writing first drafts – a distraction-free environment that gives me what I need and nothing more.

A little over seven years ago I bought a secretary and have been using it for handwriting ever since. I used to have a laptop concealed within – but that gave out years ago and modern laptops tend to be too big to fit. I was trying to think of the best way to add digital writing to my secretary, always plotting. I’m poor too, so the solution had to be cost-effective.

And then along came the Raspberry Pi – more specifically the Pi 3. For a small price you can buy a functional computer about the size of a pack of cigarettes – now with builtin WIFI and Bluetooth. It won’t play the newest games or display complex websites, but it is more than adequate for, say a word processor.

Exactly what I needed.

So I set to work. First the Raspberry Pi itself in a cheap ready-made case – attached to the back of a cheap, used monitor that I bought at Goodwill for ten bucks. The key is an USB powered HDMI to VGA converter to make the Raspberry Pi work with the old monitor. Then I bought a small plug strip with USB outlets and glued that to the bottom of the monitor stand. That runs the Pi, the converter, and the monitor itself (I bought a very short cord for the monitor) – so I can move it  all as one unit with only one power outlet.

The Raspberry Pi has four USB ports – two are used for USB thumb drives – one for data storage (I don’t trust MicroUSB cards – so I store all my data on the thumb drive and swap it out periodically) and the other to move files off when I’m done writing. Another USB port is used for a wireless keyboard/mouse combo.

And that’s it for the hardware. The native Pi software, Raspbian, is more than adequate for this task. The Pi has an ethernet port, but since I rarely connect to the internet, the WIFI is fast enough. So far, I don’t even use the Bluetooth, but might set up a wireless file transfer eventually.

The Raspberry Pi 3 B+ attached to the back of the monitor. You can see the HDMI adapter cord,the two USB thumb drives and how it is powered by the small white plug strip. Underneath the shelf is the Microsoft transmitter for the wireless keyboard and mouse.

The machine is fast enough to use any one of several Word Processors. I use Emacs Org Mode for todo lists, outlines, and planning – it’s great (will have to write about that sometime).

For first draft writing, however, I’ve settled on FocusWriter. It provides an efficient, full-screen, distraction-free writing environment which I’ve customized into white text on blue (like WordPerfect 5.1 in the old days – the best writing environment I’ve ever used). Best of all, in the status bar it displays time, word count, and percentage of the daily writing goal completed – which is more than cool. It really makes it easy to crank out the daily number of words.

I do also run a thesaurus and can check Wikipedia if I need to, though the idea is to stay off the web. It really works well – a creative space optimized for cranking out first drafts.

Editing? That’s the tough thing… and a topic for another day.

Nanowrimo Day Twelve

Ultimate goal – 50,000 words.
Daily goal – 1,667 words
Goal total so far – 20,004 words

Words written today – 1,862

Words written so far – 16,591 words
Words to goal – -3,413

“Game shows are designed to make us feel better about the random, useless facts that are all we have left of our education.”

― Chuck Palahniuk, Invisible Monsters

These villains creep – Deep Ellum, Texas

As I committed the other day I am doing Nanowrimo – the National Novel Writing Month this November – writing a 50,000 word (small) novel in a month. Not necessary a good novel, or even a readable novel, but one of 50K words.

Didn’t know if I could get anything written today. I was extremely tired after work, but took a nap and sat at my writing machine and hammered out a bit more than my daily goal.

Wasn’t sure what to write, so I typed out some dialog between two characters sitting in a hotel room. I find that random dialog is a good way to fill out word counts, simply imagine the two characters in some normal (or not-so-normal) situation and think what they would say to each other. It isn’t Tarantino quality dialog, but eventually you discover the personalities of the characters and sometimes they say something interesting, sometimes they say something unexpected. I started with them looking at the television in a cheap hotel room and talking about the game show that is on.

 

Snippet of what I wrote:

“What show is that?” asked Bernard.

“Price is Right,” said Willard.

“What’s the point?”

“What? of us watching?”

“No, I know there is no point in us watching. I mean what’s the point of the game? What are all those idiots doing?”

“That guy picks one of those old biddies and then the woman tries to guess how much shit costs and if they get close enough they get to take it home.”

“Man, that’s lame. I guess those old women have spent their whole life buying shit and must know a lot about how much it costs. Hey, what’s to keep them from looking it up on Amazon… like from their phones?”

“I don’t think they would allow that. Besides it’s MSRP… ‘Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price.’ I think Amazon sells it cheaper, so that wouldn’t help much. It’s a real ripoff anyway. The companies’ give the crap to the show for free, for advertising, so it doesn’t cost them squat – they’re giving away free shit. Plus the poor saps that win it have to pay income tax. They have to pay to take away a bunch of free crap they never wanted in the first place.”

“Are you sure? That seems really stupid.”

“Yeah I’m sure. And it is really stupid.”

“Well, then why do you watch it?”

“I don’t usually, but there’s nothing else. Besides it makes me feel better. I may be a hopeless loser, but at least I’m not as bad as all those dumb assholes.”

“Hey, that guy doesn’t look right. I remember my mom watching this, isn’t that guy supposed to be Monte Hall?”

“No, Monte Hall was on ‘Let’s Make a Deal,’ another show… though it’s kinda like this one. You’re thinking about Bob Barker, and he’s not on it anymore. That guy’s Drew Carey.”

“Bob Barker? Yeah… I remember. Didn’t he get in a fight with that actor dude… Sandler? Adam Sandler?”

“Bob Barker and Adam Sandler? No, they were in a fight in that golf movie, ‘Happy Gilmore,’ but not in real life,” said Willard.

“You sure seem to know a lot about this stupid shit,” said Bernard.

“I’ve had a lot of spare time during the day,” said Willard. “So have you.”

They both let out a long rolling chuckle.

“Yeah,” said Bernard, “I guess the two of us share a strong dislike of going to work, don’t we?”

“Nobody likes going to work.”

“But not too many hate it and avoid it as strongly as we do. The two of us work harder at avoiding work than anybody I know.”

“That is a true statement,” said Willard.