Monthly Archives: April 2016

Train up a Child in the Way He Should Go

By Elias Keller

 

A mother and father sit at the kitchen table, reading a short stack of loose-leaf paper with expressions of intense scrutiny.

The father shakes his head. “He should be writing better than this.”

He’s trying, dear,” the mother replies. “He’s made a lot of progress since last year.”

Well, he’s not trying hard enough. Look: the structure is good. The prose is fluid. It’s just not there yet.”

The mother nods. “I know.”

Jonathan!” the father calls out. “Come here! Now!”

A minute later, an eight-year-old boy shuffles into the kitchen.

We want to talk to you about this story,” the father says. “Now, you have a boy and his pet alligator going to the mall and then the alligator eating people in the food court. That’s clever. Even ironic. But clever isn’t enough. Clever wears off quickly. Do you understand?”

But I just wanted to—”

The father puts his hand over the boy’s mouth. “Jonathan, no. Writers don’t explain their intentions. A good story just is. It exists on its own terms.”

Speaking gently and brushing some hair out of the boy’s eyes, the mother says: “What you have, honey, is a premise, a situation. Now you need to go deeper. Who are these characters? Who is this boy? Who is this alligator? What do they want from life and what’s blocking their way? The more you know these things, the more your premise turns into a story. Do you see what we mean, honey?”

Jonathan nods and mumbles.

But, son, fleshing out characters doesn’t mean just concocting backstories,” the father puts in. “Anyone can do that. You have to feel your characters.”

The mother murmurs in agreement. “And while we’re talking about feeling a story, sweetie, remember that you need to use all of your senses. What does the food court sound like? What does it smell like? Readers want to know these things.”

But you can’t just write, ‘The food court smelled good.’” The father raises his eyebrows. “That’s telling. You have to show. You have to make the reader smell exactly what the food court smells like.” The father hands the boy the stack of papers. “Now I want you to go upstairs and rewrite the story, and don’t come down until you’ve finished.”

What about dinner?” the boy asks.

After you’ve written this properly,” the father replies. Jonathan starts to protest, but his father holds up a hand. “Son, if you want something, you have to work for it. Now go.”

When Jonathan is gone, the father sighs. “Writers. They all think it’s enough to be clever. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let that happen to him.”

Dear, he is only eight.”

You’ve never too young to learn how to do things right. Wasn’t Mozart composing when he was five? Wasn’t Tiger Woods playing golf when he was two?”

Maybe I should just bring him a little snack,” the mother says.

Oh, come on. He’s not going to starve to death. It’s good for artists to stay a little hungry. When he’s accepting the Nobel Prize, he’ll thank us.”

A little while later Jonathan returns with another stack of papers and lays them on the table. “Can I have something to eat now?”

That depends,” the father says. He and the mother read the papers with red pens in their hands.

You’re close, sweetie,” the mother says. “But your stories have to reflect your unique perspective and experiences. They have to connect to your heart. Then the words have meaning, and import.”

What your mother means, son, is that your story has to say something about our world.” The mother whispers in her husband’s ear.

Right,” the father replies, snapping his fingers. “That’s just it.” He turns back to the boy. “What the story’s lacking, son, is a sense of the zeitgeist.”

The what?”

The zeitgeist, sweetie,” the mother says. “It’s a German word for the ‘spirit of the times.’ Good literature is like a cultural document. It tells future generations what it was like to live in a certain era.”

But it’s just a story about a boy and an alligator!”

That doesn’t matter,” the father says. “It’s not what the content is—it’s what you do with it. The greatest novels are about the simplest things. Now, do you want to be read a hundred years from now, or do you want to be an obscure hack?”

Jonathan shrugs. “Well?”

I want to be read hundreds of years from now,” the boy mumbles.

The father nods approvingly. “That a boy.”

Honey, just think deeply and compassionately about the world around you, absorb its energy, and infuse that into your story.” The mother smiles sweetly.

But not too explicitly,” the father interjects hastily. “You’re not writing an essay. The zeitgeist has to be a ubiquitous, but subtle presence in the story. Just like in real life.” He stands up and opens a door. “Now go down to the basement and revise. You won’t be distracted down there.”

The mother looks startled, but is silenced by a sharp glance from her husband, who gives a stack of blank paper to Jonathan.

But I’m hungry!”

Well, so is your alligator,” the father says. “Now use that feeling for your story. That’s what we mean by connecting to a character.”

Jonathan walks downstairs, his footsteps receding into the basement.

I think he’ll get it this time,” the father says when back at the table with his wife. “All writers struggle with false starts.”

Are you sure we’re not being too hard on him, dear?”

Of course not,” the father says, picking up a book. “Artists thrive on adversity.”

 

Elias Keller is a Philadelphia native. His short fiction has appeared in Literary Orphans, Wordhaus, Crack the Spine, Every Day Fiction, APIARY, Slush Pile, Forge, and elsewhere. He currently lives in New Orleans. www.eliaskeller.com.

He Is Survived By _________

By Chad Greene

 

My father
Has died.
He was
87.

 

My father wrote, for many years, too many, obituaries for our hometown newspaper. Why “too many?”

Because, in the newspaper business, he explained, the obituary desk traditionally serves two functions. For young reporters, it’s a proving ground. Promotion to the obits beat is supposed to help them to understand the importance of speaking politely in phone interviews and spelling correctly the names in articles. For old reporters, it’s a dumping ground. Demotion to the obits beat is supposed to help them understand the importance of retiring quickly and quietly.

For my father, there were no “glory years” in-between two traditional tours of duty on the obituary desk. There was only one that lasted for many years, too many. But even after he had lost hope of a promotion from the obits beat that would, admittedly, inevitably lead to a demotion to the obits beat, he continued to take pride in his craft.

In particular, he was proud that – despite the if not hundreds, then thousands, of obituaries he composed for the paper – he never repeated himself, with the exception of four sentences. These four sentences, his time on the obits beat had helped him to understand, were the most important.

Near the start of the obituary, he always wrote both of the first two sentences.

 

_________ has died.

He was _________.

 

The blank in the first, he explained, was filled in with the name of the subject of the obituary, which was always different. But it was the next two words, “has died,” which were always the same, that my father insisted were most important in this sentence.

Why ‘has died’?” I asked.

Because a newspaper is supposed to deal in facts, not in fantasies – however comforting they might be,” he explained. “So you must state the fact that the subject ‘has died.’ So you must resist the temptation of euphemisms: no ‘has been called home,’ no ‘has gone to a better place,’ no ‘has gone to his reward,’ no ‘has gone to meet his maker.’ Until there’s some evidence to prove otherwise, those euphemisms are fantasies, not facts.”

The blank in second, he explained, was filled in with the age of the subject of the obituary.

What’s most important in this sentence?” my father quizzed me.

Feeling philosophical, I guessed, “‘He was’?”

He sighed. “Only three terms to choose from, and you choose the two that aren’t right.”

The age is most important?”

The age is most important,” he confirmed, “because that’s how the newspaper’s readers keep score.”

Keep score?”

If they’re younger than the deceased, he’s winning. If they’re older than the deceased, they’re winning.”

It’s that simple?”

It’s that simple.”

Shouldn’t it be quality of life that’s most important, not quantity of life?”

Quality is subjective,” he scoffed. “Quantity is objective; it’s a number, a fact. Newspapers are supposed to deal in facts.”

Near the end of the obituary, he always wrote one of the last two sentences.

 

He is survived by _________.

He leaves no survivors.

 

Although filling in the blanks in the former meant more work for my father – more names to spell correctly in the article – he hated to write the latter.

The most painful line of all,” he sighed. “The saddest sentence in the English language.”

He hated to write it, but he had – if not thousands, then hundreds of times. So, after finally retiring if not quickly, then quietly, he made a silent promise to his successors on the obits beat: He would not make one of them write it in his obituary.

So, at the age of 65, he – somehow, even my mother herself can’t recall how he did it – managed to seduce one of the nurses at his retirement home. That’s where he explained what his time on the obits beat had helped him to understand, as I sat by his bedside. When he died – not ‘was called home,’ not ‘went to a better place,’ not ‘went to his reward,’ not ‘went to meet his maker’ – I composed this simple poem.

 

My father
Has died.
He was
87.
He is
Survived by
One son.
I am
22.

 

Then I forced myself to do something poets hate to do. I did the math.

For those keeping score, he’s winning.

 

A graduate of the Master of Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California, Chad Greene is an assistant professor of English at Cerritos College. Whenever he isn’t planning lessons or grading papers, he is attempting to put together a novel-in-stories tentatively titled Trips and Falls.

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It Stays With You

By Andrew L. Porter

 

The sniper’s round finds you. It plows a path through your shoulder and out through your chest, only to be returned once it strikes your ceramic protective plate. The plate is designed to resist even a projectile this size––a good thing indeed if struck from without, but in this case, the round comes from the underside, within your little shell. The plate returns the round nonetheless, sensing no difference between external and internal threat, the round traveling back through you again—a straight shot this time—to strike the opposing, mirroring plate positioned to protect your spine, your kidneys. Again the round travels straight through your simple flesh and you shudder with little, rapid convulsions as the plates return the round across and through you again, back and forth, like a pinball in a bonus round.

This happens so fast that it confuses those around you. One of your men mistakes your spasms for regret, he suspects that you’ve AD’d. His reaction betrays his impression of your combat readiness—asks you, sir, what the fuck?––all while the round ricochets inside of you, trapped by the plates. Its energy redirected, again and again, as it cuts a carefree path through you until it finds an exit somewhere soft outside of you and you drop to the dirt.

When Doc gets to you he finds an awful lot of blood pooling beneath you, turning the dust where you rest into clay-colored mud. Doc tears open your vest and cuts away your shirt to find your chest riddled with holes, like you’ve absorbed a machine gun burst point blank. Stunned, Doc pauses to count the holes. Then curses to right himself and begins, methodically, to plug you with tampons from his improvised kit. Doc calls for others to pillage their own, there being more holes in you than even a medic’s tricked-out bag can fill. Keeps plugging but you bleed out right here, your self a sea of blood and water opened to the earth.

*

When you sleep deep enough to dream, you dream of the sniper. Sometimes you jolt as he hits his mark and you feel your spine snap and you lie in the dust, struggling to both breathe and move as your soldiers circle around you overhead, silhouetted by the harsh sun, their sweat dripping into your eyes. You try to scream but find you have no voice, it having been taken by the round’s flight through your neck. You are deaf now, also, and silence envelops you as your soldiers hold vigil for you to bleed out. No one moves to touch you.

You die in the dirt, with everyone watching, if you’re lucky. Or, in those dreams where the air isn’t black, you die on a bird, almost alone. Floating above a dust cloud, strapped to a gurney below strangers bent over you with eyes you can’t see no matter how much you strain, their faces obscured by flight masks, your final vision clouded by morphine.

Often it is when your breath slows that you find yourself trapped inside yourself. Suffocating, you try to scratch, claw, and scream your way out. You can hear the ceiling fan swirling overhead, yet you cannot pry open your eyelids or make even a peep, as much as you try.

Finally, you break through with a howl the perfect pitch of terror, tearing away the bedding in your struggle to free yourself. You jolt up, howling and gasping for air, your swampy sheets smacking the floor at the foot of your bed. You’ve awoken your wife—you’ve scared the shit out of her—and she sits up with a start. She knows to say no words, but rubs your back, coolly, to remind you of where you are, now. Ostensibly, you are not alone.

Recoil from her, pile the sheets back onto the bed. Go to the bathroom and fill a glass with cold water from the tap. Here, it is the same. You seek no comfort, but only space—more space than a house might hold—as you hunch at the sink, massaging your throbbing shoulder, where the round passed through you.

*

During the day, your dreams follow you. You cross a street and sense crosshairs bisecting your neck, wait for the sting that signals the shot, followed by a crack that only others hear. This feeling, it comes and goes––reminding you to blink coolly as you stand on the lip of the curb like the others, waiting for the light to change, you feign nonchalance as you scan rooftops, looking for a rat hole or a darkened open window––but it is not something to fear. It stays with you and you are certain you will die this way and since there is no question, there is no reason to resist. You know it makes no difference and you are only passing time as the round makes its way to you.

*

While these are neither the only nor the worst ways you could have gone, each could have happened—and has or will—to others you know or knew. And so, what if it wasn’t you who caught a sniper’s round? What if it was only your friend? And you had heard his story more than once and touched the scar at the thick of his neck. Could you still have these dreams?

Could you dream that you are the bullet, twisting down the rifle’s barrel, across the room and out the window, swimming through the air to slice through your best friend’s throat, seeing the red of his tissue and the white of his bone and the blue of his blood before it piles out before you as you punch through him to pack deep into the clay of a filthy desert wall?

Or would you dream that you are the sniper?

Or could you be all three—the sniper, the round, and the living dead?

 

– Andrew L. Porter left a philosophy graduate program in order to deploy to Iraq as an Infantry officer in the U.S. Army. He divides his time between New York and London. This is his first published story, which is taken from his first novel. Read more here: theroadtokarbala.wordpress.com.

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