Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Letter to Evie

Happy Leap Day, everyone! Let's be grateful for one extra Wednesday in February to share some writing. Today's piece comes from Mark Russell Gelade, a writer and musician from Montreal whose short fiction won the 2004 World's Best Short Short Story Contest, judged by Robert Olen Butler. His short story collection, Navigating by Stars: 24 (Short) Stories of Love & Longing is currently seeking a publisher. He is sharing a short piece with us, Letter to Evie, which can be heard as an audio file here. Enjoy!

Letter to Evie
By Mark Russell Gelade 

I hope you don’t mind me writing out of the blue like this, but at our age, I think it’s nice to reconnect with old friends—at least I hope it is.

I bet winter is really shaping up there in Montréal. I remember how you always hated the winters, so I can only imagine how troubled your old bones are now, living in such a cold and unforgiving climate.

I finally moved down to Florida with Etta, Judy, and Earl. The four of us make a small, strange tribe, but we don’t mind. Etta and Judy even started yoga this year. Earl still chain-smokes, and me, well, I’m a little unsteady on my feet these days—but I still get around.

I’ve been having the strangest dreams lately. Last night, I dreamed I was stuck at the top of a ladder, trying to enter my house through an open window. I was afraid the ladder would slip out from underneath and leave me dangling from the ledge for dear life.

I don’t have a clue what that dream was about, but when I awoke this morning, I thought it was high-time I unpacked some of that old baggage from the past and dropped you a line.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the old days recently, though you probably wouldn’t expect that—you and me jagging here and there in that old Mustang my dad bought me.

I remember that one evening we had parked across the street from the local baseball diamond. The sun was setting and everything growing still; just the green symmetry of that field and the sky on fire with orange—and you and me sitting there looking out through the windshield like we were watching the second-coming.

Then Paul ambled up to the car, tapped on the window, and asked if he could bum a cigarette. I remember we were both enthralled over the long-haired, high school quarterback who we secretly knew would never be anyone’s idea of a real athlete.

I know it’s ancient history now—who stole whose boyfriend, but the rift between us never quite healed, did it dear?

I didn’t know much about anything back then, much less anything about love. But I do know that it was a long time ago and that eventually we both found our way—you and Brian, and me and Paul. I did receive your card by the way, after Paul’s passing, so thanks for that.

It’s strange when you lose a mate, even though they’re gone, some residue of their being remains behind, attaching itself to you like a shadow—a weightless reminder of the times you had and the places you went.

These days my own shadow is stooped and accompanied by the outlines of my faithful metal walker; you know the kind, with squeaky, plastic wheels. I can sometimes sense your shadow, too, walking next to me, though I know you hate the Florida heat and the white-shorts-and-tennis crowd.

Anyhow, I am alone now, but not without company. Etta should be here shortly, and so should Earl, if he ever wakes up from his nap, which at our age is always a toss-up.

Give my fond regards to Montréal. If you ever decide to trade in the hats and coats and get with the hedonists, you know where to find us!

Paul always cared deeply for you, too, you know. He told me so not very long ago, when things were starting to go downhill.

I believe that love affairs, once they’re over, live on in the shadows we cast each day—when we’re out in the sun, or looking out at the sea, or simply shutting our eyes for the briefest of moments to remember the ones we loved as they pass through our thoughts, as intimate as a whisper, as heartfelt as a sigh.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Acceptance Speech

In the spirit of the Academy Awards, I'd like to thank the network execs at ABC for the heavy push for their new shows during last night's award show. ABC gets my sincere gratitude for canceling two of its Men shows that I talked about last month. It seems they have replaced them with two more gender-specific titles - Don't Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23 and Good Christian Bitches.

Excuse me, I meant B**** and B, respectively. Far be it from ABC to poison our ears with such a dirty word, but let's all thank them for taking the Girl trend to a new level by graduating those child-like hipsters to full-on bitches.

So thanks, primetime network TV, for letting women know the various roles we can play in society so we won't have to use those pesky brains of ours ourselves. What would we do without you?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The "I" in Dynamite

A war veteran struggles to reconcile his fractured mind in today's short story, "The 'I' in Dynamite" by Dominic Laing. Dominic has made short films and documentaries, and is currently querying his first novel. "The 'I' in 'Dynamite'" is dedicated to a friend and veteran of war. You can find Dominic on his blog or on his vimeo page. Enjoy!

The "I" in Dynamite
By Dominic Laing

This is, I’m told, the happiest place on earth.

A dream, I’m told, is a wish your heart makes.

And this, I’m told, is the place where dreams come true.

I can feel the sound echo against my chest, and I reach for my M-4 Carbine. I pinpoint the location of the sound and with the nearest members of my unit. I estimate the distance between us and the enemy, and judging by the number of blasts, I estimate the number of his forces.

My hands do not shake because I am scared. My hands shake because when I reach for it, there is no M-4 Carbine. There are no members of my unit, and there is no distance between the enemy. Because there is no enemy.

I shake as I crouch low in my bunker, so as to avoid being sighted by the enemy.

I shake as I crouch low in the corner of the bathroom, so as to avoid being sighted.

The tile amplifies the sounding echo of the enemy, and with every echo rushing my shore, I have to fight the temptation to reach for my gun.

I have not been taught to look up. I have been ordered to get down. I have not been conditioned to look at colors in the sky. I have been commanded to remain on guard at all times. I cannot let my guard down, because somewhere out there is an enemy.

And the enemy is after me.

This is, I’m told, the happiest place on earth. This is, I’m told, the happiest place on earth. And so long as I keep repeating that to myself, so long as I lock my head between my knees and keep my hands locked together, I won’t cry and I won’t break.

A dream, I’m told, is a wish your heart makes. And this, I’m told, is the place where dreams come true.

I dream of being strong. And I must be strong...because the enemy is always after me.

II

Four hours a shift. Ten hours between shifts. An hour and a half prep course given before each shift. This is the song that never ends. It goes on and on...my friends?

The last thing I remember stretching out so far was the ocean. The ocean and the desert, stretching out forever and ever.

Meanwhile, I am forced to wait. And so I will. I will wait and rest and prepare and wait again, as sands and waters stretch out forever and ever.

But you do not think about eternity in the tower. You think about the next ten minutes, about how to react when you hear mortar fire, about how hot it is and about how life is moving on without you. You are ordered to wait, by decree of your government and commanding officers.

You are ordered to stand still and witness the passing of time.

III

The first thing I see is an appetizer plate with barbecued chicken wings, and I know I could eat nothing but chicken wings for the next thirty years.

The second thing I see is my friend, and I know he’s here to kill me.

He must’ve picked this table. There’s someone in the parking lot, someone hidden in a car with a scope. He can see our table through the adjacent window, and as soon as I sit down, he’s going to put a bullet through my skull.

For a split second, I imagine my blood splattering all over barbecued chicken wings.

No, I thought. He must be here to kill me himself. He’s the person I’d least expect. He’s hiding a gun under a table or a knife behind his back. Everyone seated at the nearest tables are with him. They’re going to surround me and kill me. The whole matter of my death’ll be over in seconds.

And for a split second, I felt calm, as calm as I’ve felt since the last time I fired a gun.

He stands, and I ready myself for death.

“Hey, Kirk” he says. And he opens his arms.

I blink once, twice. I’m in an Applebee’s. In front of me is someone who knew me from Before, someone I taught how to surf. I blink again, again.

For the entire lunch, I’m convinced the male in his mid-40’s seated at my five o’clock is going to cut my throat. Either him or my friend seated across from me.

IV

If someone asks you, “What’s your favorite movie?” You typically respond with something akin to, “Gee, I don’t know. There’re just so many.”

Which is bullshit.

The answer to a question is either “yes,” “no,” or a specific item/location/amount/reason.

There is an answer to every question.

Make a list of every movie you can ever remember seeing. Take your time. You have four hours in the tower, ten hours off, and ninety minutes prep before each tower shift. This is, one feels, never-ending, so be thorough.

When you’ve finished making the list, look at the first two movies on the list. Between “Gladiator” and “Legally Blonde,” which movie do you like better? PIck your favorite.

Look at the next two, and pick your favorite.

Look at the next two. Pick your favorite.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

This process works for any preference you may have and any part of your personality. I know the name of my favorite movie, my favorite book, my favorite TV show, may favorite band, my favorite song, my favorite combination of weather and temperature, my favorite city in the United States, my favorite color, the top three personality traits I look for in a woman and the last meal I would want to have were I to die tonight.

With enough patience, you will discover exactly who you are to the most finite detail. You will know that you know that you know that you know yourself entirely.

You will also, beyond a shadow of a doubt, go insane.

V

I can feel the texture of the sand at my feet. I can feel the mist accumulate on my skin. I can hear distant shouts and screams. I keep my hands locked together and tell myself those screams are not people I know, and that no one is trying to kill me.

I breathe through my nose and smell the ocean air. I keep my eyes fixed on the waves and tell myself to look straight ahead. I feel every heart beat against my chest. I visualize the rhythm of my heart and the rhythm of the ocean waves.

I wait and I watch the waters stretch on forever and ever.

The sun has seconds before it disappears over the horizon. Soon, it will be dark.

When I was fifteen, I took a girl surfing during red tide. “Red tide” is the term given to a specific kind of algae, a phytoplankton with the scientific name Lingulodinium polyedrum. In the daytime, the algae is a brownish-red. However, at night, the motion of the waves churn the algae and produce a bright blue glow under the surface.

I can see the sand and the water. I can feel the chill and I can see the water churning. I can feel my chest rise and fall with every breath I take. I can see the waves rising and falling, crashing and climbing against the shore.

I will always love the water. But I will never trust it again.

A dream, I’m told, is a wish your heart makes.

Soon, it will be dark.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Realistic Romance

This weekend I had the unfortunate pleasure of overhearing a first date. It was obvious they met online and decided afternoon coffee would be nice and safe. The guy looked in his early/mid-20s. Average looking, kind of wiry, and overly agreeable. The woman was older and better looking than he was, and had one of those naturally raspy voices that come with excessive smoking or yelling.

She did most of the talking - a brief monologue about marathons she ran transitioned into her love for the Kardashians because they reminded her of her family. The guy was less than impressed. I could practically see the words "shut up shut up shut up" repeating in his brain. I thought maybe we'd make eye contact so I could offer a sympathetic smile, the way I do to people on the subway who are being accosted by unmedicated schizophrenics. But he was too far gone, focusing all of his energy on keeping eye contact and counting the minutes until he could leave. Still, part of me knew that if she offered, he'd go back to her place.

What this poor, doomed couple didn't know is that a writer was across from them observing everything they said and did (at least until said writer's friend came and rescued her). If these people were in a novel, I wasn't sure which would be our main character. Both had a story that independently led them to each other. Or at least to the same dating website. While our hero seemed to grow bored with our Kardashian-loving heroine, I wanted to know more about her. Why was this woman - blond, pretty, athletic - on a date with this younger man whose story about not crashing his bike disappointed her? Perhaps they weren't in it to find love, but the pretense of going on a date at all seemed like a waste of time.

Neither of these characters - I mean, real human beings - interested me by themselves (she came off shallow, he too bland), but the fact they were committed to putting in an effort was intriguing. Of course, this made me think of how we write romances. Outside of the romance genre, we write romances all the time in commercial fiction, literary fiction, YA, and even narrative nonfiction. We try to connect our love interests and convince our readers that they belong together, even if circumstances keep them apart.

I'm a fan of love. Reading it, watching it, experiencing it. It's fascinating. Love is the scariest thing you can let yourself feel for another person. I think that's the appeal. It's a fear to be conquered, and not everyone is worth the risk. But when they are, it makes taking that risk all the more rewarding. So what does this have to do with writing? Everything.

Make your character take risks! It's a phrase writers hear a lot, and it's one every writer should follow. But risks are meaningless unless we know what the main character is fighting for. So while you're writing, remember the second part of risk-taking: Give your character a worthy reward.

While I'm a fan of 1st person - the POV of choice in YA - I admit it comes with a price. We see everything through the main character's eyes so that when it comes time to meet the love interest, we're presented with only one view. Usually, what we see is the archetype - best friend who's secretly hot and perfect, hot and perfect crush who's secretly horrible, the stranger from nowhere who wins the main character's heart (and therefore ours too). We root for the love interest based on those archetypes, but other than a few personality quirks, we hardly ever get to know who they are outside of their designated role.

The type of YA love I've been seeing in my submission pile is like fairytale love. When they aren't consumed by hormones or in a literal fight for their lives, the characters rarely take the time to get to know each other. You never see Cinderella go on a date because if she did, she'll realize the Prince is kind of lame (and probably has an awful story about riding a bicycle). If readers can see the love interest has nothing else going for him (or her), it's less likely they will respect and connect with your main character.

For all the Gale vs. Peeta, Angel vs. Spike, Stefan vs. Damon, and Team Edward/Team Jacob debates, they can be boiled down to the same concept: "Good Guy vs. Bad Boy." Sure, the bad boys end up caring for the girl and the good guys have some darkness in them, but essentially the same love triangles are happening over and over. Yet consider how different the main characters who've faced these choices have been. Katniss, Buffy, Elena, and Bella are all leaders of very different cliques (fighters, geeks with skills, popular/socially accepted, and, um, people who bump into things sometimes?); yet their choices in men are, more of less, interchangeable.

The lack of realistic romance doesn't stop with YA. Those teens who rarely consider who they're risking serious heartache for likely grow up to become the adults I read about in too many commercial and literary submissions. Even when the plot is independent from the state of their relationship, couples seem to hate each other, or at best, are indifferent. To me, this translates to teens as overly idealistic and adults as cynical and regretful. Or, they have simply gotten too used to each other to inspire any sense of passion.

What bothers me about this - again, when the novel is not about the state of their relationship - is that these characters I'm supposed to root for are forcing themselves to live an unhappy life. How, then, can I like or trust them enough to care about their story? These characters aren't real to me. Love exists over the age of twenty. If you're writing these characters, give me a reason why they need to still be together; make me understand why they are still married. Then, perhaps, I'll follow them to other parts of their lives.

When I say I'm a fan of love, I don't mean either of these extremes. The type of love that lasts - whether in novels or in real life - is the kind that's present and real and remains constant. Teen romances won't have the emotional complexities of adult relationships, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't know who our main character is falling in love with. Likewise, mature adults won't even use the word "epic," let alone think of their relationship as such. But passion and true affection doesn't need to die after high school.

We all might be attracted to certain "types," but no one falls in love with types. We fall in love with people. And it's terrifying. Your job as a writer is to make your readers feel just as scared and just as willing to take those risks, and to let them know that it will be worth it long after the story ends.

Happy Valentine's Day, friends.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Urban Planning

You may remember our writer, Steven Axelrod, from his last appearance on the blog, and I am happy to present another short story excerpt from him about another couple in need. Steven has an MFA from Vermont College and has been published on Open Salon, Numero Cinq, and has had essays appear on the main Salon website. Enjoy!

Urban Planning
By Steven Axelrod

Eleanor could see immediately that it was impossible. The box spring was not going to fit up the stairs. It was a queen size and it was just too big. She had an excellent sense of spatial relations, which generally annoyed people. She could fill grocery bags or moving vans with the same gratuitous perfection, fitting an end table or a box of pancake mix into the last little jig saw gap that no one cared about but her. It was the same with parking. She had a trivial genius for it that made David crazy. Whenever she tried to help him, he would turn icy and polite. Finally he’d say, “You do it then” and get out of the car.

“I’m sure we can do this,” he was saying now, squinting up the stairs in the dim hallway light. It was a brilliant, sparkling early November afternoon outside. But not in here. The stuffy, overheated passageway felt like midnight in August. Eleanor yawned. The two moving men shifted from foot to foot awaiting orders.

“All we have to do is get it up to that first landing. Then we can flatten it out so it goes over the banister and just swing it around. What do you say, guys?”

The moving man, who seemed to be in charge, his name was Ted, nodded.

“Worth a try,” he said.

So they tried it. Eleanor could tell the corner of the box spring was going to snag on the bottom edge of the next landing, but she said nothing. Ten minutes later she was wedged against the wall with the plastic corner guard of the box spring pushing into her solar plexus.

“Just lift your corner!” David was yelling at the other moving man. ‘It’s gotta go higher!”

“It won’t go any higher, David,” Eleanor said quietly. “It’s stuck.”

He made them try again anyway, but the cumbersome piece of furniture was simply too wide for the gap between the upper landing and the wall.

“David,” she began again.

“Fine! You win. Take it down, guys.”

They eased the box spring down the stairs and stood panting in the corridor.

“If we could just get rid of this banister,” David said. He sounded serious.

“We can’t do that, David. It’s not our house.”

“Obviously. I’m just saying -- wait a second. Okay, I’ve got it. What we have to do is -- we have to take it up vertically. What d’ya say guys? You think that would work? We just walk it straight up the stairs. It should go around that corner no problem.”

Why couldn’t he see that it was too tall? It seemed so obvious.

“Maybe we should measure first,” Eleanor suggested.

“No need to. I can tell it’s gonna work. Just look at it. We’re golden! C’mon,” he said to the moving men. “Let’s give it a shot.”

“Sure thing, Mr. Driscoll.”

So they tried it. But there wasn’t enough clearance and the bed got stuck on the lower edge of the next landing. They tilted it, but it hit the spindles of the railing and blocked the stairs diagonally. It was jammed there and it took fifteen minutes to get it back down.

Eleanor was exhausted.

“This isn’t going to work,” she said.

It was just like architecture school. She had taken two jobs so that he could give up contracting and do his graduate work. But she had never much liked the buildings he designed. So she was ‘unsupportive’ and ‘cold’. He had abruptly decided to study engineering instead but he eventually dropped out of that program. Now she was still working two jobs and he was writing a book on twentieth century urban planning. “The big picture of how a complex, heterogeneous city fits together,” was the way he’d described the project to her.

Urban planning. She had to laugh -- he couldn’t even organize a box spring on a stairway.

“What’s so funny?,” he said.

She glanced up at him, red-faced and sweaty in his Red Sox t-shirt, leaning against the jammed box spring.

“I’m going outside for a few minutes,” she told him. “I need some air.”

“Don’t take too long. We’re gonna try to bring it in through the basement and up the back stairs.”

Outside it was bright and windy and cold. She walked toward the corner enjoying the captured moment of solitude. She stuck her hands in her pockets and wished she’d grabbed her coat.

A line of cars was waiting at the red light. When she got to the corner she heard the woman and her elderly father in the first car, arguing.

“ -- I’ve made the appointment and you have to go,” the woman was saying. “You’re sick. You need medicine. You need a doctor to write the prescription. Besides, Dr. Braden’s told you, over and over –- “

“I’m seventy-two years old and he can kiss my ass.”

The old man finished his cigarette, flicked it into the street and rolled up his window. Eleanor couldn’t hear them anymore but the light had changed anyway. The car stalled and the woman couldn’t get it started again.. There was more honking now. Someone tried to cut around the line of cars and almost had a head-on collision.

The side door opened and the old man climbed out, slamming it behind him. He was heavy set in a blue suit. He stumbled at the curb and someone tried to help him. He slapped the woman away just as his daughter climbed out of the car. She was overweight also, in unflattering slacks and a gray cardigan.

“Dad -- !”

“I’m walking.”

“But you can’t -- the Doctor said -- Dad -- !”

He turned away. She shut her door, came around the front of the car to follow him. The light was still green. The blaring of horns was continuous now. The noise stopped her. She was poised for a moment between her father’s vanishing back and her empty car. She took a few more steps.

“Dad -- ?”

But he gone.

She walked back to the car. She tried both doors but she had locked herself out. She yanked on the door and screamed “Shit shit shit shit SHIT.” She started pounding on the roof of the car, and finally she just put her head in her arms across it. The light turned red.

Eleanor stared at the scene. The locked car, the traffic -- it was a perfect little metaphor. But of course she couldn’t see it. People just don’t.

Eleanor glanced at her watch. She had been gone almost ten minutes. David would assume she’d been smoking, though she hadn’t. If there was ever a perfect time for a cigarette, she thought ruefully. She considered going back, but she stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, as if she’d forgotten something.

Maybe it was something trivial, like an address scribbled on an envelope; maybe it was something huge, like some basic concept of human volition, or the simple proprietorship of her own life. The breeze stiffened, blowing the hair off her face, beating her shirt like a flag.

She took a step off the curb, walked around the car, touched the woman’s shoulder as another round of honking started up.

“Ma’m? Excuse me?”

She woman twisted around, looked up at Eleanor, wild-eyed. “What?”

“Do you belong the Automobile Club? Because – I mean …I have a card. We could call them. They could get your door open.”

Eleanor called, set up the appointment and impulsively gave the woman her card, in case the AAA guy wanted to see it, along with her business card, so the woman could have the address, to send it back. It was smart nice trusting thing to do but most of all it was something David would never have done. She could just hear his comment: “Kiss that card goodbye,” something like that.

She thought about the old man, stumping away down the street, ignoring everyone. It was possible. Would it look weak? Did she really care how it looked, the little dismissive cough David’s father would make, the sigh of vindicated contempt from David’s mother? It wasn’t like she was ever going to win them over anyway. Maybe with a grandson. She shuddered at the thought: David barking instructions during the labor, maneuvering the baby down the birth canal.

She thought about his apartment – their apartment. What did she have there? Clothes, but she could come back for them, Books, but David could keep them. There was nothing else she really cared about, pots and pans, rugs and couches, nothing essential, just a lot of junk, just – accumulation.

She took out a cigarette, lit it and drew the smoke deep into her lungs. Then she turned and started walking, away from the cramped stairwell and the jammed box-spring and her waiting fiancée, into the sharp autumn morning and the bright conspiratorial streets of Boston, never once looking back.