Tuesday, July 29, 2014

THE RIDE HOME - #ShortStory

Collin Walker boarded the 1 train bound towards his sparsely decorated, dimly lit, undersized and overpriced apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  He was accompanied for a portion of the ride by three co-workers.  The quartet of stockbrokers had just departed an office holiday party on Wall Street where the alcohol had been free and plentiful. 

Collin did not regularly fraternize with Doug, Randall, or Brandon. Outside of their shared love of making vast sums of money on paper, he did not have much in common with these men.  Yet due to many hours spent together in confined quarters riding the impetuous charges of bulls and bears, they were his closest acquaintances, coming as close to friendship with him as anyone else managed.  Collin held nothing in particular against fellow members of the human race.  He simply had yet to find the company of another living soul preferable to neatly arranged solitude.

He bestowed smiles as a miser spends his money, released laughter like a devout nun experiencing pleasures of the flesh, with great reservation and only on the most holy of days.  Collin would often flinch when innocently approached from behind, as easily startled as a sleepy infant.  It was as if he pretended away the existence of other people to make his surroundings more palatable, only to be shocked by harsh reality when reminded of someone else’s presence.  At first his colleagues teased him for his awkward discomfort with contact and personal interaction.  Eventually they determined that it was best to just leave him alone.

Therefore on occasions as rare as today when his senses were assailed by rum and coke and he let loose his tightly wound persona, it was a treat for those who knew what he was usually like.  Throughout the party Collin told rambling jokes that evoked laughter based on their manic delivery rather than the punch lines; indulged in forms of physical expression seldom utilized by him such as back slaps and shoulder punches; and flirted with a lack of skill that was nearly made up for by the novelty of his efforts.  This year he had been in particularly rare form with a barely recognizable Michael Jackson dance imitation on top of a receptionist's desk.

"That was some shindig," said Doug, quite noticeably the shortest of the group at only five feet four inches tall, making him the butt of many a private and sometimes public joke.  He always pretended not to mind, to be amused by this curse of fate while mentally cataloging every slight for future spiteful reference.

"You think the big guy will like our gift?" asked Brandon, the youngest of them at 24 years old.  He was two years out of New York University and considered a stock trading boy wonder.

"He likes anything he gets for free," said Randall, the elder statesman at age 58.  Randall considered himself to be a mentor to his peers, but was alone in this opinion.

"We should've pitched in to buy him a toupee that fits," Collin said, collapsing in a fit of cackling that was a reasonable facsimile of laughter from one so unversed in the art.

“I think he’s having an affair with Evelyn,” said Doug.

"No way," said Brandon.  "Why would a gorgeous woman like her sleep with him?"

"Because he's the boss and she's incompetent, sonny boy," Randall replied.  His fear of being retired early to make room for more hot shots like Brandon was not always as well camouflaged as intended.

An elderly man dressed in rags and emitting a rather foul odor entered from the adjoining car, temporarily interrupting the gossip session.
"Excuse me, gentlemen.  Could any of you spare..."

"No I cannot spare any change, and I don't want to hear the sad story of your life either," Doug answered.  "Can't you just get a job at McDonalds or something?"

"God bless you, sir."

"Here you go," said Brandon, putting a bill into the paper cup in the man's hands.  "Have a merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas to you too."  The frail mendicant moved along to solicit the next passenger.

"You shouldn't be such a sap," advised Collin.  He made this statement while clinging to the straphangers as if quicksand was beneath his feet. 

"It's only a dollar," said Brandon in defense of his generosity, although it seemed ludicrous justifying himself to a man who appeared to be impersonating a chimpanzee.  "Besides, he wasn't as annoying as most of them, and it is almost Christmas."

"There’s got to be one of them per square foot in this city," said Randall.  "If I gave a quarter to each one who asked, I'd be bankrupt in a week.”   

"The dollar you gave away is going to be spent on a vial of crack," pronounced Doug.

“And that’s wack,” Collin piped in, tickled by how something so commonplace as liquor had released his poetic side.  

Brandon dropped the subject.  He hadn't been out in the business world long enough to risk arguing on subjects as frivolous to these men as compassion and humanity.  He preferred to sit quietly and listen with equal attention to their words of wisdom or foolishness.  Eventually he'd be making the kind of money guys like them hadn't even dreamt of.  If all went according to Brandon’s plans, they would be working for him some day.  Then he would fire them to bring in new blood.

The train pulled into the next station.  Getting on was a teenager carrying a bulky radio.  A rap song blared from its speakers in defiance of subway rules.  The young man stared the Wall Streeters down to ward off in advance any statements of disapproval.

"Any of you guys got the time?" he asked.

The question was followed by a loud thud, which turned out to be the result of Collin stretching to look at his watch, after which he lost his grip on the straphangers and rapidly descended to the floor. 

"It's almost one," he said upon landing.

"Thanks, homes.  Happy Kwanzaa."  The kid did their eardrums a favor and went into the next car.  Collin's antics had taken him off guard, and he tended to avoid white people whose actions he couldn't predict.

"They complain they're not advancing because of prejudice," Randall pointed out quietly, after checking to be certain that the nearest person in possession of more melanin than himself was beyond hearing range.  "Bigotry has nothing to do with it.  It's all in the image you project.  You come across like that and no one's going to want to hire you. It's that simple." 

No less than eighty percent of Randall’s opinions on complex societal matters were concluded with the words – It’s that simple.

"I like Bennett," Doug said, speaking of the lone African- American who worked in their department.  "He's a good man.  He does his job very well."

"Bennett's an exception to the rule," Randall said.  He could become quite testy when one of his expert opinions was refuted.  "There's a lot more like the guy just in here playing that hippity hop music."

Brandon, whose girlfriend unbeknownst to his co-workers happened to be black, decided to contain his temper and sway the conversation in another direction.  "Loved your dance routine at the office, Collin.  Ever think of getting out of Wall Street and going into the music business?"

Collin rose unsteadily, shaken like a pair of die by the swerving train and alcohol swishing in his bloodstream.  "There's certainly plenty of money in it,” he said.  “Michael Jackson, look out!"  He attempted a mid-80’s Jacksonesque spin, completely unaware that the singer was much more likely of late to be found defending himself in a courtroom or selling off assets to avoid bankruptcy than at the top of music charts, and ended up on the seat of his pants again.

"Bravo!" his associates cheered, applauding as he stood up and took a bow.

On the opposite end of the subway car, a thin Caucasian man in well worn fatigues entered.  A scruffy beard failed to fully conceal the scar that ran from his left ear to mid-cheek.  His pale blue eyes were vacant like a blind man's, but he could see.  One immediately got the feeling that he had seen too much.  He limped forward with grave determination, unsteadily navigating around shopping bags full of Christmas gifts that sat on the floor in front of several passengers, briefly telling his hard luck story to each of them before futilely holding out his hand.  Finally he reached the Wall Street revelers, sixty five cents richer than he had been at the start of his journey.

"Hello, gentlemen.  If any of you could spare some change, I'd really appreciate it.  I have a metal plate in my head and a bum leg from the war, and the government ain't paying me a dime."

Brandon kept his hands away from his wallet so as not to risk further chastisement for his philanthropy.  Doug mentally measured the beggar, sizing him at just over six feet tall, thinking how unfair it was that the gift of height had been bestowed upon someone so undeserving.  Then he mentally recited the phone number of his favorite escort service, for he would be dialing it tonight, and those ladies always made him feel like a giant.  Randall spared the beggar only a look of disdain, followed by a yawn of disinterest. As for Collin, the expression on his face suggested that he had been slapped into sudden sobriety.  He turned away from the beggar as if from a former lover he was simultaneously ashamed, embarrassed, and disturbed to have run into.

"I think I'll rest my bones for a few minutes," the beggar said, sitting opposite them and closing his eyes.  "This cold weather really stiffens up my leg." 

For the next few minutes the only sound to be heard was that of the train racing along the tracks, its steady rhythm hypnotic.  The co-workers’ desire to socialize had run out of steam, the alcohol in their respective systems reversing direction, bringing each of them haphazardly down from the peaks they had been brought to.  Tranquility was ended when the beggar began muttering in his sleep.  He was apparently having a bad dream, for he twisted and turned in his seat.  Then his eyes shot wide open.

"Oh God, no!"  He shielded his head with his arms.  "I don't wanna die, I don't wanna die!"  In pantomime he proceeded to shoot an imaginary rifle at an invisible foe.  "Die bastards, die!" 

As unexpectedly as the flashback began, it ended.  The beggar lowered his arms and his breathing returned to normal.  His aimless glare was all that remained of the episode.

The other passengers looked at him curiously, but none with the intensity of Collin who recognized the expression that had been in the beggar's eyes during his episode.  Absolute rage amalgamated with perfect fear.  It was the same expression Collin possessed on a humid night in a dense jungle of Vietnam years earlier.  It was on that night that he came across an injured Vietnamese soldier clutching his blood soaked, useless right leg. 

Collin saw right away that the soldier's weapon lay five feet away, impossible for him to reach any time soon.  He was no threat to anyone.  Life had already left one of his legs, and unless he was given medical treatment, it would soon leave the rest of him.

No one could hate the war as much as Collin did.  From the moment he set foot on that God forsaken corner of the globe he was in a continual state of paralyzing terror.  Prior to then he had thought of himself as a brave man, though for no particular reason.  His belief was theoretical rather than practical.  His manhood was yet to have been tested.

As soon as he stepped out of the helicopter and into Asia, fear became an intimate friend who would never leave his side.  It would accompany him throughout his tour of duty.  Then it would go along for the ride back to America, walking beside him like a faithful dog.  Whenever he was out on the streets late at night and a shadow moved, or he heard footsteps behind him, or a stranger's eyes rested too long on his own, there it was, causing the most harmless of circumstances to seem life and death.  He tried to ignore it, figured if he kept busy with other matters he would have no time for it.  But fear always made time for him.  Death always seemed to be lurking nearby.

The Vietnamese soldier's face showed no reaction when Collin raised his rifle.  Perhaps his pain did not allow any emotion to be expressed.  Maybe his soul was prepared to take leave of the earth. He may have gone through the war as frightened as Collin, and was relieved that in a moment he would finally be free.  
It seemed an eternity passed as Collin stood poised to kill.  He had fired into moving brush and shifting shadows before, but never face to face.  Collin may have killed men, but didn't know for sure.  This time he would.

Collin stood trembling while the soldier stared passively at him. Why wouldn't he get up and charge?  Why wouldn't he make a lunge for his gun?  If only he would do something, anything to force the issue.  Enemy or not, war or not, if he didn't move and Collin fired, it would be murder.  But it would also be one less enemy to fear.

How dare he lie there with no chance of overcoming his foe, yet be so calm?  Why was Collin, in the stance of an invincible killing machine, incapacitated?

This man represented all he had been trained to hate.  But could justification be found for killing a helpless, defenseless man?

In a language Collin would never understand, the soldier began to speak.  It may have been a plea, a prayer, or a curse.  Collin would never know, and his trigger finger did not allow the sentence to be completed.

"One dollar."

Collin turned towards the voice that had brought him tumbling back to the present.  It belonged to a Korean man with a shopping bag at his feet.  His arm was outstretched, and spinning on the palm of his hand was a clear plastic top with a light inside.  It made a whistling sound as it spun.  He put the top into the bag and took out what appeared to be a bobble head doll.  Collin had to smile when he pushed down on the boy's head and a stream of water shot out as if he were peeing.

"Tree dollar."

But Collin’s smile vanished when he noticed a glint of steel.  The homeless veteran seated across from him slowly withdrew a dagger from the back of his boot.  His glare was not aimless or far away anymore.  It was focused on the target at hand.  He stood up, concealing the knife between his arm and body, and began walking towards the unsuspecting peddler.  With the exception of Collin and those who were ignoring the scene altogether to ponder what more they still had left to purchase for the holiday, everyone's eyes were on the Korean man and his bag of treats.  Some were reaching into wallets and purses to buy their final low budget Christmas gift of the day, while others were waiting to see what else he had to sell.  None knew that he was about to die.

The war veteran was about three steps away from his would be victim when Collin tackled him, knocking into the peddler in the process. This altered Collin's momentum, so it was he who ended up on the bottom when they hit the ground.  Stronger than he looked, the veteran was able to break free from Collin's grasp, deliver a punch to the jaw, then retrieve his weapon.

The dagger was held menacingly over Collin's throat.  Tears crept from his eyes and his bowels also threatened to let loose their liquid.  A feeling of self-loathing overcame him.  Hunter or hunted, he was a coward.  He had managed to summon enough courage to attack a battered homeless man from behind, but that seemed to be the extent of his bravado.  Now that he was forced to encounter danger head on, he could do no more than cower and shiver like an old woman in a cold rain.  Fear clung to him like vines on a trellis.

As Collin awaited the inevitable, he noticed a change in his captor's expression.  The veteran gave Collin a knowing smile.  What was it that he knew?  That Collin wasn't worth killing, because he was no threat whatsoever?  That he was about as dangerous as a dying Vietnamese soldier with one good leg?

The once proud warrior, now homeless vagrant, rose to his feet and headed towards his original target.  The Korean man lay on the ground, somewhat disoriented because his head had hit the floor.  His expression conveyed the same look of surrender possessed by the soldier Collin had killed years earlier. 

Anger, hatred, and a sense of betrayal harbored far too long were set to be unleashed because the slant of a man’s eyes reminded the discarded hero of the time and place where his future was stolen from him.  This is why Collin had been spared.  The veteran didn't want to waste any of his fury on a fellow American.

Surely someone would stop him, Collin thought.  Then again, maybe it wasn't so certain.  They resided in the city of non-involvement, and it was only a foreigner who spoke broken English and sold toys on the subway who was about to die, not anybody who mattered.  He would be slain in front of a moving studio audience. The veteran probably did not even realize that he was attacking an innocent man on a New York City subway.  The jungle he believed himself to be in was not of the concrete variety.  His mind had brought him back to the hell he had been condemned to years ago for the sin of being a healthy young man during wartime.

Collin finally understood what the eyes of the Vietnamese soldier he killed had been conveying.  It wasn't a message of peace, or acceptance, or relief.  It was questioning.  His eyes were asking - "Why me?" Could justification be found for killing a helpless, defenseless man?

In answer to the question, Collin sprung to his feet and charged at the veteran, driving him hard into a door of the subway car.  The veteran crumbled to the ground, no longer a danger to anyone. The peddler, realizing his life had been saved yet again, looked up more in wonder than gratitude.  And Collin, with the knife now protruding from his abdomen, dropped down to one knee, vaguely aware of the queries of his worried co-workers, but preoccupied by the fact that he would probably die staring at a plastic boy with a bladder control problem.  Fear was nowhere to be found.  His old traveling companion, his one true friend, had finally departed.

The lights went out.  Collin did not know if this was due to a commonplace glitch in the train's electrical system brought about by alleged under-funding that would inevitably lead to yet another fare hike.  Of if it was because his ride home had officially begun. 



Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Rules to Write By

Dearest scribblers of words.  Follow the prose writing rules you'll find below religiously.  Or else break them at your own risk because writers at heart are rebels with a cause.  At the very least though, make sure that your blog posts pass the "Weird Al" test.  Happy Writing! - RLP

Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing

These are rules I've picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

  1. Never open a book with weather.
  2. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.
  3. Avoid prologues.
  4. They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.
    There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”
  5. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  6. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.
  7. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” …
  8. …he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs.”
  9. Keep your exclamation points under control.
  10. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.
  11. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  12. This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.
  13. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  14. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short storiesClose Range.
  15. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  16. Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants what do the “American and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.
  17. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
  18. Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.
    And finally:
  19. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
  20. A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.
    My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.
    If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Here's what a few other writers have had to say about the art of writing:

The tension between standing apart and being fully involved; that is what makes a writer. That is where we begin. ~ Nadine Gordimer

The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause. ~ Mark Twain

You have to surrender to the act of writing, give up to it, and trust that if you have anything, It will discover it for you.
~ E.L. Doctorow
Literature is the ditch I'm going to die in. It's still the thing I care most about. ~ Thomas McGuane

You may think I never make it to a second chapter because I play it by ear and depend on inspiration which never comes.  In fact, the reason I stop writing is because I am not creating a masterpiece and would rather stop and try again than carry on with mediocrity.  I prefer failing at greatness to succeeding with something commonplace. ~ from FEEDING THE SQUIRRELS (by yours truly) 

In addition to rules for writing, perhaps someone needs to write up some rules for civilized book publishing/selling.  There's a war taking place in the publishing industry, which of course means that there have been plenty of casualties.