The Plan

desk-calendar

Tomorrow is the official start of NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month. In years past, I’d be preparing for NaNoWriMo (the flashier National Novel Writing Month) with character sketches and a preliminary outline for my story. I’m not doing that this year, but I still see myself as a plotter rather than a pantser (NaNo-speak for one who likes to plot out stories rather than writing by the seat of one’s pants), so I’ve done a little prep work for the next 30 days of blog posting. My tentative outline looks like this:

Sundays: Blogs I Follow, in which I write a blurb about some of my favorite blogs.

Mondays: WordPress Writing Prompt, in which I free-write on the prompt provided by WordPress that shows up in my feed every day under The Daily Post.

Tuesdays: Writing Quote, in which I’ll riff on some writing quote that I found somewhere, probably on my Pinterest Writing board.

Wednesdays: Book or Movie Review. I have a few books and movies in the pipeline I’d like to review.

Thursdays: My Choice. Anything goes on this day, but I imagine I’ll post a few pieces from the recent memoir class I took, or lift something from my writing practice notebook.

Fridays: Short Stories. I have several short stories I wanted to put on the blog anyway, and Friday is the day.

Saturdays: Personal, in which I’ll post a picture or two of my family doing Something Really Cool, or maybe just ordinary stuff. A kind of “day off” from the Very Serious Work of Writing.

As November 1 loomed, I was getting a little panicky, but now that I have a plan in place, I feel better. I might even be able to do this. See you around the blogoshere!

The Hungry

basement-stairs

(2,343 words)

Oliver loved the monsters.

They lived in the basement, behind the small, slatted door just past the furnace. The hinges creaked with rust, and he had to duck his head and wipe away cobwebs to get through, but Oliver didn’t care. The monsters were his friends.

He used to be afraid of them. He used to wake up crying in the night, dreaming of their dark, shadowy shapes, their long gleaming teeth and claws, their scales and slime and hot, fetid breath. Their snarls and grunting growls reverberated through his nightmares. His mother would come and hold him, rock him, whisper him back to sleep. He remembered the scent of her, her long red hair, her sadness.

It was his mother who taught him the taming trick. She had to. Oliver’s father was getting angry at being woken up every night with his screaming.

“Shut that kid up,” he yelled from their bedroom. “I’ve gotta work in the morning, goddammit!”

Oliver’s father was often angry. His mother wore the proof of it on her face now and then, purplish bruises that she tried to hide with her hair, or sunglasses, but never with make-up. His father didn’t like her to wear make-up.

On the fifth sleepless night, she taught him how to tame the monsters. “Look them in the eye. Hold their gaze and don’t look away. In this way, you’ll hypnotize them and they’ll be yours. They’ll do whatever you want. Understand?”

He nodded, sniffling and hiccuping.

“That’s my brave boy.” She tucked him in and kissed him on the forehead. “Now go to sleep, quiet as a mouse. Remember what I said. Oh, and one more thing. Always keep them fed, for they are always, always hungry.”

Oliver knew that. Every night, he heard them, their low, gravelly voices waking him, floating up from the basement like some terrible, discordant song. We’re hungry, they moaned. We’re hungry, we’re hungry hungry hungry hungry…

When he heard them the next night and woke, he didn’t scream. He shivered and cowered underneath his blankets for awhile, covering his ears and shutting his eyes tight. But he could still hear them in his head. We’re hungry, we’re hungry, we’re hungry hungry hungry…

Remembering what his mother said, and wanting to be her brave boy, he slid out from under the covers and tiptoed downstairs to the kitchen. In the refrigerator, he picked out one piece of bologna, one slice of cheese, one pickle from the jar; from the cupboard, a few squares of graham crackers. He put it all in his lunchbox-quiet as a mouse-and then turned toward the door that led down to the basement.

He stood with his hand on the knob for a long time. He still heard them: Hungry, hungry, hungry, in time with the pounding of his heart. But he was seven, and too old to be afraid of monsters, and besides, his mother had told him the trick. He turned the knob and opened the door.

Darkness. He flipped the light switch on the wall to the right, and a single bulb at the bottom of the stairs, hanging from a long chain, flicked on. Grasping the lunchbox, he descended slowly, one step at a time. As he neared the bottom, the cold crept over him, like icy fingers cutting through his Spider Man pajamas. It was always cold down here, even in summer. It smelled of damp earth, and living, wriggling things.

At the bottom, he hit another switch, illuminating the main room of the basement. A few shelves were crammed with overflowing boxes of odds and ends, his father’s tools, old picture frames. Empty buckets clustered in one dark corner, along with a snow shovel and a half-filled bag of salt melt; in another corner leaned some bald car tires, a jack, and some rusty hubcaps. Cobwebs plastered themselves along the beams overhead, and dust settled on every item.

A door stood at the other end of the room, leading into another, smaller room where the furnace sat like a dark rhinoceros, with the dusty, slatted door beside it. Where the monsters lived.

Oliver trembled, with the cold, and with his fear that was like an animal inside him. Down  here, their voices roared and vibrated against the inside of his head: Hungryhungryhungryhungryhungry…

He heard them moving around, bumping and thumping against one another behind their door, their movements wet and squelchy. He stood frozen at the bottom of the stairs, but he had the food, and he knew the trick.

He crossed the room and opened the door. There was no light in this room, only the illumination of the room he’d just left, and in its dim, slanting light, the slatted door waited. The voices had stopped, and it seemed the whole word was quiet and still, poised on the edge of this moment.

Oliver reached out and slid the bolt to unlock it, and though it was old and rusty, it moved freely. His hand turned the cold metal knob, and the door, no taller than he was, swung open with a creak.

 

It had bean easy, really. His mother was right; once he held them in his gaze, they fell to his feet like purring kittens. He opened the lunchbox and threw them the food, and they slurped and chewed what little there was, lapping with their long, slithering tongues. Once fed, they were quiet and docile, curling up against each other to sleep.

Oliver went down to the basement every night after that. He’d wake to their hungry calls, and slip down to the kitchen to get their supper. He never took enough to be noticed, just a few scraps and crumbs, a slice of bread with peanut butter, an apple, one raw hot dog. He’d throw the food through the door, and they’d pounce on it, gobbling with ravenous grunts. Once sated, they’d sidle up to him, mewling with gratitude and love. But Oliver could tell the little bit of food he brought wasn’t enough; they were still hungry. He could see it in their beseeching, multiple eyes, hear it in their puling cries. But he didn’t dare take more, and what he gave them kept them quiet until the next night.

This went on through the rest of summer and fall, and into winter. The monsters were tame, but his mother got sick. She was always so tired, and she wouldn’t eat, and got so thin that Oliver thought he could see right through her. She went to the doctor every week, and all her beautiful red hair fell out. She finally went to the hospital, and never came home again. The last time he saw her, he sat next to her on the hospital bed, and she took his hand and kissed it, pressing it to her pale, dry lips. She didn’t cry, he remembered that, though his own eyes filled with tears.

“Are they tame?” she asked, and he nodded.

“Are they fed?” He nodded again, and she leaned back against the pillow, relief showing through the pain. “Good. Now I know you’re safe.” She closed her eyes and didn’t say anything more. She never opened them again.

The doctors said she died of cancer, but Oliver knew better. He knew it was his father’s fault. He was evil, that’s what he was, and his evil caused something bad to grow inside her, and it killed her. When she died, his father yelled and cried and threw things around the house as if he were sad about it, but Oliver believed he was just angry he couldn’t hit her anymore.

The monsters weren’t evil. They were beautiful, and he wondered how he ever could have been afraid of them. At school he drew vivid pictures of them, showing the colors of their shiny skin-black and red, purple and yellow, great slashes and swaths of color, the color of bruises. He drew their glowing eyes, like fires burning, and their huge gleaming teeth and claws, white as ivory. He spent a great deal of time on these drawings, filling in every detail, and his art folder filled with their terrible beauty.

When his teacher, Ms. Graham, called to talk to his father, Oliver quietly picked up the receiver in the other room..

“-just need to talk to you about Oliver, Mr. Hennessy.”

“What’d he do? He in trouble or something?”

“Well, no, he’s a very well-behaved boy-”

“Then why you calling me?”

“Oh. Well, I’m just concerned about some drawings he’s made in the past month-”

“Drawings? You kidding me?’

Ms. Graham cleared her throat. “No, Mr. Hennessy, they’re a little disturbing. In fact, they’re very disturbing, and Oliver has become withdrawn since, well, since his mother’s death, and I thought you might want to consider getting him some professional help.”

“You mean a shrink?”

“A child psychologist, Mr. Hennessy, or at the very least, a grief counselor, who can help him sort out his emotions-”

“I’m not spending a hundred dollars an hour for some shrink to tell me my kid is missing his mommy.”

“Mr. Hennessy-”

Oliver heard a click and a slam from the kitchen as his father hung up on Ms. Graham.

After that, the monsters became hungrier than ever. The bits and pieces he brought them every night were nowhere near enough. They roared and screamed, until the very house shook. How could his father not hear him? But he was unmoved by their pain.

Oliver could finally bear it no longer, and dared to bring more food down to the basement. Whole sandwiches, an entire box of cereal, several sleeves of Ritz crackers, whatever he could find. The refrigerator was never quite as full as it used to be, as his father was a neglectful shopper, but it would have to do. The monsters devoured whatever he brought, but it still wasn’t enough. They cried for more.

After a week of this, his father stood one Saturday morning at the open refrigerator door with a puzzled look on his face. Oliver came into the kitchen and retrieved a cereal bowl. As he set it down onto the table, his father turned to him.

“You been stealing food?”

Oliver looked down at his bowl and said nothing.

“Answer me when I ask you a question. Have you been stealing food?”

He shook his head. “No.”

“No? Then where the hell’s my pastrami? Where’s my sausage links? Huh? Answer me!”

Hungry, hungry, hungry, hungry…

“It’s for the monsters,” he whispered.

“The monsters? The monsters?” His voice skirled up with disbelief.

HUNGRYHUNGRYHUNGRYHUNGRYHUNGRYHUNGRY…

“They’re hungry,” Oliver explained.

“The monsters are hungry, huh?” His father’s voice was quiet now, the kind of quiet that always preceded an explosion. “You want to know who’s hungry, Oliver? I’m hungry!” And with his words an arm came up, like a darting snake, and backhanded him.

Pain blossomed across his face. He didn’t remember falling, but he found himself on the floor, holding is hands to his face. His father was saying something, something about the supermarket, but he couldn’t hear him for the ringing in his ears, and the monsters’ deafening howls.

HUNGRY!HUNGRY!HUNGRY!HUNGRY!HUNGRY!HUNGRY!

Eventually the ringing faded, and the monsters quieted enough for him to hear the front door slam and the car drive away. He sat on the floor and thought of his mother. Her long, red hair, like a protective curtain. She had shielded him from his father with her own body, but she wasn’t here anymore. It was then he understood the gift she had given him.

When his father returned home from the supermarket, he would feed his monsters.

 

Oliver was sitting on the couch watching cartoons when his father stomped in from the cold and set the grocery bags onto the table. He slammed cupboards and muttered to himself as he put the food away, and then came into the living room and sat down heavily next to Oliver.

“Look, I don’t know why you’re stealing food or where you’re putting it, Oliver, but you don’t have to do that anymore. There’s plenty of food in the house now, okay?”

Oliver looked over at him and nodded. “Okay.”

His father noticed the bruise swelling on his cheek. His eyes flicked away, then back, and said, “Now, I’m sorry I hit you, but you got me angry. You got to promise not to get me angry anymore, all right? You promise?”

“I promise.”

“All right then.” He got up and went into the kitchen and made some bologna and cheese sandwiches. He brought them into the living room and handed one to Oliver. They ate in silence for awhile, watching Looney Tunes.

His father turned to him. “I’m glad we’re friends again.”

“Me, too.”

His father suddenly shivered. “Jesus, it’s freezing in here.” He got up and put a hand on the radiator on the far wall. “Ice cold. Goddamn furnace.”

When his father marched down the basement stairs, Oliver followed. The monsters were quiet. Earlier, when he had come down here to turn the dial down on the furnace and slip the bolt free on the slatted door, he’d told them: Wait. Be patient.

His father opened the door to the small room with the furnace. As he peered at the dial in the dim light, Oliver stood just outside. He looked at the slatted door. A dark, slimy tentacle slipped out, wiggling, as if tasting the air. And then another, and another.

Hungryhungryhungryhungryhungryhungryhungryhungryhungry…

Oliver closed the door to the small room and bolted it.

“Godammit, Oliver, open the door, I can’t see,” his father’s muffled voice came from the other side. The doorknob rattled. “This is not funny, Oliver. You open the goddamn door, right now. You hear me? Open the door, you little shit! Open this-”

Creak of the hinges. Wet, squishy sound of movement.

“What the hell?” his father began.

HUNGRYHUNGRYHUNGRYHUNGRYHUNGRYHUNGRYHUNGRYHUNGRY-

And then the shrieking, and then only the crunching and slurping, and then finally the silence of profound satisfaction, of hunger abated.

 

 

Two Things

Two things in this last week of October I’d like to mention that you may or may not be interested in.

The first concerns my writing plans for November. For the past couple of years, I’ve taken part in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). The goal is to write and finish a novel during the month of November (50,000 words). One year I wrote a novel called The Last Dragon; last year I finished a work-in-progress called Wolf Dream. I love them both, yet they both are sitting ignored in a crate upstairs, abandoned in their first draft messiness. I have no plans to try for a third novel this year, as I’ve been more interested in creative nonfiction, memoir and blog posts lately, rather than fiction. To keep the love alive, I have to follow my muse.

nablopomo-image

So instead of participating in NaNoWriMo this year, I’m going to try my hand at NaBloPoMo, aka National Blog Posting Month. The goal, of course, is to write a blog post every day for the month of November. Some people do this all the time. I do not. Two, or at most, three blog posts per week has been my norm. I try to put a decent amount of thought and planning into each post, and that takes time amid my other writing and life obligations. So to publish a post every single day for a month will be a real challenge for me-not only to come up with an idea everyday, but to dash it off fairly quickly and off the cuff, and try to make it at least a little bit interesting. That’s a bit daunting. But I’m excited to give it a try and see what comes up.( I apologize ahead of time for showing up in your feed every single day for that month. Thank you for your indulgence.)

 

The other thing is that I’d like to post some of my short stories here on the blog. These stories have made their share of rounds in the submission process. A couple of them made it to the second round of judging in one particular publication, but they ultimately passed. Another placed in the Writer’s Digest Writing Competition in 2013, but despite sending it out to dozens of publications, no one wanted it. Oh well. I still think these stories are pretty good. They’re like your children that didn’t make it into an Ivy League school, but you still love them and think they’re pretty darn smart anyway. They deserve a permanent home, and here seems as good a place as any to put them.

So starting this week, I’ll be posting a story every Friday under the new category Stories. Most are between two and five thousand words. Read them and feel free to comment if you like. Or not. That’s okay. They’ll be here, listed with a description and a link on the My Work page. Since this Friday is the one before Halloween, I’ll post my story The Hungry, about monsters in the basement. Oooh!

pumpkin-halloween

Purple Notebook

purple-notebook

I just started a new kind of notebook (as if I needed one). It’s one of those marbled composition books that I like, but it’s purple instead of black. Here, I’ve decided, is where I’ll put my collection of people.

I’m a people collector, you see. On the first two pages of the notebook, I’ve made a list of people under various categories: in my neighborhood, around town, at work at the grocery store, people from my past and present. These are people that I find odd, interesting, inexplicable, quirky, or just plain unique. If I don’t know their names, I’ll describe them: Sad Girl, Chinese artist guy on Main Street, bag lady on the bike (and I mean this literally-she wraps plastic bags around her clothing with masking tape), dirty joke guy, etc. Friends and familiars, old and new; old boyfriends and lovers; any one in my life, in other words, past or present, I’ve noticed or have made an impression in my life.

My goal is to describe these people, as much as possible, with concrete detail-physically, their clothing, their expressions and gestures, words they say, how they inhabit their particular space on earth. No judgment or opinion on my part; that’s not allowed (although it will probably leak in now and then).

I’m not quite sure what to do with these people. They jostle and shout for attention between the purple covers. Maybe some will find their way into stories or essays or blog posts. Mostly, it’s just practice for me, to learn to really look and capture the details of people. Not “He’s crazy,” but “He marches up and down our road everyday, engaged in animated conversation with someone who is not there, complete with urgent hand gestures and sudden angry outbursts; I wonder who he sees in his mind’s eye.”

It’s so easy to make quick judgments about people: he’s a jerk, she’s weird, he’s gross, what a bum, I hate her, what’s wrong with you? Easy to dismiss the homeless person, the drug addict, the indistinguishable man in the three-piece suit. Easy to forget that every single person on this planet is just like me-a human being with a life, with wants, needs, hopes, dreams, a past, a present, an unknown future. The star of their own movie, whether a it’s a tragedy, a comedy, a thriller, or love story.

This notebook is my way of taking a peek at these stories around me, of acknowledging them and saying, Yes, I see you and you’re interesting to me.

Dump Books

I truly had no idea what to blog about today, and yet it’s Wednesday, a blog day, and so I must write something.

As I’m looking desperately around my cluttered apartment, my eye falls upon a stack of books on one of our little tables, books that have been accumulating dust for who knows how long. These are books that my husband has brought home over the past few years when he was helping his dad bring trash to the dump. Some may have come from tag sales, but I call them all “Dump books.” Here’s a partial list:

  • Reader’s Digest, Through Indian Eyes: The Untold Story of Native American Peoples.
  • The World’s Greatest Treasury of Health Secrets
  • A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking
  • Murder at Gettysburg, by Leslie Wheeler
  • Diana, The People’s Princess: Her Royal Life in Pictures
  • Reader’s Digest, Explore America: Our Living History
  • Assholes: A Theory, by Aaron James
  • Time-Life Books Mysteries of the Unknown 3-book set: Mind Over Matter, Time and Space, and Phantom Encounters

stack-of-books

Most of these have been at least partially looked through-my husband has been reading a lot about the health secrets lately; he’s read through all of the Time-Life books, I believe, and I keep thinking that someday I’ll use something out of them for a story. Hasn’t happened yet. I’ve leafed through the Indian book, as I’ve always been fascinated by Native American culture. The rest? Meh. I love Stephen Hawking, he’s a kind of hero to me, but you don’t think I can actually read his books, do you? And as intriguing as Assholes: A Theory sounds, I’ve yet to open the book up. Who can get through an entire book about assholes anyway? And though we have a healthy respect and love for Diana, I’m not sure why that one was brought home.

But that’s the fun thing about the dump books-I never know what will end up coming through our door. These are things I never would have picked up myself or taken any interest in, but even if I just thumb through them, I’m getting a glimpse of a different slice of life. So even though I often complain about adding to useless clutter, thanks, hubby, for opening my eyes to all manner of subjects and exposing me to new worlds and phenomena.

Maybe someday I will write that story from Phantom Encounters, or write about when I was in the fifth grade and was obsessed with learning about the different Indian tribes and their cultures. Maybe there really is some underlying purpose for assholes. With dump books, you never know what you might learn or accomplish!

 

 

Mommy Guilt

Beautiful Detour

When my sister was 13, she got sick. She lost weight, was thirsty all the time, peed a lot. She got dark circles under her eyes. When my mother took her to the doctor, she came home later alone, as my sister had been admitted to the hospital.

“She has diabetes!” I’ll never forget the edge of anger in my mother’s voice as she made the announcement, something I noted but didn’t quite understand.

I’d never heard of diabetes, and my mom didn’t know much either; she tended to call it “sugar”. She spent days in the hospital with my sister, learning about the pancreas, and insulin, and ketones and sugar, and using an orange to practice giving insulin shots. This was a tough time for my mom-she was raising two girls alone after a heartbreaking divorce, on welfare, alone when she’d never been alone. Now on top of that…

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Out Of This World

I haven’t been keeping up with reviewing the books I’ve been reading, so this one is a quick summation of the last three books I’ve read: a dystopia, a utopia, and the multiverse.

city of mirrors

Toward the end of spring/beginning of summer, I read The City of Mirrors, the third installment of Justin Cronin’s apocalyptic trilogy (the first two being The Passage and The Twelve, both read before I began the blog). To summarize a complex, multipoint-of-view plot that switches back and forth through time, it tells the story of a government experiment gone wrong, wherein a virus turns its victims into vampire-like creatures that nearly destroy humanity. It’s the survivors  and their fight against “The Twelve” original recipients of the virus that make up the first two books; City of Mirrors deals with the final stand against “The Zero”, the very first and master of them all, and humanity’s last gasp for survival. I can’t begin to describe the richness, in character, plot, setting, and theme that Cronin offers here. If you like dystopian fiction with genre-like excitement, but with a dash of literary flavor, I can’t urge you enough to read this trilogy.

herland

I’ve always loved the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper”, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, but had never read her feminist utopian novel Herland. When my niece Amber (an English major) suggested we read it for the book club, I was instantly on board.

Written in 1915 by  writer and feminist social critic Gilman, it tells the story of three men who find an isolated, unknown land with only girls and women. Sounds like a dream come true for these guys, right? Wrong! They find out just how wrong they are in just about all of their assumptions about women in the year that they stay with them. The three men-Terry, the typical masculine “conqueror” archetype; Jeff, the “worshiper” and idealist; and Van, the most reasonable of the three, yet still entrenched in his own prejudices-find that these women are doing just fine without men in every way imaginable.

I found their world impressive and wonderfully peaceful, and loved how these women shot down the men’s arrogant assumptions with ease; yet, it’s still a world I wouldn’t want to live in. Admittedly, there’s something dull about a world with just one gender. I tend to agree with the usually repulsive Terry’s conclusion that they’re “neuters”, in that they have no sexual impulse whatsoever. It might have been more interesting or believable if they’d become lesbians, but I suppose that was a no-no in 1915 to even suggest; or perhaps Gilman wanted to take sex out of the equation entirely, either because of personal disinterest or because it tends to complicate and muddy things so splendidly.

Still, Gilman makes her points in a witty, satisfying way, and was clearly ahead of her time in the matter of feminism and women’s rights. As I read the book, I kept thinking how, despite the great strides women have made in the intervening 100 years, basic attitudes about women still prevail (Trump, anyone?).  For such a small book, there’s plenty to chew on here.

dark-matter

Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch, has got to be the most mind-bending book I’ve read in quite a while. Possibly ever.

It begins with Jason Dessen, a college physics professor, wondering what his life might have been like if he hadn’t married his artist wife Daniela and brought up their 15 year old son Charlie. He loves his family, but is haunted by questions and mild regret about not following through on his quantum research in his twenties.

He briefly visits his single friend, Ryan, who’s won the prestigious Pavia prize for his work in physics, and who makes his disappointment in Jason obvious. On the way home, Jason is attacked and kidnapped by a masked man who brings him to an abandoned warehouse, injects him with some unknown substance, and thrusts him into some kind of box-like machine.

When Jason wakes up, he’s in a different world. One in which he has no wife and son, he has won the Pavia prize, and a group of excited colleagues are waiting for him to tell them where he’s been for the last year or so.

I won’t give away any spoilers here, but what actually did happen to Jason, and his desperate attempts to get back what he’s lost, is the the craziest mind f***k I’ve ever read. Not only is this a fast-paced thriller, but it will also challenge your assumptions about identity, the nature of the universe, and every decision you’ve ever made in your life, big or small.

Not a bad chunk of reading for the past few months; can’t wait to read and review the next three!