Horse Bars and Murder

Talking about writing comes in many forms. You can talk nuts and bolts, sentence structure, where the comma goes or does not, or how to write dialogue which are all needful things. Most of the new writers I meet have this vision their creativity will be enough to captivate the reader so spelling and grammar and structure be damned. This is never the case. The vehicle in which your writing flies will determine how high and how fast and how smoothly the flight. 

And, regrettably in some cases, how long the flight lasts.

But there is the discussion on the philosophy of writing, on how writing should be done, and what it takes to tell a story. The person telling the story decides how, and if they are smart, they will already know how before they begin. If they try to wing it, they might be good enough to carry the tale to the end, but mostly, in writing, they must know right from the start. 

A friend of mine went through a lot of text on a detective story. He began with first person, switched to third person, then back again to first person, and finally went with third person for the tale. Why? It felt right. It felt better to him as he wrote it. The process of writing, not the rules and regulation of writing, is what this is all about, mind you. 

In one scene in the story, he walks into a bar, and the bartender tells him all about the history of the building. It’s a real building and the history is accurate. It isn’t a bar, but an office, but he transported it into another location and reworked it into a drinking establishment where horse racing and horse breeding people come to drink. This is where a murder takes place. The scene is important. How a writer gets that scene into the mind of a reader cannot be taught but it can be borrowed. 

Think about Bilbo Baggins and his Hobbit Hole. That was his family home, Bag End, where Bilbo’s history was stored, his belongings, and his comfort. Torn away from this place was part of the opening of the story, and it defined the main character with style. 

A bar, elegant and classy, where moneyed people go to talk horses, with photos of horses adorning the plain red brick walls, an antique piano on a small stage, and the massive mahogany bar, so brown it is nearly black, the perfectly clean mirror behind with shelves of bottles, each higher shelf holding a rarer version than the one below, and no prices asked or given. 

The work it takes to define a location will stay with a reader. It will give them a place to relax and think about as the story evolves. You have an image of this place, and the people who go there, do you not? And I have not done it any justice. 

What I have done, is given you an idea of what you must do to define, or refine, your story. Where? Where is this place? How does your characters feel about being there? That photo, in the corner, near the old corn cracking hand cranked farm tool, why was the victim standing there, staring at the photo? You have no idea, and no one has told you what or who was in the photo, and by the time the detective arrives, the photo is missing.

Is the photo a clue or a red herring? 

We talked about the photo, over good beers and a chess board. Horses, of course, but a woman was in the photo, but who was she, and was she connected to the murder?

Don’t connect the dots, lead your reader to a room and allow the human mind to look around, to study the place and feel what it felt there. Your location should give you information about the characters there, and who they really are. 

Your character is a woman, self assured and a good judge of character, we know this from her surroundings. We know this because of what she does for a living, where she lives and works, and we know because the other characters treat her with respect. So, does she get into the canoe with the stranger to go to the island in the lake? How big and island, how big a lake, and who is this person? All of this is important information that only you have, and to make your point, you must share it beautifully. 

None of this can be found in a rule book. You can read books written by writers and find out what they’ve done, or better yet, you can read good books, lots and lots of good books, and find out how it’s done right. Or not done well at all. But reading is the best tool for learning how to write. 

Mark, the man who was writing about the detective, had a problem with present a pause between two people speaking. 

“Why would he have that problem?” Mike asked, as he looked around the room, searching for the waitstaff who seemed enthralled by the woman with the baby. It bothered him the child might start wailing and drown out the piano player. 

“Because he had never thought about it,” Mark replied.

There you have a pause between Mike’s question and the answer to it. Mark worked it out. 

This is the kind of conversations people ought to have more often about writing, instead of worrying about sentence structure, which you can learn from a book. I’ve got Fowler’s and Holt’s handbook, Strunk and White’s, of course, but none of that teaches you how to use words effectively to create a mood, or inflection. You do have to build the airplane with these tools, these rules, but the fuel can only be from your creativity. 

Take Care,

Mike

Rape

While writing a fiction piece about the end of the world, I was interviewing women to learn how they thought they would be treated by men in a nascent civilization. Mostly, women were very pessimistic, with some flatly rejecting the idea of starting over in a site where they were outnumbered by men. Some thought being in a camp with men would be favorable to being outside a camp with no protection from men. It was clear that men would be the biggest problem women felt they would face, even if there were monsters who invaded earth that ate people. 

I asked a woman who I didn’t know well at all what she thought would happen. She said once men did all the upper body strength/ he man stuff like putting up fences and farming, it could dawn on them they were in control of everything inside those fences, and women would suffer for this. 

“Just like that? I asked. 

“That’s the way things work now,” she replied. 

She went on to explain she agreed to talk to me about the project, but only in a place where she could see other people, and be seen, because she didn’t know me. A friend referred her to me, knew she would want to speak about the subject, and we were in a downtown coffee shop. 

“Have you ever taken a woman out on a first date to a really nice restaurant?” she asked me. “Not just a first date, but the first time the two of you went anywhere together alone?” 

I stalled out. Surely, in my life I had, but I couldn’t remember. 

“Most women will guide men away from expensive first date venues,” she told me. “That way, the man isn’t as likely to demand sex on the first date.”

I told her I didn’t think dating was like that, and she asked me if I had ever dated a man. My education, it seemed, was just beginning. 

The biggest problem, she told me, is that in order to get sex from a man to whom she was attracted, she had to make sure he wasn’t going to assault her first. Which meant she had to establish some level of trust on the first date, allow a rapport to develop, and keep him at arm’s length should he turn into an octopus. 

Moreover, she wasn’t on the Pill. When she went out with a guy for the first time, she had no intentions of having sex with him no matter how well things went, or how strong an attraction she developed for him. Women have created bail out calls, where if a woman is on a date and wants out, she can text a friend to come get her out. This woman went a step further by letting a gay friend come over and play video games on her widescreen. She would text him and tell him to stay or go, depending on how a date went. 

So, I asked, does this mean you never had sex on a first date? 

She went out with a guy she really liked, they went to a cozy little bar, then went to his place and smoked pot. She was higher than she needed to be, and knew it, and the next thing she knows, he’s pushed her over on the sofa, kissing her, and she has to make a decision fast. She can try to throw the brakes on, try to get him off of her, hope it doesn’t piss him off, and hope for the best. She was interested, just not this interested yet, but why not just go along with it? What she knows to be true, is that there is zero chance this man is ever going to be charged with raping her, unless he beats her bloody and she has war wounds to show for it, and even then, going through the process of going to the hospital for a rape kit, going through the trauma of filing a report, and waiting for a trial that might take months, assures her only that the man she is trying to put in prison knows where she lives. 

She pushes back, tells him to stop, and he does, for the moment. 

Now she has to extract herself from the situation without pissing him off. They are both drunk, both stoned, and she says she has to use the bathroom, which is a disaster, because she has to go through his bedroom to get there. He follows her, lays down on the bed, and she closes the bathroom door behind her, and thinks. Now what? She almost calls a friend, decides not to, thinks she might be overthinking the situation, flushes, washes her hands, and when she steps out of the bathroom, he’s on the bed, naked.

“At this point,” she tells me, “it’s fight or fuck, and after I lose the fight I’m fucked anyway.” 

A few hours later, after three or four sessions of unprotected sex, his urgency and buzz wears off, and he drives her home. The next morning, she hits the pharmacy for a Morning After Pill, and is pissed at herself for getting in that situation. 

“You’ve never raped a woman?” she asks, looking me in the eye. 

“No, never,” I say and I’m mad she would ask. 

“You’ve never taken a drunk woman back to your apartment, started trying to fuck her, and not thought for a moment that she might be afraid to say no to you?” The question is one open to interpretation, and I almost say that, but I realize it sounds like I’m trying to defend myself against an accusation. 

I tell her about the time a woman came home with me from a bar, like in her case, and we smoked some pot, and we were both really stoned. We started kissing, one thing led to another, but she never said stop or slow down, or no.

“Could she have walked home from your place safely? Could she have called a cab? Was there anyone close by she could have gotten to come get her? Did you have control over her means of transportation?” she asked, and I could tell this was exactly what she had gone through. 

“Did you try to call her the next day, or later, and did she more or less not want to have anything else to do with you?” she demanded. This all happened long before cell phones, back in the 80’s. 

I thought back to that night. It was cold, raining hard, and we were both pretty blitzed. The woman didn’t seem reluctant, or hesitant. 

“Does this mean she absolutely wasn’t looking for a one night stand?” I asked and the question seemed lame for some reason. 

“No, not at all, she could have very well been looking for sex. She might have had a boyfriend and not wanted to see you again for that reason. “But you had a lot more control over the situation than she. Did you ask her if she was on birth control? Did you offer to use a condom? Did you ever wonder if she was pregnant after that night? The questions were flung out at me, but she already knew the answers. 

“Hey, this was decades ago,” I protested. 

“Good point. Nothing has changed since what happened to that woman happened to me, Mike,” she said. “I’m not accusing you of raping her. I’m accusing you of not realizing you had power over her. In your story, if you set up a camp to restart civilization, how are you going to prevent the men from having power over the woman, and then using that power against the women. That’s the question you are asking, even if you don’t realize it.” 

“Wow.” 

“Take the most extreme example. Do you think Thomas Jefferson raped Sally Heming?” she asked. 

“Yes, a woman who cannot say no cannot say yes,” I replied. 

“Even if she liked him, or loved him, and even wanted him, the power he held over her made it impossible for her to make up her own mind as to what to do with her body. The guy that was waiting for me to come out of the bathroom forced me to either confront him, or go along for the ride. I was young, scared, and took the easy way out. It’s not the classic knife-at-her-throat rape scene, but I didn’t feel as if I had any choice. That’s your story right there. Who decides how much power men have over women?” she stood up, to go, and I stood up, too. 

“You’re on the right track, Mike, but a lot of men are going to read it complete fiction.” 

Take Care,

Mike

Back Roads, Back Home

Sunday was one of those days that just primed me for a night full of odd dreams. I saw it coming. I transported two puppies from a drop off at someone’s house to the next leg of the ride, which began in Ohio and ended in Florida. It went so smoothly I couldn’t believe it.

On the way back, I took the long way home, off the Interstate, side roads, and side roads of side roads. I listened to Natalie Goldberg narrating “Writing to the Bones” on Audible.

An officer in the military once told me if the Cubans and the Russians ever invaded from Florida, they would advance north, until they would run into the “I-10 Line” which is where Florida broadens out, and it would be there the southern part of the United States truly begins. A few million heavily armed, and pissed off, rednecks would pour into the area, making it impossible for the military to get in or out, but hey, they are heavily armed, and they are pissed off.

As a military commander, you haven’t lived until one of your senior officers is killed by a sniper, who turned out to be a fourteen year old girl, using her grandaddy’s 30.06 from a hidden tree stand, and on her you find ammo, food, water, and a Barbie Doll, who is also dressed in camo. There’s nothing but death north of I-10 because north of I-10 is South.

It’s pretty country out here, north Florida, that’s part of the south. Giant Live Oaks, lots of water, more history than the locals know what to do with, and it’s just about the part of the country where freezing weather doesn’t happen often enough to scare farmers. Close enough to the Gulf of Mexico to catch a sea breeze, and knock off some of the heat in summer, but that means close enough for hurricanes, too.

 There’s Blue Springs in this area, a place once known as a hang out for the party crowd, but they’ve clean it up nice and respectable, and now it’s more a family place to go. The cut short from Valdosta to the springs wound in and out of fields and down nearly forgotten lanes, but all of that is fenced in now, and GPS will get you there quicker, much quicker, but the journey is more than half the fun.

But now I am in Greenville, where, I am told, is the hometown of Ray Charles, who was born in Albany Georgia, according to the people there. I pull over to check on the puppies, and they are on another leg of their adventure, their last one before they arrive home. I too, take a right turn, and I’m heading back to the house. The ride has been good to me, and idea float around in my mind like so many flashes of lightning, or gnats, depending on how hard I work on them.

Take Care,

Mike

The Good Dirt

It feels good to work with dirt, with soil, and to see material that might have gone to the landfill now returning to the Earth as all things should. Sweat is my salary now, sore muscles my vacation from sloth, and sitting too much to write. My arms ache with the heat of work, hard work, physical exertion that will provide the garden with its food, so it might provide me with mine, and enough to share, I hope. Years ago, I discover there is very little that will cause as much joy as giving away produce that is home grown.

Rain is supposed to come in later in the day, but clouds scud and drift, blocking the sun, providing shade, and I looked up. The photo up top is what I saw, and the picture was taken, stored in my cell phone camera, and I sat down, looking at the photos taken this very day, of fog, dogs, spider webs, of the sun, and clouds. How many generations of humans had no cameras, no way of sharing the wonders they saw except with joyous outbursts of words and facial expressions, and how many people have listened to these descriptions of wonder, and knew they would never see it, but it was enough that the sight made someone else so happy?

Sixty-one years and a few months slow me down now, and I hesitate before returning to my toil. The earth around this area of the world has been tilled before. This was part of the nation where slavery thrived, and enslaved people were worked for generations, doing very much what I am doing now. I wonder, my mind goes back to the days men and women night have, on the very spot I sit, been forced to work long hours, longer years, with no hope of knowing any other life but hard labor. Were there those among these poor people who would look up at the sky, see some marvelous cloud, and were told to get back to their task? Would an enslaved person hope for such a sight, for some rare treat in the day that might offer some beauty in a world devoid of anything resembling anything but misery?

Look back at the last 400 years, at the music composed, the inventions, the works of art, the poem, the books, the wonders humankind have created, and then see the shadow the light of that creation has cast. Those who were enslaved, and those who were descended from slaves, have lived in this shadow. First as kidnapped workers, and then as second-class citizens; Jim Crow and Red Lines, Peonage and Lynching, the light still withheld, the freedom and justice still denied, and it still goes on this very moment.

Yet given rain, and not too much, given warm weather without scorching heat, given luck and some skill with plants, the earth will provide those who farm a bounty, regardless of the color of their skin. Mother Earth will receive a body, if it is allowed to rest in a natural state in the dirt, and from this life will begin anew, such as it always had, and such as it ought to be. Kings and dogs, slaves and statesmen will all turn into soil, accept seeds, and grow whatever is tended, or not.

The wind blows now, the sky grows dark, and I am inside, clean from a hot shower, and writing the words you see before you. I hope you liked my photograph of a branches and sun, and clouds. I hope the photo stirs in you some sense of wonder and beauty. I wish for you to remember not everyone has ever had this, some were denied it, and some still do not have it. It is luck, chance only, that you and I do.

Take Care,

Mike

Fleas for Sale

I went to a flea market today, a rather large one, and went early to avoid the rush. It was cooler than was comfortable, the wind was blowing, and the feeling of being out of place cut deeper than the cold.

The older woman selling honey growled the price out, her tone of voice suggesting anyone who wanted the honey badly enough would somehow discern the price, perhaps telepathically. Dressed for the Artic as she was, perhaps she feared a transaction might somehow weaken her defenses against the soon to arrive blizzard or distract her while a polar bear ambushed us both. Her gray hair was pulled back and stuffed into something that mostly resembled a hat, and her face was crinkled with deep grooves that spoke of poverty and bad choices with men who came into her life like trees falling onto a house. I moved on.

It’s a covered flea market, with a few enclosed shops, but mostly just a roof, with nothing to slow the wind down. Smokers with their cigarettes can be smelled a mile away, and some guy selling cheap tools is talking loud enough to be heard over the smoke.

“They ain’t gonna do it,” his voice rising with the power of his opinion, “I bet they ain’t, com’on, you bet me, they ain’t gonna do it,” and he takes his white cowboy hat off and waves it at imaginary betters in the air. He’s one of those big hat, big belly, big belt buckle men, with a shirt that’s red and white checkered, like someone stole a picnic tablecloth and tortured it with a sewing machine. The tools on the table, still in a package, are lightweight, no steel or iron, and they’ll break during hard work. But this is a man who is putting on a show, advancing on the would be customers like ants at a campground, who brought their own picnic tablecloth. Meanwhile the three guys he’s talking to, slowly back away, not gambling against his info. One of them gets far enough away to turn around and make a break for the next stall, and the other two now have an excuse to follow. Cowboy Hat Man snorts, and looks around for his next audience, but I’m on the move.

I was once good at this, navigating crowds, weaving in and out of people effortlessly, a shadow barely seen or heard or felt, but it’s been too long now. The Plague has sapped me of my invisibility. Stopping, sidestepping, waiting for people to move, my glide is gone, the people moving the wrong way at the wrong time, and collisions nearly occur.  

Another shop is selling confederate flags, but near the back, in plastic packages, not on the wall like they once did. There’s a flag from the old Soviet Union, hammer and sickle, and it’s not being flown either. More cheap tools, but this time power tools, deeply discounted, in case you need a power saw for one project, you’d likely get it. Machetes, two for ten dollars, or five-fifty for one, thin, cheaply processed metal, and you couldn’t hack your way out of your 70’s girlfriend’s pubic hair with that thing.

Used clothes, more clothes, clothes, clothes, clothes for sell, dresses, jeans, shoes, and even hats for sale. The jeans are going for twenty bucks, a green down jacket for twenty-five, and this morning that’s a bargain, and I wonder who owned that jacket, and why they sold it, and how the jacket came to be here.

A teenager, young girl, is sitting in a chair at a small table, not seeing me, not seeing anything at all. She’s the daughter or granddaughter of the shop owner, and if this girl was holding a gun on you it would be your last moment on earth and you would be certain.

Her eyes are boring a hole through the air, through everything there, the people, the used clothes, the treason rag, the flimsy machetes, the parking lot, the hostile honey salesperson, and nothing from the outside world can break through that stare.

I want to sit down next to her, and ask her why the stare. With someone who is a young teen, it could be social media, or it could be she’s trying to figure out why her body and mind are going through what they’re going through. It could be the cold boredom, endless, dirty, smokey, cold boredom, of used retail, cheap clothes off dead people sold to the dying. Or it could be worse, much worse, as she found a hidden camera in her bedroom, and her new stepfather is creepy. Tell her Mom about it? Not tell Mom? Tell social media, tell no one, silence encourages aggression, she already knows that, and that stare is trying to decide if she walks away right now, into the abyss of the world, would it be that much worse than what awaits her in her own home? The stare lazars its way through me, past the greasy food stands, past the shop selling boom boxes, past the used CDs, past the next state and the next country and into deep space, but she will find no help anywhere anymore.

Moving quickly now, the mojo is returning, and I dodge those who are milling around like cattle in a pen, grazing on anything that might be slightly interesting in the cold stockyard of the flea market. It’s time to go, time to get away from this place, and as I leave the old woman with the honey calls out, wanting my money, even though she rather not speak to me again. I pull out, another car pulls in behind me, and someone will buy fleas here today, I think.

Take Care,

Mike

The Would Be Writer

I get a text message that seems all the world to be some sort of scam. A guy saying his name is Mark texts: “I got a great idea for a book but I can’t write good, you wanna help?”

I ignore the text and keep going. The phone rings, the caller is Mark Smith, and I let Robokiller handle it. Mark leaves a message, “Hey boy, call me, I got a great idea for a book. You gonna love this shit.”

Sorry, no.

Then I get a call from a friend who admits she gave Mark my number. Mark is into science fiction and has started trying to write.

Sorry, no. I’m the last person on earth a new writer ought to talk to about beginning writing. They need someone who has been in the education field, not someone who just writes.

“I’ll buy you lunch if you just talk to him, okay?”

Will give writing advice for food.

I call Mark and it takes a good five minutes to get him to shut up long enough to have a conversation. Most of my questions about what he’s done, and how he’s gotten to this point are answered with, “I ain’t worried about that shit, just listen to me.” And then he goes on with the narrative of his story which isn’t at all science fiction.

Mark’s Great American Novel is the story of an CIA spy who has to get into Russia to stop a nuclear bomb from going off that will destroy all life on earth. The Russians have built this device, and are going to set it off in Russian, then blame the Americans. The Russian will then attack the Americans and move into their country and live happily ever after.

Mark sees no plot holes. Of course, he doesn’t know what a plot hole is.

After another five minutes of nonstop jabbering, Mark finally answers two questions I find pertinent; one, how much has he written in regards to this story, two, how much has he written in his lifetime? The answer to both questions is zero. I ask Mark what books he has read. Incredibly, Mark doesn’t read, and he has never written anything. Ever.

He tells me the spy is going to rescue Maren Morris from the Russian and he’s going to get Maren Morris to play Maren Morris in the movie. I have no idea who this person is.

“Write the first chapter,” I tell Mark. “And email it to me. I’ll make some suggestions and we will go from there.”

“I ain’t writing shit, that’s your job, you’re the writer,” Mark says as if it’s a given I’ve bought into this thing. He then goes into the scene where the hero of the story kills one hundred guards using nothing but a broken bottle.

“Is this a cartoon?” I ask.

“What?”

First off, Mark, no one is going to do the writing for you. It’s the hard part. A narrative, no matter how compelling, is the easy part. Everyone has an idea. Ideas are easy. It’s telling the idea that makes it work, or not work, or give the reader the idea that someone has worked hard to make it work.

Mark pauses. For the first time, I think I have actually reached him.

“You ain’t stealing my idea, boy.”

And I hang up, block his number, and call my friend, who swears she had no idea he was that bad. She didn’t actually know him. Mark is a friend of a friend.  

For what it’s worth, I will help anyone, anyone at all, who wants to write. But you have to be a reader, and you have to have tried already. You have to have horrible writing you’ve done before you can say you’ve begun.

Then, you write some more.

Take Care,

Mike

The Unicorn on a Unicycle

Memory, in your brain, in the human brain, isn’t like memory in a computer. I once read we do not store memories at all, but store the scaffolding of it, and rely on external input to fill in the blanks. This doesn’t make sense at all, until you think about the number of times you’ve remembered the words to a song, but only after hearing the song on the radio. You couldn’t have written them down, but now the song is playing, you’re singing along just like you were a very long time ago.

Dreams are worse, in as far as remembering them goes, for they are not reality, sometimes not even based on reality, so there’s nothing there to grab to build on. They are here, somewhere, in your brain, then the dream is gone, and you cannot remember anything but how it made you feel.

I started getting up and writing down my dreams, back in the 1970’s, when I was in high school, and that helped me remember them. As is usual, the effort you’re willing to make to do something will define how well you do it. But most people ignore their dreams, consider them transient things that happen, and afterwards, only a vague unease exists.

Last night a dream began, ended, and as it was gone before any sort of writing could be done, I cast my line into the darkness trying to snag an image or feeling, or anything that night help. A house, in the darkness, lights on, and that was it. I knew who lived in the house, a woman I have not seen, literally, in decades, and right now I’m having trouble remembering anything about her at all. Wait, it’s the house she lived in with her husband and kids, and I want to say I know where the house is, but I cannot.

You would recognize the house where some character on television lived in, the rooms, the kitchen, but you know it’s a set, not a real structure, and in your mind there are places that actually exist but you’ve never seen them in their totality. Ever been in the kitchen of your favorite restaurant? Ever been on the roof? You go home with someone for the first time, you sleep in their bed, and leave the next morning, and if you see that person again, they show you their garden in the backyard, and it’s a surprise to see the rest of their living space, just as it was a surprise to see their body for the first time. Interesting tattoo you have there, why did you get a unicorn riding a unicycle?

But then the person is gone. This person you were once joined at the hips with has eased out of your life, and you’ve eased away from the backyard and bedroom, and now you are a memory, and so is that person. There was a fight over money or infidelity, or there was nothing there but heat to begin with. Or you were unable to keep from being weird. That happens.

Now, years later, something sets off the scaffolding and the memory is recreated, flawed and patchy, holes in the details which your mind dutifully fills in, and destroys the memory in doing so, but you still, even if you know this as a fact, accept the memory as whole.

We cling to the scaffolding of memory, not the memory itself. The memory doesn’t exist, it never has, and it never will. We accept this, unconsciously, subconsciously, for it is all we have ever known, literally. Dreams lack this, so we allow them to pass into the ether, and even though I suspect the two are closely related, we will declare one a crop, and the other a weed.

The house, the woman of decades ago, the memory of the past is an illusion created in my mind, and after I am done writing this, soon now, it will recede again, a coin flashing and reflecting as it sinks deeper and deeper, until forgotten.

Take Care,

Mike

Digging the Dimetrodon

Back in the 60’s when I was a little kid, one of my favorite toys was a white plastic Dimetrodon dinosaur toy. I wanted to be a paleontologist when I grew up and I would be the one who dug up thousands of new dinosaurs, never seen before, and eventually, find one that was taller than buildings and bigger than mountains.

One day, I took my white plastic Dimetrodon, and using a small shovel I buried it in our sandbox, past where the sand ended, and I used the shovel as a measuring tool to mark where it was. The dinosaur was buried a shovel head away from the southeast corner. I decided not to look for it for an entire week, which was extremely difficult, and to make matters worse, a week later I was kidnapped by my parents and we spent an entire weekend at my grandmother’s house.

 It was still raining when we returned, so it was almost two weeks before I could dig again. I couldn’t find it. It was too cold to be allowed to stay outside very long, and eventually, my mind turned to the possibility that my Dimetrodon had been poached by some kid in the neighborhood who might have seen me bury it.

            Mike Church was an older kid with a mean streak. When I asked him if he had seen my Dimetrodon, he claimed a dog had dug it up, brought it to him, and he had thrown it away because it had been mauled so terribly. Now, this was a small neighborhood, and the idea of some random stray dog arriving to dig at a certain spot at a certain time was totally ludicrous. Yet we were children, and fantastic stories were more fun to believe than the truth. Mike and I actually went out hunting for the dog, and this was really strange because I suspected his story after the description of the dog shifted a few times.

            Then there was another possibility, one far more sinister, in that my father could have thrown the Dimetrodon away. My earliest memories of my father were of him pushing me to grow up faster. I was supposed to be able to figure out models and puzzles meant for much older kids, and “That’s for babies” was what I heard more often than not when I wanted something. Some of my favorite toys went missing for no good reason, and more than once I rescued one from the trash can when no one was watching. Oddly, my father kept throwing things away as an adult. Anything he didn’t like he would toss it and simply not tell anyone he threw it away. It was an odd form of control to exert over people.

            Eventually, I assumed the dimetrodon was extinct. The world was harsh and cruel, I knew that, and forces beyond my control were at work to create misery. Kids pretended to be your friend to steal from you, and your parents weren’t to be trusted with your toys or innocence.

            One day, maybe two or three years later, I remembered the dimetrodon, and decided to dig for it, one last time. Using my hands, I dig into the soft sand, now in the corner of a flowerbed planted where little kids once played. There was a flash of white plastic and I stopped digging. No. It was not possible. Frantically, I dug down, and saw the tail, a leg, the back fin, and finally pulled the dimetrodon from the earth.

            But it had shrank. It was smaller than I remembered. Once, my index finger fit inside its mouth, and now it did not. The once large toy I treasured was much smaller. In its smallness, I felt diminished, as if for my abandoning the creature had somehow led to it becoming less than it had been. The idea that I had grown larger never occurred to me. But my world was changing, swirling away like water out of a drain. My family was falling apart. My parents’ marriage was failing. My grades in school were dropping. As now, as if it were a sign from the Gods, a lost dinosaur had been found, much less the being he once was.

Take Care,

Mike

The Pencil

It’s been two decades, now two decades and two years, since I found the pencil. Sounds odd, doesn’t it? I was working on a bridge project in Valdosta, where the two bridges and the field office were close to the State Prison. What roguery men committed to be enclosed in such a place, I cannot say, but I never looked upon those shining spirals of razor wire on those fences without wondering how it is that a man could find his way there, and how other men could find a way to keep him.

There was a set of scales, like you’d see at a farm, or a woodyard, where a truck would pull up to be weighed, and perhaps at one point I knew what they were for, but I have since forgotten. The scale house was an old trailer, falling apart and in ruins, but I pried the door open one day at lunch and looked around.

There was a soft drink bottle on the floor and a trash can with paper in it. All manner of evidence of the office not being used, the smell of urine, recent signs that rodents had taken over, and there on the floor, was a pencil.

Once upon a time, if you used a pencil, and everyone did, the instrument had to be a No. 2 pencil, and that had something to do with the darkness of the graphite that was the part which wound up on the paper. Most people referred to it as “lead” but it never was. This pencil was rather old, having survived many trips to the pencil sharpener, and I wondered why, at the point of its life it had ceased to be possessed by a particular person, it had been left lying on the floor.

It was a big deal, when I was a kid, that everyone had a pencil every day of their lives at school. The worst crime, and all crimes were the worse crimes, was not to have a pencil. We were led to believe we might have a job one day, go to work without a pencil, and be fired for it. True enough, I once worked with a manager who despised anyone who was not, at any given moment, in possession of an ink pen, but for some reason, the world kept spinning and the work was done, and no one, ever, was fired.

I kept the pencil, pondered its existence, and wondered what it had been used for, by who, and when. Had some great work of literature been sweated and scrawled into being by this very instrument? Had a love poem been written during lunch to the object of some man’s affection? Did someone write the letter to their wife or husband, explaining why things had gone wrong, and nothing could fix it ever, and this was the end?

Or, more likely, had this been the tool used to mark official forms, with its No. 2 darkness, date, time, load number, weight, tare, and truck number? Its future sealed in wood, the tiny rubber eraser nubbed at times, day in and day out, like the man, or men, who used it, and then one day, the office closed for the last time, and the pencil lay on the floor, abandoned and forgotten.

How many pencils have I owned? In grade school, middle school, and into high school, dozens perhaps, each one of them gone, forgotten, lost, broke, stolen, loaned, given away, but nevertheless unaccounted for. Perhaps, incredibly unlikely, this pencil was one of those I released into the wild, only to be found accidently, unrecognized, like a chance meeting of the same stranger, twice.

I took the pencil, put it in a plastic water bottle, then sealed the cap with glue. The contractor didn’t notice me digging a hole at the bottom of the form and the next day they poured a footer for the bridge, and underneath that, the pencil lies waiting to be discovered again. It’s damn unlikely, I know, that one day someone will find an old plastic bottle, with an even older writing tool in it, and they’ll wonder, much as I have, why and how, and when, and who.

But it is entirely human, for memory to kick to the surface, the image of that time and place, and that pencil, and it is entirely human for me to write about it now, and you to read it. The prison is filled with men who might be freed if the right words are read, or written, and we must understand the power of this. Yet for all the men, and all the pencils, this is the most likely outcome, memories, laid to letters to be read, and perhaps, found again one day.

Take Care,

Mike

Alcohol or the Desert

Alcohol is heaven, no, not heaven, maybe haven, somewhere the sound ceases, or at least is muted. The mesh in the sifter is larger, more permeable, so there’s less to appraise, less that has true depth. The vacation to the lizard brain means the lights are dimmed, no white hot glare of the bare desert full of demons and dreams.  There’s a reason for bars, and there’s a reason most of those places are dimly lit.

The reptilian brain seeks only feeding, fighting, fleeing, and fucking, the four F’s, and a bar will allow you any of the four, in any combination you choose, or is chosen for you. Ride the anesthesia of loud music, strangers, and the drug of choice in its various forms. Fun, funny, serious, or sexy names for whatever precent of the drug, or what’s mixed with it, and it will get you from Point A to wherever you decide to stop, or wherever is decided for you.

The morning after. There’s still fog, still haze, and maybe a stranger you regret, or a stranger with promise, and maybe you are the regretted stranger, or a promise of sorts. Time to flee, one or the other of you, numbers exchanged, and hopefully nothing else in the dark, that might need medical attention.

There’s absolutely no difference between this, and a Sunday church service, and your chances of finding someone looking for sex are about the same.

Sooner or later, you have to go back into the desert.

No, really, you don’t. Seriously, you can very easily spend your entire life anywhere else but. Unless, of course, you know you belong there. There’s a blank canvas, or a blank page, or a shapeless lump of clay, or a camera staring at you from inside its bag.

It’s a hard scrabble, cracked white gypsum desert. Flat and devoid of even so much as a tough weed, the sun is always directly overhead and perpetually oven hot, without the slightest trace of a breeze. Moisture is sucked out of your skin faster than you can think of water, and there’s no relief from the blast of radiation from the sun. An environment not meant for the weak, meek, or those who retreat.

There’s nothing here. Not a single sound or sight or smell or sensation that doesn’t drive you to leave. You can go into the kitchen and get a snack, or a glass of wine. There’s new social media on your phone. Stay and you have to create something, made of nothing and of sweat, pain, suffering, and time. It’s tedious and repetitive. Your vision blurs and boredom with the process can distract. Crafting with words in this climate is putting melting ice beads on a hot metal string without gloves. The wind in the desert is deafening. Nothing else can be heard, nothing else can be felt, and nothing else exists.

The work done here is parsimonious. It’s panning for pieces of metal whose worth cannot be gauged until the end. There is no surety in hard work except nothing else will produce worth. Second seem like hours, yet when a vein is struck the hours seems like moments that pass without time. It’s trying to mount an invisible steed made of sentences and discomfort.

Words become sentences, which have to be woven into paragraphs, and the thread is wane, weak, sticky, and ethereal. The fiber from which they are created comes from one thing, then another, memories, books, oh my dog, more books, and books, then moments with people long gone, in one way or another, or people who just appeared, and for some reason, there’s a push, a lift, some sort of peculiar catalyst that requires nothing but a thought, or a question, or a presence.  

Suddenly, you step away. What have you to show for this time in the desert? What is it, and what will you do with it, what can you do with it, and more importantly, will anyone else give a fuck?

It doesn’t matter, does it?

You save it, don’t save it, put it away to edit later, or not, none of this matter, because regardless of what it is, or how good it might be, you know you’ll go back, and do it again. It’s not the product, but the process. It’s being there, within, deep inside, feeling the heat, embracing the nothingness and daring to bring forth anything at all, and not hoping for the best, but working for it.

Take Care,

Mike