The Plagues of Egypt

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She watched through the window as he got out of the tractor and crossed the yard. He came into the kitchen, catching the screen door before it banged shut.

“Lord, that new Deere is nice.”

“You keep saying that. I just hope we can keep up the payments. You want coffee?”

“Sure.” He took the cup from her. “Don’t worry about the payments. The wheat should be ready for the combines in three weeks. This could be a record crop. Weather’s been perfect.”

“Except for the tornado that took the barn and machine shed, you mean.”

He looked at her, sipped his coffee. “You’re not starting that again.”

“Well, it makes sense is all. I punished the boy, he said we’d be sorry and then the tornado. And don’t forget the lighting striking the windmill after you yelled at him about the milking.”

“He’s just a boy. Taking him in was the Christian thing to do. Anyone would be strange,  losing his parents like that.”

“The way he looks at us. And the animals stay away from him. I don’t like it.”

“I saw you gave him the Bible.”

She nodded. “He was real interested in it. Asked me questions about the Plagues of Egypt. He’s up in his room studying it now.”

The farmer walked out onto the porch. He noticed the clouds of dots descending on wheat fields.  They made a low hum, billowed like smoke.

“What the hell?” he said as the grasshopper landed on his wrist.

 

For Sunday Photo Fiction

Reblog: Guest Post

Kurt Brindley is nice enough to read and review my novel, so I contributed a guest post to his blog.

OR SO YOU SAY – A Guest Author Post by J Hardy Carroll

It is my pleasure, privilege, and honor to present to you a whirlwind of wisdom and intrigue from the author of HAWSER, our IABS&R Volume 3 selection.


Or So You Say
by J Hardy Carroll

Tell me the truth, now.

You always dreamed of being a writer. Doesn’t matter whether your dream took the shape of Erica Jong in a penthouse sipping Moet while talking into a Dictaphone or Hemingway slouched over a café crème wearing down a stub pencil in a composition notebook.

Your dream isn’t of fame, of wealth or even of the admiration of your fellows.

No. Your dream is much simpler.

Your dream is to be paid for your unadulterated idea.

It is a strong dream, a storyteller’s dream, but it is a dream fraught with questions.

Who are you to tell a story?

What makes your idea worth anyone’s time?

How in God’s name can you call yourself a writer?

You know the facts. Writing badly is easy. It just comes. You’re so pleased with it. You are proud. Until you forget.

You forget that writing well is ridiculously hard, a series of tasks, many unrewarding and some downright unpleasant. Self-delusion lurks in every dark corner and all your worst tendencies get laid out naked on the slab in public view. Your clever clichés and trite situations and penchant to lecture form a kind of cesspool though which you wade, dragging for a story as though it was the body of a murder victim.

My, how you do go on.

But tell me the truth.

Secretly, you think you’re great. Admit it.

Well, maybe not great. Not yet. But good. Good enough to get published, anyway. Except for the fact that there aren’t any publishers these days willing to take a chance on somebody without an MFA from Iowa or Emerson or Columbia.

Or maybe it’s this: maybe you’re not so great. Maybe you are only great at lying to yourself.

So start another story. Maybe this time it will turn out better. Maybe this one will actually be something you can open in six months and read with a degree of pleasure or even pride.

Did you read that piece on Andre Dubus, about how he would take a year to write a single story, how he would trim 150 pages down to twenty, how one perfect sentence followed another?

Did you read about how Jack London pawned his bicycle for postage to send out his manuscripts only to have them come back months later with form rejection notices tucked inside the self-addressed stamped envelope?

Did you read about Annie Proulx writing cookbooks?

By the way, who in hell do you think you are?

You didn’t finish college. Your father was a professor who taught Chaucer and Beowulf and who never wrote anything down. You dedicated your first novel to him but he died before he got a chance to read it. In his life he finished only one short story, the one about his father called My Father’s Dreams that you read when you were in high school, the one that made you cry and wonder why your dad didn’t write more.

Or at all. Your dad could talk an acorn into an oak, but he never could finish anything. How many stories did he start and never finish?

Is this about him? Is that all there is to the dream? No? What, then?

Don’t give me that shit about how when you first read Faulkner, hacked your way though the twisted vines of his prose only to find yourself lost in a thicket, befuddled and a little angry, how you went back and started again, trying hard to not be bored, trying hard to be smart, trying not to give up and re-read that Trevanian book instead.

Don’t give me that shit about Faulkner being hard because there was that afternoon when you realized what the story was about, when you saw that the pattern of random rocks in the road was a secret code of musical notes scoring a symphony that only grew in richness over the span of years.

Don’t give me that shit about Vonnegut, either, about how you read Breakfast of Champions at the age of sixteen when you were so depressed you wanted to kill yourself. Don’t tell me that reading that book made you decide to go to the hospital instead of jumping off the parking structure of the Pioneer Hotel. The part where you were going to be polite and wrap yourself in garbage bags so as not to make too much of a mess is pretty funny—irony—but I still don’t want to hear it.

You know what? I don’t care. I don’t care what makes you want to do this thing. I am not interested in your ambitions to have people read your work. People read your work all the time, read it and like it.

I’m not interested in your quest for a perfection you will never achieve, not interested in your heroes or even your opinions on truth, war, love, loss, fatherhood, death or any of it.

So what, then? What interests me?

I’ll tell you.

It’s the act of writing. Writing every day, writing something. Think of the hummingbird. Think of the shark. Think of the way your heart is beating away in your chest at this very moment. No rest. Ever onward.

Don’t give me your reasons. Don’t give me anything. Don’t think about it. Don’t think at all.

Empty yourself out and get to it. You can think about it later.

And by God, you probably will, too.


Hawser

hawescapes.com

What To Forgive

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This beauty. Her beauty, the beauty of the night, of Barcelona in May.

He ran his finger along the rim of the wine glass until it began to chime.

“My father will not be moved. I am sorry.”

Her eyes glistened, but he saw no tears.

Another time he would have said this was because of her bravery, but he now knew the truth.

She did not love him.

“He is Catalan, as you know. Memories run deep with us. He does not forgive.”

“Do you, Rosa?” surprised he was speaking at all.

“What to forgive? Of you? Of anyone?”

 

Shame

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Shame did not come when fat Tony pressed the greasy envelope into my lap beneath the pub table. Fat Tony smiled, nodded and got up to go, winked as he left.

Brisbee thumped my shoulder then.

“Popped your cherry, you have. Let’s have another round.” Bris motioned for the whiskey. I suppose I drank, caught up in the moment.

Nor had there been shame in the blur of my room when I counted the bills, more than I would make were I to give Sultan his head and let him win by the hundred or so yards I knew him capable of.

In the gray haze of morning my head thumped from the drinking and lack of sleep, but I could take no coffee until after the race. A single cup of coffee might add a pound or more, especially when my tissues were absorbent from last night’s liquor.

Shame came only as I approached the stables. Sultan’s eyes brought it, the shame of what I would do, what I was doing. I might explain it to myself, say it was only one race, only money.

Sultan would only know what I did. He would never know why. He would never care.

The shame would be his.

 

Sunday Photo Fiction

Überhaus Diary: Sushi Date

From May 1999. Dating in a nutshell.

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sushi date

I watch  Masa slice the fish
draw his knife quick
along the gleaming belly

it seems to move itself

as I float forever
on your voice
the soft curve of your lips
cradling words

full of recent events
devoid of meaning

God you are beautiful

your eyes, way across the table
speak volumes of perhaps

my most supple wish
might not  bend so easily

You are dainty

choosing any
exquisite piece

elegant fingers
dancing  in the air
a graceful semaphore

spelling out
in secret language

what I wish to believe
is never true

I watch your wrists
as you rend

the cleaved chopsticks
into a pair of daggers

my heart winces in anticipation
Death might be the least of it

We agree
sushi is good for us
odd, then

we would deign to eat it

Tuesday, September 11th

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It was Jill’s idea. She lives downstairs in our building, a city kid like me. She said she was a real Harriet the Spy.  I never read it,  so I’ll take her word. I like books about war.

Last night there was a building party and all the kids went to Mrs. Massey’s on the fifth floor. Jill and I were the oldest by a long ways. Most of the kids still ate their boogers and a few were in diapers. Jill and I went into The Late Mr. Massey’s study and sat down in front of his big RCA console to watch the Movie of the Week, The French Connection.  

It was about this cop named Popeye who goes crazy trying to catch this one drug dealer. There’s a scene where they’re on the subway and the dealer gets on and off the car, Popeye trying to keep up. It’s real exciting. One steps in, the other follows, then he steps out. The dealer steps in just as the doors close and Popeye is locked out.  The train leaves and Popeye runs down the platform. The dealer waves at him.

Jill said that we should try it the next day before school, go down to the 59th Street station  at rush hour. I could be Popeye. It was the first day of school, so we could be late.

She got on just as the doors closed. She waved, like the guy in the movie.

Only we didn’t know it was an express to the World Trade Center station. No stops. I  bet she can’t get back here until after 9:30 at the earliest.

 

Protocol

Friday Fictoneers for this week is a tough one. I stood staring at the picture of the Keck Observatory for a long time.

keck

The colonel’s blotchy face turned  salt white as he watched the screen.

“Jesus,” he whispered. “Are you sure this is real?”

“Absolutely certain, Colonel. We wouldn’t have enacted the protocol if we weren’t. Both of the telescopes have been tracking it for months. Last night we were able to confirm it.”

“Jesus,” said the colonel again.

“I don’t mean to pry, Colonel, but what now? The protocol only specifies that upon confirmation we notify your office. After that—”

“After that is classified, Doctor.” His jaw was hard, but the eyes looked mealy, soft with ensuing panic. “You can trust your government.’

 

This Isn’t Just Turbulence

Sunday Photo Fiction.
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“This isn’t just turbulence.”

As she said this, the plane shuddered as though struck, jolted sharply upward.

Her Bloody Mary shot from its plastic cup and drenched my shirt and lap.

She closed her eyes and began to scream.

The plane shook with sudden violence, then settled into a rattling vibration as it began its dive.

I focused on my SkyMall magazine, which had miraculously avoided wetting.

Miracles happen.

The page lay open to a photo of a pewter dragon ornament.

In red ballpoint, some past traveler of this discount airline had scrawled

WTF??

The engines’ rumble grew to a howl, the roar melding with the screams of the passengers to make a single enormous noise.

The woman next to me sobbed and clawed at the seat ahead of her.

The oxygen masks dropped, flimsy plastic cups like those used for margarine attached to thin nylon tubes.

The masks flopped in our faces.

I grabbed mine and inhaled deeply, remembering a scene in some movie where a character had noted that oxygen gets you high.

I looked back to the pewter dragon.

He seemed to be saying something.

I am the last thing you will ever read.

I scanned the panicked passengers around me, probed their faces for some sign of familiarity.

I did not want to die among strangers.

 

Read the other stories here.

Überhaus Diary: Tsuru no Sugomori

One night I walked from my apartment up to Portland’s tiny Japan Town and witnessed two old men sitting in a vast room playing go, a young man watching from the doorway. I went home and wrote this piece. It is typical of the sort of things I was writing at the time, fragments of larger stories never written.

 

Old Men Playing Go

October 15, 1998

The Boy ran until it seemed his heart would shake itself free from his ribcage, cheap sneakers slapping the wet sidewalk, echoing off the alley walls, eyes wide and panicked, an animal’s eyes. The odors were in themselves a torture: garlic and oil in a hot wok, rich stocks on back burners throwing bellows of thick steam, wheaten buns warm from fresh baking. His shrunken stomach registered these when his mind did not. His mind was occupied with the immediate problem of escape and survival.

That morning he watched the old man playing Go with a Master who was visiting from Hokkaido, a suited, silent  man who indicated his wishes with glances and intimation. Tea was served, and after some small ceremony the game board brought out. The Go Ke in their carved ivory box was retrieved from the padded chest.

The old man and the Master knelt faced one another,  dry fingers aloft, cradling the first stone as a violinist will hold his bow, the artless ease won from years of practice. When the stones were placed the  board sounded like strokes on a drum, each note ringing clean in the still room.

The Boy watched, daring no breath lest he alter the inexorable flow of the match.

As the middle game opened and opportunities diminished, it became clear that the Master would lose, although his loss would be beautiful,with many brilliant moments. It was a game so profound and true it should have been recorded by a scribe for future generations to study, although of course it was not recorded. The Boy watched wide-eyed as the inevitable drew closer and finally descended. Tsuru no Sugomori .

The old man was the winner, though the Boy felt he had shared the victory. It was as if a beautiful and full life had been painted before him on a living canvas; the totality and poetry of it lingered in the air as the scent of blossoms will hang about an arbor in spring.

But that was this morning. Now, because of the money, the Boy was dead. There was no place he could run where he would not be found, no one who would risk the total annihilation which aiding him would bring.

The Boy ran on, his strength ebbing.

My Kind of Alcoholic : Friday Fictioneers

A dramatic image from Rochelle this morning begets a less dramatic story.

fire-roger-bultot

 

“Ask you another question?”

“As long as you’re buying.”

He motioned for two more shots. They came and we toasted.

“What’s the deal when you guys leave the fire truck in the street? No sirens, just the lights rolling.”

I sipped my beer. “Well, lots of folks die at home. Drunks, mostly. They tend die in their bathrooms. The EMTs call us to help extract them. It’s procedure.”

I did not mention that very morning.  Ferguson and I  had pried a two-day stiff out from where he had fallen, wedged in beside the toilet.

“This is how you’ll go, Ed,” Ferg had told me.