Another Saturday Morning

When we woke up the morning, Teri and I sat in the living room and leisurely sipped our coffees while watching the day slowly come alive. A little mini vacation, as it were, after a very hectic week. Trevor had a friend stay over, so he was happily out of our hair.

While we sat I told her the story of Rob Tepper meeting President Clinton (if you know Rob, you need to get the story from him.  I’m sure my retelling doesn’t do the story justice. Its one of those stories that is probably better over a beer). This in turn reminded Teri of the dream she had last night that included a recycling festival on our block (complete with kids throwing candy on the front lawns), and President Obama sticking his head in our kitchen window, and talking with us while I made him pancakes. Because of time constraints, The Leader of the Free World had to suffer through my Bisquick pancakes, and not Teri’s Whole Wheat Buttermilk Pancakes, which irked Teri to no end. He seemed to suffer no ill effects, she reports.

This is quite possibly the best part of being married. Leisurely mornings where you sit with your spouse and catch up on the events that you missed over the previous week. A lovely moment of calm before the storm of breakfast, and dishes, and shopping, and a day full of stuff you need to do NOW because you don’t have the time to get to it over the week.

So how was your morning? Any good dreams you’d like to share?

Driving back

I just spent a long weekend in Yosemite with family. Mostly it was lovely, but it was also work as my parents were wrapping up the sale of their B&B. We hauled away heavy stuff, went through boxes of papers and camping gear, and looked over a lot of old photos.

My mother made a habit of keeping things we sent her, especially in our youth. Over the weekend she was kind enough to hand them back now that we’re adults. These were not always the happy things one normally associates with their parent’s keeping. For instance, mixed in with the first paid magazine article I wrote (and immediately sent to her) was a note from way back when I was a born-again that is filled to the brim with Christianese. This is a part of my past I am not always fully comfortable with, but curiously she kept a memento from then any way.

But I bring this up because I think this is a great idea. Most parents keep mementos of their children. But even better, I think its a good idea to keep them, and then hand them back to your children when they are old enough to have children of their own. Certainly it better to receive these things from your parents hand, rather than after a funeral. That way you both have time to reflect over them, the good and the bad.

IMG_1550One the way home I took this shot while driving south on Highway 41 near Fresno. You can see the hammerheads forming over the Sierras, which means its warm and moist in the valley. The clouds look small in the photo but each one of them is the size of a large town. These kinds of clouds are common in the Sumer, but not nearly so much in the early Spring. Also we saw yellow daffodils in bloom at my parent’s place, which is some 6200 feet in elevation. This time of year the Sierra’s are usually still packed with snow. This year I didn’t see any snow, not even in the shady parts of the road. And flowers this early, especially that high up, are very rare.

I don’t know what all of this means, except it was a lovely way to say goodbye.

 

The Thing About Flying

This is what you have taped
to your mirror:

There are only two things
to flying:
Sticking out your wings
and leaping.

And when you look at yourself in the mirror,
you see your strong wings,
such excellent feathers,
pinions, hanging low,
soft fluffy down underneath.

And you know you were made
for flying.

This is what you tell yourself,
what everyone tells you,
and so it must be true.

So you climb your hill,
be it a long desired dream
or perhaps a new career.

You stretch out your wings,
and you jump.

Only.
Only, the wind shifts or
the air turns cold.
Something.
Because in very short time
you come crashing down.

But.
You get up.
You dust yourself off,
and you climb that mountain,
again.
And you jump off it.
Again.

With each crash you get up,
each disappointment
a new scar,
a new lesson,
a new path to try.

And before long,
you’ve worn a path
up that hill.
And your beautiful feathers
have gotten dirty and torn.

And on the day,
you reach the top.
And you stand poised,
ready to leap,
but are too afraid to try.

I will tell you,
on that day,

You looked to your wings,
and said you were made
for flying,
But I also noticed your
feet,
and your excellent legs,
and while everyone else said
you were made for flying,
I said,
you were made
for climbing mountains.

Just look at those feet.
Just look.

 

–ERK
8/15/2013

My Book of Ideas

Way back in 2003 I bought a little note book. On the cover I scribbled “Eric’s Book of Ideas.” It wasn’t my first notebook. I’ve had several, most of which are stuffed filled of poems, songs, sketches, and whatnot. In a way, these notebooks work like crumbs to mark the trail of my emotional journey as I slowly worked out how to be a man and deal with the outsized set of emotions with which I was born. To say a lot of the writing is tedious and overwrought would be fair. They are. It is. Perhaps you had a better way getting to where you are, but I didn’t. In some ways I still don’t.

But that being said, I hardly write poetry any more. I haven’t really since I met Teri. Its as if poetry was some strange language I spoke only when I was single, and when I settled down I somehow lost the ability. I find this idea fascinating, and wonder if you, dear reader, have also had a similar transformation. Have you? I can assure you, mine was not intended, it just happened. Moreover, I am all the better for it. At least the marriage part. The poetry, I’m not so sure. Even now, when I look back over it, I find my poems tedious and overwrought. I can’t imagine you would experience them differently.

In any event, I mention this because I pulled out this particular notebook the other night, and read through it, cover to cover. Over the course of its use (I’ve since switched to using my iPhone, and thus do not write in notebooks anymore) I went through a lot of changes. Trevor grew up. I grew into appreciating fatherhood. (believe me, I wasn’t so sure at first, even though it was my own idea) I took a screenwriting course at the local college, and I switched back to writing fiction. All of these transformations are marked in these pages. Not by the words directly, you’d have to know the transformations were there to see them, but echoes of these changes are clearly imprinted in the words.

As a diary of sorts, it makes for fun reading. Its good, I think, to be occasionally reminded from whence you came. But as a journal it is extremely lacking. There’s no direct connection to any part of the real world. With the exception of a single note, which remarks that Trevor turned 20 months old on that particular day, there is almost no connection to my day-to-day life. Its as if a drunk monk went over your life, randomly picking things important only to him, and somehow used this as the basis of your biography.

So I suck at my own history. Sue me.

But I did find, on this recent excavation, a few ideas worth mentioning here. One was a story idea called “I Know Americans” which I jotted down in 2003. To my knowledge, this is the only story I’ve thought of that takes place in an advertising agency. Considering I’ve spent the better part of 24 years in one ad agency or another, I find the absence funny.  This story I have already started, and hope to finish soon. No promises yet on when it will come out because I think it’ll be good enough to send out for publishing. You can be sure, though, that I’ll post here on its progress. Its a fun one, and I think my peeps who have had been stuck sweating with me in the advertising mines will appreciate its scope and ideas.

The other thing from my notebook I find worthy of your attention is a poem. This one is a rare poem I wrote it in 2013, well into my marriage. It is also less about my own emotional mess (or my fears of being single forever, and ever, and ever, and ever) and more about helping others. I guess marriage has been good for me. I’ll post it tomorrow. Look for it then.

In the mean time, if you have something to share from your notebooks, or whatever method you use to measure your progress, feel free to share it here or on Facebook. I love to see how other people work out their shit. If for no other reason than to feel like I’m not the only one.

The Sound of Pieces

As promised here is a new story, one I started way back in February of last year. This one is neither sci-fi or fantasy, but pretty much straight-up fiction, and it features a teacher as a the protagonist, because I think teachers are awesome. Mind you, she’s not necessarily a “nice” teacher, but I think you’ll agree she’s a pretty good person, at least by the end.

My working title for they story was Balance, but I never cottoned to that name much. I settled on The Sound of Pieces (you’ll have to read the story to see why), but I’m not sure if its any better. If you think you might have a better idea for a title, go ahead and post it. 

This story is just shy of 5900 words. Call it about 20 minutes of your time, depending on how fast you read. And every time I read it, it still makes me cry, although you might never guess where.

And with that, I leave you to the story.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

I knew my day was gonna be bad when the coffee machine spit out hot water. Damn. In my usual morning fog I had forgotten to add the grounds. Worst still, I had wasted the last filter in the box.

We have extra coffee filters buried somewhere in the cupboard over the refrigerator. I looked at the clock and saw I had a few minutes to spare before I got in the shower, so I unfolded the stupid step ladder that shakes whenever I stand on it, and started digging through the piles of junk.

I mean, how many half-empty bags of coffee beans does one couple need? Really?

That’s when I found the bill. It was tucked into the corner, next to the liquor bottles covered in dust and cat hair. It was a doctor’s bill. $463.00. From a surgeon I never heard of. Not a lot of money, but still more than we had.

And it was due in three days.

I don’t know why he hides them. Henry swears he’s getting better, and to give the devil his due he does faithfully attend his court ordered D.A. meetings, but each promise just piles up, one on top of another, until they start to feel like a lead weight crushing my lungs and pushing me deeper into the ground.

I steadied myself against the cupboard door, and practiced my deep breathing. Dust from the top of the refrigerator made grey lines in my pajamas. I did what my therapist Carly says will help; I counted backwards from 100, I envisioned Henry a better man, I looked hard for the bright side. None of these things made me feel smart or strong. They just make me mad.

Just once I’d like to not feel mad. Just once I’d like to wake up and not wonder if today is the day I should divorce my husband. Is that too much to ask?

Then I went to school and things got worse.

I was ten minutes late walking into the staff room. Some stupid lady in line at the coffee shop kept changing her order over and over, and when I finally got to the counter the only Americano available was hazelnut. I mean, who in the hell drinks hazelnut coffee?

And then running late to the meeting, I passed Billy in the hallway. “Hello Mrs. Caplestock. Good morning, good morning, good morning,” he said in his sing-songy voice. Like he does, each and every morning, without fail.

I stopped to reply to him like I always do, “It’s Ms. Rodriquez, Billy,” I said, emphasizing the “Ms.” part strongly, like I was taught in school. “Ms. Rodriquez. Not Mrs. Caplestock.”

“Oh,” he said, his face switching from a smile to a frown, like I had just kicked his favorite puppy. Then his smile suddenly came back. “Did I say good morning to you yet, Mrs. Rodriquez? Good morning, good morning, good morning.”

“Good morning, Billy,” I mumbled as I hurried past.

By the time I got to the staff room, the Ice Queen, which is what everyone calls Principal Mendoza, was going over the schedule. She gave me the stink eye as I crept into my seat near the back. A small piece of paper was sitting face down on the desk in front of my chair. As I turned it over I saw Hillary give Jennifer a significant glance. They were the other two forth grade teachers at Grace Boulevard Elementary, and from their conspiratorial smiles, I knew they had looked at the note already.

“See me after Staff,” it read in a huge flowing script. It was signed “Theresa Condolez, Vice-Principal.” As if I needed help remembering her job title. Theresa was a large woman with large hair, large handwriting, and even larger feelings. She was always talking about her feelings and how everybody must feel. She also sucked up to the Ice Queen so hard that Hillary and Jennifer joked that they were connected nose to ass.

The note was a bit of good news. It looks like someone had finally read my complaint. I smiled, knowing it would cause Hillary and Jennifer to wonder. It did.

After the meeting, in which Mendoza described tardiness as unprofessional at least three times, I grabbed my things, and followed Theresa to her office. On the way out Hillary shot me a questioning glance, but I shook my head. I’d see her at prep after third period. She could hold her curiosity until then.

When I got there, I was kept waiting in the outer office while Theresa took care of some minor things. When she called me in I could see my report sitting on her desk, opened to the second page.

“You wanted to talk about my report?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said sitting down. “But first I wanted to ask how you feel?”

“How I feel?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“About what?”

“About teaching here,” she said with a smug smile.

Holy shit!  I thought. About teaching here? That was not good. “Um, fine,” I lied.

“Just fine?” she asked. Her big fat eyes were looking back at me with an emotion I couldn’t read. Pity?

“Fine,” I said.

“Okay,” she said looking down at my report. “I see you have turned in a complaint about William Maxwell.”

“Who?” I said. I’d never heard that name before.

“Billy. The janitor.”

“Oh yeah.”

“It says here that you have problems with him, ‘walking down the hall,’” she said, reading off of my report.

Trust Theresa to take something simple, and screw it up. “Not his walking,” I said. “Its when he pushes his trash can thingy. You know, the round one with all the cleaning stuff hanging off it? That one.”

“Yes.”

“He makes too much noise. Rolling it down the hall after lunch. It disrupts the class. Makes the kids jumpy. I’ve told you this before.”

“Yes,” she said, looking up from the report. “Did you try closing the door, like I suggested?” she asked with an innocent smile. “After all, that would solve the problem wouldn’t it?”

“Did you fix the air conditioner in my room?” I asked with a similar smile. It was an old complaint. We were near the end of the hottest April on record, and my classroom had had no working AC since September. The only way to keep the room from getting so warm that the kids fell asleep was to open the outside windows and the door to the hall.

“No,” she said. Smile gone.

She glanced at the report, reading it for a few more seconds. “And I see here you’re complaining about your name,” she said.

“Not my name,” I corrected. “The name he calls me. Mrs. Caplestock.”

“Oh yes,” Theresa said with a warm smile.

Before I took this job at Grace Boulevard Elementary, there used to be a teacher here named Mrs. Caplestock. From the way everybody gushed about her, she must have been the best forth grade teacher in the entire universe. Ever. Somehow I got stuck with her classroom, and almost every day someone used her name in my hearing. “Mrs. Caplestock used to have the best library,” or “Did you look in the right hand drawer? That’s where Mrs. Caplestock put them,” or “She used to sing so well. Can you sing like Mrs. Caplestock?” Being compared to a woman long retired was galling enough, but when the retarded–sorry, mentally handicapped–janitor starting calling me by her name, it was too much.

“You know,” Theresa said, breaking my reverie, “this is going to sound strange, but you do favor her some.”

“So I’ve been told,” I said trying to keep my tone pleasant. About a thousand times, I wanted to add, but didn’t. Here’s a hint. When you’re in your early thirties, being told you look like someone in their seventies is not a compliment.

“Still,” Theresa continued, “I guess it must make you feel bad. Funny how he would make such a mistake. Mrs. Caplestock was so nice.”

See what I have to put up with?

Theresa went back to the report. “And this last paragraph says something about him looking at you?”

I squirmed in my seat. Talking about sexual stuff always make me feel like a little girl in a room full of adults. “Yes, um…” Theresa raised an eyebrow at my discomfort which just made me more mad. “Its not that he looks at me, it’s the way he looks at me.”

“I’m not sure I know what you mean,” Theresa said demurely, a hint of a smile playing on the corners of her mouth.

On the inside I thought, oh I doubt that very much you silly bitch, but on the outside I said, “You know… Like a woman.”

“But you are a woman, Esther,” Theresa said as if it was evident.

“Yes but…” Oh I hated talking about this. “He looks at me like I’m a woman woman. You know. Like, like he’s attracted to me.”

She slowly looked up from my report, both eyes glancing over the top of the stupid little half glasses she wears that make her look cross-eyed. What is it about diminishing eyesight that makes people suck at fashion?

“He looks at you like you’re attractive?” she repeated. Coming from her, it sounded retarded.

“Yes,” I stammered.

“Surely, you’ve had this experience before, Esther. You are a pretty woman, after all.”

“Yes, but…” I said. My mind was reeling, trying to describe the difference between an attractive man looking at you, and an unattractive one. Only it wasn’t that Billy was unattractive. Well he was, but that wasn’t the thing. When he looked at me, it was like he was leering at me. It was not a happy thing, it was a scary thing.

“I see,” Theresa said, not waiting for me to finish my thoughts. And then predictably she added, “And how does that make you feel?”

I wanted to shout, “It makes my skin crawl!” but by then I knew the direction this meeting was headed, so we sat across from each other while I tried to find a more politically correct way to say the retarded janitor was making eyes at me and it was creeping me out. Alas, my words were failing me.

“Do you suppose it has something to do with the way you dress?” She said innocently, while glancing at my outfit.

I think I went into shock at that point. My mind was reeling. She did not just pull a victim blame on me, did she?

There was a knock at the door, and Marlena, the school secretary, leaned her head inside flashing a stack of papers. Theresa waived her over, and that pretty much concluded the meeting. After being ignored for a few minutes, I got up and left. Still fuming I stopping by my box to see if there was anything important. There wasn’t. By the time I made it to my class I had only a few minutes before they let the kids in, and there was still a lot of work to do.

Ten minutes later my official day began. I didn’t realize I’d left my coffee in Theresa’s office until after the bell rang. Maybe, I said to myself while the kids filed in, she’ll take a sip, and we’ll discover she has an allergy to artificial hazelnut flavor or something. It was a reach, I know, but a girl can dream, can’t she?

That morning the kids were…well, they were kids. Meaning…. Look. Its a charter school in a bad part of town. It was a job that didn’t look too hard at my credentials, in exchange for a guaranteed one year contract. No pension, no medical, and no union. A choice between fifteen years of debt and fifty. In other words, no choice as all. So yeah, the kids were bad. What’s new?

We made it through the flag salute and reading without any major mishaps. Jon Carlos started wandering around the room during math but I was able to corral him, for a change, by sticking him with Evan Dramer–the only kid in class worse at math than he was. Usually those two competed to see who can be the worst at a subject. Today they decided to see who was the best. Thank heaven for small miracles.

After nutrition, which is the break we used to call recess (which offers no actual recess, and features no food item that could even remotely be considered nutritious), we zoomed through social studies, and then off to lunch.

Once the kids were out, I met Hillary and Jennifer in our regular corner of the staff room for prep. Technically the period was supposed to be dedicated to Professional Development, but mostly it was an excuse to gossip, which we did with reckless abandon.

Billy was a favorite topic of ours. Since Hillary and Jennifer had taught here longer, they had better stories. Hilary called him the school’s pet, and Jennifer liked to make fun of the way he talked. You know, harmless fun. So I was surprised at their reaction when I told them both about my complaint.

“You went to Theresa about Billy?” Hillary said in surprise.

“Yeah,” I said suddenly self-conscious. “Why not?”

They glanced at each other then down at their plates. That scared me more than the frosty look I got from Mendoza this morning. When the two biggest gossips in the school take a sudden interest in their food, you know its not good.

“What?” I said. They studiously ignored me.

“Are you two going to tell me, or am I going to have to threaten you?” The last part I said soft enough that no one could overhear.

“You can’t possibly…” Jennifer started, but I interrupted.

“Jon Carlos,” I said. They both stopped. “Everyone knows I have three more students than both of you,” I said hurriedly. “All I have to do is tell the Ice Queen I’m not sure if I can handle the load, what with being in my first year and all, and I’m sure I can get him transferred.” They both sat up straighter at this. “The only question is, which one of you deserves him more?”

They looked at each other and then laughed. “Okay,” said Hillary. “You got us.”

“Well,” I said after a pause.

“Well,” said Jennifer, “Don’t take this too serious. See, we heard a rumor…“

“Yeah, a rumor,” Hillary said.

“…and we didn’t want to tell you…” Jennifer said and the stopped.

“But…” I added.

“But…” Jennifer continued, “The thing is. What we heard, and don’t take this the wrong way, but…”

“Would you two get on with it!” I said loudly. The room went silent.

Jennifer gave me a pained look, but waited until the general hubbub returned before making a sound. “The reason you were hired,” she said softly. “One of the reasons, at any rate, that you were picked over the other candidates…. And you know there were a lot of candidates for your position, right? I don’t have to tell you…”

Hillary silenced her with a chopping motion. “We heard you got hired because Billy likes you,” she said, looking down at her plate.

“What?”

“Be-cause,” Hillary repeated slowly in her teacher voice, like she was speaking to a forth grader, “He. Likes. You.”

“Who told you this?” I demanded. They shrugged their shoulders in unison.

“Does it matter?” Hillary asked.

Outside the window I could hear the rushing of the traffic on Grace Boulevard, the normal yelling and screaming of the kids on the playground, and the murmurs of the other teachers in the staff room droning like hundreds of low pitched mosquitoes. The microwave let out a single ding to let someone know their lunch was finished cooking.

“I suppose not,” I said with a sigh, very much wishing that my friends had been more forthcoming before I wrote the complaint. Or that I’d been smart enough to tell them about it before I turned it in. Or that I hadn’t taken the job in the first place, or that I hadn’t married Henry to begin with…. Or, or, or.

Why is there always a shit storm raging on my sea of regret?

After lunch we were supposed to do health science, but with the hotter weather I had learned it took a good 30 minutes for the kids to settle down. So I had them pull out their library books and read. John Carlos took ten minutes and five reminders before he got out his book, but the rest of the class settled into the routine quietly, with only the occasional twitch or interruption.

It was warm enough in the room that I had the doors and windows open fully, catching the faint cross breeze. Anything to get the kids to settle down. So of course this had to be the time that Billy took out the trash.

Now my classroom sat at the far end of the hall. Just past my door was the small storage space that Billy’s used for an office, and just past that was a back door that lead to the rarely used end of the parking lot. You know, that place where they keep the large trash cans that no one ever goes near. I had been in Billy’s office before. Once. It was full of little knick-knacks, bottles, sticks, chewing gum wrappers, leaves, and small abandoned toys, each one placed carefully next to the other, and organized as if by a blind madman with exquisite taste in junk. The room had accreted so many objects over the years that if you turned quickly while sticking out an elbow, a dozen things were bound to fall. And, as I discovered the hard way, nothing made Billy more angry than knocking over his things. The room gave me nightmares after that.

In between Billy’s door and mine was an old trophy case that was built into the wall. Why they would give trophies to this school was beyond me. The trophy case curved over the top of a rusty drinking fountain. The bottom of the case, dusty and filled with a display from the Eisenhower Era, hung low enough over the fountain that an adult had to duck their head to drink. That’s if the water fountain was working, which it often wasn’t. After one experimental taste, I had learned to always keep a supply of bottled water under my desk.

It was from this back room that Billy started his rounds, cleaning the school as he rolled forwards. He was supposed to start after 2:15 when the students were let out, but he had discovered his own way of doing things and didn’t react well with change. This meant that every afternoon, right when I was trying to get the students to settle down, he would wheel his big trash can down the hall, squeaking and bumping as it went, and noisily dump the refuse from each class. It was precisely this noise that disrupted the student’s quiet time, making them giggle and squirm with every bump and squeak.

Maybe it was me, but he seemed to spend more time on my end of the hall than the rest. More than once I caught him staring at me through the door while I was bent over a child’s desk attempting to help. It was not a good feeling.

Today I decided I would be proactive. So when I first heard the squeak of the trash can rolling out his door, I drifted over to the hall door to close it. Just as I reached the handle I heard Billy’s voice from the hall asking, “Who’re you?” This was unusual. Billy knew the name of every child in the school, and rarely spoke while working. Then his voice changed from question to anger. “You…. You go, you go, you go. Bad man, bad man, badman.”

I grabbed the handle, and instinctively stopped. Through the angle of the opening I could just make out another man in the hall. The bright glare of the open back door made him appear as a dark silhouette. Billy was standing right close, his body in between me and the man. “Bad man, you go, you go,” he was saying. “My kids, you go, you go yougo.” He words started slurring together in as they increased in volume.

The man was struggling with something. Cursing. In the bright light it was difficult to see. “Damn retard! Get out of the way!”

Billy was still yelling, “My kids, my kids mykids,” when the shot went off. In the enclosed hall the sound bounced around massive and harsh. Suddenly the man went flying up against the wall. His head connecting with the top of the trophy case, while his body continued below until it struck the wall over the drinking fountain.

And when he hit, the sound….

When I had first started at Grace Boulevard Elementary, Jennifer had innocently suggested I ask Billy how many items were in the “lost and found” box they keep in the front office. Everyone said Billy was incredible at finding things. Even Hillary remarked on this. So of course, I asked.

Later I would learn that asking about the “lost and found” meant having to talk with Billy, and attempting to communicate with him was usually more effort than searching for the damn lost thing to begin with. But at the time I didn’t know any better.

“Depends,” he had slurred.

“It depends on what, Billy? I asked slowly.

“Pieces, no pieces,” he said.

I looked at him blankly. When he didn’t respond I said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t know what you mean.”

“Pieces, no pieces,” he said again in frustration.

When I didn’t respond, he took my arm and walked me into my room. Grabbing a pencil he held it up. “No pieces,” he said, and then with quick motion he snapped the pencil in two. Snap. “Pieces,” he said holding the two ends up. Then he gently pressed the two halves together again saying, “No pieces”.

That pencil sound–the snapping, breaking–that was what the man’s neck sounded like when he hit the wall.

I let out a small squeak, which echoed in the silence of the hall. Billy’s head slowly turned from the man towards me, his eyes round and open in alarm. He took one look at me and the effect was like a slap to his face.

“Sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” he slurred, then he turned and ran down the hall, slamming open the front door at the other end so hard that it smacked into the stop with a bang, and then chattered like the kid’s teeth on a cold day.

Somehow the back door had closed, so the only light that fell into the back hall came from a small hole in the ceiling. From it I could just make out a strange man laying half under the trophy case. His upper body was twisted, motionless, but his heels drummed into the ground like a morse code operator on crack.

In the dim light I could see next to the body a series of thin bright highlights and long dark shapes that somehow added up to a rifle. Then I smelled that familiar burned-wood-and-sulfur scent I knew from my childhood, and the hair on the back of my neck started to rise.

And right at that moment, the thought that went through my head was, Oh shit. There might be more of them.

Grace Boulevard Elementary may have been short of money, and well short of parental involvement, but the one thing it didn’t lack was plans. There was a plan for regular days, a plan for holidays, a plan for Christmas programs (which seemed to revolve around putting the new teacher in charge), a plan for floods, a plan for fires, and most importantly a plan for roving gunmen.

Back in August when we had practice these plans over and over in the hot sun, I thought Mendoza was a sadistic fascist. Now I clung to them like a life-line. Funny how rapidly one can change their opinion.

I slammed closed the hall door, sliding the lock home in one swift motion. Then I turned to find the kids all staring, mouths open in perfect Os.

“Jon Carlos,” I yelled. The boy jumped from his seat like he’d be shocked out of it with a buzzer. “Close every window, starting on that end,” I said pointing to the back side of the school.

“But…” he protested.

“Now!” I yelled.

Its amazing how fast the kids react when you sound terrified.

“Evan,” I called.

“Yes,” he said.

“When he’s done, you’re to close every curtain. Can you do that?

He looked at me for a second. “Yes,” he said starting to get up.

“When he’s done,” I yelled.

Evan sat back down.

I turned to the rest of the class. “Everyone else, line up quietly at the back of the room, and sit in place. No backpacks, no coats. Nothing. If you make a noise it might be your last, so zip it people. We need to do this right.”

I reached for the phone on my desk while the kids were a blur of terrified silence. I dialed the office. Marlena answered on the second ring. “Marlena this is Ms. Rodriquez in room sixteen. We have a condition three.”

“A what?” she said.

“A three. Condition three,” I repeated.

There was a gasp, and I head the phone drop. Just about the time I thought I would have to send someone down there, the school alarm went off. Seconds later Marlena could be heard over the intercom. “Condition three, Full lock down,” she repeated over and over. It sounded odd coming over the phone and the intercom at the same time.

I dropped the phone and ran to the back door, making sure all of the kids were down low. Then we sat that way and waited. It was the longest hour of my life.

One thing I can say, it was the best I’ve ever seen my class behave. For the first five minutes at least.

Eventually the cops arrived in all their riot gear, looking like extras from a war movie. They quietly hustled us out of the room, and down to the staging area. Because we were the farthest room out, we were the last to be escorted in. By the time we arrived, the parents were already there and the front of the school was a total madhouse. The parents were laughing and crying. The kids were mostly crying and not understanding the fuss. Helicopters circled overhead, and about a million cops roamed all over the school.

Once the kids were accounted for, a cop singled me out and asked me to step into the office to talk to the detectives.

“So, its all over then?” I asked.

Another cop, this one much older, looked over as we approached. He had grey hair, a fuzzy beard, and a wrinkled suit. He squinted at me funny. “You’re the one who called it in? Room 16?” he said checking against a list.

I nodded.

“We’ve got one more,” he said importantly, “hunkered down near your room.”

“You mean the dead one?”

His face suddenly stopped as if his brain had just switched off automatic. “You know about the…”

“I saw it happen,” I said.

A radio came up to his face as if by magic. “Hold one” he said, holding up a finger, then he turned away to speak into the radio. After a few seconds he turned back and said, “We’re going to want to know everything you saw.”

Well, I thought to myself, there goes my diner plans. For the first time I realized just how scary the situation had been. Then quite unexpectedly my knees gave way as if someone had removed my leg bones.

 

I woke up looking into the older cop’s face. Concern mixed with anxiety crossed his features. Glancing around, I realized I was laying on the cot in the nurses office. From those two pieces of data I put together what had happened.

“I’m sorry,” I said trying to sit up, and feeling dizzy. “I don’t…”

“Happens,” the older cop said. “Hang loose for a second. It’ll come back to you.”

I nodded, while I looked around. Stars were floating around my vision in the upper corners. It was beautiful in an abstract way, like the way the wood grain on a coffin can be beautiful.

While I was sitting there I heard something over the radio.

“I’m sorry,” I said to the cop. “What were you saying about the other shooter?”

This time he looked more annoyed. “I wasn’t,” he said. Then pity or something must have taken over his mouth. “He’s holed up near your class. Some kind of store room at the end.”

“Did you get a look at him?” I asked. For some reason this seemed important. Something in the back of my head was bothering me.

“No,” the cop said. “But he keeps on saying something about Mrs. Capelcheck or something.”

“Caplestock?” I asked.

“Something like that.”

I was up and running before I knew it. I could hear the cop yelling at me but I ignored him. Then I heard him behind me yelling into his radio. By the time I got to my room his voice was echoing loudly in the hall from a dozen different sources. “Hold your fire. A civilian’s coming. Hold your fire.”

I didn’t really notice much until I reached the end. The guy who Billy had killed–for he most certainly had killed him–was now covered in a sheet. Cops in battle gear had seemed to be randomly standing all over the hall, but at the end they converged in a semi-circle around Billy’s office. Their guns were drawn, pointing at the closed door.

The sound was like nothing I’d ever heard before. Cops were shouting at the door, other cops were yelling at me, there were radios blaring, and sirens and helicopters outside. And over all of it I could hear a faint, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry I’m sorry,” over and over.

I made it through most of the cops until I came across an older one who stood in my way. “What are you doing here?” he yelled at me, then he turned to the men around him, “What in the hell is she doing here?” he yelled at no one in particular.

I ignored him, focusing on the sound from the door. I recognized the slur in his voice.

“Mam,” the cop said. “you have to leave this area. There’s a dangerous man in there, and…”

“Did you go in there?” I asked. No one responded so I asked louder, “Did anyone go in this room?” I said pointing. A few heads shook.

“Mam,” the cop said, “You need to leave this place right now…”

“Did anyone get a look at him? See if he’s armed?” I asked.

Silence.

Then the cop started up again, “Mam…”

“Shut up,” I said in my best teacher voice. “I’m trying to think.”

His mouth started moving like the proverbial fish out of water; making lots of motion, but no sound. I’d never seen anyone do that before, outside of the movies.

Through the door I could hear Billy talking, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

I thought about Mrs. Caplestock, and what she would sound like. “Billy,” I called in a softer voice. A voice of someone who cares. Who’s nice.

Billy stopped speaking.

The cop started in with, “What are you trying to do…” so I shushed him. “Be quiet,” I whispered. “He’s…. He’s…. He’s mentally handicapped. You’ll scare him.”

“Billy?” I called again.

Through the door I heard, “Mrs. Caplestock?” There was panic in his tone.

“Yes honey, I’m out here. But…” I stopped thinking furiously. If he came out with all these cops… “You need to stay still for a second, Billy. Can you do that for me? Please?”

“Yes, Mrs. Caplestock,” he said sounding more calm.

I thought for a moment. “Billy. There’s a lot of policemen out here.”

“I know. They’re scaring me. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

“Billy,” I said quickly. “Its okay. These are good policemen. They’re not going to hurt you. They’re going to help you. Do you understand me Billy?”

“Yes Mrs. Caplestock.”

“They came to protect the children Billy. That’s good isn’t it?”

“My kids, my kids, my kids.”

“That’s right Billy. They’re your kids. And you protected them today, didn’t you?”

“But… I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

“Billy.”

“Yes. Mrs. Caplestock.”

“You protected the kids. Didn’t you? You protected the school. Didn’t you? You saved my life…”

“Mrs. Caplestock?”

“Yes Billy.”

“Can I come out now?”

“Of course you can sweetie. When you see the cops, do not be scared. Okay? Now, what did I say about the cops?”

“Don’t be scared,” he said.

“Good, Billy.”

The door opened slowly, and Billy shuffled out into the hall. The cops pointed their guns at him, and he shrank back. Over the noise of his feet shuffling and the squeak of leather, you could hear him whispering softly, “don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid.” I didn’t know if his words were for himself, or the cops, but either way, they seemed to work.

The cops lowered their guns, and Billy stepped out of the doorway. He walked a few steps to me, and then suddenly he was hugging me fiercely. Crushingly.

Then he stopped just as suddenly, and held me back at arm’s length. “You’re not Mrs. Caplestock,” he said.

“No, Billy.”

“You’re Mrs. Rodriquez.”

“Yes Billy.”

“But? Why?”

I didn’t know how to answer him. Why was I there. I hated this man. He had cost me my job today. Well to be fair, I had cost me my job, but I had no reason to love him, and I certainly had no reason to love Mrs. Capelstock.

Then suddenly it came to me, and in a voice far more calm than I felt I said, “I forgot to say good night, Billy.”

I don’t know, but I might have even smiled.

“Oh,” he said suddenly smiling his old smile. “Good night, good night, goodnight, Mrs. Rodriquez.”

“Can you show these policemen around?” I asked. “They lost some things, and I think you know where to find them?”

“I’m good at finding things,” he said with a huge smile.

“I know you are Billy. Can you show them were the bad man came into the school?”

A shadow crossed his face, but then it was replaced by a smile. “Here,” he said turned towards the end of the hall.

With that, half the cops started following him, asking questions, but before he went out the back door he turned to me.

“Good night Mrs. Rodriquez. Good night, good night, goodnight,” he said.

“Good night, Billy,” I said. “Good night, good night.”

Cleaning up the mess

I’ve been organizing my writing files lately and came to discover I have as least 20 stories worth talking about. That is stories that are completed. Many need some kind of editing or another, which is cool because that is something else I’m learning, but most of them are in pretty good shape. Not all of them are commercial, at least for me right now. (Selling stories usually requires they be shorter than 5k words, which is about 15 minutes of reading, or 12-15 pages of text, depending upon the font used and/or the line spacing.) But the good news for you, dear reader, is that the vast majority of them are due for an upload. That is to say, they will end up posted here on my blog.

The breakdown goes like this. I have 6 stories that I’m going to attempt to sell, 5 stories that I’ve already posted here (you did notice the Fiction link, right?) and a full 9 more that will be posted here over the course of this year.

What does that mean for you, dear reader? Well my goal is once a month to put up a new story that you get to read for free. Free. FREE! Pretty cool, eh?

And it means also I have a more organized schedule to follow.

See, in the past I was pretty haphazard about my stories. Writing them, and then letting them languish, forlorn and forgotten on my computer. Well that’s not going to happen any more. Now, whenever I have free time (that is, time not devoted to writing a new story or novel) I’ll go down my list, editing as I can, and clean up the stories to make them more presentable. Then I can either put them in the queue for posting here, or send them out to see if I can find a home for them in the big bad outside world of publishing.

There’s a bit more to it that that. This was not only a much needed Spring Clean of my computer’s hard drive, but it represents a more concerted effort to edit my work.

Recently I’ve discovered that I need a few weeks to months away from a story after writing it, so I can have enough space from it to see if I need to do some major reconstruction work. Its a bit like when you first start dating someone you like, and you find you simply cannot have an objective opinion about them. You’re too excited in their company to question whether you should be or not. Well stories are like that for me. I love them. I have to or I would kill the damn things because they can truly be a pain to write. But once they’re completed, and I’ve had enough time from them to have some objectivity, I find its easier to go back and look at them with fresh eyes.

So once I discovered this, it wasn’t much of a leap to realize I could list them all, and then organize the list so that when I finish one story I can then go back and edit the another one I finished some 6-8 weeks ago. In this way I can work through both the new and the old, and gets some better stories crafted.

Another thing I’ve done is join up with a writer’s workshop called Critters Writers Workshop. They have a pretty nifty set-up where writer can both submit stories, and critiques stories. The cool thing is you have to earn your right to be critiqued, by critiquing others. I don’t know how this is going to go. I just wrote my first critique today, and won’t expect the story I submitted to be critiqued until somewhere between the 19th and the 26th of March, but it looks to be fun. My goal is primarily to learn to be more critical of my own stories, by seeing where other’s make mistakes. Properly, this is a type of editing, and If I want to get better, I need to learn it.

So there. I’m doing me some learning. And you get some free stories. That’s a win, win, all the way around!

But, “what,” you say, “does this mean in the mean time?”

Good question, you. What this means is I expect I’ll have a story to post within the week, so keep your eyes pealed. And I now have a list so I have a pretty good idea what I’ll put up next. So if you haven’t already, or if you only see my posts on FaceBook (which automatically mirrors posts from this blog), you might consider signing up using the link in the right hand column that says

Yes, that what it says. That way you’ll get an email with a nice easy link with every post, and never miss a story as it makes it painful way down the FB notification page. And that would be bad. Yes, terrible. Missing free stories–ones that have been hand-crafted for a fine yield, and hand-packed to they don’t bruise or bend–well that would practically be a crime, now wouldn’t it? And we can’t have that, can we? I mean, you’re too young to start a life of crime aren’t you? Unless you my mother, and in that case you’re too old to start a life of crime. So sign up now and skip that life of crime.

You’ll be glad you did.

Excerpts from an unfinished novel #5

Back in November 2011 I started working on a novel tentatively titled Ghost Hand. The story is about Marine sniper who returns to Los Angeles to recover from severe injuries only to find that the war for him has just started, and there’s more to the world than he knew.

Part of his story is dealing with his PTSD. As he starts to work out his issues he discovers a whole class of people worse off than he is: The homeless.

After several starts at the novel I had to set it aside. I just was not happy with the story. I needed to sit on it more. But in the process I did write a whole of lot fun pieces in the voice of the protagonist. Several of them were designed to be chapter headers, to show up at the beginning of every third chapter or so. These ones are all about mental illness, and are presented from the point of view of someone who has gone through it, and made it out the other side.

I’m going to put them up once a week, for five weeks. This is number five of five.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

On the Fragility of the Human Mind

You can get the same symptoms of a mental illness from just about anything. Fall off a ladder and hit your head, have a bomb go off nearby, witness a bank robbery, or just live though a natural disaster. All of these things can cause PTSD and have. So if I can startle someone, or just whack them upside the head, and it gives them a mental illness then it begs the question; how stable is this thing called sanity? It turns out, not very much.

Everyone in their life will experience some (if not all) of the same symptoms of a crazy person. The only difference will be for how long, and the severity. Sanity is a delicate balance, like a soap bubble, and is easily disrupted. Most people, when knocked out of balance, are able to inflate their bubble again. Some of us can’t, at least right away. Some of us never had one to begin with. But all of us can have their bubble burst.

 

From on old poem

I want to cry at weddings and funerals.
I want to laugh at the sky,
and call down the stars.
Speak to the moon as a friend,
and the stars as close family.

I want to reach, grasp, and obtain,
my life.
With my own two hands.

 

From Late Night Coffee (Manipulate III)
-ERK 8/3/95

Excerpts from an unfinished novel #4

Back in November 2011 I started working on a novel tentatively titled Ghost Hand. The story is about Marine sniper who returns to Los Angeles to recover from severe injuries only to find that the war for him has just started, and there’s more to the world than he knew.

Part of his story is dealing with his PTSD. As he starts to work out his issues he discovers a whole class of people worse off than he is: The homeless.

After several starts at the novel I had to set it aside. I just was not happy with the story. I needed to sit on it more. But in the process I did write a whole of lot fun pieces in the voice of the protagonist. Several of them were designed to be chapter headers, to show up at the beginning of every third chapter or so. These ones are all about mental illness, and are presented from the point of view of someone who has gone through it, and made it out the other side.

I’m going to put them up once a week, for five weeks. This is number four of five.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The brain is the first victim

It should be obvious that the term mental illness means an illness to the head. Most people have an understanding of this. They know someone with mental illness is “crazy” to some degree or another, but they don’t understand why. They say things like, “Why would someone stay in bed all day?”, or “I don’t understand why would anyone wash their hands so hard that their skin bleeds?”, or even, “Why does my husband act so cold?”

These questions are asked because the normal person doesn’t understand what mental illness means to the one who is sick.

In simple terms, the first victim of mental illness is the brain. When one is mentally ill, the very first sign, indeed the only reason most mental illness are categorized together, is that the person who is sick does not know it. Their normal thinking has been blocked by the disease. One could even go so far as to say the brain has been co-opted, taken over, by the disease.

And they cannot tell.

This is why people do crazy things when they are mentally ill. Why they stay in bed all day under the crushing weight of Depression, why they repeatedly wash their hands until they bleed under the feverish anxiety of Obsessive-compulsive Disorder, or why they withhold all affection towards their loved ones under the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In each case the person with the mental illness is a victim of their own thoughts because, like a terrorist their mental illness has taken over their brain and is holding it captive.

This is why mental illness is such an insidious disease, and so difficult to cure.   When you’re ill, it is almost impossible to tell from the inside of your head. From the inside it all looks normal. Even worse, a lot of mental illnesses carry with them a distrust of outsiders. Not only can you not know the truth (because your brain has been taken over), but you will be inclined to not trust the very people who are telling you the truth.

 

On Expository

Expository, for those that don’t know, is the explaining part of a story; the non-fiction grain of truth baked into your fictional sandwich. Its easiest to pick out in sci-fi stories because 1) you need to explain things more in a sci-fi story (what exactly is a Golding-Fargold Laser, Doctor?) and 2) you have some pretty classic characters to explain things to you. As a rule of thumb, if a guy or gal shows up in a sci-fi story wearing a lab-coat, you know you’re in for some expository (paging Commander Spock). If someone needs to explain to you the reader why the Golding-Fargold Laser is important to the plot line, than Dr. Lab-coat is just the gal to do it.

The problem is, expository is usually boring. Boring. Boring but necessary. Its the wikipedia entry you need to read in the middle of a car chase, the bad-tasting medicine you need to take to feel better, or the non-alcholoic beer served at a friend’s wedding. Sometimes a story really does need to explain things to you or it won’t work, and you just have to struggle though a couple of paragraphs to get back to the plot.

I bring all this up because I’ve been struggling with a story for the past fews weeks, and the process has been excruciating. See its a sci-fi story, and it takes place deep underwater. Because of this, almost everything about the world the story sits in is absolutely new to the reader. Had I set the story in space, I wouldn’t have to explain hardly anything. Everyone knows what a spaceship is, most people know that space is largely a vacuum (meaning there’s not many molecules laying around), and everybody knows what a light-saber or a blaster is. So, “he jumped into his spaceship, and secured his blaster before taking off.” is largely self-explanatory. But if I write, “he swam into his sub-reefer and checked the sonar for sea mounts,” there’s a lot of things missing. What is a “sub-reefer”? What are sea mounts? Sonar, for what?

So in the process of trying to figure out how this underwater world works that I invented in my head I have been constantly explaining things to myself as I write. Each and every new technology or slight change in the plot and suddenly I need a paragraph or two explaining why it is important. After a while, the story starts to sound like a travelog. Like this:

Quiency Pressure sits on the edge of an underwater peninsula called the Chatham Rise that sticks out from the Island nation of New Zealand, some 500 meters below the surface. Near the end of this peninsula sits a submerged mountain range only visible by the Chatham Islands on it tips. South and east of these islands the sea floor drops away rapidly, going from 500 meters to 4000 meters deep in just a few short kilometers. If such a rise were located on the North American continent, rather than deep beneath the Pacific ocean, it would create the tallest mountain in the United States. Though by the geological standards of the Pacific, this rise is small potatoes. This feature, called the South Wall, sits right on the edge of a region rich in valuable gold bearing ores and minerals. Its getting to these valuable ores that’s the tricky part.

See? That’s a nice descriptive. You now have a good picture in your head of where you are, but there is no story there. Its all expository.

I’ve now started this story five different times, and all together I have put down well over 10,000 words. Alas, with the exception of a few places, almost all of those 10k words are expository. There’s no story, just a lot of explanation. I’ve pitted my protagonist against sea monsters and corporate greed. Given him girlfriends, and killed off his partners. I’ve described the dangers of living deep in the ocean in a dozen different ways, and populated his world with a dozen different characters. And all of it is boring. And the frustrating thing was, I couldn’t figure out why.

Then finally, in the shower today I had this insight. There was too much explaining, and not enough storying. So I started on version six, and across the top I put these words:

Short and simple. Story of man, octopus, and ocean.
NO FUCKING EXPOSITORY!!!!

Then I started a new outline, keeping it clean, simple. My rule is now if it takes more then an adjective or a few words to explain something, then it goes without explanation. A sentence at the most. Nothing more.