The Car Ride

(I can’t believe I didn’t add this. This was an assignment for my creative writing class. We were to write a story from three perspectives. I borrowed from an idea I’d seen online of a young man telling a story of his traumatic car ride, which can be viewed here… He’s a great story-teller and it’s worth a view.)

The door slammed hard. Jeremy had heard a lot of that lately. He lay quietly in bed, playing videos and trying desperately not to think about the muffled fights he’d been hearing through their cramped apartment walls. He wished he wasn’t grounded and could be out with his friends. So they shared a cigarette. What was the big whoop? He was sick of his parent’s fights. Something was going on with them and it scared him. Since they wouldn’t let him hang with his friends, playing video games was the only escape from the worries that filled his head.
Jeremy’s worries were about to get worse. He hadn’t heard a fight, but after hearing the door slam, he was listening so intently for them to leave. That was the pattern—fight, door slams, they left to fight in the car, come home and pretend it was all fine. He jumped when he unexpectedly heard his dad call from down the hall, “Jeremy, get out here. We’re going for a ride.”
His stomach cramped. They never included him before, “Where to?”
“Just a ride. Hurry up. I’ll be waiting outside.”
His parents were already sitting in the front of their beat up old hatchback by the time he got to the busy street below. He climbed into the backseat and buckled up. His mother turned and gave him a cautious smile, but as his dad drove down the street there was total silence between his parents.
It was then that he knew what this ride was all about. They were going to break the news to him. Jeremy had lots of friends that were divorced, and they’d all described “the talk.” He wanted this to stop. As much as they annoyed him, he loved his mom and dad. He didn’t want to live with one and not see the other except on weekends. He worried they might make him pick. He didn’t know how he could pick. He stared at the back of his mom’s head, hoping if he kept his eyes open, the air would dry out the tears that were forming.

Jeremy’s mom, Meredith, wiped the dishes she’d just washed. It was one of the many chores she wished she didn’t have to do. With a kitchen the size of a closet, there just wasn’t room for a dishwasher. She turned around and slammed her hip into the silverware drawer, forgetting she’d left it open. She knew that would leave a bruise the next day. It would join the others. The cramped quarters caused fights on a daily basis. Their 900 square foot apartment was just too small for them and a soon-to-be teenager, and she couldn’t turn him loose into this neighborhood, after he’d been caught smoking. They swore it was only a cigarette, but she had her doubts. They needed something bigger, far from the gangs of this neighborhood.
They had been looking at houses for the past few months. They’d found the perfect place. It was in a great school district, the house had a big yard, and they’d finally be able to give Jeremy a dog. She could have a dishwasher, and wouldn’t have to go to the Laundromat anymore, but Andy thought it was out of their reach and refused to put in an offer. He insisted they should focus on a 1600 square foot condo that was cheaper and closer to work. To Meredith, it was nothing more than a glorified apartment. Even if the payment was a little lower, and Andy’s commute was shorter, Jeremy would still be growing up in an apartment without a yard. Having a house would be the best thing for the family. They could make it work. She didn’t know why he couldn’t see that.
The door slammed hard making her jump, and Andy walked in. He smiled and said, “Hey honey, want to go for a ride?”
She did not. A car ride meant a fight, and she wondered if it was going to be about a house, or if there was something different on the agenda.
She smiled back politely, and said, “Sure, just let me get my purse.”
She was surprised when Andy called up to Jeremy. She still had no desire to sit in a car with her stubborn and selfish husband, but with their son in the car, at least she knew they wouldn’t be fighting. She loved Andy desperately, but she wasn’t sure how much more she could take.

Andy rode the elevator up to their tiny apartment. They’d lived there for almost 20 years, and it held so many good memories for him. He remembered when he and Mere walked through the empty rooms and imagined the life they would build together. It had seemed so big at the time, for just the two of them. They’d planned on having a whole bunch of kids, but Andy was happy with their small family. Jeremy was enough. Their apartment, no matter how many good memories it held, was not.
He knew he was conservative with money. He had coworkers who didn’t make much more than he did yet they lived in big houses, were always driving a new car, or taking their family on fantastic trips. He just couldn’t see going into debt to do all those things. He had to look at the big picture, so they’d be okay in the long run.
He was putting his briefcase down in the apartment entryway when a breeze slammed the door behind him. He heard the clink of dishes, and the roast in the oven teased his nose. He walked into the kitchen grinning, “Hey honey, want to go for a ride?”
He felt the chill of her response, “Sure, let me get my purse.”
He knew they had drifted apart as they struggled financially. She and Jeremy deserved better, yet at the same time, they had all his love. That had to count for something. He yelled down the hallway at Jeremy’s closed bedroom door, “Jeremy get out here. We’re going for a ride.”
He heard Jeremy’s sullen voice ask, “Where to?”
“Just a ride. Hurry up. I’ll be waiting outside.”
They rode in silence as the miles rolled past. From time to time he saw Mere look over at him, her unspoken questions ringing in his mind. He had so much to say and it was on the verge of spilling out. He wanted to get there quickly so he could tell them everything, but he took a meandering route. He kept silent since it was easier if he didn’t say anything at all.

Meredith watched the scenery change into picket-fenced suburbia. Andy seemed to be driving aimlessly, much the same way he lived his life. When the car finally came to a stop, her thoughts did too. She saw and processed where she was. Instantly, tears formed as she whipped around to look at Andy, who was grinning like a fool.
He whispered, “I wanted to surprise you. I got a promotion, so I put in an offer on Monday and they accepted today. It’s ours.”
This was the house she wanted Jeremy to grow up in. There was the porch she wanted to sit on in old age with Andy. Tears spilled down her cheeks as she her dreams come true.

Jeremy felt the car stop. He studied the scenery, memorizing the tree-lined street with big houses where he would find out they weren’t a family anymore. His mom was already crying. His parents whispered in the front seat, but the roar of fear filling his head drowned out the words. He wanted to run from the car. He didn’t want to hear what they were about to say. But then he saw them hug, and his dad dangled a key in front of his mom who was smiling.
As his parents got out of the car, his dad turned to him and through the roar, Jeremy heard him say, “Come see your room.” His parents laughed lightly as they walked up the sidewalk, arms around each other. His dad turned back to him still sitting in the car, “C’mon Jeremy. You better start thinking about what kind of dog you want, too.”
Finally the tears spilled down his cheeks, but now out of joy rather than sadness. This wasn’t the spot where he would find out his family was no more. This was the spot where he found out his family would always be a family, and that they had finally come home.


The Ballad of Adele Dazeem

(My last college class was creative writing and we had a week of poetry. I learned I am not really a poet, and yet, I am quite pleased with this ballad. I wish I could have posted it when it was timely, but I had to wait to submit it for my final.)

The Ballad of Adele Dazeem

The day before the Oscars

They entered one by one.

A once-a-year parade of stars,

With corny lines to run.


Travolta read his script with glee

He stumbled only once

He worried he’d flub “wickedly”

And feel like such a dunce.


It doesn’t matter who you are

When on a stage you walk.

Nerves can dim the brightest star

And make fine actors balk.


John felt prepared on Oscar night

He never could have guessed

How a tiny bit of stage fright

Would become a running jest.


At first it all was going well

The intro was a dream

Then up it rolled, Idina Menzel

Out came Adele Dazeem.


It doesn’t matter who you are

When on a stage you walk.

Nerves can dim the brightest star

And make fine actors balk.


By dawn there was a web site

To Travoltasize your name

Some genius stayed up all night

To invent this silly game


Before you cast your judgment

And pick on his large gaffe

If you ever must a speech present

He might have the last laugh


For it doesn’t matter who you are

When on a stage you walk.

Nerves can dim the brightest star

And make fine actors balk.


(This is another assignment for school… an autobiographical essay. I chose a memory from my early years in the film industry. It was quite an adventure.)

My heart was pounding, and I was glad the courier was there to lie for me. He was a lanky guy in his 20s, who seemed comfortable breaking the law. I’d just met him for the first time that morning, and would never see him again after we arrived in Durango. We were changing planes in Mexico City, waiting to go through customs. It was the only place we expected to have problems. I had never done anything this illegal before in my life, and I was terrified. People scurried around us, and the high, glass ceiling caused the constant babble of voices to echo maddeningly. I wanted out. However, I had no other choice than to step up to the desk as the customs official called us forward.

Barely looking at us, the officer said, “Purpose of your visit?”

The courier responded casually, “We’re couriers.”

“What are you carrying?”

“Film equipment.”

Two quick stamps on the paperwork, and we passed through.

The courier leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Told you. Piece of cake.”

I relaxed. This was going to work. Less than 24 hours earlier I’d been sitting in my roach-infested studio apartment in Hollywood when I’d gotten a phone call from my boss. I worked freelance for a teleprompting company, rolling words to be read by the rich and famous. There was a last minute job in Durango, Mexico with the comedic actor John Candy. None of the appropriate paperwork was filed. I was not legally allowed to work, so I was to lie and say I was simply delivering the equipment. One of the film’s couriers was taking raw film stock down, and would accompany me to bribe the officials if necessary. It was terrifying to agree to this job, but in the freelance world you rarely say ‘no.’ Those roaches needed a roof over their heads. Besides, I loved John Candy’s films: Home Alone, Uncle Buck, Splash, and National Lampoon’s Vacation. My college years were filled with laughter provided by John Candy. My roommate and I had watched Planes, Trains and Automobiles often, and loved to repeat entire scenes to each other. Scared or not, I was going to Mexico.

And sure enough, at midnight the next night I found myself standing in Durango’s tiny airport. I said goodbye to the courier, and was greeted by a man from the production company, an assistant to John if I remember right. As we drove in the darkness, the assistant and I made small talk about our jobs and the people we’d worked with. The blackness and scattered lights outside the van told me I was a long way from Los Angeles. He apologized for my accommodations, saying all the ‘good’ hotels had already been booked up by the production. The way he said ‘good’ scared me, and when I got to my room I saw my fear was accurate. The floor was bare cement, and the beds were thin mattresses laid on raised cement platforms. There was some sort of fungus in the shower stall. Sitting on my rock hard bed, it suddenly occurred to me that I was in another country illegally, the town was small enough that nobody spoke my language, and if the assistant didn’t reappear the next morning at 9 as promised, I was in a whole lot of trouble. I wondered how a Midwestern farm girl in her 20s had ended up in this situation. When I was drawn to the glamor of showbiz, this wasn’t at all what I had envisioned.

There was nothing to do other than go to bed and hope it all worked out in the morning. Suddenly I realized I had more immediate concerns. It was time to brush my teeth, and I had been warned not to drink the water. I had no idea if it was okay to even use tap water for my toothbrush. Since I couldn’t brush my teeth dry, I went in search of a vending machine. This was long before the days of bottled water, and I settled for a Diet Coke. I squeezed out some toothpaste, poured some Coke over it, and started to brush. Within seconds, the chemical reaction caused foam to fill my mouth. I couldn’t contain the bubbles, and they poured down my chin. Looking in the mirror, I giggled uncontrollably.  I had no idea if my teeth were clean, but at least I wouldn’t be running for the porta-potty while on set the next day.

Thankfully, the assistant showed up on time, and in the light of day I felt better about my adventure. Finally, I could see my surroundings. We sat on a high plain with a beautiful mountain range in the distance. It was a perfect stand-in for the American West. The assistant drove me to the location where I set up my gear on a ridge above the action. They were shooting the movie Wagon’s East in the distance, and below me was the holding area for the spare horses and wagons. I noticed as the wranglers brought the horses back, they loosely draped the reins over a railing instead of tying them down. It seemed risky, but this was a professional movie set, and who was I to say anything.

Like flying and war, working on a film set is hours of boredom punctuated with brief moments of terror. Usually that terror involves trying to meet the demands of a screaming director. In this case, the terror came in the form of a scream from below me. I looked down to see one of the wagons was moving, and realized the horses had been spooked and had begun to run. Knowing everyone on set was in danger, the wranglers began to chase the out-of-control wagon. One man came alongside and leapt for the dangling reins. He caught them, and I watched in horror as he fell, was dragged under the wagon, and run over. I was sure I had just seen a man die, though later we learned he survived with two broken legs.

However, like any good film writer knows, you always follow a moment of tension with a moment of humor, and life did not let me down. Not long after they got the horses under control, it was finally time to do my job. We filmed the bit I was needed for, and then the assistant began to tell John Candy about me.

“John, you have no idea who you’ve been working with. She’s worked with all the presidents.”

I had only worked with Clinton and Reagan, so I blurted out, “Well, hardly all of them. I’m not that old.”

And then… John Candy laughed.

It wasn’t a great joke, but after becoming an international criminal, sleeping in what amounted to a jail cell, becoming rabid, and watching a man get run over by a wagon, his guffaw made everything all right. It was like a million butterflies were let loose in my soul, or if someone tickled every cell of my body with a feather.  Inside, I bubbled. He had given me so much laughter, and I felt like I had repaid the debt, just a little.

Less than a month later, when I was safely back in Los Angeles, I heard John died down in Mexico in his sleep. Wagon’s East would be his last film. The loss of his humor was devastating, but I am so grateful he will live with me forever in my memories—standing on a ridge, and sharing a laugh under a bright Mexican sun.

Ode to the Toilet

(I have definitely neglected my writing and this blog, but school has turned out to be a little more time-consuming than I expected. However, it’s paying off, and I’m learning and improving every day. Below is an assignment from a recent class. It’s a humorous essay in the vein of David Sedaris, more than a story, but hopefully it will still be entertaining.)

Preparing for my first trip to Europe, my mind spun with questions. Would I feel differently standing on the other side of the planet? How difficult would the language barrier be? What if I got lost? Would people be able to tell I was American just by looking at me? Could my body withstand the impending avalanche of cheese and chocolate? What if I got pulled aside by customs and had to watch them paw through my underwear? What would I do if my friend was not there to pick me up? Of all the things I worried about most, I had no idea that it would be toilet troubles that made me happiest to come back home.

             It is surprising people don’t worry more about bathroom facilities when they travel. We foolishly worry about whether we have all our toiletries, or just the right clothes. The truth is, in today’s globalized world, unless you’re heading into a jungle or the outback, you can likely buy anything you need, perhaps even from the same chain store as at home. We buy voltage converters, so our hair dryers don’t burst into flame. We read travel guides to understand the country’s culture, but we never stop to consider the culture of the crapper. It’s irrational considering we will need to use the facilities several times a day, and as many travelers have experienced, the need may be quite urgent. In our own society, we know where to find the public restrooms, and we are certain we will be able to operate them. As I learned, the same cannot be said when traveling in another country. Like so many other geographically isolated Americans, I had come to take the humble porcelain potty for granted.

            I landed at Schipol Airport and like most travelers, the first thing I did after exiting the airplane was use the airport bathroom. Almost immediately I saw things were different. The seat was rounder and lower. There was a fully automated seat protector system. A small motor whined as it pulled a tube-shaped baggie around the seat. The entire toilet was fully automated. Standing up was all that was required to flush the toilet and replace the seat protector with fresh plastic for the next bare bottom. It was all rather fascinating, and gave no sign of the toilet trauma to come.

            Necessities taken care of, my adventure in Europe began. Customs turned out to be a breeze, and no luggage search was required. My friend Saskia, a round-faced Dutch woman with a bright smile, met me and took me to her home. I was fascinated by the view out the train window, which showed the dichotomy of gleaming glass buildings and sleek trains, set against cobblestone roads and medieval city walls. Cars were tiny. Stone homes were massive. Roads were narrow. Bike paths were wide. Throughout the visit I often felt like Gulliver in Lilliput. Washing machines, teacups, silverware, trashcans, stair steps, and cars were a fraction of the size they were at home.

            And yes, bathrooms were smaller too. Once at Saskia’s house, I was given a tour and bathroom instructions. I quickly noticed the toilet tank was not attached sensibly behind the sitter, providing a comfortable backrest for reading. It hovered crazily above. There was a chain hanging from the tank to flush, and I was told it was best to wait until the tank filled before attempting to shower. It wasn’t the only fixture needing explanation. The shower was tiny and the controls were different as well. Of course in America, not all our showers operate the same, but there is a basic variety of controls that most eight-year-olds are capable of deciphering. In Europe there were levers to be pulled, knobs to be twisted, and handles to be turned. Forget voltage converters, I wanted a plumbing converter.

            My confusion with the shower was just a taste of what was to come. While out sightseeing, I had need of Amsterdam’s public bathrooms. At first I was impressed. The Europeans had definitely mastered the concept of bathroom privacy. This was surprising considering the Romans, who spread much of their plumbing to Europe, had no interest in privacy while doing their business. Their toilets were side by side with no partitions. Perhaps people learned over time there were better settings and smells for networking, because from those public beginnings, elimination had definitely gone the other direction. Europe’s bathrooms had no open-air stalls to provide for views of your neighbors shoes, or cracks in the stall door through which you might accidentally make eye contact with someone waiting. Each bathroom was its own little room, floor to ceiling. The term ‘water closet’ began to make sense. It felt luxurious and decadent to close that door and know I was alone.

However, it didn’t take long before the honeymoon phase ended. It was often difficult to locate a bathroom, and the language barrier didn’t help. Signage could also be confusing. It was startling the first time I walked into the women’s room to find a man casually standing near the hand towels.

“Excuse me, I am so sorry,” I said and backed out of the room. I was sure I must have misunderstood the sign.

He was obviously used to puritanical Americans, and did his best to coax me back in, “No, it’s fine. Please. Come in.”

It was the first of many facilities that contained male bathroom attendants. I soon realized as long as the person using the facilities is in a private room, it made no difference who was in the public washing area. Still, it was always a little bit of shock to walk in and find men in the ladies room.

Obviously things could have been worse. I had been told to prepare for the occasional squat toilet as we traveled, but thankfully I was never faced with that process of elimination. On one walking tour we were reminded that in medieval times, streets doubled as open-air sewers. It wasn’t uncommon to be hit with waste as someone dumped their chamber pot out the window. While I was grateful Europeans had ended the simple practice of squatting over holes or just dumping their excrement wherever they wanted, as I continued to struggle with their variety of flushers, I did wonder if they hadn’t made it a little more complicated than necessary.

As is often the case in a love affair, the very thing I first loved about European bathrooms became the thing I hated most. Time after time, I found myself locked in a tiny, private cubicle, completely lost and confused. My chamber of solitude came to feel like a prison cell. I would search the room, trying to find light switches and flush controls with no one handy to ask for help. There were chains and levers in odd places. Sometimes there were buttons. Sometimes those buttons were on the floor. And sometimes there were two buttons. I began to fear using public toilets. How would this one flush? Would I be able to figure it out? I dreaded the time I would have to exit without flushing and ask for assistance. I could hear them at the dinner table that night for some reason speaking in a ridiculously exaggerated French accent.

“Let me tell you about this stupid American. She was so dumb she did not know how to flush the toilet. They must all use outhouses over there, and wipe with their hands.”

My worst fears came true when we went to Paris for a day. We were at a nice restaurant overlooking the city when I visited the washroom. I was quite pleased I had no problems with the toilet, and confidently approached the sink. There was only a spigot and no way to turn on the water. Thinking it must run by sensors, I put my hands into the sink. Nothing happened. Panic set in. After searching every place that seemed logical, I stood in front of the sink staring at the fool in the mirror who couldn’t even manage the simple task of washing her hands. A wispy, beautiful Parisian woman standing nearby, floated over, and pressed a foot pedal below the sink. Water poured out of the spigot. My humiliation was complete.

A few days later when I arrived home, I immediately headed for the bathroom, and wisely held back my desire to kiss the porcelain goddess. Using her came so naturally. The size and shape was normal. The toilet flushed with a simple press of the handle. I turned the knobs at the sink and water came out of the faucet. I was home, at one with the toilet, and all was right with the world. Never again will I take even the most humble outhouse for granted.

A Very Bad Day

(Here’s my latest writing contest entry. Unfortunately it failed to make the finals, but that does mean I can post it now. If you’re curious about the finalists, you can read their entries here: Contest #49

The setup: You are stranded on a desert island with 3 items: a coconut, a dictionary and a mask. In 750 words or less, explain how you use those items to get off the island. Please comment and give me your thoughts)

A Very Bad Day

           Consciousness seeped into my body and pain followed closely behind. I was on my stomach, head twisted to my right and something had sealed my eyes shut. I could hear waves rolling in and memories of an anniversary cruise pushed their way to the surface of my mind.

I sat up, rubbing the saltwater crust from my eyelashes.  My fingers brushed a lump on my forehead causing it to suddenly throb. Now able to see my surroundings, I was on little more than a sandbar with a few palm trees and rocks. How had I gotten here? I couldn’t remember.

Scattered across the beach were piles of driftwood and debris. I began to search through them and discovered a cheap Bart Simpson Halloween mask, a water-damaged but intact dictionary and a coconut. I eyed the coconut hungrily.

Searching the beach I found a piece of abalone shell with a sharp edge. I spent the rest of the day prying off the husk, scoring the coconut with the shell and screaming at passing boats. My island was too low on the horizon for me to be seen and my thirst soon forced me to give up trying to get their attention.

As I worked, I kept replaying my last memories trying to coax the synapses to connect. My marriage was in trouble when Peter suggested an anniversary cruise as a way to rekindle our passion. He had been so attentive on the trip and hope had returned. I began to remember snapshots of that last night. Dancing. Peter bringing me drinks. Back at the cabin. Sitting on our private balcony. Looking at the stars.

It was late afternoon by the time I’d scored the coconut deeply enough to risk cracking it open. I tapped it against a tree trunk and was rewarded with a nice split. I guzzled the liquid inside and could feel my saltwater soaked tongue shrink in my mouth.

I used the last light of the sun to gather driftwood. Pages from the dictionary, twigs and dried palm fronds went into a pile. I was able to get sparks with a couple of rocks I’d found, but my kindling wouldn’t catch. Lights suddenly appeared on the horizon and I frantically tried again. Nothing.

Tossing the rocks in frustration, another series of memories flashed through my mind. Peter on the balcony, picking me up. Expecting a night of passionate lovemaking.  Tumbling through the air.  My head hitting the side of the ship. Peter had explained the life insurance policies saying, “you never know what might happen in Mexico” and I hadn’t questioned it. What a fool.

I dug some coconut from the shell and chewed it, hoping to at least relieve the pain in my stomach. I wiped the coconut oil on my shirt then groaned. That stain wouldn’t come out and I liked this blouse. Inspiration struck.

Stripping off my shirt, I wrapped all the coconut meat inside it and pounded until there was nothing but pulp.  I twisted the shirt and watched drops of coconut oil begin to fill the bottom of the empty shell. Pouring some oil on my kindling I struck the rocks together again. When a spark leapt into the pile, flame and smoke followed. I let out a whoop.

I looked up. The lights were still there but I needed something to launch the fire higher if I wanted to be spotted from sea. My thoughts spun. I detached the elastic from the mask and digging through the pile of driftwood found a forked stick. I pushed the elastic through the holes of the broken abalone shell and attached each end to the stick.

The boat had almost reached the other horizon. I crumpled more dictionary pages into tight paper balls and drizzled coconut oil on them. Was I too late? I dipped one into the fire and shot it into the air with my slingshot. The flames trailed behind like a mini-comet and once at the apex, flared with bits of burning paper fluttering down. It just might work. I fired again.  And again.  The distant lights stopped, and then grew larger.  The boat was heading right for me.

Once on board I hugged the fishing captain who barely spoke English croaked  “gracias” about a million times. My very bad day had just ended and my husband’s very bad day was about to begin.



Forget Me Not

(My take on Stephen King’s writing exercise from On Writing. Written in 2012. I learned more from this one exercise than I did from all the creative writing classes I’ve ever taken. Some adult language.)

      My career goal is to be a rock god.  Really?  That’s what kids wrote on their job applications these days?  Dick sighed.

      The intercom’s light blinked a few seconds before the phone actually rang.  He looked up from the pile of applications in front of him through the front window of his office.  His secretary, prim, disapproving Ellen, sat at her desk holding the receiver to her ear.

      He answered her call, “Yes?”

      “It’s time to pick up Nell for the party,” Ellen said.

      “Oh shit yeah, thanks”

      Dick hung up and tossed the applications into his briefcase so he could look them over again later at home.   Why did his best candidate have to fail the pee test?

       Ellen was still watching him. Was he just imagining the pity in her eyes?  He couldn’t blame her.  He was pathetic.  A real man didn’t get beaten up by a woman.

      He picked up his briefcase along with what was left of his pride and walked past Ellen’s desk.  He plastered a smile on his bruised and swollen face, “I have my cell so call if you need anything.”  She pursed her lips in a sort of smiling grimace but said nothing.

      Maybe it was time to make Ellen a cashier and find a new secretary.  She was just another reminder of Jane.  Every time he saw her he remembered the day his wife announced over the store’s loudspeaker that Ellen was giving him blowjobs at lunch.  He was surprised he still had a job after her stunt. What she said wasn’t true, of course, and filing for divorce seemed to soothe Ellen and corporate, but he had a harder time with the grandma who’d been in the toy aisle with her grandson and wanted Dick to get the kid to stop saying blowjob to everyone he met.

      Standing silently in front of Ellen he realized they were both probably thinking about the same thing.  He blurted out, “See you tomorrow” and quickly left.  Yes, he should definitely make her a cashier… or something.

      The offices of Save Now Drugs exited from behind the service desk.  Every time he walked past it he could almost see Jane standing there in that bright yellow dress, asking a clerk for the manager so she could show him the new line of cosmetics from Sofella.  He was lost the moment she turned her high-powered smile on him.   He bought her line of cosmetics… and a few other things as well.  Too bad he didn’t find out she was a paranoid, controlling bitch until after he’d said that bit about ‘til death do us part.

      Dick walked through the half empty parking lot to his car, detouring past the construction so he wouldn’t have to use his usual tae kwon do lie on the guys.  This project was his baby – a sign that could be seen from interstate.  He was still a little surprised corporate had found the money.  The men lowered the support posts into the gaping hole and tomorrow morning they were scheduled to fill it with cement.  Once that hardened, they’d crane the mother of all signage into place.  More profits meant a bigger bonus so the sooner that sign was up, the better.  Even though the judge had awarded him both Nell and the house, without Jane’s income he was on the verge of losing their home.

      After getting Nell from day care, Dick parked outside a house decorated with balloons.  He lifted her out of her car seat and said, “Remember last time and don’t eat so much candy, okay.”

      “I won’t daddy,” she said.  Now on her feet, she was skipping with excitement, her pigtails bouncing behind her.  “I just want cake and ice cream, cake and ice cream, cake and ice cream.”

      He smiled, “Don’t eat too much cake and ice cream either.  That will make your tummy hurt too.”  He took her hand and led her up the balloon-lined driveway.  Once she saw the other kids she ran off, her little hand slipping out of his.

      He loved her tiny hands.  When he first looked at Nell’s perfectly miniature fingers and toes, he thought maybe a baby would soften Jane’s rough edges and bring them together as a family.  Instead, after Nell’s birth, Jane had experienced some sort of break.  She became verbally abusive to Dick and overprotective of Nell.  The happy family he longed for would never be.

      Dick pulled into in his driveway.  It would be at least two hours before the climax of cake would be reached and Nell would be ready to leave. He wanted nothing more than to take a nap – a luxury he almost never got to indulge in now that he was a single dad

      He approached the front door, purposefully looking up at the house and away from the bloodstains on the front step.  Dick thought the divorce would finally get her out of his life but he was naive.  Not even the restraining order could do that.  Now the bloodstain would be yet another reminder of how deeply enmeshed she was in his life.   Every time he came home he would remember last night when he opened the door and he saw a kettlebell flying at him.

      He should have known that would be her weapon of choice. After Nell was born, Jane had quit her traveling sales rep job and started working at the local gym as a fitness instructor.  It wasn’t long after that the physical abuse to Dick started.  She taught several classes but kettlebell was her specialty.  Last night, if the screen door hadn’t been closed it probably would have crushed his skull, but instead it slammed into his face just hard enough to cause blood to pour from his nose and pain to shoot through his skull.  His reflex had been to push the door, which had sent Jane, wearing her usual four-inch heels, sprawling.

      Albert, from next door, jumped on top of her, pinning her to the ground.  She screamed for someone to call the police and Dick tried to stop the geyser erupting from his nose.  Mrs. Thomas, who was watching across the street from behind her blinds, called 911, but Jane was incensed when it wasn’t Dick the police hauled away.  She was the one now sitting in the city jail, nursing her rage.

      He stepped over the stain and into the darkness of the entryway.  The door clicked behind him and an intuitive chill rippled down his back.  Something was wrong.  He froze in terror, listening for movement inside the house.  He heard only the ticking of the wall clock they’d gotten as a wedding gift.

      And there she was again.  Another reminder.  Damn he was sick of her.  What was it going to take to get rid of her?  Dick exhaled sharply, dropped his briefcase and locked the deadbolt.  Kicking off his shoes, he shuffled into the kitchen to grab a beer before heading into the living room to stretch out in front of the TV.  He flicked through the channels, past baby mama drama and ads for technical schools that promised a new and better life, if you’d just get your lazy ass off the couch and call.  He settled on a rerun of Home Improvement.  Tim had insisted on fixing the garbage disposal himself and Dick knew the super duper motor was going to cause problems.  Even so, he was quickly sucked in and when Tim let out a grunt, Dick joined in.

      They were mid-grunt when the Tool Man was replaced with the local anchorman.  “We interrupt this program for a public safety announcement.  There has been an escape at the local city jail.  Earlier today an inmate freed himself and his incarcerated girlfriend.  Two guards were killed during their escape.  The inmates were caught hiding in a culvert just block from the jail, however after an extensive search, the woman’s cellmate has yet to be found.  She is not known to be armed, but may be dangerous.  We are urging residents to keep your windows and doors locked and report any suspicious….”

      That familiar chill washed over him again.  His index finger twitched, turning the TV off though the rest of him was frozen.   His breathing was shallow, but he was getting enough air to smell it and he knew.  She was in the house with him.  He could smell her perfume.  He’d probably smelled it when he walked into the house.  His terror grew as he heard cla-click… cla-click.  He’d heard it a million times – her heels coming down the stairs.

      He was amazed at the thoughts that ran through his brain when he should have been looking for a way out.  Dick found himself wondering if she was still wearing her prison jumpsuit.  What favors had she offered the guard to get her perfume smuggled into the jail?  What price had that guard ultimately paid?  Did she have the guard’s gun?  Or had she stuck with the tried and true kettlebell. Where had she gotten the heels?  Maybe it was a knife this time.  What outfit would they dress him in for his funeral?

      He wanted desperately to give her a moving target but remained frozen.  “Where’s Nell?”  Her voice cut through his fear and sent him into motion.  Nell.  Yes, he had to deal with this for Nell.  His eyes locked on the fireplace poker leaning against the wall across the room.  He stood up slowly and turned to face Jane.  No prison jumpsuit – jeans and a red top.  It was kettlebell and knife.  He was pretty sure they’d pick the Armani since it was the nicest suit he owned.

      “She’s still at daycare,” he lied.

      She stared him down and then decided he was telling the truth.  “Well, I guess I can kill you and then go pick her up.”

      She came down the stairs and Dick backed up as if he was afraid, which he kind of was.

He reached back, wrapped his fingers around the poker and swung it around, saying mockingly, “No, please.  We can work this out.”

      Jane paused and studied the new situation.  He had her on strength and reach.  He swung the poker again and added a snarl for effect.  Now she was the one backing away.  She tried to throw the kettlebell at him but it dropped well short.   She slashed the air between them with the butcher knife.   Searching with her free hand, she found the door handle and said with a smile, “Guess you finally found your balls.  That’s fine.  I’ll go pick her up and you’ll never see her again.  That plan works too. ”  Nothing happened when she turned the knob.  Not realizing the deadbolt was latched, she turned to see why the door wouldn’t open.

      It was the opportunity he needed.  He slammed the poker into the back of her head.  The spike punched through her skull and into the brain, killing her instantly but he swung again.  “You will not take Nell,” he screamed as he swung.  The crunch of the bone was half sickening and half satisfying.  The satisfying part scared him a little.  Maybe he finally had found his balls.

      Dick stared at the crumpled heap in shock.  What had he done?  What did he do now?  No point in calling the paramedics since she was clearly dead.  He couldn’t call the police.   How would he explain multiple hits with the poker to the back of her head?  Obviously she was trying to leave when he killed her.  That was called murder.

      So even dead she made his life hell.  The solution would be to find someplace to get rid of her body.  He’d feel bad about the continuing manhunt, but considering her minor charges, he doubted it would go on for long.

      So where?  He could spend the night burying her out in the country but that wasn’t fool proof.  Shallow, hand-dug graves had a habit of being found.  He needed a deep hole where nobody would ever find her.  A huge smile broke across his face.

      The next morning he pulled into his usual parking spot.  The teamsters were already hard at work with the cement truck grinding away, ready to pour the foundation.  Dick leaned over and looked into the hole.  Other than a few shoe prints he recognized as his own, it looked undisturbed.  Harley, the construction boss, joined him.  “You all set?” Dick shouted over the noise.”

      “Yup.  What happened to you?” Harley pointed at his fading bruises.

      “Tae kwon do.  Didn’t block my sparring partner.”

      Harley nodded, impressed. “Want me to start pouring?”

      Dick grinned, “Pour away.  Let’s get that sign up.”  Harley shouted and gave a thumbs-up to one of his men.  Cement poured down the spout and Dick watched it ooze around the support posts until it covered the bottom of the hole.

      He patted Harley on the shoulder and headed inside.  Just yesterday he’d wanted nothing more than to forget Jane and now he’d think of her every time he saw that sign.  He smiled.  He didn’t mind so much anymore.

Writer’s Block

(This one was written around 2001.)

Alex struggled to find his muse as he stared dully at the blank computer screen.  A shrewish voice sliced through the cluttered apartment.  “Damn it, I told you to buy some ice cream on the way home tonight.”  He heard the freezer door slam.

“I’m sorry Julie.  You didn’t give me enough cash,” he answered.  He kept his back turned but he could picture her leaning in the doorway of the kitchen with four days of dirty dishes piled behind her.  A beer bottle clinked against her wedding band.

“You know, you are a worthless piece of shit,” she blasted.   “I asked you for one little thing – pick up some ice cream.  Do you do it?  No.  You come home from your piss-poor, $9.50 an hour job and then you sit in front of that piece of crap computer all night.”

The smell of her cheap perfume mingled with hairspray reminded him of bug repellent.  He could almost feel it soaking into his skin and making his eyeballs sting.

Alex stared at the filthy verticals hanging cock-eyed in the window and tried to let it roll off his back. He knew she’d been on her feet all day waitressing.  He finally worked up his courage and swiveled to explain again, “You only gave me five dollars this morning.  Even if I only get a salad, it costs me $3.50.  There just wasn’t enough left.”

Julie pivoted on her three-inch spikes and headed for the door.  “Well, whose fault is that?  Turn off that damn computer and get a second job.  You know you’re wasting your time.  You’ll never sell anything.”

She put the empty bottle down on the end table stained with water rings.  He remembered grabbing the table off the street one night after someone had put it out to be picked up by the trash truck.  Their entire apartment was decorated in curbside chic.    She pulled back the dead bolt and chain on the door.  “I’m going out and when I get back, I want to see, the dishes done, the trash taken out and some ice cream in the freezer.”

The apartment door slammed behind her and bounced off the warped frame.  The manager hadn’t fixed anything in the building for over a year.  Alex knew he should try to fix it but home repair wasn’t his strong suit.  He got up and forced the door shut and reveled in the silence.

Alex decided to do his “chores” before playtime.  As he scrubbed the filthy dishes he remembered the people they were when they met ten years ago in college.  She had excelled in accounting and business.  He had been a young and gifted English major.   He just knew that the next great American novel lay buried somewhere within him.  Julie had seemed to believe in him even more than he’d believed in himself.  They had gotten married their junior year and she had dropped out of college to waitress and help put him through his senior year.   She planned to finish school as soon as he had established himself as a writer.

Everyone told Alex how gifted he was.  They also told him he needed time and practice to develop that gift.  At first he tried to hone his skills and make a living by selling articles and short stories.  Julie had been so excited when he’d received a $500 check for an article but, there had been no sales after that.  Alex wrote a novel that was rejected by every publisher he submitted it to.  Julie finally lost faith in him and demanded he get a job.  He would never forget the day when she sat him down in their tiny kitchen and said, “Honey…”  That was back when she still called him ‘honey.’  She’d said, “Honey, I think it’s time to grow up and face reality.  You aren’t going to make it as a writer.”  Her faith in him was gone.  His own faith was severely shaken but he couldn’t stop writing.

He had taken a data entry job not only to appease her but also because the monotony of keying in numbers left his mind free to create.   The years passed and he still hadn’t sold anything.  They were in the same cramped, run-down apartment and they hadn’t taken a vacation in years.  Julie was miserable.  It hurt him to admit it, but the harpy she had become was just as much his fault as hers.  He’d made a mess of both their lives.   Alex knew his writing had improved but he needed more time to truly focus on his craft.  He wondered how much better he would be if he didn’t have to earn a living.

After taking the trash out, he eased himself into the old desk chair balancing carefully on the three remaining wheels.   For the first time that day, Alex felt truly alive.  Even if he never sold a thing, he knew he would always write.  He loved words.  He loved pulling them out of the air and weaving them together to create something out of nothing.  Writing was the only thing that gave him joy anymore.  At first, sentences came haltingly.  But as he left the real world and entered his imagination, words and ideas began to flow from his fingertips.  He lost himself in a creative whirlwind.   Minutes, then hours passed without awareness.  It was the words… just the words.  There was nothing else.

At eleven o’clock all of Alex’s creativity was chased from his mind by two words.  Ice cream!  Nearly knocking the wobbly chair over, he dashed madly into the bedroom, found her stash, and peeled five dollars from the wad.  He hoped she wouldn’t miss it.

Just two blocks away was a convenience store.  As he hurried down the street a friendly voice called out, “Hey Writer-man.  How’s the book coming?”  His neighbor, a grizzled black man known as Macarthur leaned against a light post.  Retired but always well-dressed, he could be seen talking to passers-by as he puffed on an old cigar.

“It’s goin’ okay, Macarthur.  It’s goin’ okay, “Alex answered as he kept walking.

“That’s good.  You keep workin’ on it boy.  Some day they’re gonna be selling that book of yours at the newsstand up the street.  I’m gonna buy me a copy and read it.”  He chuckled from deep in his chest and then wheezed out a cough.

“Not if you keep smoking those things Macarthur.”

“When you sell that book, I’ll quit the stogies.”

Alex continued on, walking past open windows where he could hear the sounds of the day disappearing into silent sleep.  Across the street, a couple returning from their date, kissed goodnight.  Despite the poverty, he genuinely liked the feel of his block.  It still felt like a neighborhood where people looked out for each other.  Someday he hoped to start a writing program for the kids here.  They needed to know they could do something positive with their lives.  But tonight, his mission was ice cream.  Saving the world would have to wait until later.

When the alarm went off the next morning he tried not to wake his wife who was sprawled across the bed still wearing her clothes from last night.  Despite his care, Julie cracked open an eye and mumbled, “Geez, yer loud.  Go away so I can sleep.”

In the kitchen, he saw the empty ice cream carton sitting on the counter as well as a bunch of empty beer bottles.  She must have had the girls over.   He was glad he’d learned to sleep through her parties.

When he got to work, there was already a pile of papers waiting to be entered into the computer.    His fingers sped across the numeric keypad as plot points and dialogue skittered through his thoughts.  As the day wore on, he would discard the scenes that didn’t work.  In the evening he would pour the scenes that did work into the keyboard.

At lunch he sat alone in his cubicle with a notebook skimming the newspaper for new ideas and characters.  He was drawn to the headline, “Jailhouse Novelist Captivates Readers.”  The article was about a man who had been in prison for murder.  Thanks to taxpayer dollars, he’d gotten his college degree and had spent the remainder of his sentence penning a novel.  Now he was a free man and his book was wowing the critics and making him rich.

“It’s not fair,” Alex muttered to himself.  “I bust my ass to get my degree.  I bust my ass to find time to write.  It’s just not fair.”

Fair or not, he was back at work an hour later.  His supervisor wandered among the rows of cubicles swatting each one with a bundle of rolled up papers as he passed by.  Alex stopped working to silently hate the pompous walk his boss had acquired.  Then he turned slowly, scanning the rows of cubicles in the large office space.  His vision seemed to shimmer and then come into focus.  He could suddenly see his co-workers laboring silently in their cells while the warden was passing through the prison block.  As he recognized his prison for the first time, bile crept up the back of his throat.  Time seemed to stand still until Alex stood up and calmly walked out of the office.

At home, Alex printed out his novel in progress.  He also grabbed Julie’s cash.  He slipped the manuscript into a manila envelope while the cash went into a #10 envelope.  On his way down the street he ran into Macarthur again.  “Macarthur?  I need you to do something for me.”

“Sure.  Writer-man whatever you need.”

“This is my manuscript.  I want you to hang onto it for a few days.  Then I want you to bring it back to me.  This other envelope I want you to keep at home until after you see me again and I can explain.”

Macarthur looked confused, “Sure, I guess.  Where you goin’?”

“I’m going to the store.  I’ll see you later.”

Alex hesitated before entering the store.  He took a deep breath, squared his shoulders and walked in.  Minutes later, the parking lot was filled with cops braced for a confrontation with their guns drawn.  Alex walked out, threw a bag on the ground and put his hands up.  A few dollar bills fluttered from the bag and scattered on the ground.   Within moments cold steel cuffs pinched his wrists and he was being loaded into the back of a police cruiser.

That evening, he had his first visitor.  Julie sat on the other side of the glass glaring at him.  “You dumb shit,” was all that came out of her mouth.   Her voice sounded distant and hollow through the mesh circle in the window.  He didn’t bother to respond.  Finally she added, “I’m filing for divorce, you know.”  He simply nodded and smiled as she turned and stomped out of the room.

Alex pled guilty. The judge took into consideration his plea and the fact that he had a clean record.  He was sentenced to four years in the state penitentiary just outside of the city.

By the time Macaurther tracked him down, Alex had already been transferred to the penitentiary.  In the visitation room, Macarthur peered at him with a glum look on his weathered face.  “Writer-man, what did you do?”

Alex smiled calmly.  “It’s okay Macarthur.  I just traded one prison for another, but at least here, I have time to write.“

Macarthur shook his head and said, “I brought you your book like you wanted.”  The corrections officer had finished inspecting it and handed it to Alex.

“Thanks.  Inside that other envelope I gave you is some cash.  Take it.  Buy yourself some good cigars.  All I ask is that you use some of the cash to bring me notebooks and pencils now and then.  Will you do that?”

“I think you’re plum crazy, boy, but I’ll do it.”

Walking down the cellblock and flipping through the printed pages, he couldn’t wait to get started.  Time was no longer an issue – nor was paying the rent, buying groceries, or his wife’s expectations.   As the door to Alex’s cell clanged shut behind him, joy surged through his veins and bubbled out in laughter.    For the first time in years he felt truly free.