No Future In Arguing

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Because of the argument with her mother, Lakshmi wasn’t able to sleep. It happened ten days ago to this very minute and her hatred for her mother hadn’t abated one iota. Truth to tell, she wasn’t able to remember who started the argument or what the initial disagreement was about, but, as with most feuds, it opened a doorway for all the other things, the niggling bits of minutia to spill out and words were exchanged and feeling were hurt on both sides.

Ten days of freezing her mother out. Ten days of refusing to eat or talk or even be in the same room as her mother. Ten nights of lying awake in bed, staring at the headlights of passing cars that trailed rectangles across her ceiling. Lakshmi knew every inch of the ceiling and walls of her room like the back of her hands… which was why she was shocked when her eyes fell upon the crack.

It was beside the mirror that sat atop her chest of drawers, a horizontal crack no longer than a foot in length that looked like a demonic smile. Lakshmi stared at the crack, long and hard, wondering how she had missed something so obvious before… when it blinked. All right, so maybe blinked wasn’t the proper word, but she could have sworn she saw a light flicker from within the crack.

Probably just the wiring, she thought as she pushed a chair against the wall beneath the crack. At night Lakshmi heard mice scurrying between the walls. One of them must have nibbled on a wire and exposed it. She’d have to remember to tell her father in the morning. She was sure it had to be a fire hazard.

Lakshmi stood on the chair and inspected the crack, running her index finger along its jagged yet smooth edge. It was surprisingly cold to the touch and she thought she felt a slight suction… then the flicker again.

This time she was sure she hadn’t imagined it. Lakshmi leaned forward and stared into the crack and was surprised to see something within it. She saw…

Herself.

It was like watching a movie. She watched herself being herself, doing the things she normally did, but not in any day she ever remembered. The images began at a normal pace then sped up to such a degree where to anyone else they would have appeared to be nothing but a blur but Lakshmi was able to follow along because she was somehow connected to them. They were her personal images, of her life and she was living them, retaining the information contained within them.

Her eyes glued to the crack, Lakshmi watched the rest of her life, the entirety of her existence, literally flash before her:

  • Her relationship with her mother falls apart in a series of little spats over the next few years that leads to the big fight when she turns seventeen that causes irreparable damage. That will be the final time the two will ever speak to one another.
  • Her father grows miserable with all the constant fighting, which wears on his soul until he can’t take it anymore. Lakshmi cries uncontrollably the day he finally leaves their home for another woman. She begins smoking to handle the stress.
  • Her dream career of becoming a geophysicist vanishes that day she quits college for a job that allows her to move out of the family home and away from her mother for good.
  • She works so many menial jobs, none of which manages to hold her attention for very long, and slowly saps all the dreams and creativity she holds in reserve. With each successive job, the sheen in her eyes dulls a bit more.
  • As with the job situation, so, too, her love life. Her many attempts at love fail for the same reasons time and time again. Somehow, she becomes relationship poison and seeks out the same.
  • Eventually, her worries and frustrations in finding a mate causes her to settle for a man beneath her standards, a man who adds nothing to her life, a man who also works dead end job after job with no hope of career advancement.
  • Then comes the struggle to save money for secondhand furniture and a used car, and as rents increase, their apartments over the years become smaller and rattier.
  • She cries alone in the bathroom with a pregnancy test showing a positive result.
  • The birth of her daughter, Enid, is agonizing and when it’s done and the baby is placed in her arms, she knows she should feel something, tries to feel love, but the emotions just won’t come.
  • Not long after, she’s pregnant again with a premature boy this time, Jack, and makes the effort to spread the already nonexistent love even thinner.
  • Jack is born sickly and remains that way. Medical bills mount that they’re unable to pay, and her husband comes home later and later complaining of overtime that is never reflected in his paycheck.
  • Fed up, her husband leaves in much the same way that her father did, for another woman, and she now is forced to get a second job to make ends meet.
  • Her already distant relationship with her daughter grows volatile when Enid turns to drugs after running with a group of delinquents.
  • Jack’s condition worsens and neither her husband nor Enid are present at the hospital as he dies.
  • She develops a cough that turns into a hacking fit that turns into lung cancer that kills her a day before her sixty-sixth birthday. And like her son, she, too, dies alone.

Lakshmi thought the images would stop there, but was sadly mistaken. She was actually able to see beyond her own death, where Enid, holding a one-year Narcotics Anonymous recovery coin, arrives at her hospital room moments too late. Too late to apologize, too late to make amends, too late to say “I love you.” And the pain of this sends her running back to a den to score, where a fatal hot dose takes her life.

***

A noise, the sound of wood and plaster breaking in reverse, pulled Lakshmi away from the visions of her future and back into the room with such a quickness that she staggered back, fell off the chair, and hit the hardwood floor with a heavy thud.

A concerned woman’s voice called from outside the room and down the hall. Her mother. The woman she hated mere moments ago and wished all the nastiness a seven-year-old girl’s mind could muster… but now, there was something else. Something she couldn’t quite remember. The images of her future started jumbling inside her head to point they made no sense and turned into so much mental vapor.

Something about her father and her husband leaving? Something about a baby… a girl, or maybe a boy, sick and dying? And a fight, a big fight…

Lakshmi scrambled to her feet and raced out of the door and down the hall as memories evaporated from her mind. There was something she had to do, something before these feelings vanished and she went back to being angry.

Lakshmi burst into her parents room, where her father, just about to fall into a deep sleep, jumped at the girl’s sudden arrival.

Her mother, on the other hand, was fastening her dressing gown and about to investigate the sound from her daughter’s room, when her daughter rushed up, arms flung wide and embraced her.

“I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!” Lakshmi sobbed, as the memories of her future disappeared completely.

Her father watched in confusion. Her mother shrugged at him, smiled and stroked her daughter’s hair, cooing that everything will be all right. Everything will be just fine now.

***

In Lakshmi’s room, the crack in the wall, once the length of a wooden school ruler, began to shrink, as the wall knitted itself whole again.

Sally forth and be patching things up with family members and friends to avoid bleak futuresingly writeful.

– Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

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The Math of the Moment

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There were two things that Evan knew:

  1. Mathematics
  2. He lived the wrong kind of life

The first he had known nearly all his life, from age four, if a proud mother’s braggadocio was to be believed. The second he only recently discovered, when he first laid eyes on The Woman. As was his nature, Evan quickly tabulated the absolute value in his head to assess his chances with her. The figures hadn’t added up.

The Woman, obviously accustomed to being the object of men’s stares, avoided eye contact with every XY chromosome in the room as she stood in the doorway and scanned the tables for a place to sit. There were so many free spaces, Evan hadn’t given the possibility of her settling next to him a second thought… until she did just that.

Suddenly the nearness of her had Evan checking the computations of his existence and wondering how he came to live a life so cruel as to deny him the reality of waking up beside The Woman every single morning. The closer she stepped, the more he realized just how lacking he was. The more he examined himself, the further away he pushed the percentages of the two of them spending the rest of their lives together.

But even though he knew down to his square root that nothing could ever have existed between them, he couldn’t let the thought of her go. He wracked his brain trying to suss out what needed to be done to correct their blaring parities.

What charismatic calculus would he have had to perform in order to make the possibility of a relationship between them a reality? What was he lacking that could have been excavated from the untapped depths of his soul in this limited time they cohabitated at this table, these minutes that were passing far too quickly. that would have given her pause? What prime number would have made her consider the impossible? Convinced her to go against every single internal voice and take a chance on a fractioned man well past his sell-by date? A man who needed her greater than she would ever have needed him?

Instead of coming up with solutions to solve the theorem, he vapor locked. He went to the place where he should have found inspiration and courage and instead stood staring down at a dry well.

If this were a movie, a romantic comedy following a by-the-numbers formula, this would have been their meet cute moment, where though she had no time for him, Evan would somehow have found the nerve to punch above his weight class, as he swung for the fences, until he stumbled upon that one right sentence, quite by accident, that would have opened the door of their budding relationship just a crack.

But this wasn’t a movie in which Evan had access to some writer, a prince of prose, to whip up a witty bit of icebreaking banter, which meant he sat there quiet as a church mouse as the woman of his dreams failed to acknowledge his presence as she sipped her small yet overpriced mall beverage and worked her delicate thumbs across her smartphone keypad.

Perhaps he had approached it wrong. His shyness and lack of confidence in this situation was the problem, but all problems had a solution, so if he somehow broke down the math of the moment, he could not only solve the equation but restructure the formula to his benefit.

And so he began with

The Problem

He was absolutely enchanted by this stranger, who, when she left this table, wouldn’t have known him from Adam due to his insecurities. And while the thought of either tricking or forcing her to have affection for him against her will was a repulsive notion, he wanted to at least put forth the concept of a relationship between them.

The Equation

The left-hand side of the equation needed to describe the geometry of the manifestation of what a man considered love and the lengths he would go through to achieve it. The right-hand side needed to reflect the concomitant swirling curvature of a woman’s nurture and passion weighed against the romanticized notions of love.

Evan pulled a tattered notebook from his backpack and wrote the equation. Front and back on all the blank pages. On the backs of pages containing non-related items. In the margins. On every napkin he laid his hands on. and finally on the table itself.

He wrote and wrote until his brain collapsed under the sheer weight of computations, then he wrote some more. He continued to write until he finally discovered…

The Solution

Evan straightened his back, turned to The Woman, cleared his throat and said in a voice squeakier than he would have liked, “Excuse me, Miss. Hello, my name is Evan.”

Sally forth and be mathing your way into the perfect relationshipingly writeful.

– Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

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Things Kept Precious

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My mother warned me to guard the things I held precious by keeping them hidden inside me. The only thing I held precious was her and I found it impossible to place her inside my body. I was too young to understand she was talking about love. Too young to save the best parts of my mother’s love in my heart. Too consumed by the hate caused by her leaving me on my own. Too young to accept that death comes to us all.

It was hard to hold onto her love. Hard because I watched her body decay and rot away to nothingness. I watched to see the precious things she kept inside her and where she managed to hide them so I could do the same. I never found them. I watched as I picked vermin from her flesh and fought away carrion from her decaying form, until the day she was unrecognizable to me.

In particular, I watched her heart. Who knew what was inside there but I knew it was fragile because my mother spoke many times about how it had been broken. She said, “Sometimes you have to break a heart to find out how strong it really is.”

But when her heart became visible, I couldn’t see any cracks. I watched it as it bruised like an apple and disintegrated away. Nothing inside it but emptiness. I was hoping to see love—even though I had no idea what love looked like—or at least be privy to some secret that would explain the world to me. I found none of those things.

Her heart was a chamber for maggots. That was what my mother kept precious. Little disgusting creatures that fed off her body. They were everywhere. Stripping my mother of her beauty.

It grew harder to remember her face. I tried to recall the last time I saw her eyes or her smile but that memory was too distant in the past, lost in the forest of forgetfulness.

Occasionally I dreamt of my mother, standing in a room somewhere I had never been but yet felt so familiar to me, her face was a storm. Clouds roiled where features should have been. When she spoke, her voice was a swarm of black bees the drained the life of anything it touched. The bees blotted out the room and ate a pet dog I only had in dreams and never in real life, before coming for me.

I would run from the house and through the trees, down a dirt path that led to a black pond of brackish water. The water called to me and I was torn for the water was frightening, but so too were the bees who devoured trees on their way to eat me.

No real choice at all, I dove into the pond and discovered the water was actually tar and I was being pulled in, just as other creatures foolish enough to make the same mistake, the same fear-based choice as I had.

My nose and mouth filled with hot thick liquid, bitter molasses that scorched my insides, and melted me like butter on the griddle.

I woke alone in the dark, choking for air, my chest weighted with the heaviness of fear. My breathing was a thick, wet noise like someone sloshing through mud — or tar! — and I no longer felt safe in this world, so I did the only thing I could think to do.

I crawled inside the remains of my mother’s body and wrapped her tight around me so that I could be the thing she kept precious.

Sally forth and be keeping things preciousingly writeful.

– Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

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The Island of Misfit Posts #2: No Enemy But Time

Like its predecessor, Discouraged by Discouragement, this pesky fella here is another one of those posts that didn’t quite turn out as expected and ended up on the cutting room floor (though a part of its sentiment made its way into You’re Where You Are). Caught somewhere between my musings of growing older while still struggling with the craft and my intent of advising impatient writers to slow down, the post started taking the shape of something neither fish, flesh, nor good red herring:

“Do you think, I have not just cause to weep, when I consider that Alexander at my age had conquered so many nations, and I have all this time done nothing that is memorable!” — Julius Caesar

When you reach a certain age, you become acutely aware of time, how much you’ve squandered on things you swore were important at the moment, and how little you still have left in your account. Whenever I get the time brain bug, I’m always brought back to the line from Delmore Schwartz’s poem, Calmly We Walk through This April’s Day (quoted in that horrendous film Star Trek: Generations), “Time is the fire in which we burn.” I love that line. It resonates within me.

But I digress.

Many aspiring authors feel the pressures of time, either believing because of their age that they’ve gotten a late start in the writing process and need to play catch up, or simply haven’t got the proper time to devote to a writing regime, so they attempt to bang out herculean writing tasks without bothering to first learn the rules. They assume because they’ve taken on board the advice to write everyday that their skill set automatically improves and mistakes auto-correct themselves. They read, as instructed, but fail to apply storytelling rules–plotting, story goals, scenes and sequences, the purpose of characters, effective use of dialogue–to their own work.

That’s not to say their writing is bad, it simply lacks a consistent quality. A beautiful bit of prose or a dynamic character can easily get lost in the quagmire of weak grammar, poor pacing, and a meandering plot. Recognizing it can sometimes be hard to turn an objective eye on your own writing, here are a few questions to ask yourself, to see if you need to go back to writers boot camp:

1. Do you tell a story?

I assume you’re familiar with the phrase, “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” This applies to your writing as well, especially when you’re concentrating on your piece at the word choice and sentence structure level. Sometimes it helps to take a step back and get a big picture view of what you’re attempting to do, what it is you’re really trying to write about. The answer isn’t always as clear cut as you’d imagine.

2. Is your writing concise?

This one’s a toughie, because it calls on you to chuck out everything you learned in school about the proper way to write an essay. Well, this ain’t about writing essays, bub (or bubette, no gender discrimination here) and the rules of pacing language are different in fiction. The first rule you need to learn is: Never use a long sentence when a short one does the same job.

3. Are you addicted to adjectives and adverbs?

Adjectives and adverbs are among the more hotly debated issues in the writing community, and while opinions vary, the common rule of thumb is less is more. It can be hard to spot over usage while writing so when you’re done with your piece, look for chains–a string of adjective and adverb two or greater–and whittle it down until you’re left with one or two essential ones. Also worth bearing in mind, when you feel the need to modify a noun or a verb, make sure they need to be modified. If they do, select the best word to convey your meaning.

4. Are you familiar with the word “subtle?”

Your audience is smarter than you realize. There’s no need for you to spell everything out in exacting detail. And, believe it or not, some folks actually enjoy interpreting things for themselves.

5. Should you be shifting viewpoints?

Hopping from one character’s head to another without causing audience confusion requires a certain level of skill, and I’m certainly not suggesting that you shouldn’t be doing it (and if I told you not to, you’d rush out and do it anyway) but why not baby step your way towards it? Work on mastering the one character viewpoint first.

6. Do you show too much?

Yes, the standard rule is “show, don’t tell” but you don’t need to show everything. When in doubt, refer to Elmore Leonard’s rule,”Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

7. Do you create apathetic characters?

You’re an artist, your work is all about the truth, even in fiction. I get it. I’ve been there. But creating a realistic character based on your current bout of apathy, depression, or (heaven forbid) suicidal thoughts, often doesn’t make for good reading. Your characters must have wants and needs to push the plot forward. Audiences have no need to read stories where the characters have no desire to live or accomplish something.

8. Is your antagonist one dimensional?

Villains that are evil for evil’s sake are boring. Flesh them out with wants and needs like you would your main character. And remember, every villain is a hero in their own mind.

9. Does your dialogue matter?

Yes, leaving white on the page is a good thing as no one like slogging through dense blocks of description, but are you breaking up paragraphs with bits of meaningless chatter? Dialogue should be used as a communication between characters that evokes reaction. One characters says something that another character reacts to, which sparks a reaction, and so on, until the scene concludes. If you have no idea what your character has to say, then you don’t know your character well enough.

10. Can you write an ending?

Some people excel at writing beginnings, and that all they’re good at. Each chapter is a new beginning, with no middle to be found and as for an ending? I’m sure you can work out the answer to that. Other people get off to a slow start in the beginning, come into their own in the middle and peter out at the finish line. Let’s face it, endings are tough. Not only must you keep it clear and simple while you deliver on the promise of the premise (without being didactic), but you have to tie up all your story’s loose ends, and if you’re planning to surprise your audience, it shouldn’t be with an inappropriate twist, added for shock value. Keep in mind that writing the words “The End” doesn’t finish a story if it has no resolution.

In truth, I couldn’t finish it because I wasn’t in the proper frame of mind at the time. Although it might not be visible in the post, that damned time brain bug kept nagging at me, not with words, but with a feeling – the feeling of being left behind in the race for achievement. Before you say a word, I know better. In fact, one of my favorite quotes on this matter comes from the now famous commencement speech, Ladies and gentlemen of the class of ’97:

“The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself.”

But we’re human, aren’t we? And sometimes knowing a truth doesn’t prevent you from feeling the exact opposite.

Sally forth and be writeful.

— Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys