Category Archives: Fiction

Flash Fiction: The Bottom Shelf

Everything would be over at midnight. The parties were winding down, the shops were empty, the people who just couldn’t wait were lying in the gutters. There had been a pervasive miasma of alcohol, sweat, and vomit all over downtown for the last week, and Richie was reminded of that when a stray breeze blew across Peachtree Street and almost straight into his sinuses. Like with everything else that had happened that day, a little voice in his head piped up and said “That’s the last time you’ll ever smell that.” Like with everything else that had happened, he ignored it.

He could hear drunks in the street, occasional sirens, a random sound of maybe a cat rummaging through the garbage. Pets had taken over the city; people who knew they didn’t have more than a few days left on the planet apparently didn’t care about making sure Rover or Boxy or Colonel Kittypants was comfortable. That still offended him a little, but he had other things on his mind.

The front doors of the Central Fulton County Library had long since been shattered, probably during the early days of the riots before everyone realised there was nothing anyone could do about it and everyone… and everyone was damn near a literal description… shifted into drunk orgy mode. Richie had walked past three couples, a triple, and some permutation he’d never seen out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting, just in the last block. He’d been invited and propositioned in more ways than he could count. And if he was being perfectly honest with himself, he might have considered it a couple of days ago. But now, he only had an hour left, and he knew exactly whom he wanted to spend it with.

The third floor, general collections, was mostly untouched. Some of the computers had been ripped out, but by the time the looters got to the library, everyone had figured out that they couldn’t take anything with them to Heaven, Hell, or Detroit, wherever they wound up. He angled his flashlight off to the right, but not too far. Regardless of what was going on, he didn’t want to step on anything like broken glass or a book that someone had knocked off a shelf. Especially not the latter.

The card catalog had of course been moved to the cloud and was therefore completely useless, but that didn’t matter. He’d long since memorized the number that he was looking for. 821.17. And even before he learned that everything was going to blow up, he would have been able to find this shelf in the dark. Faced with a half hour left on the planet, there was only one thing that he wanted to do. And he had nothing else on his mind until he turned the corner and pointed his flashlight right into a woman’s face.

She was sitting crosslegged, across from the shelf he needed to go to, and had a camper’s flashlight strapped to her forehead. To her credit, once she blinked a few times, she adjusted to the new lighting and looked back down at her book. She kept at least part of an eye on him, though, something he did when he was reading in public and was worried someone might start talking to him. He really didn’t want to interrupt her reading, but he didn’t think there was anything else he could say in this situation.

“I’m Richie,” he said.

“Kristen.”

He slid over to the 820s and ran his light along the spines.

“I didn’t think anyone else would be doing this. It just seemed like too good an idea.”

“There’s no better one.”

“What are you reading?”

Canterbury Tales.

He turned around, careful not to point the light directly in her face. “Me, too. At least, that’s what I came here for.”

“Good choice,” she said.

“I’m looking for the original, though. The Middle English version.”

“They only have one copy,” she said, and held up her thick brown tome.

He walked across the aisle and crouched down next to her. Something crashed outside but neither of them jumped. Things had been crashing for weeks, and it it was ‘the big crash’ neither of them would have time to think about it, anyway.

“And no, you can’t read it when I’m done, either,” she said, and smiled at him.

“I’ve always liked the original,” he said. “It was a little tricky when I first tried to read it. Okay, a lot tricky. But…”

“…it’s part of English heritage. It’s like reading the DNA of our language.”

He looked at her, amazed. “Exactly. And what better way to spend the last hours of the English language than reading the first hours?”

She looked up at him. She was smiling, but there was something else in her eyes as well.

“Which one were you going to read?”

“‘The Pardoner’s Tale,’ probably. It was a toss-up between that and the Prologue. You?”

“‘The Miller’s Tale.'”

“That one? That’s nothing but a long medieval fart joke.”

“Oh, kiss my nether eye, okay? I like it.”

“Well, maybe I can just read one of the translations, then.” He was almost standing up again when he heard the most horrifying, godawful ripping noise. Then she handed him the first half of the book.

“I can’t believe you did that,” he said. “You… ripped a book?”

“I’ll buy them a new one tomorrow,” she said. “Anyway, this kind of literature was meant to be shared.”

He stretched out one hand and gingerly took the book fragment. She did have a point. And there were many worse things one could do at the end of the world.

He sat down next to her and leaned against the shelf. Without saying anything, she leaned against his shoulder so her camper’s light was pointing at their book. After he set the flashlight down, he took her hand and settled back and waited for the end of the end.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Beginnings Friday

I hope you liked yesterday’s flash piece. It was based on family folklore dating back to my early teens, and also a sneaking conviction that my cat knows a  lot more than she reveals. I think most writers have a similar belief. Plus, flash pieces and short-short stories help clear my mind for my larger projects, and I highly recommend them to anyone who wants to do any kind of creative work.

Today is also Book Beginnings Friday over at Rose City Reader, and while this week I’ve been a little light on the blogging (I’ve taken on a few students, and I’ve been mulling over a pretty big decision) I’ll catch up this week with my musings on books and movies and Hallowe’en and other fun things. Today’s ‘Book Beginnings’ comes from a book I just started, but one I’ve meant to read for years, Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools. No, not this “Ship of Fools,” though I confess that my musically-angled brain sings this song nearly every time I look at the cover. This one:

August, 1931 — The port town of Veracruz is a little purgatory between land and sea for the traveler, but the people who live there are very fond of themselves and the town they have helped to make… There is maybe a small sign of uneasiness in this pugnacious assertion of high breeding; in this and in the methodical brutality of their common behavior towards the travelers who must pass through their hands to reach the temporary haven of some ship in harbor. The travelers wish only to be carried away from the place, and the Veracruzanos wish only to see the last of them; but not until every possible toll, fee, extortion, and bribe due to the town and its citizens has been extracted. It is in fact to the passing eye a typical port town, cynical by nature, shameless by experience, hardened to showing its seamiest side to strangers:  ten to one this stranger passing through is a sheep bleating for their shears, and one in ten is a scoundrel it would be a pity not to outwit. In any case, there is only so much money to be got out of each one, and the time is always short.

It’s always nice to pick up a book and realise that you can safely sink into the comforting hands of a true master of the craft. As a former sailor, I’ve passed through many towns that seemed exactly so, or at least they did on the surface. Sometimes, such as in Newport, Rhode Island, you could dig under the surface a little and find one of the warmest groups of people you would ever meet on the planet. And sometimes, such as in… well, a bunch of other port cities… you find that when you’ve finally dug through the garbage, there’s nothing but sewage and pain and cynical, hardened creatures quite comfortable wearing their person-suits and pretending to be human.

This weekend:  book reviews, movies, Hallowe’en, and other fun things.

 

Flash Fiction: The Knitting Helper

Hello, Ma’am. My name is Chuck, and I can fix that for you. Yes, we do offer help for people who buy yarn at our shop. Yes, I know you’ve bought yarn here before, but this is obviously not ours.

Yes, that is indeed one of our bags, but we’ve never carried that particular yarn.

Since you asked nicely, Ma’am, and since there’s no one in the shop, I can help you, today. Yes, honestly, this is my favourite part of the job. I like helping people who are willing to learn. Please, have a seat and let me look at your project.

Yes, Ma’am, you did indeed make a mistake here. And here. And here. And this stitch is dropped. And this one. And this. I can…

No, Ma’am, please do not say you’re just going to start over. I can show you how to fix that. It’s very easy to fix.

Ma’am, please… you’re doing it backwards.

No, I’m doing it the way you need to do it. Copy my movements exactly. That’s what I meant when I said “copy my movements exactly.”

No, Ma’am, now you’re knitting more. You need to be pulling out those stitches.

No, Ma’am you don’t have to…

Yes, Ma’am, that is indeed the proper way to take all two hundred stitches off the needles at once. Yes, those words were the proper curse words one yells when doing this. No, your project isn’t ruined, Yes I can show you how to…

Ma’am, let me just fix that for you. Please hand it to me.

Please, don’t throw your knitting.

Please, don’t throw my knitting.

Yes, Ma’am, this will take about five to ten minutes, but afterwards, you’ll be ready to start knitting again.

Yes, this is a little tricky. Whenever I do this for my own projects I have to block out all distractions.

Yes, I do this for my own projects all the time. And I do this in the shop for customers, when they’re actually customers. Let’s just say I’ve had a lot of practice fixing mistakes. Now, give me another few minutes.

Yes, I have been knitting a long time. No, I don’t think it’s that hard.

No, I don’t think it’s that strange for a man to knit. I enjoy it, and that’s the important thing, right?

No, I did not know that you don’t know any other male knitters.

No, I did not know that you’ve never heard of a male knitter.

Yes, Ma’am, I agree that it’s strange that when you first came in the shop you didn’t know I knitted. Even though I had two needles in my hand, with part of a sweater attached and a knitting bag next to me.

Oh, don’t worry about it. When you said “Well, I was hoping to get some knitting help but I guess I’ll have to wait until the lady who owns the shop comes back” I did not mind at all. Just the other day I was pulled over by a female officer and I greeted her with “Are you sure you’re a cop? I mean, it’s awful strange for a woman to carry a gun.”

Yes, this is indeed the tricky part. Like I said, when I do this myself, I turn off the TV and block out all distractions.

Yes, I try to tell everyone else to be quiet, too. This is indeed a…

Well, duct tape if I had any. Unfortunately, I usually just ask politely.

Yes, now I’m backing up becase I made a slight mistake, fixing your mistake. I have to concentrate.

No, I usually don’t talk when I’m concentrating.

No, I usually don’t listen when I’m concentrating, either.

Yes, I can fix this.

Don’t worry, the rest of your project looks fine.

Yes, I’m through the tricky part. Now it will just take a minute and you’ll be ready to go.

Why, yes, I also go to school. I want to be a teacher.

Well, thank you for agreeing that I would be a good one.

Why, yes, I think I do have a lot of patience. I haven’t yet told you to stuff your knitting up your ass and hitchhike to the back door of Hell.  Though I may have to ensure all the sharp pointed objects are on the other side of the shop the next time you come in.

You too, Ma’am. Have a great day. Thank you for shopping… err, thank you for coming by for free help and then buying your yarn online. I’ll not be seeing you again soon, I hope?

Happy Birthday, Bilbo

Today is the 77th anniversary of the publication of The Hobbit. I was going to post a small review of this book, or a little bit about what it means to me, but everyone in Hobbiton is doing the same thing today. This is going to go in a slightly different direction.

I discovered The Hobbit entirely on my own when I was 8. I was in a pilot AIT program (Academically Interested and Talented), it was winter in Michigan (that curious season that lasts roughly from October to May I think that might have been the year I wore a snowsuit under my Hallowe’en costume…) and we were in the library waiting for a bus to take us… somewhere. Not sure if school had been canceled halfway through, or if we were spending recess inside because of the snowstorm (which should alone tell anyone from the midwest exactly how bad the storm was), but for whatever reason, it was an extra library period which meant I could not have been happier. Sometime during that half-hour wait, I found a brown library-bound book that featured wonderful glossy illustrations of Dwarves, and Dragons on Treasure Piles, and other magical things. I brought it home and read it along with my Dad; I read a chapter during the day, and he read one at night.

A little while later, one of my Mom’s friends, who was something of a pleasant hippie who loved opera and weird fantasy told me that there was even more to the story than that one book, and she gave me a very tattered and well-loved copy of The Fellowship of the Ring. Yes, I might have been a little young for it, and I confess to skipping over parts of it during that first reading, but the story absolutely enthralled and enchanted me. Everything in my life then was either Star Wars (which was NOT called “A New Hope,” though word-of-mouth among the kids of my time spread concepts like “The Journal of the Whills,” and “The Clone Wars” and Obi-Wan beating Darth Vader (who also was nobody’s father, not that we knew of) in a lightsaber duel) or Tolkien. I fell hard for it, and a lot of my childhood memories are still linked to which chapter I was reading. I’m not entirely sure of what my parents thought of me reading adult fantasy, but they never said anything to me, not that I can remember.

Someone who did say something to me was a man I still think of as my foster Uncle. My blood kin were all on the west coast at the time, so my parents adopted other families; Bob and Sue were my parents’ age, they had two boys my age, and I can barely remember a time when I didn’t know them. We saw each other at least weekly, if not more, we eventually went to the same church, and he and my Dad played guitar together. They were definitely family, so far as I was concerned.

One thing I didn’t know about Bob, though, was that he was a die-hard Lord of the Rings fan. Not until he saw me reading The Fellowship of the Ring and didn’t believe that an 8-year-old actually was reading and understanding that book. I don’t remember exactly what he asked me, but I do know he quizzed me on what had happened so far. From that moment on, he became my fantasy book buddy; the worlds of Pern and Prydain and The Land (of Thomas Covenant) I explored directly because of him. He also gave me a nicer boxed set of the four Lord of the Rings books, and this brings me to what I’m rather obliquely going to write about.

The books had prefaces and introductions, including one by Peter S Beagle (whom I’d later come to love as the author behind The Last Unicorn) that told me that “FRODO LIVES!” was common graffiti in NYC. But in the blurbs from various publishers in the front of The Two Towers (then and now my favourite of the trilogy, though the film version of The Return of the King is by far the best of that series) there was one that stuck with me all these years.

This… is not for children; nor is it for whimsy-lovers and Alice quoters. Neither is it a dead moral apparatus festooned with poesy… It is an extraordinary work-pure excitement, unencumbered narrative, moral warmth, barefaced rejoicing in beauty, but excitement most of all; yet a serious and scrupulous fiction, nothing cozy, no little visits to one’s childhood.

Boy, did that piss me off when I read it. I was a child, I was reading it. Who was this silly grown-up to tell me the book wasn’t for me? (I feel the same way now when I read an Internet article titled something like “Five Things You’re Wrong About” or “Six Ways You’re Stupid about History” or such.) If anything, I think that quote made me want to read it even more. And yes, there were parts where it was a long slog, especially for a kid who just wanted to read about dragons and Nazgûl and Gollum, but I finished it, absolutely amazed at the ending. And the second ending. And the third ending. I still feel a little cheated when a fantasy novel ends at the death of the Big Bad, and the heroes dont go back and perform their own version of The Scouring of the Shire. And another thing Bob did for me was tell me that I’d read the books multiple times, and he was definitely right about that. In fact, I’m gearing up for another reading, since it’s been about ten years since the last. My fantasy tastes have changed so much since that dark winter in snowy Michigan, but I’ll still always hold that series dear to my heart.

Still, that blurb stuck with me, and years later, thanks to the magic of Rivendell… err, I mean, of the Internet, I was able to find the entire review. It’s short, too short, perhaps. But in its few paragraphs we get a glimpse into what fantasy fiction was like before LOTR hit the shelves. Adult CJ understands (now) that the writer wasn’t trying to cut down precocious children (even the ones who thought they were way more literary than they really were) but rather to tell people that, not only were they not too old to read fairy stories, but they were old enough.

Here’s the essay. Also, if you don’t recognise the works he compares the book to, do yourself a favour and check them out. Some of them are greatly flawed, but it’s nice to see the influence they had on Professor Tolkien and his world.

And now I think I’m going to pull down one of Tolkien’s poems and let myself wander Middle-Earth once more.

Donald Barr:  Shadowy World of Men and Hobbits

 

 

 

Reconstructions of Literary Characters

A few days ago, Moviepilot linked to an awesome blog, The Composites, uses police compositing software to create depictions of what famous characters look like according to their author’s descriptions. A few of these were spot-on to how I pictured them while reading the book (except I thought Annie Wilkes had blond hair?) In cases where a movie was made of the book, I felt vindicated at my own image rather than what many of the movies came up with. Definitely check it out.

The Composites