Creative Writing Class – Week 9 (Revised Fiction)

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Note:  This is a recent piece that got a little polished this week.  I’m still not calling it a final draft, but it’s a tad better and (I hope) clearer.

I appreciate any and all critiques.  I want to do this well…I’m too old to get defensive about my amateur work 🙂

Cushion

The moment my marriage changed, my husband Marv was snoozing on the beige felt couch we picked out together over twenty years earlier.  I think it’s in fine condition, but our children are ready to buy us one if we don’t do it ourselves, or so they say.  Granted, he had woken up only a few hours earlier that morning because, as he always says, he can’t stop being an early riser.  Let me tell you, when we were younger, that expression had a completely different meaning!

I had just finished the previous night’s dishes.  I had made him pork chops, but I had also taken a late-night call from Debbie Wasnidge, who had no one else to talk to about what she and her therapist discussed.

The nature of this marital change was one that would make his father—God rest his soul—disown him and his children abhor him.  Okay, maybe that’s a little rough.  He’s my husband, so I should start a little differently and accurately.  Marv has had commitment issues, but then again, what man hasn’t?  Whether it be with me or his work; he has always seemed to lack follow-through.  When we first started dating–can it be thirty years ago, really?–he was young.  I was too, but he was adventurous.  He had ambition.  “Driven” was the first word I used to describe him to my father the week before Marv’s first Thanksgiving at my parents’ house back in 1977.

As a young father, Marv immersed himself in our children.  He didn’t quite live vicariously through them or anything, but he certainly put his own goals aside–for decades–and helped me raise them to be responsible adults.  We succeeded as parents, but not as a couple.

Before he actually retired, he began talking about it whenever our children were all home.  He didn’t do it in hopes of having some grand, celebratory send-off or anything; he probably just liked hearing himself say it more often.  You know, to make it more real.  Like when you teach someone else a skill–you tend to learn more about the skill the longer you explain it.  Perhaps surprisingly, the children—all three of them–were relatively indifferent toward his choice to let go.  They certainly didn’t care about the financial rationale, which evolved as the overwhelming theme of his narratives.

Also, before he stopped working for good last spring, I began to see that old spark.  Until then, our entire relationship had accumulated decades of normalcy.  The old spark to which I now speak contained messages of road trips, new hobbies, extravagant dinners–the things we did before having children and responsibilities.

However, over the last seven months, I have realized they were just words.  Then I began to reflect throughout our marriage how often he did that.  Simply put, he has always calmed me down with words, filling me with so many hopes that never took flight.  Do I feel manipulated?  A little.  However, did I adopt and use the same behavior and use it toward him–and our children?  I’d be lying if I said no.

Marv has had an affair.

I still struggle with putting those words in a sentence like that.  Part of me would have rather said “Marv has Stage IV testicular cancer.”

It began that morning with me answering the phone, even though those large white words “Unknown Number” appeared clear as day.  Debbie Wasnidge’s therapist might offer a solid analysis as to why someone my age would wish to suddenly answer the phone in situations such as these.

            Don’t you know about telemarketers, Susan?

            Are you aware that hackers exist, Susan?

            People will go to great lengths to hide their identity, Susan.  Just don’t answer it.

Marv had been up for his daily walk but had come back only to fall asleep again while watching one of those silly small claims court programs.  He had been sleeping more and more, and I had been having trouble doing as much as I would have liked to do around the house.  With the dishes finally finished and my feet encouraging me to rest,  I thought about reading.  I’d donated my Mary Higgins Clarks to the church rummage sale two weeks earlier and had not found anyone else worth reading yet.  When you age, you tend to worry about odd things connected with your mortality such as “What if I start a book series and never get a chance to finish it before I die?”  Debbie Wasnidge had tried to force one of her trashy naked cover books to me, but I had respectfully declined.

So after I answered the unknown number and had listened to that nervous young woman speak, I only remember staring into my cooled chamomile tea.

“Ma’am,” she said after a long pause.  She thought I’d hung up, I suppose.

“Yes, I’m here.”  I cleared my throat but didn’t plan to say anything else.

She breathed deeply.  “I can only imagine how upset this makes you.  Please know this was a call I’d hesitated making for some time.”

It didn’t help, but I was glad she said it.

“You have to know, ma’am, that whatever happened between your husband and my mother had to have been short term at best.  For years, I was told my father died in a fishing accident and never had any reason to doubt my mother.  Who does at that age, you know?”

I thought of our kids and the few white lies I had dispelled whenever I was forced to field life’s tougher inquisitions.  I had to agree with her.

“Ma’am?”

“Yes, I’m here.  I’m sorry. I’m…”
“I understand,” she said.

She didn’t—no one who has not gone through this could—but I stayed mute and examined the arrangement of tea grains at the bottom of my #1 Mom mug.

“My mother and I have always been fairly honest with one another.  I’m an only child and she never re-married.”

Re-married?”

“Excuse me.  No.  Never married.  Forgive me, I’m so used to telling this story under my previous assumptions of what happened to my father.”

A long pause.  The mere idea that Marv had had a whole other marriage to attend to tackled my ticker, which Dr. Patel said needs “nourishment” and “rest.”

“Ma’am?”

“Yes, I’m here.”  I swallowed and rubbed my free hand along my thigh. “You were saying?”

She was crying.  I had no idea what she looked like, but for reasons I cannot still fathom, I pictured a thin woman beside a window–perhaps in a hotel–putting the phone to her chest to mute her uncontrollable bursts of emotion.

She sniffled.  “My fiancé,”

“Pardon me?”
For a few seconds more I listened to her attempt to overcome her obvious attachment to whatever she was about to say.  I took the phone away and listened closely for words, not sobs.

“A medical history…” she eventually said.  “I was sick a little while ago and eventually ended up talking to my GP about my history.”

Over the next few minutes, I learned that her mother had gone with her, offering the expected level of comfort in that situation.  The doctor sensed something from the mother once questions about the woman’s father–evidently my husband–came up.  He casually stepped out of the exam room with her mother.  She said she only heard muffled voices after that.  Then, however, her mother came back into the room alone and broke the news about her father not dying years ago as she had described.

“Ma’am?” she asked.

“I’m here.” Then I interrupted her before she could continue.  “Forgive me, though.  How did you happen to call me about this?”

She began to answer but I stopped her again.  Weirdly, it felt good.  I controlled the moment.

“How am I to know any of this is true?  What is it you want?  Why am I still talking to you?”

She must have sensed my urgent frustration because she pleaded with me not to hang up.  “I’m sorry, ma’am.  I know it’s…well, this whole thing for me has been…”

She eventually got around to explain her rather rudimentary detective skills.  Marv, unbeknownst to me, had succumbed to our children’s request for us to join Facebook.  The woman with whom I was now speaking had found him in a matter of moments.

I stood to take my mug to the sink when I heard Marv stretch.  Men his age are incapable of stretching soundlessly.   I stepped out to the sun room and glared at the empty grass where our children had played and yelped.

“You make coffee?” he asked.  I had assumed he was still on the couch but upright and probably doing that thing with his mouth that he knows I hate.

Then I listened to him ease to the kitchen.  I didn’t have to turn my head to know he was staring at the empty carafe.

“Miss?” I whispered.

“Yes, I’m here.”

“Could you give me your mother’s name?  Perhaps where she was living when you were born?”

She provided both, the second as if she were reading from the notes she’d scribbled on the thin pad hotels provide.

“I want you to call back in a few minutes.  Rather, is your mother around?”

“No.”

“Well, then,” I thought.  “Call back anyway and identify yourself as your mother.  Say nothing more.  My husband will answer it, and I’ll watch his face while you explain to him what you’re telling me.”

“I’m…I mean…okay, but…”

“It’ll be fine dear.  I have to do a little acting here for him to pick up.”
Marv cleared his throat and hollered, “You want some?”  I heard him unlocking the clasped canister.

“Miss?”

“Yes.  I’m here.”

“Ten minutes, okay?”

“Okay.  But please know my doctor needs my family history this afternoon.”

“Just call.”

I clicked End without saying anything formal and walked into the kitchen. “No, hon.  None for me.  I had tea earlier.”  He was filling up the carafe at the sink.  I placed my phone on the counter at the room’s threshold into the dining room.

“Marv?”

“Yeah, hon?”

“When was the last time you took me out for brunch?”

He smiled but did not look up and stopped the water.  “This morning, looks like.”

“Maybe look at some new sofas?”

“Anything, dear.”

He kissed my cheek.  Leaving the carafe beside the sink, he tucked in his shirt and smoothed his white hair.

He joined me at the doorway.  “Need your phone?” he said as he took his keys from the wooden Home key rack by the door.

“Don’t think so,” I grinned.  “Nobody calls anyway.”

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Quick Vent!

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I’m taking this 200-level creative writing class.  I like that I’m writing more stuff, but the critiques from my classmates and instructor leave much to be desired.  Today, I received “notes” from one of my online classmates about my revised story.  The bulk of Student X’s comments were something like this:

“It read like a story.  I get sleepy when I read stories.  I prefer poems because I write those.”

I’m not kidding.

There are only 11 students in this online class, and each of my journals and short activities has received one of these three comments from the instructor.

“Nicely done.”   “Well done.”   “Good job.”

That’s all the instructor says.

Rant over…good night, WordPress!

Creative Writing Class – Week 7 Journal

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I’ll just quickly share this one too.  We were assigned to choose one of five cliches and, using concrete details instead of the cliche, create a fictional setting in at least 3 paragraphs/300 words.

“Black Coffee”

Tommy says I shouldn’t, but I want to buy the man some black coffee.  “What if he doesn’t drink coffee?” Tommy asks, as we turn a corner and put our hands in our pockets at the same time.  A brittle gust of wind smacks our faces, as if it was pushing us away from the Bucks game we’ve been waiting to go to for seven weeks.  Our mom got us tickets for Christmas.  The man we had seen is always in front of the same building.  I think it’s one of those hostels I’ve heard about.  From fifty yards away, no one could discern that an actual man was sitting there beside the canopied stairway.

The light has just changed and we’re going to have to stand at the intersection for at least thirty seconds.  It never seems like much when it’s a TV commercial or in line at Starbuck’s.  Tommy’s always braved the cold, though tonight we’re both wearing long-sleeved flannel shirts.  I would bet anything he’s just waiting for me to rub my own arms before he does, as if it was some sort of masculinity contest.  A crowd gathers at the light, and the wind is stifled slightly.  Just as the tips of my fingers reach the top edge of my pocket, the light changes and we’re moving.  This blood flowing through my active body will keep me warm for the next several blocks.  It’s my first NBA game, too, so the thread of adreneline and excitement helps too.  I stare at my feet and the blackened concrete as we cross, but I’m only thinking about the poor man outside the hostel.

Inside, the arena is buzzing with excitements because the previous season’s champions are visiting our small market team.  The seats Mom bought us aren’t very close to the action at all, but we do have a great vantagepoint for the entire arena.  Only a sparce number of seats go unfilled by halftime.  The second half becomes a  little hazier because Tommy and I get drunk without really wanting to.  I don’t think about what my credit card bill will look like next month.  The visitors stomp our hometown boys, but it was a fun experience.  We’re too old to truly care of our team wins or loses.  Nowadays, it’s just about going out as two brothers, having some beers, and enjoying a carefree night.   We take a cab back to our cars several blocks away, and the driver says something about some poor soul by the hostel being loaded into the coroner’s van.  Tommy laughs because he always laughs when he drinks.

Creative Writing Class – Week 7 (Revision of a Piece)

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This week (okay, last night after the rest of my family was in bed), I revised a two-paragraph scene from earlier in the semester.  It still needs some work, but I’m fairly pleased with what emerged from my exhausted brain so late last night.  The first part is the original idea; the second is last night’s revision.

(Original)

“The Sign”

Jeremy’s mother, in a text message, asks if he’ll be sleeping there tonight.  Without responding, he sighs, unintentionally expelling a pushpin of saliva.   Twenty-nine years old and running a plastic packing tape dispenser along the final crinkled box, he remembers that Sara and Sara have been in Milwaukee for six-and-a-half days.   He kneels, then watches his hands as the tape dwindles to that eerie end where adhesive becomes lifeless cardboard.  There’s not enough to finish sealing this box, which is partially filled with typical junk-drawer inventory: opened battery blister packs, flip phones, and creased concert tickets.  It’s midday; a narrow tower of sun blasts through the opening of the curtains he and Sara picked out the night she told him she was pregnant.  He watches the dust dance within the new bright avenue that splashes on the empty hardwood floor they argued about.  Carpet, he’d told her years earlier, made more sense with a kid.  Couldn’t we just tear it up when she’s older?

Leaving the dispenser perched atop its flimsy brown castle, Jeremy realizes his feet are numb from being hunched in this position so long.  Pressing his fingers into his eye sockets–one of Sara’s ever-growing list of pet peeves–he runs his dry, dusty fingers down his face and across his week-long scruff, and stands.  This hollow domicile, eight years earlier, had been a blank canvas for a young and crazy married couple to make into a home.  Now, perhaps, another would try.  Slowly, he lets the blood flow, mix, and return to normalcy within his unsocked feet before he turns around.  Then he sees it.  Had she purposely left that damn iron sign between the windows?  The one that read This Home Knows Love that he hated for its hokeyness?   His pocket vibrates again; Jeremy lifts the box, leaves the door unlocked for the realtor, and drives to his mother’s.

(Revision)

“All That’s Left”

When some of these smartphones are on vibrate, they tend to do so without revealing an explanation or notification.  He hates those phones, but he was told it was time to update by the snarky college kid at the Verizon store whose appearance was obviously not as important to the employer as was his knowledge of the shit he was asked to sell.  Jeremy removes the sleek phone from his non-walleted back pocket to find nothing indicating a call or text from Sara or anyone else who might be privy to why his wife and child are now in a smoky suburb outside of Milwaukee.

Jeremy, after passing over a snow-dusted walkway in southern Illinois, slides his key into the door only for it not to unlock with a turn.  He’s forgotten about Sara’s sudden locksmith job five nights earlier and remembers the right key is in the front shirt pocket. It’s a yellow Arrow dress shirt he’s chosen to leave untucked.  Sara had picked it out for him last Easter but always hated it when he unflapped the bottoms from within his stretch-waisted dress pants.

He enters and the smell has remained.  What did she do, he asks himself.  Spray that intoxicating perfume here just before shutting the door on their dream house and their marriage?

He wants a drink but knows neither the kitchen- or garage fridge will have any of his beer left.  There is no doubt that she has left him with nearly empty two-liter bottles of the generic clear soda she loved though.

This morning had been the first time the house was to be shown, he was told in a rather brief conversation two hours earlier.  His realtor, a frantic, jittery woman whose voice matched that of an cartoon character Jeremy couldn’t quite pinpoint, had said, “I was there last night, and there are some cabinets not emptied and a box here and there.  Oh, and unless you want to leave any wall hangings, take those down too.  I can sell staged homes, and I can sell move-in readies.  But the in-betweens make it aesthetically unpleasing.”

Jeremy replayed those final two words over and over during the car ride from his mother’s house to his own this morning.  The words, he mused, were never meant to be so close to one another, but he loved the rhythm of them.  Seven syllables in all, he said to his steering wheel.  It may be too long, but it sounds like a great band name.

“Hello, Sioux City!!  We are Aesthetically Unpleasing!” followed by roars from wiry youth who all seemed to wear thick-framed eyeglasses.

Jeremy opens his eyes and sees not a single screaming teenager around.  Rather, he stands in his kitchen and tries to guess which cabinets still have contents instead of just opening them all.  It is like he’s on some type of distorted daytime game show and has the chance to win the contents of the cabinet as long as he never opens an empty one.  Meticulously, he opts for the one above where he used to rest his cooling coffee every morning for the previous eight-plus years.  It holds nothing but brittle dust flakes and a slight manufacturing flaw that might have provided his errant hand with a splinter if he had lived out his thirty-year mortgage.

Ultimately, he finds the single cabinet containing nothing but eight or ten giveaway mugs and foam aluminum can holders.  The only one not upright bears the exhausting advertising phrase of a start-up local restaurant that never saw its third year:  Carpay Dee-Yumm!!

There is no reason to look upstairs.  Two days earlier–the last time he’d been by–he stood at the top of the stairs amazed they had cleaned out so much so fast  Eight years was long enough to leave the slightest hint of fresh paint underneath the family photos they had hung, and he didn’t want to see those empty spots ever again.  If his closet still held some old shoes or ties, he didn’t care.  The realtor would do her job up there.

So, he goes to the living room to find a single unsealed cardboard box.  He had known this one would still be here.  The plastic blue movers tape dispenser balances wishfully atop its arched cover.  A mouse might have seen this plain brown container (which bore nothing but tattered and/or slightly gaping corners) as a church.  If he spoke of his awe at this corrugated cathedral, he would misrepresent his race as silent.  “Church Mice” was an even poorer attempt at a band name, and he hated himself for thinking it might be even mildly humorous.

He opens the church-box, again, knowing full well of the majority of its contents:  concert tickets, unpackaged batteries, and dried-up logo pens.  There are other items inside, but the point is she didn’t want any of it.  Jeremy presses down on the top flaps, holds them with a denim knee, and fumbles with the edge of tape in the dispenser to get it going again.  A full moment passes as life drifts from below the bent knee.  He’s got it.  It unrolls quite noisily in this empty twenty-six by fourteen living room.  Just past the halfway point from the opposite edge toward his shaking knee, the spindle is exhausted.  He cannot keep from hearing the squeaky halt where adhesive becomes lifeless cardboard.

It’s midday; a narrow tower of sun blasts through the opening of the curtains he and Sara picked out the night she told him she was pregnant.  He watches the dust dance within the new bright avenue that splashes on the empty hardwood floor they argued about.  Carpet, he’d told her years earlier, made more sense with a kid.  Couldn’t we just tear it up when she’s older?

He stands.  The dispenser limps slowly and rests atop the box of memories and unusable freebies.  Pressing his fingers into his eye sockets–one of Sara’s ever-growing list of pet peeves–he runs his dry, dusty fingers down his face and across his week-long scruff, and stands.  This hollow domicile, eight years earlier, had been a blank canvas for a young and crazy married couple to make into a home.  Now, perhaps, another couple would try.

Slowly, he lets the blood flow, mix, and return to normalcy within his unsocked feet before he turns around.  Then he sees it.  Had she purposely left that damn iron sign between the windows?  The one that read This Home Knows Love that he hated for its hokeyness?   His pocket vibrates again; Jeremy lifts the box, leaves the door unlocked for the realtor, and drives to his mother’s.  He thinks she’d said something this morning about making macaroons.