Friday, December 20, 2013

The Tent

THE TENT

Mark Amblin was trembling. That was the point. Jack up the adrenalin. Feel alive. Do something dangerous. He had worked out the reasons to be sitting here at 4 a.m. in a small mountain tent in total darkness, trying to figure out what to do next. To possess this thing without getting caught.

The camping store faced the busiest street in town. As spring warmed to summer, Mark admired the display as he drove to and from his janitorial job. Then the owner decided to improve sales by setting up  tents on the strip of lawn between the store and the street. Mark was struck by one tent in particular. The smallest one, orange and blue, shaped like some kind of jungle creature. Just right for him and his wife.

It didn't matter that they no longer went white water canoeing in the pine forests of northern Wisconsin anymore. That had been part of their mating ritual: daring the rushing cold waters to defeat them.

Although truthfully, it had been Charlotte's ritual. She invited Mark to go with her when they started dating. The time on the water was the best part. The noise, the rush of water, almost freezing cold, the danger. For the rest, it was mostly a matter of sitting on hard ground, swatting huge mosquitoes in the heat, or huddling beneath sleeping bags, spooned with Charlotte.

Now, married and living in a cottage near the outskirts of this town where Mark had dropped out of college after two years, things were different. He was comfortable enough, even on the small amount he made sweeping floors and emptying ashtrays and setting up chairs at his former school. But without the G.I. Bill that had been paying rent while he went to school, he and his wife couldn't afford things like a mountain tent.

Mark wanted it. For Charlotte, he told himself. He couldn't afford to buy it. But he could steal it.

###

Charlotte Amblin turned in circles in the middle of her kitchen. She was looking for Velvet, her kitten, who had followed Charlotte when she came downstairs and walked through the livingroom. Velvet liked to walk behind her, watching the heels of her shoes. At some point, it would jump up and try to snag the shoe with a claw. Barefoot, or weariing her thin slippers, that was painful. Mark already had had to paint her heel and ankle with iodine, which was even more painful. "Infection," he said. "Can't let that happen."

She couldn't disagree, but Mark's annoyance with the kitten was growing: he seemed unwilling to even try to train Velvet, or get along with her. Last night, coming down the narrow stairs from their bedroom, she heard Velvet screech as she flew through the air from the living room. Mark stood, scowling and rubbing his leg. He glared at her. "I can't wait for her to get out of her kitten stage," he said. "She hurts."

"Mark, don't throw her like that. Don't ever do that." Charlotte found Velvet huddled under the bench behind the kitchen table and gently coo'd her out and into her arms. "All you have to do is love her. She'll love you back."

###

Careful planning was key, he knew. Think it all out before acting.

It had been Mark's goal when he returned to college to learn the craft of writing fiction. Now, each evening after the day was over and Charlotte had gone to bed, Mark hovered over his typewriter and thought about the story he was trying to write. Mostly this meant staring into space, struggling in vain to quiet the noise in his head and to hear the little voice that might be that of a character, or a narrator. More often than not, he failed at this. As the weather warmed and the nights became nearly as uncomfortable as the days, all he could do was strip down to a tee and shorts and sit in front of the fan.

Instead of stories, the image of the mountain tent grew in his mind. Having it, and what he needed to do to get it. Imagining the theft was another way of creating a story. He had his French ten-speed bicycle, which he liked to ride, silent as a panther moving across the savanna on hot nights with no lights. He felt invisible when he rode at night, the later the better. Invisible and invincible.

The plan, when he had thought it through, was simple. Ride to the camping store after everyone was asleep and there was no longer traffic on the boulevard. Park the bike in total darkness. Get in the tent and when the moment was right, disassemble it from within. Back on the bike and ride it, silent and invisible, down the back streets to his home.

###

"Lea is coming to visit," Charlotte said one morning that spring.

"When?" said Mark, dipping a measuring cup into a bag of whole wheat flour. Saturday mornings were Mark's day to make pancakes for breakfast. He was proud of his recipe: half whole wheat, half unbleached white; eggs and baking powder and milk. Make it thick and chewey; smear it with peanut butter and slather with syrup. Eggs over easy on the side. A full protein meal.

"Tomorrow."

Mark paused, thinking about their inventory of groceries.

"I'll have to pick some stuff up from the grocery store then," he said.

"Yeah," said Charlotte. "We'll all go. I'm sure Lea will chip in."

"Good. Because we're almost broke until payday."

"She'll chip in," Charlotte said, looking up from her copy of Scientific American, her bathrobe exposing her thin legs. "She always does."

###

It helped that the camping store was located in the dim stretch between two street lights and well to the north of the main part of the city. The shopping center a quarter mile on up the boulevard, anchored by Walmart, had been closed for several hours. A light industrial park too. All closed. Everyone slept at 4 a.m. in this sleepy Midwest town in northern Illinois in 1972 except a few city police in patrol cars. And people like Mark.

He saw no one on his ride to the store. Now Mark sat quietly in the dark of the tent that would soon be his. He listened, not moving, almost not breathing, for cars or other sounds. Nothing. When finally he did hear a car approaching, he noted the way it illuminated the tent, confident he couldn't be seen in it. He tried to estimate how long it was between passing cars, but no more came after the first.

The danger he felt was danger he had chosen, and that thought thrilled him. He listened. All he heard was a long stretch of silence. He knew he would have to decide: dismantle this tent and in doing, expose himself, or crawl back on his bike and disappear and pretend he had never been here.

###

Lea arrived around lunchtime Sunday, chirpy and restless from the long drive as she always was. She and Charlotte were best friends. They had graduated together from a private high school in Kansas City's south-town six years ago. They'd never lost touch, though their lives had diverged from each other when Charlotte moved to Illinois to go to college. Lea had gone on to some school near her home, Mark hadn't paid enough attention to their chatter to know where. They hugged; Lea pulled two bags from the rear seat of her aging BMW. "There's more back there," she said. "Some stuff for you."

Charlotte grinned and grabbed one of Lea's bags and her free arm and marched them both to the house.

"Mark," she said, "Would you mind getting the rest of Lea's things from her car? I'm going to get her settled and start lunch."

Lea and Charlotte had grown up together and gone to the same schools, but they could hardly have been more different. Lea was taller; round faced where Charlotte's high cheekbones and narrow chin gave her the appearance of a rough-cut gem; large bones; a thin waist with large breasts that Mark could imagine were soft and smooth like overripe fruit, where Charlotte's figure was straight, almost no difference between her hips, waist and breasts, the body of a small athlete, which Charlotte had been in high school.

The box remaining in Lea's car contained nick-nacks for Charlotte. A small hand-thrown jar with a lid, brown with blue streaks; a plastic icon that Mark recognized as the Indian elephant god Ganesh; salt and pepper shakers in the shape of small birds; copies of The New Yorker magazine. Mark put the box on one of the dining room chairs.

"Hi Mark," said Lea, coming out of the kitchen. "Thanks. These are some of Charlotte's things that her mother gave me to bring up." They were nearly the same height. Mark just looked at her. "So how are you? How's your job? Still writing?"

"Still writing," said Mark. "If you can call it that."

"Well you know. One bird at a time," she said, smiling.It was a reference to a book she had brought him on her previous visit. Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life." A book to encourage him to keep working on stories. She smiled, a warm, lingering look.

###

There was no way to predict when another car might pass. Mark decided it was time to act. He popped loose the flexible rods that formed the tent's skeleton.

Mark sweated heavily while furiously trying to disassemble the tent and collapse it upon himself in the dark. He dared turn on the small flashlight he carried just long enough to be sure he had all the rods and gathered them into their bag. The tent by now had settled down around his body.

He crawled out as fast as he could, heart racing, and pulled the tent into a tight bundle under one arm. He could see the lights of a car in the distance. He had maybe twenty or thirty seconds to get himself and the tent out of sight. He stood up, a little unsteady after sitting cross legged for so long in the stifling tent. Why did he want the thing anyway? Would he actually use it once he had it?

He pulled up the stakes around the tent's perimeter as fast as he could, refusing to let himself look up at the approaching vehicle. It would only slow him down, only increase his nervousness. Finally, stakes tucked into the folds of the bundled tent, tie-down strings dangling dangerously close to his feet, he skittered to the side of the building and into the darkness where he had parked his bicycle.

He sighed with relief as the car - not a police car, he gratefully noted - drove past without slowing. He watched its lights recede while he searched the bundle for the carrying case he knew was inside it. He stuffed the tent into the case along with the bag of poles, zipped it closed and strapped it to the small carrier on the back of his bicycle.

Mark rode as quietly as possible down the back and side streets the way he had come.The night air was still and warm as the ground continued to give off its day's heat. The moving air as he rode helped cool his face and arms. It was the beauty of a bicycle in summer. He savored the rush of the night air around his grinning face.

###

Lea, like Charlotte, came from a comfortably middle-class home. She didn't have work that summer; Charlotte encouraged her to stay. It wasn't a problem for her to chip in on expenses. Groceries at least. Her presence seemed to make Charlotte happy, a good thing, as Charlotte had not looked for another job and was lonely at home by herself during the week when Mark worked.

Mark couldn't complain. He came home each day to a meal freshly prepared, and to interesting company. After sharing their day all day, Lea and Charlotte were ready to turn their attention to Mark. Both were smart, well educated, interested in his ideas. Discussions sometimes ran late into the evening, after which Charlotte retired early. Her psychiatrist had her on anti-depressants that caused bloating at the same time it lessened her appetite both for food and for sex. This left Mark and Lea alone, reading quietly in the living room together each evening.

They shared their silence comfortably. Occasionally Lea would ask Mark about something she was reading, always in a low voice. Mark would reply as quietly, even though Charlotte slept soundly with the help of sleeping pills in the bedroom above.

After a month of this, Mark began trying to figure out whether, and how, he could tell Lea how erotic he found her presence.

###

After, at home, Mark felt strange. Not tired, but somehow disoriented. It was hard to focus on anything for more than a few seconds at a time. Planning and carrying out the theft had given him a sense of purpose. It kept him focused. But after, still sweating as he put his new acquisition away somewhere Charlotte wouldn't find it right away and ask awkward questions, he wondered what he would tell her if she did ask.

He would have to tell her. The truth. She wouldn't judge him, he felt sure. He wouldn't lie to Charlotte about what he had done. That would be stupid and there was no need. They were a pair, a team, in it together no matter what, regardless of his feelings for Lea.

Lea slept in the spare room on the ground floor, in the top bunk of a pair of bunk beds he and Charlotte had found from a bulletin board ad at the supermarket.

Mark pushed open the door to her room.

"Lea?" he said quietly.

"Yes?" He could see her propped up on an elbow, the drape of her night gown revealing her body in the dim glow like the form of a young gazelle.

"Sorry to wake you. I just wanted to ask you something," Mark whispered. He wanted to touch her, but he didn't dare. Not yet.

"What?"

"I want you. I really want you. To lie with you. Have sex with you. Is that a terrible thing?"

Lea was silent for a moment. Then, "No. I want you too."

"But we can't, right? Because of Charlotte?"

Again, a long silence. Then Lea gently settled herself back down.

"I don't know," she said. "Good night, Mark."

Mark closed her door and settled himself in the living room, breathing heavily.

Two risky things in one night, he reflected.

It wasn't like he was a bad person. With the tent, he had acted more to relieve his boredom than out of anything like greed. He worked a menial job without complaining, without even feeling it was menial. Still, he could barely afford to live, much less have things that made his and Charlotte's lives more bearable. It was the inequality of it all. Corporate greed. All he had done was exercise what little he did have, his cleverness and courage, to tip the balance of things in their favor just a little. Only a little. It was such a small thing, really. Just a tent.

As for the other, he would work that out too. One way or another.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Bubble

She floats within until she doesn't
wet with the remains of memories

of a day when trees sashayed double time
lime in her glass of Pacifico 

a reflection of the ocean in her eyes 
the sound of wind in her hair 

a wind so fair and dry to the touch
of the arch of her back and I chugging 

in the sand to keep up, wondering 
why she drips so with water of the sea 

fairy splashes that make sinkholes in sand 
that last only seconds then bear themselves 

and me to some lair within and below
sallow invisible trembling hollow trees 

those trees we both have come to love 
so much

Sunday, June 9, 2013

WHAT IS ART?

Everyone, perhaps writers more than most, have favorite quotes. Maybe you'll find a new gem in this list. Many are unattributed due to my laziness. That doesn't reflect my gratitude for the insights and wisdom that are the authors' gifts to us. - Miker

Cynisism is the shamefaced product of inexperience ~A.J. Liebling

One does not see anything until one sees its beauty. - Oscar Wilde

"Remember, when you say 'I love you' you're not just saying it to the one you love. You're saying it to yourself, and to the planet." -Yoko Ono

Between Tragedy & Comedy lies Irony. That's where I live. If you don't live there now, you're missing most of the fun. ~John Perry Barlow

When the effective leader is finished with his work, the people say it happened naturally. - Lao-Tzu

Art is spirituality in drag - Jennifer Yane

Art is a lie that makes us realize truth - Pablo Picasso

Art consists of limitation.  The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame.  ~G.K. Chesterton

Great art is as irrational as great music.  It is mad with its own loveliness.  ~George Jean Nathan, House of Satan

Poets do not go mad; chess-players do.  Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom.  ~G. K. Chesterton

One of the best things about paintings is their silence.  ~Mark Stevens

Artistry is an innate distrust of the theory of reality concocted by the five senses.  ~Robert Brault

A subject that is beautiful in itself gives no suggestion to the artist.  It lacks imperfection.  ~Oscar Wilde

Art is a kind of illness.  ~Giacomo Puccini

"Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana." Groucho.

“Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for love, then for a few close friends, then for money.” ~ Moliere
   
“Never let your schooling interfere with your education.” Mark Twain

"The bad news is you're falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is there's no ground." ~ Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Writing fiction can be an act of rubbing oneself up against reality, relishing the abrasion and sharing that with readers.

Faith and Doubt belong together, each inhaling and exhaling the other.

An author in his work must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere. ~Flaubert

Buddhists never conquer anything ~Kim Stanley Robinson

The key to every man is his thought. Sturdy and defying though he look, he has a helm which he obeys, which is the idea after which all his facts are classified. He can only be reformed by showing him a new idea which commands his own. ~Emerson, 1841

I don't disbelieve in miracles. I'm simply not impressed by them. They tell us we have more to learn. ~Lazlo Kovaks

The time may come when you discover the beauty of leading with your heart rather than following it.

"You can look at a thing 999 times without seeing it. But if you look at it that thousandth time, you risk truly seeing it." ~ G.K. Chesterton (paraphrased)

I reserve the right to exist, temporarily at least, in an altogether different universe. ~Lazlo Kovaks

Wanted: Editor for short fiction. Requirements: Appreciation of the cosmic joke. Love of irony. Sense of humor. Minimalist sensibilities. Pay: negligible. Appreciation: boundless.

In what way is it possible we are not music? -Lazlo Kovaks

Composition is the arrangement of unequal things. -Ruskin

The material world is made up entirely of collisions between otehrwise indefinite objects. ~Rae Armontrout

Speak only if you can improve on silence. ~Anonymous

Fiction, like life, is capacious enough not only to contain everything but to make us see how and why the personal, the political, the moral, the spiritual, the economic and historical—and the mythical—fits so seamlessly together. ~Francine Prose

It is the business of the artist to make humanity aware of itself. ~Pound

Life is too short to live a sufficient number of experiences, so you have to steal them. ~Enrique Vila-Matas

With the lamp of word and discrimination one must go beyond word and discrimination and enter upon the path of realization. ~Lankavatara Sutra

For society to survive and reinvent itself in meaningful ways, we must in a sense become a "post-literate" culture. ~Andrew Gurevich

Expressions of poetry are moments of extreme emotion recalled in moments of extreme quietude.

The emotional progression of a small number of clearly drawn characters through a decisively shaped tale, leading to a series of wrenching encounters and a satisfying climax.

It is awe-inspiring when a writer hits a high note, goes dancing along the edge of something; hurls himself against enormous questions again and again.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Attraction

Michael spotted a breakout session at the Reality Formation Conference at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. It was called "Attraction: A Comprehensive Model of Reality Formation." It featured five panelists: a physicist, an astrophysicist, a psychologist, a neurologist, and the host/convener, a young man from MIT's Learning Lab.

"Anything attracted to something else usually follows a similar pattern," he began. "First comes awareness, if consciousness is involved, which is not a requirement. Second, the beginnings of movement toward the attractor, followed by an often irresistible fall into its embrace."

The audience tittered a bit, then fell silent, as Todd, the leader, brought up an image of a planet circling a sun.

"There are many examples of this procession, which we'll call Attention, Mild Attraction, and Fatal Attraction. I could use more technical terms, but what I hope to demonstrate is a general theory of attraction, best expressed in general terms." Todd flipped on a laser pointer and pointed to the planet on the screen.

"We're all familiar with at least two examples of Attraction. This one, of course, is gravity. As two objects approach each other, the force of gravity will begin to affect their trajectory. Let's say that when a change in trajectory due to gravitation can be detected, the two objects are in a state of Mild Attraction. As the force of gravitation increases by the square root of the distance between objects, the closer the objects come to each other, the stronger the pull, or Attraction. Assuming gravitational attraction isn't sufficiently counteracted by, say, centrifigal force, at some point the pull of gravity will overcome the inertia of the two objects, and they will fall into each other. That point of no return, we can call the point of Fatal Attraction.

"We know the same forces apply to magnetism. The mathematics are the same. What other examples of Attraction do we know about?" A hand shot up.

"What about sexual attraction?" said an attractive woman. The audience laughed.

"What's that? Sexual attraction? I wouldn't laugh. Our work leads us to believe it works the same, though it's much harder to measure, and it's complicated by the various dynamics of psychology, physiology, and cultural and social pressures. The extent to which sexual relations between unmarried couples is condoned. Or maybe when was the last time each person bathed." More laughter.

"Surely you've set up studies to try to measure that at MIT?" added the woman.

"We'd certainly like to," said Todd. "We just need sufficient numbers of scientifically minded volunteers like yourself to help us get started," he said, winking and smiling at the woman.

(excerpt from work in progress)

Monday, February 11, 2013

Still Pool


A god and a goddess sat on a park bench. In front of them, on another bench, sat a man, facing away from them. He watched his lover, who played with their child in the field beyond.

The god and goddess whispered to each other. Each watched the man: the god watched his head and saw his thoughts. Though fleeting and coiling in among themselves, as thoughts tend to do, they were tinged with hope, respect, curiosity, even wonderment, tempered by thoughts of how he might improve the lives of his loved ones. The god saw, too, worry and concern appear and then dissipate like sudden bursts of steam leaking from the valves and joints of a mighty engine.

The goddess watched the man's heart and saw his feelings. She saw the gentle pull of physical attraction, deep calm love, not just for his mate but for the child and all the other people around them. She saw compassion and grace, all tempered by a sense of humility. Around the edges hovered flickers of fear, like tiny flames unable to find sufficient tinder.

The god and goddess, lovers themselves, giggled and whispered and seemed to come to an agreement. Each pointed to the man, the god to the man's head, the goddess to the man's heart, and slowly drew their fingers toward each other until they touched.

At that moment, the man's thoughts merged with his feelings and a great sense of focused contentment and acceptance replaced the wildness of his thoughts and feelings. All fear, all disappointment, all concern left him. He felt unified and capable of facing any challenge. He sat very still, the better to contemplate this moment, which seemed to him like a deep pool grown calm in the aftermath of a life-long storm.

With this, the two gods rose, linked arms, and wandered off in search of new adventures.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Isn't It Grand, or Ten Hundreds

1
It's not writer's block. For that, I would have to want to write. True, I enjoy words when they flow like a river, or move like a panther, with their own will. I enjoy it less when, as now, they are forced from me by an invisible pressure on my mind, as if an invisible gangster held a gun to my temple and whispered in my ear, "Write something."

Fingers hovering over the keyboard, unable to move for lack of direction, I might whimper back, "Write what?"

"You know what," he whispers back, a malevolent glint in his invisible eyes.

2
Zen tells us that the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. But that's only part of the story. I can tell you that the journey isn't a real journey until you've walked the first hundred miles. Then you can think about what it's going to be like to walk that nine more times.

The gangster in my head throbs. Maybe he's only a headache, or some sort of vitamin deficiency. "I'm not going away," he whispers. "Keep writing."

"Why?" I ask. I'm feeling bolder.

"Shut up. I want ten chapters. No more, no less. Got that?"

3
It occurs to me that he's testing me. Will I revolt? Walk away? Phone for a pizza and turn on a game show on TV? But what if I can't shake him? If he's inside me, in my head, what then?

But he's annoying me. What kind of man am I if I don't try to regain control of my life?

"Leave me alone," I say. I say it out loud, as if he were a real person standing behind me, just beyond my peripheral vision.

"Ain't gonna happen," I hear in my mind. That soft intimate voice, so close.

4
I can't stand it. I throw on my jacket, put my cell in my pocket, and head out the door. Away from my laptop and hopefully away from that voice.

Out on the sidewalk, I flip open my phone and call Sarah. My lifeline, she is. My friend. Maybe my best friend. Hell, maybe my only friend, so I try not to intrude on her too much. But this, I've got to do something.

"Hi Sarah?" I say when she answers. She's at work. "Yeah, it's Mark. Got a minute?"

She does, but only just. I pace while I talk.

5
"I'm in a little bit of a pickle," I say. "I've got this thing," But wait. I can't tell her I have a voice in my head, with a gun, for cryin' out loud. That's just crazy. And what could she do about it? "This, uh, problem. What? Well it's hard to describe. Wait, never mind, okay? It's nothing, never mind. Bye." I can't go on. I don't know what to tell her. I flip the phone closed. Hang up on her, something I've never done before. I look down at the phone, dumbstruck. I turn back toward home.

6
Settled back on my laptop, fingers over the keys. What else can I do? I can't just do nothing, which is what I've done for so long now that I can't remember the last time I wrote anything worth half a read. Why can't I write? It's more than just my dissatisfaction with myself. That's easy to deal with, as long as I can afford pizza and ice cream. It's this new thing, this pressure and the gun. It's life or death now. Squeeze something out or have my brain blown out.

I go to the fridge, get out ice cream.

7
"What are you waiting for?" whispers the voice. I feel the gun pressing harder now.

I whimper, sitting back down and spooning ice cream into my mouth as fast as I can. "I don't know what to write."

"Just make something up! That's what you always do. Something out of nothing, isn't that the creative challenge?"

"Uh," I say, ice cream dribbling down one side of my mouth.

"What's the problem?" There's a gravely edge to the voice, an impatience that frightens me.

"I need something. Structure. Boundaries. Constraints. Otherwise the canvas, so to speak, is too broad. Too white."

8
I feel the voice in my head shaking, not in anger now, but in amusement. "Structure? That's easy. Here's structure for you. Give me a thousand words. Exactly. Tell a story, a real story, in exactly a thousand words. Not a word more or less or I'll end it for you. Got that?"

"Uh huh." I say. "Yeah. Let me think."

I start typing: "Sarah was a sweet thing of twenty. She stared at me intently as I unbuttoned her blouse."

I look at what I've written, consider where this might go for a moment. Then I erase it all.

9
I run out the door, damn the voice, damn the gun. It isn't fair, this making me write about Sarah, or about anything. What am I to stories, or stories to me? Must I be held hostage to them, to the damnable flow of words? Must I die for them?

On the sidewalk, surrounded by the building I live in on one side, tall fences on the other. There's no way out. A fine day, though, I think. A fine day to die, if die I must.

The voice is still there, I can feel it. A gentle flutter within.

10
Feeling calmer, I walk back. Sit at the laptop. Gaze at the still empty page.

"It's all good, Mark. You're fine, my son. Fingers on the keys, empty your mind. Now, give me a thousand words, ten chapters of exactly a hundred words each, please."

All tension drained, I feel I can do this. I type: "Sarah stood still before me..."

"Don't write her," the voice said quietly. "You. Write who you are. What it means to be a writer."

I blank the page again, then write, "It's not writer's block. For that, I would have to want to write..."

Friday, October 19, 2012

Tears of Joy


The most frightening moment of my life
Was when I spoke words of such
Painful beauty

That they made you cry

And I realized you wanted me
To do that

Over and over again

And I  had no idea why I
Wanted to do such a thing

To anyone
Let alone

To you