Wednesday, February 27, 2013

"Man of the House"

This is a short story written for LineByLine, a prompt-based writing community.  The community provides one line which much be used somewhere in the piece.  This week's line was "It wasn't because of that."  

This short story centers around characters that have been popping up in my writings for a while now: a guy named Beck, who dropped out of college to raise his daughter, Tansly, in the absence of Tansly's mother (and Beck's ex-girlfriend) Amanda. 

"Man of the House"  

The beaten, old couch in my living room sagged under me, even though I was stretched out across it with my weight pretty evenly distributed. Lonnie and Still Wind said it was the first couch they bought after they got married, in the early 80’s, and they hadn’t had the heart to throw it out so they had put it in the little shack.  When I had become the shack’s new tenant, I had inherited it.  There were strips of duct tape on it older than I was, but for my purposes it was perfect. 

I circled another job in the classified section of the newspaper while the radio played another old Rolling Stones song; it was ‘Two for Tuesday,’ so Jumping Jack Flash was the perfect follow-up to Paint it Black.  From her crib next to the couch, Tansly cooed and slapped a toy with her chubby pink hands. 

“I know,” I told her.  “Mick Jagger is still awesome, even after all these years.” 

Tansly slapped the toy harder in agreement, and started cooing again.  I couldn’t help but smile when she sounded so happy, so I set aside the newspaper long enough to lift her from the crib and lay her on my chest.  She slapped my chest in excitement and kicked her feet, one of which struck me a little too hard in the stomach.  I grunted through the pain but still smiled at the beautiful little infant.  Tansly had Amanda’s eyes, no matter how much I tried to pretend she didn’t.  The baby we made was beautiful, no doubt about that. And the pang of sadness was still hard to ignore, no matter how much I tried to convince myself to hate Amanda for leaving.

A wet spot of droll appeared on my shirt as Tansly laid her face on my chest and blew a feeble raspberry.  I picked up the classifieds again and held them over Tansly, where I skimmed them with my eyes.  Lonnie had told me that he was going to have to cut my hours at the hardware store for a few months, during the off season, so I had to pick up a few extra hours somewhere to keep earning pocket money.

Just as I started to turn the page, I heard something from the kitchen.

Our little shanty in the Mojave Desert didn’t have much, but we got by pretty well.  It was little more than a wooden shack, with only the basic necessities.  It had electricity but it was temperamental; I could only run one of the window air conditioners at a time without blowing the breaker.  The running water took forever to heat up, but I rarely wanted a hot shower. I was getting used to the little noises the house made as the old wood swelled and shrank with the changing desert temperature.  And that was why I noticed the out-of-the-ordinary sound. 

I had no neighbors.  As far as I knew, the closest house was more than a mile away, and the last person who had been in the house besides me and Tansly was Amanda, two months ago, when she had left the baby with me and disappeared into the night. So I felt a little stupid when I asked, “Hello?” into my home.  Of course, no one responded.  I held my breath and waited, trying to listen over Tansly’s chorus of baby noises.  After a few seconds of nothing but the Rolling Stones, I released my breath and looked back to the newspaper.

Thirty seconds later, I heard it again:  a shuffling, chittering noise, once more from the kitchen. 

My fatherly instincts started to kick in.  If there was something in the kitchen, it was my duty to my daughter to kill it.  So I set the newspaper aside, lifted Tansly from my chest, and placed her gently back in her crib.  “Stay here,” I told her, feeling like a badass cop in a crime movie.

Before venturing to the kitchen, I took my Louisville Slugger from next to the couch and wrapped my hands around it.  My footsteps were almost silent as I approached.  Just before I crossed the threshold I heard the noise again, though I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. 

First I approached the refrigerator, thinking that the noise was from something falling from the shelves.  But it wasn’t because of that; it was almost empty, because I had put off going to the grocery store for so long.  I performed the same search of the cabinets and cupboard, but found nothing out of place. 

Just as I was shutting the coffee cup cabinet (yes, I need a whole cabinet for coffee cups; I drink a lot of coffee, okay?), I heard the noise again, slightly behind me. When I turned, I spied the only place in the room I hadn’t yet searched:  the squeaky floorboard in front of the stove.  I had become well acquainted with the board; when I’d stand in front of the stove, making eggs in the morning, I’d lean to and fro on it in time with whatever song was on the radio.  But the board had never made sounds without my weight on it before.

Quickly ruling out ghosts as the cause, I let the bat dangle from my left hand and knelt to the floor.  With my knuckles I gave the board a quick rap, which responded with the mysterious noise. 

The bat rattled to the floor, and I retrieved a claw hammer from the kitchen junk drawer (we all have one).  Cramming the claw into the space between the squeaky board and its neighbor, I craned the hammer back and pried up the board. 

Five tiny scorpions, no bigger than my thumb, immediately scurried out. 

I screamed, dropped the hammer, and dove away from the opening. The little white arachnids tested the air with their tiny claws and tails, as if claiming this new land as their own. 

The end of the bat was just within arm’s reach.  I wrapped my fingers around the knob at the bottom and slowly dragged the implement to me, afraid that sudden movements would startle the creatures and they’d run beneath something, where they would plot to overthrow me and Tansly another day.  Not in my house. 

Lonnie had shown me the correct way to stomp a scorpion without being stung, even while barefoot (which I currently was), but I didn’t feel like testing my skills. I brought the bat down on the first scorpion, and it exploded like an overripe grape.  The other four seemed stunned for a second by the sound of the impact, so I capitalized and pounded the rest of them into oblivion.

The board had snapped back into place when I had dove away like a scared little girl.  With the bat still in my right hand, I took the hammer in my left and lifted the board again, more carefully this time. 

When I had first moved into the shack, Lonnie and Still Wind had explained the problem with scorpions that many dwellings in the Mojave developed, and had explained that the shack was no different.  The first three days I had slept in my car, because I was too terrified to sleep in the house.  But, after three solid days of killing scorpions every hour, I finally stopped seeing them, and assumed that my scorpion days were over. 

But, it turns out, scorpions are like crazy exes:  just when you think you’ve seen the last of them, they come crawling out of the woodwork. 

Beneath the board I found myself peeking into a meager little crawlspace.  And there I saw at least three times as many tiny, white scorpions as I had just pounded into pulp on my kitchen floor.  It was a nest.  It must have been full of scorpion eggs (just the thinking those words made my skin crawl) when I exterminated all the others from the shack.  They must have hatched not long ago. 

I quickly slammed the board back into place and carefully cleaned up the smashed scorpions from the floor and the bat with a handful of Clorox wipes.  Then picked up the hammer from the floor, picked a few nails out of the junk drawer, and hammered the board so securely into place that it would never squeak again. 

The radio had changed songs, and now blared Rock You Like a Hurricane from the living room.  Heh. Fitting.  I beat the last nail into the board to the rhythm of the music, then stood with the hammer in one hand and the bat in the other, once again feeling like a total badass. 

As I stood in the doorway, hoping I looked as awesome as I felt, Tansly burbled happily to me from her crib.  “That’s right, baby,” I told her in my best tough-guy voice.  “This house is safe for another night.  Your dad’s a real man.”  

Monday, February 25, 2013


Title: "Wingman"
Prompt: Parrot
Brigit's Flame February 2013 week four
Word Count/ warnings:  962 words, rated PG
by Graham Smith

          I looked at myself in the mirror, and only then did I realize just how filthy it was.  Good lord; when had anyone in the house last washed it?  Had it ever been washed?  It at least hadn’t been washed this year; no doubt someone’s mom had come to clean house over the summer … it had probably been cleaned, then.  At least that what was I assumed, since when I returned to the house every fall for school, things that had collected grime over the course of the year usually seemed to have cleaned themselves.

            The scatter-brained guy in the mirror looked back at me.  He wasn’t tall, but he wasn’t short, either.  He wasn’t really overweight, but he was a little soft, without much muscle tone.  Definitely someone who spent more time in the library than the gym.  His hair was sandy-blonde, longish, and hadn’t been brushed yet today.

            Lowering my eyes from the disgusting mirror (I was never going to be able to look at it the same way again, at least until the next time it was Windexed), I opened the old, leather-bound book I had brought into the bathroom.  Normally I didn’t need reading material in the bathroom; there were always enough automotive magazines and back issues of Maxim to keep me entertained for a few minutes. But this wasn’t just reading material.  This was my ticket out of my rut.

            “Oou-mah … oou-mah ….” I read from the book, trying to pronounce the foreign-looking words using the pronunciation guide I had scribbled on notebook paper.  The old woman in the antique store had been certain that the book was an old book of spells, and even more certain that the book was in some language called Polangi.  Even though she didn’t speak a word of polangi.  The University Library only had one Polangi-to-English dictionary, and because it was in the reference section I of course couldn’t check it out.
            “Hey, Brian!  Are you coming, or what?”  Mike, one of my three roommates, called through the door.  “You don’t sound too good.”
            I faked a cough.  “Oh, yeah, man.  I don’t think I’m going to make it out to the club tonight.  I’ve got, like … the flu or something.”  To further sell the story, I groaned pathetically.

            “Eew, gross,” Mike said.  “Well, be sure to Clorox that whole room when you’re done.  Me, Dylan, and Danny don’t want to catch it.  Anyway, hope you feel better.  See you later!”

            I listened for my three roommates to leave the house, and then turned back to the book. As much as I liked my friends, none of them were very good wingmen.  When it came to girls, their skills always seemed to work with each other, but never me.  I had been two months since I had gotten a girl’s number at a bar, and even longer since those call-backs had actually lead to a second date.  I was sick of the dry spell.
            So, I figured, if none of the other guys were sufficient wingmen, I’d just have to be my own wingman.

            My eyes flicked back and forth between the old spellbook and the sheet of notebook paper. “Oou-mah … oou-mah … kwe-kwe … nam-ee-dah …,” I read, even though I felt more like an idiot the more unintelligible syllables I read.  “Oou-mah, kwe-kwe, nam-ee-dah … Oou-mah, kwe-kwe, nam-ee-dah!”

            To finish the spell, I dipped my thumb into a spot of blood on the side of my neck, where I had nicked myself shaving minutes before, and smeared it on the mirror over my reflection’s forehead.
            For almost a minute, nothing happened, and I felt like a moron for missing my chance to go to the club with my roommates.  Then my reflection suddenly winked, and I was positive that both my eyes stayed open.

            My reflection leaned closer to the mirror and pressed his palms on the basin.  Then he reached across his sink, past his faucet, and placed his palm onto my faucet, like he was testing a theory.  He climbed upon his sink, placed his hands onto my side of the basin, and crawled across the sink.  As he passed through my side of the mirror, the smear of my blood came with him, across his forehead.

            “Holy … holy crap!”  I cried.  “I can’t believe it worked!  Like, I can’t believe it worked!”  My reflection clambered down from the sink.  “I mean, look at you!  You’re me!”
            The reflection wore the exact same jeans and club-ready shirt that I wore, except that his were slightly spotted from passing through the dirty mirror.  There was a slightly me-shaped clean space in the mirror, now.  “Well, not completely,” he said, dampening his fingers in the sink and scrubbing the bloody thumbprint from his face.  “Think of me like Cinderella’s pumpkin.  I’m only here till midnight.”
            “Midnight?!” I cried, checking my cell phone.  “But it’s already ten thirty!”

            The reflection straightened his shirt in the mirror.  “Then we’d better get to work, hadn’t we?  You only have an hour and a half to get some random chick’s phone number!”

            We left the bathroom and headed for the front door.  “Well, I don’t think I just want some random chick’s number,” I fretted.  “I mean, I’d like her to be pretty.  And interesting.  And smart.”

            “Please,” my reflection said to me condescendingly.  “I know your type.  Who knows your type better than you?”

            I took my car keys from the coffee table and opened the door.  “Okay, so here’s our story.  We’re identical twins.  You have a girlfriend, and mine just dumped me, so you’re trying to cheer up your poor brother.”

            My reflection followed me out the door. “Yeah, that’s perfect.  Chicks dig identical twins.” 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

New Skin

If you're a regular follower of my Facebook feed or Twitter account, then you've probably heard as much as you'd like about my divorce.  Trust me; I have, too.  But, the fact is, nothing else has so permeated everything I am, shaken me to my very core, and pushed me beyond when I previously thought was my point of endurance.  So here's another short blog entry about it, written for my LineByLine, a LiveJournal writing community I'm an estranged member of.  This month's line is When it was all over, and I had to use it somewhere in the entry.  It's not hard to spot.  

When she left, I wanted to change everything.

I hated furniture in the living room, because I remembered how she and I would try to lounge on the sectional couch, even though it wasn’t quite long enough for me.  The coffee table, where we used to eat our dinners while watching Netflix, was suddenly in the wrong place.  Even my computer desk, which actually predated her, was wrong. So then came the re-arranging, and when it was finished, I felt like I was coming home to somewhere new every day.

My hair suddenly seemed too long for a man my age. It made sense when I was 22, and I had just started dating an 18-year-old girl.  It, like so many things, simply grew because it was too difficult to imagine the transition away from it.  I allowed it to become unkempt in my security.  Now, I fantasize about chopping it off and sheering my scalp with a razor.

Even my skin felt wrong.  I noticed things I never had before: how far my hair line was really receding, wrinkles next to my nose, how, no matter how muscular my shoulders became, they were still not enough to detract from my flabby stomach.  I played with the idea of getting a tattoo.  Something cold and logical, I thought; nothing that implies dependence or weakness or vulnerability.  Something unshakable, mathematical, perfect.  I found the Fibonacci Spiral, though I still haven’t gathered the courage to get it.

But the longer she was away, and the more time I spent with myself, I realized that I actually liked my life the way it was, with or without her.  The furniture, even though it was still in the same place as it had been during my short marriage, was simply the best place for everything. I liked sitting on the couch and watching football or Dr. Who, even if I was alone.  My hair, though perhaps still a little too long, seemed to suit me.  And if I decided to cut it, it would be because I wanted to, not because I wanted to erase the man that had been married.  And although I still like the idea of the Fibonacci Spiral, I’m not in a hurry to emblazon myself with it forever. 

There are still moments where I feel as broken as the last cracker in a sleeve of Saltines.  But they are fewer, and continue to be so as the months go on.  When the judge pronounces us divorced, I’m still probably going to cry, and will desperately need to get stupid-drunk as fast as possible.  But those feelings are temporary, whereas my healing, and the restoring of my self-worth, are permanent. 

At the end, I will be a stronger, better man for the ordeal.  And even if no one else appreciates that, I sure as heck do.