Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Long Grain Rice

He hoarded bags of rice as the phone rang, as letters poured in. One album ten years before, a song that the masses hummed for a month, most now had forgotten. The answer to interviews, reemergence an unchanging no. He’s walked away. His guitar sits in a closet dust covered. He sits by the window, watching speck-sized people walk the streets, the sun rise and set.

When he was a child, his father had his name etched on a grain of rice, a beach town tourist-trap souvenir. His father, the smile of parenting done right, handed it to him. He didn’t notice that his son’s name was spelled wrong. The souvenir and father now lost. He couldn’t remember the exact misspelling anymore.

I’m not Kurt Cobain, he said in an interview once. I’m not Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix. I’m not addicted, an answer to trivia questions, a statistic. I’m not paranoid, delusional, suicidal. He was fine as long as no one asked him, who are you? That he couldn’t answer.

Fifty 20-lb bags of rice. One day the phone would stop ringing, the letters stop coming. The streets would be empty, the sun gone. Then he could cook the rice, pick up his guitar. Then his name would return to him.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Successful Writer

I always like quotes about writers and writing. Here’s one from writer Geoffrey Cotterell:

In America, only the successful writer is important. In France, all writers are important. In England, no writer is important. In Australia, you have to explain what a writer is.

I only know about this quote from Bruce Holland Rogers’ excellent essay, “On Being a Minor Writer,” which is available as an Amazon Short download. His book on writing, Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer, I find to be essential if you’re at least somewhat committed to the writing life and are beyond the beginning stages of exercising creativity (though I think the book is useful to all).

Back to the quote—I find it humorous just because of preconceived notions about each of the countries and what they value. Being an American writer, obviously I find the part about America to be true and a cold bucket of water on my writing aspirations.

But that cold bucket of water only has power if I buy into the premise that only success matters, which I don’t. Of course, major success would be great—how could I argue otherwise? I believe, though, if you’re a writer, you must proceed realizing that success as it’s defined in America likely will never happen.

Thursday, July 23, 2009


She watched from the mountain as they swept through the fields, burning flowers in systematic sweeps. They wore camouflage, their faces in black shields, metal tubes spraying fire protruding from gloved hands, robots fulfilling cold orders. Her father, hunching and shrinking more each day, explained, we live off the land as our ancestors did, but in distant places, people kill each other, themselves for opium. Pink and white flowers, fields of delicate linens, collapsed in flame and ashes. Why destroy something so beautiful, she wondered. She lay supine on a grass patch, mouthless doll on her chest, watched black smoke drift like flowing water toward other mountains. Entranced, breathing in fear, she couldn’t look away.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


A: You know, we’re packed in here like…

B: Don’t say it. Hello, my fellow fish. It’s a fine kettle, I know.

A: This isn’t a subway crowd. It’s a funeral in a studio apartment. Where’s the corpse, I always ask. Judging by this crowd, we might have several takers.

B: Thankfully, everyone here’s wearing deodorant. Sniff…hold on, not everybody.

A: I’m so squeezed, I keep thinking someone’s picking my pocket. Looking at the mugs here, who can blame me?

C: Look, you two, I’m listening to you clowns and I’ve about had it.

A: Hey, a concerned citizen. Next stop, you could depart, give us some breathing room. I hear the muggings end at daybreak so you’d be fine.

B: I’ve refrained from using profanity. Now, you got me rethinking that.

C: You comedians, we’re all in this together. Trying to get to work. Cut the Henny Youngman routine.

A: Henny Youngman? Man, you shouldn’t be here but on the trolley.

B: I think we just passed the Wright Brothers’ plane. Aren’t you usually on that?

C: Real funny.

A: Another stop. Man, more people!

B: Cattle, I say! Moo!

D: You guys move in a little there?

A: Oh, a new guy.

B: He’s going to say it. Don’t say it.

D: We’re packed in here like sardines!

A: Man, he said it.

B: Someone get me off this thing.

Friday, July 17, 2009


The doctor went for oysters in the middle of surgery. He frequented a bar serving seafood several blocks from the hospital. The freshest oysters, a sparse lunchtime crowd. The shucker wore white gloves, pried open the shells with deft slices. Spinal surgery, fusing of vertebrae. I’ll be back in a jiffy, he told his staff, eyes above white masks. A half dozen and a Harp, he told the barkeep, and make it snappy. Barkeep gave him a funny look, like, what are you, rushing off to surgery, as he poured a golden draft, as if bartender trumped all occupations. Suspension, termination, malpractice. All the risks, but he’d made the incisions, started the procedure and froze. Never happened before; he panicked. A dribble of cocktail sauce covering the raw oyster, a slithery coldness that slipped into his mouth, down his throat. The bivalve was technically still alive, drowning in stomach acid. Fifteen minutes. His phone buzzed in his pocket. He realized that he was still in scrubs, donning medical blue from head to toe. His patient was not in this world, back sliced open, waiting for healing, a page back to living. He finished and ran back, thinking not about excuses but how he’d pick up a knife, how he’d ever operate again.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Vanilla bean

One suffocating season Pedro was blessed with vanilla vines growing up his house, their fragrant flowers tunneling through the smallest holes. Mornings he would enter his kitchen, find new ripened vanilla beans bursting through the wall, the green cream orchids providing small touches of decor. The smell so strong his eyes would lift, his stomach sink in hunger, his life liberated.

At first he sold them at the local market, made good money. Too many times he came, though—the buyer asked him where was he getting them, was he stealing them. He stopped going, instead keeping them for himself, using the beans for coffee flavoring, cakes, and milk. His friend Raul looked at the vines scaling heavenward, said, soon, it’ll consume your house.

Perhaps it was his body’s vanilla scent or his newfound everyday euphoria that restored his once dead romantic life. Passionate kisses unseen in his kitchen for years, though he wondered if his dates were eying his vanilla beans, agents provocateur looking to dissemble his aromatic empire. Strange men lurked outside—suspicious husbands, robbers, or just his imagination?

One morning there were no new pods, no scent. The front door, sealed by thick vines, wouldn’t budge. Through the window he saw long Rapunzel-like vines soaring up, over the roof.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Scrambled eggs

the middle of a sentence, she said. Her fork combing scrambled eggs, like she did, her face locked in frown. Do you have to write while we talk, she said. Yes, I said, stopping to eat a cigar-length French fry. I write, this is what I do. But your stories. Look, I said, about that middle of the sentence thing—it’s afternoon and you’re eating breakfast. And? Same principle, sort of, but more like, you took too long to start your sentence, more than half a page. It’s perfectly acceptable to eat breakfast foods in the middle of the—she stopped, grabbed my writing journal, looked at it. You’re writing this down? Well, not if you’re going to take it from me. She flipped through the book, skimmed passages, face reflecting horror. She didn’t have an appreciation, she took it too seriously. Closed it, tossed it at me, killing four fries. This relationship is me spinning circles around a stationary insane person going nowhere, she said. I almost opened the book to write but held my hands together. I know you’re not writing but memorizing, and she was right. She stood, dropped money on the table. When you tell this story, in your oh-so-clever way, do me a favor, don’t start in

Thursday, July 9, 2009

French fries

He left the house saying he was walking but was really going for french fries. Canto’s Pizza, three blocks away. His wife would say, don’t get them, remember your heart, our healthy lifestyle. Ten years since the procedure, he’d say, and we moved to the city to walk places, get exercise. His doctor’s words—moderation, and forget the salt.

Tuesdays she worked afternoons at the bookstore, and he’d go, buy a large order, sit in a corner with a newspaper. Fries covered in vinegar, veins of ketchup. Like sunny beach days of his youth, free-flowing arteries, greasy boardwalk food. Sunlight toasting his back, he’d swim to that dangerous spot where the ocean could swallow him. At night, he’d lie in bed, feel the ocean’s rush all over again.

Immersed in his paper and food, he heard a familiar voice: his wife’s. She ordered pizza and onion rings, food he’d not seen her have in ten years, sat in a different corner and read. Oblivious to him. The paper as shield, he peeked at her occasionally enjoying the food. He wanted to stand, say, what about eating healthy, but she looked young, happy. Every Tuesday could be a date, he thought, he lurking as her secret admirer, the two of them living unhealthy.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Writing Life

The author was in the midst of one of his 750-word stories when there was a knock at the door. He stopped and bit his bottom lip, pondering what he should do. No time for intrusions. Every minute, keystroke, brain cell spent, counted.

Pop-Tart crumbs, cold coffee with dead creamer outline at top, an unconscious cat. The act of writing, here before him in full-swing, as he deliberated. It was never the words but what was around them. They were secondary. But, in a way, it really was the words. Every word must be analyzed and counted.

Should he answer the door? There was another knock. Three short raps. Death knell knocks. On the other side: distraction, annoyance, death. Not expecting anyone today. It was rainy outside, a stiff breeze, an umbrella breaker. The cat stirred but didn’t wake.

The author did what any good writer committed to his work would do: he pulled out his gun. A Glock 9-mm with a full magazine and two extra clips. When you’ve got your rhythm, let nothing—NOTHING—stop you. He could shout, go away, but no one ever goes away. Everyone and everything wants a piece of your time. Especially when you’re writing.

He kept pounding away at the keyboard, birthing word after word. One hundred words became two hundred. At two hundred he hits a nasty bend and slows, becomes two hundred thirty-two, idles there for some minutes hitting the accelerator blowing off exhaust like a waiting car, then bursts into two hundred fifty-three and burns into the middle stretch.

He stood and went to the door, stealthily put his ear to it. The previous tenant had painted the peephole with shoe polish and no one had removed it.

Nothing. No sound. His gun was locked and loaded, ready to blast away.

He recalled the story about the novelist up in Ann Arbor who took hostages so he could write a novella. Regular life held too many distractions. Becoming a kidnapper removed them, made one focus on the here and now. He hammered out a seventy-eight pager in the midst of bullhorn negotiations, keeping an eye on his shotgun, and rationing food. Now, he’s probably doing life in the state penitentiary. Plenty of time and solitude to hammer out stories, novellas, and novels.

He leaned against the wall, felt his heart typing away at his rib cage. This was, by far, a waste of time. It kept him from writing. To him, these moments were like padding. Kind of like were you would stall and delay and drag things out so that somehow some way by hook or by crook you make it to the bitter inevitable end.

Another set of three knocks. The door rattled. It sounded like a strong determined fist. Solid knuckles, perhaps even brass ones. Did he owe the wrong people money? Probably—he couldn’t keep track of his debts.

He felt it. Away from the desk. This disturbance…right now he could be at word five hundred. He could be making his way to the end. Always he was somewhere in a story.

Perhaps madness was setting in. His dreams were filled with deleting one word, adding two, poring over page after page of a thesaurus, his brain spinning trying to find that word swirling on his tongue but never finding it. He would wake from his dream, find that he was still asleep, and then wake for real.

Right now, was he in between dreams? He didn’t know.

There was only one way to resolve this. He unlocked all four locks. His finger was primed on the trigger. He swung the door open and pointed his gun out the door. There was a loud female scream and the thumping of a body hitting the floor.

He looked down. It was his mother. She was lying in her own lasagna, the dish still in her hand, aluminum foil peeking out from under her body.

“Mom?” He reached down. Her wrist was limp. He checked her wrist and neck for a pulse but couldn’t find one.

This, he realized, presented a serious problem. Kneeling by his mother, he turned and looked inside. He could see the computer screen—some words, mostly white space. The cat, now awake, looked at him then turned away, indifferent.

He thought about the situation. Ambulance, hospital, surgery, paperwork. Or death, funeral arrangements, requisite mourning period, paperwork.

As he came inside for the phone, he mumbled, there’s always something, when does it end?

Friday, July 3, 2009

Writing about Food, Creating Delicious Burgers

As you can probably tell from some of my stories, and as anyone who knows me can attest, I love food. I’ve written an entire collection of 78 flash fiction pieces with food/drink titles. Ratatouille is one of my favorite films. The Food Network is popular at my house. My wife Kathy and I, and even the kids, know the names Alton Brown, Bobby Flay, Guy Fieri, Ina Garten, and Gina and Pat Neely.

Besides how much I may enjoy consuming, I love making food. For Father’s Day this year, I received Bobby Flay’s great new book,
Burgers, Fries, and Shakes, as a gift. I got a bit of a preview of some of this book’s recipe offerings from a recent issue of Food Network magazine. The Cheyenne Burger is the first burger recipe I tried, finding it first in the magazine and now having it in the book. It was an instant classic with the grown-ups in the house, and I recommend giving it a shot this holiday weekend for a different take on the hamburger.

For this recipe, I’ve used 80% lean ground beef rather than ground turkey, and I also used an inexpensive, conventional bottled BBQ sauce (Kraft’s Honey Hickory Smoke, I believe) rather than making Bobby Flay’s concoction. Smoked cheddar is great stuff, but it’s kind of expensive for this middle-class cook so I’ve used Cabot’s Seriously Sharp Cheddar as well as mozzarella (I think any cheese that’s not your standard individually packaged slice will work well).

If you make this recipe, the components you have to stick with are the bacon and the onion rings (Bobby Flay’s recipe for them, not any pre-made variety). Both of these things make this burger. I’ve made the onion rings using canola oil and they tasted great, though I’m eager to try them in peanut oil.

These burgers can become a bit work intensive when you’re trying to grill the beef patties, cook the bacon, and also make the onion rings. The work is well worth it, though, as the burgers are beyond the standard patty on a bun, which is pretty much what the burger recipes in the new book are all about.

So, I’m not just writing stories about food—I’m doing the work in the kitchen. Can a recipe book be far behind? Maybe I’ll make a few more of these delicious burgers first.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Space, Arlington, Pentagon, Kandor


The General orbited earth. He got the shuttle call, became a momentary celebrity. Gravity’s push then weightlessness. Of the shuttle crew, he was the one with no authority, no expertise—a new role. When the cameras were on, he and the crew posed together with smiles. When no one was looking, they ignored him. He sailed through space, looked into the void beyond, contemplated other worlds. New earths, new roles. Then, he came home.


The General is caught in traffic. The Capital Beltway has him snared in. His egg and cheese sandwich is grumbling in his stomach. He can imagine it swirling, a hurricane spinning, swelling with moisture, working to unleash fury. The traffic inches along. The smells of asphalt and exhaust. His coffee grows cold, turns into swamp water. Before he leaves every morning, his wife tells him, give ‘em hell. He hits a stretch where he can see forever ahead. Hell is traffic, hell is war, hell is life. Life is traffic is war. Every single morning, his wife hands him a brown paper bag containing lunch, the flap folded precisely four times. This predictability--this over-rehearsed stage production--is the worst thing he can imagine.


The General finally arrives, has to pee like a racehorse. Through metal detectors, a briefcase search, a retina scan. Folgers inside him is flood waters forming the continents. Salutes all the way. Swarms of people—tourists, contractors, military. Grand friggin’ Central Station. Life is searches is coffee-turned-to-urine is Grand Central Station.

Pop the lid off this place and you'll see phones ringing, men and women playing infidelity minesweeper behind closed doors, suits and soldiers and pasty-faced geeks planning the world's end. The General knows the score. The five sides go deep into the ground. Hiding big secrets. Aliens. Other dimensions. The Truth. The General knows it all.


When the General saw the bottled city, he knew he had to get in there. An entire city tucked into a perfume-bottle-sized container. Big voyeur eyes peered into it, glassy orbs like monster suns popping into its skies. Electron microscope revealed that it was indeed an active city, with an estimated two hundred thousand atom-sized humanoid people wearing tiny clothes, driving tiny cars, working in tiny skyscrapers, living tiny lives.

No one is sure where the city came from, but it was now located in the Pentagon, 4th sublevel, third door on the right. They called it Kandor, after the bottled city in Superman comics. There were many questions about oxygen, food and water supplies, exhaust and combustible by-products, the seemingly normal cork stopper. Big people, wearing big lab coats and taking notes on big pads with big pencils, were trying to figure it all out but there was a big missing link.

The General had family, a big house, big cars, big stars and bars over his big pumping heart. He liked to sail his boat on the Potomac, smoke hand-wrapped Cuban cigars while watching the sunset a fiery orange. But he was always one for the big plan. The big little plan. Shrink me down, inject me through the cork.

This was done, and through a needle, he was injected into the bottle. In his backpack he had an amoebic parachute and an exit plan. He lands inside, on what appears to be a normal street, but soon finds out that everyone there is a General.

He was arrested. There’s been a war, on hiatus for years as the enemy has regrouped, they tell him, and was he one of their agents?

You don’t understand, he huffed. You’re a bottled city. I’m from Earth, shrunk myself down, I’m an ambassador.

They laughed, dragged him away to an institution. He had a window view. For countless days he looked to the sky, looked for the glass beyond but couldn’t see it, contemplated the big world that was now just a void. He wanted to go home.