Short Story: “What You Can Do”

AscentMy short story, “What You Can Do,” was published this past weekend at Ascent. the literary magazine hosted at Concordia College and edited by W. Scott Olsen. Scott had an excellent insight on the original version of the story, and I made some changes at his suggestion. This is my first short story published since I had one in my college’s literary magazine sometime in the last millennium.

The story begins with:

On a sunny February morning, Howard Stevens worked a shovel up and down the sidewalk in front of the giant colonial he and his wife Ellen had bought in 1980, right after he got tenure at the state college nearby. Five dry inches of snow had fallen the night before, and Howard had risen early. The house faced south, and if he had the walk shoveled, salted, and sanded by 9:00 there would be a whole day of sun to finish the melting. “Don’t be fooled by the calendar,” he had told his son too many times over the years. “The sun is strong this time of year. The days are getting longer. Nature’s on our side.”

Howard knew to pace himself. He didn’t want to get winded, and he didn’t want to get too sweaty. If he worked steadily, he could get it done in an hour, and today, he wasn’t in a hurry. It wasn’t at all windy, and the sun was indeed strong. The work would be done well, and he even might enjoy a conversation or two. That young couple down the street with the big dog liked to talk. Besides, with Ellen gone, there was nothing for him in the house.

You can read more here

Acceptance

IMG_1411After a steady 17 months of writing, after sending 19 different short stories to over 140 publications, and after batting a perfect zero for 97 in rejections, I had two stories accepted by two publications in the course of a week.

Who woulda thunk it.

Experienced writers might bristle at me complaining about 17 months. That is not a lot of time to deal with rejection in writing, but note that I said a “steady 17 months.” In fact I have been writing, in stretches, for nearly 40 years. I wrote my first freelance newspaper articles in the spring of 1978. I wrote my first short stories a year later, and I was a regular stringer for a mid-sized daily newspaper, The New Bedford Standard-Times starting in the fall of 1980.

I wrote steadily through graduate school, and between roughly 1985 and 1989 I produced a few decent short stories during my M.A. program and after. I had a few thoughtful, personal rejection letters, including one from Ploughshares and one from the North American Review. It’s possible that, with a few steady years of writing (there’s that word again) I could have had a few things published. I look back at what I wrote then and I still like a few things. I took one piece, rewrote it, and have submitted it again. I have four rejections for it, but three came with personal notes and invitations to resubmit other things in the future.

What happened between 1989 and the fall of 2015 when I finally got back to it? Well, I married in 1989, bought a house in 1990, had my first son in 1991, and had my second son in 1993. I changed jobs and careers in 1989 and change jobs again in 1993. After that? It was off to the races.

In a word, life happened, and I don’t regret it one bit.

I did put aside my creative writing almost entirely, but I found ways to stay in the writing game. I work in publishing, though my work on the technology end of publishing keeps me a couple of steps removed from the editorial work. I teach writing, though freshman composition is not the same as creative writing. And I have written. I co-wrote two technical books, contributed a chapter to another book, and wrote a few dozen articles for technical and business trade magazines, newsletters, and websites. I count the newsletter writing–for the Gilbane Report and the Seybold Report–to be the best analytical writing I have done. They were long-form pieces, written for editors with rigorous standards and discerning eyes, and I was paid well for them. I also wrote a few long-form articles for trade magazines that came with big paychecks. I made more money for each of several of the magazine articles than I did for each of my books.

I am not bragging. On the whole, these are modest accomplishments, but it’s how I stayed in the game. All of these things helped me. I can write a good sentence, I can write clearly, and I can find my end from the beginning to the end of a lengthy piece of writing without losing myself or my reader.

I have to admit the last 17 months have been lonely. Rejection is not fun even though I know it’s the name of the game in publishing. (I recall vividly hearing an industry pro tell me, in graduate school that, “There are only Fs and As in publishing, and there are a lot more Fs than As.”)

Ninety-seven Fs and two As later, I can confirm he is indeed correct.

More to come. I will post links and such when the stories get posted. I will share, though, what one editor wrote to me after I rewrote a story at his suggestions. In his email to me telling me the story would be published he wrote, “…’What you can do’ is a fine and wonderful story, Bill.”

That feels good, even though I know some of my work is very good and even though I know  each of those 97 rejections didn’t mean my work is bad. Tastes are subjective. A story that is very good for one publication may be exactly wrong for another. Maybe the person reading the slush pile didn’t read something with the right care and attention. I told myself for 17 months that I didn’t need validation, but, really, don’t we all?

The picture above is of my desk this morning, 17 months in. More to come.

 

 

First Day

norma-ann-halliday001-copyIt’s my mother’s birthday. She would have been 87 today. That would have been a grand old age–and, really, she should have made it. She would have seen her grandchildren grow to be really fine young people, but, sadly, she would have outlived my sister and she didn’t deserve that on top of everything else.

I wrote a short story last year and have submitted it to a few publications. It’s very loosely based on an event in her life. I also tried to capture some of her internal voice. My mother had a sense of humor that was sometimes generous and sometimes biting. The older I got, the more I appreciated the latter. Maybe I see more of myself in the biting version of my mother or maybe I outgrew my sensitivities.

I don’t know if my mother coined this, but she once said to me, “People who spend too much time in small rooms end up saying small things.” There is a spirit of that in the story, which I briefly excerpt below.

I started my morning submitting this story to another publication. My mother deserves another reading.


From, “First Day,”

Marie Brown was sweating even before she reached the top of the stairs. It was the Friday of Labor Day weekend, and almost 90 degrees. School was starting the next Tuesday, and Marie’s shoulders sagged at the thought of her fourth grade class starting out the year in this weather.

Marie paused at the top of the stairs, putting the box she was carrying onto a table. She had bought some folders, a new grade book, a new binder for her lesson plan. The binder had a bright green cover with an owl and the words “Teacher Binder” in different colors. It’s loud, she thought, and she didn’t like the school years, 2015-2016, printed in big blocky numbers.

She didn’t need to be reminded of the year. It meant she had been teaching for 35 years, in this same building, and even in the same classroom until this year when her principal talked her into a new one. “You have seniority,” Joe Guarino had told her. It was the biggest classroom, on the corner overlooking the one quiet part of the building. It had trees outside the windows.

Marie picked up her box of supplies, went to her new room. She walked the perimeter of it, taking in the dimensions, surveying how she might want to space the desks, where to put the tables that would hold supplies and books. She stepped to the window, looked out. A small garden stood there—someone’s idea a decade before to give the quieter kids something to do at recess. It had been tended exactly one year, but then they went into the summer with no plan about how to maintain it. It ended up producing some tomatoes no one ate and a few pumpkins that were stolen just before they could be collected for Halloween decorations. It had grown fallow, but at some point a neighbor got sick of it and filled it with wildflower seeds. Marie studied it. It still had some color.

I Will Never Be Annie Dillard and That’s OK

newbedfordunionstreet1970(An excerpt from something that might be in progress or might not be.)

I started reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek on a warm spring afternoon in a seedy bar in New Bedford, Massachusetts. I was a senior in college, spending more time as a stringer for the local Standard-Times than I was spending in class or studying. I had arranged it this way. I had taken enough classes as a sophomore and junior to give myself an easy glide-path out of college.

I had filed a story that day about a car wreck. A full-time reporter had written the main story and they had given me a sidebar to write. The driver, shitfaced at 10:00 in the morning, had swerved to miss some imaginary thing in the road and had crashed into a convenience store.

The store owner, his back to the window as he stood at the cash register, never saw it coming. The car roared through the front window and crushed a candy display and knocked the lottery machine off its table and into the legs of the owner. The machine snapped one of his femurs cleanly in two.

I had been a block away when I heard it and got close enough to watch the EMTs stabilize the leg while the mean screamed and then passed out. He was screaming in Portuguese and I hardly knew a word, but I did fashion a quote out of the screaming with some help from his son. “Mamãe! Meu Deus, Mamãe!” I decided I would have been screaming the same thing.

I filed the story and walked to the bar. I had to settle my nerves. It was my second car wreck in two weeks. I had covered the first one for a local radio station where I also freelanced. They didn’t have a real night-time reporter so I went out there alone, steno pad in hand. The cop wouldn’t let me near enough to see anything, but there were two bodies on the street. Someone had produced drop cloths to cover the bodies. They were soaked through with blood. I walked a block away and puked.

I ordered a boilermaker, Old Thompson Whiskey and a 16-ounce Narragansett beer, and I pulled Dillard from my jacket pocket.

I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest….

(Well, heck, I used to have a cat, too! The summer Midnight went into heat—and the only summer she lived through—she would jump from roof to roof up the two-deckers lining one side of my street. She would then climb, squirrel-like, down one of the 4-by-4s that framed our back porch. She would scratch on my brother’s screen until he let her in.

That fall, Midnight wandered a bit too far onto the next block. Something got to her—a dog maybe but more likely a pack of kids—and a friend found her, scraped her into a box, and brought her to us. She was still alive, but when we got to the vet he didn’t have to look at her for very long. He tried to soften the blow for me. “It looks like you are going to have to get another kitty.”)

The boilermaker felt good enough to order a second and then a third. I soldiered on through Dillard.

The sun in the west illuminates the ground, the mountains, and especially the bare branches of trees, so that everywhere silver trees cut into the black sky like a photographer’s negative of a landscape.

“Goddamn that is good writing.” I must have said it aloud because the bartender turned to me. I wasn’t quick enough to explain myself so the bartender brought me a fourth boilermaker. I downed the shot and chased it with half of the beer before I took a breath.

At some point the bar filled with reporters, including Dave, who had filed the full story on the crash. He dropped a copy of the paper in front of me. The Standard-Times was an afternoon paper and the story I had finished writing two hours before was now miraculously in front of me, printed and folded, my byline in bold 10-point Futura.

“Six inches, my little man.” The city editor had cut my story, which I always knew would happen, but she had also cut my lede, including the first line, which I had been celebrating in my head the whole afternoon. “An otherwise perfectly normal day for Alberto Gomes took a bad turn this morning when a Buick LeSabre crashed through the front window of his Union Street convenience store.”

Dave was downing his first beer. “Don’t use adverbs. Carol fucking hate adverbs. And ‘bad turn.’ Jesus, kid, have an idea.”

Carol was the city editor. She had moved up from covering crime for nearly twenty years. She chain smoked and sounded like Robert Loggia. I had filed 20 stories with her after doing only sports for the first two years. She had lopped off every one of my ledes. Dave had tried to coach me a little. “If you like it too much, little man, it probably sucks.”

Is This the Start of a Story?

Man with umbrella walking in the rainI was returning from a trip to New York City and the short piece below came out.I shared it on Facebook and some writer friends have written two beautiful responses to it, picking up the story from other points of view. As I was reading and editing it, I was thinking of my recent post about what makes for good story telling when the truth seems to bleed into fiction.

I was also reflecting on a weekend dinner with my brother and two of my oldest friends. We were recalling stories and relying on each other to fill in the details. For some of the stories I had departed from the real at some point. Perhaps other details sounded better, perhaps I honestly forgot, perhaps some combination of both.

Anyway, the story–all of which, or nearly all of which, is true.


 

You could put me in Greenwich Village on a stormy evening. You could make the wind sweep rain up from my feet, soak through my pants in a minute. You could have me duck into the first restaurant.

Make it Russian. Drape it in deep velvet where people sit in wicker thrones at preposterously small tables. Shake my head at the chairs. Put me instead at the bar.

Make the bartender look like Ivanka Trump but put her in jeans and a Yankees t-shirt. Make her warm and attentive. Have her introduce herself as Cosma.

Have one of the waiters join me at the bar. Between deep groaning spasms of Tourette’s have him tell me, in perfectly accented English, to try the dumplings.

Have him start to tell me that they are perfect for “this shitty weather.” But then have Cosma shut him down. “You think this is shitty weather? Come to Serbia. I will show you shitty weather.”

Have some young guys show up and flirt with Cosma despite her engagement ring. Have them ask her name and have her tell them Natasha and point to me. “And him? That’s Boris.”

Have me hold up my drink, nod to them across the bar. Allow me a smile and give me a look that says I am in for a good night if I can hold my vodka.

You could tell that story and know that it’s almost true. You really could.

Too Good to be True

5700-raw.jpgA friend has told me that some of my stories sound fictional. “That’s just too good to be true,” she will say, and honestly, I can’t deny it. They do sound too good to be true. That’s what makes them worth telling again.

Take the time when, years ago, my angry voice mail was broadcast over the PA to my entire company. That alone could make it sound unbelievable. What made it more unbelievable was that it was loaded with f-bombs, one after another, each one directed at a different colleague. There were about 300 employees in that company. I don’t think I missed one.

The specifics of that day make it even better. I was visiting our major client, installing the latest version of our software that felt like little more than vaporware at the time. The client was furious. I was shuttling between the systems room and the editorial floor, watching every feature blow up, one after the other.

So I left the client, drove to the nearest pay phone (this was before cell phones). I poured quarters into the phone, dialed my boss. When he didn’t pick up, I just let loose. If my memory is correct, my tirade lasted for five minutes. I hung up and drove the three hours home.

Meanwhile, back in headquarters, my boss returned to his desk. By his telling, he only had to hear the first few words of my message to know what was up. He was in a day-long meeting with the senior management of that very client. They were ready to bail. We would lose the contract, maybe even be sued, if the ship couldn’t be righted. So he hit a few buttons on the phone, thinking he was transferring it to another one of the managers on our team.

He hit the wrong buttons. The message went to the PA system.

As he told the story later, there was no mistaking my voice. I have a deep voice, nasal to my ears, but he considered it quite distinctive. He also knew that everyone else knew my voice–every employee and everyone from the client. After panicking for a minute and hitting every button he could think of, he realized that maybe not all was lost. The clients were sitting in our executive meeting room. They PA didn’t work there. He took a few deep breaths and returned to the room.

Meanwhile, downstairs, the technical director from the client was in our smoking room. The PA did reach there. A friend and colleague, Dan, was in the smoking room as well. Dan was a veteran of the first Iraq war. Nothing got past him, so when he heard the start of the voice message he knew what was what. He stood up and he started singing, “New York, New York.”

I understand he sang it pretty well and he kept singing until the message was over. The client finished her cigarette and went back to the meeting.

The client never got word of it. The fallout had more to do with me insulting and denigrating every one of my colleagues. However I was well liked and everyone knew the pressure I was under. The software did suck then. I was in an impossible situation of driving three hours down and three hours back every week to install a new version of the software that didn’t work.

My boss, for his part, decided to fall on his sword. He went into our CEO’s office, told the story, and he was ready to resign but our CEO burst out laughing and couldn’t stop. Crisis averted.

Back to my friend who didn’t believe the story.

We traveled together recently to New York City. On the train back, who should be in our car but my old boss. I introduced them and asked him to the story. He told it with relish. He’s a great storyteller anyway, but he really loved this one. Almost 25 years have passed and he still told it in all its detail, reminding me of things I had since forgotten. I was vindicated.

In the workshop at Ferry Beach, our long-time facilitator Jim Ellefson offers a prompt I have long enjoyed: tell a tall tale. Wikipedia helpfully explains that “a tall tale is a story with unbelievable elements, related as if it were true and factual.” I especially like the second element, “some stories such as these are exaggerations of actual events.” I love tall tales and I write them. This one, though, happens to be true. My old boss will even tell you so.

Around the House

ariensst724I have now owned a house for nearly 25 years. It has been a love-hate relationship at every step. It is old, built in 1880, and big. It is listed at 1700 square feet, but we added a 400 foot addition. It has a full basement, four bedrooms, 2.5 baths, and the half-finished attic office that I now sit in.

I don’t say this to brag. I know that I am fortunate to have a roof over my head, and I feel blessed to have been able to raise my boys in a nice home in a nice small city outside of Boston. If things go well, my wife and I can retire here or sell the house, buy something smaller, and use some of the gain to help with our retirement.

No, I say this because every inch of this house is a blessing and a curse to me. Whenever something goes awry–and things always go awry–the house reminds me of all the things I am not good at. I don’t do plumbing or electric or carpentry. I don’t fix things. I don’t know how to troubleshoot pretty much anything except electronics.

It’s worse, really. I don’t know the right tool to use in nearly every situation. I don’t think before I do things so of course I screw up or make it worse. I invariably start whining. It’s pathetic, really.

So I stick to what I am good at. I like doing laundry. I like cleaning the kitchen. I like organizing things when I have time and patience. I am good at getting the yard ready for the seasons. For some reason I especially like putting things away in the fall. There is an order to the world when the yard is free of furniture and garden fencing and hoses. I like sweeping out the shed and leaving it neat, the tools in their place, the garden supplies on their shelves.

Today I got the snowblower out. First I emptied the shed of as many things as I could, lined them up outside, then swept the shed. It took me less than an hour, but when I was done everything was back in the shed and organized. That left me with the snowblower sitting on the driveway behind the house.

It is a nice machine, a hand-me-down Ariens 24 from my brother. If I bought it new today, it would be about $900. My brother even had it serviced before he gave it to me before the winter of 2014-2015, when we broke the record for most snow in a season (and that same article tells me that six of the ten worst snowfall seasons have happened since I bought this house).

I checked the oil, filled the gas, lubricated the auger. I opened the choke, primed the engine, pulled the starter.

Nothing.

I pulled it again.

Nothing.

This is where the snowblowers of the world defeat me. This is where the snowblowers of the world not only ruin the day but threaten to ruin the week, the month, the season. This is where the snowblowers of the world remind me, for the thousandth time why I should have never bought a house.

I have learned, finally, after nearly 25 years of owning a house and 27 years of marriage, to exercise at least a little patience in such moments. So I tried a few more times, double-checked everything, tried again.

Nothing.

I sat on my back stairs, Googled the model number, hoping to find the documentation so I wouldn’t have to rummage around inside (and likely not find it and likely get pissed off). I didn’t find the documentation right away but I found a video instead, “Ariens ST724 Snowblower Cold Start.”

My prayers were answered, but it was quite humbling. It turns out this snowblower has an electric start. I vaguely remember asking my brother about it, but I can’t remember what he said, so I hadn’t spent any time on it. It turns out that it works. You plug an extension cord into it. prime the engine, open the choke, and the freaking thing starts up.

As my friend Jake F. likes to joke, “The farm’s been saved!”

And my family has been saved from some of my whining.