Friday, December 29, 2006

December Wordsmiths Challenge 2: The Gift

The sexy beasts over at Wordsmiths Unlimited have unleashed a second writing challenge this year because we've all been good (or is that naughty?) little boys and girls. This time, we have the picture below and a default beginning, and we are tasked to write an additional 500 words. I put the default in red italics.

The Gift

A loud rapping at the door awoke me from a deep dreamy sleep.

It was early, too early to be awake, and certainly too early to be out in the streets pounding on doors. I thought that there must be some emergency in town and ran to the door to find out whatever news there was from whoever was there. Much to my surprise, there was no-one at the door ready to identify themselves and their message, and yet a package with my name on it had been left at the door.

It was a most curious circumstance, and yet I saw no real harm in it, because secret gift giving was the hallmark of the holiday season. I myself had delivered many a gift in that manner over the years. The package was heavier than it should have been from its size, and once I had it indoors I eagerly opened it to find out what it was and who had sent it.

Alas, there was no identification of the giver, and more's the pity because what was inside was a most remarkable carved wood box, worked with figures of animals and dragons all over, in a magnificent shade of red. Whoever sent it to me must have been a prankster, though, because I could see no way into the box, no clasp or lock announced itself, no hinge or platen presented itself as a means to the inside. I was locked out, and most frustrated by this unfortunate turn of events.

"So, what do you think so far?"

I had read my husband's story while I waited for the curling iron to heat up. He was in the doorway of the bathroom, perched on the edge of his wheelchair, awaiting my judgment.

I shrugged. "It reminds me of 'The Raven' a little."

"Poe? Yeah, I can kinda see that. That's good, right?"

"I guess," I dropped my copy of the story in the sink, and the corner of it started to absorb the tepid water pooled at the bottom. I wrapped strands of my hair around the barrel of the curling iron, heard the faint hiss of it being gently scorched.

"Do you want some lunch before you go?"


"I can make you a sandwich, Rachel brought some roast beef over- "

"I'm eating at the Christmas party."

"Oh. Oh yeah. Do you think you'll be home early tonight?"

Ten months ago a drunk driver neatly divided our lives into two categories: before the accident and since the accident. We bought this house before the accident, but since the accident it's become a maze of ramps and gauze and bedpans and metal railings bolted to every vertical surface; our tables and kitchen counters had been lowered. I stumbled through the house, banging against modified furniture and my husband showing me his latest project: model airplanes, crossword puzzles, watercolors of me camped out in the guest bathroom, the one place that we hadn't changed. Before the accident I might have used a smear of lip gloss and called it a day, now I have an hour-long beauty ritual.

The red box that he based his story on sat in his lap and every so often he'd rub the pad of his thumb against its carved enameled surface. He'd seen it on the clearance table at Pier One a few weeks ago and bought it, saying that it reminded him of me, and I had cringed inwardly at the pitiful, awkward metaphor: beautiful to hold and fused closed for good.

"I don't blame you if you don't want to come back."

I looked down at him, saw that his hairline was receding, his jawline was softer now, and for the first time since the accident I didn't feel pity.

Somewhere in the city there was a young couple wrapping presents for their newborn child, there were cups of thick egg nog enjoyed by handsome men who were able to place the angel on the top of the Christmas tree, there was a man in a dark car waiting down the block for me. In this house, since the accident, there was a small Frasier Fur that was decorated only along the bottom half and a man who couldn't fit his wheelchair through the bathroom door so he could touch his wife. I put my lipstick down and sat in his lap, though he couldn't feel it.

"So this story you're writing..."


"Who left the mystery box? And what's in it?"

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Christmas for the Nooch

This story is my Christmas present to Noochie, who not only introduced me to 'September' by Ryan Adams but also the idea for making it into a story. I've included the lyrics below in purple italics. Everyone have a kick-ass religious observance of your choosing!

Laura lays on the foot of the bed
Mimics a noose with the telephone cord
Doctor's on the phone
And she hangs up and says
"I ain't never gonna see the winter again"
Then, I don't know how, but she smiles

September, September
September, September

They carved your name into a stone
and then they put it in the ground,
I run my fingers through the grooves
When no one's around
Drink till I am sick and I talk to myself
in the dog days of the summer
And I feel you coming but I don't know how

September, September
September, September

Daniel waited for the coffee to brew while Laura planned her funeral.

He rinsed out Laura's only coffee mug, which was shaped like a snowman's head and chipped along the rim so he had to be careful where he put his lips. She was out of milk, and for a brief second Daniel considered whether sour cream would be an acceptable substitute. He dumped an inch of sugar in the bottom of the cup, topped off the rest with fresh coffee and gulped it down quickly, scorching his tongue and throat. He washed the mug again, refilled it and brought it into Laura's room.

She had been up all night scratching ideas for her funeral across slick, blank sheets of paper, and when the sun came up she started to frantically make phone calls to funeral homes, cemeteries, crematoriums, her finger blazing a trail through the Yellow Pages in her lap. She tucked the receiver under her chin and took the cup of coffee from Daniel with one hand, then set it on the night side table amidst the avalanche of empty Diet Coke cans.

In his brief absence to the kitchen Laura had sprawled with her notebooks and pens across the blankets. Daniel stood by the side of the bed for a minute, waiting for her to move over so he could lay back down, watching the pale steam from the untouched cup of coffee curl into the air. After a minute he realized that she wasn't going to let him back into bed, so he slipped into his jeans and t-shirt and sat on the floor.

While he waited for her, he rested his head against the IKEA bookshelf they had bought earlier that year. Laura had refused his help putting it together, and it tilted to the left very slightly. The slanted shelves were stuffed with books from aborted projects: knitting, drawing, ballroom dancing. Textbooks from the accounting class Laura took for a few weeks at Gwinnett Tech. Dozens of literary classics she'd meant to read: A Farewell To Arms, Catcher In The Rye. The Grapes of Wrath, which he'd never read, but it made him think of singing 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic' in third grade chorus.

Laura had been in the hospital the previous week while her doctor tested out theories for her sudden weight loss, her overall brittleness. She had thrived on the attention from her coworkers who came by with flowers and balloons, the doctors and nurses who would pat her knee while they took her temperature and drew blood, and Daniel, who camped out by her bed in a stiff armchair and gamely watched 'The Price Is Right' with her every day.

"Bet a dollar! A dollar, stupid!" she'd yell at the mounted TV, and then slip into a coughing spasm when a nurse would poke her head in the room.

She'd talked them into letting her stay an extra two days, and then they released her from the hospital yesterday. Daniel had relished signing her out; he liked the official sense of responsibility it gave him over her care and comfort. The nurse had told him to put fiancé as his relationship to patient on the formal paperwork. "We can't discharge her to anyone but family," she'd said with a wink.

As he drove her home, she fiddled with the radio and started rummaging through his glove compartment. "What if I had died in the hospital?" she asked, Jiffy Lube receipts in her fist.

Daniel's eyes darted over to the passenger's seat, saw Laura pull out a map of Georgia like an accordion. The thought of her death had sent him on impromptu runs to the gift shop or the bathroom while she was in the hospital; he hadn't wanted her to see him crying, making frantic, breathless, incoherent prayers to whichever deity would answer him.

"I'd be sad and depressed. I'd cry. I'd miss you every day. Are you looking for something in there?"

"No, I'm just being nosy. You need to clean this out. Is that all you would have done?" she asked, and they shared a sudden, simultaneous vision of Daniel sleeping on the dirt of her fresh grave, drunk on Wild Turkey, tracing her name on the cold granite marker with blind fingertips, and they both felt comforted.

The September morning was unseasonably chilly and the bare floorboards had made Daniel's ass numb. The early fall light shone golden through the grubby blinds, making the dust motes sparkle around Laura while she talked on the phone, picked at the chipped dark polish on her toenails, sketched a crane in flight in the lower corner of the phone book. She fidgeted and looked everywhere around the room except at Daniel.

"So, is there a discount if I'm not embalmed? Oh. Yes, yes I guess so."

Daniel had met Laura three years ago when he had been married to a sweet girl; a pharmacist who kept the fridge full of milk for his coffee and the cabinets full of coffee cups. Laura had been in front of him at the checkout line in Kroger, frantically searching through a weathered knapsack for the eight dollars she owed for her groceries. "I know it's here somewhere," she repeated, taking out her wallet again and painstakingly pawing through the tiny pockets which held pictures, ATM receipts, expired coupons, two library cards- everything but money. After five minutes Daniel stepped up and offered to pay for the stack of Ramen noodles, squeeze bottle of ketchup and box of tampons she was trying to buy.

"Thank you so much," she'd whispered as he helped carry her bags to her car. "I was going to shoplift all that but a security guard followed me and I had to pretend like I was going to buy it."

"Ah...Oh. I see." His palms began to sweat.

"Well, I would have bought it but this month has been hard, I lost my job and then a few months ago..." she reached up and ran her fingers along the curve of her jaw, and Daniel saw a blue-green vein pulsing elixir under her pale skin, her earlobe with its trio of silver hoops, her bitten, bloody cuticles.

"Well, you don't want to hear about it. It's just...hard sometimes, you know?" she'd sighed, wiped her nose with the back of her hand. It was the first of a hundred thousand times she'd hint at some dark monster that always haunted her. Daniel developed his own theories over time, but kept them to himself because he feared that he might be right.

"Can you hold on a second? I have a call on the other line. Wait...Hello? Oh, hello Dr. Thomas." Laura looked at Daniel, including him for the first time this morning.

"It isn't? Oh, I see. That's good. Yes, yes it is. Thursday at noon. OK. Thank you...Hello? Damn, he hung up."

"Well? What did he say?"

Laura curled the phone cord around her neck, her tongue hanging out. "I'm done for. Never going to see another winter." She smiled and waited.

Monday, December 18, 2006

December Ear-gasms

What would Christmas be without music, and what would this blog be without Sea Hag acting like she has authority over all creation? With that in mind, here are a few songs that Sea Hag suggests your download to your iPod pronto:

'A Long December'
Counting Crows
A long December,
and there's reason to believe
maybe this year will be
better than the last

An ideal New Year's song, Adam Duritz gently hints at a year full of loss and grief, playing his earnest vocals over some beautiful piano. This song is at the same time painfully sad and sweetfully hopeful, as in what I went through this year was so bad there's no where else to go from here but up.

'Pretty Good Year'
Tori Amos
Lucy was pretty,
your best friend agreed
well, still, a pretty good year

Another great New Year's song in the same vein as 'A Long December' where the past year was obviously crappy but the singer is trying to embrace any positive aspect she can. A big part of celebrating New Year's is reflecting on the past year, and I think both of these songs capture that melancholy mood.

"Our Winter"
Jason Anderson
My mom says I need snow tires bad,
but I'd just as soon spend that money on records
and sit with friends in living rooms
and sing the songs we know by heart

Cool little song about some slacker hanging out at home for the holidays.

"Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas"
Judy Garland
It's imperative that you get the Judy Garland version of this song, because of the emotion she puts into it; she sounds so incredibly sad, like she's coming out of a weeklong bender and woke up in some hotel room out of pills and far from home.

"Silent Night"
Manheim Steamroller
This song always reminds me of my dad. I get goosebumps every time I hear the child's piano at the end.

Tori Amos
I get a little warm in my heart
when I think of winter,
I put my hand in my father's glove

Another nugget of joy from Tori, this one about growing up secure in her father's love. A must for all daddy's girls.

'Santa Baby'
Eartha Kitt
Traditional (kind of)
I love this song because it's vaguely naughty. And I would love a Christmas tree decorated with the best from Tiffany's.

"Song For A Winter's Night"
Sarah McLachlan
I read again between the lines upon each page
the words of love you send me

Sad, sweet song about someone curled up on a cold winter's night, contemplating the absence of their lover.

"Christmas Day"
And the last words I heard him say
were I shall return for you my love
on Christmas Day

Yet another sad, sweet, melancholy song. What's up with that? It seems like the holidays seem to lend themselves to a certain kind of dark moodiness. Maybe it's the crappy, cold weather. Maybe it's because you aren't able to be with the people you love this year because you had to work or you couldn't afford to travel or they passed away. Or maybe it's because as an adult, Christmas just doesn't seem to have the magic it did when you were a child.

"A Charlie Brown Christmas"
Vince Guaraldi
Yes, I do mean the entire album here, and if you can find the edition they just released with 4 more songs on it, that's all the better. By far my favorite holiday album, it's jazzy but not that pretentious, crappy kind of jazz. It has a lot of traditional Christmas songs but also has a few other pieces so you don't get burned out on yuletide joy.

Thursday, December 14, 2006


My recent absence is mostly due to the fact that this happened:

Ha ha, fooled you! That's my brother up there and my new sister-in-law. Sisters don't shake hands, sisters hug!

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Wordsmiths Challenge for December: Secret Sharer

Once again I was invited by the rad folks over at Wordsmiths Unlimited to participate in the first of two December writing exercises. This one involves a conversation with a childhood toy, and, of course, must be under 500 words. No picture was provided for this round, so I had to use my imagination here. Oh noes!

Secret Sharer

"What am I going to do?"

My mouth was worn away long ago, but I can still answer her: I don't know. But you'll be fine, you'll see.

Tears fall warmly on my gray, dingy fur. I feel her wrap her finger around my threadbare tail, an old habit.

"I don't know what to do. I just don't know what I'm going to do." She pulls me to her chest tighter, rocking back and forth, repeating herself. Her chin digs into the top of my squishy head. This feels good.

You will figure it out. You've just got to be strong.

This is all in her head, our conversation.

"I'm so tired of this. I can't start over again. I can't do this without him."

I am just a little stuffed leopard, a hidden treasure of childhood with all the velvet fuzz loved off my nose and half of my whiskers missing. My polyester filling is saturated with red bicycles, the waxy smell of crayons, the ice cream man, Saturday mornings with cartoons and big bowls of sugary cereal. I've been stowed away inside a shoebox in her closet since she got married. She pulls me out when it gets bad.

"I just want him to come back. Do you think he'll come back?"

It's bad now.

I don't know. But you've been unhappy for a long time, maybe this is for the best.

"I don't know what I'm going to do without him. He's everything to me! What am I going to do?"

I am used only in emergency situations.

He is not everything to you.

"He is! What am I going to do?"

I am her flotation device.

If he meant so much to you, why did you cheat on him?

I am flung across the room and land softly on the bed. This hurts.

I'm putting this in perspective for you.

"Shut up."

I can't.

"My life is falling apart and I'm arguing with a stuffed animal."

I'll never leave you.

"You're just a toy."

I love you.

She crawls to the bed, pulls me down on the floor with her.

"You're all I have left."

I love you.

"I don't know what to do."

It's OK. It's OK. I love you, I will never leave you, and this is her lullaby, this is how we fall asleep: I whisper into the pink spiral of her ear her own comforting thoughts over and over, hypnotic and sweet, I am only made real by her desire for comfort, but it is enough.

I love you. I will never leave you.

Yay December!

OK, it's finally December, so everyone can officially start getting ready for Christmas...