A Writer Walks into a bar

(*A story written back in 2016)

In the dying light, evening shadows spilled like ink across the city streets as neon lights buzzed and flared with new life, and I finally arrived at the bar.

Millie was there, as always, her face tan, leathered, with deep lines sketched and stenciled by the tandem drawing of time and alcohol. She turned to look at me through eyes still somewhat beautiful, not quite bleary, but full of lost hope and unrequited love.

A local girl, she’d been feeding off the carrion of maudlin, weepy drunks for too long.

Getting out had been her dream. She’d been waiting, as they say, for her ship to come in, but someone told her to hold the anchor, and when she did, the ship left without her.

She squinted at me through a screen of patchy, blue-white smoke, slowly unfurling like spirits on drugs.

“Hey, Al.”

“Hey, Millie.”

“Book’s done?”

“Yeah.”

“Good for you.” She swiveled the stool to turn her whole self toward me.

“You need an agent?”

“I do. Know anyone?”

She shook her head. “Not anymore, sweetheart. Think you’re good enough?”

“I’m hoping.”

She tapped the cigarette ash into a gray-black ashtray and looked over my head. I followed her gaze to see a huge fly buzzing around a light bulb.

We watched it longer than was normal, until she finally looked at me again.

“I used to write.”

“I know, Millie.”

“I wasn’t good.”

“Not what I was told.” I ordered a beer.

She smiled, showing stained, chipped and missing teeth; if you weren’t used to seeing it, it was disconcerting at first. It never ceased to be heartbreaking, at least to me.

“You believe what you’re told?”

I straightened up on the barstool, seeking some sort of lumbar support that wasn’t there.

“You didn’t believe in yourself?”

Her eyebrows arched at that, and in a couple of heartbeats, her eyes welled.

She wiped the water away before it ruined her overdone mascara, but somehow she managed smudging it anyway.

“No, I didn’t.”

I waited a bit, letting her get back to herself.

She shifted on the stool, hooking an ankle around the circle on the bottom.

“Hard to get an agent these days, Al.”

“But not impossible.”

“No,” she shook her head slowly, and turned her left profile to me, “not impossible.”

We worked on the drinks, each of us sitting in separate silences of rising ambition and faded glory.

She finished her double, put out the cigarette, sidled off the stool, put her hand on my thigh to steady herself, and kissed me on the cheek.

Her lips were bourbon scented, her breath heavy with tobacco.

She patted me on the chest then stepped out of view behind me.

“Good night, Al.”

I watched her in the mirror as she opened the door and went out into the oncoming night.

I looked up at the light bulb.

The fly was gone.

“Good night, Millie.”

Whaler’s Night

One gets to know a road frequently traveled, gets to know the bumps and dips in it, and where the animals cross and the rocks slide. If the weather turns bad, one knows where the dangerous slick spots can put you on your back, or send you over the side, where maybe they’ll find you, and maybe they won’t.

Not like that with the sea.

Yes, whalers get to know the currents, the stormy bits, and the stars, but still two things will ever escape him: everything that lies below, and what he’s killed that may come back to haunt him.

I no longer brave the sea. In truth, I wasn’t brave when I sailed it, but you can never say you’re scared of it, or the things in it, when your family’s dinner depends on your skill at killing those things.

Alone now in my landlocked dotage, in my brine-kissed cottage, I shuffle along from rooms cluttered with things I no longer recall where or why I collected, to other rooms, cluttered with memories too painful to revisit, but too painful to throw away; they remind me that once upon a time, there were people in this world who loved and cared for me.

Restless at nights, I cross the cooling sand down to where the waves rock the boats to sleep on the little waves that lick the shoreline, and the stars bejewel the veil of the sky with silver, white, and blue pearls of light, and the moon plays tag with the tide, and hide-n-seek with the drifting clouds.

And from the silent shore I see their gashed and bleeding specters breach and crash the calm waters, and smell their breath and blood in clouds of foul perfume, but that’s not the worst of it.

Their songs come to me on the wind, the songs of those I helped to kill, and I stand, and listen, long past weeping but breaking all the same, all over again.

They are songs of mourning, of saying farewell to the pod, to their young, and the elders.

They are songs of sacrifice, granting us mercy in not smashing our frail vessels to splinters with their superior might.

They are the songs of the slaughtered, asking why we took more than we needed, why we laughed at the pain we caused with our cruel, barbed weapons.

They are the war songs of scars and salted wounds of seasoned navigators with every great migration, and songs of joy at the calves that grow strong and well nourished.

They are the songs of warning for the coming of ships, and the wrinkled, leather-skinned men of calloused hands and hardened hearts, coming on skimmers to make their mark in whale blood and oil, and earn their gold and copper to feast on whale flesh.

They are the songs of peace to soothe the spirits of the bones in our wind blown homes, songs that see the burning oil of their bodies in our lanterns, and their meat on our cook-fires.

Songs that scold the spirits of the ones who lost their way, and gave themselves over to the sand, the gulls, and the shelled legions that plucked their flesh and scoured their bones.

They are the songs telling of the day we will join them in the sea, the earth, and sky, not as hunted things, but creatures in the great eternal, our bawdy chanties blending with the songs of innocent souls that understood our dominion, and made their peace.

And as the songs fade toward the night’s horizon, I pour a stream of rum over the side of my boat, and cry my tears of sorrow, wondering if their spirits can taste them, as I long for, yet dread, to hear the songs they will sing if they do.

The Crofter of Words

The sun dips low, its gold fire now subdued to pleasing persimmon, and the the chiaroscuro of purples, pinks, and blues that quilt the twilight sky flare in a final flash of glory seen by the herald evening stars.

They form the night clusters that humanity marveled at, and pondered on, then feared, ascribing them power over the earth and the soul for ages untold.

And on this lonely, verdant hill, in this lonely, weary land, the breeze lacing through the branches hisses and warbles at the silence, incanting dirges of lost love and hard life among the stones and peat fires.

At night, the imprints of specters, felt more than seen, press against the walls of ether, retiring to their eternal beds of soil and decay, their farewells echoing down the halls of crumbling crypts, marbled with time, works, and fortune.

The names on the lids of their final possession fade in the dampness, becoming one with the surface again like a settling ripples.

And the crofters, the crafters of words, the farmers of feelings, caretakers of pruning the souls of unblessed believers in their words….they plant their poems and prose by night as well as day.

It is their hope that all the ragged, tattered universe, the deities that guide their thoughts and hands, see that it is good, and declare it.

Amour Involuntaire

He thought he’d never see her again.

His life of indolence, unsupported by the finances needed to indulge it for prolonged periods of time, was new and exciting for her at first; she’d been a sheltered girl, and he’d taken full advantage.

Toward the end of things, as she realized living on the edge without money for a safety net, you landed on hard times, or wound up doing hard time, the excitement lost its novelty, and on a rainy night when he was passed out and dissipated, she decided she had enough of the stench of danger, and him.

Did he ever tell her he loved her….? Well, it didn’t matter now, did it?

Shuffling past the cafe’s now, in search of food as the cafe owners chased him and his new ragged entourage away from their doors and outside tables full of diners, he not only saw her, but she was with someone new.

The way the light hit the man’s hair, he wasn’t sure if he was gray or blond; he looked older, but not feebly so.

And there she was, sitting across from him, laughing and happy in the moment.

Had he ever given her a reason to smile? He couldn’t remember.

His stomach rumbled, and the cup he carried for spare change grew heavy in his hand.

He didn’t belong here. Not anymore.

Not even on the edge.

He struggled with whether or not to reveal himself, to let her know he was at least alive, if not well, but she was laughing, and he wasn’t the source of it. If she laughed at his shame, or took pity, it would be even worse.

And the man…the man…what would the man do?

The cafe owner on his side of the street saw him stop and stare, and went out to tell him to move along, a warning glare indicating things would go bad for him if he didn’t.

She was laughing.

His stomach growled again. He wasn’t the source of her laughter, just the source of his own sorrow, with no reason to destroy her happiness.

I guess I do love her, then. After all. He didn’t want to, but now it was amour involuntaire, and would remain quite unrequited.

He shuffled off, out of sight, out of range, into the shadows he once embraced so willingly, believing they ‘d never have the substance to return his embrace and keep him.

Now he knew better.

Involuntaire

Flicker

I found the camera among Grandpa’s things in the attic before we sold the house.

When Grandma died he never remarried, content to live alone until the ravages of age told him he no longer could, and we eventually took him to hospice to finish out his days.

Sometimes in his sleep he’d mutter Check the camera, but as we’d never known him to have any particular love of photography outside of the usual family gatherings we no longer held, we chalked it up to the ramblings of an old man in decline.

But they were also his last words, uttered on the rainy day he died, and we stood around his bed to bid him farewell. When he said Check the camera for the last time, it was as if in that moment a spider’s silky web thread attached itself to my mind, and no matter how I mentally swatted at it, it wouldn’t go away and leave me alone.

**********

When I finally saw the old camera on a dusty shelf in a shadowed corner, it was like I found a gold coin. Expecting to see boxes of pictures and the like, it was just the camera itself; there was nothing fancy, expensive, or high tech about it.

It was off-brand, unremarkable, and inexpensive. What else would he have? He wasn’t a photographer, right?  Though I couldn’t hide my disappointment at night finding a picture stash, I was still curious enough to test the camera out and see if it still worked. There was a magnifying glass next to it, and on impulse I took that too, (an unwelcome acknowledgment of my own decline), if there was anything that needed closer inspection.

I went outside and sat at the picnic table we’d used when the cookouts were a frequent thing and Grandpa would command the grill.

Placing everything on the table, I dusted the camera off and looked through the viewfinder.

**************

I was in a speakeasy, the air tinged with smoke, laced with a slow jazz tune that couples swayed to amid the clink of glasses and the low chatter and laughter of the late night crowd.

The dapper gent in the black suit and shiny shoes who sat two stools down from me at the bar was chatting up the cigarette girl, who looked like she didn’t want to be anywhere else until she got a dirty look from the floor manager.

The guy winked at her, and she winked back and gave him a cigarette with another slip of paper around it.

And without knowing how I knew it, I’d just seen how my grandparents met.

***********

There were romantic walks, where they held hands, moonlight kisses, silent movies, hayrides, hot kitchens, cold bedrooms, fireplaces, snatches of arguments followed by slamming doors, crying babies, running children, laughter, scolding, quiet moments with books, dancing by candlelight to music long forgotten.

The love between them was strong, almost palpable, almost sentient, and feeding on itself to grow even stronger as more years passed.

Graduations, ballgames, weddings, and then…

**********

Inconsolable, he stayed at her grave long after everyone left, on his knees crying out his soul, his suit muddy from the downpour as the thunder rolled above him, and he wished nothing more than to be struck by lightning to end the pain…

*************

I put the camera down, came back to the present amazed, drained, and breathless.

The sun was going down.

I rubbed my eyes and collected myself, taking one last look around.

And I saw the dapper gent and cigarette girl, as he waited for her at the bottom of the backstairs. She came out, all smiles and dimples, and he swept her into his arms and spun her around, both of them laughing as they faded from view.

The camera’s shutter flickered with a bright light as it clicked.

Not knowing what to think or how I felt, I took it back to its shadowy shelf, and removed the “For Sale” sign in the front, putting it in the trunk before I left.

There’d be time enough to settle things, when I checked the camera again to make sure they were gone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notebook Miscellany

It’s a silly obsession with some of us who write, these gathered notebooks.

These bound things bind us to them in turn, using our words to link us to all of our thoughts, hold us to all of our promises, keep all of our secrets and confessions.

And yes, hide all of our pain.

Even though we may not use them all, it speaks of longing to fill them with something of ourselves that bears witness to our existence, and will speak of who we were to a world we’ll never see.

It’s the small sacrifice of a seemingly useless purchase that shows determination to leave something of value and beauty behind, born of something inside of us that we feel is worthy of legacy.

The empty notebooks perhaps tell the most noble of tales, bought as an act of defiance amid the onslaught of a world that speaks to us of random, earthly insignificance, an indifferent universe, and dead gods.

The empty, dusty notebooks you never fill are those that call the world a liar, for there is as much longing of the heart, profundity of thought, and depth of emotion on the blank page perhaps more than any other.

While there is yet time, you may impose the will of your intent on these blank pages, but if you never get the chance, or find your words unable to be shared in the end, they are no less a legacy to say something to the world, however joyous or painful.

Your work may be unfinished, Writer, but you are never incomplete.

Along This Foggy Coast

They will not let me see the world, these fickle and capricious gods, but I can hear the ocean’s ever-song serenade the sunrise.

The solitude is welcome, but loneliness is its shadow.

A gull’s melancholy call summons the rest to wake, and in the distance, the prayer-songs of the fishermen carry on the wafting wind, their petitions for full nets and safe returns, and I add my voice to theirs in spirit.

The hissing surf trades my future hopes for barnacled memories that spin on the restless waves. They say I must rejoin this weary world, leaving sand and surf behind as I gather my humanity back to me like children collecting shells and stones.

I bid the foggy morn farewell, and walk back to greet life with a kiss.

 

Within These Misty Hills

A virgin explorer in a virgin wood, I walk strange paths that coil through the emerald, jade, and peridot sprouts of new forest rising from the wildfire’s weary ashes. They’re coated with the mist that descends in a chilled cloud, draped across the ancient summits of stone like a blanket draped on an old man who died in his favorite chair.

Tender tendrils of cloud and mist meet and kiss, and stroll across the lush new ground, using patches of fog like the kerchief dancers who undulate in sinuous, sensuous, serpentine motion before their night fires. They send coded promises of delight to their betrothed in the circle of elders, who smile as they remember their own wedding fires.

Then fire and blood, steel and rage, swept across the land in a raging conflagration, and everyone lost. It’s heat and savage purging holds no sway here, now.

These misty hills gave silent witness to the uproar, and biding their time, shielded a new offering of seed and soil to give the sun as the hills waited to receive me, and the mist surrounds me like curious children.

     Recognition of an ally? Wariness of an enemy?   

Seeing I mean no harm, the mist bids me welcome with a chaste damp kiss, and I feel the magic shift within me, my body suffused with pleasant heat against the chilly morning, and I don’t know whether to laugh or weep at my fanciful imagination.

I expect that in these misty hills, it doesn’t really matter.

The mist will do it with me.

 

Wish I Could Go Back Knowing What I Know Now

   Deep in the abandoned culvert, the portal appeared.

   Walking along the waterfront, I thought I heard kids playing inside the drain pipe.

   Stupid kids. Wish I could go back sometimes, knowing what I know now.

   I huffed my way down to  get them out of harm’s way.

   There was light where there shouldn’t have been.

    At the other end, I saw myself.

                                                   *******************

   Kid -me surrounded by friends, looking every bit the kid that got bullied. Skinny and awkward the way child nerds are,nowhere close to any slang that would describe him as cool. But he and his friends were happy. 

    About to make a wish, he saw me, and shook his head. 

   I wasn’t invited.

                                                   *********************

 Teenage-me walking down Broadway with my poet friend, the city streets energized in the warm evening, full of bright colors, short skirts, and festive noises, and a busking sax player trying to tear a hole in the sky. 

  We were on our way to my first poetry reading at the cafe.  I was nervous but excited.

  Teenage-me stopped talking to his friend when he saw me, and shook his head.

   I wasn’t welcome.

 

                                                   *******************

    A quiet Sunday afternoon in the hospital, grad-me stood beside the bed where his wife trembled from the c-section shots. The doctor handed the bundle to him.

   His newborn daughter looked at him, as quiet as the day, and melted his heart.

   ‘She’s beautiful.’ he told his wife, and let her see.

   Then grad-me saw me,standing at the end of the portal, and shook his head. 

   I wasn’t part of the family.

                                               

                                                   ******************

 

   The light faded, leaving me in darkness. 

    I walked back and started home, wiping tears.

    They weren’t invited, allowed to fall, or part of the family anymore.

    I never made that wish again.

    

The Quarantine Trial of the Imposter

I was furloughed from work, and quarantined because of the plague. I vowed to work on my writing, but I didn’t, and my characters were done being patient.
I sat before the Council of WIP, sweating a bit at the sight of the five judges who would decide my fate: Lorcan, Warr, Dina, Trace, and Rani.
The other members included Haskell, Markis, Sora, Reiko, Jorie, and Xantara.
The gavel came down, and Warr leaned forward in his chair, arms on the desk, gazing down at me with a patient but surly glare.
“Alfred Warren Smith, you are accused of imposter syndrome. How do you plead?”
“Not guilty.”
Dina laughed openly, the rest smiled, as if I’d just offered myself as a sacrifice for their blood ritual.
“Rani’s story is the only one here you’ve completed, and though you’ve just gotten an editor for it, you’ve been home since March of this year under the lockdown, and have completed nothing else but a couple of short stories, and maybe a poem.
“How does that not speak to being an impostor?”
“Because I intend to finish you all.”
“When?” Lorcan said. “As you walk the road to hell and pave it with those intentions?”
Laughter again. I was starting to sweat, and I was getting a little hungry. Ungrateful, wretched creatures!
“It’s a matter of atmosphere, and things being just so, and trying to maintain my friendships on the Internet. Then there’s the playlists, and the candles…”
“While our stories languish, and slink off into the Forest of Forgetfulness to die of old age and starvation?” Dina asked.
“Well, no. I just…”
Trace spoke up. “My story is probably the oldest, even more than Rani’s, and you’ve done nothing with it since you stopped at the most dramatic moment possible for me.             “Nothing.”
“I…Trace, I’m…”
“You’re what?”
I sighed, defeated. “Undisciplined.”
“What else?” Lorcan asked.
“Unfocused.”
Nods of agreement.
Jorie spoke from the side table. “I have a few opening paragraphs. When did you start me?”
I cleared my throat, took a sip of water, and stayed silent.
“Answer the question,” Rani said. “Our stories were pretty close together.”
I stayed silent.
Warr sighed. “Dina?”
Light appeared at her fingertips, and a cyclone of demons began a slow eddy around her. “Answer the question.”
“20….2015.” I said, barely whispering, but the microphone picked it up.
“Care to change your plea?” Warr asked.
“No.”
“NO?” Markis stood up, but Warr gave him a look, and he calmed back down. Markis was the most volatile among them, but he’d been through a lot, and I never resolved it.
Sora spoke from the side table. “You have research to do on my story as well as Reiko’s, because you’re outside of your own culture.”
“I did. But I’m sort of making it up as I go.”
“When was the last time you ‘did’?” Reiko asked, making air quotes for emphasis.
I took another sip of water; it didn’t matter what I said at this point. They had me; I was an imposter whether I admitted it or not.
“I’ve heard enough.” Warr said. “How many aren’t even here that you’ve left in one predicament of another? Valentine, Zola, Safyra, Hasina, Dawn, Sylva, and Kahi. All unfinished.”
“You seem to like writing women and leaving their stories unfinished.” Xantara said,     “so what is it you’re really trying to say, Imposter?”
I tried to fight the smirk, but I lost and said, “A woman needs a man to complete her.”
**************
I’m chained to a chair now, my meals slipped under the door, cold and stale. The toilet is within reach of my chains, and after turning sixty, for that I’m truly grateful.
Sleep is permissible, but no more than five hours a night or the collar shocks get increasingly painful.
My phone has been taken, and the wi-fi cut off. I’m not allowed to transcribe onto a laptop anymore, and have to write the remainder of my tales in pencil, in a legible hand, or I don’t get my ice cream.
“It’s not so wretched as all that,” I tell myself over and over again, the only break in the silence between the scratching of the pencil, and the scraping of the manual sharpener.
They keep me in candles, pencils, and blankets without bugs (most of the time).
I suppose one day I’ll finish. Maybe even before the quarantine is finally lifted, or before George R.R. Martin.
Whichever comes first.