Archive for the Writing Exercises Category

A Lean Cuisine

Posted in The Word: Stories, Writing Exercises with tags , , on 12/20/2010 by Janet Fitch

The Word: Nose

Melody sat curled the on her couch, watching a Hugh Grant movie. She loved this film, but this afternoon, she couldn’t concentrate. She glanced at her cell to see if Geneva had called yet. She couldn’t wait to hear what had happened with her and Mike. Was she going to finally dump his sorry ass? Or would she let herself be sucked in again? And who was Mike, anyway, just some guy, just a dumb guy with a dumb job, she could never even remember what, some job type job with the city.

Still no call. Ever since Geneva and Mike got together, her friend had become nearly a stranger. She used to share every crisis, each triumph. She couldn’t go a half-day without checking in. It didn’t have to be a big thing. A DKNY jacket found for $40 at the Jewish Women thrift store. Or the dozens of near-misses with near-celebrities she met on the magazine she worked for. Her tangled relationships with exlovers and siblings. Every day there was something, Pete the photo editor had stood closer than usual, did she think she something was going on? Her mother had taken to wearing animal prints–should she tell her it was beyond the beyond?

After the parties Geneva attended for her magazine, Melody could hardly wait to get the call the next day, find out how it had gone, if she’d met anyone, what the guy had said and where they’d gone, what his apartment looked like, the things they did in bed. One had the equipment but didn’t know what to do with it, another was tiny but surprisingly inventive. One pulled her hair, another, a famous actor, wanted her to put makeup on him.

And now Melody couldn’t even get a callback. They’d been so tight, since elementary school. She remembered the time in 11th grade Geneva thought she was pregnant! And time she picked up a TV actor in the vegetable department at Trader Joe’s. And now it was like Melody was shit on her shoes.

The phone rang, but it was just Greenpeace. And then Elissa, the receptionist at the law firm, who had even less going on than Melody did.

It was five, the time on Sundays they’d usually chat, but now Geneva was with Mike, and suddenly, it was like she’d forgotten Melody’s number.

Melody had seen this movie three times already. She adored Hugh Grant. Hughie was her idea of a heavenly hookup–though to be sure, getting caught with an ugly hooker having car sex in Hollywood showed less suavity than you’d imagine. She had promised herself she would not call Geneva again. But she couldn’t resist. She just had to know.

She called the familiar number, Geneva’s picture on the screen, her big dark eyes and longish nose, the bangs she’d worn since forever.

“Hi, Mel.” Melody could hear music playing in the background, rock, a boy singing, something cool and original. Geneva always had something new and interesting playing. Never TV.

“Hi Gen. I was just thinking of you, haven’t heard from you in a while. I left a few messages–” but better not to mention that. “What’s up with you?”

She could hear the band in the background, and then Geneva’s sigh. “Let’s talk about you, Mel. What’s new with you?”

It was a strange thing to say. “Oh, same old same old.”

“Oh, surely you’re doing something,” Geneva said. Something in her voice. “Gone anywhere interesting? Seen a new show? Met anyone?”

Was she mad at her? “You know I would have told you if I had.”

“Would you?” Geneva said.

“Are you mad at me? I haven’t even talked to you for two weeks. You never return my calls.” She could feel her chest tightening, the tears welling up.

“Look, Mel, I’m just a normal person, now. I make dinner. I get the flu. I go out with Mike and have beers with his buddies at Parks and Rec. You’re the single girl. Why don’t you entertain me for a change?”

That band, the cool, nasally sound. Now she wished she hadn’t called. Why was Geneva mad at her? “Are you bored? Why don’t you tell Mike to take you somewhere.”

“So I can tell you about it?” Geneva said. “No. No, Mel. This is the way it’s going to be. From now on, I’ll call you and I’ll say, ‘hey what’s up?’ and you tell me. I think that’s what I’m going to do. So I’ll call you Wednesday, okay? Wednesday. And you tell me what all’s going on. Bye, Melody. Have fun.”

And there was a dial tone on the line.

Melody closed her phone and put it on the coffee table. Have fun. What was Geneva getting at? That Melody had nothing to do but snoop in Geneva’s life?

She turned back to the set, Hugh and Drew Barrymore, the car sex guy and the juvenile drug addict turned producer. Suddenly, she didn’t want to watch them. She would never be like these people, with their glamorous problems. She thought fleetingly of the Lean Cuisine she was going to nuke for dinner. Monday morning at the law firm. Why did Geneva be so mean. It wasn’t fair. Did she think people could just decide to be interesting? That they what? sort of fell out the door into an interesting life?

She stared at the blank TV screen, listening to the guys upstairs bicker about who would take the dog out in the rain. Was that all she had?

Okay, she could go out. She could show Geneva, she could be interesting. She could brush her hair and put on some lipstick and go out to some restaurant by herself, some bar. Maybe meet someone, why not?

But she as she imagined it, it just seemed depressing. Schlepping out, sodden and dripping wet, to some restaurant, some bar, and trying to have an adventure. Meet some pathetic boring guy, and pretend to be interested in his stupid life. She could even take him home with her. and pretend it was fun. “Oh yeah, Bill, I met him at Chin Chin. Yeah, I took home.”

And then what. Maybe he would steal her blind, or give her the clap. Maybe he’d fall in love with her and she wouldn’t be able to get rid of him. What if he was a junkie? Or didn’t like her enough to call her again?

If only Geneva hadn’t gotten so boring. It was so infuriating when women got stuck with men like Mike. They just drained the right life out of them. Who needed friends like that anyway.

Part of a weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word. “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

Next week’s word is: RAZOR

Unter den Linden

Posted in The Word: Stories, Writing Exercises with tags , , , , on 11/26/2010 by Janet Fitch

The Word: Map

Helena opened her map of Europe, spread it before her on the kitchen table, sipped her coffee. Her next trip would be northern, she decided. Yes. In late spring. Germany, Denmark, Sweden. Maybe even Helsinki–their design was so good. Textiles, furniture, glass. Marimekko, Alvar Aalto. Curved birch. All right, Stockholm with its canals, the stony Swedish coastline. Though in winter, gas lanterns warmed the night down the major Stockholm boulevards. But Berlin in winter? She shuddered. No, it must be spring. Spring Unter den Linden, and the Zoo district where Shklovsky and the old exiles from Russia had lived… Koln, with its Carnival, when was Carnival? She checked her Lonely Planet Germany guide. Oh, it was early. February. She would have to choose between budding lindens and the wild street festival of Rosenmontag.

She traced the rugged northern coastline of Germany, the island-dotted Danelands. It would be an easier drive in spring. If she rented a car, she could hit the little villages, ferry between the islands. By train she could cover more territory. Warsaw? Or stay to the west, Netherlands, Bruges, Cologne, then across, Marburg, Leipzig, the university towns. Gottingen, Heidelberg, Tubingen… Freiburg too far south. But there was Prague and Vienna–Klimt, the Vienna Secession. The cafés–the pastries! She went to her files and pulled out her old Germany/Austria/Czechoslovakia Michelin road map–but really, it was too old, Iron curtain stuff. She would need a new one if she were to do it by car again.

She sighed. How much it had changed since she was there last. No more shuddering as a uniformed guard peered into the car, checked the passports. She wondered if she would like it as much.

Every year she went somewhere, a big trip, two months, she used to do it with Roger, but now that he was gone it took a great deal of planning. Roger used to attend to all these details, all she had to do was pack. But she was up to it. Last year she had gone to Argentina, Chile, Peru and Ecuador–oh the damp, and the headaches in that final ascent to Cuzco! The furniture shops of Buenos Aires–the value of the dollar was at least good somewhere–Europe hadn’t been worth it.

But now, the dollar seemed to have sorted itself out and Europe was possible again.

Her son, Bart, knocked on the kitchen door, came in, kissed her, set a bag of groceries down on the counter. “Planning another trip?” he asked. He was getting old himself, she could see the worry lines in his face, the silver threads in his dark hair.

“Germany. The university towns, Berlin, maybe Rothenberg. then Vienna and Prague.” She gazed at him owlishly through her large glasses.

He sighed and began unpacking her groceries into her refrigerator. Such a good boy, so thoughtful. But he really needed to travel more. Have more a sense of adventure. She had given him Travels with my Aunt for his birthday, ordered it online.

“Well, you know you won’t have to worry about dysentery this time,” he said.

She didn’t like his tone. Not one bit.

“I went to get your prescriptions,” he said, looking up from loading the crisper drawer–he’d gotten romaine again, instead of the redleaf she liked. “They closed that Walgreens. We’ll have to go over to CVS now, on Glendale Blvd. We’ll call Dr. Thomas to change the pharmacy.

“They closed the Walgreens?” she said. The Walgreens had always been there. It disturbed her that it was no longer where it had been. She didn’t like to have to recalibrate her image of her neighborhood.

“At least you could go out and get your newspapers, they’re piling up. On your way to the airport.”

“I’m not leaving until April.” Yes. It was decided. Unter den Linden.

“It’s six steps off the front porch,” he said. “It’s broad daylight. I’ll come with you.”

He was such a noodge! “I’ll get them when I get them.”

He kissed her then, and fished the trash out from under the sink, and carried it out to the cans, which she could see from the window. April in Berlin, that was just about right.

Part of a weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word. “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

Next week’s word is: NOSE

The Skyroom

Posted in The Word: Stories, Writing Exercises with tags , on 11/11/2010 by Janet Fitch

the Word: Stamp
for C.S.

Her face wore the stamp of despair. Brian could see it through the makeup, behind the smile, the glossy lips, the shining hair. The eyes, a desperate blue. She knew she wasn’t up for this place, the Skyroom, a building that was once a bank, now the hot downtown hotel with the rooftop terrace. The girl was small town pretty, not big city bombshell. Her dress was too short, her heels too high, and she looked hunted, leaning against the bar, sipping a sugary drink from a stemmed glass. No one had told her, drink a grownup drink, for god’s sake, have a martini, a scotch and soda. A dress that short looked like hell with six inch heels. She looked like she wanted to cover her legs, she kept pulling at the hem of the skirt, and lifting the strapless top, but she stood very very straight and glanced around the bar over the sticky rim of her glass, to see if anyone noticed her. He had. He was drinking Glenfiddich, spoonful of water. He wore no socks with his ltalian loafers. His despair was far better concealed. He knew the crowd.

He moved in next to her. She smelled of something from his Midwestern childhood–Charlie? Those were the years the girls wore Charlie. He ran through opening lines like a dealer through a pack of cards, and rejected them all. Her name would be Heather, or Danielle. She had heard of this place, the Skyroom, where she worked, in one of the big buildings. A receptionist, Heather, or Danielle. “That’s Jupiter,” he said, pointing to the fat boy in the sky.

She frowned, then followed his gaze, his arm, his finger, the star.

“The other planets are behind the sun now.”

She cocked her head to one side, tucked a strand of sugar blonde hair behind a small, shell-shaped ear, where an overlarge hoop dangled, it looked like it was waiting to be set on fire for the tiger to jump through. The hoop, the skirt, the heels. Playing dress-up. Her hope layered over her despair like an abstract expressionist painting. But none of the exuberance, the sense of play of those paintings.

Girls used to be so full of life, when he was as young as this. Now they were just imitating something. She had no sense of her youth, her precious youth, flying, falling. She still didn’t know what he was talking about. It made him want to cry.

He remembered how Carl Sagan walked across a cosmic calendar, describing how, if the Big Bang occurred on the first day of January, man had only appeared on Christmas Eve, and human consciousness only in the last hour of the last day.

On nights like this, he felt the vastness of the clear sky over the rooftop pool, the insignificance, the full insignificance, of himself and this girl, all the people in the world. Coming and going in the space of a star’s heartbeat.

“I’m a Pisces.” the girl smiled, her lips shining, and her eyebrows arched, like two sweet little fish, jumping.

Finding her place in the cosmos, so easily. And if he wanted to pick her up, he would respond in kind, compare stars and palms and trade slogans, but talking to her was worse than not talking.

“Here’s to interstellar space,” he said. “To Orion’s sword, and the nursery of stars. To the inevitable descent of the yellow dwarves.”

She looked perplexed, but touched the sticky rim of her glass to his anyway. “I’m Heather.”

“Carl,” he finally replied.

Part of a weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word. “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

Next week’s word is: MAP

The Last Thing, The Ring

Posted in The Word: Stories, Writing Exercises with tags , on 09/30/2010 by Janet Fitch

The Word: Clamp

The last thing, the ring. So tight around her finger,
the flesh softly bulged. They had been married so long.
The ring. This noose, this clamp. And her finger, like a young tree
which someone had carelessly left wrapped in its supporting cable,
so that as the tree grew, it absorbed the cable into its very flesh.

That which had once supported it, was now so deeply embedded, she feared it was inextricable.

It had been years since she had seen the inscription.
A quote, a date she would learn to forget.

She soaked her hand in dishwashing soap. Turned and turned, her sweat dripping into the sink.

Clamp. Noun. A device used to hold an object in a fixed position.

It took a jeweler’s great jawed cutter to remove this object
from its fixed position.

And two lawyers.

Part of a weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word. “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

Next week’s word is: STAMP

Sorry About My Hair

Posted in The Word: Stories, Writing Exercises with tags , on 09/11/2010 by Janet Fitch

The Word: Brush
(For V.S.)

I can’t find my hairbrush. This has been going on for a month.

If I’m looking for my ring, my address book, my hot water bottle, though, there it is, where it doesn’t belong.

If I was getting dressed, tying my shoes, I would note its presence on the little chair in my closet. The chair Jocelyn gave me because she was moving. A French chair with leopard spots. Perhaps it needed grooming. Jocelyn fancies cats.

But when I need grooming, my brush absents itself.

It’s a metaphor.
For love of course.

The way it’s there when I don’t need it. Presenting itself at a party, when I’m already with someone with whom things were working out. Just as I’m tying my shoes and trying to get out of the house, emotionally speaking.

But when I’m bruised and skinless and weeping with desire, my emotional hair in a rat’s nest, then of course, it vanishes. Leaves the room before I enter. Hides under the bed. Someone puts it in his pocket as he rifles the vanity table.

Yes, I know. It looks bad, to go about like this. Yes. I know it’s an important meeting. Your birthday. A very nice restaurant. I’m sorry that my hair looks like this.

Part of a weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word. “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

Next week’s word is: CLAMP

A Man Without Qualities

Posted in The Word: Stories, Writing Exercises with tags , on 09/02/2010 by Janet Fitch

The Word: GUARD

Doug didn’t realize. He didn’t know. Nobody told him. He took the job because it was easy. Sit in the hotel lobby and watch the to and fro. Read lots of books. He was a slacker. A stoner. His skin was bad. A certain time of night. Goodlooking women arriving. Alone. Well dressed. It was a swank hotel. Boutique. On a side-street just off the prime shopping district. He was told to challenge late night visitors. Women clearly not staying at the hotel. He read his book. All the time in the world. He’d already gotten through 2666, Infinite Jest, and A Man without Qualities. He heard the click of her heels. The waft of expensive perfume. Lilies or something. Lilacs. He looked up. She was long-legged, in a very short gold dress. Her honey hair in a ponytail, up high, cascading. “Can I help you?” he asked. His throat was dry. She smiled. She came close. She leaned over him. Lilies. She slipped something in the pocket of his guard uniform. He didn’t have to look. A folded bill. A twenty, probably. He swallowed. He knew he was going to be fired. Make way for some other reader. Some other pimply slacker. She kissed a fingertip, then pressed it to his dry unkissable lips. He watched her walk to the elevator on those heartbreaking legs, and press the UP button.

Part of a weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word. “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

Next week’s word is: BRUSH


Posted in Moments of Clarity, The Word: Stories, Writing Exercises on 08/23/2010 by Janet Fitch

The Word: ROW

Grace hoed away at the tiniest new weeds growing up between the rows of rainbow chard, luminous with the afternoon sun shining though the bright stems, red, orange, yellow. It was her fifth day on her Summerdeep work-study grant, and she had never been a gardener. At home, whenever she’d tried to plant a garden, it had inevitably succumbed to fast growing weeds, indistinguishable from the seedlings of the desired vegetables until too large to easily eliminate.

At Summerdeep, the plants were radiant perfection, grown in the rich compost tenderly ministered by generations of work-study fellows. Weeds had no chance against the chi of such uber-vegetables. They just depressed her–so much healthier and vibrant than she was. Only at Summerdeep, this perfect spot, this anointed parcel of ocean kissed headland, could she participate in even a smidgen of this Edenic life. She should be in such balance with her surroundings. And yet as she hacked at the weeds between the rows, she wept and swore under her breath.

Even these fucking chard plants were beautiful. Everything was so fucking beautiful at Summerdeep except her. She hacked. Fifty years old. She just couldn’t face turning fifty back in LA. She signed up for a month at Summerdeep, which provided a generous word-study program for people like herself, who didn’t have much money, but a desperate need to get in touch with something, she didn’t even know what that was. Mostly, she wanted to get away from everyone and maybe feel a little more at one with the universe–or at least hide out until fifty felt familiar enough that she could bear going home.

Instead of feeling at one with the universe, however, she was doing backbreaking work hoeing in the kitchen garden and turning compost, and spending every evening in a Gestalt group, eating organic vegetarian fare and sleeping in a lower bunk in a four person bunkroom where her dormmates, two other women and a man, talked for hours like it was camp instead of shutting the fuck up.

She had forgotten why she came here. Tears mingled with sweat and stung her eyes as she chopped and uprooted weeds. Why she thought Summerdeep would just be a getaway. Getaway–to hard labor and Gestalt? And 23 days to go.

The young man called Raven wheeled a load of compost to the end of the row and began shoveling it out. “Hey, dump this on top, Gracie Allen. It’ll heat up the row and cook those punks.”

She sighed and shouldered her hoe, and approached the barrow. No one seemed to care she was practically a senior citizen, or stop to wonder if she could do any of this physical work. At home, boys at the market already asked if she needed help out with her bags. But here, it was as if there was a silent pact not to acknowledge her age, when Raven could be her son. His teeth were very white, and his beard seemed ridiculous on his youthful face, as if he was seeing just how big a beard he could grow, impressed with his ability to grow one at all. He was sleeping with a girl at the other end of the bunkhouse, Hills, who wore Indian pajamas and taught community yoga in the mornings.

“Can I use the shovel?” she asked.

“I don’t know, can you?” he asked.

Funny. A funny kid. He’d been three semesters at Reed College and had dropped out to work in a bike shop in Portland before drifting down here. A real Zen clown. She reached for the shovel, and he reached for it too. She was tired and in no mood. She stared at him. He stared at her, imitating her seriousness. She put her hand above his, in the old child’s game. He grinned and slapped his above hers, and they raced them to the top.

She still had to shovel hot compost out onto the rows of bright chard, but she found herself smiling, as the light filtered through the plants like stained glass, and she sniffed the ocean wind and thought how sweet a soak in the hot springs would be that night, leaning back against the chiseled rock, listening to the waves and watching summer stars wheel overhead.

Part of a weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word. “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

Next week’s word is: GUARD

The Suspect

Posted in The Word: Stories, Writing Exercises with tags , on 08/16/2010 by Janet Fitch

The Word: Count

Deborah counted the money in her wallet again. Twenty, forty, sixty, eighty, a hundred, twenty, a ten, two fives, a couple of ones… she could have sworn she had two hundred dollars in that wallet. At least forty dollars missing–at least.

Oh, she couldn’t be sure. To be fair, she hadn’t really counted it. And people on vacation often spent more than they thought they had.

But after a lifetime of handling money, she always had a fair sense of how much cash she’d tucked into her green wallet.

Her mind went to Beth, Jill’s daughter, who had come home last night, bleary eyed, when she and Jill were ready for bed. Over the last week, Deborah had become accustomed to Beth’s catlike appearances and disappearances, her dramatic pose, red lips and fingernails, the black dyed hair, the nose ring, the vintage dresses and strange shoes. A little star in the household, sightings always a privilege, a conversation even moreso. Beth the artist, a photographer, wrapped in her own legend.

But there was something about Beth, the practiced winningness of the smile, the way her eyes slid across your face, like she knew something about you you didn’t know yourself, like your shirt was buttoned crooked or you had chocolate on your face.

Last night, they’d chatted in the kitchen, Jill and Deborah in the nook, Beth leaning against the counter drinking a beer–two years underage, but Jill never said boo to that girl–and talking about a band that was trying to get to hire her as a tour photographer. It sounded like a poor excuse for a job, traveling with a no-name band as their official paparazzo. But Deborah was flattened after the day sightseeing, then dinner and wine with Jill at one of those impossibly good San Francisco restaurants down an alley which only San Franciscans seemed to know about… maybe too much wine.

She swore there was two hundred left in that wallet.

At breakfast, Deborah studied her old roommate in the quiet light, the beautiful light of a San Francisco morning. Jill looked old, her crow’s feet ground into the once-smooth face, her curls turned wiry as chestnut locks gave way to gray. Beth had been such a handful, ever since she was tiny. A girl who could smile and chat gaily with you, and yet you were never sure if she turned around and said the most cutting things when you’d left the room. Not like Deborah’s daughter Norma, a sunny day of a girl, now a senior year at Holyoke.

How could she tell Jill about this? One more line on that dear face. But the thought that Beth assumed she was that stupid, that blind, infuriated her. Jill might deny any flaw in her pretty, difficult daughter, it was understandable, she had raised that child alone after Toby had left them, she had done her best–she ‘d been threadbare with the work and responsibility. But it wasn’t good for the girl to look down at everyone as if they were going to be as blind as her mother.

She knew she should just keep her purse in her room. And fifty dollars, what was that? Jill was putting her up for free.. Though it put an uneasy distance between her and her oldest friend–like knowing someone’s husband was cheating and not telling her.

The next day, Deborah took money out of the ATM. It was just that some restaurants, these small ones, often didn’t take credit cards, after all. And the vintage shops. She bought some shoes. She bought three bottles of red wine. She took Jill out to dinner.

Before bed, standing in the wood-rich hall of the Russian Hill house, she counted her cash. Two hundred and sixteen dollars, twenties tens and fives. So easy if someone were tempted, to pull a few twenties from the stack.

Just then, the key turned in the lock. Quickly, Deborah stuffed the money back in the wallet and crammed it into her purse. Beth stumbled in the front door, her ridiculous shoes, her enormous bag. She was crying. She tried to smile when she saw Deborah, but she wasn’t able to. She pressed her slender fingers with their red tips to the furrows between her eyebrows. “Anything I can do?” Deborah said quietly.

Beth shook her head.

And suddenly, she didn’t want to know if Beth had stolen the forty bucks. Who was she, Joe Friday? She didn’t know what it would have been like to be Beth, to be raised by Jill, a neurotic at best, to know your father was living in Hawaii and wouldn’t pay a cent of child support. To have refused to go to college and have a mother who allowed that. She saw how thin was the brave front Beth presented to the world, how fragile. “Hey, if you ever need to get away, come out to St. Louis.”

She was surprised to find Beth’s arms wrapping themselves around her. “We miss you,” she whispered. “You should move back.”

She held the girl, her shoulders sparrow-thin, so unlike Norma, the life so close to the surface, like a bird you held in your cupped hands, its little bones, its tremulous life.

Part of a weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word. “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

Next week’s word is: ROW

Young Marrieds at Play

Posted in The Word: Stories, Writing Exercises with tags , on 08/03/2010 by Janet Fitch

The Word: Charm

Vivian shook the ice in her highball glass, and waited for someone to notice she needed a refresher. Her charm bracelet jingled luxuriously. And there was Dan Trower, their host, reaching for the glass, elegantly patterned in gold compasses. “Ready for number three?”

“Who’s counting, baby?” she said, handing him her glass. The gold of the bracelet catching her eye as their hands touched. Noticing how well the new pimento-colored polish, Hace Tante Calor, set off her tan. Someone put a Shirley Bassey record on the hi fi, “Kiss Me, Honey, Honey,” and Jimmy Grossman pulled her to him for a cha cha. She and Len had taken lessons at Arthur Murray, Len so studiously practicing the steps, counting under his breath… one two cha cha cha! Jimmy wasn’t anywhere near as handsome as Len, but he was a real dancer, he didn’t have to count. Poor Missy, pregnant in all this heat, out on the patio under the blowfish lamps talking mommy talk with Anne Weiss. Jimmy clearly suffering the lack of consortium.

His arm in the small of her back, she felt the current flow from him to her, and she could feel herself warming to him. Well, no harm in a little flirtation, they were all married people. Imagining Jimmy’s lips on her breasts. She’d heard there were Hollywood parties where people traded spouses for the night. Not that Len would do anything like that, not in a million years, he was such a square. Dan found her dancing and slipped the highball into her hand, the other hand for an instant landing on her bottom. Cha cha cha. She swatted him amiably.

There was no harm in it. Their circle of young marrieds was like that, they flirted, they got bombed–she felt reckless and Len was safely ensconced in the kitchen, talking, no doubt, about HUAC and the blacklist or racial relations. So serious, he could never just make small talk, he’d always end up buttonholing someone and spend a party talking about Tolstoy when all people wanted to do was get drunk and wrestle a bit in the pantry with someone else’s wife.

After a couple of dances, Jimmy was getting a little too familiar. Hands sliding down her hips, grabbing her. She decided she really didn’t like him all that much. She went to cool off on the couch, drank down her highball, pressing the glass against her forehead. Now Jimmy was dancing with Amy Kantor, her little rear twitching provocatively.

“What a slut,” Gloria Davies plopped herself down next to Vivian.

“I thought you were friends,” Vivian said.

“I didn’t say we weren’t,” Gloria said. She reached out and began examining Vivian’s bracelet, all the charms, Niagara Falls and the children’s profiles, a cowboy from New Mexico, a heart with a lock, the little telephone with a dial that turned, the two sets of shoes in an Arthur Murray pattern. “Oh by the way, Marcy Horowitz is in the kitchen, licking Len’s face.”

“She wishes.” Vivian rattled her ice.

“You better watch him. He’s a babe in those woods. She’s got him going on Charlie Parker.”

Vivian could imagine. She loved Len but God, get him started on Charlie Parker or the Bomb or current Turko-Soviet relations and you might as well have taken a Miltown. Well, she should go do her wifely duty.

She stopped in the doorway of the Trowers’ tiny kitchen. Len leaned against the counter, slim and tanned from working in the field on the Glen Ellen subdivision, and Marcy, one hip cocked, listening more closely than a girl really would if she were just listening to a man go on about bebop. Marcy with her limp draggly hair–she boasted she never went to a beauty parlor in her life, her eyes dark-rimmed, beatnik style. Their spiraling smoke twining together. Then Marcy was talking and Len listened, intently, looking down at the confetti linoleum. They reminded Vivian of two doctors standing in a hospital hallway, conferring on a difficult case. What on earth did they have to talk about like that? She didn’t like it. She didn’t mind when it was Tod Verner, but Marcy Horowitz… she wasn’t licking his face, it was worse than that. They were like two people listening to the same radio station.

She moved in, jingling her bracelet, a wide smile plastered on her coral lips. “Hey kids, is the patient going to live?” Marcy turned away, on the pretext of stubbing out her cigarette in a saucer, as Vivian took her husband by the arm. “Come on, Doctor Casey, let’s have a cha cha.” And she pulled him back into the party, as if from the edge of a cliff.

Part of a weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word. “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

Next week’s word is: COUNT

Summer and Sobaka

Posted in The Word: Stories, Writing Exercises with tags , , , on 07/23/2010 by Janet Fitch

The Word: Rib

My mother finally relented, and I was going to spend the summer at Aunt Thea’s. In L.A. At last. I never got to go by myself before, because my mother and her older sister don’t get along so great. But that summer, my dad and mom weren’t getting along so good either. In fact, Dad had moved out and Mom just wanted to lie around crying , and I kept saying, let me go to LA and see Aunt Thea, she asks me every year when she comes to Hartford for Christmas. But my mom always says no, she wouldn’t trust Aunt Thea with a plant, let alone a human being.

When Aunt Thea stays with us, she sleeps in the other bed in my room, and tells me stories about ghosts and stuff my mom and her used to do when they were kids, that I can hardly believe. We consult the Ouija board, but I don’t tell my mom. She’s, well, she wouldn’t go for that.

I love Aunt Thea. She’s got to be forty, and tan, with long hair down her back like a hippie. She’s getting wrinkles and she doesn’t even care. And she laughs more than anybody I ever saw. Once, she laughed so hard at a joke my brother Brian was telling she actually peed in her pants. “I’m going to pee in my pants!” she shrieked, and then she did. And thought that was so funny, she laughed until tears spilled down her tanned, wrinkled face.

My mom got so mad, like Aunt Thea was a bad dog that had peed the rug. “I can’t believe you just did that.”

“Oh, you’re no fun,” Aunt Thea said, holding her stinky wet pants away from her skin.

My mom can be fun, but she’s the “first you brush your teeth and then you get the story” type.

Whereas my first morning in LA, we had ice cream for breakfast. “What kind do you like?” my aunt asked me. She has this old fridge from the Fifties, and the dinky little freezer was packed with ice cream. I took one scoop of lavender mint, and one of espresso. and we ate out on the porch overlooking the lake.

A lake, right in the middle of LA. I never heard of that. With houses all around, up on the hillsides, like a foreign country, like France or something. We hung out on her porch and ate our ice cream, and I thought I was in heaven, I mean, heaven. LA, and this funky old house, and the lake and breeze in the trees and her dog Sobaka, which means dog in Russian. Sobaka has pretty white eyelashes. A white sort of greyhound, but hairy. And I have to admit, I felt bad, that my mom and my dad were breaking up and I was in LA eating ice cream for breakfast. It felt kind of heartless.

I thought about married people. “Why didn’t you ever get married, Aunt Thea? Didn’t you want to?”

She licked her spoon and put the bowl on the ground so Sobaka could slurp up the rest. “I had a love affair,” she said. “But he wasn’t the type who’d ask you to marry him.” The way she said ‘marry,’ she didn’t exactly roll her eyeballs but her voice did. “Being with him it was like fifty years squeezed into five. That was it for me. I’d had enough love for a lifetime.”

I never heard of that. someone who’d just had enough of something for their whole lives. Especially love, wasn’t that what everyone wanted, some guy to marry you and all that? I wondered how it would be for me.

That afternoon, she took me to a Vietnamese temple in Chinatown. It was kind of scary, there were no white people, and inside it was all red and yellow and crowded with bowls of fruit before the Buddhas and this weird incense. We went around and sort of prayed to the Buddhas, and she put some coins in their dishes and then gave me a thing of bamboo, full of sticks, and said to think of my question. “Do have to say it out loud?”

“Sure. Now think hard.” She frowned, which made all her wrinkles stand out.

I thought of my question. Will my parents divorce? Well duh. Why waste a question on that? “Will I be happy?” I finally asked. And shook the bamboo cup until a stick came out. Then the old wrinkly priest read my fortune. He talked and I guess he thought he was speaking English but I didn’t have any idea what he was saying. We thanked him and went outside. I was relieved to be out of there, though it was beautiful. Maybe if I hadn’t been so scared I would have enjoyed it more.

We went back to the car where Sobaka was waiting, her nose stuck through the window. “Could you understand what he said?” I asked Aunt Thea.

“Hungry?” she said, strapping her seatbelt. Mom does the same thing when she doesn’t want to answer a question.

She took us to this shack place nearby, a barbeque stand, kind of dodgy, but it smelled really great. I was surprised she chose barbeque–she’s a vegetarian. Maybe she made exceptions. She bought two giant beef ribs, and handed me one and we went to sit down at the picnic tables.

I started to eat mine, and she put the other rib, this big meaty thing, on the ground for Sobaka. For the dog! You should have seen the eyes of the other people eating there, staring at her, like they wanted to punch her lights out. “Aunt Thea. People are staring. You just fed your dog what they’re having for dinner.”

“So?” She looked around and smiled at the people aiming daggers at us. “Sobaka isn’t vegetarian.”

I ate in silence for a while, embarrassed as hell. Trying to understand. Why we were here, and what the priest said. “Aren’t you going to tell me what he said?”

She watched Sobaka happily gnawing on the end of the rib, having already stripped the meat clean. “He said, this year not so likely.”

A whole year. Well, duh. How happy was it likely to be. My parents divorcing. Chewing on my rib, trying not to cry, trying to concentrate on the wonderful gooey char. It hurt my feelings that my fortune was so lousy.

But really, the rib was fantastic.

And the breeze was cool, and Sobaka looked up from hers, all dog-smiley, and I was glad I was here. Whatever the guy said. And his dumb bamboo sticks. “I am happy though.”

“Me too,” she said, wiping Sobaka’s face with a napkin.

Part of a weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word. “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.” Feel free to post your ‘Rib’ in Comments.

Next week’s word is: CHARM