Archive for writing exercise

Bubbles and Me

Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , , , , , , on 10/06/2015 by Janet Fitch

The Word: GLOVE

Anna sat at the bar of the Hyatt Atlanta, the site this year of AWP, with Scott Fender and Aly Cole. Talking about Old Times, when the three of them shared a house in Iowa—that dump–writing, critiquing each other’s work, partying it up. Her old pals joked and laughed, but she could see,behind their eyes, they were searching her for the old Anna, the fat girl, life of the party. The last one off the dance floor, the one who brought the pot, the Jack Daniels. They’d been hand in glove in those days, Anna’s door always open, her big bed always ready for a sprawl and a pow-wow, a double feature on her old TV. That was who they missed. The fat funny self-deprecating Anna, who was fun for everyone but herself.

All the fallen faces, they were trying so hard to look happy for her.  Here came one more, Laurel Chapman, standing in the entryway, squinting–she had always been slightly nearsighted–not sure if it was Anna at all. Anna turned on her barstool, all legs in her wrap dress, and caught Laurel’s eye. Yes, it’s me, her nod said. “Hello, Gorgeous!” Laurel said, rushing over.

Anna stiffened as Laurel hugged her, and she could see Laurel’s confusion. She wasn’t that big soft girl anymore, the big breasts, the big stomach, the big arms. Her arms had grown strong and lean now, her stomach non-existent. She taught at Boulder, where she had begun to climb, and mountain bike. She had gone from 185 to 124 and she could see Laurel’s disappointment, that her hug was no longer like a golden retriever slobbering all over you. She was not ‘doing’ that Anna anymore and they were all disoriented. What happened to the sidekick, the best friend, the life of the party?

Anna got the bartender’s attention right away– the boy disregarded the sea of writing profs and authors and came right to her. “My friend will have a margarita–salt, rocks. Right?”

Laurel grinned, appreciating that at least Anna remembered that much. Then her old roommate noticed that Anna herself was drinking a martini up with a twist. All that cold snowy clearness.

“So what have you been up to?” Laurel asked. But Anna knew what she was asking–What happened to you?

“She moved to Boulder,” Aly said.

“Climbing, kayaking,” sighed Scott.

“Holy shit,” Laurel said. “You look like that actress, do people ever tell you that, the one that married to Warren Beatty—“

“Anita Benning,” Aly said.

“Annette,” said Scott.

“Have you always been like, this closet athlete?” Laurel asked.

“The Anna I knew would have shit bricks if she’d had to carry a box upstairs,” Scott said.

All of them drinking margaritas, the drink Anna had introduced them to in grad school, because she was from California. Margaritas and guacamole. They were disappointed that she hadn’t stayed there with them.

“Do you still have that bong? That looked like Bubbles in 1000 Clowns?” Laurel asked, really asking Are you still smoking pot? Do you still party? Do you still get drunk and lurch around with your blouse undone? Are you still the laughing stock of Ames Iowa? Oh, we had such good times when you were such a mess. Aly loved her then, because she’d looked so good by comparison. Laurel too. So great to have someone who was never going to get picked, except sloppy seconds, or thirds.

Now she didn’t care if people liked her. She didn’t have to work at being this loveable fun gal anymore.

“I heard you have Dorna Palermo at Boulder this semester,” Scott said.

“Did you read her last book?” Anna said, squeezing the lemon peel of her martini around the rim of the glass. “What a piece of sentimental crap,”

He looked crushed, his stubbly beard, his watery blue-green eyes. “You always liked Dorna Palermo.”

“A burned out piece of shit with a bad perm,” she said.

The way they looked at her. Hadn’t she always said what she thought of people?

“They’re paying sixty grand for the residency. Hey, pay me sixty for a term of doing nothing, I’d at least sleep with the students.”

Scott laughed but the two other women didn’t. They just stared at her—what were they objecting to, her mentioning money? God forbid! Or offering to sleep with the students. Who were way cuter than they had been at Iowa.

“She won a National Book Award,” Aly argued.

“All that aged goldbricker does is drink, and she doesn’t even shtup the students. They’re very disappointed.”

But it was her friends who were disappointed. They missed parking her at the bar and going off with some adjunct faculty from Bennington. She had dropped sixty pounds, stopped performing. The Anna who wanted you to like her had died. And this was the one who was left. The one who didn’t have to sing for her supper.

And this was who she’d been all the while.

The bartender was flirting with her.

“Are you liking Colorado?” Laurel asked.

“Saved my life,” Anna said. She noticed that Laurel was putting on a few pounds. Maybe she would send her Bubble.   Like passing on the torch.

Part of a semi-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: TORCH



The Plant Guy

Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , , , , , , on 10/05/2013 by Janet Fitch

The Word: Prod

Denise didn’t want to prod him.  Tully was sensitive.  He meditated on the plants. He had ideas. He had opinions.  He let weeds grow because he said they were herbs, some herb they used in Guatamalan cooking, mora.  Tully was not not Guatamalan, nor was Denise. But Sonya, her housekeeper, took some of it home for a soup her mother liked to make. Sonya’s mother could have made enough soup to feed the entire Guatamalan population of Los Angeles from the weeds Tull left to grow in Denise’s yard.

Now it was fall and they were shriveled and covered with black berries he said the birds liked. There weren’t enough birds in all of Los Angeles to eat those berries.  She sat in her yard, trying not to think that it looked  like a vacant lot. Her orange cat moved in and out from between the plants.

Tully had been meditating on what they would plant when the rains came in the fall–the planting season in Southern California. He had left her a list of native plants he felt would be happy on her hillside.

She didn’t want to be non-PC. She was an old hippie herself. She used recyclable bags. She wouldn’t spray during that horrible flea infestation this summer, because birds would eat the bugs and be poisoned. There were many things she did for the environment. But secretly, she hated native plants. To her, they always looked like weeds. They grew long and leggy and dried out. They attracted clouds of bees, though she knew we had to support bees, that bees were our friends and under threat these days, hive collapse and so on, but really, she was terrified of bees, and the merry sound of their buzzing made her feel, not happy, not joyous at the burgeoning of life around her, but terrified and reluctant to go outside.

Tully meditated on her garden. He had a gentle touch, he was intelligent and quirky and maybe a little odd, yes, but she liked hiring someone who would meditate on the plants instead of the regular mow and blow guys, the plant-killers she used to use once a year for brush clearance.  She was no gardener.  Tully had pruned her straggly jacaranda for the first time in its 20 years, and now it was growing beautifully, all the dead wood gone, the lopsidedness history.  She liked working with him. She liked him. He reminded her of boys she knew when she was young.  He was idealistic, wacky, he wore a silk flower upright in his straw hat. She sighed and looked at the native plant list again. ‘Bee’s bliss’, buckwheat.

It was hard to find a real plant guy in LA.  She just wanted the plain old-fashioned plants that everybody had. Geraniums and plumbago, agapanthus and jade, lantana. Easy, green, flowering, hardy, attractive. But Tull had an artist’s soul, and if you wanted a creative person, an imaginative person, you had to take the whole package. You had to accept his philosophy, let him work with materials he believed in. If you wanted a guy to do more than kill everything, someone who would prune and nurture and meditate, you were going to end up with leggy Mexican herbs with black berries growing up around the succulents.  Basta.

But how to suggest something more prosaic, how to collaborate…It was a delicate operation. The last time, when he’d overpruned something and she’d pointed it out, he’d disappeared for a month. He wasn’t just a tool, he was sensitive, he cared.

 She was up on the patio when he appeared–clambering up the side of the house in his crazy hat with its Dr. Seuss flower.  “Hey Denise, did you have a chance to look at that list I left?”

“I did,” she said.  The but hovered on her tongue.  She saw the love in his eyes, not for her, but for being understood, for being appreciated, from his mora to his straw hat and the flower stuck in it, his crazy truck with the luscious fruits painted on it. Don’t be one of them, they begged.  Just another imaginationless homeowner who wants everything weedless and non-native and impersonal as a business park, tended by people who cared as little for the plantings as a kid working at a Burger King cared about the goodness of the patties. He cared so much.  He loved that mora. He loved seeing things grow, flourish, surprising even him.

She smiled. “Some of them look amazing.”

He beamed, the flower trembled.

She just hoped whatever he planted would go with those weeds. Maybe she would learn how to make that soup herself.  Because she knew she would always choose love over indifference.  Even if there were weeds involved.

Part  of a semi-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: (if you can believe it) WEED


The Secret Agent

Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , , , , , , , on 12/16/2012 by Janet Fitch

The Word–SOCK

When Mom’s at work, Scott does what he wants.  It’s just him and me, and he’s three years older.  One of the things he likes to do is sock me in the shoulder.  He socks me in the shoulder in the same place, day after day. He doesn’t have to really hit me hard anymore, it always hurts from being hit all the time. I tell Mom, I call her at work and tell her Scott’s beating me up, but all  she says is, “Oh, he wouldn’t do a thing like that.”

I hate her and I hate Scott, I even hate my dad who can be in the same room when Scott’s socking me, and Mom screams at me for yelling.  He just sits there in his ugly lounge chair watching The Game on TV.  I hate sports.  I hate Dad and Mom and Scott and sports and TV.  I hate anyone who can just sit there when someone’s getting beat up and watch TV like nothing’s happening.  I especially hate anyone who leaves a kid alone with her maniac brother and can actually, really say, when you call her crying,  “Oh, he wouldn’t do that.”

Like I’m crazy, like I’m making the whole thing up.

I hate my teachers, like Miss Dickson the math teacher, who makes me cry in class every day. I’m always freaked out at school. I just cannot remember how many feet in a fathom. How many sheets in a ream of paper? How many feet in a furlong?  How many pecks in a bushel?  She asks so fast, picking people at random so you can’t be prepared and WHAT THE FUCK DO I CARE? Life is hell and I hate Miss Dickson. She makes me cry, and then the other kids laugh and imitate me, sobbing.

I hate the other kids, Marlene and Jennifer and Cassie, who make fun of me,  they do mean stuff like bashing the bottom of my bag of popcorn so it flies up into my face. I even hate Gigi, who is my best friend but likes Marlene better, so if Marlene’s around, Gigi is mean to me too.

Sometimes I just cry for no reason at all.

I’m only in the seventh grade. I have five more years before this is over. I don’t think I’m going to make it.

Sometimes I imagine I’m a secret agent, a spy on a mission from an alien planet, and I have a spy camera in my head, and I’m sending all this information back to my alien leader.  This is what life on earth is really like.   Then I don’t mind it all as much.  I think, okay, bring it on, because someone is watching this.  Like the cops on Cops.  They aliens are stunned. They cannot believe what a jerk Miss Dickson is. Their hearts hurt when they see me run out of class crying.  They wince when Scott hits me in the shoulder one more time.  They’re outraged when Mom gets mad at me for calling her at work, for making up shit about my brother.  They can’t believe what a shitty deal life here is like.

I’m not really me.  I’m just here on assignment. Recording all this.  It’s not really me.

Except when Scott socks me in the shoulder again.  Then it’s really, really hard to remember.

Part  of a semi-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: BAND

Mister Twister

Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , , on 12/08/2012 by Janet Fitch

The Word–COP

We were flying through the mountains, Durango to Denver, we were soaring. enough blow to cover these damn mountains, snow it back to winter again. Yeehaw! Davis shouted out into the wind. Still damn cold, piney mountain air rinsing us through the open window of the 442. We’d made it up here just over three hours, we’d make Denver in four, just like he told me he could do it. It was a seven hour trip with Dad at the wheel, but they always stopped to take pictures, the Sangre de Christos, South Park, pictures of nothing, cows.

But nothing Davis did surprised me.  Or maybe it was that everything did, so you were sort of ready for it. I felt awake with him, really awake, like I’d been sleeping all my life until I met him.  Sleeping Beauty, that was me.  My parents didn’t like him, of course–the man smelled of sex, just reeked of it, the way he’d stand there with his thumbs tucked in his belt.  “I don’t like you seeing so much of that boy,” Daddy said. He thought I should go out with someone from Fort Lewis Community College. “Somebody nice,” my mother said, meaning without a cock. Yeah, I knew what she meant.

I looked at Davis in the driver seat with that spring wind blowing, dancing the feathers on the roach clip hanging from the rearview mirror.  I was laughing, like I was champagne that got shook up and popped, all of me was just flowing out in a great jet of sparkling foam. We were going to meet some friends of his in Denver, have a real party. He kept saying, “Wait till we get us to Denver, baby, then we’re gonna have some fun.”

We were going fast enough through the turns that I had to hold onto the seat. Like Mister Twister at Elitch Gardens. Being with Davis was like being on a ride like that, you screamed your head off and then wet your pants laughing when you finally got off. We went squealing along, corners at eighty, patches of snow still on the ground among the pines.

“Oh shit,” Davis said.  And there was  Officer Law, lurking just off the highway, half hidden in the trees like some black-and-white tiger, just waiting for us, a few miles short of  Bailey. I felt Davis trying to slow without cramming on the brakes and putting us in a spin.  “Shit shit shit.” The cherry lights started to turn, then the siren.  Davis thrust the little folded paper of blow. “Tuck that in your bra, darlin’.”

I didn’t know what to do.  I felt this zing of panic.  Why was he giving it to me?  It wasn’t my blow.  And the cop was flashing his lights, he was getting pissed, wanting Davis to pull over.   “But what if we get arrested? What if they search me?”

“It’s just a traffic stop. And even if they did, what the fuck, you’re not 21, first offense. Trust me, it’ll be ok.”

The cop was right behind us, flashing his lights!  What was I supposed to do?  Even if they did?! I rolled down the window.

“What are you doing, don’t–  Don’t–”

I threw it out the window.

“The fuck! You stupid bitch!” The car swerved as he screamed. He was so mad! I was glad he had to hang onto the wheel, in fact I was kind of glad they were pulling us over.  He mighta hit me or something.

My heart was in my throat as we  stopped on a narrow piece of shoulder off the winding highway, cars whizzing past. Davis sat looking front with his hands on the wheel, his jaw working, his face sheet white. “shit, shit shit.”  Nobody was coming over. The cop just sat watching us.  Finally, he got out and came up to the car on my side, tapped on the window.  A clean shaven blonde about thirty poked his head in.   He looked us both over.  “ID and registration, folks.”

My parents would kill me if I got arrested up here, and my dad had to take off work to come get me.   I tried not to start crying. I never got arrested before.  I was stoned and high and scared, and Davis was really mad.

“Registration,” the cop said again.

Davis kept his hands on the wheel, but opened them  to show he wasn’t holding anything, I guess, spreading the fingers.  “It’s in the glove compartment. But I have to tell you, there’s a gun in there, okay?”

Davis had a gun in the glove compartment.  We’re doing eighty, coked out of our minds, and he has a gun in his glove compartment.  And he called me a bitch!   Suddenly I didn’t feel so good about this whole Denver idea.  What else didn’t I know about Davis? He wanted me to hold onto three hundred dollars worth of coke during a bust and then called me a bitch, and he had a gun?  I didn’t know who these people in Denver were. Anything could happen–and nobody knew where I was, they all thought I was in class.

“Will you open the glove compartment, Miss?”

Davis was trying to signal me something with his light green eyes, I usually liked them but they looked kind of lizardy to me now.  He looked like he would kill me once the cop left. I didn’t know what to do.  Was there something else in the glove compartment?

“I was just getting a ride,” I said, opening it. And there was the gun, a greasy handgun.  There was never a gun in there before.  “I was just getting a ride to Denver.”  I found the registration and gave it to the cop.

The cop went back for the longest time.

“Why’d you say that?” Davis asked.  “What kind of shit is that? We gotta stick together.”

I didn’t answer him.

We got our IDs back, and he had us get out of the car. The cop started to look around the car, shining a light under the seats, looking in my purse.  “I saw you throw something out of the car,” he said. “That gives me probable cause.”

He found some pot under the seat.  Davis looked mad. But it wasn’t my pot either.

“Can I go now?” I said to the cop.

He looked at me all squinty-eyed.  “Sure,” he said.  “But not him.”

“Clara.” How shocked he looked. “Baby.”

I hitched my bag with all my stuff over my shoulder and started walking towards Bailey.  Fuck Davis, man. Fuck Davis.

Part  of a semi-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: SOCK


The Thing, That Thing…

Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , on 12/01/2012 by Janet Fitch

The Word: DARK

Slim woke in the dark, and could not remember.  The thing, that thing. That made it light again. She knocked something off the bedside table, she could hear it hit the floor.  “Shit.” The clock didn’t work either, the numbers, glowing. So irritating, she could see the numbers, but she couldn’t… Oh, why was she so stupid?  Was it time to get up or not?  That’s all she wanted to know.

It was dark, she didn’t think it was time, but those things, over the windows, she couldn’t tell. Was it dark outside too?

She tried to find the thing–the thing that turned on the light, but she couldn’t. Something else fell.  She got out of bed then, maybe she could light a light in the bathroom, by the commode. But suddenly, she was on the floor. She must have sat down. It was dark, and her glasses, she couldn’t see, and she was on the floor, and it was dark. She tried to get up but she couldn’t do that either.  “Shit.”  And she started to cry.

There was something she was supposed to do.  Pull something. couldn’t reach the pull thing that called–who? She believed no one would come anyway.  There was no one who worked here at night, they all went somewhere and drank coffee and laughed at the old people.

If only it wasn’t so damn dark. So many things rambled around in her head, she couldn’t say what exactly. And  there was no one to say them to anyway.   She missed Ritchie. “God, Ritchie, why did you have to leave me here?” it was cold on the floor, she pulled the blanket off the bed and wrapped it around herself.  How had this happened to her? Of all people.  Who the hell said this would be all right?

The clock was even laughing at her, glowing there with its big computery numbers like it was a rocket station. But it was wrong. Nobody ever reset it.  How she hated it here.  “Ritchie, I’m a goddamn fool,” she said.  He was waiting for her, in that place, the sooner the better if you asked her. She reached up to her bed and pulled a pillow down, lay her head on it.  Screw it.  Then she started to cry. Here she was, Slim Tolliver, queen of the goddamn north shore, lying on the floor like an overturned turtle, and there was no one in the goddamn world to help her.

It felt good, infinitely good, to cry like a kid and feel sorry for herself. Ha.  She never let her children do this, when they were young. Teased and bullied them into pulling their socks up.  “Pull your socks up,” she used to say  “Stop sniveling.  You look like absolute hell.”

If only she had a little dog, it would come and lick her face, she could cuddle with it, talk to it.  But they didn’t have animals here. That one big fluffy dog came sometimes, it had a diamond collar–oh, she loved to pet it. That great curly hair.  But she couldn’t bring her own dogs, the big one and the little one… Frenchie?  F… F something.  Cute as could be.  So funny to watch them play together, the little one running in circles, the big one just staring.

Where was her mother? Not mother… sister? Daughter. Pammy.   She came and went whenever she goddamn well wanted to.  Nice to come and go. God she missed her car. White car, white leather, two seater. Just for her. She remembered when she bought it.  She didn’t tell anybody, not even Ritchie. It was the first time she bought something like that without anybody’s say so. Ha.  His face when she brought it home.  Oh, to just get in a car and drive… a white scarf on her head.  Sun on her face.  Ah…

If only she could get the light on.  She crawled in the direction she thought was the bathroom, found the door, felt along the cold porcelain commode and pulled herself up onto her knees. There it was, the thing, the switch, she turned it on, it got light.  Never in her whole life was she so happy to see her jumbled makeup and the toilet rolls,  the towels.

Seeing she was here already, Slim used the commode and wondered if it was time to get up.  They came to give you your pills at six. She had never been an early riser, six was ridiculous, inhuman, for bakers, and people who delivered the paper.  It would probably be hours until it was six.

She decided she wouldn’t tell her mother what had happened. She’d been so mean to those kids.  Not letting them cry or be hurt.   No wonder that one had put her in here, where there was nobody to help her, they just drank coffee in the basement and make fun of the old people, their clumsiness and the mess you couldn’t help making.

She started to cry again.  If she was a dog, they could just take her to the vet, give her a shot. She didn’t think she could do this one more day.  She looked in the mirror over the sink, that blurry thing she assumed was herself. God, it was lucky she couldn’t see more than the white hair.  “Pull up your socks, Slim Tolliver,” she told herself.  “Nobody wants to see that.”

She left the light on, and shuffled back to the bed. She was supposed to use that thing, but she had no idea where it was just now. That thing

Part  of a semi-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: COP


Posted in The Word: Stories, Writing Exercises with tags , , , , on 12/17/2011 by Janet Fitch

The Word: Pan

She wondered how it would be to backpack with Dan. She didn’t know him that well, they’d dated at school. But now they were here, she was glad she came. He was at his best in nature, so happy to show off his backcountry skills and the high meadows of  yarrow and lupine and Indian paintbrush. The Colorado sky was Van Gogh blue, straight out of the tube.  Five days in the Lizard Head Wilderness, just the two of them.

Dan had planned the whole thing, traced their route on the green topo maps. He’d completely repacked her backpack, eliminating extra pants and sweaters and shirts she was sure she’d need.  Scrapping all her toiletries. Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint soap would be her major toilet item. All one, All one.

Now she saw how right he was. She hadn’t needed any of it.  He’d packed perfectly– aluminum camping dishes, fitted knife/fork/spoon sets, all nested together. Dried food, ground and measured coffee. A tiny stove, no bigger than a takeout box. Everything weighed and measured, every ounce pared away. Her pack was only 35 pounds, he took 60, all the heavy items–tent and food and fuel.

She loved Dan in the out-of-doors. Holding her hand when she had to balance on  switchbacks, encouraging her to cross a fallen log straddling a creek. He was never this nice back at school.  Mostly he kept to himself, or drank himself stupid with his roommate Chuck.

She liked nature. She had gone to Y Camp in the San Bernardinos, though it was nothing like this. He laughed at her when she woke the first night and thought there was a streetlight outside the tent. She was 19 years old and had never understood that the moon rose.  She’d stood outside the tent in her long underwear and gaped at the full moon.

They pressed on toward Lizard Head, skirting timberline, rising up into high meadows, dipping down into cool fragrant pines or trembling aspen.  He had  it down. They didn’t even have to carry much water, he’d planned the trip never to be far from a stream. They filtered the water with a little gizmo so they wouldn’t get giardia. Though it looked clean enough.

So self-sufficient. “Well, you have to be, out here,” he said.  “You can’t just run down to the hardware store.  You forget the flashlight, you’re SOL.”

They’d found the perfect camping spot–a clearing in the pines, two downed logs, the stream close-by–but not too close. Put up the tent, set up their ‘kitchen’, made some lemonade, settled in..  She took out her watercolors and painted him reading, lying on his Therm A Rest-padded log. She wandered, identifying woodpeckers and wildflowers. There was nothing they needed, they had everything–tent, sleeping bags, food.  It was perfect.

The light soaked the afternoon mountains in rose-gold when they saw the lone figure struggling up the trail.

They’d made their camp almost astride the path, having no idea anyone  might walk right through it. They hadn’t seen anyone since the trailhead.  “Who the fuck is that?” Dan said. “Look at the size of that pack. What a moron.”

Now they saw, it was a boy, wearing shorts and enormous hiking boots. He humped an orange backpack, bigger than he was.  He climbed slowly, he seemed to be making no progress at all, just this dot, green shirt, an orange pack, laboring up the mountain.

As he got closer, Jen could see he was exhausted, pushing himself, hands on his knees, as if he had to force each leg in turn to press the earth and carry him forward. But finally, he was within hailing distance of where they sat on their Therm A Rest pads. He grinned and called out, “Boy am I glad to see you! Wow.  That’s some trail, huh?”

Dan didn’t even say hello, just stared at the intruder, a boy, smiling, chestnut haired, about sixteen.

“Hi,” Jen said. Trying to distract him from Dan’s glower. “How long you been climbing?”

“All day. Wow,  that’s was some hike.”  He stood looking back to where he’d come from, gasping, cheeks red, fingers hooked around the straps of his enormous orange backpack from which a cast iron frypan hung. A fishing pole peeked out the top.  The frypan alone must have weighed ten pounds.

Jen could tell he wanted to drop the pack and join them, but he was offput by Dan’s unwelcoming vibe.  Well, unexpected things happened, whether Dan liked it or not. “Take off your pack and sit awhile. Want some lemonade? Cold from the stream..”

Dan gave her a withering look.

But she couldn’t exactly send the kid on his way, not like that. That wouldn’t be friendly at all.

The kid awkwardly lurched from his pack–it tilted and fell like a tree, hard, and clanging, the frypan and other jangly stuff that sounded like cans of soup and metal spoons.

She poured the lemonade they’d made from packets of instant and their filtered water into an aluminum cup. The kid drank it straight down. She poured him some more. What a pretty boy, his freckles, his dauntless smile.  “Where’d you come from?” she asked.

“Durango,” he said.  “My parents are staying down there. I hitched a ride, some cowboy.  It’s amazing up here, isn’t it?”  He sat down on the log next to Jen’.  Sighed. The view was tremendous, the craggy outcrops all around them.  He pulled a pennywhistle from his pack, played a lively tune.

“Wasn’t there anything you left at home?” Dan said from his side. He was rolling a joint. “What else you got in there, golf clubs?  A surfboard?”

Jen smiled awkwardly. What was it to Dan what the boy was carrying? He was always so mean to people who did things differently.  Or was it was the boy’s happiness he envied?

The kid toed his orange monstrosity. “Yeah, I guess it’s a little heavy. But I didn’t know what to take so I just threw a few things in.” He was eying the reefer.

Dan finished licking it, lay back on his Therm A Rest, lit up. Dan was one of those people who brought his own bottle to the party and drank from it.  If you went Chinese, he ordered the one thing he wanted, and didn’t share. He didn’t want to try yours, either.

He was at his best when it was just him and Jen, like on this trip. The other Dan, the one who couldn’t stand in line, the one who thought everyone else was a moron… she tended to put that Dan out of her mind. Excuse it.

The kid’s name was Jesse. He’d come up from Austin with his family, who were staying in Durango.  A friendly kid, open-faced, laughed easily. Jen stuck her hand out for the joint. Reluctantly, Dan passed it to her. She handed it to the kid.  That grin.  Sweet. “Thanks, man.”

She took a good hit on it before passing it back to Dan.

“So where you trying to get to?” Dan asked, begrudgingly entering the conversation.

Jesse shrugged, hitched his aching shoulder under the green t-shirt that said There is no Planet B. “Nowhere in particular. Just checkin’ it out.”

Dan snorted. “Do you have a map?”

Jesse said, “No, just thought I’d follow this trail, find somewhere to sleep, rinse and repeat.”

“No map?” Dan said. “You’re up in the Rocky Mountains and you have no map.”

Jen felt sorry for the kid. She was used to Dan and his mockery of what he felt was the idiocy of others.  It wasn’t so different than other guys at school.  But now, she was embarrassed.   “I’m sure you’ll be fine,” Jen said, patting the kid’s sweaty shoulder.

“It’s how people die up here. They bring the shower curtain and the barbeque but no map.”

“I’m not going to die, dude.  It’s not that big a deal.  I’m going to go up that trail, and I’ll come down the same way.”  He stood up and dusted his hands on his shorts.  “Look, thanks for the bud. You guys have a good one.”

Jen wished he’d stay and play his little pennywhistle.  Have dinner with them.  She liked his attitude, his fresh, open smile. She envied his way of meeting the world, even if it was a bit haphazard. Even if that pack probably weighed 100 pounds. It didn’t bother him, he wasn’t complaining.  Jen helped him on with it.

“Get tired of Mr. Sunshine there, I’ll be right up the trail,” he whispered under his breath.

She laughed, and watched him climb up the trail, the afternoon light catching the red in his hair, the ridiculous frying pan hanging off the back of his pack like a manhole cover. The sound of an Irish pennywhistle filled the cooling air.

“Probably won’t even hang his food tonight,” Dan said.  “The bears’ll get his stuff and he’ll be one hungry puppy.”  He seemed to savor the thought.

But Jen didn’t think the bears would get his food. And even if they did, Jesse probably wouldn’t mind.  He’d be hungry, but he’d get down the mountain somehow. She’d give him half of hers.  In any case, she bet that even bears wouldn’t dent the boy’s good humor.

She lay on her log, listening to the light sound of the pennywhistle echoing off the mountain peaks, getting fainter and further away.

Part  of a semi-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: FOIL

Italian Movie

Posted in The Word: Stories, Writing Exercises with tags , , , , , on 12/10/2011 by Janet Fitch

The Word: SLIP

A youngish man with graying hair stands on the sidewalk of the elegant Via Ariosto, looking up. Across the street, an older woman follows his gaze, up the building’s third story to where a young woman stands on a balcony in her slip. A young brunette woman in a white slip, tall shutters half-open behind her.

Milan, summer, twilight.

Leaning over the art nouveau railing, lush dark hair full over her shoulders, the young woman drops a white handkerchief–no, something wrapped in a handkerchief–to the man looking up. He misses the toss. Leans over and picks the package up.

It is an Italian movie. A key. Dropped from the third story balcony to the lover below.

What she remembers are those slender arms, the flutter and flash of a white handkerchief, the white slip, the glossy brown hair, the smile, and how the youngish man unwraps the handkerchief, climbs the steps, lets himself in with the tossed key.

Now the older woman stands alone on the Via Ariosto. The youngish man with the graying hair is gone. The slender-armed, graceful, barefoot woman on the balcony, the woman in the slip, has disappeared inside the half-shuttered room.

The other woman feels it, a deep ache. That she would never drop a key in a handkerchief from an elegant balcony before shuttered doors, wearing a white slip, for a handsome graying youngish man, in a midsummer twilight on an elegant Milanese road.

She’d just come back from the leafy corner café, where she drank a vino bianco alone under the trees–elms? Her divorce already cold. She is 56 years old, and she would never stand on a balcony in a white slip… god, they’d call out the Carabinieri! Her ashbrown hair streaked with gray would make no appealing picture, her plump bare arms tossing a key–to no one.

And yet, the beauty of this movie is unmistakable, heartpiercing in the twilight. She is slightly drunk. The fierce heat has ebbed to sensuous luminous blue. A man stands on the curb reading a newspaper lying in the street. His hands remain in his pockets, he has no intention of picking it up. An older man, older than her.

It is too early to return to the hotel. She strolls along the leafy street, remembering the loveliness of the woman on the balcony. Wondering, did loveliness need to be one’s own to give one happiness?

And what if she were the woman on the balcony? That Giulietta or Giovanna. Would she even know how beautiful she was? No. Truly, she would not.  She would be thinking of her lover, of their evening ahead, the salad she would make, a light salad on a night like this. But not the beauty of this moment.

It’s all merged into one single thing–the woman, the man, the twilight, the street. How evanescent–life, beauty. But this, this is hers alone, this moment–she, with the eyes of a traveler, she is the one who caught the key more surely than the graying youngish man.

Part  of a semi-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: PAN


The Magic Flute

Posted in Moments of Clarity, The Word: Stories, Writing Exercises with tags , , on 10/19/2011 by Janet Fitch

The Word: Flute

It was the thing about love, thought Allie, as she nested food into a lettuce leaf and rolled it like a cigar.  We called love love, but she had been in love many times, and every love was as different as… what could be so different, so varied?  Dogs maybe. Some were big and some were small, some were diggers under fences, others shed all over you, some jumped up and knocked you over.  There were lazy, lie-about loves, and nervous ones and ones that slobbered or made ‘mistakes’ indoors.  Some dogs were companionable and alert, and others were clowns, and some were just plain vicious and had to be put down.

She gazed at this man across the table in the Vietnamese restaurant, rolling a spring roll into a transparent sheet of wonton.

“What?” he asked.

And what was their love? what kind of a dog was this, this unlikely creature they were together?  A pound dog, maybe.  After all, he hadn’t dated in years, had kept himself busy reading, learning languages, collecting vintage microscopes and magic lanterns and Victrolas. He painted pictures for dollhouses.  He’d used the word ‘repudiate’ in a sentence on their first date, and ‘legerdemain.’ He knew how to pick a lock, and opened her door once to show her.  “Don’t tell anyone, it’s illegal.”  He needed a haircut.  He wore a shirt he bought at a gas station.  He could recite Shakespeare’s sonnets and half of the Tempest, but didn’t know where downtown was.

And she was a woman who knew the difference between Baskerville and Goudy Old Style, could find Surinam on a map, an enthusiast in all things.  She could solve codes and ciphers, she loved traveling and wearing wigs, she liked songs in languages she didn’t understand. She made linoleum prints and assemblage art and got a 1400 on her SATs.  She read poetry, but could never learn anything by heart.  She was sentimental and gregarious.

Their kisses had resonance, like a good drum.  That surprised her. Mostly, he surprised her.  Because he could take her all in. Not just a part.  All of it. She didn’t have to leave anything out, she didn’t have to pretend to be more conventional, or moderate, so she could be understood. He could meet her everywhere.  When had that happened in the history of the world?

A matched pair. Not dogs. More  like the parrots people let loose in the cities of America, who found each other in parks and backyards.

Yes, like birds.  Like in the Magic Flute.  Not the romantic stars of the piece, Prince Tamino and his ladylove Pamina.  But rather, the comic foils–the lonely bird man, Papageno, who finds his bird girl, Papagena, at the end of the final act.  Allie knew that for Mozart, this had just been a mopping-up of a loose plot thread. She’d never even liked Mozart operas, or comic operas at all for that part, having always preferred operas where at the end everybody was dead and the stage was awash in blood. But there was no question that this was the Magic Flute, and there was magic even for someone so ridiculous, so full of enthusiasms, as her. There was another one out there, perfectly suited for her.

She had always thought her life was a tragedy.  It never occurred to her it would turn out to be a comedy.  That she was a comic character, Papagena in her feathers, made in heaven for some Papageno in a t-shirt from a gas station.

He was looking at her.  Sometimes he looked at her like this.  She reached out and he took her hand. “What,” he said.

Part  of a semi-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: SLIP


Peppertree Summer

Posted in The Word: Stories, Writing Exercises with tags , , on 09/02/2011 by Janet Fitch

The Word: PEPPER

It was the last peppertree summer.  The fronds on the shaggy old peppers hung down like a mermaid’s long hair, their green laden boughs studded with pink berries, flowing over her as Page rode underneath.  She’d set her fine, pale hair and sprayed on half a can of AquaNet, but it never stayed put. It just wasn’t hair made for setting.  She rode over to the new development going up on Vanowen, dawdling along the unpaved streets, the horse’s hooves beating out their lazy cadence. She tried to imagine all the families living in these new houses. Hard to picture what Van Nuys would be like without this big mustard field, only houses.

Her last summer in California.  Riding Daisy bareback with only a hackamore tied across her black nose, her pedal-pusher clad legs hanging long on either side  of the mare’s round ribs. Eighteen years old.  She felt the force of time, ejecting her from everything she’d known, squeezing her out of her life like a winged sycamore seed.  She was restless, she didn’t want to be around her friends, googly-eyed over Dion and Eddie Fisher.  She only wanted to sling a blanket over Daisy’s straw-gold back and wander the sleepy dirt backroads of Van Nuys, their passage noted only by the audience of ponies hanging their heads over the fences hard by shacks and orchards, surrounded by all the green and golden smells of late summer, corn growing high at Leary’s, apples fattening at Gommer McQuade’s.  She lay down onto Daisy’s neck  and pressed her face into that sleek summer coat, drinking in the smell, drawing her fingers through the black mane, arranging its pattern against the creamy gold. The last summer.

In a few weeks, she would be going east to college. Her mother had already bought the camel’s hair coat and wool plaid skirts and Shetland sweater sets. She would see her first red autumn, her first snowfall. Her roommate had already written to her, a girl named Hillary, from New York. Page had never been out of California except for a trip to the Grand Canyon when she was nine.  She should be looking forward to it, she told herself, but she was scared, and more than that. She was sad.  It was stupid,  nobody she knew was going to college back east. It was ridiculous to be sad.

The cicadas buzzed in the dusty afternoon, and she rode Daisy in and out through the stout pepper trees, letting their leaves brush her face like they were hands, caressing her, memorizing her.  Would she like it in Boston?  Would she understand it?  People were so different there.  So sophisticated and all.  Hillary had paper with her name engraved on it.  Did they have pepper trees in Boston?  Hot dirt road summer days and horse sweat and barn smells, western saddles, hawks that circled lazily over the canyons?    And what would happen to Daisy?  She would be so fat by Christmas…

The mare grew bored and inattentive, she stopped and leaned down to bury her black nose in the dry grass growing at the base of one of the shaggy peppers, and Page let her, why not.  What did she care about Daisy’s bad habits now. By the time she got back at Christmas, Daisy wouldn’t even remember her.

These pepper trees. So ancient. Peppers came up from Mexico with Father Serra and the missions. Page was sure they didn’t have pepper trees in Boston, or buckskin horses.  She would wear nylons, and heels, and set her hair and go sledding, throw snowballs… She should have gone to Stanford. At least it was in California. Why had she been so quick to leave everything she knew and loved?

But the Valley would always be here, she told herself.  Just like this. These dirt back roads, the produce stands, the little farms and orchards, clutches of quail breaking from the brush and running across the road, roadrunners chasing lizards, standing with them proudly dangling from their yellow beaks.  Whenever she came home, it would all still be here. Just like this.

Part  of a semi-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: FLUTE


The New Song

Posted in The Word: Stories, Writing Exercises with tags , , on 04/24/2011 by Janet Fitch

The Word: Ear

Mel watched her daughter down in the living room, playing her old black Telecaster. Kat weighed what, a hundred pounds?  She certainly hadn’t gained any weight during her stay in rehab–how was it possible for a girl to be alive and yet so thin?  So alive and talented and painfully close to the edge–one small crumble of that narrow dirt ledge upon which she so precariously balanced would send her tumbling all the way down to the rocks a thousand feet below.  For some reason, she thought Kat would come back looking healthy, snatched back from the abyss. True, she looked a hundred percent better than she had in the days before Gerald, her ex, checked her into rehab–Gerald, who’d fought her every step on the raising of this thin, sensitive girl who was now supposedly clean and sober.

“What’s that you’re playing?” Mel called down to where Kat sat on the raggedy old couch, the survivor of the divorce, the couch that had seen how many hours of old movies and Kat’s favorite ’60s spy shows?

“It’s a new song,” Kat said. She was 22 but she looked like thirteen.  Yet there was nothing childish in the music coming from those long thin fingers on the black Tele, her thirteenth birthday present.

The song was surprisingly cheerful, a sprightly pop melody in E.  Absolutely unexpected from a girl who has been in anything but a pop mood for the last six months.  But she was still so thin, it was remarkable that a girl could be so alive and so barely there, thin and pliable as a shoot of bamboo.

And yet, bamboo had a tremendous vitality, didn’t it?  Didn’t it?  She  stirred the spaghetti sauce that Kat always liked, her ‘welcome back’ dinner.  Thinking of a show they’d once seen, a program Kat loved, that specialized in debunking legends. This one tested a legendary wartime torture, to see if a bamboo cane would actually work its way through a man’s body.  Indeed, they proved that a shoot would work its way through a side of pork in under three days.

Kat was alive.

And she had made up this song in the place Mel could only think of as That Place.

Did she even know this girl, this child which had come out of her, her talent seemed otherworldly now, her life a dangerous mystery. Mel gave the sauce a last stir, splashed in some wine and turned down the heat.  She went down into the living room, picking up her old Guild guitar from the rack, and joined her daughter on the old grimy couch.

“Play it again, I couldn’t hear from up there,” Mel said.

And Kat smiled at her.  A smile! That was unexpected. And began to play.  So confident, so authoritative.  When did she get so good?  And Mel listened, trying to work her way into the tune, she was improvising around her daughter’s line, picking it up.

They didn’t talk about That Place, the overdose, the why and the how.  For now, they were just playing.  Kat leading, Mel close behind.  She couldn’t ask for assurances, she couldn’t ask what came next.  There was no sheet music for this one, she would have to play it by ear.

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: CANE