Short Story: Times They Are A-Changin’

I was ten years old when I finally went fishing with my grandpa. He had promised the fishing trip for months. Before we left the house mom handed me a black Nike baseball cap that once belonged to my dad. She said it was going to be sunny and to keep my face out of the sunlight. She asked my grandpa if he had enough sunscreen. He showed her the bottle in his bag. Alongside the sunscreen, there were a couple bottles of water, a few small packets of chips, a four-pack of Jameson, an orange juice and two sandwiches which he had made that morning. Mine was without pickles and olives.

During the drive, I kept on looking at my grandpa. I was trying to sit like him, to look at where he was looking, to match the same expressionless features that were carved into his face. My dad passed away when I was young so I never really knew him. Grandpa became the man I wanted to be like. Every now and then he would glance in the rearview mirror as he switched lanes and I would look too but all I could see where the tips of the fishing poles sticking out in the back of the pick-up. They seemed naked and out of place.

We fished at lake Issac. We rented a small two-seater boat and rowed to the middle of the lake. There was a heart carved on the seat with the initial A + D inside of the heart. I traced it with my nail. I sat in between my grandpas’ legs and rowed or at least I thought I did. I went through the motions but my grandpa did the pushing and pulling. Once we were far away from the shore, somewhere in the middle of the lake, grandpa stopped rowing. We cast our lines and then waited. Grandpa said to be patient. He said that’s what fishing was all about.

“We learn to be patient and to sit still,” he said. “We learn to feel the motion. To go along with the movement of the water.”

  The breeze picked up and the mist from the water occasionally fell on my sunscreen covered arms and legs. We listened to Bob Dylan songs on the portable radio that my grandpa had brought along.

If your time to you

Is worth savin’

Then you better start swimmin’

Or you’ll sink like a stone

“How are you doing in school?” He asked.

“I got an A in history.”

“In Maths?”

I looked at the oblique dancing light of the sun in the water.

“B-.”

He tapped the brim of my hat. I pushed my hat back up.

“You need to study more.”

“Yessir.”

He tossed me a bag of chips and he took one for himself and we both ate listening to Dylan’s raspy voice, watching the fishing lines slowly move up and down with the rhythm of the water and feeling the warm touch of the sun. Every now and then my grandpa would hum parts of Dylan’s tunes and mimic the raspiness as he sang a few words out loud.

The sun was passed it’s prime for the day and fell on my back. There weren’t any clouds and the sky, in a way, mirrored the lake water. Clear, blue, endless and daunting.

“Mom said you were sick,”

“Did she?”

“Are you?”

He crumpled the empty chips bag and stuffed it into his bag pack.

“I am.”

“Are you going to be okay?”

“I don’t think so. Not this time.”

The sunlight seemed only to fall on me. Grandpa smiled.

“Want some orange juice?”

I fell asleep sometime in the afternoon. By the time I woke up, grandpa was rowing back to the shore with an ice bucket full of fishes. He said that I snore a lot for a kid my size. I said I didn’t snore. He smiled. Bob kept on singing about war, death, and change and I ate my sandwich and washed it down with the last sip or two of the orange juice.

Since that day I’ve had this reoccurring dream. I feel like this trip was the catalyst for my perpetual dream because in my dream, I am rowing in a little two-seater boat just like my grandpa’s and the wood is chipped and scratched in the same places and it even has the same love initials carved into it. I am rowing in the middle of an ocean and I can’t see land at all, no birds, no fishes, the water is perfectly still except for the bit I disturb with my push and pull. The only other thing that is a constant in my dream is the sun. No clouds to block it’s touch, no hat to cover me. It was me, the boat, the oars, the water, and the sun. Those are the only qualities that are the same. My attire changes every now and then. No more shorts and stained Mickey Mouse t-shirts, they are replaced by buttons ups and khaki pants. Sometimes the empty seat is occupied. But what never changes is that I am there, the sun is there, the oars are there, the boat is there and all of us are floating on an ocean, even the sun seems to float on an upside-down ocean.

The first time I had this dream my grandpa was there. His foot tapped along to his own humming and he hummed Desolation Road. The oars peacefully dipped in and out of the water. I wanted to say something but no sound came from my lips. We just stared at one another as I rowed nowhere but there was no sense of worry. The light from the rising sun fell upon my grandpa’s back, he shielded its rays from me and he had a smile on his face as he glowed from the light. His crystal blue eyes teared up but I felt like the one who was crying. After he passed I stopped dreaming about him. It was like he had fulfilled some rite or ritual by showing me how to row and now he could move on.

When I graduated high school I took a year off from studying. In that year I went to Vietnam and Thailand. I spent a week visiting my cousins in Australia and I had plans of going to Japan but those fell through. I had the same dream often that year. But for some reason it was unclear like I had been staring at the same spot for too long and the surroundings became blurry. I could clearly see my hands on the oars but the oars themselves were out of focus. The water was lighter. The horizon foggy but there was no fog. The sun seemed to be a distant star from another galaxy.

Once that year was over, I started university. The dream started to return to its clarity again.

I once mentioned my dream to this girl I was seeing. We were laying in bed, her head on my chest, we were coming down from both a literal high and a spiritual one, having just made love.

“You ever feel like you’re just floating around, not knowing where you’re headed?”

“How much did you smoke?” She laughed.

I brushed away her hair so I could look at the side of her face.

“I mean in general like in life or something.”

“I’ve got a pretty good idea about that.”

“You do?”

“I’ve already started sending applications for my summer internship. Once I get that, along with my grades and volunteering hours I’ll be able to attend Columbia for my graduate program.”

“That simple?”

“I don’t think it’s simple. It’s going to take a lot of work but I’ll get there.”

We listened to some Beatles and then I told her about my dream. 

“That’s a pretty dream,” she said.

“You think so?”

“Sure. We should go fishing sometime.”

“Just pretty?”

“What else could it be?”

“I don’t know.”

She raised her head and looked at me.

“Do you want to talk about it some more?”

I shook my head.

“Not if you don’t find it significant.”

“Is it significant?”

“You tell me.”

She reached over to my bedside table for some smokes. She took a cigarette out and I helped her light it. She smoked and passed it to me.

“It’s kinda silly,” she said.

“What’s silly about it?”

“I don’t know. You just rowed around in some water by yourself. Doesn’t it seem silly?”

I handed her the smoke.

“It doesn’t to me. I think there must be some meaning to it if I keep dreaming about it.”

“Maybe.”

“You don’t understand.”

“Explain it to me.” She let me finish the cigarette.

“I can’t explain it. I don’t know. It’s not silly, that’s all I know.”

“Okay, it’s not.”

I had told her about my dream because she had been in the boat last time I dreamt it. She was wearing a sundress that revealed her slim ankles and a cream coloured straw hat which she wore on our first date. She needed that hat as the sun was above us. She was humming Yesterday. I suppose that’s why I told her about the dream. That song came on as we lay in each others arms and she began to hum it, I felt the vibrations from her throat in my chest, in my heart.

I probably dreamt of that boat more than twenty times but less than thirty and each time she was there, even after she passed away in a car accident. Only after I graduated did I find myself all alone on the boat. The sun blinding me without her being there to shield it.

There were other women in my life but none managed to come aboard. I waited for a couple, especially my wife, I thought surely she would meet me there but she never came.

I once brought that up during our couples therapy session. My wife, still my girlfriend then or was she my fiancé? All I know for sure was that she was pregnant with our first child and the stress of the unexpected kid coupled with our work lives and perhaps her hormonal imbalances resulted in us seeking therapy as advised by my wife’s friend.

The therapist asked for a lot of money in exchange for simple questions that you may find in a fortune cookie. What’s bothering you? Is there something you wish to say but haven’t been able to put into words? Have you tried seeing things from her perspective?

One time we were asked to come alone so it was me and this therapist who seemed too young and too pretty to know about problems let alone have ways to fix them. When I think about a therapist I think of sages, old wise men, hell, even Gandalf or some wizard who can snap their fingers and make all that is wrong, right again.

The therapist asked if there was something I wanted to tell her now that my soon to be wife wasn’t in the room. I shook my head. This was her idea and I had nothing to say.

“Nothing at all?” She asked.

“Nada.”

“Just try and think of anything. Even something as small as the way she says hello or perhaps the way she sits.”

I thought for a moment.

“She never came on the boat,” I said.

“Excuse me?”

I told the therapist about the dream. The sun was descending. It no longer blinded me and yet I could not help but feel even blinder, lost, alone rowing endlessly watching the water swell as if something was about to break the surface, break the calm and I wanted, I needed, someone there with me.

The therapist normally had this rhythm about her when she talked as if she were a calculator and one had to punch an equation in and the answer appeared instantly. The only difference being that instead of answers she spat out more questions. But now, at least for a moment, an error sign flashed as if I had plugged in an incomputable number.

When she finally spoke she asked if I dreamt of this often.

“When I was in college I kept track of the dream for a year and in that year I dreamt of it a hundred and sixty-five times.”

“The same dream?”

“For the most part.”

She picked up her notepad. “Please explain any change or differences.”

“Well at first the sun was half consumed by the shoreline.”

“First?”

“When I was about ten or eleven.”

She wrote that down.

“When I started keeping track of it that year in college, the sun was directly above me.”

“And now?” She asked.

“It had started to descend.”

“It’s setting?”

“No, I wouldn’t say it’s setting but it’s on its way. Maybe in a normal day it’s about four pm, I think, so a couple hours before it really sets.”

“I see.”

Her pen scribbled with quickness and she flipped the page of her notebook.

“Does it anger you that your wife isn’t there?”

“No,” I said. “It doesn’t make me angry or sad or petty. I was just curious that’s all.”

“You believe if she were on the ship—”

“Boat.”

“Boat. If she were on the boat then the two of you would have fewer problems?”

I thought about that for a few minutes. The therapist was used to awkward silences but I wasn’t so I answered even though I was still thinking about it.

“No that sounds unlikely.”

“Have you told your partner about this dream?”

“No.”

“Any reasons why?”

“I don’t think she’ll understand.”

“Understand what exactly?”

I took a sip of water.

“Do you think it’s silly?”

“Not at all,” she said.

“Did you always know you wanted to be a psychologist?”

“Not always but when I sat down to think about it I was drawn towards helping people.”

“So you always knew where you were going?”

“For the most part, I guess.”

“That must be nice.”

“You don’t feel the same?”

I finished the glass of water. “When I sat down to think about it I couldn’t really find anything I wanted to do. Things just kinda happened, you know, I never planned for none of it, I feel like I’m always catching up to things, trying to steer the right way as the wind changes. Sometimes it feels like it’s all for nothing. Sometimes I feel like I wasted my life. I don’t know. I feel like, I feel like—-” I don’t know why I started to cry.

The alarm on her phone buzzed. Time was up. She said that we had made good progress and that next time she’d like to discuss what I said along with my wife. I asked her what she and my wife talked about but she said she can’t tell me that.

It was soon after my wife gave birth to our son and we stopped going to the counselor. I didn’t dream my dream for a long time after. Probably because of the stress of raising a little human and not knowing the instructions for it. Then came our marriage and then our daughter. In that time I realized I was an adult and that I was old.

I dreamt of it again after I took my son on his first fishing trip. It wasn’t even the trip that triggered it but rather the Dylan song that randomly came on. It’s strange how sometimes what we consider important and significant can slip from our memory. I had spent a good part of my twenties thinking about this dream and then it’s significance almost left me. I guess having kids can do that too you. Their needs takeover your own and you spend your time thinking about them to the point where you forget to think about yourself. I told my son about my dream and like a kid he asked about the boat and what it looked like, if it was wet, if the water was cold, if I had sun screen on, a life jacket and if I was afraid of sharks. If it wasn’t for his line catching I would still be answering his questions.

That night I dreamt it and my son was there. Almost identical to what I had worn when I first dreamt of the dream. I could not see the sun but I felt its presence behind me. The setting sun cast a faded blood like image on the sky.

Another thing I noticed was that I was no longer rowing. My son was. He didn’t know how to. I could see the strain in his face and feel the rhythmless pushing and pulling. I wanted to reach out and show him how it’s done. To tell him how to breathe in and out with the oars and feel the water, using it to help you rather than fight against it. But I woke up before I could say or do anything.

As we ate breakfast that morning my son started to hum Times They’re a Changing.

“Where’d you hear that?” I asked.

“You were singing it in my dream.”

He said the sun was rising behind me.

Short Story: A Warm Summer Evening

The warm summer air drifted through the open window. It shook awake the somber curtains and caused the ceiling fan to groan. The fan had three blades, one of which was crooked as if it were in mid bow. That one had less dust on it than it’s counterparts. The electric wires curled and twisted from the socket from which the fan was attached to the ceiling. He had meant to tell the landlord about it but he hesitated in case the landlord asked questions. It was just another thing he would have to keep to himself. He closed the window.

The sun had just risen but he had been awake. No rest for those who think and he couldn’t stop thinking. If only he could go down like the sun and forget that he had ever risen. He dressed for work, wearing the same beige shirt, the same black trousers, and the same black boots. The belt he chose was the same one as well. The brown leather belt that had been with him for too many years now. It had changed as he had changed. Now the last hole of the belt strained as he buckled it around his waist. There was a time when the second did him fine. It was like with each new hole, he had lost out on a different life, now that he was on the last one, there seemed to be no other lives left for him. The path he walked on now showed no signs of branching off, rather it gave the impression of being a dead end. But he held out hope that maybe as he approached that wall, he’ll notice some kind of opening, something that will take him a different way.

He adjusted his trousers so he could get some more breathing room. The ceiling fan hung motionless now and as was everything else in the small room. It was everything he had. The small possessions of his were his own and he knew them by heart which made them great because each piece meant something. Perhaps this was why he still used the old belt. This one was familiar to his touch, his hands felt the different groves of the leather as he wrapped it around his waist, a familiar embrace, the way his wife used too or his little girl. How old was she now? He could barely recall what she sounded like? Would the belt fit around her waist? The belt still had a purpose just as he did. His purpose, for now, was to open the shop and sweep the floors before the customers came.

The shop was hidden behind the new stores that were built the year before. The store was like a snapshot of some long forgotten past with its red bricks, yellow rooftop, and old western style font that spelled out its name along with when it was open and closed and how breakfast, which ended at eleven am, was half off. All of which was painted in black ink on the large glass window. This contrasted drastically from all concrete buildings that had sprung up in recent times. Which is why people described it as the little shop that looked out of place. From its appearance, it was still functioning. People still came through the doors but not as many as they used to. And the tiny bell still rang but not as smoothly as it used to and the customers still appreciated the food but not as much as they used too.

It seemed as if only the old remembered the shop for it was always the same people that came at the same time for the same food and said the exact same words. He greeted them the same as well and asked them the same questions. Robert, who worked as a server had noticed this and made a joke, saying that whenever he came into work it was like he was living the same day again.

“I could go about the day blind and still see,” Robert said. “I don’t know how you do it, man. I’ve been here for like two months and I’m going mad, you’ve been here like six years—”

“Eight.”

“Eight? That’s even worse, I don’t know how you ain’t gone mad.”

It was actually ten but he kept that to himself

“It’s not that bad. I don’t mind the everyday,” he said.

“This ain’t for me, man, I’m trying to get out when I can.”

“You should. You can do much better.”

“Franz you always be telling me this but you should take your own advice.”

He shook his head. “I don’t mind it here.”

The little bell rang with a slight hiccup and it was time for Mr. Friedrich to come. He was an older man, older than Franz but he still had a full head of grey hair, unlike Franz. He walked slowly, leaning on one side because of the wound he had suffered in his leg still bothered him. It bothered him more with each passing year. It bothered him the most now for he could not lean upon his wife anymore.

Mr. Friedrich had the choice between the four tables. All four were identical. White flowery cloth, salt and pepper shakers, a dessert menu that was rarely touched, a couple of mints that were placed in a small cup and a bunch of napkins. He took his usual seat in the corner table by the window. He liked to feel the warmth of the sun. Although he never said as much but Franz figured it to be true. The fragile sun spotted hands always rested where the sunlight fell. Robert went to greet him.

Franz already knew the order and had the eggs and bacon ready to cook. He also had the orange juice waiting for Mr. Friedrich. Robert came back and told him what he knew and Franz started cooking. Robert leaned up against the kitchen counter and folded his arms. He whistled a tune as Franz cooked, rhythmically tapping his foot on the tiled kitchen floor which was swept clean by Franz hours before.

“Why do you think he comes here every morning?” Robert asked.

“Mr. Friedrich?”

“Ya-huh”

“Maybe he likes my cooking.”

Robert laughed and his laugh made Franz smile.

“I heard he’s well to do.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Meaning he ain’t need to come here.”

“Mr. Friedrich has been coming here for years now. He used to come with his wife before. I’ve even seen him come with his daughter.”

“She good looking?”

“Out of your league, son,” Franz chuckled.

“You’d be surprised, Franz my boy, I can make plenty of things work.”

“Yeah, yeah. How about you make yourself work first and take this to Mr. Friedrich”

The trickling of the customers lessened in the afternoon like a leaking tap, the kind where one can see the water droplet form, gather size, cling to the metal rim before elongating and falling into the sink. It was just how things worked around here. The warm sunny days made people slow and relaxed. They much rather walk the coastline or lay by the beach and watch the waves come and go instead of being stuck in a small four table shop in the corner of the town. Franz liked this part of the job. Afternoons were what he looked forward to the most because he could step outside the kitchen and have his smoke under the sunlight. He sat on the curb in front of the shop and watched the quiet streets. In the big cities, you could not find such peace.

He looked at his left hand and no longer was there any mark that changed its disposition. With time, the sunlight had branded over his previous brand. Now, it was concealed as if there was never anything on his finger. The sunlight fell upon his chest as well. There was no concealing what was inside there. A branded heart cannot be rebranded. If only the smoke and the sunlight could calm his memories. Amidst the peace was disorder but only he felt his disorder, the rest of them did not see it, but he knew the rest had disordered as well, but he did not see it. He wondered how peaceful the town really was.

The little bell rang and Robert came out of the shop. He sat beside him on the curb and Franz passed him the smoke. Robert was a good boy. He complained a lot but he always did his work and soon he’ll move on like the rest of the kids had and another will come to take Robert’s place and Franz hoped he would be as good as Robert too.

“Did your daughter like the boots then?”

“What’s that?”

“You know, those black boots for her birthday. The ones I told you about.”

“Oh, yeah, she loved them.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, she said she wore them that day.”

Robert passed him the smoke.

“When’s she coming here? It’s been like a year since you said she was coming.”

“Thought better of it,” Franz said, “Wanted to keep her away from you.”

Robert laughed as he took the smoke from Franz and finished the last bit of it.

In the evening Mr. Friedrich returned. He never came back in the evening, however, Mr. Friedrich did take his usual seat by the window. He ordered whiskey but Robert told him that they didn’t serve alcohol. Mr. Friedrich asked for it again and when he asked for the third time it sounded as if he were on the verge of begging, the man’s voice quivered as he failed to look Robert in the eyes.

Franz gave Robert some money to run down the street and get the whiskey from the liquor store. Mr. Friedrich sat quietly holding the piece of newspaper he had brought with him. He did not read it until Robert came back with the whiskey. Franz put three ice cubes in a glass and drowned it with alcohol. He set it on Mr. Friedrich’s table who just nodded. He took a sip from the drink and then unfolded his paper and began to read.

“Odd fellow ain’t he?” Robert said to Franz as the two watched from the kitchen. “Made  a big deal about the drink and now he’s barely drinking it.”

“It’s not about the drink,” Franz said.

“What you mean?”

“He could have stayed home, in a comfier chair and had a drink.”

“I’m still not following,” Robert said.

“Night can be too long when you are alone.”

Mr. Friedrich finished his drink. He did not ask for more. When he tried to pay for the whole bottle, Franz told him not to worry about it. Mr. Friedrich was a proud man and he did not take the service for free so he left a good tip on the table. Franz let Robert keep the tip for himself.

“You deserve it,” Franz said, “Never seen you run that fast.”

Robert laughed and the two of them shared another smoke. Robert suggested that they might as well have some whiskey too while it’s here and Franz agreed. Franz did not talk much but Robert did, he never stopped talking, Franz simply sat there smoking and drinking until he felt a little light-headed and he wasn’t sure if it was the drink or Robert’s word that made his head feel that way but he was glad for Robert and his words because otherwise, it would have been him and his own words.

“You know I really want to be a dad,” Robert was saying, “I’ve been talking about it with my girl. I want a boy but she wants a girl. I’d love to have a whole bunch, you know, but damn, the thought of it is kinda scary, right?”

“It was.”

“But you just gotta do it, I guess, just go with it. But first I need to find something better, don’t you think?”

“You will find something better.” He took a sip of the whiskey.

“You think so?”

“Yeah, you’ll be a good dad too.”

“I hope so. No, I know I will. I know I’ll get something better. That’s how you gotta think, right? You have to get all those bad thoughts out so you can think only good ones. I think that’s how it’s gotta be.”

“You know, that isn’t a bad way to think about it.”

Robert looked pleased with himself.

Before going home, Franz stopped to see if he had received any mail. He hadn’t. When he got him, he sat down at the edge of his bed and took off his shoes. Afterward, he undid his belt and his stomach thank him. He laid the brown leather belt beside him and went to open the window. The warm evening air came through, slightly moving the cream-colored curtains which had yellowed slightly from the cigarette smoke. He made a note that he should get those washed before the landlord says something about it. He stood by the open window and had another smoke. All he could see from his window was the quiet back street where a cat lay curled up. He often fed the little cat and he called it Franny.

Once Franz finished his smoke, he grabbed the wooden chair from his study table and set it in the middle of the room. He went to his bed and picked up his brown leather belt and looped the belt through the buckle and tied it at the last loop which had been strained by the weight of his belly. He stepped onto the chair and put the belt through the arm of the fan until the belt was centered. Franz needed to get on his tippy toes to get his head through the loop. Once around it, he balanced himself on the chair, his toes scraped the chair as if he were testing out how cold the water was, not wanting to plunge right in, which was something he had learned from all his mistakes but if there was a time to plunge it was now. Here was where his coward came out. Always here. At the edge of it, he was always too cowardly to jump, to plunge into the nothingness and be brave about what happens next. But his heart wasn’t built like that or it may have been built like that but he had drowned his courage, the same way he had drowned his marriage and now all that remained was the coward. He swallowed his spit and took a breath and pushed the chair away. Slowly the disorder went away.

Franz woke up on the floor. The chair lay on its side and he unknowingly mimicked its stance, on it’s back, staring up at the ceiling. The belt still hung on the ceiling fan but it was no longer circular but rather it was limp, oval shape like a horse racing track. Franz rubbed his tender throat. Inhaling stung. He should have known better to take a deep breath. The warm evening air came through the open window and he lay there. After some time he got to his feet and set the chair in the middle of the room again. He climbed up it and reached for the leather belt. He saw the loop had finally given way and had ripped.

He liked that belt. He placed the belt in his cabinet and the ceiling fan leaned a little more. Outside, the cat meowed and he forgot that he didn’t even feed Franny. While outside, he decided to have another smoke. At least this time he had made progress.

Franny came up to him as he set the bowl on the ground. He opened the can of tuna and emptied it in the bowl. Franny started to eat. He gently brushed her fur saying, “Good girl, good girl, I love you, You’re so good, I love you.”

Short Story: The Bus

Recently I experienced my first car accident. It was just an ordinary winter day and the roads were a little slippery from the snowfall the previous night. I was driving downhill towards a set of lights that turned red and I applied the brakes. Everything was normal until my tires locked and I couldn’t stop and I hit the ford pick up truck in front of me. The crash was so slow that the airbags didn’t even go off. The driver of the pick up got out and came by my window with a smile on his face, waving his hand, I could see him mouthing it’s all right but that smile left him when he saw me and I imagined I mirrored the paleness of the snow which surrounded us and he knocked on the window asking if I was okay, his voice muffled by the window pane. I mustn’t have said anything cause he quickly called 911.

I was frozen in place. My knuckles were white from gripping the steering wheel. My heart felt as if it were trapped underneath a layer of ice and it was hammering against the icy sheet, trying to draw attention to itself while on the other side of the ice, gentle wind blew harmlessly without care.

The paramedics said I went into shock. They said it happens, it’s the fight or flight response but because I didn’t have anywhere to go, I froze up. They had to get my wife on the phone and once I heard her voice I began to unwind, the frost thawed out and my heartbeat slowly settled and I came back to myself. The whole thing was embarrassing. I was sitting in the back of an ambulance with a blanket around my shoulders and a cup of hot chocolate in my hands. I kept on apologizing to everyone but they were all too kind. They suggested I head back home and rest but I had work to do so I kept on going. Maybe that says something about me.

When I got home that evening, my wife asked if I wanted to talk about what happened. I told her not to worry about it. I made some half-hearted attempt at a joke which got a sympathetic laugh from her. She suggested that maybe I was overworked and stressed and she said that it’s a good thing Christmas was just a week away. Christmas rung a bell. Maybe the bell was always ringing but I piled on so much other noise on it that I stopped hearing it. That night I sat down with a pen and paper, slowly shovelling away at the flakes of clutter which I had knowingly or unknowingly gathered in order to repress a moment, a memory, an incident which happened on Christmas day when I was eight years old, back when I still lived in India.

Mama tell him to give them back, I said as I tried to get the bus tickets from my brother. The three of us were sitting on a bench waiting for the bus to come. I was wearing a grey Nike jumper which my brother once wore. My brother had on a navy jacket which he got for his birthday a month before. Christmas time in India was much different than most countries. The sun was blinding and yet there was a coolness in the air that required most people to layer up. Under the layered clothing the warmth caused me to sweat but my mother told I couldn’t take my sweatshirt off.

Mama, mama, mama, my brother mocked me.

I pulled at the tickets again and he dug his boot into my shin which made me cry out for my mother again.

Stop it you two, she said with quiet anger as the other passengers stood around us. She took the tickets from my brother.

But you said I can hold them, I said.

She ignored me. My brother smiled because I didn’t get what I wanted. He got up and I followed him with my eyes, keeping a track of where he went but all he did was go a few feet from us to kick a rock towards the edge of the road.

A patch of dirt separated us from the road. We sat on the bus bench alongside an old grandmother who covered her head and ears with a shawl and I thought it wasn’t that cold. Cars, bicycles, rickshaws, trucks and buses passed by in a continuous loop. The smell of manure was heavy and a few people had their noses covered with their shawls or handkerchiefs. To the left of us were a couple cows lounging under the trees, their tails whipping away the flies that hovered around them.

How long will it be again? I asked my mother.

Four hours, she said.

A silver Honda honked as it went around an old Fiat that slowly made it’s way up the road, hissing and moaning as a wisp of smoke snaked from the hood of the car. The Honda squeezed back into it’s own lane just in time before the oncoming traffic barrelled by, its honking lingered in the air along with the manure smell which stayed once the hoking left. The normalized danger went unnoticed by everyone but me. That morning, when we went to pick up the tickets, I caught a glimpse of a news story on the TV in the back of the ticket office. It was showing a car accident where a Suzuki had been flattened completely. My brother came and sat down beside me.

I leaned closer to him and asked, are you nervous?

He didn’t reply.

I poked him to get his attention and he swung his arm, striking my hand away.

Mother told us to stop again.

The bus came with a sticker of a Pepsi advert on its side. An actor, Salman Khan, was drinking the Pepsi or had just finished drinking it. He flashed a smile at everyone and good thing it wasn’t a colgate advert because his teeth were painted with specks of dirt.

Mama you said I could give them the ticket.

Mother sighed and handed them to me. I immediately showed my brother that I got them and he tried to punch me in the shoulder but I moved quickly to the other side of my mother.

The bus doors opened in a mechanical fashion as if it were just going through the motions and it made a yawing sound, tired of working. The conductor wore a grey jumper and a fuzzy maroon toque which made my brother and I laugh. His brow glistened with grease and sweat. The other people quickly formed a line and the three of us fell into place. I stayed close to mother, sheltered by her hip. My brother led the three of us and I felt as if I should be like that too. I edged my way by my brothers’ side.

You think it’ll be fun, I asked him.

I don’t know.

Mama said they play a movie now. What movie do you think it’ll be?

Probably some boring one.

You think so?

He didn’t reply. He was older than me by three years and this was his first time too. I wanted to ask him if he was nervous again but I didn’t. He was like me but he was older so I followed him.

We stopped in front of the conductor. I handed him the tickets. He looked at the for a quick second and then nodded, giving the tickets back and motioning us through.

We followed my brother in.

Go to the back, mother said.

All the seats were painted blue and you could see the white plastic underneath the peeling paint on most of the chairs. There was a red and black cushion placed atop the seats and particles of dust shot in the air when you sat down on it. The bus smelled like the deep part of the attic where you keep all your old photo albums and luggage that you don’t use. That area which is best of hiding when you play hide and seek.

My brother picked out the seats and began to scoot inside, going to the window seat.

I quickly turned to mother, you said I could have the window seat, I said.

Does it matter, she asked.

You said I could have it.

Let your brother have the window seat, she said in a tired voice.

My brother looked to protest but before he could mother raised her hand and I knew I had won. He threw himself onto the middle seat.

As I walked by him he stuck out his leg and tried to trip me but I knew that was coming and I stepped over it. I smiled at him, letting him know I won. When I sat down he leaned over and pinched me under my arm where mother couldn’t see. I cried out to her but she ignored the two of us.

I looked out of the window, rubbing my arm. It was like a school bus, I told myself. I had been in plenty of those. Every morning at eight I waited for the bus outside my house along with my brother. I rode the same bus back in the afternoon. So twice a day…for…I tried to count how many times I had ridden the bus in the past three years but I ended up settling on a lot. The door closed and the bus started, jerking us all back. The windows opened slightly at the top to allow the air to circulate. Mother was right. There was a television at the top corner of the bus, straight ahead. It played a bootleg movie that was still in theatres. You could see the silhouettes of the heads of the people in the movie theatre watching the movie and occasional a shadow stood up and sat down. My brother was right too. It was boring.

How much longer, I asked my mother.

Almost halfway done.

So two more hours?

More or less.

My brother was asleep. His head tilted back, his mouth slightly open, arms crossed over his chest. I tried not to laugh. Apart from the occasional fit of cough from one of the older passengers, there had been the usual sound of the movie playing and people snoring. I played my game most of the ride. Trees lined both sides of the road and their shadow fell on the road. The objective was to not let the shadow hit the bus. Whenever the bus approached the shadow I would unclench my teeth, separating the bottom row from the top and imagined the bus jumping over the shadow and when it cleared it I would clench my teeth again which meant that the bus came back down on the road. Then, once more I waited for the next opportunity to jump and land. I always played this game on the school bus. I was concentrating on the road, my teeth clenched, when a truck rushed past us, I caught a glimpse of the driver smoking a cigarette as the red and white stripes on the side of the truck almost grazed the bus. I stopped playing that game.

The bus slowed down. I asked mother what was happening. She told me not to worry. The bus came to a stop at the side of the road.

Mother asked If I needed to use the bathroom and I shook my head. I did need to go but for some reason I felt as if I left the bus it might leave me and I would be left alone on the side of the road. I stood up and leaned over my brother to see where everyone was going. There was a restaurant on the other side of the road.

My brother woke up and he elbowed me in the chest and told me to get off of him. I sat down rubbing my chest. He saw that mother was not here.

I told him not to worry, mama will be back soon. She just went outside.

He stood up to leave as well.

I called his name and told him to sit down. Mama said to stay here and don’t go anywhere.

Mama said—

He left.

I sat alone gripping the metal railing in front of me, trying to look outside the window to see where my brother was going, I wanted to go after him but mama said to stay put and I wanted to go find mama and let her know that he left and that we should find him because what if the bus left without him but I told myself It wouldn’t, it wouldn’t leave, I repeated it over and over but the other thought stayed firm, It might leave, It might leave now, without him and without her, It could, some of the people had returned and took their seats and I was still alone with the fear growing in my heart I felt it itching in my throat as the conductor came back and I wanted to go up and tell him not to leave but I couldn’t move because mama said not to, he was talking to the bus driver and as the noise grew in the bus, the more noticeable the lack of sound of my brother and mother became and the more alone I felt, I saw the conductor looking, counting the people, I tried to draw attention to the two empty seats beside me and I wanted to ask him where the bathroom was, the feeling reaching deep inside of me and the thought of it made my ears burn and I wished the windows would open some more as I felt my body shaking but didn’t know if that was from inside myself or from the motor of the bus, which had just started up again, and my feet wrestled to be in top position as I felt the need to cry.

An older man came up the steps and the conductor helped him. Behind him was my mother and I stopped shaking. Behind her was my brother, drinking from a juice box, holding a bag of chips in his other hand and I let go of the railing and sat back. I looked out of the window as if I had been doing so the entire time.

Mother came and sat in the middle seat. She opened her purse and took out a juice box for me and she was smiling. She always brought the same lemonade flavour. I could smell the fruity lotion on her hands as I took the juice from her. I took it without giving away what had just been in my head. She also placed a bag of chips on my lap and then leaned back in her chair, watching the movie as the bus got back on the road.

I tried not to think about the thoughts I just had but they kept creeping back into my mind like thoughts always did, especially the bad kind, the kind which kept imagining what will happen at night if the closet door was left open. I wanted to stop thinking and thinking about that made my ears burn again. I was older now. I should be more like my brother. He watched the television screen, gently rocking back and forth with the rhythm of the moving vehicle. I had finished my food and washed it down with the juice box. I placed my head against the cool window and watched my breath fog the glass. The sirens grew louder at once and an ambulance went past us and the sirens died away.

When I woke up it took me a moment to realize the silence that lay inside the bus. It was almost crushing if anyone spoke it would bring it crashing down upon us and I knew this instinctually for when I awoke I grabbed my mother’s arm and asked her with my eyes what happened and she slowly shook her head.

We were no longer moving. My brother was gripping the metal railing in front of him with one hand. Outside the only thing that was still unconcerned were the leaves of the trees. They kept going with the gentle wind. The uneasiness inside the bus made me want to move around. I felt the same whenever I took a test at school. The quietness of classrooms always made me more nervous as if everyone could hear or sense the little boy in me. I wasn’t a little boy anymore, I reminded myself.

I heard then the squeaking of metal chain. In the quietness, it spoke loudly. An old man, with a checkered shawl wrapped around his shoulder and head, rode his bicycle down the side of the road. He was hovering slightly above his seat and he was not looking ahead of him but rather at the inch of concrete directly in front of the rubber tires. I still remember those unblinking eyes. He disappeared.

The bus door opened. A family of three walked up the steps and the conductor did not bother checking their tickets. The family stood still for a second at the front of the bus, like new school children waiting to be told where to sit by the teacher. The father’s face resembled the colour of his white shirt which was neatly tucked into his trousers except for this one part at his right hip which was coming out as if he had been leaning to the other side for too long. The mother was holding the daughter’s hand and she was looking straight ahead but not looking. My mother put an arm around my shoulders. The daughter’s open jacket showed a pretty blue dress, the kind you wore in school plays. Her hair was done in the style of a ponytail which was held together was a butterfly pin. The mother clutched the daughter tightly. Both her hands were gripping the daughter’s shoulders as if she let go, the little girl will float away like some balloon at a fair. I noticed then the tears from the mothers’ eyes. Even they fell in silence. The father put his hand on his wives back and motioned her to go to the backseat. The three of them were in unison as they walked down the aisle, heads turned to watch them from the back. When they passed us my brother stared at the ground and so did I. My mother kept her arm around me. There was something haunting about them. It was as if we feared to look at them because whatever haunted them could haunt us too.

People made room for them in the back. Giving them plenty of space as if they were also aware of the haunting thing that accompanied them. The mother sat in the corner and then the daughter and the father beside her. The father leaned in towards his daughter and wife and kept a tight hold onto them. I could see the part of his shirt that was wrinkled.

The bus jolted in motion. The television started once more but the conductor turned the sound down. People’s heads turned towards the windows as we went past the scene. The back end of the bus came in view and soon after, too soon, the front. The bus had been compressed as if it’s inside had been taken apart, accordion like it stood, with its shattered glass sparkling on the ground, it looked so pretty, the sun glinting off the glass, fallen stars, hints of the setting sun painted upon certain glass pieces which had been stained with blood. Where the front of the bus ended, the front of the truck started and my mother made me look away.

I looked back and I saw them too. The white cloths covering something on the side of the road. So many white cloths covering the same thing. The image of the flashing lights from the ambulances engrained in the darkness of my eyelids when I closed my eyes.

Even now I can see those lights. I see the cloth peacefully fluttering with the wind and above them, the leaves of the trees still moved, unconcerned and above it, all the sun was so wonderful. That family was together but with the addition of something else, something new they had to carry with them but they couldn’t carry it alone so everyone who was there that moment had to take a small piece of it, to lessen the burden which would always be the heaviest on those three. Knowingly or unknowingly I had participated in some kind of human obligation and after all these years that thing that had haunted them showed itself. A part of me was exchanged for a part of that burden. That part lies under those covers. The part that wished to be sheltered by my mother’s hip. Know I know what that old man’s look meant. He was trying to erase what he had seen, to forget what was imprinted on his mind but it doesn’t work like that. We can’t pick or chose what affects us, what shapes us, what leaves a mark on us. We don’t have the will to decide. I wonder what kind of ripple I have started in the life of the man whose truck I hit or the paramedics who came after or all those cars that drove by and turned to look at my ashen state inside my own car.

Two Things That Have Made My Fiction Writing Easier

Writing fiction can be difficult, especially stories you wish to get published someday. The reason being there aren’t really any blueprints or rules to follow except for perhaps use an active voice and show, don’t tell. Yet, in all the millions of books published, you can find exceptions to even these principles.

So, your left with a vague idea of what to do and what not to do but at the same time trying to tell a story that you care about in your own way but also, keeping in mind what might be pleasurable for the reader. This juggling act often leads to mistakes and the balls coming bouncing off your forehead and your there rubbing your head where the mark from the ball reddens, thinking what went wrong.

I’ve been there and still am there in many ways. One reason for such complication is because writing is subjective. What works for one publication may not work for another. Plus you only have one shot to get it right with the story you send. If a month later you figure out something that improves the story you can’t resend it and hope it gets picked up. At least not to the same publication.

A little too late for that. Go find some other place.

So, this process of rejection-editing-rewriting-rejection-editing-rewriting-rejection can seem never-ending.

What to do when the sane individual would gracefully bow out and move to something less humiliating.

Simply put, you just have to stick with it. The awful non-helpful advice. Just keep going. Something you might find on an inspirational poster of a cat climbing a ladder that seems to be going nowhere. Hang in there is another cliche you can throw at it. But these cliches have a kernel of truth to them.

It’s a process. A saying that’s famous in the sports world for they understand that developing skill requires time and effort.

And writing, like sports, is a skill.

By keeping with it, by dissecting your writing, by holding yourself up to a higher standard you come to formulate certain rules for yourself which give your writing structure, makes it simpler, clearer, cleaner.

Here is where I’m at and there are two things I’ve come to understand which makes the process of writing simpler.

1) This is sort of cheating because it’s two things in one but that’s also a good thing about writing fiction, you can almost do as you please. But anyway, the first part is that conflict is key. That’s all there is to a good story. A character wants something but something is in the way of that want, which creates conflict, and the character must figure out a way to get to his want. This simplifies the act of writing. Gives it structure. If your scenes and interactions are lacking conflict then that is a clear issue. Something tangible to fix because no one cares about a story where nothing happens and the character gets whatever they wish.

What’s even better is when the conflict is created by another character. When the desire of one character is obstructed by another. This has been a great help. Essentially you just have two characters with the same goal but only one of them can get it and you let them interact and conflict arises. Here is where dialogue comes into play. The second revelation of sorts. Dialogue gives rise to compelling stories and characters because, in order to have dialogue, characters must interact.

I have spent a lot of time running around inside the head of characters and writing monologue after monologue but it all read so fake, so bland. It wasn’t until I really looked at the books I enjoyed, stories I connected with did I realize that most of it is dialogue. It’s not about the brooding 20-year-old sitting at home thinking but rather that 20 year old interacting with his parents, coworker, lover, strangers etc which gets the story rolling.

2) This one I’ll make quick and easy. If you stick with the process, you’ll discover your weaknesses and limitations. What a wonderful discovery. For me, my weakness is description, in particular, the use of senses in describing a scene. This is a severe weakness because without good description you can’t transport a reader into the story, according to Stephen King.

However, by knowing this about myself, I can then not allow the fear or self doubt to stop me from even starting. I know I can get the story on paper and worry about sense description in my edits. My limitation doesn’t have to be an obstacle. It can be something I focus on later while I let the conflict and dialogue and characters flow for now.

Well, that’s all I’ve got so far. I’ve learned other things or perhaps it’s better to say I’ve read other things about becoming a better writer. But what I’ve mentioned above is what has come to me through experience. Things I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.

I’m A Son Of A Bitch If I’ll Be Defeated By The Everydayness

I have felt hours go by without knowing what happened to them. Hours that turned into days which became months and looking back, there have even been years which I cannot recall with any significance apart from perhaps a single event or two.

I recognize the illness that plagues my mind after reading the Moviegoer by Walker Percy. I had recognized it before too when I came across Proust and I’m sure I recognized it prior to that as well but I cannot remember now. Which makes this illness particularly tricky to deal with because the mind aids the sickness.

This illness is the everydayness of life. The mundane moments that go unremembered as my mind and my thoughts dwell in a hopeful future where I will find myself amidst the ruins of Ancient Rome or traveling the bullet train in Japan along with some friends or seeing the great art pieces of Michelangelo with my own eyes for these moments can cure the everydayness and leave lasting memories of being alive which I can fondly recall later on. Or so I imagine them to be.

But as Proust said, the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new sights, but in looking with new eyes. Similarly, Walker Percy puts forth the idea of the search. It is not new worlds you should seek out but rather see the beauty in the everyday that can and should leave a mark on your life. I am in need of a reminder to search.

To search is to be in wonderment of life, all of life.

“The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.”

“To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”

Walker Percy further explains the idea with regards to movies.

 “The movies are onto the search but they screw it up. The search always ends in despair. They like to show a fellow coming to himself in a strange place — but what does he do? He takes up with the local librarian, sets about proving to the local children what a nice fellow he is, and settles down with a vengeance. In two weeks time he is sunk in everydayness that he might just as well be dead.”

Walker Percy warns one not to fall into a pattern of known motion. The daily, weekly and monthly routine that makes you feel like just a piece of metal on a conveyor belt, being moved from one spot to another. Instead, he urges you to be observant, to see the changing world around you through which you have been unconsciously drifting. So, to observe is to search. 

 “People have a different way of sticking themselves into the world. It is a small thing to him but not to me. It is nothing to him to close his eyes in New Orleans and wake up in San Francisco and think the same thoughts on Telegraph Hill that he thought on Carondelet street. Me, it is my fortune and misfortune to know how the spirit-presence of a strange place can enrich a man or rob a man but never leave him alone, how, if a man travels lightly to a hundred strange cities and cares nothing for the risk he takes, he may find himself no one and nowhere.”

Without the active struggle to see your own surroundings as something worth seeing and exploring, you might find yourself blind and unaware regardless if you are standing in front of an old library or the Colosseum. If you don’t know how to see properly, moments will simply drift in and out of you and leave behind just the faintest recollections of themselves. Life, in turn, will be just a dull light instead of the blinding brilliance that it is capable of being. 

“For he is no more aware of the mystery that surrounds him than a fish is aware of the water it swims in.”

The search is there for one to enrich their own life. It’s a selfish ambition, to make your own life one of awe and beauty.

“No, I do it for my own selfish reasons. If I did not talk to the theatre owner or the ticket seller, I should be lost, cut loose metaphysically speaking. I should be seeing one copy of a film which might be shown anywhere and at any time. There is a danger of slipping clean out of space and time. It is possible to become a ghost and not know whether one is in downtown Lowes in Denver or suburb Bijou in Jacksonville. So it was with me.

This is an active effort to find unique experiences in everyday life. To go out of your way to talk to the theatre owner or the ticket seller as Percy said. Or to give conscious thought to the movie seat or the aroma of the theater. The little things like that matter otherwise life is a blur. Think about all the time you spend in traffic just going from one place to the next. If you can find some kind of beauty or uniqueness in those mundane moments then you can enrich your life.

Yet it was here in the Tivoli that I first discovered place and time, tasted it like okra. It was during a rerelease of Red River a couple of years ago that I became aware of the first faint strings of curiosity about the particular seat I sat in, the lady in the ticket booth…as Montgomery Clift was whipping John Wayne in a fistfight, an absurd scene, I made a mark on my seat arm with my thumbnail. Where, I wondered will this particular piece of wood be twenty years from now, 543 years from now? Once as I was traveling through the midwest ten years ago I had a layover of three hours in Cincinnati. There was time to go see Joseph Cotten in Holiday at neighborhood theatre called the Altamont — but not before I had struck up an acquaintance with the ticket seller, a lady named Mrs. Clara James, and learned that she had seven grandchildren all living in Cincinnati. We still exchange Christmas cards. Mrs. James is the only person I know in the entire state of Ohio.”

To walk through life blind and deaf seems like an awful waste of potential. Knowing that I have been blind and deaf at different points in my life is a painful reminder of wasted opportunity. However, in between that time, in between that space where I can remember to search, where I can actively observe and find the beauty in the mundane and know that everything in nature has its own value if I were to remove my own prejudices and biases, then, at least for those moments I can fight the everydayness that drowns so many and keep the search alive and with it my own curiosity and imagination. Thanks to Percy’s novel I am reminded again of the life around me and thanks to him I will be reminded of the fact sometime in the future I may be momentarily defeated by the everydayness but it will never be a permanent defeat for the search is always there, waiting for you, ready to enlighten your world. 

But for now, I make the same vow as Percy:

Nevertheless, I vow: I’m a son of a bitch if I’ll be defeated by the everydayness.