Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Parking Lot

This story was originally around two thousand words, so this has been more an exercise in editing. I never did get it down to a thousand, but here is is anyway.

Parking Lot
So we’re sitting in this parking lot drinking beer, and the game is that we see somebody coming out of the mall and we have to guess which vehicle they’re going to get in.
We see this guy walking and Marty says, “The red Mustang.” The guy’s bad looking, maybe forty, decent clothes, not like thrift store, too short for his gut, bleach-faded crap clothes. Regular clothes. Last years Sears. He heads for the line of four cars. “The black Volvo,” I say. “Not the red Mustang type.”

But he keeps on walking, past the cars and through the parking lot to the little Plexiglas and steel cubicle with the SMART bus logo printed on it. He leans against the corner of the building and lights a cigarette.

“I’ll be damned,” says Marty. “We both ought to lose points on that one. He’s waiting for the five-sixty. Who would have thought?”

Not me. And sure as hell not the five-sixty. The five-sixty bus runs a long route between New Baltimore and downtown Detroit and the SMART stop we were looking at was on the Detroit bound side.

“Damn,” I say, “if we were that wrong about the car, I wonder what else this guy’s up to? What do you think? He lost his license or something and he works at the mall and he’s just going home now?”

“How much gas we got?” I ask and Marty checks the gauge and says, “More than a quarter tank. Why?”

And I say, “Beer?”

“These ones and another six pack in the cooler. Why?”

“I’ll bet you that this guy is going somewhere that’s not home and it’s not work. You win if he winds up at a house or a business. I win if it’s anything else.”

“You want to follow him?”

“You want to bet?”

“Yeah, I guess. What are we betting?”

“The next six pack?” I offer.

“Sure, what the hell,” says Marty.

Marty starts the car just as the five-sixty heaves into sight and we idle over to the parking lot exit, timing it just so we are ready to pull out as soon as the bus picks the guy up. We follow close enough so as not to lose the bus, but far enough back to miss most of the fumes that blow black from a pipe near the bus roof. It still stinks.

We’re getting farther south, and now we’re past Mount Clements and past Roseville and we pass Eight Mile Road and go another mile or so. Then the guy gets out of the bus and starts walking. We pull over to the curb and watch and I make real sure that the doors are locked.

The guy keeps walking. He’s the only white guy in sight except for us. But he’s not looking around or acting fidgety or anything. As he gets farther ahead we pull out and drive a bit and then park again. He crosses the street where there’s this big Shell station and he walks past the one car that’s getting gas and he goes into the station.

“You don’t figure he works here, do you?” asks Marty.

“Not real likely.

“Let’s just see what happens here.”

Sure enough the guy talks to the man at the gas station counter for a few minutes and then he steps outside and uses the pay phone.

“I bet it’s a girlfriend,” says Marty. I don’t answer him right away, but I’m thinking. Then I say, “I bet not.”

A ratty black ten year old Lincoln Town Car with sparkling thousand dollar wheel covers pulls up at one of the pumps at the Shell station and the guy steps over to it and talks to the driver for a minute and then the guy pumps his gas for him and some money changes hands and the guy takes the money in to the man at the counter. This transaction takes a while and pretty soon the Lincoln driver gets out and goes into the station.

"What?" says Marty.

“Drugs, you dumb ass. This isn’t like when we buy grass from Melvin. This is hard stuff. Coke. Crack maybe. Heroin. Nasty.”

Just then the guy comes out of the station and the Lincoln driver comes out behind him and there’s a lot of shouting, but we can’t quite hear what’s being said because we’re still across the street. Then there’s some pushing and shoving and the guy pushes the Lincoln guy back against his car and then turns and trots behind the station where it’s real dark.

The Lincoln guy cusses and brushes some imaginary dirt from his clothes and yells after the guy but the guy is out of sight. The Lincoln guy gets behind the wheel and starts the car and guns the engine. The fan belt makes a whiny scream and then settles down. He guns the engine again.

“Let’s get out of here,” I say, and Marty says,”Yeah,” and he puts the car in Drive. We start to pull out from the curb but the Lincoln guy squeals his tires and almost cuts us off as he rockets around the Shell station parking lot and turns right into the back alley.

“This is something bad,” I say and Marty doesn’t say anything but he’s turning down the alley right after the Lincoln. “What the hell,” I holler. Marty doesn’t talk. He has jabbed at the gas and we’re bouncing over ruts in the alley and we can’t see a damn thing because he hasn’t turned our lights back on yet. Then ahead of us the alley widens and there’s our guy bent over by a fence and he’s got his sleeve rolled up and he all of a sudden has looked up to see the Lincoln charging down on him. He’s froze.

The Lincoln, throwing gravel turns left and our guy is centered in his lights. Marty guns it and comes up on the Lincoln real fast and whang, we slam him square in the side. He skids sideways and slams his other side up against a dumpster. The driver is pinned in…dumpster on one side and us up against his doors on the other.

Marty yells, “Get in,” and the guy runs over and gets in the back seat and slams the door and Marty finds Reverse and gets us out of that alley faster than he got us in.

Five minutes later and we’re going north on Gratiot Avenue and nobody’s said a word. I take a quick look over my shoulder and see the guy starting to roll up his sleeve and I see the blood on the inside of his elbow and I kind of shudder a little.

“Kind of messed you up a little, huh.”

He nods and says, “Yeah. But I dropped all my stuff before I could finish. Shit.”

We drive another mile.

Then the guy says, “Hey, I really hate to put you guys in this situation.”

“No, man,” says Marty. “No problem. I mean we happened to be there and we couldn’t just let that guy…”

“No,” says the guy, “I don’t mean that situation. I mean this one.” Marty can’t see the knife at the back of his neck so he just says, “Huh?” and I say, “Knife, Marty. Real easy, you better pull over right in this parking lot.” Marty can’t even see the knife in his rearview mirror, but now he can see the guy’s arm extended to just above his head rest and so he pulls over.

“Just give me all your money,” says the guy, and we give him all our money. He opens the rear door and gets out and walks behind an abandoned doughnut shop where he disappears in the shadows.
We sit for a minute and then pull back onto Gratiot, heading north.

I say, “We probably just should have stayed out of that alley.”

Marty says, “I didn’t even really think about it. I figured he needed help. It wasn’t my fault. Just my nature.” And I thought for a few minutes about that and then decided not to be too upset about the thirty dollars the guy stole from me. It wasn’t his fault either. Just his nature.

Friday, December 15, 2006

A Very Tangee Christmas

I hadn't planned on posting any more Buck and Tangee stories, but it is Christmas and Susan asked, so...

This is from the beginning of the third section of the B & T novel.

If the Fourth of July is my holiday, the rest of the year belongs to Tangee. Her home-decorating year starts with Valentine’s Day. I have to drag out the pink and white six-foot tall plywood heart with the pink and white lights hung on it and she changes the clothes on the concrete goose so that he looks like a little cupid. For Memorial Day we do lots of flags and red, white and blue lights and they stay up for the Fourth of July and Labor Day. The pink flamingoes on the lawn get little Uncle Sam hats.

By the first of October Tangee’s decorating juices get going again and she starts planning our Halloween display. Along with the red-lit graves and plastic tombstones we’ve got about a thousand feet of orange Christmas style lights and my stereo speakers buried in the lawn playing spooky sounds. If there isn’t any wind we hang a bucket of water from the tree and drop dry ice in as the night goes along. I point my old eight-millimeter movie projector at the dry ice fog and show a movie of ghosty shapes. The flamingos get teeny, tiny vampire teeth and black capes. If we do too much it scares away the little kids and we wind up with a bunch of left over candy corn and milk duds. Sometimes I get bad dreams about the flamingoes.

But Halloween is just a warm-up. Christmas is the main event.

It was early December and Tangee was studying our plaster lawn population, “No,” she said, “it’s the fairies, then the elves, then the gnomes.”

I said, “But last year it was the other way—gnomes first.”

“No, I remember, it goes by size, tallest to smallest.”

“Oh, okay, I’m sorry. I thought it was fattest to skinniest.” I reset their little plaster feet in the dead grass.

“That’s better. See? Now it’s just like a little parade and they’re all on they’re way to see the baby Jesus.”

“Looks like they’re on their way to see Santa Claus, too,” I said. “Should he really be so close to the manger?”

“Oh, you’re just like those people on the contest committee. Maybe we shouldn’t have had Santa sitting on the roof of the manger last year, but we still should have won.”

The Huron Bay Beacon runs a contest every year for the best decorated home, and every year somebody else wins.

Tangee said, “I still think the Ozinskis paid off somebody at the newspaper. All they had were plain white and blue lights and some kind of tinsel stuff blowing in the wind. I bet that was a mess to clean up. We had twice as many lights as they did and all colors too, not just white and blue. And we had a manger and the gnomes and we had a Santa.”

“And Santa on the roof of the stable,” I reminded her.

“It was only silly because stables don’t have chimneys. We should have thought of that. This year he’s just standing there.”

“Yup,” I said, “the fourth wise man.”

“Too close?” she asked.

“Yeah, I think so.”

Tangee looked up at the roof of the house and said, “I just wonder where we could put him, then?”

“Oh, no,” I said. “Oh, no. I told you, nothing on the roof. Period.”

“But, Buck, it’s mild and nice and there’s no snow yet and you could just tie the big inflatable Santa to the chimney with a bungee cord and maybe string a few hundred lights around the eaves. We wouldn’t have to use the reindeer.”

“Nope. It’s nice now, but in January you’re going to want him down and it’s not going to be so nice then, and there’s going to be ice and I’m not going to do it.”

“Maybe you wouldn’t have to take him down.”

I shook my head. “You’re the one who gets depressed when you see people with their Christmas stuff up halfway into spring. You’re the one who drives two blocks out of her way so you won’t have to see the wreath Gwen and Phyllis leave up until June. You’re the one who called the police to see if there was a law about leaving wreaths up out of season.”

“Well, then,” she said, “long about the second week of January, if it was icy, maybe you could just go out in the yard with your twenty-two and deflate him.” Tangee must have caught a mental picture of a shot, deflated, plastic Santa hanging from a bunge cord from the chimney until April. She shook her head, dismissing the idea.

“Well, what are we going to do then?” she said. “We have to have something special with the Santa Claus. We’ve got the gnomes and all and we got the manger and we got lights around all the windows and in all the shrubs and on the mailbox. We got the spinning aluminum tree by the garage. It’s all very classy but I think we need something splashy to win the contest. I just don’t know.”

Tangee looked sad and defeated as she walked out to the street to view what we’d done so far. Just before the ditch we’ve got what’s left of a hedge running parallel to the road. It had grown to about two feet high before that problem with the sewer killed it. She walked past the dead hedge and past the ditch and across the street to get a judge’s eye view of the yard. She came back grinning.

“Is the ground froze?” she asked.

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Have we still got those iron clothes poles in the garage?”

“Yup. Up in the rafters. Why?”

“Bucky, this will be perfect. When the judges drive by and stop in front of our house, they’ll see all of our decorations, just like we’ve got them, but they’ll see them through a kind of picture frame.” She brought me into the house to explain.

The idea was that we’d trim the dead hedge bushes to look like mountains and spray them with phony snow and cover them with forty strings of white blinking lights. Then we’d string a wire between the two metal clothes poles, which I would have pounded in the ground. The last thing would be that we’d hang the inflatable Santa in his sled along with his eight inflatable reindeer from the wire. The judges would look through the scene of Santa flying over the mountains to view the gnomes and the manger and the aluminum tree.

The next day was a Sunday. I made Tangee promise that if I got all of that work done by Saturday night, she’d let me watch football and nap the next day. I’ll do some awful things to get a guaranteed football/nap day. I was done by midnight.

Judging was the second Saturday of December and Tangee was beside herself waiting for the big day. She kept busy by planting a forest of candy canes in front of Fat Boy’s doghouse and making other important finishing touches. The pink flamingoes got halos and angel wings. We turned on the hedge lights one time to make sure they worked…Tangee was worried about showing the total effect too early in case somebody wanted to steal her idea.

The Friday night before the judging she couldn’t sleep and went outside at midnight with flashlight and a jar of blue craft paint to retouch the baby Jesus’ eyes. At four in the morning she plugged in all the lights for a minute to make sure they’d work. From six AM until noon she watched the Weather Channel, worrying about a frontal system in Wisconsin which might or might not make it to our house before the committee drove by at seven-thirty. She made a walk around the yard at one in the afternoon and came back in a panic.

“It’s Dasher and Dancer,” she wailed. “They’re deflating. You have to do something.”

I dragged the ladder out to the display and found she was right; the lead pair of deer were shriveling and Dancer’s head was half folded over. Dasher’s air filler cap was located just about where I expect you’d find a reindeer’s navel. I prayed nobody I knew would drive by while I was reinflating. It didn’t matter. The more I inflated the more Dasher deflated. There was a leak. In fact, just at the base of Dancer’s neck a whole seam was coming apart.

“Bucky, what are we going to do? Look. Comet and Cupid are leaking, too.”

“Maybe we could fill them with something,” I suggested.

“Like newspapers?” she asked.

“Maybe. Or, we still have a whole bunch of that Styrofoam popcorn- shaped packing stuff don’t we? I could make a hole and fill them with that and seal it with duct tape.”

“Anything, Bucky. Hurry.”

It worked. Dasher and Dancer filled out just fine, and to make sure the other deer and Santa Claus didn’t have the same problem, I filled them with Styrofoam, too. They were a little lumpy but I didn’t figure you could tell that from the road.

By six o’clock it was dark. At seven we turned on the hedge lights. A half-hour later we saw three cars full of judges, driving slowly up the street, pausing at each display.

Santa floated gently over the hedge mountains with the phony snow and the four thousand blinking white lights and the thick billows of drifting clouds. Exactly as planned. Except for the clouds. We hadn’t planned on thick puffy white clouds of smoke drifting over the hedge. We also hadn’t planned on a fire in the hedge, which was where the puffy smoke was coming from. One of the forty strands of lights must have shorted out.

The puffy white clouds turned black as the phony snow caught fire. Two by two the reindeer smoldered into brown lumps hanging over the flames. Then the judges stopped. They watched for what seemed to be a very long time. I stood in the doorway next to Tangee. She was crying. The judges left just before the fire department got there. I helped clean up and Tangee went to bed early.

It was real quiet at our house the next morning. The paper came at noon. We were front-page news. I read the story to Tangee.

“Congratulations to Buck and Tangee Crimmins on winning the annual Christmas décor contest! Although there were many beautiful displays this year, the committee decided that the Crimmins’ originality should be rewarded. Their spectacular interpretation of ‘The Christmas Song’ is well worth our first prize.”

I held up the accompanying picture, showing the brown plastic lumps hanging just above the licking flames of the hedge.

“The Christmas Song?” Tangee asked.

“Sure. Remember? ‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire?’”

She put the prize, a golden wreath, on the mantle. Next year I think we’ll stick to gnomes and the spinning aluminum tree.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Oscar and Pablo

I used the term Magical Realism a few posts ago in describing The Big Green Bird, but it didn't really apply to that story. It does apply to this one. (And E.V. Yunq / Ed Vega, if you're out there, this is for you with thanks.)

Oscar and Pablo: A Scene

Oscar Echiveria was already dead when Pablo arrived.

The snow was high, over Pablo’s shins, and it was a heavy snow making it hard to walk through. Pablo saw his grandfather seated on the passenger side of the pick up and he saw the pick up in the ditch, a plowed mound of snow drifting high over the right front fender.

The call had come to his house an hour ago. Is your Papa there? Your brother? It’s about your grandfather. He’s off the road, up past the tracks on Bonham road. In a ditch.
The caller, a neighbor, if a person living a mile away is a neighbor, didn’t mention that he thought Oscar was probably drunk. He didn’t need to.

Pablo put on his boots and his sister’s wool scarf and started walking. At ten years old it hadn’t occurred to him to call someone else, a wrecker or the police. One didn’t call the police about family things. He walked, planning nothing more complicated than rubbing snow in Grandfather’s face and then driving home with him. Pablo could drive the pick up. Or they would walk.

From a hundred yards away he waved but grandfather didn’t wave back and Pablo worried that it might take more than a face full of snow. From twenty yards away he saw how far the truck was inclined and knew there would be no driving. He clambered into the driver’s door and saw that grandfather’s head was bleeding. Or rather, it had been bleeding. It wasn’t bleeding now. The blood was still and made a flat patch across his forehead. He pressed an ear to grandfather’s chest and heard nothing. He scooted back over behind the steering wheel and stared straight ahead, over the hood and into the featureless bank of snow.

“It is very bright,” said Grandfather Oscar.

“Yes,” said Pablo. “Like a white sheet.”

“Bright like the white sand back home. Do you remember? The white sand with the sunlight right in your face. It was bright like this.”

“You’re dead now, Grandfather?”

“Yes. It seems I am quite dead now.”

“Did it hurt?”

“Dying? No, the dying didn’t hurt. I think the big bump that broke my head hurt, but it was a quick hurt. The dying part was not so hard. You don’t know about whiskey, but it was like a first big shot of whiskey. A pleasant hot feeling and then a slow warm feeling and then the brain, it seems to take a big breath. And then I was dead. No, it didn’t hurt.”

“Good.” Pablo stretched his arm and handled the gearshift lever. He had driven this truck before. But he wouldn’t drive it today. It was too far in the ditch. And also, his Papa might think he had been driving and gone off the road and killed Grandfather.

“Did you see Jesus yet?” asked Pablo.

“No. Not Jesus. Not God either. Not yet.”

Pablo didn’t want to ask if Grandfather had seen the devil, so he didn’t ask that. He did ask, “How is it that we are talking and you are dead?”

Oscar Echiveria shrugged. “I don’t know. I remember that my great aunt Maria came to visit after she died.”

“She was a ghost? You’re a ghost?”

“No. I don’t think so. I think it’s maybe like a watch after the batteries die. Sometimes just for no reason they tick again for a little while. I think I have a few ticks left in me.”

They sat without speaking for a while. The January sun lowered. No cars came.

“You are cold,” said Oscar. “You should go. No one is coming this way.”

“I would stay with you,” said Pablo.

“I know you would. You’re a good boy. But you should go. Tell your papa or your brother about the phone call. It might be best not to tell them that you were here. They might be angry with me for bringing you out in the cold. Just tell them about the call you got. They will come and take care of me.”

Pablo pushed the driver’s door open and stepped back into the snow. “You’ll visit me later?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” said Oscar. “Maybe. If I have some ticks left.”

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Dear Tangee

The assignment, many years ago, was to write a "Dear John" letter. We had ten minutes. Unable to write as directed, I took another tack and wrote the following. Then I found that I wanted to know and write more about these characters. Dozens of short stories and a great number of snippets followed, and within a few years there was an eighty thousand word novel. In the book, Buck is not near as much a Sad Sack as he is here. Funny how things get started.

Dear Tangee,
Your absence since this past November has made me sad. It has also made me wonder; have you left me for good or are you just gone for a long time? Maybe you are doing something you forgot to mention to me, or maybe you told me and I forgot. Probably I forgot. You left some Spring clothes here and I took that as a sign to expect you, maybe by April. April was four months ago so I guess I shouldn't make that much of a sign out of one dress and a pair of shorts. If you had left for good you would have written a note, wouldn't you? You would have left a note right here on our note pad thing by the phone which, by the way you haven't even called me on yet.
I just went down to the Seven-Eleven for some Pepsi and I'll be back in about half an hour. If you're not here, it's time I go out I'll leave you another note then. Just like this one now. Just like the one I wrote yesterday. There's cold 7-Up in the fridge for you. See you later.

Monday, December 04, 2006


Writing creative fiction, commentary and poetry is not a craft. It is an art. Technical writing and editing are crafts as is proofreading to a lesser extent.

This art, as in the arts of sculpture, painting, music and all the other classic forms, requires the envisioning of a goal and aiming to achieve it beautifully. It requires a deep knowledge of language and the reading of language and the speaking of language. It requires the wresting of difficult forms and ideas into clear and meaningful stories.

A craft is learned by rote. Knotting a rug to a numbered pattern is a craft of sorts. The glass workers a Greenfield Village may be artists on their own time, but they are crafters at the Village, blowing out identical flowers, one after another. The writer of innumerable limericks may be clever, but he’s no artist. The writer of the compiled listings in Writer’s Market may have a finished, perfect novel on his desk at home, but at work he’s a mechanic. And that’s not to say that mechanics, literary and otherwise don’t have value. They are wonderfully needful in our world. But they are not artists.

We, as writers of fiction and poetry, are artists, some better, some not so good, but writers and artists none the less.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Don't Blame Bill

What the Hell does one do with these micro-stories? I guess one posts them on his blog.
(By the way, Stewart HATES the PS at the end. You can hate it too.)

Don’t Blame Bill
617 Words

As you can tell from the first page I wrote, I fully expect to die and so that was my will; who gets what and all. This page is more of an explanation of my current circumstances and I hope you will understand.
Everything was all right, here in the shack, and we were pretty well prepared to sit it out until Spring. Even the blizzard, heavy as it was, didn't mean much as we had plenty of provisions and I'd dug the latrine deep. It is obvious, though, that I hadn't reckoned on that roof beam breaking; but break it did and in came the roof and most of two walls. The beam hit me square on the shoulder and knocked me down and as you can no doubt tell from the position of the beam and my broken bones, it ended up hard across my two legs, just above the knee. As to the matter of pain, I can tell you that at first it hardly hurt at all, even for some while after I regained consciousness. Later, in what I think was the second day it hurt a lot but that didn't seem to last too long. This may have a something to do with the way the snow fell in on me, covering my lower legs where the beam was. I believe the cold is mostly responsible for my present numbness.


One consequence of the damned roof breaking was that it knocked over the map table, so now I have the backs of our geologic survey maps to write on. Sadly, the pantry was not so effected and I can only stare at the can of pork and beans on the shelf. I have never thought much about such things so I am purely ignorant as to which of my situations will do me in first, the cold, the starvation or something concerning my leg; I can't see it and maybe I've got some loss of blood or something.


I think it has been several days since the roof fell. I keep sleeping or maybe passing out.


I haven't mentioned Bill, but it's important that you know some things. First, smart as he is, he can't figure out that I would like very much for him to fetch me that can of beans. He's a good dog and he spends a lot of the time curled up against me and that keeps us both warm, but somehow I imagine he's doing it mostly for my benefit. Bill is looking pretty skinny now and I don't guess he's eaten since the roof fell. I haven't even seen him leave the shack, even though he could.


I get real bad dreams and am dizzy.


I think I just slept for a long time but I'm still real tired and may take another nap.


Bill is with me all the time now.


When you find me dead, I kind of expect you'll find Bill alive. He's been a good boy and I told him, after I'm gone that if he was starving, he could have such meat as I might provide. Should he choose to do that, I don't want you to hold it against him, as it was my wish. Don't blame Bill.



Dear Mrs. O'Hara,
You have my deepest sympathy. In addition to the enclosed will and letter, I am enclosing your son's other personal effects. Most importantly, let me add that when we were able to get back to the cabin in May, we found two skeletons.