Short Story Wednesday: Neruda

Short Story Prompt” “Interpreter of Maladies” Jhumpa Lahiri

The first class of the second semester of American history was filling with college students and would be full soon. Michael’s eyes slowly looked around the classroom. A few faces he knew, but most he did not. There was one in particular he’d never seen before. Across the room in the corner was a blonde, an older student in her early thirties like himself. She had a pony tail and an orange sweater. When class was over, she gathered up her things and left quickly.

The next time he saw her in the class she wore green. Her hair hung loose and fell to her waist. She sat in the same corner alone and away from her nearest classmate. On her desk, her laptop and her books walled her against any intrusion from her fellow students.

After the class, he overcame his hesitation and walked over to her. She was pushing her laptop into her backpack. “Do you come here often?” Michael asked, pouring what little charm he could muster into his words.

She gave him a look that said she didn’t much care for his charm, then she said, “Not sure if I do, but my hair does. ”

Not able to come up with an entertaining comeback, Michael said nothing. His eyes followed her as she rushed out into the hallway. His mind raced for a way to stop her and engage her in a conversation. He had nothing. This was not a good way to start off a relationship with a woman he wanted to have a relationship with. Not a good way at all. This wasn’t even a good way to keep one going. Hopefully he would come up with something next time that gave him a half-ass chance.

The next time he walked into the class late. There she was over in the corner in her usual place, her laptop open, her books stacked on the desk. She typed fast on the keyboard. He dropped into the chair at the desk beside hers. She glanced over at him and gave him a leave-me-alone look. Her eyes matched the blue of her dress, then they went back to her laptop screen.

At the end of the class, he leaned over toward her, parted her books and asked, “Would you like to go dancing?”

She showed him her ring. “I have a husband.”

“We can take him along with us. He might even learn a few new dance steps. I’ve been told I’m a good teacher.”

She shook her head. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Before he could come up with something for that comment, she was gone.

When he saw her again in class, he sat at the desk next to her again. Asked, “Just coffee then?” She was in her orange cashmere, her hair in its pony tail.

“Coffee always leads to sex,” she answered.

“Then don’t take your coffee with cream or sugar.”

“I only drink it black.” She opened her laptop cover.

“Never heard of black coffee leading to sex.”

“Now you have,” then she went to her notes. But this time she smiled.

At the end of the class, she turned to Michael. “You like my hair?” she asked.

“Very much.”

“That settles it. I’m cutting it and dying it green.” She seemed to be enjoying herself.

“Can I show you some trees?” he asked.

“What would you want to do that for?” she asked.

“So you’ll know what color green to dye your hair. You can tell from the leaves. Besides I like trees.”

She sighed the kind of sigh that said that she might enjoy the trees. She packed up her laptop, then said, “Let’s go. And no tricks. I’m on to you. Understand?”

“I thought you were,” he said, following her out of the classroom.

Walking out onto the campus lawn, he pulled up beside her and said,”We could be soul mates, you know.”

“I’m afraid not. My last three soul mates I killed off. And I don’t want to be guilty for a fourth death. I’m like Maggie on ‘Northern Exposure’. Guess that’s why they call me Maggie.”

Michael had a name for her now. “I’m Michael.”

A few days later, she was not in the classroom when he arrived. He went to their corner, unpacked his laptop and summoned up his notes for the class. The professor arrived and took his place at the podium.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I have some news,” he began. “Maggie Street, one of our students, will not be with us today. She is in the hospital. The police are holding her husband for questioning.”

A stunned silence swept through the class.

“It’s pretty clear what happened. Her husband came home last night. Took out a .45. Walked into the house. Shot her in the head. She’s in a pretty bad shape. Not sure if she will live or die. Give her your prayers if you do that sort of thing. Otherwise send some good thoughts her way.”

For the next week, Michael waited in the waiting room in the hospital everyday after class. Late in the week just before visiting hours were over, a woman in her late fifties walked over to him. Her hair was gray. “I’m Adele.” She offered him her hand.

He stood up, took her hand and said, “I’m Michael.”

“You know my daughter, Maggie?” she asked.

“I do. We are in the same class together.”

“Thank you for coming. I’ve seen you here every day for the last seven days.”

“How is she?” he asked.

“She woke up hungry as a bear this morning. The doctor says she will be fine.”

Michael went to say something, then stopped himself.

“She has no brain damage, thank God,” the woman continued. “With a lot of work, she will be back to normal. At least that is what the doctors say. It’s a miracle.”

Michael breathed his relief.

“Would you like to see her?”

“No,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure…you know, that she was going to be okay.”

“Well, she is. And thank you,” Maggie’s mother released his hand. “I have to get back to her.”

That night alone in his tiny apartment Michael wrote a poem, the first he’d written in a long time. He wrote:

“I dropped the poems into my bag.
They were Neruda, and only Neruda.
I went to show them to you,
but could not. I could not.

When I see your face,
I think Neruda.
When I see your hair, your lovely hair,
I think Neruda.
For you are the summation of a poem,
of all the poems of Pablo Neruda,
and only Neruda.

When I first laid eyes upon you,
it was like my first kiss.
It was as if I was reading
Neruda for the first time.”

Next Wednesday’s Prompt: “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” by Katherine Ann Porter.

Drew Carey’s in Cleveland

A pickin’ and a grinnin’ lyric
Drew Carey’s in Cleveland
With a big mug of beer.
He’s on t.v.
Coming in clear.

With a smile on his face
At the Drew Carey place
Drew’s telling his jokes
For all kind of folks.
He’s getting his yucks
With his oh aw shucks.
Drew Carey’s in Cleveland
Drinking his beer.

Mimi’s on the prowl
With her clownish scowl
At Winfred-Lauder.
Drew takes a powder
Away from his cube
To avoid their feud.
Drew Carey’s in Cleveland
Drinking his beer.

With Oswald and Lewis
And Kate, they’re the truest
Of friends in a bar
Where the keg is a star
And guzzling it down
Is the Talk of the Town.
Drew Carey’s in Cleveland
Drinking his beer.

Then Mimi bursts in
To the bar with a grin
And throws a big pie
Letting it fly
To splatter Drew’s face
In his drinking place.
Drew Carey’s in Cleveland
Drinking his beer.

Now Kate really pissed.
She puts up her fists.
“You’re ’bout to go down,
You sad little clown,”
Kate says with a frown.
Beats Mimi to the ground.
Drew Carey’s in Cleveland
Drinking his beer.

Now Mimi got wise
After that night’s demise.
She left Drew alone
Till Kate went and gone.
Then Mimi is back
Gives Drew such a whack.
Drew Carey’s in Cleveland
Drinking his beer.

Drew Carey’s in Cleveland
With a big mug of beer.
He’s on t.v.
Coming in clear.

Short Story Wednesday: The Kingdom of Masques

Short Story Prompt: “The Hunger Artist” by Franz Kafka

Once the folk of the Kingdom of Borodomo were in pursuit of the better. Then the apathy came. It was a disease that spread through the kingdom like a yawning wind from the north. So contagious it was that it left not one in the land free from the plague of indifference. It stayed so long the citizens came to believe it had always been a resident. As the generations passed, people forgot the time before the wind yawned its way into the kingdom. They wore their apathy like a boy scout wears his merit badges.

The King of the South came visiting his cousin, the King of Borodomo. The South King, we’ll call him Irving. Irving saw the apathy. The King of Borodomo’s people looked, and acted, so unlike themselves. Where some once began their day with a “hey, turn that frown upside” kind of face, now they wore a full-scale, indifferent face. There were no more frowns in the kingdom, and the smilies all wore were fake, as fake as a three dollar bill. The people just were not themselves. Something had to be done, and the King of the South knew just what.

The two kings were feasting one night. I believe it was a Thursday. Irving leaned over and spoke plainly to his kingly buddy, “Your people are oh-so oh so. You know they’ve built a cage, and they’re afraid to leave it, even though the door has been thrown open. It wasn’t always so. Now everybody is everybody else.”

“‘Tis true, ’tis true,” Chuck, the King of the Borodomonese, said to his kingly friend. “What to do? What to do?” Then he yawned one of the greatest yawns in the history of the kingdom.

“Once upon a time ago,” Irving said, “my kingdom was thusly thus. Then a miracle came. It came in the form of a maker of masks. Since then, my citizens have worn masks. Each day I proclaim that some will wear sad faces. Some ugly faces. Some happy faces. Some lustful faces. Some endearing faces. Some smile. Some sunny. Each puts on their mask and walks about acting as the mask directs.”

“I would dearly love to acquire a mask maker such as the one you have.”

“Can be done,” Irving disclosed. “Matty, the mask maker, has a brother. I shall send him to you a fortnight from this night.”

Chuck yawned his agreement to the proposal.

Some days later, Irving returned to his kingdom in the south. A few days after that, the mask maker’s younger brother, Watty, knocked on the Gates of Borodomo. As he marched his way up to Chuck’s Palace on the Hill, the people watched. If it had been possible, they would have shown their rejoicing. For indeed they were glad. Truly glad. They hated their apathy as much as any people have ever hated a thing. But the folk could only yawn their approval, and nothing more.

Soon Watty set up shop and started turning out mask after mask. As commanded, the Borodomonese lined up at his door and waited to retrieve their bag. Each was given a bag of masks: a smilie, a frown, a thoughtful, a distressed, a happy, a moody, a joyful, a curious, a hopeful, a generosity, a fearful, an indulgent, a love, a sympathy, an amusement, a relief, an embarassment, an eny and a sad.

Each morning the Borodomonese were ordered to put on a new mask for the day to come. If they wore a lustful mask for the day, their behavior turned to lust for that day. If they wore a hopeful one, one could not find a hopefuller fellow than the wearer. At the end of twenty days, they were to return to Watty’s shop and exchange their bag for a new one.

There was only one condition. When they took the old mask off and replaced it with the new, they were not to view themselves in a mirror. If they did, they were told that the magic of the mask disappeared.

However…haven’t you noticed there is always a however in these kinds of tales. However there was one among the folk who refused to wear a mask. He suspected that something was rotten in Denmark, even though he lived in Borodomo. His name was Jack and he was a kitchen knave in the Palace on the Hill. Since he did kitchen knave kinds of things deep in the palace, no one saw him.

From time to time, he sneaked upstairs and peered out through the palace windows to the valley below. He usually did this early in the morning because he wanted to catch the sunlight. There was little sunlight in the depths where he worked.

One fine morning he was early. The sun was not up yet. Jack happened to catch King Chuck in his jammies as he hurried to his Changing Closet. Curious, Jack followed the king. He peeked into the Changing Closet. Chuck removed his mask for the day, one that was a smilie.

The knave caught a glimpse of the king’s face. As Chuck took off the mask, all the smiles the king’s face contained were sucked away by the mask. The king would never know a smile again. What was left was a complete blank of a face. The new mask was a sad one.

Jack tried to hold back the gasp. But the king heard it. He turned to see Jack. Jack had committed treason. But the king was confused about what to do. So he called his guards. They hurried to the king.

“Arrest the knave,” the king said sadly.

Two guards, who wore happily masks, happily arrested Jack.

A trial was held. The judge in his reluctance mask reluctantly sentenced Jack to death. It was the thing to do, so the judge did it.

Jack held his tongue about what he had seen. Being a good guy, he did not want to embarrass his liege lord. But he knew something must be done. In his cell, he debated with himself all the night long the night before his execution. What was he to do?

The next morning was a fine morning. The kind of morning just right for an execution. The flowers were budding and blooming. The birds chirped up a storm. Like Goldilocks said of the porridge, the day was just right.

Jack was led to the scaffold by two guards. Everyone in the kingdom was in the Palace Square to bid the kitchen knave farewell. They all had on their fine morning masks. Sitting beside the king was Watty. Since he had never seen an execution, he was curious.

Jack stood on the scaffold and turned toward the king. “Your Majesty,” he said. “I have done that which was forbidden to do. I have seen his majesty’s face maskless. For that, I go to my death, holding no ill-favor toward my liege lord. Before I lose my head, I belief it is in accord with custom that I be granted one request. Once that is done, I shall gladly retire to my death.”

King Chuck, being a just king, said, “I grant your request if it be in my power to do so.”

Jack smiled. Somehow he had been immune to the apathy his fellow citizens had caught. Though he was maskless, there was nary an apathetic bone in his body. He bowed his thanks. Then he asked, “Your Majesty, my request is this. Before I take my leave, I would request that I be able to see all maskless, except for Your Majesty. Can you grant me this one request and I will gladly go to the ax happy.”

“I gladly grant your request,” King Chuck said. “All in this Square will remove your masks.”

Watty protested, “Your Majesty, that cannot be. If the people remove their masks, the masks will lose their power.”

King Chuck thought about this. It was the day he wore his thoughtful mask. So thinking was appropriate. Finally he made a decision. “Watty, your protest has been noted. I cannot refuse a last request. Though he is but a kitchen knave, he is a loyal citizen. So I command everyone’s mask be removed. I want see the true faces of my people. Since I would not request an act from my people that I would not do, I too shall remove my mask.”

The king counted to three, then off came his mask. All in the Square did the same. The king’s mask sucked all of the sadness out of King Chuck. The people’s masks sucked all the fine mornings out of them.

The king was the first to notice the evil the masks were doing. Suddenly he was not apathetic anymore. His blood was boiling. He was angry. All the people saw what the king saw. And they too were angry. Though some had worn their angry masks, the unmasking of the deception was such that their anger returned. The king shouted, “Release Jack and arrest that deceiver, Watty. We will have an execution. It will be his.”

Watty slipped off the stage and out through a side door. The guards cut Jack loose. And Jack was off after the deceiver. Just as Watty reached the Kingdom Gates, Jack blocked his exit and faced him down.

“Get out of my way,” Watty said, pulling out his sword.

“Stop before I run you through with that sword,” Jack commanded.

Watty slashed his sword at Jack. Jack ducked and threw the mask maker off his balance. He grabbed the sword away from the deceiver and whacked him hard against the bottom. Soon Watty stood on the scaffold, pleading for his life.

“Tell us,” King Chuck commanded, “and tell us true. How did you come about this evil? I will spare your life if you reveal this thing.”

“It be my brother Matty’s plan. He raised the wind with its apathetic disease and sent it your way. Then he sent me with the masks. When all in this kingdom had lost  their emotions, they would not be up for a fight. Then King Irving could conquer your kingdom and enslave your people.”

Within days, King Chuck called on his allies. Together they raised a mighty army, then marched to the South. So the South was defeated and left barren in days long ago.

Next Wednesday’s Story Prompt: “Interpreter of Maladies” by Jhumpa Lahiri.

You may have noticed that I skipped “I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olsen. I didn’t skip it. It is a favorite story of mine and I have published my response to it on Mother’s Day.

Do Animals Have Souls?

What a question! Of course, they have souls. Just look into your horse’s, you cat’s and your dog’s eyes.

I know when I look into my cats’ eyes I see souls looking back at me. Sometimes those souls are saying, “I love you. I love you a lot.” Sometimes they are saying, “What the hell do you want?” And other times they are saying, “Man, that was a good rat. Yum.” Or sometimes they are saying, “What a great day. Enjoy, just enjoy.” Then they go off and run or jump into the bird bath just for a drink of water and they enjoy their complete catness.

I am sure that if you looked into a horse’s eyes you might see those eyes saying, “Gee, I love to run. There is nothing quite like it.” Or “Man, you need to lose some weight. Everytime you ride me, my back hurts for a week.”

Or a dog’s soul saying to his master, “You may be an s.o.b., but you’re my s.o.b.” They love us unconditionally, never holding back. I remember seeing a movie called “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale”. Hachi’s master had died, yet Hachi waited for years for his master to return on the evening train. They were friends, and the dog loved his friend more than anything.

So you can’t tell me that if there’s a life after death that there won’t be animals there. I am not going to believe that. Because a life after death without my cats ain’t any kind of life at all. So there. That answers that question. So on to the next one. Do people have souls?

Maybe. Then again maybe not. At least for some.

Short Story Wednesday: The Train Station

Short Story Prompt: “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway

The American stepped off the train and into the warm afternoon sun. One of the Guardia Civilia stood at attention beside the door of the station. The Spanish policeman eyed each of the passengers, measuring them for trouble. The American had other business on his mind than any trouble he might make for Franco and his Fascists. He stepped onto the wooden platform. The station looked run down, paint peeling off its walls. Walking into the bar, he ordered Anis del Toro. When it came, he threw back his head and downed the liqueur with one try. The cold, licorice taste went down fast and filled him with a momentary contentment. It was time to get on with what he had come to do, he reminded himself.

Grabbing a taxi nearby, he asked the driver to take him to the inn where he was lodging. Once settled in and after a good meal, he walked back to the station, and then on into the arid landscape behind the building. The afternoon was now evening and shadows were everywhere, then it was night. The night soon shrouded him with its darkness. His eyes adjusted to the darkness and prodded the hills in the distance, hills that did indeed appear to be elephants. It was too late to know if they were white or some other color. He dropped his knapsack and sat down on a large boulder.

The hills drew his eyes toward them. He found himself peering further and further into the past. It had been one long stretch of time, thirty years of it since the girl. It had been thirty years since the girl spent that afternoon with him in the train station. Thirty years since she had said those hills in the distance reminded her of white elephants. Thirty years since he had convinced her to have an abortion and she died of an infection from the abortion, her head on his lap in a compartment on a train to Paris. It had been thirty years of regret. Each day since that afternoon, he had relived every moment of that afternoon, detail by detail, one moment after another whittling away at any kind of life he tried to live since.

They met in the Prado. She was a nineteen-year-old English student, sketching Velázquez’s painting, “Las Meninas”, and he, a twenty-five-year-old architect from Chicago, come to Spain to study the architecture. The previous six weeks he studied and sketched the Alhambra, the heart and soul of Moorish Spain. On his way back to Paris, he stopped in Madrid for a few days to get to know that part of Spain better.

While strolling through the galleries, he came up behind her, her long black hair falling from her beret to her waist. She was deep in her work with pencil and sketchbook. He sat down on a wooden bench, unable to take his eyes off that girl. Hours must have passed, but they seemed like only minutes. He took out his own sketchbook and drew the lines of her image, though he knew that there was no way he could put what he felt onto paper.

The girl stood up, straightened her skirt, then turned toward the American. Her smile filled an open face.

“You like Velazquez’?” she asked from across the room.

He walked over to her. “I do. Very much.”

Her eyes looked back at the painting. “How can anyone deny that is perfection? Every artist before and since should bow in his presence.”

“Even Rembrandt?”

“Even Rembrandt,” she said.

He suffered a momentary loss for words. Then she put out her hand. “My name is Lina. I come from Bristol.”

“Do you believe in love at first sight?” He had never believed in it until that afternoon.

“Well, yes. And no,” she answered.

He got up his courage and asked, “Would you like to get a drink?”

“I am thirsty. And hungry too.”

“Good,” he said. “I found a place around the corner that serves a good paella.”

For the next six weeks, they began each day and ended each night together. The days she spent in the Prado, sketching the painting she loved so much, losing herself in the scene before her. Some days he wandered the city, taking in the sights and the sounds. Others he strolled through the halls and sketched the contours of the museum. Mostly he sat and watched the girl, never tiring of this girl he had fallen in love with.

Then one night over drinks and cocido madrileño, she said, “I’m pregnant.” They were hesitant words, and they were words that dropped like a bomb into his lap.

He choked down his food, then drank some water.

“I haven’t had my period.” she said nervously, afraid of his next words.

“It’s okay. I love you, and no matter what, we’ll work this thing out.”

Later he suggested an abortion. It came with the moment of doubt that he wasn’t sure he wanted to be a father, that doubt he later regretted. It seemed the only way to get back to the way it had been those first days in Madrid.

Before they left Madrid, they decided to stop at a little town in the Valley of the Ebro. She wanted to see the hills and the dry valley, measure its colors and its light with her eyes. It was summer and she was working on a painting. “It has good light,” she said of the valley.

A friend told him of the fishing there and the catfish and the wild carp. While she was painting, it would give himself some time to be alone so that he could figure things out. There was no better way to be alone than going fishing.

On the train to the valley, they did not talk. In the valley, they talked and their talk was filled with dread. Back on the train, they did not talk again. They knew what they had to do. In Barcelona, they found an abortionist.

In the room, not the cleanest of rooms, he almost backed out of what was about to occur. But he didn’t. As she lay helpless on the bed, he held her hand. He poured all the love he could summon into that small hand of hers. After thirty years, he still felt the grip of her strong fingers grasping his hand. He still heard the screams as the abortionist pulled the baby out of her. When it was done, she looked up at him. Her face was radiant, her eyes shining her love on him.

He knew he had made a mistake. He should have insisted that she have the baby. On the train to Paris, her head became hot. She trembled from the chills running through her small body. Then she was dead, her spirit lifted out of that fragile body he had loved so much.

He came back to the present and turned his eyes from the hills. He reached into the knapsack he had with him and pulled out a revolver. Sitting on the rock, he thought about what he had to do. It was the only way for him to find any peace. It would be such a relief. He reached into the knapsack again and pulled out a box of shells. He took out six and popped one into each of the chambers on the cylinder. Then he tested the gun, aiming and firing one shot at the hills. He placed the warm muzzle against his head, then he stuck it into his mouth. Yes, that was the right way to do this. He pulled the hammer back, cocked the gun and waited. What he was waiting for, he was not sure. Thirty minutes passed, then an hour, and still he waited.

From the hills in the distance he heard a “Don’t”.

“Why not?” he said to the hills.

“Please don’t, Matthew,” the hills said.

He thought about the words for several minutes, mulling them over in his mind. He pulled the barrel out of his mouth. “I can’t go on like this,” he said to the hills.

“But you have to. You just have to.”

“Oh, my God.” He slid off the rock and onto the dirt. He cried for a good long time. He took the gun once again and pushed the barrel into his mouth, then cocked it.

Another “Please” came from the hills,. Then they went silent.

It was the final plea that did it. He dropped the revolver in the dirt, then dejectedly headed back to the town.

The next afternoon he caught the train to Madrid. From his compartment, he watched the hills like white elephants recede into the distance. It was on to the Prado and “Las Meninas”. After that, he didn’t know. He just didn’t know.

Next Wednesday’s Prompt: “A Hunger Artist” by Franz Kafka