Thursday, December 26, 2013

Flash Fiction Challenge - Part 5

This is the final edition of the five-part challenge to add 200 words to someone else' story.  I skipped a part or two; apologies…  My addition is at the very end.

Part 1: Josee De Angelis

Of course it would rain today. It couldn’t be nice and sunny. Perfectly crappy weather for a crappy day. Shane dragged her luggage down the hall, her box of books under her arm, all her hats on her head – good thing the rain hat was the last one she found. What she couldn’t fit in her suitcases she wore. The furniture would have to come later. She couldn’t stand to be in that apartment one minute more.

The rain was coming down hard when Shane opened the front door. It was very dark, as if the clouds decided to play with people’s minds and make it look like nighttime. This did nothing to lighten Shane’s mood. Where would she go? Where could she go? Not going to her parents’ home, that’s for sure. Her sister’s? Only if she wanted all her past choices to be dissected, analyzed and declared wrong. They were wrong, but did she really need to hear it from someone else? Not so much.

Shane decided to walk north to put as much space as she could between herself and the apartment, where she lived moderately happy for six years. That was before everything changed. Before yesterday.

Part 2: Liz Neering

Yesterday the shadow had appeared. It began as a black spot, hidden away in the corner. But as the day progressed it had bled like spilled ink into the bulk of the room, until by the time she had gone to bed, it had stretched its dark fingers across the bulk of the apartment. She had slept huddled on the sofa, her knees drawn up to her chest, her hands wrapped around her shins to keep her tightly coiled and far away from the blackness coming to claim her.

They would never understand. They would never believe.

Shane pulled her hats down further, tugging them down her forehead until their stacked brims concealed her downcast, black-rimmed eyes. She stopped in the street. Water poured down her hats, splattering fat droplets onto her shoes. She rubbed her eyes until they burned.

“Think,” she said. “Think.”

She felt something; the short hairs on the nape of her neck rose. She turned on her heel.

The blackness was there. It crept towards her, sentient, hungry, writhing like a serpent as it slunk closer. A voice, oily and thick, cut through the air.

“Shane,” it hissed. “Come to us. Be one with us. We understand. We do not judge.”

Part 3: Ken Crump

That voice, she thought, I know that voice!

Slowly the pieces began to fall into place. Shane spun on her heel, gathered her box of books tightly under her arm and strode toward the Cup of Comfort coffee shop at the north end of the block. Her suitcase rolled smoothly through the gathering puddles, making rhythmic “sslack” sounds as it jumped the sidewalk cracks. Halfway there, a wheel caught in a crack, broke off, and rolled into the street. The suitcase reeled and twisted out of her control. Shane stole a look over her shoulder at the suitcase and then back toward the blackness. It still crept toward her. What had she read about the blackness? She squeezed her books closer to her body, and abandoning the suitcase, she walked on.

That box of books was one of her past choices her sister would undoubtedly dissect and analyze again, given the chance. “You paid how much for those?” she had demanded in that I-know-everything voice that only big sisters have. “They’re so old the covers are all bubbly.”

“The covers are not bubbly,” Shane spat. “They’re anthropodermic!” And she immediately wished she could have unsaid it. Her big sister didn’t need to know the books were bound in human skin.

Part 4:  Josh Lumis

“Can I get you something?”

Shane blinked. The barista was looking at her pleasantly. For now. When Shane blinked, something else that wasn’t a barista was smiling at her. It was a smile she had seen before, in the shadows, a dark smiling face with eyes like bruning coals and teeth made of knives. Shane blinked again, and saw more of them. She squeezed her eyes shut and willed herself not to think about the books or the words penned in blood or the macabre images…

“Miss? Are you all right?”

She opened her eyes. She was back in Cup of Comfort. The barista looked more concerned than anything, and Shane tried to smile. It was difficult as the shadows got longer out of the corner of her eye.

“Yes. I’m sorry. I was thinking about my sister. Could I get a cup of coffee, please?”

“Sure.” The barista set about making the drink. “Are you in town to visit your sister?”

Shane swallowed. Her only hope was that, with a few customers in the shop, the darkness would be held at bay, at least for now. She needed time she didn’t have.

“No.” Shane bit her lip. “She’s dead now.”

My addition
"I'll have a double red-eye," she told the young man.

He nodded and winked.  Who winks anymore, she thought, waiting for him to do his coffee-jerk thing.
"Hot now," he told her when he was done.  "Might want to let it cool," again with a wink.

She paid him and turned to find a table.  Juggling her burdens, she stooped to set the box of books at her feet.  When she straightened, Shane saw a ganglia-shaped curl had slopped onto the saucer, only the spilled coffee wasn't behaving like a fluid.  Its shape was that of the innards of a tar-snail, curled and retaining definite surface tension.
Steam, like a morning fog lifted from the mug carrying the odor of something fetid.  Shane gagged and pushed the cup from her.  When she did, the little blob leapt onto her wrist and the steam poured forth to cover the rest of her hand and forearm.
Shane swore then and stood.  Her chair scooted loudly behind her.
"Can't even carry a cup of coffee without spilling it," her sister said.

The barista turned.  The young woman was gone.  She'd left her box of books.  Most were older.  Odd covers too, he thought.

Cancer Update #6 - Nothing Too Clever

Treatment number 12 has been accomplished.  I stand at the finish line for round one with something like I'm not quite sure.  Accomplishment sounds goofy to describe this.  Pride doesn't fit anywhere.  Happiness?  Maybe, depending on what the doctor tells me in two Mondays.  Uncertainty is closer to the mark.  Surprise?  Yes, that sense of awe and incredulity remains.  Thankful isn't bad, but it doesn't cover everything.  I suppose the important fact is I'm still standing.

Just a few points to ponder:
Chemotherapy does not contain radiation.  Chemotherapy contains all kinds of nasty things for the human body, but radioactivity isn't one of them.  Besides, we obtain our daily recommended allowance of radiation from the reactors at Fukushima.  Remember that little deal?  They still haven't cleaned the area, but not to worry.  Hey, who are we to doubt what a government tells its people?  It's not like the earth has a wound with deadly isotopes leeching into the Pacific Ocean every day for the last two years or so.  If the Japanese government says there's nothing to worry about, that's good enough for me.

Number 12 was a particularly nasty energy zapper.  The run, run, run, run, of the holidays didn't help and I'm looking forward to dragging Mr. Tree to the secret Christmas Tree gave-yard where he can quietly turn rust-red and return to the soil.  We purchased a mean tree this year, one with a bad twist at the base.  Yet, would anyone listen to dumb old dad and not buy that one?  Of course not.  But who do they call when he falls over?  Sure, I can stop what I'm doing, refrain from saying, "I told you so," and go fix the problem.
I've been particularly blessed and otherwise healthy during the last six months.  And now, BOOM - head-cold city.  I woke this morning snarling like Gollum, hacking globules of putrid and maleficent yellowness.  My sinuses are blocked like the healthcare website.  I also forgot just how gooood a swig of Nyquil can be.  Yummy stuff that; spoken in that abject manner as only an old problem drinker can.

Staggering numbers of people have cancer.  Two out of five Americans will have some type of cancer in their lifetimes.  The Cancer Center is always full.  Six months ago, I never appreciated what this meant.
Finally for now, there's a group of ladies at the Cancer Center whose job it is to prep people for all types of unpleasantness.  Basically, they pierce the flesh over the port, draw blood, attach tubes, enter data, and when it's all over, they remove the tape and extract the needles.  I say ladies because that's who works in this section of the Center where I go.  Yes, I'm aware mileage may vary and if you think I'm a sexist pig-dog, that's your problem and not mine.  Anyway - these ladies have one of the more thankless jobs of the process.  Day after day they work with an unending stream of people who aren't at all happy to see them.  If you're the praying kind, send up a few words for them.  They're patient, professional, and they usually smile.  I can't imagine doing what they do.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Shibboleth of Symbolism

Question 1:  If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a noise?  How about a big no duh?  The absence of ears to hear does not exclude the existence of sound waves.

Question 2:  If a man is talking and no woman is around to hear him, is he still wrong?  I always thought that one funny.  No comment.

Question 3:  If something is symbolic and no one thinks about what it means, does it still mean anything?

Consider the candy cane - the hook-shaped, pepperminty, hand-held confection of yumminess found often around December (timely of me, no?).  Rumor has it, and I don't know if this is an urban or a rural legend, that that candy cane is not red and white by pure accident, nor is it arbitrarily shaped.  Rather, there is a design behind its design.  The red and white represent the blood and purity of Christ, respectively.  The shape denotes the shepherd's crook; an obvious reference to the shepherd and the sheep.  Get it?  Heard this before?  Ponder it much when you grab a candy cane from the pencil holder at the bank?  They give out freebies this time of year, don't you know?  Crunch 'em if you got em'.

But about the symbolism, do you ponder it when you're unwrapping the noisy cellophane and twisting the cane in your taste-hole to make that pointy peppermint spike of death?  Maybe, not so much, sorta kinda?  The thought crosses your mind occasionally?  But, what do you always do when you eat a candy cane?  Enjoying the freakin' candy cane, that's what!

The peril of symbolism, in writing, is the risk that many (most?) people won't get it.  And of those who do, it amounts to either a 'big whoop' or a 'hey, that's really neato!' on the register of reading motivation.  In other words, a writer who writes to show off his symbolism is something like the writer who wants to show off his punctuation.  How many readers walk away from a story thinking, "Wow, great semi-colons."?  No one has won the Booker, Pulitzer, Nobel, Caldecott, or any other writing award based solely on either their symbolism, or their dynamic use of commas.

Now look - I like me some symbolism.  It's cool.  I think about the flag of the United States.  I think about the cross.  I think about why I used the word shibboleth in the title.  I also think about how literal-minded most of my students are.  Sad, really, that we don't consider the depths of meaning available to us.  But the symbolism isn't the thing.  The thing's the thing.

See, one of the problems is that the average, run-o-the-mill English major (think, person who wants to write) is taught that the use of symbolism in writing is tantamount to genius.  Maybe it is, or maybe said writer didn't have a better story to tell and decided to fill the prose with nouns meant to represent other things.  In this way, the story becomes something of a dense puzzle-box and people can sit around wondering, "What does it mean, man?"  And in the meantime, the fledgling writer focuses on being symbolic (amidst a myriad other literary [pronounced:  lihtoo-raahree, emphasis on the snobbery] devices they've been taught are also tantamount to genius by their English major professors who were, in turn, taught by their English major professors) and if that means the well-told story goes by the wayside, so be it.

Herein is something every writer should consider.  Some, but not very many, people read to admire symbolism.  Preponderantly, and on the other hand, most readers read because they're searching for a nicely written piece of writing.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Another Humorous Essay?

Another semester is rapidly closing.  With it, another humorous essay I write with one of my classes.  It's below, in all of it's wonderful prosiacness.  For regular readers, some of this will look familiar.  It's spliced together with bits & pieces of previous 'Cancer Updates'.  BTW - treatment #11 is done.  I have one more to go and then the bit wait & see.  Anyway, enjoy, or not.  Remember boys & girls, there's funny 'ha-ha' and there's funny, 'hmmmm....'


Colon Cancer: It's Not That Bad

Every other Tuesday for the past six months I've been subjected to forty-six hours of chemotherapy treatment. It’s not a treat the way cookies and brownies are a treat. It’s a treat more along the order of having the toilet overflow. But doctors call it a treatment, and who am I to argue?  Chemicals with names like Oxaliplatin, Leucovorin, and 5-Flourouracil (better known as 5FU… get it?) make up the cocktail I'm given. I've had better cocktails too. Maybe the medical staff should hire a nomenclature expert. But, it is what it is. During said treatments I'm sent home with a Lovecraftian tube sticking out of my chest. After many an abject contortion, I've learned to sleep with this and in the days that follow have soldiered on with an energy drain reminiscent of a flu-whisky hangover combination. In the days of my misspent youth, I was familiar with the former, and everyone knows about the latter.

I'm not sharing this information for people to get all pouty like somebody just stepped on their kitten. Mmm-k? Instead, I'm trying to help people understand that having colon cancer isn't that bad. I mean, it sucks and everything, but I’ve also come to realize a number of benefits have come my way in the last half-year.

For example, I'm in the Cancer Center Youth Group. I get together in the brightly lit activity-room and color bowels and intestines in my official Cancer Center Youth Group color book. Then I get to play games like pin the polyp on the sigmoid. Last week I made a popsicle-cell anemia and three macaroni lymph node magnets for the refrigerator. The teachers smile and make me feel special and give me candy. Then I sit around and talk with the other Youth Group people about how I feel.

Ok, I made all that up, except for the part about sitting around and talking about my feelings with others; maybe that’s why I don’t go. But at 47, I’m usually one of the youngest at the Cancer Center, except for the nurses, and who doesn’t like young nurses?

Another bonus has been the loss of feeling in my fingertips. This is because one of the medicines contained platinum, which is a heavy metal. I never cared too much for heavy metal. But what happens when the human body accumulates too much of certain heavy metals is that it puts on the brakes and tells the central nervous system, "Enough of this. I’m outa here!"

I said contained earlier because on treatment number nine I had what they call one of them there anaphylactic reactions to the platinol (doctor talk for platinum). This included a twenty-minute hot-flash (more on menopause later), the inability to speak, general disorientation, and a really sucky afternoon when thinking coherently was the least of my worries. Next thing I knew I was surrounded by nurses (did I mention they're young and pretty?). One of them tore open my shirt and another fanned me. Then, the head-honcho nurse gave me a giant shot of Benadryl. Long story short no more platinol for me. But getting back to the numbed fingers, I can now take things out of the oven without a potholder and can scrape ice from the windshield with my bare hands. How cool is that? Don’t ask me. Remember, my fingertips are numb.

Then there's this: before I had cancer I could count on one hand the number of compliments I'd received on my physical appearance. That's ok. Manly men don't need that kind of validation. I always did figure my face was more masculine than it was handsome. But since the cancer diagnosis, I can't go anywhere without someone telling me how good I look. Friends, family, church members, and coworkers constantly ask about how I'm doing. Invariably, they follow this up with, "Well, you look good." Or, "You look great." And I'm all like, heck-yeah. Part of me wishes I were single. The point here is to forget botox and cosmetic surgery. If someone wants to improve their looks, they should consider cancer. The compliments just keep on coming.

Then there's the weight loss. This spring I was admitted to the hospital at a portly 184 pounds. Ten days later I left weighing 162 pounds. That's twenty-two pounds in ten days. Jenny Craig? Get out of my face! Biggest Loser? Go suck some wind. Diet pills, flush 'em. America's weight problems could be cured if only more people had cancer. And, during these past six months I've been eating like a freaking horse and I don't mean because I have buck teeth. It's great when the doctor says eat anything, whenever and however much. Today, after a half-year of playing Jack Sprat, I'm tipping the scales at a mere 182 pounds.

Finally, in terms of often overlooked bennies, I've saved the best for last. I discovered this one by a desperate accident. There’s a backstory. At the end of June, one of my wife's friends had the great idea (as only wife friends can) that my wife and I, her and her husband, and two other married couples should take a road trip to a Bloomington dinner theater and see a musical called, "Menopause the Musical." The official website declares the show to be, "The Hilarious Celebration of Women and the Change." Sidebar: why won't dinner theaters do anything like Shakespeare or Sophoclese? I mean, Oedipus Rex had singing. I've heard Cormac McArthy wrote a play. That might be good.

But anyways, I don't know a single man who wants to see a musical about menopause presented by amateurs. Guys, I don't mean to blow the cover, but it's true. And secondly, dinner theater dinner, at least in this tri-county region, is usually a click or two under the mediocre bar. And, more man-secret truth here, the plan for a, "couple's night" is usually nothing more than a thinly veiled, "ladies night" with men along so they can pay.
The men would have sat and nodded and spoken amongst themselves, listening for funny lines so they could later tell other men, "It had some funny parts." Or, "It was ok." Or, "Yeah, it wasn't too bad." They would have smiled saying such things, remembering the rubbery chicken with white sauce and the cold rolls from a bag and the lukewarm peas with pearl onions, and the beasts in their hearts would have growled and grown a little weaker. Oh, the things we do for love.

But, I remembered, barely in the nick of time. I DO HAVE CANCER. My type-3 was going to act up that night. Alas, I was unable to take the drive and would remain at home, alone. At the news, one of the brave husbands volunteered to stay with me. When the ladies saw how two of the men could not attend (one heroically and stoically battling cancer, and the other selflessly giving up the show on a Christian mission to console his brother), they decided a true ladies night would be best. I saved three other men from, "Menopause the Musical."

Like an additional disbursement of grace, I have been given something I call the Cancer Card. And who knows how in the future I may be able to channel the tides of history and further help my fellow men? Perhaps also, if daughter #1 would wash the truck, not forgetting to vacuum the mats, that too would help. Then, down the road, a larger screen to help me see the shows might uplift my downtrodden spirit. Next birthday, maybe a crossbow can take my mind off things. Of course, the Cancer Card, like all special cards, should be judiciously used. There's nothing worse than an overplayed special card. But, for those thinking of getting cancer, don't overlook this silver lining.

And by now, the intrepid reader may think me simple-minded and unaware the seriousness that besets me. May I allay those concerns? In December I will be finished with my first twelve treatments of chemotherapy. In January there will be scans and blood tests and who knows what. At the end of these, the doctor will tell me one of three things.

First, the cancer may be done. This has been my prayer all along. If this is the case I'll have the first of a year's worth of three-month checkups for more test and scans, and who knows what. The longer it doesn't return, the greater the odds it will not. The second thing the doctor might tell me is that the cancer is still there, no worse than it was. This will mean six more months of chemotherapy; rinse and repeat as necessary. The third thing the doctor may find is that the cancer has spread. This is not good for the home team.

But until then, no one knows. These are the thoughts that concern me most at night, after the lights are out and I stare at the ceiling trying to go to sleep. It’s true, cancer is not the zany, whacky disease many think it to be. But…

My approach has partly to do with the people I meet at the Cancer Center. I don't know how the elderly do this. Remember, I’m in the youth group, with relative health and reserves that many of the elderly no longer possess. Yet many, not all, of them smile and talk and carry their banners forward the best they know how. When the pretty nurses call my name for my next turn on the chemotherapy chair of funness, and I say to no one in particular, "Once more into the breach," these older people smile and some of them laugh. A rare few get the Shakespeare reference.

It's the younger patients whom seem the most aggrieved. They have darkness around their eyes and stare vacantly into tablets and cell phones. They carry damp Kleenex in their pockets, dab their eyes and noses, and seldom speak.

These are the two paths. I'm merely following the examples of the elders.

Flash Fiction Challenge - Part 3

From last time - the challenge posited over at terribleminds is to first write 200 words of the beginning of a story.  The second part is to pick someone else' story and add 200 words to it.  This is to be done for five weeks.  Here is the third story I picked:

A Million Cats:

Part 1 by Rebecca Douglas:

Part 2 by Connie Cockrell:

Part 3 (my addition):

Six types of burned tape later, and Keelan not remembering those doomed for not remembering history, I unstrap myself and handhold to the tool closet, next to the cargo’s vapor-lock.  That’s where the real nightmare began.  There’s a certain fragrance wafting past the three layers of polymer-aluminum seals.  Plastic baggie of red electrical twist-caps in hand, I make it back to the cockpit.

Keelan looks up, preparing yet another type of tape for the splicing.  I hand him the caps and ask, “Smell anything?”
He smiles.  “Just burnt tape.  What’s up?”

The question lingers as I buckle in and run a quick ambient contaminant scan.  Sure enough, we’ve got an increasing level of uric acid, sodium chloride, male cat steroids, and several unidentified detoxified substances.  I point to the screen.

“What’s FUS?” he wants to know.  Keelan never reads the fine print; always quick to say he’s the idea man.  Sometimes I want to strangle him.
“Feline Urinary Scent.”  I leave it at that.  The projection trend shows we’ll need air-masks by the time we arrive at Exillion, assuming drive fires in the next several minutes.  We’ll need new air filters and a fumigation of the entire ship.  Credits, schmedits!