Monthly Archives: February 2014
On the Impracticality of the Application of Newton’s Third Law to Human Behavior in a World Where Butterflies Sometimes Flap Their Wings
A man in an orange scarf and a tweed flat cap walks down a city street at three minutes past midnight toward an engagement for the evening, lost in pleasant thought about the possibilities of the night ahead. Another man, a rather burly working class sort with a bald head and brown teeth, walks in the opposite direction at the end of a long day of drinking in the pub. As they approach, the man in the scarf snaps-to just in time to meet the burly man’s eyes and offer a polite nod. Simultaneously, the burly man reaches out and brusquely knocks off the man in the scarf’s flat cap. He says something, but the man in the scarf does not catch it, only that it was intended as an insult.
“What’s that about?” the man in the orange scarf asks before he is even able to turn around. The two men face each other, the tweed flat cap a line drawn in the sand midway between them.
“Fucking wanker,” the man in the scarf says, sweeping his flat cap off the sidewalk in disgust.
“Whaddye call me, boy? A wanker, am I? Call me a wanker again and see what happens.” The burly man swells his chest. He’s three inches taller and 80 pounds heavier than the man in the orange scarf.
“No, no, you don’t seem to understand how this works,” the man in the scarf says. “You get the satisfaction of knocking me in the head for whatever reason suited your fancy. In return, I get to call you nasty things like wanker and asshole and douchebag. Then we go our separate ways. It’s the only fair and equitable resolution.”
The man in the scarf then turns on his heel and continues on his way to the evening’s engagement without further event.
The burly man stands stuck in place watching the man in the orange scarf go, stumped and bewildered by his unassailable logic. Later, at home, the burly man decides the man in the scarf was mocking him. He decides to give the man a good knock in the nose if he ever sees him again, or at the very least a knock to the next sort he comes across with the same irritating look about him.
The man in the orange scarf sweeps his flat cap off the ground in disgust. The burly man waits for his victim to either provoke him, in which case he will satisfy his desire to pummel this fellow with such an irritating look about him, or to cower away, in which case he will revel in exposing the man’s cowardice.
“The only sort of man who knocks another fellow’s cap off for no good reason other than to establish dominance like a mangy street dog is an extremely unhappy one,” the man in the scarf says.
“Am not,” says the burly man, unsure if he has been provoked to the level necessary to justify breaking the man in the scarf’s nose.
“Oh, I assure you, you are. Just look at you. You are a bully, which means no one loves you, not even your own mummy. You hate your father because he was mean, and you hate him more because he was still better than you. You have no real friends. You are unliked by your coworkers. You don’t even like yourself, which is why you smell so bad and don’t take care of your teeth. I’m sure your wife hates you because you are stupid, poor, mean, incapable of understanding her, and you think watching football over fish and chips at the pub is a form of foreplay. I’ll bet she’s cheating on you. Wait. She is, isn’t she?”
“I’ll … I’ll kill you. I’ll fucking kill you.” The burly man balls his fists as he says it, hushed almost to a whisper. He turns so red that the man in the scarf can see it even under the dim streetlight, tipping off his impending charge.
“I’ll kill you. I’ll fucking kill you,” he yells, chasing the man in the scarf down the street. But the man in the scarf is much faster and the burly man gives up the chase quickly.
The man in the orange scarf goes on to his evening’s engagement without any further event. The burly man returns home. His wife isn’t there again. He stares at a picture of her for two hours, then retrieves a shotgun and leaves a fair portion of his skull and brains painted against the living room wall. In the next day’s evening paper, the man in the scarf reads about the suicide, but not connecting the name to his assailant, merely laments the wretched condition of working class sorts.
The burly man waits for the man in the scarf to either provoke him, in which case he will satisfy his desire to pummel this fellow with such an irritating look about him, or to cower away, in which case he will revel in exposing the man’s cowardice.
“Fucking wanker,” the man in the orange scarf says, sweeping his flat cap off the sidewalk in disgust.
“Whaddye call me, boy? A wanker, am I? Call me a wanker again and see what happens.”
“You’re a fucking wanker. A douchebag asshole who bullies people to compensate for a small dick and a mild case of retardation.”
The burly man bulls toward the man in the orange scarf, loading up a devastating haymaker. The man in the scarf steps toward the bully, inside the sweeping blow, and efficiently thrusts the heel of his right hand upward into the man’s nose, disorienting him. A second thrust, fist to Adam’s apple, leaves the burly man choking. A straight kick to the burly man’s kneecap buckles his leg and renders him incapable of giving chase. The man in the orange scarf then looks from side to side and, seeing no witnesses, makes haste away to the evening’s engagement, which he enjoys despite a slightly swollen hand.
The burly man’s wife finds him in their bed, bruised and battered, the next morning upon returning home from a night of adultering. Two broken picture frames and an emotional rant later, she makes good on a promise to leave him if he got into another donnybrook at the pub. His leg is too injured to walk and his pride is too hurt besides so he doesn’t go to work. The burly man’s boss, who likes him not in the least, fires him as permitted by the union after three no call-no shows. Within a month, the burly man is on the street, abusing alcohol and heroin, mugging men and women in dark alleys.
“I’m serious. Explain to me why you would do something so asinine,” the man in the scarf says, sweeping his flat cap off the sidewalk in disgust.
“Cause I felt like it and I do whatever the hell I want,” the burly man says.
“Oh, come on then, there has to be more to it than that. You must have passed other lone men walking down the street, yet you chose to humiliate me. Why?”
“Because you’ve got an irritating look about you.”
“Well, now we’re getting somewhere. And why do I have an irritating look about me? Is it my clothes or has God just cursed me with an irksome face?”
“I don’t like you mugs with your prissy scarves and stupid caps. You’re all a bunch of college boys who thinks you is better than everybody else. Just looking at you makes me want to choke you with that pretty scarf right where you stand.”
“You will do nothing of the sort. My mother knit this scarf when she had cancer to cope with the pain. She died two days after she finished it.”
“I … I’m sorry. My old man died of the cancer.” The two men stand quietly in their place for several moments.
“Well, no use us standing out here in the cold facing off like enemies. Let me buy you a beer and see if we can’t understand each other. If you decide even then my sort is as irritating as you thought, you’ll at least get a free drink or two out of the deal.”
The burly man studies the man in the scarf, searching his face to find some hint of a trick. Finding none, he saw no reason to turn down a free beer. The two sit in a pub down the street discussing their lives and aspirations until the pub closes at one in the morning. The burly man evokes the man in the scarf’s empathy with tales of the cruelties done to him and his siblings by well-to-do children growing up in an old industrial town. The man in the scarf earns the burly man’s respect, if not his admiration, for listening to him fairly.
The man in the orange scarf then departs for a late arrival at the evening’s engagement. The burly man returns home without his old insecurities about the educated classes, which provides him a sense of self-respect that ostensibly ends his days of pub brawling, allows him to save his marriage and drastically improves his personal hygiene.
The man in the orange scarf holds the eyes of the burly man for a moment, then shakes his head, picking up his scarf in disgust. He turns on his heel without a word and continues on his way to the evening’s engagement. He thinks the man a brute, then tells himself not to consider the matter for another moment.
Exactly what I figured, the burly man thinks. Those types with that irritating sort of look are always cowards. He continues down the exact path he was on before the incident ever occurred. Wherever that may lead.
Author’s note: Long form fiction is more my speed, but the output required since starting the creative writing program at the University of Edinburgh has put me on to writing more short stories. And, I have to say, I kind of like it. Now, imagine my surprise when I discover there is such a thing as “flash fiction.” It’s like the shitty fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants personal blogging of the short fiction world. I’ll be a natural! Kidding, of course. Perfectly respectable authors — very poor, perfectly respectable authors — write flash fiction. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but I tried my hand and came out the other side with the two pieces below. One overly sappy and nostalgic, the other openly mocking myself, my classmates and the profession I’m attempting to pursue. So, yeah, it can be tough to find balance in 1,000 words or less.
The Things that Make Me
Look at that snow come down. I’ve always said as long as I can sled in the snow, I’m living life the way I want to live it. With gusto. Wide-eyed, childlike enthusiasm.
My damn hip dysplasia doesn’t much agree with gusto and childlike enthusiasm, unfortunately. I had to give up sledding ‘round about nine years ago. Dancing, too. Roberta and I loved to dance. There are other things I can get along doing that let me keep the spirit of ‘em, though.
I reckon I gave up tennis about the same time the hair started growing out my ears. Unrelated, I believe. Chronic shin splints kept me off the court. Surfing, that kept me young at heart for years. I was part of the original Surfin’ USA generation all the way back in the ‘60s. Had a nasty spill back in 1997, I believe it was. Doctor said I broke two vertebras. Said I was lucky to walk out of the ocean. Luck’s a matter of perspective, I suppose. Doesn’t feel lucky I can’t even body surf any more. Neck’s too weak, doctor says. Too big a risk a wave could roll me on my head. Poof. Out go the lights.
Never really loved golf, but loved emptying a cooler of beer with mi amigos and bumper carts down the 18th fairway. Rheumatoid arthritis in my fingers took that one away. Arthritis nabbed a few trademarks of my joie de vivre, come think of it. Can’t walk outside if it’s too cold. Can’t toss the grandkids around the way they like. Well, don’t tell the doctor, I still toss the littlest one around a bit, but I pay for it in spades.
Been years since I played volleyball. Collapsed arch took away that one back in the ‘80s. You should have seen me jump. I bet Foggy Andrews once that if we put a mattress down on the far side, I could jump clean over the net. I’ll tell you this, I never had to pay Foggy a dime.
It’s been here in just the last few years that I lost my strong constitution. I miss Madame Zhang’s Szechuan House so much some nights I swear I will sneak into Roberta’s drawer, snatch the car keys and drive out for some spicy fried duck. Driver’s license be damned. I can see just fine. But the gig would be right up once Roberta caught me camped out on the pot for 48 hours. Mexican, Cajun, good Italian. Hell, I can’t eat a bit of it. Not even the fake Chinese with no bite. Everything Roberta lets me eat tastes like Saltine crackers. Can’t drink either. I said goodbye to red wine and whiskey a while back. They give me the farts. The bad kind.
That business, I don’t let it get me down. I told you I’ve still got some tricks up my sleeve. The spirit of the thing hasn’t gotten away from me yet. It’ll take more than a little hip dysplasia to knock me down.
Take fishing. No, I can’t handle the rod anymore on accounts of my arthritis. But I can teach it. Show my grandkids how to tie a fly on right, fish the best spots, down to what side of every fallen tree to cast to. The big ones are getting right good. The little ones, they don’t have the patience yet, but I showed ‘em my old tricks for catching frogs by the pond. How to corner skinks and lizards and grab hold of ‘em so they don’t get squished.
Now there’s a good cover of snow, I’m about to unveil my new plan to hold on to the spirit of it. I’m going to tell ‘em they don’t know how to sled the way Grampa and his amigos used to do it. Get ‘em all riled up. They’ll climb all over me. Tell us, Grampa. Tell us. Tell us. Then I’ll take ‘em out to the hill and tell ‘em how to make a ramp, a nice big ramp. A proper ramp. And I’ll tell ‘em, you’ve got to sled down this hill and hit that ramp hard if you want to sled the way Grampa and his amigos used to do it. I’ll be, it’s going to be a hoot watching those little buggers pop off their sleds like popcorn. Pop! There they go!
It took longer to figure all this out than it did for the hair to fill in my ears. But I come to realize hip dysplasia and shin splints and arthritis and all that mess can keep me from doing what I like, but no ailment can keep me from loving what I like. What I’m saying is just because I can’t show off much gusto don’t mean I’m not full of gusto. I can’t do the hokey pokey, but I can still act like a kid.
An old feller who still loves remembering his days on a sled got the spirit of it just as much as any man still riding his.
Creative Writing Student Uses the Toilet
I step into a dim and steamy windowless cuboid where the two Cs – cleanliness and contemplation – co-exist in a harmonious parallelogram with the three Ss most known to be the domain of this sanctum of human privacy.
Damp and humid, the warm air clings to the topography of my body as I shed the layers obfuscating my unexplored southern hemisphere. How I long for intrepid Polo or Magellan, de Gama or Drake to discover the beauty, relieve the angst, absolve the shame buried within these hidden treasures and my tissued heart. Crystalline droplets form on my crooked nose and furrowed brow, lingering vapors condensing to deposit the serenity of my roommate’s ritual shower onto flesh where it soaks me with the infinite echoes of his singsong voice.
I twirl as an ungainly toddler does imitating a waltz, gracelessly depositing my downy posterior on a humble throne of porcelain with a dull thud reminiscent of the falling dreams of trying times gone by. Its faux mahogany cover a clever ruse disguising the intent of its service, unmasked as it embraces my girth. The dark synthetic grains whisper of African mysteries and hypnotize my consciousness, steering my sanguine eyes along swirling sands, round and round, as the tribal drum beats deep down in the chasm of my soul, pulsating the elastic of my rectum like two hairless palms drumming the taut hide atop a mighty djembe. Round and round, my bedazzled gaze follows over the precipice into the shimmering lake below, its surface a mirror reflecting age-old insecurities from which I cannot look away and so I shatter it with heavy missiles forged not only by the indiscretions of my past, but by the blood, sweat and tears of the noble Nebraska corn farmer, the lonely mustachioed Guatemalan toiling over orchards for the future of his children, the weary union man in the factory, the aspiring adolescent full of dreams that one day her spatula will be replaced by judge’s gavel or author’s pen.
The cesspool betwixt my loins is assaulted with the gross domestic product of our nation’s history – one thousand technological innovations, one million engineers’ dreams, one-hundred million men and women fighting for minimum wage and better working conditions – condensed into a single package. I reject history with such sudden aggression that my body shudders, ejecting without ceremony a sullied past into the unconsecrated burial ground of its watery grave so that I may cleanse my corporeal existence of old sins and rise anew, fresh and untainted by the failings of our unscrupulous world.
My vision grows dim as the cuboid incubates me like a womb does an unborn child. The commercial detritus of sanitation, hygiene and beauty disappears from before me as my sight withdraws from the world, like the universe contracting within the enormity of a black hole at the end of time. And then my vision and mass explode forth once again with the force of the origin of all things, before Jonah or Noah, Sodom or Gomorrah, Adam or Eve. By my eyes alone, the Big Bang is witnessed and all is light. All is white, blinding, radiant light riding swooping electromagnetic waves so bright it must be seen by taste and smell.
But oh, sweet lament. Oh, terror of nights. The light, it is a Siren, heralding brave fools to tragic misfortune. A blinding trick that opens my senses to peril, a creeping chimera escaped from Dante’s Inferno. It is goblins I smell and ghouls I taste and their foul deeds wrinkle my nose and dizzy my mind as tears pour forth from the corners of my eyes along the channel of my nose like water rolling down the great aqueducts through Rome.
I extend my arm and take hold of the brass dagger that will vanquish this malodorous creature back into the depths of its realm with a single earnest thrust. Down, down I thrust, and the belching, gurgling screams of the underworld are transmitted through the liquid medium of space before reversing in the eddying chaos of the churning vacuum. Melancholy aqueous cries for mercy go unheeded as I light a candle to the fickle, feckless gods who rule such grim chambers as these. I pray for answers, for understanding, for explanations of why this world is filled with injustices horrific as Caledonian battlefields, but do not expect answers from impotent deities in the lofty molecular density of this syrupy durian atmosphere.
Their reply is rich with fetid cruelty, and my eyes open once again to sip the solemn truth from my tropical chamber of agony and torment. “It was still too steamy,” they cry. “Why is there no window to open,” they lament. “You should have waited,” they chant.
I should have waited. But it was not my fate. I should have waited. But I could not.