Thursday, January 30, 2014

#FridayFlash - Signs

Darrell stared at the mail in his hand. The Missus would probably give him another yelling if he didn't take it in, tell him how he was once again wasting his life, and hers as well. He glanced at the house for a moment and then back down. No, there was no "probably" about it; he knew she would.

He wanted to walk it in, truly he did. Hand her the mail and smile, as if to say, See, I can change. He even took the first step, but then stopped as the voice in his head protested. Today was the day. He couldn't deny the signs. Like how he felt it in his bones, the way his joints didn't hurt, which was saying something given the cold front blowing in. Big changes in barometric pressure always caused his joints to scream. It was bone on bone some days the way they could hurt—from his shoulders to his knuckles and down to his toes. Sometimes his knees felt like they had knives in them and someone on the other end just twisting and sawing away. Not today, though. Today, he felt just as easy-breezy as he did on those rare occasions when he saw the doctor for a cortisone shot. So that was a good sign, now wasn't it?

Signs were popping up all over the place this morning. Beyond his joints, there was the daily horoscope: STOP SITTING AROUND WAITING FOR SOMEONE ELSE TO DO WHAT YOU NEED TO DO. BY THE TIME THEY GET AROUND TO FIGURING IT OUT, YOU WILL HAVE ALREADY GONE THE DISTANCE. And there it was, almost as if the stars knew that he regularly traveled twenty miles out of the way to the Pit-N-Gas in Brownwood to pick up his lottery tickets. Darrell did it that way to avoid any unpleasantries, namely running into anyone who might go to the same church as he did. If that were to happen, the Missus would know all about it before he could even clear the parking lot. With technology these days, texting and photo clicks at everyone's fingertips, word traveled faster than the pink porcelain bowl express after a Friday night of drinking.

On top of everything else, now there was the freaky thing he found in the mailbox. Darrell didn't know why he decided to check the mail; in fact, it was downright strange the way that little voice challenged his memory. He was certain he had picked up the mail yesterday, but the voice wouldn't let it go. You sure about that? it said. It could've been two days ago, not yesterday. After all, the Missus had you pretty busy by the time you came home last night, yelling at you from the front door before you could even climb out of your car. You might have forgot. And thinking about it some more, his hand on the car door this morning, almost ready drive off to work, Darrell had to agree. It was possible. The Missus was particularly on fire last night, really giving it to him, asking where the friggin' bank money went, even though they both knew he'd already spent it playing the lottery yesterday. And the day before. And the day before that.

In the mailbox he had found a small envelope, and inside that he found two notes. The first was a hand-written letter. Heard you needed a little help to make things work out. It was signed, Because God loves you. Looking into the envelope again, Darrell pulled out the second note, a crisp Benjamin.

Standing there in the driveway now, completely baffled by the wonder of it all, Darrell pulled out his pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes. He slipped one of them into his mouth, lit it, and drew down deep on the smoke, thinking: It's not like the Missus knows about the money, right? He turned the question over and over in his mind like a smooth stone. Then he shook his head. The way she went on about the finances last night, he knew she would have pocketed the dough and never said another word about it. She wouldn't have left it there to chance. Certainly not to test his resolve.

As the moment passed, his confusion turned to sheer, illuminating joy. On top of his joints not hurting, and then the horoscope with its tiny nugget of advice, here was God's messenger giving him a big shove and putting some wherewithal in his hands, too. He'd almost been a believer before, placing a spare dollar in the Sunday plate—and sometimes an unscratched lottery ticket—but this morning he was now fully committed.

Darrell pocketed the money, climbed into the car, and started up the engine. He looked at his watch and smiled. There was still enough time to make it to the Pit-N-Go.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Shake and Nod, Yea, Yeah, Yay

Shake and Nod, Yea, Yeah, Yay.

No, I'm not sitting down with my guitar and a notepad. There are some things I can't seem to grasp. Poetry and verse are better left to those more gifted than me.

As a writer, I often challenge myself to find the right word for the right occasion. Sometimes I succeed; other times, I find that I can thoroughly embarrass myself. Maybe not as bad as showing up at the Queen's Ball wearing only a black tie and pink boxers, but close. The truth is, the English language offers so many variations that I can easily trip up if I'm not paying attention: different spellings that can mean the same thing and others that sound the same but don't convey the same meaning at all. Reading another post on the internet (about the use of a Thesaurus and finding the right word) inspired me to pose a couple of word issues I have resolved in my own mind. (Which is good. I don't think I can honestly say I have resolved anything in anyone else's mind lately. No, I'm sure of it. I never have. But I digress...)

Shake vs. Nod

In my readings, and in listening to speeches, I have seen and heard the word shake used interchangeably, to mean both Yes and No. Using the Dictionary-dot-com app on my iPad, I looked up Shake, and here's what I found among the various definitions:

Shake one's head:
1. to indicate disapproval, disagreement, negation, or uncertainty by turning one's head from one side to the other and back (I'm glad they cleared that one up): I asked him if he knew the answer, but he just shook his head.
2. to indicate approval, agreement, affirmation or acceptance by nodding one's head up and down. (emphasis mine)

I find it interesting the second definition includes the word nodding. For me, when I'm writing a character's action I don't use shake interchangeably. If I want my character to indicate approval, I use nod; if disapproval, I use shake.

This is not to suggest there is a right way and a wrong way. It's more of a style decision, I suppose. To be clear for my readers, though, I make the distinction.

Yea, Yeah, Yay

Here is another set of words that I've seen used interchangeably as interjections, as in, "Our quarterback just scored the winning touchdown!" "Yea!" (or "Yeah!" or "Yay!"). Some may think: Really, who cares? I may be anal about it (No, I admit that I am) but I do. I'm not sure they should be used with such a cavalier attitude.

The first of these, Yea, is defined as:

1. yes (used in affirmation or assent).
2. indeed: Yea, and he did come.
3. not only this but even: a good, yea, a noble man.

4. an affirmation; an affirmative reply or vote.
5. a person who votes in the affirmative.

Yea means "Yes" in an old English or Parliamentary sense, and it seems I might find it used while reading a King James passage (Yea, though I walk...) or while watching a group of comedians lampoon the phrase (i.e., Monty Python and the Holy Grail). In my opinion, then, yea should never be used as an interjection unless the setting is right. Are we all in one accord?

The second, Yeah, is defined as:

—adverb, informal

In the context I have seen it, Yeah is more often used as an offhanded, almost dismissive yes, such as a teenager might say when confronted by his mother: "And, Billy, I want that bed made before you get to play any video games today." "Yeah, yeah, yeah." Again, I don't know that I would want to use it for an interjection. It doesn't pack the emotional punch for me.

The final word, Yay, is defined as:

— interjection Informal.
1. (an exclamation used to express joy, excitement, etc.)

— adverb Informal.
2. to the extent, amount, etc., indicated: The doll is about yay high.

Also, yea.

Bingo. The first definition says it all for me. If I want to use a word as an interjection, then maybe the right choice should be Yay!

Again, this is not to suggest there is a right way and a wrong way. It's more of a style decision (for me); and truthfully, I don't always adhere to it. When I find that I've violated my own rule, typically after I have punched in a quick e-mail or response, the same pink boxers show up to remind me just how human I am.

As an aside, while reading up for this post, I realized that yea, yeah, and yay are all adverbs. Isn't there a thought out there, from the likes of King and Twain, that if you see an adverb, kill it? Again, I digress...

These are my two cents. I'm not sure where that expression comes from, but there you are. Feel free to sound off and express your thoughts on these word choices and how you use them. Or maybe there are other word preferences you would like to share.

Friday, January 24, 2014

#FridayFlash - Leftovers

There's more than one way to kill a person. Staring at the empty bowl across the table, the untouched spoon an exclamation point beside it, Hannah knows this. She is just as certain of it as she is that the sun will come up in the morning and go down at night. Experience and repetition has taught her the truth.

To her right, young Janey stares into the evening meal and grumbles like she always does.

"Ah c'mon, Mom. Leftover stew again?"

"It's Monday night," Hannah says.

After a weekend of meals, it always comes down to this. Monday night is leftover night. Sometimes it's as simple as re-heating the uneaten Sunday tuna fish casserole or the remaining slices of Saturday night movie pizza; other times, like tonight, she can actually take what's left—the browned-up beef that served as nacho meat and the salvaged roast beef, potatoes and carrots—add some water and broth, maybe another can of mixed vegetables, and a few spices to create something new. Not particularly appetizing, of course; but the food was still palatable. Besides, if they didn't eat it up by Monday, the weekend food would eventually find its way into the trash or disposal, and that was a poor use of money. Especially in this economy. Waste not, want not, as her mother would often say. Mother had always been fond of her sayings. Like a rolling stone gathers no moss. Or you made your bed, now lie in it.

Janey spoons a mouthful of stew and grimaces as if it were a dose of cough syrup. Eventually she takes the food. Her face relaxes as she realizes it's not as bad as the mind can imagine, and then spoons another mouthful while reaching for a sleeve of crackers. A smirk pulls at the corner of Hannah's lips.

"Where's dad?" Janey asks.

The smirk disappears as Hannah stares across the table at the empty bowl, the empty chair. She can feel the tears welling up in her eyes, so she looks away.

"He's working late again," she answers.

It wasn't always this way. Dan used to come home on time. He used to laugh and tell how his day went, how the people and the office were driving him crazy. Now, however, almost every night is a repeat of Leftover Monday, and the only time they really see him is on the weekends, which, with the evening movies and the Saturday and Sunday afternoon sports, isn't really seeing him at all.

"Eat up," Hannah tells Janey. "It's a school night. After you do the dishes, you still need to take a bath."

Janey grumbles about that, too. Life is just not fair. Hannah slowly nods her head, closes her eyes. Janey's understanding of fair and unfair is limited. To a little ten-year-old, doing dishes and folding laundry and making one's own bed is unfair. Enduring an episode of Downton Abbey, while they could be watching The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, is also unfair. And if that isn't enough, being forced to take a bath every night, washing her hair and cleaning behind the ears, is asking way too much. But she doesn't know yet that unfairness comes in many different forms. For instance, it can be an unborn baby boy or an unplanned procedure that places a period on the future. It can come in the silence and things unspoken, trailing behind in the wake of laughter. It can be the unknown fragrance that lingers in the fabric of a marriage on the rocks, and in the bitter hint of resentment that loneliness leaves behind.

There's no point in sharing these things with Janey, though, so Hannah doesn't. It's important enough to keep the illusions alive. Maybe they will come true.

Hannah watches as Janey finishes her bowl and takes it to the sink. Her little girl then walks down the hallway toward the bathroom. It isn't the order Hannah had intended—she remembers that it was supposed to be dishes first, then the bath—but she lets it go. She will do the dishes tonight. With all of life's unfairness, real or potential, maybe in this one thing she can show the grace her daughter deserves.

Hearing the bathroom door click, Hannah glances one more time at the empty bowl. She will leave it on the table like she has before, and knows she'll find there in the morning just as clean as it is now. It's not how things are supposed to be, at least not how she thought they would turn out. It's just the way it is.

She grabs a spoonful of her own Monday night meal, and starts in.

Friday, January 17, 2014

#FridayFlash - The Bad Neighbor

Pulling into the driveway, Johnny groaned. He cursed without moving his lips, and then closed his eyes. Couldn't he have one day without the freak?

In his own driveway, Johnny's neighbor, Phil, sat in a folding chair next to a smoker grill. He held a blue can of Stroh's in one hand and a magazine in the other. Probably the latest edition of Field and Stream, Johnny guessed. In addition to the ever-present mirrored sunglasses, Phil's eclectic wardrobe today consisted of denim cutoffs, a camo tee-shirt, the sleeves conveniently torn out, and a crinkled cowboy hat that would give Kenney Chesney a wet dream; and as if the goon's attire couldn't be any creepier, he also wore a pair of camel colored ropers.

"Way to go, Phil," Johnny muttered, careful to keep his lips from moving. "That about takes the cake."

As he pulled farther up into the driveway, an image flashed through Johnny's mind: Randy Quaid, dressed in a ladies' bathrobe, standing next to a rusted-out RV, a black water hose in hand, and announcing to the world that the "...shitter's full." Johnny couldn't help but smile as he hit the brakes and pushed the gear shift into Park. He reached up, pressed a button on the garage door opener remote, and then switched off the engine.

Phil looked up as Johnny stepped out of his silver beamer.

"Howdy neighbor." Phil gestured toward the smoker grill. "I got some good barbecue going here. Want some?"

Not if my life depended on it, Johnny thought.

"No thanks. I think my wife and I are going out to eat."

Johnny grabbed his brief case and closed the car door. He pressed the key fob button. The headlights blinked, the alarm system chirped, and Johnny walked at a near trot toward the open mouth of the garage, hoping to God that Phil wouldn't say anything else. His prayer was answered.

Johnny placed his briefcase on the counter and called for his wife.


He found her in the living room, her face blank, her eyes vacant.

Ah nuts, Johnny thought. What did Phil do now?

In the world of bad neighbors, Phil was was the worst. Johnny was certain of it. He had talked to others, both at his church and at the office, and no one had ever heard of such a philistine. His attire aside, Phil was the type of person who bored into your skin. He spent his weekends and evenings working on engines. Not just any type of engine, either, it seemed; he worked on the loudest and smokiest ones he could find. He liked to race cars, he said one night, apologizing for the noise that rattled the dishes in Johnny's cupboard. If that wasn't enough, the music had to be even louder, the bass deep enough it pulsed through the walls of Johnny's house. He apologized for that, too—repeatedly, his breath reeking so bad of stale beer and cigarettes Johnny hated to raise the issue.

The noise around Phil's place was a constant. From the lawn mowing at odd hours to the almost weekly parties with friends and multiple lady partners (which Johnny could never understand, given Phil's breath), there never seemed to be an end to the raucous.

It wasn't that Johnny hated Phil. At least he didn't think of it as hate. The Good Book warned against hating anyone. Still, there was no sin (so far as Johnny could find) in severely disliking your neighbor. Really, did God actually expect you to sit down and share a meal with a camo-cut-off-boot-wearing freak, who probably only used the Lord's name in the most inappropriate ways?

Johnny crouched down and stared into his Celine's face.

"Honey? What is it?"

Tears filled her eyes.

"That dog finally got to Winston."

Johnny shook his head. Impossible.

Phil's dog, a Rottweiler, was the worst of their problems. The animal barked at all hours and constantly squatted in Johnny's front yard (and apparently in some of the other neighbor's yards, too). Then, there were the holes dug under the fence line, the beast trying to get at Johnny's Chihuahua, Winston, the poor thing terrified to go outside. Of course, Johnny had to fill in the holes. Phil never did.

The solution came with the latest news report of tainted dog treats. Johnny quickly purchased a bag of treats, not caring which kind. Then he soaked them in anti-freeze. (Phil did work on cars, didn't he? It was possible he'd been careless.) Instead of filling one of the holes with dirt, he filled it with the treats. A few days later, the neighborhood quieted down.

Johnny hoped that God wouldn't charge it against him. If He did, then it was something Johnny would have to live with. Surely there were plenty other good works to offset a bad one. Besides, if Johnny hadn't acted, Winston might have been severely maimed. Or worse.

Johnny touched Celine's hand. He never told her what he did.

"Phil's dog is not going to hurt Winston," He said. "Ever."

"Then where is he?"


"Winston. I've called and called and called, but he won't come, and I can't find him."

Johnny frowned. He stood up and searched the house. He walked to the back door and called out, but found it as Celine said. Winston was nowhere to be found. He stepped out the garage door and onto the driveway. He called out again.

"You loose your dog?"

Johnny turned and looked at Phil.

"So it seems. You haven't seen him, have you?"

Phil shook his head.

"I'm sure he'll turn up eventually. My experience, they always do."

Phil stood up and opened the lid to the grill. Smoke billowed out. Inside, on the rack, Johnny saw something that wasn't recognizable. Was it a chicken, maybe?

Phil turned and looked at him.

"You sure you don't want some barbecue?"

Friday, January 10, 2014

#FridayFlash - Lice

The predicted snow finally arrived as Burke stepped across Amsterdam Avenue and continued down West 81st Street. To his right, Burke's long-time friend, Martin Ashford, kept pace, his head swiveling around, constantly checking the streets and windows behind them. Tonight, this was Marty's job. To Burke's left, his only son, Jordan, had to move at a near trot, and Burke hoped the boy could keep up the pace—at least until they reached the safe house.

The snow fell in a white mist at first, swirling in the yellow glow of street lights as the wind whipped around. Then it fell in large, wet flakes. Somewhere around mid-block, the boy spoke up.

"Are these the houses you said are worth almost five million?"

Burke raised a finger to his lips. The boy needed to be quieter.

"At one time, they could have brought that kind of money." Burke looked at the brownstone buildings. Some of the windows had been boarded up while others were blacked out with heavy curtains. "Now, they're just glorified community quarters."

He glanced down and noticed his son looking from side to side, the boy's eyebrows pinched into frown. He could tell Jordan was trying to work it out.

"They were much better looking places back then," Burke added.

Jordan seemed to consider that for a moment, and then nodded.

At the corner of West 81st and Columbus Avenue, they cut through a small courtyard that stretched along the side of what used to be the planetarium. Now, the building was fitted with fifty-foot flat screens, each filled with their own displays. On one, a soldier stood in uniform. "Each one serve for a better tomorrow," a superimposed banner announced. On another screen, the image showed one of the first public arrests. The man, a Wall Streeter, had violated the public trust, they were told. The video showed a mob of people—their fists raised high, their faces contorted with anger. Armed police shoved the man into a car with tinted windows. The screen went black. Blocked letters told the viewers: "Equal justice under the law."

The threesome cleared the courtyard and stepped across the next street, taking the nearest entrance into Central Park. They made their way around the lake, exiting near Fifth Avenue and East 72nd Street, and Burke felt his spirit start to lift. Tonight had shone them good fortune. The safe house wasn't much farther—assuming the information he was given turned out to be correct. He hated leaving everything behind, hated leaving some of his friends, but the truth was he hated living here more. What was once the land of the free was now nothing more than a portrait of the surreal. Truth was defined as lies, lies became the truth, and the only value for human life was the service it could offer.

A quick glance up and down the street told Burke the way was clear. They crossed over. Steam rose through metal grates in the sidewalk, and rats scurried away from a rotting corpse as they passed by and into a nearby alley.

"What happened to him?" Jordan asked.

"What could happen to us all," Marty said.

"I certainly hope not," Burke added.

He noticed the dead man wore no shoes or coat. They cleared one alley and entered another, finally stopping at a metal door. A small sign read: "Mission Laundry: You Wear It, We Clean It." Burke gave a series of knocks, and a moment later the door opened. A bear of a man stepped out. The man had a bald head, a beard down to his chest, and arms the size of a wrestler. He wore a tight shirt that revealed his strength.

Burke was five-foot-eight, and he had to look up to meet the man's eyes.

"I'm looking for a piece of bread," He said. "You got any?"

"Depends." The man looked from Burke to Jordan to Marty. "What kind you want?"

"Seven grain and a slice of white."

The man looked at Burke a moment longer. "Maybe we can handle that."

Burke took a deep breath and let it out. "Is this the safe house?"

The man shook his head. "This place is only a door. You want to see the safe house, you got to be checked for lice."

Burke blinked. "Lice?"

"Man, we got to be safe. Ain't no lice gets past the door." The man reached behind his back and pulled out a pistol. "You clean, then we see about you going to the safe house."

"What does that mean?"

"Means you got to be checked out. All of you."

Burke stood for a moment, contemplating. He'd heard rumors of this, but the reality of it still hit him hard. He looked at his son—this was the boy's only chance—and finally nodded. "Yeah, okay."

Inside, the man ordered them to a room where another man with a syringe injected them with a blue liquid. He then scanned their bodies. In minutes, Burke and his son checked out; alarms sounded, though, when the man waved the scanner over Martin.

The doorman cursed. He said something about a tracking device and raised his gun. Martin stepped back.

"Wait," Burke shouted. "Please wait." He looked at Martin. "Why?"

"I had to," Martin cried. "The police threatened to kill me. No harm was to come to you, though. They promised."

Burke shook his head with disappointment. He turned to the other men. "My son and I had no knowledge of this. Please believe me."

The doorman looked at him. "You want us to believe you, then you handle it." He lifted the pistol as an offering. "Otherwise, none of you are going anywhere."

Marty begged for his life as Burke looked from the doorman to the pistol and then to his friend. He glanced at his son. Finally, he nodded and held out his hand.

In time, maybe, Jordan would understand.

Friday, January 3, 2014

#FridayFlash - The Last Stand

Colonel Shane T. Manahan stood by the rectory window, a cup of coffee in hand. One of the privates brought it in earlier, presenting it as requested—heavy on the whiskey, light on the coffee. He stared out the window and took a sip. A blue-gray light permeated the haze of fog and smoke that covered the landscape, and across the field inky shadows of trees stood like a phalanx of soldiers preparing to meet the enemy. The fighting had been intense last night. The air still carried the scent of burned out buildings from a nearby village. The morning report, detailing the casualties suffered and the troops remaining, had not yet come in, and Manahan was eager to know how the day might go. In the distance the muffled beat of snare drums could be heard, the enemy signaling its march out of camp.

"I guess today's fighting will be here soon enough," he said. "Anything you want to discuss? Any prayers you would like to offer?"

Tied to a chair, the priest said nothing. The room was adorned with only a bed, a desk, and a table with two chairs, one now occupied.

Manahan glanced over his shoulder. He stared at the hard lines furrowing the old man's brow, and then turned his eyes back toward the window. "I didn't think so."

Another ten minutes passed in silence, long enough for Manahan to finish his coffee. Finally, one of the lieutenants entered with the report. They had lost fifty-six men; now, only eighty-three remained. Hearing the news, Manahan closed his eyes. It would most likely be a short day—assuming, of course, they made it through the morning.

"Send a couple of men to scout the woods. Once the king's men are within range, we'll take the priest and march him out with the rest of our troops."

The lieutenant nodded his understanding, turned on his heels, and left. As the door closed, the priest finally spoke up.

"Don't you fear God?"

"God? Yes. You, however..." Manahan shook his head. "And certainly not the man you serve, the one who thinks he has God's favor."

"You think the Holy Father doesn't have God's favor?"

"I wouldn't know. I was talking about the king."

"But I don't serve the king."

"And yet the king's army knew to check that village and who to round up."

"And you think I had something to do with that?"

"Not me. Your own bishop said as much... before he died." The priest blanched. Manahan leaned against the wall. "You asked me, Monsignor, so let me ask you. Do you fear God?"

"My conscience is clear. I have the support of the Almighty."

Manahan frowned. "Really?" From the table he pulled the other chair over and sat down. "You know, I understand why the king and his court do what they do. Though blessed by the church, nobody really confuses the fact that they're still men, that they still rule by their own desires and needs and will pillage the wealth of the people in order to secure their own hold on power. And if that's not enough, they'll slaughter a whole village, women and children included, in order to prove that point. But the church? Unfortunately, too many people still hold fast to the idea that at least the church will do what is right. That it will feed the poor, clothe the naked, and lead everyone on the right path according to the scriptures. But what if it doesn't fulfill its mission, Monsignor? What if the very priest the people trusted turns on them? And when he tells the king's army who, what, and where—what then?"

Manahan let that sit in for moment. He stared long and hard into the eyes of the priest, but found nothing there—no shame, no conviction, no repentance. Instead, the priest clenched his jaw and stared back.

Manahan shook his head and stood. "You disgust me."

As he stepped away, the priest said, "You're just an angry man on the losing side of a bitter war. I know. I heard how you lost your wife and children." Manahan turned and stared as the priest continued. "But that was not God's fault. You can't blame Him for that."

"Make no mistake, Monsignor, I don't blame God. He's not the one who spoke to the king's men."

"You say you don't blame God, but yet you attack His church?"

Manahan walked toward the window.

"I'm not a young man anymore, Monsignor. I am not easily swayed. I admit that there is at least one priest who still lives the noble life. I have met him. I have broken bread with him. And who knows? There may be more like him. You, however, are not one of them. And as far as I am concerned, you are no more a holy man than I am."

With that, the priest fell quiet, and the only sound that filled the room was the steady beat of drums, growing louder by the minute. A knock at the door broke the silence between the two men. The lieutenant entered. He announced the enemy was within range, and Manahan looked at the priest.

"I think we're ready then," he said.

The lieutenant nodded and left the room, returning a moment later with a uniform and a pair of boots.

"These are for you to wear," Manahan said to the priest.

"And if I won't?"

"You have no choice."

The priest stared at the clothes. "Know this day, that you will stand before God. You will account. And then you will burn."

Manahan sighed. "That may be true. But when the priests side with the king, when they twist and bend the scriptures to serve their own interests instead of God, then we're all damned to hell. You're just going first."