Paul Simon and New Work (!)

I’m beginning to think this class is the best thing to happen to my writing. Why? Because it is teaching me word economy. Keeping it brief and saucy. No bullshit. As I’ve been writing flash fiction, I’ve also been thinking about song lyrics, and how some songwriters are masters of conveying setting, mood, etc. in just a few simple lines. Specifically, I’ve been listening to Paul Simon’s “I Do It For Your Love,” which does an amazing job at setting the scene and moving the story forward.

First, there’s:

We were married on a rainy day
The sky was yellow
And the grass was gray
We signed the papers
And we drove away
I do it for your love

BOOM. Action, scene, refrain. A yellow sky and gray grass. I’m there.

Then:

The rooms were musty
And the pipes were old
All that winter we shared a cold
Drank all the orange juice
That we could hold
I do it for your love

I feel like I already know this couple. I’m sitting on their first weeks and months of marriage. “Drank all the orange juice that we could hold.” I feel it.

And:

Found a rug
In an old junk shop
And I brought it home to you
Along the way the colors ran
The orange bled the blue

Such a tender action, and I see that bright rug so clearly, ol’ Pauly S. lugging it across town to his new bride.

Finally:

The sting of reason
The splash of tears
The northern and the southern
Hemisphere
Love emerges and it disappears
I do it for your love
I do it for your love

We know what happens. It’s there. Short and sweet and sad.

ANYWAY. Here is the piece I wrote that was just workshopped in class last night. I made some edits and feel very, very good about it. In fact,  it may be one of my all-time faves. Enjoy, dear readers!

Needle Work

“A stitch in time saves nine.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means the quicker you fix something, the less work you have to do. Now let me see.”

Nelle turned the milky forearm and examined it at different angles. Veins branched and curled along its length. She ran her thumb over the tender spot that joined the humerus with the radius and ulna –  the “crook” of the arm. She smiled while pressing the bulging blue.

“You’ve got great veins, so this should be easy.”

They called her Nurse Nelle. She had an informal questionnaire she presented to patients upon intake, as they sat nestled in crocheted pillows on her sofa. No checked boxes or ballpoint pens, just:

“Why are you here?”

“Who referred you?”

“How much do you think you should pay for this?”

The answers were always uncomfortable – a friend of a friend said you could help me do it. My friend said 50 bucks, but I only have 40. My right arm’s worn out, try out my left. My friend said 100. My foot is swollen. Not sure, someone just gave me your address.

This girl was an uncommon beauty under sunken cheeks. Pale skin, black hair, and blue eyes like a china doll. She was nervous and chatty and told a familiar story. College was tough, drinking made her fat, coke made her thin, boyfriend made her cry, Oxy made her indifferent. Injecting it would provide instant relief.

“I swear I’ve never heard of anyone like you. You’re like a nurse or something…”

“I want you to lie down for me and make a fist.”

Day and night they knocked, sometimes getting an open door, sometimes not. A junk box of junkies with goods in hand, here to see the guru with her clean needles, heaps of cotton balls, bile-colored disinfectant, boxes of Winnie-the-Pooh Band-Aids. For some it evoked their earliest memories of doctor’s offices and booster shots, of their mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and then, with calm apology, they left her den to think things over. Others saw her as the shining answer to their own washed-out families.

She liked to use an old trick on them that worked on squealing toddlers. Nick the Needle was a friend here to visit. Yes, his greeting stung a bit, but he always came bearing gifts. He found fresh injection points and taught new techniques. His buddies could clean out infections and store dirty needles.

With a voice like a lullaby, she instructed and demonstrated and suggested they try it on their own. Some visited many times before they left the nest. Until they learned to use an alcohol swab, hold the syringe, use the scale to measure, properly tie off. Until they embraced the soft pressure of the bevel, and the sudden release as it punctured the skin, the single drop of bright blood that was a sign that they did well. And as their conscious lives crawled aboard a raft and traveled towards a shrinking tunnel of bliss, they all saw the same framed certificate on her wall, from a little college up north. “Phlebotomist” was a funny word. Tough to say, even tougher when you were out of your body. Some, in their last right-minded moment, recalled what it meant.

“Hey, so you used to…”

Then they were gone for a while. For those trying it for the first time, a good long while.

Nelle thought of brothel girls in Victorian Paris as she secured the girl’s arm. Those hapless addicts who struggled to get their fill with massive needles and a bit of rag tied round their thighs, gritting their teeth and taking a wild stab. If only she’d been there before the gangrene ate up their lovely legs. But she was here now. Her home was a teaching school.

“Now I know you’ve been told that you shouldn’t look at it, but if you’re going to learn to do it on your own you need to.”

“I’m not scared.”

This was where they usually called it a day. Where they saw the blood mingle and billow inside the barrel, then the plunger force it all under the skin. Where they passed clean out. But this girl was determined, and stared at the arm until her eyes welled. Nelle had to tell her twice to release the fist and when she did she shuddered, then went loose, then still.

Nelle would have a few hours with her before the girl would emerge from her stupor and head home. She quietly packed a small take-home kit – two clean syringes, two alcohol swabs, two Band-Aids, and a short piece of green Latex.

Patients were impressed by how neat and tidy she kept the place. But she never welcomed them into her bedroom, with items stuffed in messy drawers and stacked on closet shelves. Copies of old patient files and letters of thanks. Yellowed pictures of newborns and family portraits. A personal recorder with dozens of labeled tapes. And a piece of paper from a big university up north that in loopy script bestowed her with another title: Doctor.

After the girl had groggily taken her package and left, Nelle lit a cigarette and stared at her living room wall. She smoked only half before rolling up her sweater sleeve and pushing on her own sore skin and tired veins. If only she had someone like her. What a comfort that would be.

Alice

pw01

Greetings sports fans! Last night I completed Week Two of my UCLA course, and I think I’m in love. The instructor is hilarious and helpful, and most of all just wants us to write – put it out there – make it happen. Each week we have a homework assignment, and the first one was to re-tell a well-known novel in 1000 words or less. I decided on the following, and am pretty pleased with the result. Next week the class will workshop one of my pieces – nervous and excited, my default settings. Looking forward to the next!

***

“I’m so bored.”

Alice smoothed her pinafore and gazed at the river.

“I wonder what adventures might await me when I grow up.”

She heard a rustling and a soft ticking. The white rabbit was sharp-dressed and trim. He reached for the pocket watch in his waistcoat and his red eyes went wide with panic.

He leapt as if a beagle were nipping at his ankles, then hopped towards a large oak tree. She shuffled and stumbled behind him, eager to follow the big-eared gentleman down the rabbit hole.

Darkness, a heart-dropping fall, a hollow thud.

DRINK ME

She was tired of pulling at doorknobs in the vast hallway she’d landed in, and the key she found was for a door far too small. A sip of what was in the glass bottle might relax her – she’d once had a nip of her mother’s cordial after all.

Another heart-dropping fall, and she was small as a salt shaker. Far too small to reach the key.

EAT ME

The cake was spongey and tart, but she had little time to dwell on it now that she was 50 feet tall. Hopeless and confused, her enormous tears filled the space. A swirl of animals struggled in the torrent of falling water and suddenly she was small once more and swam with them out a tiny door.

The Dodo was a fool. How could you run a race with no winner? But she was wet and cold, and running in circles with a bevy of beasts seemed the quickest way to dry off. Then she caught a white puffy tail in the corner of her eye and chased it, race be damned.

“Who is Mary Ann?”

This was one bossy rabbit, and he must have also been blind, mistaking Alice for his maid when she entered his wee cottage. Who was the Duchess, and why did he need her gloves and fan? She felt a wave of nausea and her limbs creaked and stretched. No, not again! Soon her body filled the home, and the frightened townspeople pelted her with rocks.

“Alright, these mushrooms better work.”

Ragged and twitchy, she came upon the Duchess’ home. The caterpillar she’d met, in his hookah-smoking wisdom, had told her to use two chunks of mushroom to get back to normal height after the village incident. It was like a kitchen experiment – tasting bits of each until she felt like herself again.

Lunch with the Duchess was a nightmare. Too much pepper in the soup, and this cat just sat there the whole time, grinning. And the baby, well…better to not speak too much of it. It wasn’t every day that an infant turned into a squealing piglet before your eyes.

“Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

She was tiring of these confounding riddles and endless tea parties. But again she found herself at the head of a long table, sipping Earl Grey. She longed for boring afternoons with her sister, where they exchanged gossip and nibbled on scones. This host was surely mad (just look at that terrible hat!), the hare was plain irresponsible, and the dormouse was a nervous wreck.

“Off with his head!!”

“Are you KIDDING me?!”

Alice was sure that walking into a garden full of white roses would pose no danger, and definitely not offer her any tea. But no sooner had she pressed her nose against a rosebud than an army of anthropomorphic playing cards marched in with cans of red paint, brushing each flower until they dripped and drooped under glossy lacquer. It was all for the Queen of Hearts, who loathed white roses but apparently loved croquet and delivering death sentences.

She had been here for less than an hour (or maybe not – were any clocks properly set in this Wonderland?), and already the Queen had made her play a game of croquet using mallets that turned into flamingos (inconvenient), ordered the deaths of the Duchess and the Cheshire Cat, verbally abused the White Rabbit, and generally set everyone in a bad mood. Now the Queen was raging against the Knave of Hearts, who was on trial for stealing her tarts. The jury pool was decidedly rodent, with mice and squirrels and lizards directing their beady eyes towards the witness stand, and the mile-high girl who was struggling to sit behind it.

Bravery was surely not a requirement to be a fine lady in the world Alice lived in, but now it was all she had. The trial of tarts had turned into her own, accused of “stealing the air,” by growing tall again. It was time to put an end to this buffoonery.

“OK, listen. Today I’ve danced with a Mock Turtle, smeared jam on a mouse’s nose, and chased a rabbit through this place for God knows why. Everyone grows up and they can’t help it. You can’t banish me because of it!”

“OFF WITH HER HEAD!!!”

Alice easily fought the advances of the Queen’s tiny minions, folding each one like a card. Her arms worked furiously against the onslaught, as some heaved themselves towards her face. She brushed one away, only to open her eyes and see…a leaf? The faces and colors of the courtroom swirled into a muddy brown, and the Queen’s shrill orders became soft and familiar.

“ALICE! You fell asleep in the grass. Come now, let’s go inside and have a cup of tea.”

“Oh sister, I’m afraid I’ve had my fill of tea today. But let me tell you a story…”

Little Germ

Beginning my class at UCLA tomorrow – no longer a short story course (which was sadly canceled last week), but instead a flash fiction course. I figure it will help me tighten up my writing – plus, nothing over 1500 words really fits into my lifestyle these days. I couldn’t help but start a little something the night before, to get the juices flowing. Let’s see where it goes…

***

Cara rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand and stepped into the driveway. It was still dark and the early crowd was still hours away. The previous day’s heat rose from the concrete and made it feel like dusk as she tied a kerchief on her head and got to work. She unfolded dusty card tables and collapsible lawn chairs, laid out blankets on every inch of green lawn, and reviewed a small notebook full of descriptions and prices. The entire right half of the two-car garage was stacked with lidded cardboard boxes, and using a stepladder she pulled each one down, inspected it, and spread out its contents.

It was the standard estate sale fare for a man of a certain age and disposition – gold plated ashtrays and vases, black lacquer-framed Japanese prints, faded silk flowers, ceramic angels grasping their hands and looking to the sky, delicate crystal champagne glasses – not flutes, but the kind seen in hotel ballrooms in the 1920s. She struggled under larger items, particularly a brass bar cart with etched-glass shelves that no longer rolled but had a pathetic limp that required her to carry it. Cara consulted the list again and again, confirming prices and writing down the absolute lowest she’d go if the early birds wanted to haggle.

After two hours the entire house sat in the front yard, save for the bed and a few other pieces that could be viewed upon request. Cara eyed the final item in the garage, a stylish mid-century armchair that had been recovered in a graying mauve. It was by far the most expensive item in the house, and would fetch more at an estate auction than at a Saturday yard sale.