Like So Much Light (incandescent forays)

elective

radiance like a turnstile in a subway station
changing with each revolution your face and hands
on my breast the light slow and long then
dim and vibrating like electricity in
1950s movies when wires touch
and spark the air that fills spaces and time between.

remarkably the cat rubs my leg and sparks of
static, a bellow of light
emitted. I, seated uncomfortably
in a high back yellow arm chair that smothers
my thighs that sweats my knees as
I talk aloud to the night.

fallow thoughts unburden my justification;
arms sway honest past my denim bookends
you call thighs. Around you wrapped like a fur
unstained and unnoticed warm
and welcome, tight, embroidered on your hips
and back; prickly 3-days of stubble ignite sparks
but only in my head and in the night that is so
rarely noticed these days.

where Native Americans in tepees turn sticks insidespark3
their palms, masturbating the wooden points
embed themselves with lust and fury,
turning turning past the one side then
the other and circles heaved into space when
shadows fleck apart and orange dewdrops, sparks of
fire fall up, spurt, let loose, free to meet the brush below
for the sake of mush and the history that follows.

Irony

Funny thing: I just learned that I was long-listed for a flash fiction contest. Here’s the 500-word or less piece I submitted:

LATE

You called in late for work again. When I overheard Robin ask you what time you thought you’d be in I tried to guess why you were going to be late. Did you maybe have a doctor’s appointment? Or had you, like so many other mornings, overslept? But then Robin said, “I’m sorry,” so I figured it was something momentous and I stopped silently swearing at you for showing up late for work all the time, and making me have to slice and toast and smear and wrap bagels faster than I want to so early in the day. To be honest I almost called in this morning, too, because damn did I ever stay out late last night all because Tripp asked me if I wanted to go see Rough Francis play at the Monkey House and I went and stood next to him, dancing in place, waiting for him to turn his attention from the stage just for a second or two to see if I was having a good time or did I want another drink, but it wasn’t until the show ended and he finished whooping his right fist into the air that I think he remembered he’d brought me along.

Marvin, the old guy with eyebrows so bushy that you once suggested he kept his spare keys in them, just walked in and asked for his usual and I hesitated before telling him that I had no idea what his usual was, and that even though we look nothing alike because you’re tall and skinny and I’m, well, I’m not, he must have mistakenly thought I was you because you pretty much know everyone’s usual and I don’t because I’d like to think I have more important things to do than memorize people’s bagel preferences, but instead of just coming right out and saying I’m Sarah, not Gwynn you idiot, and I have no idea what your usual is, I covered my face with my hands like I was all embarrassed and said, “Oh geez, I am so sorry, Marvin, but I’ve totally spaced on your usual,” and he laughed and said, “That’s okay; pumpernickel, toasted with smoked salmon schmear, please,” and after I handed him his usual I was glad I held off being rude even though I hated him and his stupid eyebrows, because you once said that you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar, and besides, Robin was watching me from the register.

You never did show up, so after wiping the counters and mopping the floor I started walking home and when I passed by Manhattans I saw you sitting at the bar so I went in and asked you why you were drinking so early in the day and what’s in that small velvet bag next to your beer, and you said because you were sad, and it’s the ashes of Shelley, your cat, and so I hugged you and said I hope I’ll see you tomorrow.

To Have a Thing

To have a thing or
to give it up for money. To
sell it for less than its worth
then use the money for something
you think you need but then you
miss it. The thing, that is.

ring

It was a high school ring. Asserting
success, artificial amber
colored stone set deeply
within deceptive metal trying
to be important with its date
and place, a chorus of completion.

What did I need the money for anyway?
A trip to the mall where my succulent lips
could peruse waxy colors? Where my friends
and I could giggle and saunter in trendy shoes
and claim all tomorrows as our very own?

Was that why I sold my graduation ring
to that man who looked like Stephen King, black oily
hair drifting over one side of his thick glasses?
I don’t remember why. I only remember his
ad in the paper,
CASH PAID for memories and
unimportant reminders, the one my parents said
they could not afford but I whined
like a stranded seal pup until I won.

What a waste. What a shame. How is my daughter
ever going to find her mother’s adolescent badge,
an antique now probably melted down.
Once there. Once a thing to have.
Now magma.

Me And Tom

During a summer break many college years ago I got a job canvassing for Tom Hayden’s  Campaign for Economic Democracy (CED). After reading a Help Wanted ad looking for PEOPLE WHO WANT TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE I drove down to Los Angeles from my parents’ house in Woodland Hills, and met with Mr. Hayden in a tiny office. For all of ten minutes we discussed politics. Well, no, not really. He talked about his ideas for political reform while I nodded vigorously. He glanced at my spare resume, which listed little more than retail sales and kennel work, but he was impressed by my membership in STAND (Students and Teachers Against Nuclear Development). Enough so that he hired me on the spot.

I knew he was married to Jane Fonda, and I knew he’d been a radical anti-Vietnam War activist. But what mattered most to my nineteen-year-old self at the time, was that he was tomsuper sexy and smart; and that I would earn a decent hourly rate just for knocking on people’s doors, reciting a pre-written spiel, and asking for their help in supporting political change.

An hour later, I was hustled into a van packed with six other idealistic young people, and driven to Manhattan Beach, one of the more posh neighborhoods lining the Pacific Coast. “This is going to be a breeze,” I thought to myself. “So many rich people live here.”

In three hours I’d collected little more than four campaign signatures, about thirty dollars in donations, and over a dozen courteous thank-you-but-no-thank-you’s.

I looked at my watch and saw that I had about ten more minutes until the designated lunch break, so I figured I could squeeze in one more knock-smile-pitch. I walked up the steps of a modest house; one of those much further down from the beach. An American flag hung from its flag holder.

The door opened and a youngish man wearing dirty jeans and a flannel shirt answered. He was holding a beer. I said hi. He asked me what I wanted. I smiled, quickly rattled off the key components of Mr. Hayden’s objectives, and then asked for a donation, or, at the very least, a signature on this legislative petition I was holding.

The man asked me to repeat the name of who it was I was working for.

“Tom Hayden,” I said proudly.

“Oh. Him. Sure. Let me see what I’ve got to give you. Stay right there.” He narrowed the door and disappeared. I waited, hoping that he’d donate a much-needed large sum of money. I really wanted the bonus given at the end of the day to the person who collected the most loot.

I tapped my foot. Wiped some sweat off my cheek.

A few seconds later he kicked the door open and pointed a very large shotgun at me. “You get your Commie ass off my property right now, young lady,” he shouted, “or I’ll shoot you off it.”

I returned to the van, waved hello to the other canvassers, ate my turkey sandwich in silence, and then, when everyone else jumped up to start the second half of their work day, I politely said, “Thank you, but no thank you. I think I’m done for the day.”

RIP  Tom Hayden. Thank you for trying to make the world a better place.

 

 

Uncaged

A few weeks ago Loy’s pal Emily came over for some summer-is-almost-over-let’s-hang-out time. Since it was such a beautiful day, I figured they’d walk down to the lake or go meet some friends up on Church Street. Instead they chose to hide out in the dark recesses of Loy’s room, Snapchatting their brains into oblivion.

“Hey guys. Let’s go do something outdoors,” I prodded. I would have preferred to continue writing, but the guilt I felt over not spending enough time with my child during her summer break motivated me from my desk.

“Like what?” Loy asked, without bothering to look at me.

“Yeah, like what?” Emily echoed. “I have field hockey practice at 3:00 so there’s not a lot of time.”

I’d forgotten that fall sports began before school did. “That sucks.”

“Yeah, so since Em has to be outside for the rest of the day,” Loy said, finally glancing in my direction, “why can’t you let us just do nothing?”

“Because we need an outing. That’s why. Pick something to do. Now.”

Okay, so shopping at TJ Maxx wasn’t exactly a healthy summer activity, but at least it got them off their phones. After fifteen minutes of browsing around the aisles, both girls declared that they were bored and wanted to leave. We had about 45 minutes left to kill, so we decided to go pet the cats at the Humane Society down the road.

Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to touch the cats through their cages. “You can transfer diseases,” the young shelter helper warned. Undeterred, Loy and Em continued wandering by the many cages, cooing and awwwing, and surreptitiously touching a soft face or two.

Instead of staring forlornly into the eyes of the cooped-up felines, I flipped through the picture book of dogs available for adoption. There was an ugly black pup named Victor

victorpup

and another named Phil.

philpup

Since I am married to Victor and his BFF from childhood is named Phil, I immediately determined that it was a SIGN from the dog gods that it was finally time to adopt a dog.

We’ve been dog-less for going on nine years now. Nine years since Rivers, the best dog in the world, died. He’d woken up one morning with a cough, and four days later he was dead. Hemangiosarcoma. Blood cancer. He was eight years old.

We’d rescued him from a family of boys who’d dragged him on a rope wherever they went. At night their parents locked him in a garage because they were afraid he’d kill their precious $5000 exotic bird. Rivers, the black-and-tan mutt who was there when we brought Loy home from the hospital and then never left her side. He let her decorate him with ribbons and socks. She leaned on him for balance as she learned to walk. He was fiercely protective, barking at anyone who came near her. He walked with us, ran with us, hiked with us, slept with us.rivers2

We buried him in our front yard and planted a butterfly bush over him.

But his ghost followed me. I often thought I saw him racing around the yard or heard him lapping water from his bowl in the middle of the night. As I sipped my morning tea at the table I reflexively reached out my foot to rub him, but hit only space. After a year of grieving we went to the pound and adopted Scooter, a dog that looked exactly like Rivers, but he wasn’t Rivers—he growled at Victor and hid from Loy—so we found a better home for Scooter and decided not to get another dog for a while. Loy canvassed for a pet crow, but that was out of the question.

Now, all these years later—often when I’m stuck on a sentence or having trouble moving a scene forward—I click open Petfinder.com and scour the photographs, searching for a dog that looks exactly like Rivers. Or one that embodies his spirit. I stare into their eyes and wonder if maybe he’s been reincarnated into a pug from Plattsburgh or a pitbull from Jericho.

As I read through Victor and Phil’s sad histories, I got the feeling that these pups were reaching out to me, as if I—

“MOM!! Stop looking at the dogs. We’re not getting a dog!”

“What?” I broke out of my dog trance.

“Mom. We have two cats and no back yard, and there’s no way you’re gonna make me walk a dog in the snow. No dog. Not now.”

She was right. It was neither the time nor the place to add another egg into our scrambled life. I’d already been feeling as if I didn’t have enough love and time and attention to go around—from my ailing mother in Florida to a teenager who was suddenly interested in boys to my over-worked husband to the two books I needed to rewrite to this blog to exercising to fretting over not yet signing up to volunteer for the Food Shelf to all that gooey sticky STUFF of existence.

But, like Loy says: that’s a first-world problem. She is correct. Would I want my life to be any other way? Would I want to not be in the thick of it, working and trying and thinking and hugging and meditating and wondering and wanting, with a few whines thrown in for good measure? Heck no. I want to be doing exactly what I’m doing.chaos

And sure, getting a new pet to take care of, freeing one of those needy creatures from their cages, would probably not have been too big a deal in the grand scheme, but, for that moment anyway, I realized I had enough.

I sighed, closed the book, and drove Emily to her practice.

 

 

 

Along Deer Creek

She remembers the dream, or part of it
while walking her daily walk
three miles of quiet time, she only
alone past Peterson’s dump
yards of metal heaps
rusting cars and trucks and
she is past it in thirty-six steps
breathing hard climbing up to where
the Hunt place stands hidden beneath
a fraternity of crooked oaks
her sneakers crunching rocks
pushing dirt into the wind as she
moves past Calvin’s tiny house
a yellow Ford, 1962
stranded in time and garage.

She walks beyond straggly strands of
Manzanita leaves, tiny round tiddlywinks;
she sees the possum and the pigeon
possum and pigeon both
flat, flattened, flatter
than an envelope, a green leaf.

The pigeon on her right
feathers splayed colorlessly
gray and white and gray and white, the head
sideways one eye up, a bottom-feeder.
A flounder on the tarmac.

The possum on her left, arms stilled
in the midst of reaching forward
stopped in mid-lunge, chin crushed
into the gravel, fur
a dance floor for maggots.

She stops at the cliff’s edge, sees the creek
below, wild blue-gray water rumbling like
freeway traffic orbiting a city. She revels
in the noise and its meaning,creek2
earth atoms hydrogen oxygen sticks and stones
pushed yonder, unidirectional unstoppable, the force,
gravity, the weight of yesterday’s ice
and snow and rain, now in charge of
its own effects.

A fragment of the dream a chunk
from a worn boulder falls and before
it tumbles more she pockets it
and walks on.

Help Wanted

If you write fiction, you will, at some point, have to decide what your characters do for a living. It doesn’t matter if you write for film or television, or if you compose novels, plays, or short stories—the people you create still need to put food on the table.

The female leads on two of my favorite shows streaming these days both happen to be music publicists. Rachel on “Master of None” works for an indie record label; MON

and in “You’re the Worst,” Gretchen is a PR exec who is always running off to fix some disaster wrought by her client; a finicky, but decidedly percipient, rap star.

worst1

Neither of the shows is about music; so as made-up characters, the women could literally have had any occupation. Why wasn’t Rachel a law student or graphic designer? Given her tenaciousness, why not make Gretchen a lobbyist, or, hell, a skydiving instructor?

I might be spitting into the wind here, but I am guessing that the writers decided to pick jobs that would allow the women to be available during the typical workday so that their scenes with other characters wouldn’t always have to take place before or after work. Because there are only so many times you can move a story along while eating breakfast or during Happy Hour, Rachel and Gretchen had to be untethered to a fixed schedule so that they could partake in a little afternoon nookie with their male counterparts (Dev and Jimmie, respectively), or even fly off on a spontaneous trip to New Orleans. (Conveniently, both Dev—a part-time actor; and Jimmy—a writer—also have occupations that offer total flexibility.) Besides having no time constraints, the field of music publicity allows for unconventional supporting casts (furniture-loving rap stars, for example), as well as some pretty groovy settings (concert halls and recording studios, to name a few). Ultimately, though, the jobs these characters have don’t define who they are, per se, but rather exist to supply convenience to the larger story.

But say you’re writing a book where, without a particular job, the plot won’t work? When I needed Hannah, Mona, and Peter, the three protagonists in my second book, “Hat Trick,” to meet on the island of Zanzibar after not laying eyes on each other for twenty years, I knew that it would have to be their jobs that would get them there.

hattrickold

But which jobs? For sure, the easiest choice would have been simply to “write what I know;” give the characters a job I have experience with. Richard Ford, for example, the author of “The Sportswriter,” was a sports journalist. Herman Melville spent time as a cabin boy on a merchant ship; and Franz Kafka toiled away at an insurance firm toilingbefore he started writing.

But given that I’ve mostly written content for various internet companies and environmental agencies—okay, so I was also a sales rep in Russia—my first-hand knowledge was pretty limited. Still, I had to find jobs for all three characters that would drive them and the story toward their (pre-determined) destiny.

Besides the obvious lists of careers detailed on the internet, I checked out blogs and Facebook pages, trying to find out-of-the box jobs beyond real estate broker, teacher, or nuclear engineer. The more obscure the job, the more time I knew I would need to spend researching.

In the end, I made Hannah an owner of an import store. Mona became a film producer overseeing a historical movie being shot on location. And Peter, the third foil in the triptych, was a journalist who covered Hollywood. Sure, it was a bit of a coincidence to find all three of these people—who had at one time been lovers in various iterations—in such an exotic part of the world, but because of their particular professions, it wasn’t all that far-fetched.

Once I locked in their resumes, I had to be certain that my characters would come off as authentic: they would have to walk the walk and talk the talk. I had enough experience in the writing realm to be able to render a pretty convincing Peter, but I had no idea what an import store owner did, let alone how a movie producer lived her life. Which meant I had a lot of homework to do.

Of course you can find a stockpile of websites devoted to job description, but we’re talking live dialog here: I needed to know not just the argot of the insider; but the quotidian minutia that accompanies any profession as well. For that I needed to interview real people.

At the time I was writing “Hat Trick,” I lived in a small groovy town in California that had three import shops that sold hand-crafted art and jewelry and clothing and musical instruments and baskets (and so much more) from around the world.

import

After introducing myself to the owners and explaining my project, it took only a couple of lunch dates and a few hours of loitering to learn what I needed to about the travel, costs, products, etc., involved in running such a business.

After I fleshed out Hannah’s world, I moved onto Mona’s. I’d been an extra in “Peggy Sue Got Married,” and “Northern Exposure,” so I at least knew what being “on set” felt like. I exchanged a few emails with an associate producer I was acquainted with. I chatted up an on-set caterer. (It’s impossible to grow up in southern California and not know at least one person in the movie business.) And even though I never talked with an actual movie producer, I had faith that I could successfully depict on page what one did.

I wrote the book and Hyperion published it. It was a good story well-told, with characters well-drawn. To my eyes, anyway. A year after the book came out I re-connected with an old high school friend who had since become a powerful Hollywood film producer. Naturally, I sent her a copy of the book, hoping she’d find the drama worthy of a screen adaptation. Not only did she not option the book; she sent me an email detailing the ways in which I got the character of Mona totally wrong. “No way would a producer on set ever have enough time to get a massage,” she wrote. She had much more to say, but what it came down to was that I’d not done justice to the occupation of movie producer. Only, it was too late. Mona and her falsely-drawn character were inked in stone for eternity and there was little I could do to change that. I just had to hope that none of my future readers made their living in the movie business, or else their potentially accusatory reviews would one-star me all over Amazon.

Fortunately, that never happened. No one who read or reviewed the book ever found fault in my portrayal of my characters. But it spooked me enough to know that the next time I storyboarded a new character, I’d certainly go above and beyond in defining his or her skill set if their job played an important role.

In my next book, oh boy did it ever. Kate Burke, the female protagonist in “Annie’s Dead,” writes erotica based on her husband, Guy’s, affairs. Therefore, it was essential that Guy have a job where he’d have a darn good chance of meeting women with whom he could have sex. Not only would my male protagonist’s job characterize and color the story—it would be the key to the plot: the primary basis for the arc of the story.

At first I made him a caterer—I figured there would be plenty of lusty housewives ready and willing to taste, so to speak, what he cooked up. But, given that the story takes place in a small town in Vermont, anonymity would be a struggle to maintain. I thought about having him perform on cruise ships, but I knew he wouldn’t want to be away from his ten-year-old daughter for such long stretches of time. Finally, after talking to my friend Anne (no relation to the character), who worked in market research, I settled on Focus Group Moderator.

moderator1

Anne told me that in her experience, most moderators have huge egos; were highly dynamic; and—most significantly—there were often plenty of post-group hook-ups. Guy’s personality fit the bill perfectly.moderator

 

Along with interviewing Anne over the course of some fifteen hours, with a ream of paper’s worth of notes, I also called two other Focus Group Moderators, toured a facility where focus groups are held, and even participated in a focus group for the banking industry.

Before I sent the book off to my agent I sent it to Anne to read. Did Guy act like an actual Focus Group Moderator? Were the reports he talked about realistic? Were the marketing plans he drops into conversation here and there up to snuff?

Anne emailed me back and said that I’d totally nailed Guy. In fact, he reminded her of one of the men she’d worked with in San Francisco.

She closed her letter with the words I desperately needed to see: Job Well Done.