Writing in the Short Form – Some Examples

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Lists: post 24 for "Artists"

I love lists, don’t you? Long or short, diurnal or recording, serious, frivolous, useless, listless; each and every one a gem. A longtime favorite is the List of Useless Taglines.

May I have a hamburger for which I’ll gladly pay a nickel on Tuesday.
I sure hate to have to ask you to.
And now for the two most scintillating minutes in television…
I’d like to kiss ya’, but I just washed my hair.
I have more will to stay than go.  Parting is such sweet sorrow, I shall stay…
Let’s just have a smoke on it, shall we?
I shall not seek and I will not accept…
Excellent pool isn’t about pool excellence.  It’s about being somebody.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep…
She blew my [nose], and then she blew my mind.
Oh, I’m from Philadelphia.  We don’t do that sort of thing.
A horse!  My kingdom for a horse!
I did not touch that woman.
Riders, for your own safety, please do not lean against the doors.
Hi, I’m Chevy Chase, and you’re… not.
A man is brave when he does brave things.
That depends on what the definition of is is.
I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.

List of Useful Taglines

Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.
Please remove my name from your call list.
I was told my position was eliminated.
I shot the sheriff, but I did not shoot the deputy.
Every complete whole has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
I can’t; I have rehearsal.
Yes, Mama, I mailed it yesterday. 
I cannot comment on an on-going investigation.
Time to make the donuts.
Remember, Friday’s quiz includes your vocabulary words.

Things I Noticed after Age 55

When I eat red meat, my urges for suicide abate – temporarily.
Knees are valuable and should be protected.
A clean house lends a boost to productivity.
Chocolate is poison, also raw milk.
Napping is allowed, but a 3-hour nap is counter-productive.
Wear my glasses as soon as I wake, rather than tolerate the
            first half hour of the day with eyestrain.
Sit in the sun one hour a day all summer and, weather permitting,
1/2 hour during the winter. I need the vitamin D.
Liquor has a more immediate effect, but fewer next-day consequences.
Advil interacts with alcohol.
Houseplants are pets that don’t poop or have to go outside.
Houseplants have a short lifespan; don’t cry over them.

List of Things I Thought Were True but Aren’t

JFK was a hero.
Nixon was a villain.
Milk builds strong bones and good teeth.
Lima beans are nasty.
Short skirts will stay in fashion forever.
Mars is a larger planet than Earth.
Outer space is an empty vacuum.
Tyrone Powers is sexy.
Mick Jagger is sexy.

List of Things that Remain True

Robert Mitchum is sexy.
French fries are better with ketchup than with mayonnaise.
It’s not smart to salt watermelon.
Carbonated drinks cause zits.
Peanut butter causes zits.
You never outgrow zits, so watch what you eat.

List of Open Questions

Why is the middle of America a great plain instead of a thick forest?
Why are Haiti and the Dominican Republic so different?
Why are movies so dark in theme? All those rich people in California can’t be cheerful?
            They look cheerful when they accept awards.
Why do radical Muslims hate capitalism? Didn’t they start free market capitalism?
Who is Jessica Simpson and why is her face on all the grocery store magazines?
Why are the tectonic plates moving?

List of Mama’s Sayings

Everything has a place and everything in its place.
You need to forgive your brother.
Everything you say will come back at you in full measure.
You can’t believe anything the rank-liberal press says.
Remember, you are loved.
Oh, I’m doing pretty good.
If you want to get something done, ask a busy person.
An angel stands over Jerusalem with a fiery sword.
I know your father liked him, but Eisenhower wasn’t that good a president.
After all, I’m 84 too, you know.


List of Student Excuses

It’s a blood infection.
I think I have a kidney disease.
My grandmother, we’re really close, just died.
It’s hard to be on time when you commute.
The missing paper’s in my portfolio I just submitted.
It’s on my hard drive at home.  Can I email it?
I emailed it twice already.
It’s not my fault. My printer ran out of ink.
I know I missed eight classes, but can I take a make-up test?
I thought you’d show a little consideration.

List of Places Dan Visited Since Moving to Colorado

Lookout Mountain
Hanging Lake
Radium Lake
Glenwood Falls
Oklahoma (twice for funerals)

Changeover: post23 for "Artists"

On the answering machine I hear messages full of pressure from the siblings to attend Thanksgiving. Mama’s eighty-six, after all. How many more chances to break bread with her?  She’s been using that argument since she was sixty-four. But I can’t sit at table with my younger brother who pretends to be Daddy. Sorry, I have no stomach for that meal.

Students show separation anxiety when the afternoon class ends. Sweet kids, but six may fail. I post office hours for Friday when they can deliver missing papers. “I won’t chase around after you. That’s the cutoff date.” We’ll see how that pans out. 

I read reflective letters they’re required to submit. Students have learned how to brown nose, anyhow, a useful talent in this world.

So I start a job search to fill the idle months before teaching starts up again. Teaching feels like an addiction I must feed. That same feeling troubled me once before with theater, until the money ran out. Actually, the need to function as producer lasted long after the money was gone, as unhealthy as heroin.

Craig’s list, Monster.com, HotJobs; these are geared toward young people just entering the workforce. Friendly, energetic work environment, it reads. Attention to detail a must, and a strong speaking voice. A good place to learn, flexible hours. (Which means sixty hours a week. Hope nobody was fooled by that one.)

And for this we shell-out $65,000 each for graduate degrees.

I look out at the cold blustery morning. I love the morning hours. My windows fog up and rattle. House wrens squabble on the south sill. I could make that appointment to apply for temp work. Maybe I’ll do that tomorrow. 

I send a dossier and writing samples to UIC for a tenure-track opening in the Writing Department. All the universities have Writing Departments now. It used to be philosophy and humanities, now it’s writing and rhetoric. With nothing to say, who cares how well students say it?

I read student short stories from my early class. Three have grown so much, on their way to success at the university. Then there’s Katie who wrote a four-page calm and gentle story told from the point of view of a young girl who watches her brother when he returns from college for a visit. Good foreshadowing. The story turns out that she’s a ghost, and he’s remorseful because she died when he fell asleep at the wheel. 

When I return the draft to Katie and speak of its quality, she blushes a deep red.  I cannot hardly speak to them without scarring them for life. My encouragements to submit the story to the department’s literary magazine will go unheeded. Just the same, students can write in complete sentences now. They know what is an introductory paragraph and dialogue punctuation. Good for me. Who needs Aristotle or Kant when you have the rules of grammar?

I could do some laundry. Best to get that done early so there’s no competition for the dryers. Maybe I’ll complete that chore tomorrow after I get a job.

I read the text for next term’s class I’m teaching. Sandwiched between entry level 102 and the research course 104 is English 103. What does this course offer that’s unique? More of the same? Papers should be longer. Students should perform at a higher level of critical thinking and grammar. The textbook squanders three chapters on body-image issues and a student’s response to Hollywood’s never-ending promotion of underweight ingĂ©nues. Maybe I’ll require a book of American short stories as a supplement. How can they be expected to write when they aren’t required to read?
None of it, that is life, seems to fit into a freshman’s curriculum, even when I labor to bring along the afternoon class of bright kids. I’d reach for a concept past what they read and… “This is like this,” I’d say. “What in today’s news is similar to the causal-correlation dichotomy?” Nothing clicks. You can hear it, you know, the clicks in their minds. A sudden bright look, a shuffling as one sits up and listens. Planted that seed. Fertile soil.

We’ll return to the basics, then. I resist the urge to parse each lesson for next term and guide students to a greater understanding. Begin at the beginning, a few writing exercises.  Describe an object, place it in context, then add an emotive response. Now begin a narrative, and–

Except they have read nothing.  What can they possibly have to say?

Some students in the First Year Writing Program are commerce or biology majors. The required writing classes are their only post-high school exposure to literature. So all their lives they’ll think literature is about dumpster diving and odes to oranges. No purloined letter, no Mayor of Casterbridge, no quote the raven. No Cannery Row. No Heart of Darkness. I can recommend they rent the movies, I guess.

And what about today’s world? As adults in the global village, who will they face? What to do when Castro dies? What about modern-day piracy on the high seas, or soccer wars in the Middle East? Twisted angry young people with machine guns and improvised explosive devises who know what they want. 

Why can’t I just teach the students what they need? What they actually need. Scare them a little. Maybe shake them out of their harsh judgments on thin evidence and poor reasoning and into a sense of the cost of liberty, need for vigilance, and duties of the informed citizen. All dirty words, I know.

Okay, next chapter in the new textbook. Let’s see… Oh, yeah. Susan Sontag’s On Photography; that’ll shape their minds.

Snapshots: post 21 for "Artists"

So I focus on uploading photos from the camera. Everybody has asked for them, and I need to clear the camera’s memory for more. I’m judicious in what I’ll post to email, but indulge myself with making screen savers, candid shots of color and light with digital clarity.  I even include images from the farmers’ market Rhonda and I visited two hours earlier.

The quality has nothing to do with me, just the technology and easy steps to fruition. But I feel empowered anyhow.

I email some to Rhonda, images of a dresser she wants to sell on Craig’s List, and more of the lake and farmers’ market. I call with my enthusiasm at succeeding. She says her email is at work only, but she’ll open the jpegs on Monday. So I send a batch to my son, and a batch to Dan. So please with myself, I knock on Paul’s door and say he must come and see. My invitation turns into a visit with cat and coffee and catching up. Paul critiques the desktop display with his nose in the air, but melts at images of cat with his cross-eyed self.

When I view them the next day, however, the video display seems small and ordinary, my enthusiasm at succeeding long faded. My son tags me back with some murmuring about missing the change of seasons that they don’t have in San Diego.

But, anyhow…  I’m on the deck with Paul and cat trying to decide to trash the pumpkins before the thirty-first. Carved faces are shriveling like old hags, but we mustn’t ignore the holiday. We decide to wait for Monday since it’s cold and the rotting is mostly on the interiors. Mario speaks to Paul, very hush-hush. I offer to leave and give them some privacy, but Mario says he wants the company. In fact, he’s afraid to be alone because the police may ring his bell. Someone in his apartment hands him the cellphone through the window. “Is that the cops?” I ask. “It’s my father on the phone.” Oh, sorry.

“This is something you may have perspective on,” Mario says with his eyebrows knitted like he’s expecting a whooping from his dad. I remember the first day I met Mario and his honesty with strangers. But as his story pours out, I realize honesty is the wrong word. And why is he telling Paul when they have so little between them? 

It seems that Mario got drunk after a band performance, not much of a drinker, and drove to his estranged wife’s house at 3am only to catch her in bed with a lover. “You didn’t shoot anybody?” I quickly ask. “Didn’t even raise my voice,” he says too evenly.

“Were the kids there?” Very calm, very staid, he replies. “They were spending the weekend at grandma’s on her side.” 

“So… nothing happened?” I insisted. Mario’s eyebrows knit again, and lines on his forehead whiten. “I never drink. I never drive while under the influence. I knew the club was four blocks from her place. I should have…  I shouldn’t have– ”

“But nothing happened, right?” I repeat. “She threatened to call the police,” Mario says.  “They may arrive here at any moment.”

Paul and I exchange glances, and he shrugs. “Mario,” I say, “Let me tell a couple bar stories.” His forehead tightens further. His eyebrows undulate and eyes bright with tears. “Not to discount what you’re going through,” I quickly add.

Paul goes into senior advisor mode with reassurances the police weren’t called and won’t arrive. He lends Mario his patience and willingness to grapple with diurnal problems. Divorce is a difficult time, but how many women has Mario entertained here? The kids weren’t present that night, so no harm done. “You must maintain some kind of friendship with her so the kids aren’t living in a war zone,” I interject. 

“At this point, I just want to beep her when I’m about to arrive, and she can send them out to the car.” He struggles to find balance but, sorry, the questions are slight. No blood, no gunpowder residue. A good story needs events. And consequences.  

I play with cat while Paul continues with the advice. Talk to the therapist you see twice a week. Try to maintain peace for the sake of the kids. Treat your visits as though you’re meeting an auntie who cares for them. “This advice is different from what I’m getting from my father,” Mario says. Paul and I exchange glances again. What’s the old man saying?

Mario basks in our attention at his self-generated drama, then goes inside because his dad signals him from the window. “Go to mass and say three Hail Marys,” I call after him, but he shoots me a dark glance. His troubles seem tooooo precious for my broad strokes advice.

“Jeez Louise, what’s his dad saying in there?” I ask. Paul goes into his polished rendition of how Mario’s the only child of a Latin family and, even though both parents are divorced, he entered marriage with expectations of never-ending love. And how he demands precious moments of mama-drama because he was spoiled by the women of his family and told he was the king of the world. “Yeah, but what’s his dad saying now?” I ask. Where’s the storyline? What’s gonna happen next! 

Paul continues with long-held opinions about Mario. Snapshots in his head, out of context and cannot be altered.  I leave him on the deck with cat.

So later I bite the bullet and call Mama with questions of settling Daddy’s estate and when and what to expect. We have argued this question for four years now, but she claims to being close to settlement. By Christmas, she assures me. And I will soon receive a letter from my younger brother who’s executor and manager. He re-roofed all the houses and don’t I want to form a company to share equity? 

No, no, and no again. I reiterate concerns of conflict of interest for him, which Mama doesn’t get at all, and thorny inheritance issues for the next generation. “There would always be monthly income,” she offers. “And I could gift the company with shares from my estate.” She’s reciting the party line.

More snapshots in a person’s head – out of context and can’t be altered.

“We’ve been over this,” I insist. “Siblings should own property free and clear. I won’t sign onto a company run by my brother.” She sighs over the phone. “Well, I want it settled by Christmas,” she repeats and we sign off. I won’t hold my breath on that one.

Night Out: post20

Rhonda and I agree to meet at the Auditorium Theater. An expensive night out, but the tickets are non-refundable, so throw caution to the wind and “smoke the last half of the last cigar in Moscow.”

There’s a rally underway in the Chicago Loop to celebrate the White Sox World Series triumph, but mostly I encounter the tail end of festivities. Envelope-size confetti litters blocks of LaSalle like ankle-deep autumn leaves. Michigan Avenue is loaded with scores of young people from the rally who are waiting for rides. And farther south by Harrison or Congress, the Critical Mass bicycle group, several hundred strong, obstructs traffic for a protest to gain more respect for bikers versus cars in traffic. Except they wear homemade Halloween costumes, some sexualized and some modeled after sci-fi characters. With overcoats. A motley crew.

Rhonda waits at the entrance when I work my way past the lively street activity. “Must be a full moon,” I say. We had agreed on the phone to keep it simple; leave the tiara in the safe deposit box and the like. She wears work clothes, except more than casual. Burnt-orange colored cords with trendy clunky shoes and layers of narrow sweaters. Rhonda’s wearing orange pants at the ballet. Her hair’s cut different, a Winona Rider look with too-short bangs. And she has a great smile. What do I care what others think?

We spend ten minutes in the ladies’ lounge; dimpled leather cushions and a long row of mirrors with gilded edging. Women come and go, some dressed in off-the-rack spangled holiday blouses. Others dressed comfortably like us. Chicago is no fashion plate.

We find our seats, first row balcony looking down into the orchestra pit, and we chat while waiting for the curtain. The orchestra warms up and Rhonda talks about Gone with the Wind which she just finishing reading again. “Margaret Mitchell could really write. I mean, some of it was purple prose, of course. But the characters are vivid and the ending has this rhythm that keeps you engaged. All the threads pull together in a crescendo.”

“Crescendo?” I ask. She flashes a guilty smile. “You’d like it. You should read it again.” We consciously avoid questions of student troubles or mama-drama at the artist studios. We’re here to relax and set all that aside. So we wander into bits and pieces about writing. “I thought about writing about Evan and that experience, and filled some pages in my journal, but I don’t know…  It was–”

“I think confessional writing wanders into fiction,” I say. “I mean, it’s personal, just like photos, until something happens in the story. Plot cannot follow real life because real life has no happy ending. It’s open-ended. New threads develop where others fade. So how to make a story? How to present characters and give them background without exposition? No plot and too much exposition, that’s confessional writing. To save the story as a story, fictional elements are needed. You see? Fiction invades confession.”

The ballet’s first movement is traditional with well-constructed costumes and dramatic lighting. I love the ballet because it’s mute. My time’s so engaged with language; I seek relaxation in other mediums. But that angle backfires here. I recite Shakespeare lines in my head while dance gestures pantomime Oberon and Puck and Hermia. “Why should Titania cross her Oberon? I do but beg a little changeling boy, to be my henchman”  (MSND, AII, sc.i, 119-121). I’m adding narrative.

During intermission we try the water fountains, but there’s no pressure. The line at the women’s room swells. “I’m so pleased with our seats,” Rhonda says. “We get to see the patterns of rows of ballerinas because we look into the stage’s depth.” She’s making nice-nice again. “Mezzanine would have cost $125 each. That’s over our heads.” Rhonda reaches for a thought. “I sorta go into a trance from relaxing and the music and trying to see everything. I like it, but I wind up wishing I could capture more.”

“You can’t see all the motion, so spread your senses to ride along,” I reword for her. I push back the intruding thought that I have big bills and no work in December or for next year. Just savor today’s flavor. When I’m old and abandoned in a nursing home somewhere, I can remember the dance and Shakespeare’s lines in my head. “If we shadows have offended, // Think but this, and all is mended, // That you have but slumbered here // While these visions did appear, // And this weak and idle theme, // No more yielding but a dream”  (AV, sc.i, 430-435).

The next dance is modern, the costumes monochromatic, and the dancers side-lit. I like the precision of gesture and tug-and-pull tension. There’s spontaneous applause like at the Olympics ice-dancing events. Chicagoans may be casual, but we know when we view quality. Well worth the price. The last piece is billed as Russian folk dance gone wild with pyrotechnics. None of that happens: who wrote the program? But the dance is exuberant and well-executed. I dread that it will end, certainly a measure for being entertained.

We take the train home. Rhonda starts with one of her get-rich-quick schemes. First it was tutoring rich folks kids, then rewriting PhD papers for profit, then a writers’ salon. “You saw the latest Diane Keaton movie, right?” she asks. “I’m not a Jack Nicholson fan, so I passed,” I shrug. “You should rent it. You would like it, really,” she encourages. “I saw an interview where Keaton said they assumed with this high profile role, the offers would pour-in and she’d be working again.  But nothing, just flat-lined. So she wants to develop stories for women her age. That’s what we should do, write screenplays for older actresses.”

“Hollywood is driven by men who can afford to make movies. A screenplay about women needs special funding and special connections we cannot muster. It’s a brutal business. Besides, they’re looking for domestic drama, and that’s confession peppered with fiction, which I don’t write.” It’s seems I’m always raining on Rhonda’s cheery parade. 

Old Lovers: post19 for "Artists"

Rhonda calls on Friday night: do I want to go for a beer. Except she just missed me. She calls twice on Saturday, but I was out by the lake and too achy to make a second trip into the world. We hook up finally on Sunday morning and think Nookies sounds good, but arrive later than usual and the waiting line’s extreme. “You talk to the guy,” Rhonda says. “He hates me.” So funny. We all adore Rhonda except the ones who hate her, mostly guys whose standards fall short of hers.

Rhonda talks real loud so the Nookies guy was sure to hear. “Let’s go to Club Louis. They have a great breakfast menu.” Club Louis is just two blocks south and has no waiting line for breakfast. We sit by a window in the dining area and Rhonda raises the grimy and dusty blind to look out on Clark Street and Lincoln Park. A shapely waitress with shocking blue eyes brings coffee then claims the bartender told her to lower the blinds. Rhonda protests, why block a cheery view, but the waitress is armed with a polished excuse. “He says the color scheme for all the franchise restaurants has to be uniform.” She shrugs with,  “Not my choice.”

The food’s surprisingly good and we decide this is our new Sunday morning hangout. Then Jack enters with his longtime lady friend, an older woman somehow involved with Burton Place. They see us but don’t speak, and cross to a distant table. “I heard bad things about her,” Rhonda whispers. I hold up a hand in the stop gesture. “Please, I’m so sick of mama-drama.” She only shrugs. “Not from the building, but from people in the neighborhood.” 

“Whatever,” I shrug. “Jack had a blow up at Paul; crazy accusations like was Paul growing pot in your old studio. He made Paul open the studio so he could see. He threatened to call the cops and all kinda off-the-wall stuff.”

“Jack’s crazy, I told you,” Rhonda agrees. “He asked last year, when we were neighbors, if I knew who was invading his apartment to use his iron.” She nodded with an all-knowing look. “His iron?” I ask unbelievingly. 

“He said the culprit must be Paul since he wears sports jackets.” We both burst out laughing. Paul’s grooming habits are dismal; he would NEVER iron a sports jacket. “Should we tell her?” I ask. “Shall we give Jack’s lady friend the lowdown? Save her some grief.” Rhonda stares across the way to where they are ordering breakfast, then turns back. “Water seeks its own level.” 

Somehow we get into discussions of old lovers again. Rhonda’s stories are the best. Apparently, when she was a stewardess she dated a sculptor who had a studio in Pilsen. Oh, yeah; that’s how we start with this. The relative value of living in an artist’s studio.  Or was it more remorse since the lawyer left to seek a child-bearer who’s a good conversationalist?

So the sculptor’s name is E---, a local guy of some renown, and living in a sizable studio where he used metal working equipment to assemble his artworks. “You can Google him,” she cheerfully offers. “He’s a big muscular guy and with a masculine occupation, but he wrote poetry for me. Beautiful and explicit. I still have the poems but, at the time, I didn’t know what to think. Maybe I was overwhelmed by the intensity.”

“I wasn’t ready for a commitment or to meet his needs,” she adds. “You should read this poetry, though.  Ah… oh, yeah. I said I liked his hands. Big, capable hands. So that was in the poem. ‘You said you liked my hands and want me to put them on you. I touch you and put them inside you and press your backbone.’”

“Jeez Louise,” I say and take another bite of eggs benedict. Rhonda describes a sculpture in San Francisco on a hilltop with larger and smaller rotating wheels that circle each other. “Only long after it was installed and critiqued and famous did he realize it was a tribute to his father.”

I asked is she ever sees him now. “Sure, a couple times at events,” she says. “He married a South American woman not four months after we broke up. I actually like her, and she manages his media appearances and all. E---’s rude to me, though.”

“You heart breaker. Use them and lose them, huh?” Rhonda’s eyes are glassy, lost in the memory. “I really loved him. I just wasn’t ready for what he wanted from me.”

So I have the camera with me and we stop during the stroll back to North Avenue to view the shots on the small screen. The pictures lose their impact when you need to squint and stare for detail. Rhonda makes over the shots, though; she’s so generous. “I like them so much.  Everybody will like them. You have an eye,” she claims.

Ever cheerful, that’s my girl. “They’re just neighborhood scenes,” I say. “I only click on light and shadow.”

“Did you see The Interpreter?” she asks. “The Nicole Kidman character is from South Africa and works at the UN. Her apartment has photos on the wall and wooden masks make by natives. They’re the same as everyday photos in that country, children playing and the like, but in a different context they become unique and valued. So send some images by email. I’ll print them at work and put them up for display.” I agree but don’t get around to the exercise. I know she’s just chatting me up because there’s so little in my life that matches her adventures.

Mostly Rhonda calls just before she heads out and I get added into the shopping trip or Sunday breakfast. But I call her this time and suggest the Joffrey Ballet. This is before I learn about big expenses for the rental I own. We negotiate the best calendar night and what we’re willing to spend on tickets. While I’m on the phone, Paul comes by and I make him wait while we settle the itinerary. He stands stiff and judging, but I don’t invite him into our date. He couldn’t afford the ticket anyhow.

Infantile Behavior: post18 for "Artists"

Jillian returns after moving out and dresses down Paul because the landlord kept her $600 security deposit. Somehow it’s all Paul’s fault because he didn’t rent the studio after she vacated it mid-month. She wants Paul to reimburse the money because he failed in his station. I learn later the office manager gave her $300 just to maintain the peace. 

Paul tries to enforce the “no free-cycle stacked in the halls when people are moving” concept (not a rule – Paul is philosophically opposed to rules). He proposes another concept about “no sophomoric installations in the halls as part of the puppies’ game of one-upmanship.”

Jack pitches a fit about how Paul’s not the artistic manager of the artist studios and cannot dictate what’s on display in the halls. I hear all this second hand, of course. Jack faces off with Paul with accusations and some off-the-wall stuff about growing marijuana in studio 214. “Jack made me open the vacant studio so he could see for himself. He threatened to call the police.”

I only laugh. “You should have called his bluff. Hand him your cellphone. ‘Here, let’s talk to the cops together,’ you should have said.”

“I saw him die before my eyes,” Paul says. “A guy I had always liked and wanted his respect.  Some of the remarks… You don’t know. Calculated to be personal, like he had practiced it. His comments only show me what he’s been harboring all these months.  I had no answer for him. It’s as though he died right there while he was talking.” Again he put it all on Jack. Nothing about Candish and machinations.

So the real estate agent from my hometown calls. A rental I inherited needs repairs and can she write a check to cover the costs for work already completed. News to me. I leave messages and she leaves messages. I juggle the budget and my non-existent money. Basically, I’ll starve in December while I cover this expense. I develop body aches from tension. 

Then we winterize the deck garden, me and Paul. Chop the morning glory trailers and trash the weathered wooden planter boxes. Rearrange the carved pumpkin display. Stow the usable soil and stack empty plastic pots. Sweep and clean and secure for first frost. Each item has a place and everything in its place, satisfying.

I point out that the cats have been digging in the loose soil. Paul whispers like Candish can hear us. “I’ll have the landlords circulate a notice that cats cannot be on the deck unaccompanied.” I’m not holding my breath for the appearance of that circular.

We finish and go for Mexican food. We cry poor for an hour while running the tab past $30, then go dutch with our non-existent money. Paul speaks to his love of crossword puzzles and anagrams. “I read in the paper that Britney Spears is an anagram for Presbyterian and for best-in-prayer.” I laugh out loud, which feels good. Jeez Louise, best in prayer. 


“You and Dan used to ditz us?” Like we’re saints or something. I consider Paul’s duplicity, proved to me many times over, and handle my caution. “It started with correcting Dan, and we’d been drinking. But you mustn’t tell the others. It’s way meaner than anything they did or said.”

“Meaner, maybe, but only because it’s funny.” We return to the artist studios and view our deck work. ***redacted***

Except Jack paints his oft-painted studio door and frame a vibrant baby-blue. He used flat paint instead of semi-gloss. He paints half of a neighbor’s door and leaves a stripe on one down the hall. He must have completed the work one morning after I left for school and Paul still snoozed. At least the words ‘Paul, leave me alone’ are gone. “I look forward to when they obtain BA degrees,” Paul says, “and can maybe write with a pen instead of crayons and paint.”

“He’s trying to get a rise from you,” I say. Paul insists that time spent thinking about Jack is a waste, like we don’t obsess continuously about being vulnerable to paybacks.

So some workmen strip Roger’s former studio then lather on white acrylic paint that stinks up the hallways for three days. The women who don’t smoke complain about a gas leak smell, but Paul and the super Hal, who both smoke, disregard us. What do women know?

Dario shows his face before 8am wearing thin pajama bottoms and a white T-shirt. He’s eating corn flakes from a bowl with milk and carries it while he follows me down the hall. I’m thinking that milk tastes like acrylic fumes. His choppy too-long black hair sits like a scarecrow’s mop above the big nose. He wants me to mother him about the gas odor and possible danger of combustion. At least he speaks like a neighbor and not a jihad-ist.

I call Paul about the odor and get resistance. But he visits with cat to watch a movie, another in a series of Batman flicks. Paul can smell and taste the vapors in my studio and wonders why it lingers so thickly. “Maybe there’s a gas leak in Roger’s place,” I suggest. He tells me AGAIN that it’s a paint smell only. I become impatient and knock on tenants’ doors to ask if they have headaches from the odor. Paul and Hal finally open studio 114 and set a fan in the window to blow toxic fumes into the alley. That cautious step is undertaken after only three days of prodding, many scowls, and a threat to our friendship. 

Times Three: post16 for "Artists"

On Thursday afternoon autumn arrives in Chicago, what a relief. I feel a sudden boost in energy, manic even, with the cooler temperatures. Paul is on the deck shaving the edges of the cupboard door from studio 113 for the new tenant, like Emanuel cares or something. I go down and beg Paul to draw a design on my second pumpkin so I don’t ruin such a fine long-faced specimen. 

We search my books and his books and books in the common area for an appropriate design to use as a carving model, but find nothing. I’m against winging it because I know I cannot render. I complain about Marty’s demands for DSL service.  Paul complains about how tenants don’t follow simple rules of courtesy. Just another round-robin of frustration where last year we had camaraderie.

“Okay, okay,” I retreat, wishing only to be free of all the bad feeling. “No more crazy acts today. I’m manic cause’a relief from the heat. Let’s blame it on the weather.” Paul keeps quiet for which I give him points.

We’re back at the pumpkin thing early so we can finish before it gets dark. Paul uses a marker I provide and quickly sketches a design of vining leaves, asymmetrical and appealing. “Score the leaves, then carve sections of each so light shines through,” he suggests. I feel sophomoric for insisting on finding a model. Unruffled, Paul returns to laboriously scraping a cartoonish face, like from the New Yorker, on his pumpkin. “What if I make this leaf bigger?” I ask. “So the opening has more light.” He only shrugs, always the diplomat. “A drawing is just a suggestion from which one makes improvements.” We quibble about proportion and scoring and outcome. Carving wouldn’t be fun without the give-and-take. 

Cat cries and we second guess its need. “He’s probably cold,” I say. “We can put on jackets, but he has to grow denser fur.” Paul takes cat inside and returns. I have finished digging out the second leaf and feel pleased with myself. “Two! Two leaves are scored. Sorry, I’m into the reward system.” Paul only laughs. “There’s a name for the compulsion to count everything like birds on the windowsill or lantana buds.” 

“With me it’s more that Sesame Street thing.” I do a Count Dracula imitation. “Two! Ha, ha, two pumpkins carved! Ha, ha, ha, ha.” Paul doesn’t laugh. It comes into my mind suddenly that he has no reason to be familiar with the characters on Sesame Street.

We stop without finishing because of the cold. I need to shower and prepare for tomorrow’s classes. Paul needs to visit a tenant and help mount a set of shelves. We agree to finish another day, but it’s a question. Pumpkin carving achieves many objectives, especially in the area of mama-drama, but it can be time-consuming. 

I return to the deck around 8pm to light the candles and set the display. Jonas and Mario are talking there. “Nicely done,” Jonas says. I’m shocked he even speaks to me. “Thanks.  Um, they aren’t finished yet, but thought I’d have a look at the progress.” Mario offers, “You’re like a kid with a toy.” I’m unnerved they bother to speak. I guess my renewed presence on the deck is being felt, after all. “I’m going up to see how it displays from my studio.” 

Perfect, the flickering lights are perfect. Paul needs to finish carving the mouth of one that resembles a Tasmanian devil, but that’s just icing on the cake. Later I glance out to grab another look-see. Adas is reviewing the display with curiosity. Wow, improvements all around.

During Friday’s quiz, the students all have the sniffles. Freshmen have no idea how to stay healthy in autumn weather without a mother’s care. The adjunct instructors Amber and Suzanne and I form a grading group as instructed by the powers-that-be. I drag home 46 student papers to review. Next week will be 46 more from Amber’s classes. Tedious.

I travel home in a lake-effect drizzle and nap three hours. The message board at the artists’ studios is splattered with some new eruption of mama-drama. Jack’s door is chalked with the words, “Paul leave me alone.” I’m so sick of their machinations.

I look down at the pumpkin display. Someone has added a Walgreens-purchased plastic skeleton face that talks when a person approaches. More passive-aggressive gestures. They don’t want a resolution of bad feelings; they want to fight. I only shrug. I don’t expect Candish or Jack will still be residents at the artist studios by next June.

Rhonda calls suggesting an adventure to Target, but I allow the answering machine to record her voice. Paul knocks, but I’m married to this couch. Tomorrow. Bother me with mama-drama tomorrow. I watch Numbers, nicely edited and the new female character with long hair has a comforting delivery style. I spy the unfinished pumpkin project on the way to bed. The arrangement has appeal, but now it’s a chore. Just another unfinished chore.