Short Stories

Death and Taxes
Short Stories

Death and Taxes

Josh stumbled to the bathroom and turned on the shower. For a good five minutes, he stood with his eyes closed, willing the hot water to wash away the restless night. He felt blindly for the soap, expecting to knock over one of the fifteen or so bottles that usually surrounded it. When his hand found nothing but a bar of Irish Spring, he opened his eyes. Something was seriously wrong.

Last week, Josh started shaving his head to save money on haircuts and shampoo. His wife, however, insisted on maintaining a strict beauty regiment of conditioners, shampoos, body washes, and lotions. Now, all of it was gone. Reality dawned on Josh. Ellen had left him.

Read the whole story at The Creative Cafe.

A Close Shave
Short Stories

A Close Shave

Red licked his lips and eyed the aces in his hand. Peering over his cards, he watched the grimy gamblers around the table. Each of them returned his stare, keeping one eye on Red and one eye on the mound of money in the middle. Cigar haze danced with the dingy light of saloon chandeliers and played with Red’s imagination. The pot assumed a heavenly glow that whispered to him, tempted him. 

Go all in, it said. This is your ticket out of Widow’s Rest. No more watching over your shoulder. No more living under the rich man’s thumb.

The rich man watched him now, flipping his own cards with that same oppressive thumb. Jasper Tate owned the saloon and half the men at the table, including Red. But not for long.

Read the whole story at Frontier Tales.

Bishop
Short Stories

Bishop

Wynn hooked a mostly clean fingernail under the chrome tab of the tape measure. The internal spring tack-tack-tacked as yellow inches emerged. Six, eight, ten, twelve. He stopped, had an idea, but let it go. The metal strip zipped back into the case, rocking his hand with a thwack. He did it again, careful not to cut his already dry and cracked fingers. Tack-tack-tack. Zip. Thwack. He waited. Nothing.

The click of the punch clock on his wall told him he had just wasted another half-hour of his day. In his mind, the woman from last week’s self-development seminar accused him of “activity avoidance.” Boy, there was three hours of activity Wynn was never getting back. No avoiding that. As a rule, he did the hard things first, paid the bills before he bought the boat, mowed the yard before he hit the lake. But what he had to do now, well, how do you start a thing like that?

Read the whole story at The Eunoia Review.

I Am Clay
Devotions , Short Stories

I Am Clay

Becoming a believer in Jesus Christ can be earth-shattering on a number of levels.  But even then, it is just the beginning. What follows is a long process of being formed, conformed, and transformed. And it takes more than fifteen days, to be sure.  But for some of us, it might look something like this.

Day 1

I am Clay, and life is good. The lights are low, and so are the expectations. I have nowhere to go and nothing to do except to hang out in my cool, comfortable, carved-out cubby. All I need is to be.

This is my world. The only one I know. And I can’t imagine a world any better than this.

Day 2

Something isn’t right. I feel unsettled. I’m starting to hear rumblings and feel pressure. Not used to that. I keep thinking it will all go away, that soon things will get back to normal. But now, I’m beginning to wonder. In fact, I’m wondering about a lot of things. Like, what if there is something else out there, something I can’t see from here?

Wait. Forget I said that. It’s just paranoia. I need to stay grounded and trust in what I can see and what I can feel. That’s what’s real. Anything else is just – wait, what was that? Whoa. It’s happening again. Rumbling. Crunching. Okay, am I going crazy? I think my walls just moved. Forget paranoia. Something is definitely wrong here.

What am I saying? No, it’s not. Hold on to what I know. Hold on to what I know.  There is nothing else. I am Clay. Life is good. I am Clay. Life is good.

Okay, it’s over. See? I knew it was nothing. I’m making more of this whole thing than I need to. No use in cracking up. I just need to relax. It’s all over now.

Or is it?

Day 3

Crisis! The sky is literally falling! The floor is shaking, and so am I! What is happening? I’m starting to – I don’t know what this is. It’s like I’m – moving! I’ve never moved before. Oh, I’m dizzy. I don’t like this. Who are you? What are you doing to me? Put me back! Put me back right now!

Gasp. What is that? Is that – air? I thought that was just a fairy tale. You mean that stuff is real? How do you, cough, do this? I can’t, what do you call it? Breathe?

And now my eyes. Oh, they’re burning. Those lights are so bright. Where’s the darkness? I can’t see it anymore. I can’t see anything anymore.

Day 4

I can see everything from here! Look at this place. It’s amazing. I had no idea any of this was real. My eyes don’t burn, and now they actually see things. THINGS! Sun and trees and grass and THINGS! Things are everywhere.

And so is the air. It’s all around me. And it’s not heavy. I had no idea how much pressure I was under all the time. But not anymore. It’s like a huge weight fell off.

I can’t imagine a world any better than this. I am Clay, and life is good.

Day 5

And I’m bored. Don’t get me wrong. I love the freedom. I love the view. But that’s just it. My view is full of things I don’t understand. Did you know I’m not the only one out here? No joke. We’re everywhere. One day, I just started looking around, like really looking around. And then I noticed them. Other Clays, just like me, all around me.  But they’re not just like me. Some of them actually move.

Well, they don’t move. They get moved. Something comes and picks them up. But that’s not all. They also get pressed and pulled and (you won’t believe this) cooked. Yeah, I know. Creepy. The first time that door opened and the heat hit me from across the room I was so glad it was them and not me. Does that sound bad?

At first I thought they just went away after that. Like, just gone. But now I’m not so sure. Check this out. I’m seeing more things, new things sitting around. And these things get picked up all the time. Sometimes they get filled with water. Sometimes they hold food. Sometimes they even hold other Clays, like me. And that’s not all. I noticed that one of those new things looked a little like the Clay that was next to me before.

Do you think it’s possible? Could it be the same Clay? It looked so different, but kind of the same too. How does that happen?

Could that happen to me? I’m a Clay. Could I be a thing that gets used like that other Clay? I have to say that would be better than just sitting here. Why am I still here on this table? Is there something wrong with me? Oh no. I’m corrupted Clay. Why else would I go through all that mess before just to just stay here with no shape and no purpose? Surely there’s another reason. This is so frustrating. The more I know, the more I don’t know.

Day 6

I’m so – touched. And moved. Is this it? Is it my time? I’m definitely not on the table anymore. Yes. Yes. I’m not corrupted Clay after all. This is what I’ve waited for. I wonder what thing will I be? I have so many great ideas. When do I get to choose? Oh, I can’t wait.

That feels good. Oh, not so hard. Yeah, that’s better. I guess I’m a little stiff from sitting still for so long. Okay, Clay, just relax and settle into the warmth. Things are going to be different from now on. I’m going to be great at this. No more sitting on a table and waiting. I’m going to be the best new thing ever.

Hey! That’s frigid! And wet! Was that necessary? A little warning would have been nice. Brrr. And hang on. You’re making a mess here. Look at me, I’m in pieces. I think we need to just go ahead and clean all this up and let me rest a bit. As exciting as this experience is, I’m feeling a little . . .

Sore! Wow, that’s hard. Okay, that stopped feeling good a long time ago. You can quit whenever you’re ready. Really, I’m not kidding here. That’s, ouch, enough. I think we should – um – I don’t think I can stretch that far.  No, I definitely can NOT stretch that far. Too much. Please stop before I – oh, now look at what you’ve done. I’m completely broken! Never mind the water now. I’ve got it coming out my eyes. What have you done? I don’t even look like the same Clay anymore. Is this why you took me from my dark little hole? To rip me to shreds? This is not what I wanted. I wanted to be something. To be useful. But no one can use this mess. Not now. Worst day ever!

Day 7

Hey, I look good. Nice work. I mean, I know what I said, but that wasn’t doubt as much as it was anxiety. It wasn’t easy. And I’m still wondering if perhaps there was a less painful way. But in the end I have to admit that I see what you did there. (I’m still glad it’s over.) At least I didn’t have to go through that whole cooking thing. Good to know I didn’t need that much work.

But, can you do me just one quick favor? I’m feeling a little weak. Can you just prop me up? Thanks. Listen, I can’t wait to get started. I know it won’t be easy, and I know sometimes things get broken. But if you’ll just show me what to do, I’m ready. More than ready. Just prop me up a little more, right there. Yeah, that’s better. Thanks.

Hey, is it me? Or is it getting hot in here?

Day 8

Shut that door! No way! I thought we were past this. Is it not enough that I gave up my hole in the ground for you? Are you not happy that I let you pull on me and tug me and rip me apart? Come on. Look at the sacrifices I’ve made. Why is this necessary? I’m a perfectly workable thing. You just have to use me. Go ahead. Give it a shot. I won’t let you down. PLEASE!

Ouch. Hot! Look. Surely there’s some other way. No, wait! I won’t survive this, and you know it! Ahhhh. Really hot! Stop it, please. I’m begging. Is that what you want? You want me to beg? Think of all we’ve been through together. Don’t you care about that? HOOOOTTTTT! Get me out of here. Put me back in the ground. I can’t do this. I don’t want to do this. Pleeeeaaasssee, noooooo!!!

Day 9

Most of the heat has gone away now. But it didn’t happen all at once. And I still smell like smoke.

Day 10

Wow. Things are busy today. Lots of activity. Not sure what’s going on. But we need to be careful, or someone’s going to break. Another Clay banged against me earlier. Not fun, but luckily I didn’t crack.

So, what’s going on here? All this work must be for something, and I want in. In fact, I don’t even care how anymore. (You may not realize I never got to choose what thing I wanted to be after that whole fiery furnace episode. But that’s okay. I know mistakes happen.) Honestly, I’m not even sure what I could do. I just want to be part. You know?

Day 11

Water again? I thought we were past – wow. This is different than before. Not over me, but inside me. Filling me. And staying. This is incredible. This is my purpose, to hold this water. There isn’t a part of me that isn’t touched by it. Finally. I am a thing. I love this.

I am Clay, and life is good.

Day 12

Hey, I know you. I remember your hands from, well, glad we made it through all that. Thanks for the water. I’m digging it. I knew you were up to something. But I never realized it was all about holding this water. I have to say, good call.  I could hang on to this water for like, ever. So what’s up? Me? What do you mean I’m up? Um, what are you doing? Whoa, careful. If you tip me too far, you’re going to spill my – WATER. Wait, that’s my water. You’re spilling it. You’re spilling my purpose. I love that water.

Well, would you look at that? When you turn me upside down, I can see more. And I just watched you just pour my water on that Clay on the table. That’s funny, he kind of looks like me before . . .

Day 13

So I’ve been thinking. When you poured the water over me, were you using the water you put inside some other thing? That’s pretty cool. And one more thing. Did that water make it easier for you to shape me? No? Oh, to make the stretching easier on me. Got it.

Day 14

More water. Hey, thanks. I was feeling a little dry. But back to those questions. So, the thing you used to dig me up, was that a thing you made too? A thing like, yeah, that one, the one that’s going into the fire right now. Did it use to be a Clay too?

Okay, I have to process this. It’s all starting to come into – whoa – there goes my water again. Another busy today, I guess. It’s almost like the more tools you have, the more Clays you can  . . .

Wait. So can I ask one more question? How many Clays are actually buried in the ground? And are they stuck like I was thinking that’s all there is? Yes, I know that’s two questions. But look, what if they don’t know there’s more? We have to tell them what’s up here. They’ve got to know. We’ve got to get them out. Like right now!

Time? For what? Listen, this is serious. It is dark down there. And cold, and heavy, and you’re talking about time? To do what?

Oh, that’s right. The drenching and pulling and pressing and (help me) cooking. So this Clay I’m pouring water on right now, he’s going through that same thing isn’t he? And you’re going to use him too, aren’t you? To dig or hold or pour.

I took time. And so will he.

Day 15

Good morning. I am ready. Fill me. Tip me over. Let me see all the different things you’re making and all the different ways you’ll use them. Rescue some Clays today, then pour me out over them. Over, and over, and over again.

I am Clay, and life is good.

The end

What’s In A Name?
Short Stories

What’s In A Name?

The place is packed tonight. The lights are low, and the music is loud, which is good.  Loud music means less talking. Talking is bad, because it means I have to say it.

“Hi, my name is Purvis.”

Yep, Purvis.  I know, right?  The first thing people hear, the last thing they remember, the key to the very door of my soul, and my parents choose Purvis.

I guess I could understand if were named in honor of some legendary ancestor like General Purvis Augustus, leader of Allied Forces on some beach in Normandy or maybe Reverend Purvis Leonidas, fearless missionary to naked natives up and down the Amazon.  But to my knowledge (and I’ve checked), there are no such heroes in my family.

It turns out Purvis was actually the name of the gardener who worked for my grandmother.  He sculpted topiaries of Bible characters.  Apparently, his juniper Jesus inspired pilgrimages from believers as far away as Poughkeepsie, sojourners who came to pray before the shrouded shrubbery.  And here I am, a testament to his holy horticulture.

Hey, there’s that group of girls from HR.  They already know my name, I think.  I could just skip the whole introduction part.  Oh wait.  There’s those guys from Sales.  Okay, never mind.  I’ll let them have a chance tonight. They probably all have really cool names anyway.  Some of them probably even have great nicknames too.  I always envied guys with great nicknames.  My friend Nathan Canasta played football.  His number was 50.  So “Five Oh” became his name for the rest of high school.  Richard Barefoot was Native American, the only Native American we knew.  So we called him “Chief.” It sounds racist now. But that was before everything sounded racist.

So why couldn’t I get one of those names? I was cool. Right?  I knew things.  I did stuff.  I used to write names on my notebooks to try them out.  I wrote “Big Show” and then “Full House,” but I’m just over five feet tall and 120 pounds in my Sunday shoes.  I also considered “Lefty” and “John Deere,” but I’m right handed, and I’ve never actually seen a tractor in real life.  In the end, I’m just a tragically vanilla, homogeneous human being with absolutely no distinguishing characteristics save one . . . the name “Purvis.”

Look who just sat down at the other end of the bar.  That’s the girl I saw last week, the one with the glasses and the frizzy hair. She’s sitting alone again. Oh, did you see that? She just looked at me. Well, her glasses distort her eyes slightly, so I could be wrong. But what if? I might chance it and walk over.  But what would I say?

“Excuse me, ma’am, but I noticed you were low on nuts?”  No, that won’t work.

“So, just how strong are your prescription glasses?”

No, better let that one go too. But I would like to know. Man those things are thick.

If I only had a name like Fred or Ralph or something.  Then I could just say “Hi, I’m Fred or Ralph or something.” I guess I could use my middle name, Arthur.  Or maybe just Art.  But art is what you hang on a wall or make in preschool with macaroni and Elmer’s glue.

And I certainly can’t shorten my first name.  “Purv.”  Nope, I don’t think so.

“What’ll it be tonight, kid?” That’s the bartender. I think his name is Stan, or maybe Dan.

“O’Dules.”

“Right.” Dan’s a nice guy.  He works a lot.  Always here when I come in.

“Hey Dan, you got a nickname?”

“Yeah. It’s Stan.”

“Oh, right. Sorry.”

Hey, when did Jackson come in?  “Hey! Jackson, my man! What’s up?  Huh?  Oh, yeah. Sure. Well, I’ll just be over here.  Keep it real, man.”

Jackson runs the sandwich cart on the corner by the office.  Now Jackson, that’s a real name.  Like “action,” only Jackson. That guy’s gonna to go places with a name like that.

But not me.  I’m just gonna sit here at this bar and watch all these well-named individuals go about their happy lives while I waste away in the intoxicating wash of near beer.  Just me, the Purv-meister.  The Purvinator.  Potent.  Powerful.  Purvilicious.

I’ve got to get a new name.

The End

Short Stories

On Reading Faulkner

William FaulknerI read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying in high school.   I even wrote a literary critique on the book.   Of course I merely compiled and reconstructed the thoughts of other noted scholars on the subject.   This earned me an “A,” and so I was happy. The End.

What it did not earn me was a true understanding of how this book, or any other by William Faulkner was to be read.   This is why, when I picked up this same book fifteen years later, I had no idea what I was doing.   I was expecting to read a Twain-esque account of the humor and absurdity of turn-of-the-century Yoknapatawpha, mixed with death and a few lofty social ideals.

That lasted until page two.

By chapter two, I turned the book upside down to see if it made any more sense.   Isn’t it a rule that if you use a pronoun it should be clear to what that pronoun is referring?   Isn’t it important to let the reader know with some degree of chronology the events leading up to a dialogue?   At least within 50 pages?

He (Faulkner – see, that isn’t so hard) didn’t play by the rules.   Which leads me to the first basic rule when reading Faulkner . . . get the Cliff Notes.   Or at least the online SparkNotes.   They’re very helpful for understanding at the very least concepts like  . . . oh, I don’t know . . . A PLOT!!!   But this reader’s guide will also be glad to tell you how to interpret the thematic elements behind what you’ve just read (read: how to think).

So, with the help of my online “aid,” I made it through a truly wonderful and fascinating book about the Bundrens and their journey to bury poor Adi.   Man, talk about your screwed up families.

I took some time to recuperate and re-organize my brain into proper lobe positions.   This took approximately six months, one John Grisham novel, one Nicholas Sparks novel, and a few Capote short stories.   After that, it was off to the races again.

Light In AugustMy next project, Light in August.   First let me say that this selection was solely predicated on the availability of audiobooks through my library’s online lending system.   I downloaded the book, transfered it to my PDA (thanks to my 1GB storage card) and committed my drives to and from work to the legendary author and his strange use of the “stream of consciousness” narrative.

I’m almost done.   While it helped that the actor reading the book is VERY good, I still had to break out the old SparksNotes bookmark in my browser.   I tried, really.   But by chapter four, I was as lost as last year’s Easter egg.   But this book has a rhythm.   It has a meter that can be followed for each character.   The language changes with each dialogue, much like As I Lay Dying.   And I finally understood the one thing every reader needs to have when reading Faulkner . . .

A lot of mental RAM.

If you are like me, you like to let go of useless information to make room for new useless information.   Normally, this is OK because any other author would give you clues to keep important details at the front of your mind.   To Faulkner, everything is important.   And he will most likely give you a detail in chapter one that will not make sense until chapter seven.   If you are able to piece together the seemingly random bits of data, you will most certainly find a very interesting, if not mind-blowing connection among characters and events.

My advice, read this book.   But don’t be afraid to follow every other chapter (or every other paragraph if necessary) with a glimpse at the SparksNotes.   If you’re like me, you’ll get the hang of it after a while.   And soon, you’ll not only be piecing together what you’ve just read, but you’ll actually begin anticipating what is coming next.   (Careful, professional driver on a closed course).

If you’re so inclinded, have fun.   And remember, Faulkner is best served  with a warm pipe  on a cool Autumn afternoon.   (But don’t tell my wife.)