The Petting Zoo–Story the Last

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We’ll soon return to our regularly scheduled blogging. First, though, we get to see the first couple of paragraphs of the closing story in “Love is Not a Dirty Word.”

I’ve been writing all week about how and why I’ve written certain stories. I wish I could point to some magical moment as inspiration for “The Petting Zoo.” I could wax philosophically about some long ago memory of reaching through the fence and touching the soft, downy fur of a baby chicken or mention the tight curls of a sheep’s wool.

Yeah.

Or I could admit that I watch way too much television and I’ve seen one too many commercials in my life. I’m pretty sure it’s Verizon (or maybe T-Mobile) but a few years ago around Christmas a mother walks into the mall with her son on one side and her daughter on the other. She looks at the son and tells him “you’re my rock” I know you’ll behave. She turns to the little girl and says, “we can’t have a repeat of the petting zoo” can we? The little girl looks up at her with as much seriousness as a 6 year old can muster and says, “I’ll try mommy, but I can’t make any promises.”

Fortunately for the mother, she sees the (insert cell phone company here) store and she’s saved from the unpredictability of shopping with her daughter.

Who cares what kind of cell phone dad is getting, I thought. I wanted to know what the hell happened at the petting zoo?

If you saw that commercial and asked the same question, here’s what I think happened.

The Petting Zoo

Christie leaned back, trying to melt into the couch cushions, wishing she could wake up when her kids where 18 and in college. She smelled strawberry and felt the sticky residue of a half finished Jolly Rancher on her neck as she cradled the phone against her ear and tried to concentrate. The ceiling fan was filthy, there were spiderwebs in three corners, and she had at least one couch cushion poking her in the thigh, but she wasn’t all that sure what her husband had just said. Her ability to have an adult conversation was in direct proportion to how well her children behaved on
any given day.

“What? Sorry. I just spaced out for a minute. How can there be spiderwebs but no spiders?” Christie leaned to the side. If she couldn’t feel the spring, maybe she could pretend it wasn’t broken. “Anyway. You weren’t there. I’ve never been so embarrassed in my life.” She listened to Simon talk, wondering why her glass of wine was so far away. And how it got empty.

“I think we’ve been banned from the petting zoo. For life. Our grandkids won’t be able to go either.” Christie forced herself to stand. She needed a drink more than she needed rest. Or, more likely, she needed the drink in order to rest. The Jolly Rancher smell followed her to the kitchen and she wondered if there were any good snacks left.

“I’m fine. Just trying to get off the couch. Alexas told me at breakfast she wanted to grow up to be a kangaroo so she and David used the couch as their own personal trampoline this morning. I was outside watering plants for less than five minutes. When I came in, they had grocery bags tied around their waists with a small stuffed animal in each bag. They were yelling ‘Boing, boing’ as they hopped from cushion to cushion. Our couch looks like that hideous, plaid sofa you had in college. I don’t know what’s sagging worse—me or it.”

(If you want to find out why Alexas got banned from the petting zoo, click on the link above.)

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At the Days Inn Near Eastland–Story # 7

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I was standing in the express lane at HEB one day and I heard a phone ringing, a loud sigh, and the woman in front of me whispered “Good grief.”

I didn’t want to eavesdrop, but there’s not much privacy in the 15 items or less line at the grocery store.

“Yes,” she said, “I bought organic red leaf lettuce and some wine. I’ll be home after I get the cake.” If she was hosting a party, she didn’t’ seem all that excited about the guest list.

“At the Days Inn Near Eastland” started with that scene and part of that line. Admittedly, my first thought when someone silently curses about being tethered to their phone is not sympathy. If you don’t want to be available 24/7, leave the phone at home I say.

But what would happen, I wondered, if that ringing cell phone sent you over the edge? What really interested me, though, was the specificity of her answer above. Why organic red leaf lettuce? What kind of wine? Cake? Who is calling her with such a question and why is she so annoyed with the phone call?

More importantly, where was she headed after HEB and what would happen if she decided to drive around for a little while before going home.

In my head, what happens is she ends up naked in a motel room with a McDonald’s bag, an cake box, and an empty bottle of wine.

At the Days Inn Near Eastland

When Jill woke up with a McDonald’s bag, a cake box, and an empty bottle of wine next to her, she knew something was wrong. Even more troubling were the scratchy, over-washed hotel sheets rubbing against her naked body. She hadn’t slept nude since she was 12, and even then she had woken up in the middle of the night to get dressed. Lying there on this morning, Jill tried to imagine an illicit chance encounter: a bottle of wine, her naked body, and a muscle bound younger man tending to her every need, but Jill didn’t feel any post-coital relaxation. Then again, she couldn’t
feel anything except a burning in her head, a dry mouth, and something sticky on her lips. I’m the kind of girl who likes to swallow, Jill laughed as she licked the remnants of her culinary orgy off her lips.

She slipped back into a dream about Monte Jones, her high school boyfriend. Monte had been Mr. Everything back in the day. Starting quarterback, straight-A student, and against all stereotypes, a genuinely nice guy. He was also the only real fun she had as a teen living with her Aunt, Uncle, and their five children.

When her cell phone vibrated, she opened her eyes and the world around her started spinning a half beat off from her stomach, a little like listening to Nine Inch Nails do Beethoven. As she rushed into the bathroom, Jill knew she would survive the headache, but she kind of hoped death would find her soon so her stomach would stop squirming. The phone was still making noise after rinsed her mouth.

(If you want to know how Jill got from the checkout line at HEB to the Days Inn near Eastland, click on the image above.)

 

It Will Get Better–Story #3

When I PressRelease-Wegner (2)decided to move forward with a collection and send it off to Lamar UP, I had a variety of completed stories that needed revision, but I also knew I needed 2-3 more stories to round out the collection. Like many folks who write, I have half a story here, an opening paragraph there, and a sketched out image in some manila folder some where else. “It Will Get Better” was one of those sketches.

I had this half a page scene where a middle school boy has to read his “What I Did Last Summer” essay to the class. In that early draft, he didn’t want to read the story because his parents were fighting and their marriage was going to hell.

I wasn’t all that interested in what the boy did last summer, but I did want to know why his parents were fighting so much. In many ways, this story wrote itself from the middle out. In the scene I already had, the narrator is sitting at his desk watching the other kids read. He sees this girl walk past, and he notices this little string hanging from her pants. I think when I started the scene (before I put the sketch away to work on something else), I had in mind that little string would serve as a path for both his coming of age and as a kind of momentary stay from the confusion of his family life.

When I started writing the story, though, I looked back to his summer. He watched his parents fighting. Dad started going out at all hours, coming home all drunk and nasty. One night his parents fight and his mom yells “I never wanted this. You should have told me ….”

I remember stopping while I was writing. I wanted to know what he should have told her.

Forget the string, my fingers seemed to say. Dad’s homosexual and he’s tired of hiding it. This story, then, is about this boy who has to write that he spent last summer finding out dad should have told mom he preferred men before they got married, not after having a child. I wrote a scene where the dad and son were raking leaves and even as a sixth grader, the son can sense something. Dad drops hints.

I had these two scenes before I ever wrote an opening. If I’m 12 in the mid 1980s and I find out my dad is homosexual, I thought, what would I do?

More importantly to a 6th grader, how would I keep it a secret? It might be pretty to think all his friends would understand back then, but I doubt it. The kids I grew up around certainly would have been merciless.

I opened the story with these two older boys about to graduate. They had been drinking on the junior high roof when the cops show up. Dad has to drive them home, and I had this sense that the boy who had to write about his summer back in the 6th grade would come to some understanding that a homosexual dad was just another dad. He would tell Chance Henderson this secret and Chance would help him cope.

Sounds so nice, right?

Well, I hope no one is that interested in that story because that’s not what happened.

The essay assignment is still there. The boy’s parents fight. There’s a scene where they rake leaves, and the two boys do drink beer on the roof.

That’s about all that survived.

Once I started the story, I didn’t want the boy to struggle to understand his dad.

He needed to struggle with his own sexuality. And that string is hanging from Chance Henderson’s Levi 501 button flies not Mary Grace’s Jordache jeans.

We are, the story wants to say, what we are, and we all fall in love the same way regardless of our sexual orientation. In many ways, the idea here is that love is love, regardless of who we are attracted to. Guess what, though. Heart break also transcends gender.

Here’s a couple paragraphs to wet your appetite. (Or turn you off, as the case may be.)

It Will Get Better

“‘He’s like a damn bobble head.’ Chance moved his head around in a kind of slow motion wiggle.

I glanced at him and then looked at the men in the parking lot. We leaned against a tree near the Glenn Middle School gym while my dad signed some papers, nodding his head when the sheriff’s deputy or the tow truck driver asked a question. He rocked back on his heels moving his hands as he talked.

I could see my dad sigh as he shook hands with the deputy. He watched him walk back to his cruiser and then followed the tow truck driver to his vehicle. They said a word or two, and he stepped back, raising his hand in a small wave as the strobe lights went off. The darkness was stark and sudden, and we could hear the diesel engine clattering as the truck drove off with Chance’s blue Mustang secured on the flatbed.

My dad took his glasses off, pinched his nose, and ran his hand from his hair line to his chin. He crooked his finger in our direction and gave it a little wag. We were already about halfway there.

“I’ll tell you what…” he paused. “I realize two teenage boys have the brain power of a couple used tires, but you two,” he shook his head, “I don’t know. It’s like you took a class in dip-shit 101. Right here near graduation and you’re on the roof drinking beer and doing god knows what.”

I hadn’t been paying attention until he stopped talking, but when I looked up he was staring at me. He glanced at the roof and then at Chance. I followed his gaze, and I could see Chance’s face in the pale street light, smiling as if he was waiting for my dad to tell a joke or say something important. My dad’s mouth was partly open as if unsure what to say next.”

If you want to know how Chance and our narrator wind up on the roof of Glenn Middle School and find out if the dad ever knows what to say next, the collection should be available tomorrow. Click on the press release above for more information.

We Don’t Buy School Shirts in This Family–Story # 2

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William Wordsworth writes that “The world is too much with us; late and soon,/ Getting and spending, we lay waste to our powers;/ Little we see in Nature that is ours;/ We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!” Wordsworth’s sonnet attacks what he saw as a growing materialism, and he’s imploring his audience to get back to nature. Like any great 19th century Romantic poet, Wordsworth saw an impending doom as humanity increasingly commodified nature and relationships.

Admittedly, though, I find the Romantic poets a bit tedious. Certainly, their criticisms of the growing industrial complex of the 19th century were valid, but their solutions were too often unrealistic and naive. It’s all good and well, I want to say to Wordsworth, to criticize our growing desire for material goods, but the solution probably isn’t going back to a farm that no longer exists and probably wasn’t sustainable when it did.

More importantly, flowery sonnets and well-turned phrases don’t put food in my kid’s stomach.

At the heart of the second story in the collection, “We Don’t Buy School Shirts in This Family,” is the idea that love isn’t some abstract idea when the “world is too much with us.” It’s easy to treat folks with respect, hug our children, and carry a song in our hearts if we have a good job, a full belly, and a sense of self-fulfillment. When the bills are due and your boss is riding your ass at work, though, life at home might not always be a refuge from the pressures of daily life.

Personally, I find the opening image of a small child wearing one of his parent’s old school shirts endearing, and the fact they can’t afford to buy him one of his own is sad. We’ve been lucky in our house. While we have pictures of my son wearing a Wilkerson Wildcats t-shirt (his mother’s when she was in school), we’ve also been able to buy school shirts if we wanted. In fact, we still have their school shirts and look forward to handing those boxes off when they have children of their own. Like photos, those shirts carry memories of a past that as parents we hope was filled with good times, joy, and love. Some days a little nostalgia is a balm against the rising tide of chaos.

But what happens when our lives go off the rails? The characters in this story struggle to reconcile the harsh reality of a life poorly lived with love and family.

For me, writing this story was interesting because the ending surprised me. When I started the story, I had a very specific image in mind about how I would close the story. Little Bobby Pritchard would get his Travis Tornado shirt, but it would be so late in the year he was too embarrassed to want it anymore. I’m sure it would have been brilliant and heart breaking.

As I wrote, though, the harsh and ugly reality of his home life took over and that ending went by the wayside. All I can do is assure you embarrassment is the least of Bobby’s worries when this story ends. As with yesterday’s entry, the paragraphs here are from the 4th Galley Proofs. Any errors are from the copy and paste.

We Don’t Buy School Shirts in This Family

“Bobby Pritchard stood in the hall wearing a pair of faded, too-big shorts and a Wilkerson Wildcats t-shirt. It used to be his mommy’s when she was in the first grade. Bobby is a Travis Tornado, but we don’t buy school shirts in this family. She told Bobby she would keep her eyes open at some garage sales, but he knows she’ll never find such a shirt.

Straddling the bedroom door frame, Bobby could see Mommy and Daddy sitting on the couch. He watched Daddy’s head tilt back as he took a drink, and Bobby heard t.v. words he knew he shouldn’t. Mommy’s head was bent forward, hunched like she was trying to protect her head. Every once in awhile she shrugged the way Bobby did at school when he was tired. Occasionally, he heard laughter followed by a grunt from the couch.

Bobby’s daddy doesn’t sound like they do on t.v. Not anymore. When they used to wrestle on the floor, Bobby could see his happiness before he heard it. Bobby would pretend to be a tickle monster, and Daddy’s laugh would wrap itself around him like a giant bubble where nothing could hurt him. He hasn’t been the tickle monster in a long time, and since last summer Daddy’s laughter has become hard and short like the rat-a-tat-tat of a machine gun on t.v.”

If you are interested in the ending (or anything in the middle), click on the press release above to learn more about purchasing the collection. The stories should available on Amazon Jan. 30.

New and Improved (?)

As any loyal (or disloyal) followers have noted, I haven’t posted in a pretty long while. My family can assure you I haven’t run out of things to say.

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Coming Soon–click on the photo FMI

I have, though, struggled finding time enough to spout off.

Over the past few years, I’ve focused on essays of between 800-1000 words. Doing so allowed me to ramble my way in and out of clarity, but I also had the opportunity to re-introduce myself to the kind of academic writing my students needed to master. I was, for lack of a better cliche, practicing what I preached.

However, there is no denying that writing essays takes time. I tell my students every semester that the three keys to writing are practice, practice, and more practice. Like most skills, writing well is a product of habitually writing every day.

While I know some folks who can write well and write quickly, I’m not one of those folks. More importantly, though, I can’t write in loud places or if I’m interrupted. I have a friend out on Long Island who willingly (on purpose and everything) travels into New York to a particular coffee shop twice a week to write. I, on the other hand, rarely write at home if my family is around. Mind you, they respect my privacy and avoid my work area, but their mere presence in the house is distracting. Sitting in a coffee shop trying to write while Todd and Margot are ordering an Orange Mocha Frappuccino makes my head want to explode.

Likewise, I have a difficult time writing at work if I can’t disconnect the phone and shut the door. For instance, as I wrote the previous sentence a student called, wondering why her .380 GPA placed her on academic suspension. (Yes, the decimal is in the correct spot). The conversation was short, but the interruption breaks the train of thought. Resuming the blog, then, requires reading the previous sentences, reminding myself of my goal, and then getting back on those tracks headed, one hopes, in the same direction. Writing isn’t, as some might posit, a free flowing activity without structure or boundaries.

Certainly, we might draft haphazardly as we let thoughts spill out on the page, but a finished piece of writing is an articulation of our ideas and thoughts–our attempt at giving meaning to some thought or organizing some moment in time via language. Writing, for lack of anything better to say, is a search for truth through metaphor, symbol, and structure.

One of my problems (and my excuse) for the last year or so is that I was director of our Faculty Development Center, director of Faculty Mentored projects, teaching classes here and there, and trying to be a father and husband. Honestly, whatever truth I might have searched for was usually lost in a memo to someone who probably didn’t have time to read what I wrote.

Things don’t show signs of letting up anytime soon. While I’m no longer directing our faculty development center, I’ve recently been tagged as the last person standing (everyone else took that proverbial step back) as our interim Dean of the Freshman College. I don’t see much uninterrupted free time in my future. In fact, I’ve had three other interruptions since the paragraph above.

Time or not, though, my plan is to return to blogging with a new and improved (?) approach. Gone will be the long essays that might take me all day (or all week) to write. Instead, this blog will become a quick-hit aggregate of stories that interest me in any given day. I’ll begin linking to articles, videos, or other electronic items and offering pithy (and hopefully witty) commentary that might offer insight or incite outrage. I’ll begin taking note of books I’m reading or stories I’m teaching. Time permitting, I’ll do some flash reviews as I go.

Ultimately, though, the goal is a more regular interaction with blogging and an attempt at creating some order and organization to my thoughts and ideas in a shorter form. I’m sure the occasional long essay might appear, but I suspect those will be fewer and farther in between.

First, though, the next week or so will be an act of shameless self promotion on my part. One of the side benefits of writing the blog every day was a burst of creativity and discipline as a writer. Over the years, I’ve written (and published) a few short stories. Last Christmas, I revised those stories and produced a few original stories, submitted them to Lamar University Press, and we’ll see Love Is Not A Dirty Word and other stories on bookshelves in about a month. Feel free to click on the photo above and pre-order your copy.

Over the next few days (or weeks), I’ll be posting the first 100-200 words of each story to wet your appetite (or spoil your lunch). I’ll begin each post with a brief story about where the story originated, but then we’ll let the tale take over. After you read the openings, if you want to find out the rest of the story, you’ll have to pony up the bucks or convince your local library your town needs a copy.

And trust me, you really want to know why Love is Not a Dirty Word.

Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

FiveThirtyEight

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Scott Adams' Blog

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)