Writing Practice – 5/1/2018

They say to write very day. But I don’t want to write. I want to go to sleep. I want to quit. I want to give up. I want to stop trying. I want to walk off into the sunset and never look back. I want to win the lottery so I don’t have to work any longer. I want to have a flat stomach for the first time in my life.

I want to be able to do 10 pull-ups. In a row. I want to sing in a choir again. I want to play better chess.

I want to get lost in the jungle for three days in South America, and find my way out only by traveling to the East only in the morning and eventually finding a logging road and following that down the mountain until I come to a poor, rural town that hasn’t seen a primarily English-speaking human in over a decade, and then when i get there I want to fall on the mercies of a local family and beg for food, and so they give me a bowl of stew and some bread, and meat, and we dance, and we sing all night long, because they know old 80’s Rock & Roll from America, because one time two decades ago these Christian Missionaries from Arkansas had spent like three years down there, trying to teach them to be Baptists, but they didn’t want to be baptist, they were already Catholic, so why did they need to believe a different Jesus, they already prayed to God enough so why did they have to use these new books, and the missionaries had a twelve-year-old son who didn’t really believe like they did, he just acted like he was along for the ride, and he smoked their local marijuana with them, and stole sheeps out of the neighboring villages with them, and they shared his music, Billy Joel and Michael Jackson and Madonna, and then the missionaries up and left one day, well, they gave like 2 days notice, and so the son left his tapes behind as a parting gift, and they listened to those over and over and over as they aged, and now those same rebellious teenagers of back then are in their thirties themselves, raising their own kids, trying to make their own lives, sharing generously with this gringo stranger, and so I listen to their story in Spanish, and I can catch only like every third word, because of the super-thick accent, and my own mothballed knowledge of the language, but I’m grateful, I’m gracious, I, too, smoke their pot and party all night, and when we wake up after noon the next day I say “Thanks” and “Gracias” all around, and hitch a ride back to the city with a large, quiet truck driver whose name I’ll forget, but my hosts, I’ll always remember, for their hospitality – no, for their humanity.

That’s what I want.

You asked…

How do you fill my cup?

You fill my cup when you listen to me. When you encourage me to make the changes I want. When you hear me read something and you say “that’s beautiful.”

You fill my cup when I share something with you and you thank me. When I hold a door for you and you thank me. When I come over and you are there, smiling, smiling with your eyes not just your mouth, smiling so that the little crinkles at the corners turn up instead of down, you fill my cup.

You fill my cup when you want me. When all you can do is think about me – and you tell me – and I know you’re not just saying it to get a reaction but because you mean it. You fill my cup when you tell me I have the perfect body parts for you. You fill my cup when you kiss me — and don’t stop.

You fill my cup when you tell me you miss me. When you hold me. When you don’t want to let me go. When it’s only been a few hours since you’ve seen me, and yet you can’t wait to see me again. You fill my cup to the rim, to overflow, to covering the seas and the mountains with affection, to gushing out across the fabric of space and time, stretching to infinity and beyond.

How do you fill my cup?

By being you. By just being you.

Don’t stop. Don’t ever stop.

Writing Practice – 6/8/2017

Not all of my writing practice turns out great. This one wasn’t so hot. I’m sharing it because, well, that’s a much more real picture of what goes into writing than just showing you the refined, selected parts that “looks good”.

tell about putting your mother in a home

On an otherwise beautiful day we approach the shelter. Not so much a castle as a fortress. A virtually impenetrable waste of space that, instead of making a place for caring, for help, for hope, for nurture, has become in my mind, in her mind, a burden. It has transformed from the unlikely to the inevitable, and with the change there is no reason to think that it will be welcoming and comforting when we take mother there and move in. She would rather stay with us, I know. Even more, she would like to stay at her own place. But, realistically, she is not safe there. And while her physical health is somewhat deteriorating (it wouldn’t be an issue if it wasn’t, obviously), but the greater issue is my own, and my wife’s mental health. We spend far too much time and effort thinking of what she’s doing, and how she’s being, and whether she has had lunch or fallen or perhaps forgotten to take her diabetes medication after all those reminders you put up on the post-it notes all over anywhere.

So, what else is there? Hatred, distrust; fear of the staff. Disappointment at me, true; but she hasn’t said that. She probably won’t say it  – she’s a mom, after all, and moms generally don’t like to harm their sons, so I expect she’ll keep it bottled up and not say anything at all. She’ll just sit in her chair, shoulders slumping, hand shakily waving in the way she has had in the last year or so, and she’ll tell me “oh, no, it’s all right, I understand. Besides, it’s been hard with Jim gone, I barely know what to do with myself during the days anyway. This could be good for me, and I can learn how to play a couple of board games. You know, I think they’ve even got a trip planned to the Chicago Pier next month. I think I’ll see if I can sign up for that.” She’s putting on a reasonable show, but I know it hurts her.

It hurts that she’s getting old. It hurts that she’s forgetting. and it hurts that she doesn’t see the impact she has on us. She says she sees it – but because she doesn’t see those quiet moments, when my wife cries in the shower, or I go and punch the beanbag in the closet, or when the kids start to beg off going to visit grandma because they think her house stinks, I just can’t bring myself to tell her the truth. That it’s okay for her to go live there. That even more, even more morbid I would be okay for her to just die. Wow, that sounds harsh. “Die”. Pass away, move on, depart. Those are all softer, gentler. Aren’t they also deceptive? Aren’t they also ignoring the reality of what death is?

Aren’t they papering over the harshness, the suddenness of death? Die – a barking syllable – so quiet, so abrupt, like the act itself. Die.

So, you see it?

Commentary: why didn’t I like this writing exercise? I guess, looking back, I never felt in a flow. I felt like I was trying. Like I was working at it, rather than letting it happen. I had some images in my mind, about the abruptness of death and how we contrast that with the soft words we use to describe it, about the cognitive dissonance we actively create by using such pretty language to describe the dying process. But I didn’t get there. I didn’t lose control. I didn’t go for the jugular. I simply stopped, not even when I was satisfied, but I just…Stopped. So I think the dissatisfaction of the exercise was that I never really felt like it completed. Like sex that approaches orgasm, but never quite gets to the top of the mountain, so to speak. I could see the end: I had a bit of a vision in sight. I just gave up.

So that’s why it wasn’t a great experience. But it’s real to tell you that not all writing is great. More often than not it’s not great. It’s not polished. It doesn’t flow.

But that’s why I write. I write the bad days to get to the good days. I write the shit work to get to the gravy wall [ask my dad about that one]. I haul hundred-pound loads nine-tenths of the way up a mountain, with the end in sight, just to give up and turn around more often than I complete the journey. But when I do– Damn, nothing feels quite like that.

Short Story: Divine Intervention

I wrote this one probably fifteen years ago as well. I liked it then, especially the one-liners and the word play on “intervention”. Nobody else really did. I only submitted it a couple of times, though, so not a whole lot of rejection made possible. Regardless:


Divine Intervention

Before the door was even open, I could hear three or maybe four voices behind it, talking together.  It sounded like one was eating something.  That better not be my sausage! I thought.  I fumbled the key in the lock, and opened the door to find five figures spread all around my small two-room apartment.  “Ernie!” they all shouted.  “Good to see you!”

Taken aback, I had to frown.  I recognized most of them, of course, all but the one sulking on the rocking chair.  His dark hair fell into his eyes often.  He brushed it back just as quickly as he could, but never made more progress.  His pouchy stomach showed through a toga.  Only Diana stood to welcome me.  Eros stayed on the couch, and Atlas continued chewing something that looked like my Swiss cheese as he leaned against the hallway.  Good, it’s not my sausage.  He nodded.  I nodded back.

“What’s going on?”

“It’s an intervention, Ernie.”  Diana spoke quietly, with a note of feeling.

“A what?”

“An intervention.”  Eros sounded sarcastic.  “Oh, they’ll be all the rage in about sixty years, you know, for alcoholics, gamble-holics, whatever you need to get someone off of, just stick a few friends in a room and talk them out of it.”  Then he frowned.  “Like it’s going to work.”

“Of course it’ll work,” said the man, maybe even a boy, in the rocking chair.  “It has to.  She promised!”  He pointed at Juno, sitting on my couch.  I would have bet she was giving it fleas.  Her robe was dirty, and her hair, stringy and blowing around her face.

She shook her head at him.  “Dear brother, when will you ever learn?  All that power has gone to your head.”

He pouted.  “Has not,” as a bolt of lightning came from the ceiling and struck the floor in front of her.  The boy looked a little embarrassed.  Juno frowned; she was disappointed.

Diana tapped my shoulder to get my attention again.  “Listen, Ernie, we don’t like what’s going on.  Now, we all understand that you want to be a writer, and that’s fine, but just for now, I think it might be time to give us a little rest.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“She means,” said Eros, as another lightning bolt struck my couch next to Juno, who looked absolutely disgusted this time, “that we’re tired of being subject to your beck and call.  We’ve all got our own jobs to do.  We don’t need yours, too.”

I fingered the burnt cushion.  I would have to get a new one.  This close to Juno, she smelled a little.  Eros didn’t look so hot, either.  He was rather covered with pimples, and had absolutely no chest hairs.  I wondered how the women stood him.

“We’re here because we care,” Diana said.  I took a good look at her.  For the goddess of the hunt and of nature, she seemed so comfortable inside here.  She was a natural city girl.  Her hands were perfectly manicured.  Every hair was in its place.  She was even wearing makeup!  No way this was all real.

Another lightning bolt struck the couch, this time close enough to make Juno jump.  “Cut it out, Zeus!  It’s not funny!”  The little boy giggled with laughter, rocking back and forth, smiling for the first time.

“So, what, you’re all mad at me?”

“Not exactly mad,” Eros said.  “It’s more like we’re disappointed.  And we’re tired of being made to do things we don’t want to do.”

I shook my head.  “I don’t get it.  You’re gods and goddesses.  You’re supposed to do that stuff.  I read all the mythology books.”

Diana sighed.  She cupped my cheek in her hand.  I suddenly felt an attraction that hadn’t been there in years.  I looked down, and she did, too.  Her eyes widened, and then she smiled.  “Mythology?  Honey, those boys didn’t have a clue what they were talking about.”  She glanced down again.  “Neither do you.  I mean, come on, have you even read what you’ve written about us lately?”

I shrugged my shoulders, as I heard another lightning bolt strike near Juno.  This time, everyone shouted in unison, “Cut it out, Zeus!”  That little bugger was starting to piss me off.  I couldn’t wait for the rest of them to leave, and I’d find out just what was under Diana’s cloak.  Ooh, baby…

Eros tapped me on the shoulder.  “Hey, I’m off duty.”  He was acting like he could read my mind.  “No touchy-feelies.”  He pointed towards my …ahem.  My face wasn’t the only thing to droop.  “Anyway, we’re very concerned with how you’ve bought into the stereotypes of us gods.  We’re regular guys, just like you, Ernie.  We just want to do what we gotta do, then take a nap.”  He yawned, as if to highlight his point.  “I mean, do you have any idea how hard it is to seduce a woman?  And in that last story, you had me making it with one a night for a week!  Man, I was so tired after that I slept-”

zap – “ZEUS!” – “Sorry!”

“-like Atlas over there when he gets off his shift.”

Atlas shrugged.  “Whatever.”  He seemed bored.

“But you’re Eros.  Aren’t you supposed to do all that?”

“Man, no!  It’s like the garbage man picking up someone else’s trash all day, then having to go home and take out his own.  Or the dentist – you think he’s pulling his wife’s teeth over the dinner table, telling his kids how to floss correctly?  Same with me.  I gotta work my butt off making people like each other, so there’s enough of all of you to keep this gods-forsaken race until the next century, and then you write stuff like ‘Eros smote her with his intense good looks and stunning charm.  Her heart strained against the chains of her body, yearning to be with him.  He took her, then and there, and they made the music of the spheres for hours upon end.’  Ugh, gag me with a spoon.”

Ah, I remembered that line.  From “For the Love of the Lover”.  I actually thought that one was pretty good.  None of the editors did, though.  “Too over the top?”  I asked.

Juno stood, brushing some dirt off her robe.  No longer stately, she seemed simply another dumpy woman who’d forgotten to bathe that day.  “Not just over the top, Ernie.  Way out of line.  I’m sorry, but I can’t go around messing in mortals’ lives any longer.  I’ve got to watch over my brother over there,” she dodged another zinger, raised a threatening hand to slap him, “and that’s starting to become a full-time job.”  He stuck out his tongue at her.  “You never would have thought he’d be made ruler of Olympus.  And if I ever catch who taught him how to throw lightning…”

I turned back to Diana.  Oh, sweet Diana.  Eros tapped me on the shoulder again, with a stern warning look.  I asked again, “So what’s this about an intervention?”

“Right.  We need you to stop writing about us.  It’s just not going to work any longer.”

“What do you mean?  I’m trying to be a writer.  This is how they tell me it’s done – write some stories, then a novel, then live off the royalties once everyone in the country buys a copy of your book.”  Everyone laughed at that one, all except Atlas, who had his face wrapped around my loaf of sourdough.  “What about Atlas?  I’ve never written about him.”  I pointed at the man’s rear end sticking out of my icebox.  “Why’d you bring him along?”

Juno dismissed the question with a wave of her hand.  “Oh, he’s just the muscle.”  I must have looked confused.  “In case you tried to run.”

“But he’s not real.  You think he could stop me?”  A swift backhand from the man himself told me I was out of line.  As I staggered up off the floor, I had only one thing to say.  “Dammit!  That hurt!”

Okay, I had to admit I wasn’t going to run.  But what should I do?

“Write what you know,” said Diana.

Pshoosh!  I raspberried my lips at her.  “I’ve heard that before.  What do you mean?  I know mythology, and I’m writing it, but you seem to think I need something else.”

“Think, Ernie,” Juno had come up behind me and was now resting a hand on my shoulder.  “What have you done in your life?”

I paused a moment.  “Well, I was in the war.”  Zeus laughed and sent a bolt flying between our ears.  I ducked quickly enough to avoid it, but I could have sworn he did it on purpose.  “Okay, I was an ambulance driver.”

“And?  Not what you did, but what you saw…felt.  What you wanted.

“Well, there was this one nurse…”  My zipper somehow caught Diana’s attention again.  I blushed.  “Okay, more than one.  But who wants to read about that?”

“Enough people will,” said Juno.  “They want something real.  They want to know that the sun also rises in Paris, or Italy, or India.  They don’t just want what you hope.  They need something tangible.”

“You think it’ll work?”  Atlas had finally emerged from my small kitchen, still looking bored.  He dodged a shot from Zeus and took off, probably to smack the immortal tar out of the kid.  I could barely talk over the noise they were making.  “You think I’ll be able to be a writer?”

“Of course,” said Diana.  Oh, sweet Diana.  Her deep eyelashes, her dark hair, her stupid bodyguard Eros standing there so ugly-faced and making it hard for me to get to know her.  Oh, well.  “If there’s one thing gods know, it’s people.”

“So what’s the suggestion?  I need something to get me started.”  I took a pen from the table and sat down with a pad.

“Well, for one, you really need to move out of this place.”

“That might take some time.”

“Ernie, you ain’t got time.  You gotta go now, or you’re never going to leave.”

I could see her point.  I bent over to jot a quick note to my landlady.  Heading out.  Please forward mail to address specified next letter.  Will notify within fortnight.  Back never, sell my things, keep half and send me the rest.  Yours, E. Hemingway.

By the time I was done, everyone had disappeared, all but Atlas, back again in my pantry, finishing off a box of saltine crackers.  I startled him with a tap on the shoulder.  “Hey, where’d everybody go?”

“I don’t know about them,” I said, grabbing a notebook and a backpack, “but I’m headed to Paris.  Want to come?”  He shrugged again, slugged me on the arm hard enough to knock me over again, and simply evaporated.  Took like five minutes, too.  I was totally bored the whole time.  I checked the icebox for my sausage, but no luck. I gave Atlas the evil eye for it, but he just shrugged again.  I wished he’d hurry up, and when he was finally gone, I left, not bothering to lock the door.

And their intervention?  You tell me if it worked.


Rules for Writing Practice

I read Writing Down The Bones as part of a short fiction course back in college, almost 20 years ago. In it, Natalie Goldberg writes about writing, about poetry, about spirituality, about presence. She also describes “writing practice”, which is a technique to allow the writer to just let go, to work at silencing the internal editor, to train yourself to relax.

I follow the Rules of Writing Practice each time, and I remind myself of them every time I sit down with a blank page and a pen. They go like this:

  1.  Keep your hand moving.
  2. Don’t cross out.
  3. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, or grammar. (Don’t even worry about staying in the margins or on the lines.)
  4. Lose control.
  5. Don’t think, don’t get logical.
  6. Go for the jugular.

Over the years I come back to writing practice when I want to feel like I’ve created something tangible. I do writing practice as a way to clear my mind before beginning work on a story or a novel. I do writing practice when there’s nothing else I have time for. I do writing practice because sometimes it feels damn awesome to lose myself in the moment, to focus solely on an image, to allow my mind and my hand to drift without any kind of internal restraints, without any filter, without any way of stopping.

I do this kind of writing practice for a number of pages, or for a set amount of time (I believe my record is an hour, loooong ago), or until I get to the jugular. And because it is not filtered, not revised, not planned, it often does not turn out like anything close to a finished product. But sometimes, sometimes I get to the end and shivers flow up and down my spine, making the hairs on my arms twitch, filling my senses with passion and intensity. In those moments I feel that maybe, just maybe, there is something to this whole writing thing.

An old, old story

I wrote this story at least a decade ago.


It Was Inevitable

The intercom pops and sputters into life.  “Welcome passengers, to Universal Airlines flight six-oh-three, with non-stop service from Dallas to New York, with dinner meal service in first class and coach.  At this time, we will begin pre-boarding . . .”  Jake’s in row 17, well behind first-class, and has a few minutes until they’re ready for him.

He folds his paper and tosses it in the trash can.  His wedding ring sparkles in the fluorescent lights, bringing a smile forward.  He can feel it in the way that his lips pull off his teeth, the bulges of his cheekbones widening and filling themselves at the thought of a good family.  He doesn’t like to travel, hates it actually, what worries him most is take-off, but, hey, you learn to tolerate it after a few years of conferences in this city and conventions in that one and business meetings over there.  He watches people boringly line up in a nice, straight, American-way file, not pushing or shoving, queuing perfectly so as to be respectful of others’ privacy and space.  How stifling, Jake thinks.  Why don’t we rush the ticket-taker and demand our seat now?  Must be the two hundred years of peace that’s bred the aggression out of us.

A few families with small children join the first-class passengers in pre-boarding, and then those seated in rows twenty and higher subserviently line up, careful not to intrude.  Jake wants to do something about it, he wants to stand up on his chair and launch into the most powerful, uplifting, inspiring speech ever heard.  He wants to cheer them to greatness.  He wants to move their hearts, bring tears to the corners of ladies’ eyes.  He wants men to feel the blood pounding in their veins for the first time in years.  Now!  Do it now!  It’s time!  Stop wishing and just do it already!

Steeling himself for the courage he needs, he gathers his carry-on and stands up.  Directly into line.  The disappointment at his failure to act is slight.

He’s behind a young businessman in a poorly-fitting suit, carrying a briefcase and a carry-on bag and a computer.  Hey, that’s more than two carry-ons.  Buddy, you should have to check one of those.  Excuse me!  Miss!  He’s got more than two carry-ons!  Please make him play by the rules.

The ticket-taker calmly hands him his boarding pass and Jake Carpenter follows the man with the excess baggage down the gangway.  Looking behind, he can see similarly arrayed persons of various genders performing other little acts of insubordination, quietly breaking the rules without anyone to stop them.  At least I know I’m okay.

The take-off is indeed the worst.  Jake is only able to unclench his eyes once they’ve leveled out and he can hear the captain’s voice telling them they are free to move about the cabin, and that drinks will be served shortly, with dinner in about an hour.  Relaxing slightly, Jake reaches into his brown leather half-suitcase for a crossword book.  Before he can open it, however, a voice startles him.

“Is that the New York Times crosswords?”

Jake turns to face the feminine figure next to him.  By god, you’re cute.  We should have an affair.  She’s pointing in his general direction.  Jake glances down and notices that it in fact is the New York Times Crossword Book.  He’d only bought it at the newsstand to have something to do on the flight.  “Uh, yes it is.  I just bought it to have something to do on the flight.”

“I love crosswords.” Beauty crystallized in the air.  “I’m pretty good, if I say so myself.”  Her attitude hints at indiscretion.  “Melanie.  From Brooklyn.  Born and raised.”

“Jake Carpenter.  Dallas.  Neither born nor raised.”

She finds that funny, and laughs, touching his arm slightly with her perfectly sloped fingers.  Jake stares, wondering what to do next.

“Can we work one together?” she asks.  He has no words to reply, taking out a pen.

Dinner is the first break in the crossword experience.  She is good, better than he is, but they’ve finished two easy puzzles.  Over bland steak or blander fish they begin conversation.  Don’t mention your wife.  She’ll get turned off.

“You know, my wife makes great salisbury steak.  This stuff,” he drips lumps and thin gravy from the plain tines of the fork, “I don’t think this is even meat!”  She nods and smiles, holding up a small morsel of imitation sea-dweller for comparison.  “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking.  We’ve just had reports of some bad weather making its way towards New York, but all indications show that we should be able to land before it causes us any trouble.  We’ll notify you if there’s any change in the predictions.”

“My husband, when he grills out, can make a fantastic swordfish steak.  But this, this,” Melanie hangs her head in dismay, then they laugh together.  Good, she’s not hitting on me.  So why is my blood pressure soaring?

After the meal he tries to return to the crosswords, but she stops him with painted fingernails on the back of his hand.  “Let’s talk.  I don’t get to do much talking these days.  It seems like all I ever do is take somebody here, there, cook this, work that.  Can’t a girl ever get a break?”  Her radiance spills over the bare shoulder touching his, and he bathes in the sweetness of her perfume.  Wonderful.  Why am I thinking this?  Because I want to.

“I know what you mean.  It’s like I have one meeting after another.  Especially with all that the kids have going on, you know . . .”

She doesn’t respond right away.  When she does, it’s to tell him that she doesn’t have kids of her own yet, they’re waiting until they’ve been married at least two years.  “Only six months now, and I’m loving it!”  He listens while she tells her story.  He likes to hear her voice.

Average high school student.  Accidents, speeding tickets, semi-prestigious college, time afterward to bum around and go visit people.  Time to go see places.  Time to have a life.  Paris.  The Grand Canyon with girlfriends.  A week in Miami on the beach alone, sleeping in the car she drove all the way from the city, stopping for gas, like, only four times.  No worries, no pressures.  Then meeting a wonderful man on a blind date, hitting it off, married in eight months, business trips pretty regularly out of state to different parts of the country.  “And now, you!  A wonderful coincidence, don’t you think?”

Oh, dear lord!

“What coincidence is that?”

“Well, the fact that you and I are both going to the same place!”  She is hitting on me!  What do I do?

Jake glances around the cabin.  “Seems to me that everyone here is going to the same place as you.”  Once again she finds this funny, and laughs against his arm.  His systems are on overdrive, screaming for attention, recognition, acceptance of the opportunity to put to shame all other regrets, annihilate the past, boring memories of missed opportunities.  But Jake won’t let that happen.  Not allowed.  Not allowed to because I’m married.  I’m married and that’s what married men don’t do.  So there.

Not that he doesn’t want to.

“Tell me about yourself.  Here it is almost DC and I don’t know a thing about you,” she honeys.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your captain again.”  Plain stuff, very similar to hers.  “We’ve received an update of the weather situation.”  High school sports.  College dean’s list a couple of semesters at the state university.  “Conditions have worsened.”  Started a job three days after graduation.  “We’re going to have to decrease altitude to get under the storm.”  Two weeks of vacation a year, an additional week every five.  “We anticipate a safe arrival at JFK,”  Met a wife at church,  “in about an hour,”  married after a two-year courtship.  Three kids, two dogs, and a neighbor who seems to wait until the grass is to his knees before mowing it.

“Any regrets?” she asks, but he has the distinct feeling that she’s just trying to avoid attention on herself.

“A few.”  Regret that he didn’t buy the sports car when he was twenty-three, settling for the affordable, practical used sedan that wouldn’t put him more in debt than he could handle.  Never seeing the Great Wall of China.  Getting married too young.  No, can’t admit that.  Regret waiting to have kids, he lies instead.  Regret not sticking up for myself more in my life.  Being too focused on a career, not taking the time to enjoy the simple things, he lies again.  Regret thinking of others when I could have thought of myself.  He keeps this last part to himself.

Only when he’s finished speaking does he notice the change in her face.  “What?”  He looks around at the other blank-faced passengers.  “Did I miss something?”  Nobody’s reading.  Nobody’s talking.  Across the aisle a Catholic lady has her rosary out.  In front of them the young businessman who was in line in front of Jake is hastily scribbling something on a piece of paper.  “What?”

Melanie won’t talk.  She’s turned cold and inward, facing the still-blue sky across the wing.  A young boy, not more than seven, taps him on the shoulder from behind.  “The captain says we’re gonna crash.”

“Danny!” who can only be Danny’s mother shrieks from behind Melanie.  “I’m sorry, sir, I don’t know what got into him.  Danny!  That was a horrible thing to say!  Actually, sir, the captain said that there’s bad weather in New York, and that we’ve got to decrease altitude.  Danny!”  She sat back into her seat, tugging hard on her son’s arm, as if hurting him can keep the plane in the air.

Jake faces forward for what seems like only a minute.  A minute in which airline attendants make a dozen trips up and down aisles with airsickness bags.  A minute in which the possibilities of his life are played out, false memories that he’ll never have the chance to have.  A minute in which the plane drops, lurches, heaving six ways from Sunday.  A minute in which he closes his eyes and just barely holds in his own pointless dinner.  A minute when he feels the cool fingers of Melanie’s hand slide into his, and he turns to see her looking back at him.

“If we get out of this . . .” she decrescendos.


If we get out of this,” she continues, “have no regrets.”

“I didn’t think you were listening.”

“Better than you thought.”  She turns to the window again, watches the rain explode upon contact with the wing, feels the shudder and shuts her eyes against the vertigo.  “No regrets,” she looks at him again.

Never with you.  “All right.  No regrets.”

The captain’s speaking again, but Jake can hardly hear anything for the shouting induced by the sudden presence of oxygen masks, pathetic safety nets.  Is this really necessary?  I think I might prefer blacking out to feeling my head crushed between my spine and the tray table, in it’s full and upright position.

Still, he dutifully inserts his mouth and nose into the appropriate orifice, then looks around to see if Danny is okay, because adults are supposed to put theirs on first then help with young children and others needing assistance.  All is well in row 18, so Jake Carpenter, father of three, husband of one, adulterer of none, master of two Labradors, grips Melanie who?s hand, bends over, puts his head between his knees and prepares to kiss his ass goodbye.

When the jolt comes it’s more shocking than anything.  Pain has never been so far from his mind.  He knows it’s there.  But he refuses to accept it.  Just hold on.  If he thinks about it he’ll feel it.  No regrets.  If he lets go of her hand she’ll die, too.  If he lifts his head, it’ll be shorn off by the tearing hull shattering around him.  If he opens his eyes, the dream will become reality and he’ll have to deal with it.

Exhaustive bumps, clatters, shouts around him suddenly dim into the background static so frequently heard on radios.  Jake is in his own world.  He can see.  Of course.  How else would he know they’re on the ground?  How else could he feel the stinging rain smothering his face?  How else would he feel the heat filling the void behind him?  “Something’s on fire!” a voice shouts.  Jake thinks it’s Melanie’s, but when he looks over to see if she’s okay, he finds only an empty shell of a face.  Scared to death.  Jake removes his hand, dutifully unbuckles his seat belt, and looks around.

Flames are visible in at least three different areas.  There are a few dozen survivors.  No regrets.  Smashed hulking metal strewn across a quarter-mile of land after the runway.  Just missed.

The mouths of some of the others move silently.  From far away, must be ten miles sound travels well out here he can hear the sirens of the emergency vehicles visible at the end of the runway.  No regrets.

A hand taps his shoulder.  “Buddy, you all right?” a voice asks through three feet of cotton balls soaked in molasses.  Jake guesses so.  “What’s your name?”

Jake.  Jake Carpenter.  From Dallas, Texas.  Neither born nor raised.  The once-humorous line solidifies in his mind the reality of the thing.  “Roger Ebert,” he says, and turns away from the far-off emergency vehicles, the scrambling blue suits, the violently crying mothers and the quietly raging inferno.

Walking past the blaze closest to the cockpit, Jake watches his wallet arc out of his hand into the steaming mess, no regrets followed by his leather carry-on and sportcoat.  Money, credit cards, keys, monogrammed pen and pencil set, no regrets handkerchief, feeding instructions for a two-year old female Lab, Certs (with Retsyn!) make the trip inside the brown Italian leather jacket, four hundred dollars from Alfani, worthless now because it’s covered in blood and puke and brains left over by someone who’d been sitting too close.

A blue horizon flashes through his mind.  Wonderfully labyrinthine New York City sits on the ocular boundary, waiting.  The Great Wall of China beckons.  Paris.  The Grand Canyon.  He imagines his life, just beginning, starting over.  No regrets.  They’re not allowed.