the magic of storytelling

Month: May 2020

Mannequin Monday – Ocean, You Owe Me a Body

Mannequin Monday – Ocean, You Owe Me a Body

Welcome to another week of Mannequin Monday. The place where we drape the naked form with words, images, shapes, texture. The magic of story.

Today, the featured story starts where sea meets land. We drape the form with wet sand, with overpowering sea water, with “landlocked grief.” The story is Across the Sea: A Sequence, by Gbenga Adesina.

My own writing sample today is titled “Cold Pizza”. A man waits at the beach for a woman. For a fresh start.

This Week’s Story

Nigerian writer Gbenga Adesina brings us a poem, a story of the sea. Adesina is second-place winner in Narrative Magazine’s eleventh annual poetry contest.

The sea as a place where life meets death. Where dreams meet reality. His piece is titled: Across the Sea: A Sequence. You can read all of it in Narrative Magazine’s website.

Gbenga Adesina, Narrative Magazine

In Adesina’s poetic story I see immigrants. Struggling to escape to a new life. Fighting the sea. Perhaps fighting a sea they have never seen or dealt with before. Landlocked people driven from their homelands. Crowded on barely-seaworthy boats to cross to a land with opportunity. With hope. Hope now drowning in sea water.

Here is a quote from Adesina’s Across the Sea:

A man is bent on his knees, wailing at the waters.
He slaps his hand on the wet sand and rough-cut stones
the way one might fight a brother.
He grabs the shirt of the sand as though they are in a tussle.
The stones here carry the island’s low cry inside them.
A landlocked grief. They say the man was a newlywed.
Now his vows are inside the water.
He claws at the sand. He wails: “Ocean,
you owe me a body. Ocean, give me back my lover.”

“Ocean, you owe me a body.” What a moving statement. A newlywed man on the edge of a new land grieves his missing spouse. He has his grief but no closure. She is gone. Lost to the sea. Their life is gone as well.

The imagery is so strong. He wails at the waters. He slaps his hand on wet sand. He claws at the sand. “Ocean, give me back my lover.”

How many immigrants have had exactly this experience? Thousands, I would think.

My Current Writing

The photo of the pizza place on Fire Island inspired this short story. I hope you enjoy it.

Cold Pizza

A man sits on the tiny bench in front of a pizza shop, a pepperoni pizza on his lap. He holds the box up to keep oil and heat off his legs. The shop sits around the corner from the Ocean Beach ferry terminal on Fire Island. A Friday evening in early June. The last ferry from Bay Shore has disgorged a crowd of eager beachgoers. People stream by, pulling red wagons piled with backpacks, overnight bags, weekend supplies. Fire logs, groceries, fresh corn. Bicycles and kids weaving everywhere. Adults in flip-flops. 

Town Pizza, Ocean Beach

He sees the families re-uniting as working spouses get to the island for the weekend. Kids are jumping. Competing to tell their story first. The smell of sunscreen almost overpowers the salt air.

To his right the sun is lowering on the horizon. The American flag over the store front twitches feebly in the afternoon breeze.

A song lyric runs through his head. Something about it all starting now. He can’t wait to see her.

As the crowd thins, he stands a moment and looks for her down the walk.  Nothing.

He sits again, takes out a slice. Oil runs off the slice into the box. The tip of the slice folds under as he tries to take a bite. He looks up to see if anyone is staring at him. Wipes his chin with a handful of napkins. Sips from a Coke cup. Pushes his sunglasses to the top of his head.

He chews on the pizza. Looks down the walk again. She is not there. All the ferry passengers have moved on to their cottages.

The pizza loses its taste. Cold. Oily. The pepperoni looks like cardboard cutouts. Where is she?

An ache squeezes his heart tight. Like he just stepped between two buildings. Pressure. Crushing. 

What did I do? Was it me? 

He reaches for his phone. Text her? What’s the point? She didn’t text me. Did not say she would not come. Yeah, she sounded hesitant yesterday. But no text to say no. 

He stares at the sidewalk as though there is a huge black hole in the center. A gap. An absence. 

She isn’t here.

She won’t be here.

It’s over. 

“You need help eating that pizza?”

He looks up. Her face is in shadow, backlit by the lowering sun, framed by a wide-brimmed straw hat.

“You came.”

“Of course I did.”

“I didn’t see you come off the ferry.”

She sits next to him.

“I came over on the early ferry.”

He looks puzzled. “Where were you till now?”

She reaches over, opens the box, takes out a slice.

“I went for a long walk on the beach.”

“That almost sounds like a cliche.”

She nods. Bites into the slice.

“You saying I’m a cliche?”

He smiles. “Hell, no. Far from it.”

She takes another bite of the slice. Talks while chewing.

“Fire Island beaches are the best. I could walk here forever. Summer or winter.”

She taps the pizza box. “Summer or winter…with you.”

***

Comments are welcome.

Mannequin Monday – A Pivotal Choice

Mannequin Monday – A Pivotal Choice

The naked form, the blank page. Time to dress them again. Dress with your narrative. Your point of view. Your expression of self. You as artist, making art.

This week we take a look at four exciting, award-winning stories from teens. Courtesy again of Narrative magazine.

Plus, Donald Maass offers advice on writing with meaning, in Writer Unboxed.

And a sample of my own writing. This time a repost of The Mother’s Day Card.

This Week’s Story

Narrative magazine, a consistent – and free – source of good fiction, recently ran its fifth annual Narrative high school “Tell me a Story” contest. The winners each had their stories posted on the magazine’s website.

In the words of Narrative, “What happens when you make a choice? A choice that can’t be smoothed over, reconciled, or unmade? That’s a question for the ages—and for story.”

More: “In this year’s Narrative “Tell Me a Story” High School Contest, we asked students around the world to address, in a six-hundred-word story or essay, a pivotal choice. These young writers proved they are fearless in mining life’s defining choices, finding grace or humor when it’s in the offing, or, if not, revealing how truly irrevocable choosing can be.”

Anna Buryachenko, Narrative Magazine

Narrative awarded first place to Anna Buryachenko for her story, My Rickshaw. Her character’s pivotal choice: an invitation to leave her home and her family in Havana to work in Florida. You can read her story here.

Other Winners

Samina Kaushek scored second place for her story, A Numbers Game. You can read it here.

Samina Kaushek

Evan Yee
Patience Wallace

Two tied for third place. Patience Wallace won for her story, The Black Hole.

And the other third place winner, Evan Yee for An Ethical Dinner Dilemma.

Well-done stories. Leaving Havana and family…straining to enjoy eating a slice of pizza…saying yes to dating a boy…choosing a live lobster for dinner. Defining choices.

The four teen stories embrace real-world choices. My Rickshaw is perhaps a metaphor for any teen preparing to leave home for opportunity, whether for college or for work and career. As a side note, in this time of pandemic, it will be interesting to see how many teens choose to take a gap year from college. Interesting to see what creative forms that gap year will take. Interesting to see how many actually return to college when events return to “normal.”

Of the four stories, Patience’s The Black Hole resonates most strongly with me. Does the girl accept the boy’s offer to date? The boy who is a cutter, who self-harms. The boy she has “carried” all school year with her friendship, her support. In her view, she chooses him or she chooses herself. She can relieve herself of the anxiety of carrying someone else, or bury herself underneath this troubled boy’s own emotional burden.

Samina’s story rings true, doesn’t it? The anxiety, the internal arguments about eating pizza, measuring calories. In the longer view, a possible life choice, a psychological choice. And Evan’s fun story: choosing a lobster to eat…life or death for the lobster, an ethical dilemma for the diner. The “money-shot” quote: “But something has to die to feed us.”

The Purpose of Story

The core of story. Good vs. evil. Choices. Donald Maass, president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency, recently posted “The Meaning of Meaning”, in Writer Unboxed. In the post he discusses the role of meaning in fiction.

Donald Maass, Writers Digest

Maass says, “What is the purpose of a story?  What vacuum does it fill?  I believe we spend time consuming stories because they address what we most profoundly need to deal with.  Conflict and problems.  Facing our fears.  Elevating our spirits.  Delighting in our folly.  Affirming our faiths.  Validating our values.  Challenging our misconceptions.  Forgiving our failures.  Finding hope.  Overcoming our aloneness.  Reconciling to death.”

I can see these affirmations come through in each of the four teen Narrative stories. Conflict. Problems. Facing fears. Elevating spirits. The four writers have captured meaning in their short tales.

Maass continues, “Even morally gray tales…in the end force a choice.  What is right must be decided.  A conclusion must be reached.  The story ends and, when all is said and done, one outcome is indisputably better than another.”

Each story forces a choice. Leave home or not. Date a boy or not. Eat a slice of pizza or not. Pick a lobster for dinner or not.

My Current Writing

Here’s a story I wrote for a recent International Writing Program course from the University of Iowa. I revised it a bit for this post. I hope you like it.

The Mother’s Day Card

He parked at the curb in front of the house. Reached over to grab a bag and a bouquet of red carnations, embellished with a bit of baby’s breath. Mom’ll say, You shouldn’t have wasted your money. The flowers will die

He thought, So will dadTonight.

He hesitated at the front door. I don’t want to do this.

He rang the bell and turned the knob. Always unlocked. He stepped in. His mother came down the hall. “He’s not good, Will.”

He nodded. “These are for you. Happy Mother’s Day.” He handed her the carnations. She smiled. “I’ll find a vase.”

He followed her to the kitchen. “Go say hello. He’s awake.”

He walked to their bedroom. His father lay there in the hospital bed. Shrunken. Pale. Eyes closed. 

“Hi, dad.”

His father opened his eyes. Nodded slightly.

He took a corsage and a card out of the bag. “I got these for you to give mom. Can you sign the card?”

His dad shook his head. His eyes clouded.

“Okay, I’ll sign for you.” He pulled a pen from his shirt pocket, opened the card. To My Wife on Mother’s Day. He signed the card, Love, John. He had already written Dear Madeline across the top of the card.

He put the card in the envelope, a matching yellow. Left the card and the corsage on the side of the bed. “I’ll get mom.”

He went back to the kitchen. “He needs you for a minute.”

His mom wiped her hands on a towel and went back to the bedroom.

He poured himself a cup of coffee and sat at the table. Stared out the window. Took in a deep breath.

A while later his mom came back to the kitchen, her eyes wet. “Thank you for doing that for him.”

She busied herself preparing supper. A light meal. Shrimp cocktail, potato salad, deviled eggs. “I doubt he’ll eat anything.”

After they ate, his mom’s friend Angela stopped by. With a crumb cake from the local deli. 

He stretched out on the couch for a nap. Fell asleep to the hushed tones from the kitchen.

He slept longer than he expected. Night had fallen. The house was quiet. Angela came into the living room. “Your dad is gone.”

“How’s mom?”

“Having coffee. Do you want to see your dad?”

“Yes.”

He stepped into the bedroom again. The Mother’s Day card stood on the night table. The corsage was on her pillow. 

He stood looking down at his dad. His dad’s body. With an index finger he gently closed his dad’s eyes. 

The doorbell rang. Moments later two undertakers stepped into the bedroom. They said nothing. He moved aside, walked back to the kitchen. His mom sat at the table, Angela next to her, holding her hand.

His mom looked up. “He’s at peace now. No more pain.”

He nodded.

“See if the undertakers need anything.”

As he approached the bedroom, he heard the zip of the body bag. He stopped. They came out of the room. He met their eyes. Nodded.

He walked ahead of them to the front door. Held it open for them. Stood in the doorway. A dark moonless night. He watched them carry the body bag – his dad – to their van. Watched them put him in the back, close the doors, drive off. Fade into the black night.

Today she didn’t tell me the flowers would die. Dad died, instead.

He went back inside.

***

As always, comments are welcome. Thanks.

Mannequin Monday – Dreams Too Large to Carry

Mannequin Monday – Dreams Too Large to Carry

Welcome to one more Mannequin Monday. Our theme continues. We find ways to dress the blank form. To cover the mannequin, to write the words, to shape the sculpture, to create the sketch, to take the photo or make the film. Today our fiction piece – again from Narrative magazine – features a story by Ifeoma Sesiana Amobi. The interview features five up and coming Nigerian writers. And finally, another sample of my own writing.

This Week’s Story

Narrative magazine gives us a fine short story by Nigerian author Ifeoma Sesiana Amobi, titled A Small Blip on an Eternal Timeline.

Ifeoma Sesiana Amobi, Narrative Magazine

“My family came to America when I was one, and in my tiny luggage bag my mother stuffed dreams too large for me to carry.”

So starts Somadina’s story. In her early twenties, an artist, she lives with boyfriend Emeka in a tiny apartment in Pittsburgh, PA. Emeka has his big dreams too, but he struggles with family expectations, a potential marriage with the “ideal” woman Amaka.

“Give me a little more time,” he pleads. He swears he will tell his parents he will not pursue a marriage with Amaka, but rather build a life with her. His family strongly disapproves of Somadina.

She struggles with her own family’s expectations. “According to my mother, I was never right with the world.” She tells Emeka, “I had a teacher once, in a continuing ed studio workshop… He told me that I would have a hard time competing with African artists who were making bold statements as a result of living in a state of existential urgency. He did not realize that my flowers were also coming from existential urgency. I asked him why my paintings had to mean something. Why they couldn’t just make me feel something. Something indescribable. Why couldn’t they just open a door for anyone to walk through and experience an existence that’s greater than they will ever be but also in this strange and relieving way, a part of them. An alternate reality that is ours. Isn’t this what we all want? To find that magical place in the midst of our tiny, broken-up lives?”

Somadina muses, “If I hadn’t lived out my life the way I felt I needed to, moment by moment, we might not have met each other. In the grand scheme of things, as ugly as life gets sometimes, I haven’t made any mistakes. Am I wrong? Am I making a mistake?”

When would I stop running? she asks herself. Running away from myself?

“I took one long, deep breath, and walked into the sun.”

Dreams too large to carry in a tiny suitcase. A metaphor for the plight of both characters. Dreams vs. expectations. A conflict between their own dreams and those of their families. A conflict within, as each struggles to find their way.

This Week’s Interview/Podcast

Electric Literature is a nonprofit digital publisher with the mission to make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive.

Electric Literature brings its readers an article from McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Issue 56. Well-known Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie introduces five young Nigerian writers you should know. “Their stories blew us away, exhilaratingly original, brimming with heart and life. We’re confident that their names will soon be widely known.” 

My Current Writing

The following is an excerpt from The Man in the Door, a short story I wrote back in 2012. Robbie Santangelo is a 14 year-old kid living with his grandfather. His mother died, his father took off. Here, Robbie comes home from school to find his grandfather home unusually early.

Excerpt

Pop’s car sat in the driveway. He’s home early, Robbie thought. Maybe I can talk to him about what happened this afternoon. 

Robbie shoved his bike against the wall in the garage, ran in the back door to the house, and called out to Pop. Silence. He’s probably napping. 

Robbie darted to the stairs. He heard a thump. Turning toward the living room, he noticed Pop’s feet sticking out from in front of the couch. Robbie ran over. Pop lay on the floor, his breathing raspy, face ashen, eyes closed.

Oh, crap!

“Pop, what’s the matter?” Robbie yelled.

Pop opened his eyes, looked at Robbie, but was unable to speak. A gagging noise came from his throat.

Robbie pulled his cell phone out of his pocket, dialed 911, and shouted at the operator that his grandfather had collapsed. After taking the address, the operator asked Robbie to describe Pop’s condition. 

“Is he breathing?” 

Robbie leaned in to listen for a breath. “I think so.” 

She then said, “You need to start chest compressions.”

“Compressions? He needs an ambulance.”

The operator told him to calm down. She instructed him to put his cell phone on speaker, and keep talking to her until the paramedics arrived. 

Robbie screamed, “What do I do?”

She told him. He placed his hands on Pop’s chest and started pressing down. The operator called out the rhythm and pace while he pushed. Pop did not open his eyes at all. His color was turning from white to blue.

Robbie tired quickly. “How long do I do this?” he yelled in the direction of the phone.

“Till the paramedics arrive. Keep going.”

Robbie started to cry. “Come on”, he said. “Don’t die, Pop. Please.”

A siren screamed in the distance.

***

Read the story on Amazon Books.

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