Stupid Humans

At his day job, Jason Whitaker was actually known as a pretty social guy. But he had a side hustle that meant he really didn’t like it when anyone watched him for too long. Or, as he was quickly realizing, anything.

He and his buddy were in the alleyway at the back of his house, unloading a TV and speakers they’d swiped from a some place across town, when he first noticed it – just a prickling on the back of his neck that made him pause and glance ‘round. The only light came from the chinks in the blinds, but it was enough to reflect off something a little ways down the fence.

“Hold up,” he said, motioning to his buddy. He jumped down from the truck, pulled out his phone and swiped the flashlight on. Its faint beam illuminated a large tabby cat sitting there on the fence, just staring in his direction.

“Dude, it’s a cat?” his buddy questioned.

Jason put his phone back in his jeans, slightly ashamed of himself. “Yeah, my bad, sorry, thought it was something else.”

He thought nothing of it, until the next week, when he was unloading another TV from another house, with another buddy. This time, his headlights illuminated the animal as he backed up to the garage.

“I swear that stupid cat was there last week,” he murmured.

“I mean, it probably lives around here,” his buddy replied. This guy was a cat person, so he walked up to the fence rubbing his hand and making a “tnt, tnt, tnt,” noise with his tongue. No dice; the cat didn’t budge, but only stared incredulously down.

That was a cat for you. Jason honestly didn’t really think anything of it until the fourth or fifth time he was unloading more stolen goods, and that stupid cat was still there. As soon as Jason got out of the car, he picked up a piece of gravel and flung it at the animal. He missed of course, and since his buddy was that same cat person, all Jason got for his trouble was an admonishment to just chill out. The cat nonchalantly picked itself up and set up shop again a few yards down the fence.

The stupid cat was back to his usual spot the next time. And the next time. And the time after that. It was always there, through every unloading. It got to the point where if Jason could have shot the animal, he would have. But he lived in too nice a neighborhood to get away with that without someone calling the cops, which was a much worse scenario than some random cat watching him.

He was still managing to think of the cat as random, or at least to refer to it as such in his head.

Instead, Jason was just starting to look into whether cat traps were a thing, when he came home from work one day, walked into his living room, and saw that very same, stupid cat sitting in his girlfriend’s lap. He used some very choice words to demand why she had a cat that wasn’t his in own house.

“Yeesh, calm down!” she said, in a voice that was the opposite of calm. “I think it’s just stray, but it was acting like it was hungry, so I was just feeding it and petting it, no big deal.” Her voice and her defensiveness rose with each statement.

Some part of Jason recognized that it was slightly irrational to yell at his girlfriend because a cat he was just sure was following his every move was in the house. So instead, he took a different approach and decided to go off about how she may have a key to his house, but that didn’t mean she could act like she lived there, she was always getting into stuff she didn’t think through…

The fight got bad, like most of their fights did these days, and Jason could have sworn the the cat looked like it was enjoying it.

When his girlfriend ran out crying, the stupid cat darted out as well.

But it was back again a couple days later. It was sitting right there in his driveway when the police came knocking, asking about a string of thefts across town, and with a warrant to search the house. And the cat was still there when the police car drove away, with Jason in the back in handcuffs.

What Jason didn’t see was this: when the car was out of sight, and the police were still tearing up the house, the cat got up and meandered up the street to a car that was parked a little ways away. It leapt onto the hood, darted up the windshield, and jumped through the open moonroof.

“I suppose there’s absolutely no use telling you ‘Good job,’” said the man inside the car.

The cat sat in the passenger seat and began to unceremoniously lick its haunches. “Oh, I know I did an excellent job, Stupid Human. I always do. This may have been one of my masterpieces, of course, seducing the girlfriend. I actually got them to fight over me, have I told you that, Stupid Human?”

“Several times,” the man assured the cat. “But, of course, you’re worth fighting over,” he added, in a completely deadpan voice.

“Yes, indeed, and lucky I am,” replied the cat, without a hint of irony. “Because that’s how I told you the girlfriend might be willing to tattle on her criminal mate. But enough chit-chat. Where’s my reward, Stupid Human?”

The man reached across to the glovebox, and pulled out a tiny, cloth bag. “Two ounces of catnip, as we agreed. You know, if I were a cop, I suppose this would be the same as bribing a source with drugs?”

The cat’s ears had already begun to perk, and its whiskers twitched. “You know you might be the stupidest human of all the Stupid Humans. It’s my understanding that you could go quite far with the stupid human police with such tips as someone like me brings you.”

The man smiled. “Yes, yes, we’ve discussed how stupid I am many times. My mother would say much the same thing – although she wouldn’t tell me I’m stupid so much as impatient. I never did like paperwork. And the private eye gig often pays just as well, although looking into this string of thefts was a personal favor for a friend.”

“Ah, the magnanimous nature of humans,” the cat replied, without a hint of sarcasm. “I often wonder at it. But I am doing you no favors. Stop jawing, Stupid Human, and hand me the bag!”

The cat took the bag in his mouth, then bounded up and out the moonroof.

“Until next time!” the man called.

“Shhhoopid Hwoomun,” he heard the cat mumble, as it disappeared into the night.

Well, the cat might think humans were magnanimous beings, but after his years of experience, the man was quite sure that cats were absolute jerks.

Harmonica

Every day as the tracks were laid you could see him stand

Leaning against an old telegraph pole, harmonica in his hand.

As the hammers fell like rhythmic drums and train whistles blew

He drew from that harmonica a low, mournful tune.


He had followed the railroad as long as anyone could remember

Always watching and playing, in heat of summer and December.

Nobody seemed to know where, if anywhere, he called home,

But on the night breeze they could hear his mournful tune.


Somebody said he was a decorated calvary officer from the war,

Returning home to a burned home and three graves in 1864.

He stood in the sun, hot as wrath, gold glinting on his hand,

As it gently held and caressed the low, mournful tune.


Then came the day when his harmonica fell still,

And leaving his pole, approached three strangers on a hill.

A cry rang out, and glinting steel hinted at dark intent,

A Crack, crack -percussive melody’s staccato tune.


Out of the dust and smoke surrounding this man-made hell,

There remained no sharp silhouette upon the hill.

They found him there with a smoking gun in his hand

And three blackguards silently lying dead in the sand.


Hammers fall like rhythmic drums and train whistles blow,

Telegraph poles extend to the horizon row upon row,

And from time to time, nobody can seem to tell from where,

There comes that mournful tune upon the night air.

Death & Taxis (Cont’d)

Full Story Here

Tom blew his car horn as a squat, cube-shaped car switched lanes in front of him. “Self-driving HOOEY!” he muttered.

“You have self-driving cars?” said Kaylen. “We are just now getting that sort of technology in America. That is so cool!”

“Cool?” repeated Tom. “Yes, if that’s what you want to call it. Take a look, though!” Tom pointed to the car that had just cut in front of him.

The car had four wheels but otherwise looked alien to Kaylen’s eyes, unlike any automobile she had ever seen. It was a box-shaped car with vertical windows on all sides, akin to a gondola, and the wheels were small and appeared to be able to go in any direction, similar to the wheels of a dolly. Despite this modern design, the car seemed to trundle along in a very uncertain fashion. It moved a foot into Tom’s lane and then stopped and readjusted. On the top of the car was a reflective orb suspended like a bell from a small frame, and above this belfry was an antenna that pointed upward. The car continued moving very cautiously forward, stopping abruptly as a sheet of paper blew across the roadway.

Tom honked again. “These self-driving cars are so flighty. It’s amazing that they move at all. They are so sensitive to interruptions, that they can barely move above 5 miles per hour.”

“Well, new technology always has hiccups when it’s first introduced,” noted Kaylen.

“Spoken like someone who has witnessed the unveiling of many new technologies!” said Tom brightly. “You should have seen the first prototype of these cars. They were the opposite of now. They were forever bursting with energy, so they would routinely be bumping into cars in front of them. Just a sort of persistent tap in the rear as we were moving forward in stop-and-go traffic. Very annoying. So the manufacturer of the car reprogrammed them to be safer. Now, the cars of petrified of moving at all!”

Kaylen listened to all this, absorbing the sight of the timid car. It completed its lane change and seemed to settle down somewhat, having for the moment reached an equilibrium. “I’m sure they will work out the glitches before too long.”

Tom shrugged. “Maybe. Everyone is chattering about innovation, but innovation here always seem to hit some snags.”

“The point of purgatory,” continued Tom, “As you may have read in certain religious texts, is purification, or expiation. It’s not the fire of hell—it’s the fire of purification. And what better way to expiate and make someone suffer…than by making them sit in traffic.” Tom said this last part as his cab slowed to a complete stop. To the right, a giant billboard displayed a map of the traffic circles, with each circle colored brightly in either yellow or red colors. As Kaylen watched the billboard, the outer circle’s color turned from yellow to red.

“Hmm. Want to get a bite to eat?” said Tom. “There’s a pub not far from here that has exquisite Caribbean-inspired street tacos.”

Kaylen looked at the tightly interlocked cars all around them. “But, how will we get there?”

“Come with me!” said Tom, putting his car in park and opening his door to get out. “This jam will take at least an hour to sort out. We have the time.”

To be continued…

A Fine Line of Length and Style

As their definitions quickly make clear, short stories, novelettes, and novellas are all short pieces of prose fiction.  What, then, differentiates these different literary categories?

Short Story

Short stories are the briefest of these three prose genres.  While most definitions do not include a word limit, Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary says in its description that the general rule is that short stories are typically no more than 10,000 words (“Short Story”).  An article from WriterMag.com places the cap for a short story at 7,000 words (“The Novella”).  To put these estimates in perspective, a short story of 10,000 words would be about 40 pages of text if written double-spaced with a basic 12-point font.

One unique element of the short story is that it tends to include few characters and focus on one theme.  This creates the “unity of effect” that is characteristic of this genre, according to the definition from the American Heritage Dictionary (“Short Story”).

The short story in action: “Signals” and other works by Tim Gautreaux, “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry, and “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Alan Poe

Novelette

Short Story, Novelette, and Novella word counts
While there is no set word count for the these genres, these ranges from the Nebula Awards rules may be a useful guide.

While novelettes lack a prescribed length, just like short stories and novellas, they tend to be between 8,000 and 15,000 words long (“The Novella”).  A work of 15,000 words would be about 60 pages, using the same formatting listed above.

According to the Collins English Dictionary, common characteristics of the novelette are that it is “slight, trivial, or sentimental” (“Novelette”).

The novelette in action: “Two Hearts” by Peter S. Beagle, “—That Thou art Mindful of Him” and “The Bicentennial Man” by Isaac Asimov, “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card, and “The New Atlantis” by Ursula K. Le Guin

Novella

A novella is longer and more complex than a short story.  This type of prose fiction often includes a moral lesson or satirical elements.  In an article for The New Yorker, columnist Ian McEwan likens the novella to a movie and estimates that a typical screenplay averages 20,000 words, which he indicates is the normal length of a novella as well.  An estimate from an article on the website Writers Digest by Chuck Sambuchino and from WriterMag.com puts the length of a novella between 20,000–50,000 words, with 30,000 as the average (“The Novella”).  This means that the novella is twice the length of a short story in its briefest form.

Like a movie, a novella is more complex than a short story and may include one or two subplots and some rich character development, but within the constraints of a more abbreviated space than a novel would allow (McEwan).

The novella in action: Candide by Voltaire, The Decameron by Boccaccio, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, and Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.


Works Cited

McEwan, Ian.  “Some Notes on the Novella.”  NewYorker.com, 29 Oct. 2012, http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/some-notes-on-the-novella.

Nebula Awards: Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America.  “Nebula Rules.”  15 Nov. 2019, nebulas.sfwa.org/about-the-nebulas/nebula-rules/.

“Novelette.”  Collins English Dictionary, 12th ed., HarperCollins, 2014,            http://www.thefreedictionary.com/novelette.

Sambuchino, Chuck.  “How Long Is a Novella?  And How Do You Query Agents for Them?”  WritersDigest.com, 18 Nov. 2008, http://www.writersdigest.com/publishing-insights/how-long-is-a-novella-and-how-do-you-query-agents-for-them.

“Short Story.”  American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., 2011, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company,             http://www.thefreedictionary.com/short+story

“Short Story.”  Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary, Random House, 2010, http://www.thefreedictionary.com/short+story

“The Novella: Stepping Stone to Success or Waste of Time?”  WriterMag.com, http://www.writermag.com/improve-your-writing/fiction/novella/.

Truth in the Forest

I don’t think I’ve ever told you of that Halloween night eighteen years back – a night that started off merely eerie, and ended in something like horror. I haven’t forgotten it, and by the time I’m done, neither will you. And, before you ask, yes, this story is actually true. Just because something is told like a story doesn’t mean it is only a story.

It began like this: it was October 31st, and night, and a well-intentioned neighbor knocked on our door to let us know that she thought she’d seen our horses escape. They were normally confined to the fields and sprawling forest behind our house on the edge of town, but now they were outside the fence. Or so our neighbor thought she’d seen, she couldn’t be sure.

Panicked, my mother and I frantically pulled on boots and jackets and wound scarves hastily about our necks, for there was a wind and a chill in the air. We dashed outside, but saw no horses around the perimeter of the house, and none near the road, which was the most important part. So we decided to divide and conquer. My mother grabbed a bucket of feed and stood by the barn calling, while I set off with a flashlight and my own bucket for the woods.

It could not have been a worse night for finding the quiet, shadowy beasts that horses can be. It was a full moon, to be sure, but that wind was truly raging, shaking the nearly leafless branches and bare vines into a distracting, obstructing dance. I didn’t believe in ghouls or whatever else was supposed to inhabit such environs on such a night, but that didn’t stop me from starting when, much like Little Red Riding Hood, I discovered I was not alone. Our cat, Asta, had followed me, his sooty fur blending in with the dark.

He hopped up on a fallen tree and began meowing insistently. I gave him a caress, but that did nothing. Oh, well, no pleasing cats. I set off through the woods again, calling for the horses, loudly crunching leaves underfoot. Yes, that was the sound I was hearing, just the crunching of leaves. Those leaves crunching wasn’t masking and blending with some other, scuttling noise.

I carried on for some time, finding no evidence of horses, but slowly becoming aware that I thought I heard a buzzing sound, growing louder and a bit louder by the footstep. I was sure it was just a phantom or my own imagination, maybe vibrating leaves in the wind. And, of course, Asta was there still, his meows becoming even more demanding as he began darting in front of my feet, tripping me up more than once – accidentally, I also thought.

Finally, at one spot between two cedar trees, Asta became such a nuisance that I concluded I had better pick him up and carry him the rest of my search. Had I been paying attention, I would have noticed the buzzing sound had swelled into something real and solid, and close.

I hoisted Asta to my waist, but before I could take a step forward, he yowled and scratched at my face, forcing me to drop him. He collected himself, and stood between the two trees, back arched, fur spiked. I hardly noticed. Something was moving behind him.

I lifted my flashlight, and saw – something, several giant patches of iridescence that fluttered, and many large branches, unusually hairy, which then moved and began crawling about, and numerous giant, inky pools of eyes framed by antennae the size of saplings. And the buzzing was a veritable din.

It was then that Asta opened his mouth: “See, you really shouldn’t go that way,” he said, quite calmly, for all that. “Stupid human, I’ve been trying to warn you all night…”

Oh, fine. The talking cat taking it a bit too far?

You see, when I said the story was true, what I meant was that there was truth in the story.

It wasn’t Halloween, though it might have been October. Or November. Or maybe even December. Or, let’s be real, seasons in my neck of the woods are sometimes hard to differentiate, so it might have been January or March. I don’t remember. I did check, though, and there was a full moon on Halloween night eighteen years back. But I was in grade school back then, and when this story really took place, I was in high school.

There was definitely a moon that night, though, and it was windy, and the forest made strange shapes, but we lived on only 10 acres so it was really more like a patch of trees. We found our horses, in case you were wondering. They hadn’t escaped, and I was nowhere near the hive of very normal-sized bees that at one time lived on our property. The whole thing was eerie, a bit, true, but nowhere near that fabled “horror.”

But I’ll tell you what is true, cross my heart: out cat Marble walked by my side all through that patch of woods. No, not our black cat, Asta, who we did have. It was Marble, not black like a bat, but white and gray, like the Irish cat Pangur Bán. Marble follows me nearly every time I walk through those trees, even today. I like to imagine he is some sort of guide, guarding me from something – from what, I don’t know. But I can tell a story.

Lilies in Water

“Good news!” called the Intern, as his boss, the museum’s director, finally emerged from her meeting. “The object labels for the Monet exhibit are finally here, and are being installed right this sec!”

“It is 4:00 p.m. the day before the exhibit opens!” the Director exclaimed. “How could they just now have gotten the object labels to us?”

The Intern shrugged his shoulders apologetically. “I wish I knew. I got them the info over a month ago, and I’ve been calling all week, and they just kept saying it was ‘taking longer than expected.’”

The Director sighed. “Well, at least they made it in time, if just barely. Let me know when they’re done installing them – this is an incredible exhibit for us, and we’re expecting almost a thousand people tomorrow at the opening. I’d like to take a look at the finalized display before I leave.”

“You’ve got it, Boss!” the Intern mock saluted.

An hour later, all the signs were installed, and the Director, followed by her intern, walked into the gallery and gazed around admiringly. There they were, over 50 of Monet’s famous water lilies and other assorted garden paintings, all together under one roof – her own museum’s roof. She smiled, and turned to the first painting’s placard.

Water Lilies with a Lot of Froggy Green Rather Than Blue in the Water (1917), it read. 

It took a moment for the Director to register what she was reading. “Um, Josh,” the Director called, with an unusual tremor in her voice. “What is this?” she pointed a slightly shaking finger at the title. The Intern trotted over, but without waiting for an answer, the Director turned hurriedly to the next painting.

This one said: Water Lilies Where the Water Looks Kind of Brown (1917). Water Lilies Where All the Flowers are Purple-ish (1918), said the next, and the one after that: Water Lilies Where the Flowers Are Purple-ish Again but There’s Also a Willow Tree (1918).

“Josh, you sent the label info over to the printer, what…” the Director struggled to find words that were calm and non-accusatory, but all that came out was: “What did you do?”

The Intern apparently failed to sense the displeasure in his boss’s inquiry. He beamed “Oh, well, Monet really wasn’t very inventive with his painting titles. They were literally all just Water Lilies or The Japanese Bridge and I thought, like, how are visitors going to talk about which ones were their favorite, you know? ‘Which one did you like’ ‘Oh, I liked Yellow Irises’ ‘But which one?’ So, I added some description to all the titles, some color commentary, if you’ll pardon the pun. Problem solved!”

“All the titles,” the Director repeated, numbly.

“All the titles!” the Intern repeated, enthusiastically.

Indeed, as the Director wandered blankly around the exhibit, every title had some alteration. Water Lilies that look like Monet was Experimenting with Finger Painting (1921), The Biggest Water Lily Painting (1920), Weeping Willow with a Whole Lot More Orange than the Others (1920). They’d never be able to reprint them all before the exhibit opened.

It was The Japanese Bridge that Doesn’t Look at All Like the Japanese Bridge (1923) that finally caused the Director to snap. Later in his life, Monet had developed cataracts in his eyes, and he’d painted that particular picture of the Japanese bridge that didn’t look very much like the Japanese bridge when he could barely see anything.

“Josh.” The Director turned to the Intern, and looked him dead in the eye. “You’re fired.”

Unfortunately, the satisfaction of saying that was nothing compared to the chagrin the Director felt the next morning, when she overheard a museum patron talk about how their favorite painting was definitely “Water Lilies with a Lot of Froggy Green Rather Than Blue in the Water.”

How Did Those Boots Get There?

The boots hung from the power line like a pair of condemned convicts. They rotated limply in the humid breeze, savagely strung up four years ago and hanging by their laces ever since. The feat was remarkable—thirty feet of air stood between the ground and the power line, so the person who placed the boots up there had both good aim and a good arm.

The feet must also have been remarkable because the boots were size 14½ boots, extra wide. They were brown, tarnished by sunlight but disturbed by little else. They had observed as thousands of cars had passed underneath over the course of their time there.

The boots themselves didn’t mind, of course: they chatted often about how they didn’t miss deployment, as they called it, at all. Ryan, the left boot, and Candace, the right boot, talked frequently about how they missed their retail days when all they had to do was sit shiny on a shelf and wait to meet a new person. Ryan and Candace found themselves lonely sometimes—after all, the demand for size 14 ½ boots was minimal. But they had a happy life in their own way, cheering as their friends—the Johnston & Murphy loafers two shelves over for instance—departed to find their place in the world.

But Ryan and Candace didn’t obtain a good owner. A tall, thuggish man who smelled like grease and two-day-old-Old-Spice purchased the plus-sized couple. This man had taken them home and shocked Ryan and Candace at how he mis-handled them. The original coating of polish covering Ryan and Candace wore quickly off and was replaced with scuff marks and a handful of deep scratches.

All of this to say, on the night that Dank-Spice-Man decided to go out, drink one too many drinks with his buddies, hop in the back of their car, then halfway home complain he needed to use the bathroom NOW, Ryan and Candace were all too happy to lead Dank-Spice-Man out into the woods, before being involved in a bet where the man and his friends each began attempting to toss the boots onto the power line. It was Dank-Spice-Man’s friend Arnold who finally succeeded.

Arnold won $10 that night. Ryan and Candace? They won their freedom.

The Odd Job

Unlike some professional assassins, who simply eliminated their targets in whatever generic manner was easiest, Robert prided himself on his personalized kills. Since your neighbor had stolen one of your goats a few years back, you now wanted him to choke to death while eating a poisoned goat? Robert would find a way. You had a special phrase you wanted uttered right before your uncle was stabbed in the very same rib that he stabbed your father? Robert would make it happen. 

After twenty some-odd years providing such customized assassinations, Robert was pretty sure he’d heard all the weirdest, most specific requests, from some of the most peculiar people, that he would ever hear. That was, until the day he heard the Emperor describe exactly how he wanted his mother killed.

“The Emperor” was the short nomenclature, of course; the long version was His Imperial and Royal Majesty, the Emperor of the Koruna, King of Lira, Protector of the Confederation of the Mark, Mediator of the People. After that last title was added, and the Emperor started mediating what some people thought was a few too many things, other, unofficial titles were often used, like “Dictator, “Despot,” and “Tyrant.” That was none of Robert’s concern. The man had invited him into a very swanky room in his palace, served him what he assumed was good wine, and said some very complimentary things about how Robert was just the man to “take care of” the Emperor’s mother.

“I confess I don’t especially care exactly how it all goes down in every little detail,” the Emperor admitted, casually swirling the wine in his glass. “You can use a knife, a rope, a pistol, whatever suits you. But,” the Emperor paused his swirling, and looked very intently at Robert, “this is very important: as she dies, you must tell her precisely this: ‘Today, your son has become the Lavender Rabbit.’”

Even Robert had to admit that there was a slightly awkward beat. He recovered quickly: “Oh, okay, I can do that. ‘Today, your son has become the Lavender Rabbit.’ Certainly. Your order will be carried out within the week, unless you have some other timetable in mind.”

The Emperor waved his hand. “No, within the week will do just fine. End of the month would even work, if some complication arises.”

“From what you’ve described of your mother’s guards and habits, I don’t foresee any,” Robert assured him. 

There was another long silence. Finally, the Emperor cleared his throat. “I assume you’re restraining yourself from asking just why your Emperor is reminding his mother of a lavender rabbit as he has her assassinated?”

Robert shook his head. “Not really, your Imperial Majesty. I like to assume that all my clients have their reasons. My job is just to make their vision a reality.”

The Emperor wore a highly amused expression. “Well, you’ll be returning here once the job is done for your payment. If, by that time, curiosity has overwhelmed you, as mine would if I were you, I will be happy to satisfy it.”

Robert and the Emperor parted, and Robert set off to do his job. 

The Emperor’s mother was killed within the week, just as Robert had promised, and, just as the Emperor had predicted, Robert was dying – no pun intended – to know what the Lavender Rabbit referred to, and why the Emperor had become it. It had to be some sort of in-joke. Robert thought he had seen a flash of understanding in the woman’s eyes, but death was often full of very confusing emotions for those undergoing it, so that didn’t necessarily mean anything.

The Emperor appeared very satisfied when Robert told him he was indeed quite curious as to the mysterious phrase. The Emperor sat back in his chair, and propped his legs up on the table in a very un-imperial manner. “I was quite close with my mother as a child, and to all appearances throughout adulthood – by the way, I’m sure you were surprised she was my target, and I doubt many people in this kingdom will dare suspect a thing. Anyway, she used to read to me every night, and my favorite was a little book entitled Lavender Rabbit’s Odd One Out.

“It was a delightful story of a lavender rabbit whose owner’s house was such a mess, and so he took it upon himself to clean it up. He does so by sorting all of the things into piles of like objects – dishes with dishes, blocks with blocks, and so forth – but there was always an “odd one out,” – a paintbrush with the socks, say, or a rubber ducky with the dishes. The rabbit would take that odd one out, and put it where it belonged.” The Emperor paused for a moment. Robert, practiced in being nonjudgmental, simply fingered the envelope of money he’d been given.

The Emperor continued: “I was very inspired by that rabbit. Creating order from chaos, seeing what needed to be done and doing it, molding the world to fit his vision, doing what others would not do. Finding the odd one out, the thing that no longer belonged.” He laughed. “Reading a bit too much into a children’s book, perhaps, but, you know, impressionable youth and all that. I would often joke with my mother that it was that book that made me who I am today…and doubtless you see where this is going.”

Robert nodded as if he did. 

“My mother had become the odd one out,” the Emperor explained. “She was saying things like, ‘Perhaps you shouldn’t take all the peasant’s flour, your birthday cake may be important, and I understand that you want it to be the biggest birthday cake ever, but the people do have to eat…’ That simply wouldn’t do. So, I had her sorted where she belonged. Ridiculous, I’m sure you think.”

Robert shook his head. It took all sorts to make a world.

“I appreciate you being a good sport about all this,” the Emperor said. “Now, I do have just one question before you go.” He reached forward and rang a small silver bell on the table.

“Of course,” Robert agreed.

The door opened, and three guards walked in, sabers drawn, advancing until they stood just behind him. Robert felt his palms, still clutching the cash, grow cold.

The Emperor grinned. “So tell me. Which of us here do you think is the odd one out?”

 

Inspired by Alan Baker’s lovely children’s book “Gray Rabbit’s Odd One Out,” which I highly recommend and contains no murder.

Remembering Rockwell—Snapshots of the Ordinary

I wish Norman Rockwell had been there.  Scenes like those were the stuff that inspired him, I think.  The little moments in life.  Something so ordinary it resonated with audiences and became extraordinary.  Rockwell had an eye for those moments.  He captured the humor, the sweetness, the tenderness.  Then he, or a Saturday Evening Post editor, enhanced the image with a simple but fitting caption.

I wish I were artistic or had my camera when those moments happened.  Instead, all I can do is snapshot the scenes in my mind, trying to imprint every detail for later recall.  I realize now that I have a mental scrapbook of moments like these.  And while it can be a delight to peruse them, I wish I could free them from those solitary pages to share with others.  But like dreams, these pictures and their emotions can rarely be brought to light without losing the meaning that I feel so keenly.  A glimmering quality is lost in translation.  Words can’t capture the entirety of what I try to communicate.  I doubt even the best writers communicate a thought or a picture as perfectly as they want—at least not often.

If people gave up because they knew perfection were impossible, though, where would we be?  Only by trying will we improve, so here I am.  Spilling my thoughts and stretching out the moments until I make the jump.  Here I go.

Getting Acquainted

“Look, Elaine.”  My sister and I had just slid into her car after a brief shopping expedition.  I was pointing across the parking lot.

“I wish I had my camera and could capture moments like these,” I commented wistfully, as my sister looked too.  “Isn’t that sweet?”

What had caught my attention was a uniformed police officer.  Standing at a corner of the sidewalk, he was approaching a woman who was walking her German shepherd mix dog, and by his body language, I could tell he was asking if he could pet the dog.  The woman agreed, and the officer bent down and tentatively reached out to introduce himself to the canine, who appeared to be a bit uncertain about the acquaintanceship.  It was a moment of vulnerability for both.  An ordinary scene that I had never seen before.  The dog obliged and let his head be petted as my sister and I drove away.

Here was a little moment in time where a police officer was an ordinary guy who liked dogs.  I wish I could have shared that occurrence with others as vividly as I experienced it.

A silly, optimistic part of me imagines that this Rockwell scene could change people’s perspectives and combat their prejudices.  But the moment these scenes become publicity, they tend to lose their credibility.  I think that was part of the appeal of the moment.  The people didn’t know they were being watched, which made the scene that much more touching.

Rainy Day Melancholy

I was eating a meal with some friends when something beyond the cafeteria window caught my eye.

“That’s so sad, isn’t it?” I commented, pointing out what I had just noticed to my friends, who turned to see for themselves.

“It’s the picture of finals week,” I continued.

“Yeah, that is pretty sad,” one of my friends agreed.

Trudging past the window was a dripping college student.  A bedraggled black umbrella drooped from his hand, almost unidentifiable.  It looked more like a kite than an umbrella, its tines bent and fabric torn into triangle-shaped scraps.  The student gazed at his umbrella with an attitude that seemed to mimic the mournful appearance of the umbrella.

I felt so sad for him when I saw his expression as he contemplated his ruined umbrella.  I hoped that his day improved and that what I saw in passing didn’t summarize how his finals were going.  Despite my sympathy, though, I admit there was something comical in the scene.  What I saw was the weird juxtaposition that Rockwell would capture, where a scene walked the tightrope between sorrow and humor, where perhaps one person took something a little too seriously when others wouldn’t.  It was just an umbrella, after all.  But I think I understand.

The Worst Thing I’ve Ever Done

This is the story of the worst thing I’ve ever done.

Okay, fine. This is not the story of the worst thing I’ve ever done; this is the story of one of the worst things I’ve ever done. And, obviously, it’s not even really all that terrible, because I have no qualms telling any of you about it, ye anonymous internet reader, ye not-so-anonymous internet reader, or ye rando I’m swapping anecdotes with at a party.

So here it goes. When I was a sophomore in college, I semi-routinely went two-steppin’ with a group of friends at the local dance hall. Not for any great love of country/western music, as I actually dislike the genre. I can claim no higher motives than that all my friends were doing it, I’m a bit of a social caterpillar, and dancing can be objectively fun, especially with people who are good at it. Also, the guy I was into at the time sometimes made an appearance, so I was always hoping to run into him.

This one time, though, this time I’m telling you about, it was just me and a friend. We’ve lost touch since then, this friend and I, for a few valid reasons, but I still think fondly of her. She was, well, the fun friend. Some of you will know what I mean by this very simple description; for others, you should know that she was charming, clever, cheeky and opinionated, extremely generous and also incredibly impulsive. Arguably flighty, and openly flirty, she was fun, and she persuaded me to accompany her and her alone to the dance hall one night, because no one else could go, but she still wanted to go dancing.

It was she who would be the victim of that very bad thing I did, which occurred between the hours of 10 and 11 p.m., on the left-hand side of the first dance floor in the building.

We, two unaccompanied girls, stood on the edge of the shuffling couples, thereby signalling that we were ready to jump in at a moment’s invitation. We didn’t want for partners (well, she especially didn’t). Like most country/western halls, I gather, the atmosphere was congenial, and you, a male, could ask unknown females to dance without being inherently creepy. Unless, of course, you yourself were creepy.

This is the juncture where I will introduce the third player in the upcoming scene: Fedora Guy. In the spirit of charity, I should state that “creepy” is perhaps too strong a word for him. In all of this that I am about to tell, I never felt threatened, and he was perfectly polite in every interaction. But, he was…weird.

First off, he was wearing a fedora, a buttoned vest, slacks, and a pair of dress shoes that had, I think I recall, slightly pointed toes. Not to belabor the point, but this was a country/western dance hall, meaning that jeans and cowboy boots were the unofficial dress code, and if a hat was worn, it was obviously also a cowboy one.

Secondly, it was the way he danced. He danced much as I imagine an oily octopus might. He oozed his way rhythmically across the floor, attempting to exude what he thought was pizzaz while draping his tentacles as best he could around his partner.

Being that partner dancing with him was exactly as awkward as it looked. I know this, because I danced with him when he asked me that one time. I attempted to make small talk with him as we slimed our way across the floor. I thanked him for his trouble when we were done, though it was really all mine. I was determined to never dance with him ever again.

So, on that night out dancing with my Fun Friend, it was with quite a bit of panic that I watched Fedora Guy seep his way over until he was in front of us, and faux-suavely hold out his hand between the two of us, mutely asking: “Do either of you want to dance with me?” And so at last we come to it: the moment of the kind of bad thing I did.

I picked up my friend’s hand, and placed it in his.

He sucked her into his eight-legged orbit, where she remained for the next three to four minutes, while I went and hid.

Afterwards, she was, honestly, pretty much fuming at me, and she did not appreciate my defense at the time: “You said you needed a wingwoman, and look at me! I think I’m being a pretty great wingwoman – I just got you a guy to dance with!”

Postscript: I actually met Fedora Guy a couple years later, outside of the dance hall, at a wedding. Turns out he was good friends with both the bride and groom, who were also friends of mine. He was not wearing a fedora at the time, and he seemed pretty, well, normal. Thus, I’m not really sure whether the moral of this story is “Know when it’s worth it to throw your friends under the bus,” or “don’t wear fedoras.”