Fatherhood

(I entered this poem in a competition at WillyCon 2014 and it won second place! The other entries are listed here.)

 

Fatherhood

At approximately 7:20 PM

January 7, 2014,

my wife’s uterus unleashed

a monstrous abomination.

 

The creature made a sound

like a caged orangutan

and refused to stop,

even when I severed its lifeline.

 

It had become self-sufficient,

but still couldn’t position

its absurdly large head

without assistance.

 

Against my better judgement,

I allowed it into my home,

where it continues to plague

my entire existence.

 

At erratic intervals it craves

an alarming viscous fluid

that secretes from my wife’s breasts

throughout the day.

 

Its feces accumulate

in a bag around its waist

and must be discarded

or it never stops wailing.

 

Unless I manage to find

an appropriate means of escape,

I may be in real danger.

It keeps getting bigger.

Sisyphus and Tantalus

(I wrote these short stories as an assignment for a Classical Mythology course. We were supposed to write our own versions of two Greek myths.)

Sisyphus

I know. You want to ask the obvious question. “Why does that huge rock have to be at the top of the hill?” I understand it. It’s a significant question. I’m a bit tired of thinking about it. It doesn’t really matter. I want it up there. I don’t think about whys and wherefores.

It starts in my gut. Almost like a hook, pulling me forward. I have a primal desire to push it. I want the rock at the top of the hill more than anything else. You could offer me anything and I’d turn it down so I could push the rock. As a matter of experiment, I did try once to fight that urge. It goes from the stomach to the heart and the head. It even becomes sexual in a way. All of my being wants to work, to push the rock. There is nothing else in all of existence. I don’t look around anyway. Just at the rock. And the god damned hill.

So I start pushing. It should feel good, fulfilling that desire. The primal need to push. I always think it might just feel good. Just a bit. It never does. It starts to hurt almost immediately. Right in the gut, just like that urge. Strain. Stress. Difficulty. Push, push, push. It does start moving up the hill. Breaking the inertia is the most important step. Of course, it doesn’t get any easier, just more kinetic.

Once I’m on a roll, I can really get started. I can satisfy my fundamental need to work hard. I have to take pride in something, after all. I sweat the whole time, dripping. All over my arms, torso, legs, the ground. Everywhere. Push, push, push. I think the hill is set up just to keep me from gaining any momentum. I get it going, but I can never let up. If I do, it might end up at the bottom of the hill. Far from where I want it to be. I need it at the top.

It goes and goes, up the hill. I work and work, up the hill. I don’t really know how far it is. It takes a while, though. A long time. I keep pushing.

I do get close to the top. I mean, I work at it. I take it seriously. It gets close. Really close. I don’t know why it can’t go any farther. I mean, there’s some reason, I’m sure. Just like me being here. There’s a reason. I don’t really think about it, though.

I was a king once. I still have a crown. On my head, I mean. I had everything. Wealth, a beautiful wife, banquets, children. Occasionally I had famous, wealthy, powerful guests. I killed them. It was never out in the open. I made it look like an accident. I was very clever. The cleverest. Now I don’t think much. Just in bursts. It’s a push. Just like everything. Like the rock. The rock. The rock.

I’m getting close now. Pushing. It’s so close I can smell it. Imagine. A rock on top of a great hill. A pillar of strength. A testament to hard work. A rock. On a hill. It’s so close.

I remember killing my father. It was just a push, really. Off of a tall tower. Mine. I had many high places in my palace. This was the highest. He was very old. Useless, really. I talked him in to going up there. It was supposed to be a serious talk. A heart-to-heart. I didn’t say much before I killed him. I sat him down. Said whatever he needed to hear. Got close. Pushed. He went right over.

The rock starts to slip. My strength is failing. It always does at this point. Right at the top, I mean. Close. Not close enough. I fall over. Collapse on the hill, panting and gasping for air. The rock starts to roll. I know better than to try and stop it. It moves too fast. I can see it rolling. I’m crushed. My goal, gone. My satisfaction, gone. I never get it there. I want to so badly.

It hurts just like the first time. I see it rolling, rolling. I don’t get any rest, though. I try to relax, but I have to watch. I can’t look away. As soon as it gets to the bottom, it stops. On a dime. I look for just a second. Then I’m there. With the rock. I try to take a deep breath, if I can. I usually can’t. Then I feel something in my gut. And I look at the rock. And I start pushing.

Tantalus

I never really liked root beer. Now I think about it all the time. The glass mug in front of me is a perfect example of the root beer ideal. It has never stopped bubbling in all the years I have seen it. It has a perfect head of foam and looks perfectly chilled. The glass has white frost all over it.

Like I said, I really don’t care for root beer that much. I mean, I drank it from time to time, but I never made a big deal out of it. I don’t know who chose root beer for me. It sits on a table at eye level. I really don’t look at the table very often, though.

I’m tied up, of course. Chains. They’re pretty strong, but I don’t notice them most of the time. A small blessing. It’s just to keep me from moving. I gave up on that a long time ago, anyway. See, if the chains don’t loosen and the chair doesn’t even scrape along the ground, why should I even try except for my own amusement?

Root beer, mug, table, chains, a chair, and me. Everything else is just white. I mean, there’s nothing to look at. My head is pointed right at the mug and there’s really no moving it. Closing my eyes does nothing; I still see exactly the same thing. Just root beer. Still bubbling.

If anyone ever tells you there’s a limit to how thirsty you can get, he’s lying. I thought for years that I would plateau, that my need for some kind of food or drink would just taper off. How long can you go without, anyway?

My throat just gets worse and worse. I cough up blood every now and then, but it doesn’t really affect me much after I get it out. Between pain, thirst, hunger, and no sleep, I can see why they call this torment.

Of course, the best food I ever ate was from the king’s banquet. I only dined there a few times, but it was wonderful. I think. I really can’t remember anymore. I wanted to take something for my daughter. I knew she never got to eat anything special. I know it was a chocolate treat of some kind…I can’t remember what it looked like. I really can’t remember any of it.

But I wasn’t supposed to do that. The king was very upset with me. He knew exactly what to do, I suppose. He’s done a lot of things like this before. A lot. I can’t even remember if Sasha got the treat I stole for her. I really hope so. Otherwise, why am I here? Why did it matter so much? Who cares so much about food and drink? I don’t care at all about them anymore.

But I would love to drink some root beer.

Shackles

(This is a 440-word short story I wrote as an exercise. It had to be about a woman who rents a house and finds something in the closet.)

Mark was unpacking bedsheets when Debbie emerged from the bedroom closet with a puzzled look on her face.

“You’ll never guess what I found in there,” she said.

“You’re right, I won’t,” he said. “What did you find?”

“Come see for yourself.”

He stood up and followed her into the closet. She pointed to a steel plate that had been bolted into the drywall behind a clothes rack. There were two solid steel chains hanging from the plate. At the end of each chain was a steel wrist shackle.

“Did you notice these when we toured the house?” she said.

“No. You really can’t see them from outside the closet. I guess we didn’t spend much time looking around in here.”

He examined the shackles up close. They were sturdy and well-maintained. The entire construction was solid and all the metal had been polished to a mirror shine. The whole thing could easily have held 500 pounds without budging.

“Do you think someone actually used these things?” she asked.

“Yeah,” he said, casually tugging on one of the chains. “This is a lot of work to put into something you aren’t going to use.”

“So it must have been a kink, right? Like, a sex thing?”

“I doubt it. These shackles are solid steel. They would be extremely uncomfortable, and besides, you wouldn’t need something this strong just for kinky sex.” He shook his head. “No, I think someone was locked up in here.”

She stared at him. “You think someone was stuck in this closet against their will?”

He shrugged. “I can’t imagine any other reason to have shackles like these.”

“Wow.” She looked back at the shackles. “You know, we don’t know anything about the guy who lived here before us. Who knows how long he could have had someone trapped in here?”

“It might not even have been him. There are plenty of sick people out there, and dozens of residents lived here before he did. These shackles could have been here for years. Maybe everyone just ignored them.”

“It’s possible,” she said. “Anyway, I’m going to go call the landlord. I’m not comfortable living in this place, and there’s no telling what else we might find around here. After that, we should call the police. This might help them with an ongoing investigation.”

Before Debbie could leave the closet, Mark grabbed her in a stranglehold and lifted her off the ground. She struggled for a few seconds, then fell unconscious. He dragged her back inside and sat her against the wall.

“This is awesome,” he muttered to himself. “Now I don’t have to buy any shackles.”

The Witness

(I wrote this short story and presented it to a critique group in Lawrence. This is a revised version based on the feedback I got.)

Jeremy arrived at the hospital at 6:15. When he told the woman at the front desk he was going to see his wife, she insisted that he sign the visitor’s log.

“It won’t take very long,” he said, and walked in anyway. “I’ll be right back, I promise.”

After the door swung shut behind him, the ward stayed completely silent. The patients never made much noise, but the on-call nurse was gone. He looked in a couple of rooms, and all he heard was the sound of the life-support machines.

Abby’s room was the farthest from the desk. Now that she had spent 3 weeks in the coma ward, Jeremy had settled into a routine of making short visits in the morning. Abby would never have wanted him to spend days on end watching her sleep, and the longer he watched, the more it hurt. It was much easier to look at her surroundings instead.

When he entered the room, he noticed all of the familiar faces: the IV drip, the uncomfortable chair, the heart monitor, and the miscolored floor tile that ruined the pattern. He looked at Abby’s face last.

She looked young, and not just because she had lost so much weight. Her mouth was holding back a smile like she was trying to keep a secret. When her eyes weren’t taped shut, she seemed paralyzed with naive wonder. Right now, her secret was whether or not she would ever wake up.

Instead of starting his usual cleaning routine, he stared at her. He wanted to refill the already-full jug of water, open the blinds, and throw away the wilted flowers. For some reason, he just continued to stare.

“This isn’t right,” he said to himself.

He thought about the time they had visited her mother in a similar hospital room. She had always been a quiet woman, but her brain tumor made her talk constantly. She mostly talked about her dreams. When she was asleep, she got to be a normal person in a bizarre world, instead of being an insane person in a perfectly ordinary world. As soon as she started rambling, Abby would get flustered and start to cry. Jeremy really listened. Whenever he wanted to know how the story ended, Abby’s mother would inevitably get confused and stop.

So he had to end the stories himself. It was never quite as satisfying.

The best dream was about her marriage to Satan. She spent most of the time explaining the black roses, the blood-red cake, and the snake-shaped wedding ring. She wondered why the father of the groom had even shown up, because he clearly didn’t fit in with Satan’s other guests. Eventually, she talked about her vows, which she had written herself. They mostly involved forgiveness and understanding, but she could not think of a single reason to say “I do.”

Abby interrupted. “Are you saying Dad is like Satan? You are so happy together. You love each other!” She ran from the room, and her distracted mother started talking about the difference between drupes and berries. Abby’s father went after her. Jeremy was lost in his own thoughts.

He finally realized what had happened when he heard them arguing from the hallway.

“Daddy, I don’t want to see this anymore. Why can’t it just be over?”

“I never wanted to put you through this, Abigail. Your mother is already gone. The woman in there is all that’s left. Even though she looks and sounds the same, there’s nobody home. ”

She sighed. “It just gets harder and harder. I want to keep the good memories without adding all of these terrible ones.”

Before Jeremy could hear anything else, his mother-in-law shouted what she thought was his name. “Jeffrey! Come here!” He walked to the side of bed. She leaned over to him, and with a puzzled look, she said, “which one of them caught the bouquet?”

Before they left, he told Abby that he thought her mother might have stayed married to Satan. She refused to speak to him for the rest of the day. Her version must have ended differently.

His mother-in-law died the next day. Abby and her father were very relieved, but Jeremy thought that interacting with a crazy person hurt less than losing one. On the other hand, Abby finally started talking to him again.

Now she might be silent forever. Visiting Abby was more difficult than visiting her mother, and the silence was so much worse. Abby had always known how much he loved to talk with her. Whenever she was angry, she would sit silently as his pressured speech got more and more desperate for a response. Eventually, he would storm out of the room. He could always hear her sigh when he finally walked away.

She was much more beautiful when she spoke. She could be silly or sexy, angry or comforting, passionate or perfectly reasonable. She only had one kind of silence.

He took out a vial from his jacket pocket. He couldn’t remember where it had come from. He looked at the label, which read “potassium chloride for injection.” He got the syringe from his other pocket and watched as he started to draw the poison from the vial. “This shouldn’t be happening,” he said.

He walked toward the side of the bed and traced the IV line from the pole to her wrist. “I would never do this,” he told himself. His hand seemed to move on its own as he slid the needle into the hose and pushed the plunger.

After he watched the poison go in, he tried to think of a way to save her, but he remained immobile as the cardiac monitor slowed and ultimately flatlined. She didn’t move once.

He wanted to cry, but he couldn’t. He wanted to touch her, but all he could do was watch. His body mechanically turned away to go get help.

In the doorway, he saw the stoic face of his father-in-law.

“Just look what you did to my Abigail,” he said. He calmly walked toward her body. “You killed her.” He sighed.

“No.” Jeremy mumbled. “I didn’t do this. You were the one who poisoned her. I saw you do it.”

As he tried to move toward the bed, his heart began to race. He thought about holding his wife, and started seeing bursts of light. Just before he could finally move, he was overwhelmed with light, and in a flash, the world vanished around him.

Jeremy was left standing in an empty white room, completely paralyzed. His father-in-law was pacing nearby. “I was afraid of this,” he said. “You’re still attached to the idea that I killed my own daughter.”

“Because it’s the truth.”

“No. It’s a memory. Whether or not it’s true is beside the point. Now you have a new memory. It’s perfectly reasonable, and eventually, you’ll see for yourself that it’s better for everyone.”

“How did you get me to do this?”

“I’m running an important investigation. It’s my job to make sure we get extremely accurate testimony from murderers like you. Every time you relive this memory, we can extract more and more detail.”

“I know this isn’t what really happened. I’m absolutely sure of it.”

“Are you? Well, next time you’ll be a little less sure. After you kill her a few hundred times more, you’ll doubt the veracity of that one little old memory. Maybe you’ll even start to feel some guilt.”

“Why did they let you do this to me?”

“I insisted! No one knows this technology as well as I do, and I owe it to Abigail to determine the truth. When I found her, I was devastated. Naturally there was some confusion about which of us arrived first. However, my version of events was much more realistic. Once you see that, you’ll be able to corroborate my story in court.”

“I’ll never do that. I loved her. Don’t you understand? She would have gotten better eventually. She was improving!”

“She was breathing. Now she isn’t.”

Before Jeremy could respond, his body finally unfroze. His muscles relaxed and he fell to the ground. Before he slipped unconscious, he saw a faint smile on his father-in-law’s face.

Jeremy arrived at the hospital at 6:16. When he told the woman at the front desk he was going to see his wife, she insisted that he sign the visitor’s log.

“It won’t take very long,” he said, and walked in anyway. “I’ll be right back, I promise.”

Last Gasp

(This is a 750-word short story I wrote as an exercise. The first sentence had to be: “I could only hold my breath for 2 minutes.”)

I could only hold my breath for 2 minutes, so my timing would have to be perfect. First I’d collapse on the floor loud enough for the guard to hear, then I’d hold perfectly still. When the prison doctor showed up, I needed to seem completely lifeless, so for the last six months, I’d practiced slowing my heart rate down to less than 40 beats per minute.

The doctor was notoriously squeamish about dead bodies, so he only did the bare minimum to verify a prisoner’s death. He’d just lightly touch their wrist to check their pulse and hold a compact mirror near their face to see if it fogged up. After a minute or so, he’d scurry off to fill out the paperwork. I heard he even threw up once.

Once the doctor signed my death certificate, the guard would toss my body on a gurney and move me to the morgue. After that, my buddy in the morgue had it all planned out. As soon as I got carted in, he’d arrange for a hearse to come and pick me up.

“I laughed at my cousin when he bought a used hearse,” he said. “Now we’re both laughing all the way to the bank.”

My wife paid him off with the last six thousand bucks in our savings account. He and his cousin insisted on getting the entire payment in advance.

“Escaped prisoners aren’t exactly trustworthy,” he said.

The plan was ambitious and a bit dangerous, but it would be worth it in the end. A death certificate meant a blank slate, and after all, what was the penalty if I got caught? Another consecutive life sentence? A bit less stew in the chow line? There was no harm in trying.

I woke up early on a Monday morning and took a dump. I pulled up my pants when I finished, but instead of flushing, I just turned on the sink and dropped to the floor, making as much noise as possible. The guard walked over, banged on the bars and shouted my name, but I kept my eyes closed and stayed silent. After a few seconds, he called for the doctor.

During a medical crisis, the guards weren’t allowed to open the cell or touch the inmate until the doctor showed up. While the guard watched, I took shallow breaths and focused on lowering my heart rate. After another couple of minutes, the doctor arrived.

“Mornin’, Doc,” the guard said as he unlocked the cell door.

“Good morning,” the doctor said. He sounded tired and a bit nervous. “Was the inmate like this when you arrived?”

“Yeah, he hasn’t budged.” They crowded into my cell. “Looks like he just took a shit.”

“I imagine he did. You’d be surprised how easily the heart can give out.”

I took one last shallow breath before the guard kicked me face up. The doctor knelt down by my side, took out his mirror and held it in front of my face. He touched my wrist but didn’t press down. I could feel him staring even though my eyes were closed.

I tried to count the seconds but kept getting distracted by the guard’s whistling. I figured about a minute had gone by when the doctor removed his hand. He was still holding the mirror in place, so I kept my heart rate down, just to be safe.

After another 45 seconds, my lungs were burning, but the doctor wouldn’t move the damned mirror. I couldn’t tell why he was taking so long until I realized he was panting for breath himself.

“Doc, are you okay?” the guard said. “You look a little pale.”

“Yes, yes. I’m sorry, I just, um, thought of something I need to take care of in the office.”

I was starting to see spots when the doctor finally took away the mirror, stood up, and said, “He’s as dead as a doornail.” He sounded queasy, but didn’t retch.

“Alright, Doc, I’ll call the morgue crew to come get him.”

The doctor left. I was relieved, but for some reason, I couldn’t start breathing again. My lungs were frozen, my chest felt tight, and my heart began to flutter. Panic set in. I needed to let the doctor know I was still alive, but I couldn’t even move.

The second before I blacked out, the doctor walked back in and whispered to the guard, “Make sure you break his neck, just in case.”

“I always do, Doc.”

How to Substitute Teach: An Informative Guide

I have now been certified as a substitute teacher for nearly 17 months, and I have spent no fewer than 8 days in class as a sub. I feel that these qualifications make me the perfect candidate to tell the world how to substitute teach. I have written a bulleted list of tips and other information on the art of subbing, so you can take the simplest and safest approach to the job. The list is not in any particular order, nor is it intended to be all-encompassing.

– As a substitute teacher, you must always remember that expectations are low. Extremely low. Unbelievably low. You will be considered “successful” if you avoid injuries, felonies, insurrection, alcohol use, and anything involving fire or explosives. Substitute teachers are considered above average if they have an 85% success rate or higher, based on these criteria.

– One of your most important duties is counting the hours and minutes until the end of the day. Try to know the absolute earliest you can leave, and be sure to use that in your calculations. There will usually be a schedule somewhere in the classroom, which will make it easier to count down to the end of the current class or lunchtime.

– Make sure the students know you do not want to be there. Various remarks or facial expressions can make this a great deal more apparent, but a general sense of listlessness and exhaustion is effective as well. Because the students do not want to be there either, this will garner sympathy. Sympathy and pity will prevent the students from acting out, because they will feel a great deal of guilt about making things worse. On the other hand, some students will sense your weakness and go for the kill. Students can smell weakness from miles away.

– Try to look young and naive or old and doddering, whichever is easier for you. This will also help the students feel sorry for you. If you seem to be incapable of controlling the classroom, the kinder students will do so, saving you a great deal of effort.

– Indifference is your greatest asset. As soon as you begin to feel anything approaching an emotion, think instead of what you will do after work, and you will immediately stop caring. Possible things to think about include alcohol, tobacco, illicit drugs, cable television, internet purchases, and being around people over the age of 18.

– At no point should you take an interest in the students. It’s really none of your business, and the district isn’t paying you to learn, just to be a teacher.

– The title “substitute teacher” is a bit of a misnomer. If you manage to teach anything during the day, you have probably made a mistake. Note the circumstances so you can prevent similar incidents in the future.

– At the beginning of the day, write your name and the current date on the front board. However, this will not prevent students from asking what your name is and what day it is.

– Around lunchtime, your eyes will no longer be able to focus. This is normal. Whether it is due to hunger or boredom, no one can say, but it will go away whenever you look at the clock, so it is nothing to worry about.

– Remember to appreciate that nothing you do matters. As soon as the regular teacher is back, you will be immediately forgotten.

– The students will try to convince you that their regular teacher lets them get away with absurd things. It’s best to just acquiesce to these requests.

– When students arrive for class, you can expect both disappointment and enthusiasm, which will always accompany the phrase “oh, we have a sub.”

– Students will just keep arriving throughout the day. This is impossible to avoid.

– Threats of violence against students are not unheard of, but are not recommended as a matter of course.

– Contemplating suicide is not out of the question either, but verbal threats to do so are only appropriate as a last resort.

– If you like teaching or being an educator, never become a substitute teacher.

Something Intelligent from 2006

This is my essay submission for Scholar’s Recognition Day. The topic is “contemplate a point in your life when you experienced or expect to experience complete fulfillment and describe that point.”

The phrase “complete fulfillment” strikes me as a contradiction in terms. I think that, as humans, we should continually reach farther and try harder for goals in the near and distant future. There is no point at which any person can honestly say that he has no problems or that he has reached the pinnacle of success. Life simply does not provide such opportunities.

There should be no limit to what someone can learn or accomplish. Whenever humans have reached goals in the past, they served only as stepping stones to something greater. Just as mankind does not cease to learn as much as possible, I try to learn all that I can in as many fields as possible. My main interests are mathematics and computers, but I learn things from social science to fine arts to cooking. I think that a broad range of abilities will help more often in life than an extremely specialized one.

However, there is no shame in a sense of satisfaction about short term goals. An occasional sigh of relief or pat on the back is often important in continuing good work. In spite of this, though, no one should stop learning because he has achieved a goal. The next step should be a more difficult goal, beyond his grasp, and then he can work to exceed his limitations. As one of my teachers said, “if you’re getting straight A’s, you’re in the wrong classes.” I think this philosophy applies in many aspects of life. If I’m not challenged in a class, I am less likely to achieve any sense of satisfaction in completing it. If I were in a more difficult class, I would work to get the best grade I could, which might be an A. However, the difficult A would be more important to me than one received in a simpler class, because I will have gained more from the experience. Then, after a sigh of relief, it would be time to move on to another, more difficult goal.