I’m pleased to have two senryu in the latest issue of the journal Prune Juice. There are some exceptional poems and photos in here, and reading it takes so little time from your busy life. It’s well worth it!
This little something is a response to a Flash Fiction Challenge on Chuck Wendig’s blog. The task was to pick one of ten opening sentences provided by his creative readers, and go from there. Thanks to Sam Brady for the line: “The bald man grinned and capered madly in the alley.”
Dancin’ In the Street
The bald man grinned and capered madly in the alley. Diana watched him from her balcony as he danced in and out of the blinking sign announcing the entrance to Chico’s bar.
Wearing shiny black Oxfords and pressed grey trousers, he was too well-dressed to be homeless, and he looked too old to be tripping on any of the merry substances the kids were so keen to pop these days. Not a junkie, a hobo or a party kid — the usual people she watched from her balcony. If Diana had to sum him up in one word, it would be happy. She couldn’t remember the last time she saw someone this happy, in her dingy alley, or anywhere.
She took a long drag from her cigarette and tapped the ash over the rusty metal rail of her balcony.
“Hey!” she yelled down at the man, her voice echoing off all the red walls that choked the alley.
The man paused his dance for a moment, then started skipping out of the light and towards 63rd street.
“Hey!” Diana yelled louder. “Dancing man! Up here!”
The man stopped and turned his face up into the shadows. From this angle, Diana could only see his legs, still now, and the spot where his torso disappeared into darkness.
He didn’t speak, so Diana did. “Why are you dancing?”
“Sorry if my dancing disturbed you, miss.” His voice was not at all what she expected. It was deep and sultry, like that cowboy actor, Sam Elliott.
“Uh, no. You didn’t disturb me. It’s nice, actually, to see somebody so…carefree.”
The man laughed a rich, warm laugh that made Diana giggle too. He stepped back into the light and she could see his smiling face more clearly now. He reached into the front pocket of his dress shirt and pulled out some sort of candy. The rustle of the wrapper reminded Diana of her father, dead fifteen years now. A chronic cougher, he always kept lemon drops in his pocket to stave off the hacking fits.
“Are you celebrating something? Or is there some great dance tune playing down there that I can’t hear?” she said.
“No, no music except for the hum, snap and tick tock beat of our beautiful city,” he said, then loudly crunched the candy in his mouth.
“You should come down here and dance with me. I was just about to take it to the street.”
Diana felt a giggle rise in her throat again. In all her years living in this grimy hood, she’d talked to many interesting characters, but this guy was probably the most intriguing.
“I’m afraid I don’t have any dancing shoes, and I don’t even know your name. My Mom didn’t teach me much, but she did tell me not to go anywhere with strangers.”
“My name’s Brown. I’ve lived around here for a long, long time.”
“Brown? Is that a first name or last?”
“Both, I guess,” he said, rubbing the top of his smooth head. “And you?”
“Diana. I’ve lived here for a long time too, but I don’t remember seeing you. Do you go to Chico’s often?”
“Nah, I floated in there once after a pretty brutal fight, but not since. It’s not really my kind of place.”
“I thought maybe you’d been partying. It’s two-for-Tuesday.”
“I don’t drink alcohol, Diana. Never found the need. There’s so much in this world to make a person feel high, and once you see that, there’s no reason to wallow in the low.”
Diana smiled and took another drag of her waning cigarette, then crushed it under her canvas sneaker. “Sure, but a cold beer’s pretty tasty now and again.”
Brown, nodded, and smiled wider. They continued to stare at one another in amiable silence for several minutes. There was no attraction here, at least not the sexual kind, but Diana did feel relaxed and comfortable in Brown’s presence.
“Are you ready to come down now?”
“Are you serious? I’ve liked chatting with you, but I’m not going to wander off with some dude who scampers in alleys at 1 a.m.”
“I would never hurt you, or anyone, Diana. That’s not what I do.”
“I know that, or I believe it anyway. But, I’m still gonna pass. You have a good night, Brown.”
She turned to go back into her apartment, but instead of her familiar squeaky patio door, she found only a brick wall. She pressed her hands against it, softly at first while she tried to make sense of it, then she became frantic, prying her fingers between the bricks to find a way in. She let out a moan that conveyed both confusion and terror, and felt hot tears forming in her eyes.
“Diana?” Brown called from below. “Everything OK?”
She was sobbing now, and fell to her knees, pawing at the bottom of the wall.
“My door…my apartment, it’s gone. Not…here. What the hell?” she muttered softly, but Brown heard.
“It will all be OK.” His voice sounded closer now, almost in her own head. She crawled to the railing and looked down between the slats.
Brown stood below, one arm stretched up toward her.
“You can’t go in, Diana. There’s no place there for you now. But it’s OK. You’re not alone. I’ll show you the way down.”
He waved his arm in a slow loop, like a maestro conducting an orchestra, and a glimmering, gold rope appeared at the edge of the balcony, knotted itself around the rail, and trailed silently down to the gravel below.
Diana pushed her finger against it, expecting it to disappear or something, but the rope felt solid. She wrapped her hand around it and tested it with a small tug. It seemed to embrace her hand, and her entire arm began to feel warm .
“Climb down,” said Brown. “It’ll hold.”
She grabbed the rope tighter, then climbed over the shaky railing. She wrapped her legs around the rope, the way she used to as a kid in gym class, and slowly shimmied down.
Brown reached out for her hand, and as soon as she touched him, the rope faded away.
“Where are we going? Why is my apartment gone?” she asked calmly, the panic she felt on the balcony sliding away.
“Let me ask you, what were you doing tonight before you saw me down here in the alley, Diana?”
“I was just getting some air. Well, smoking, like I do every night.”
“Uh-huh, and before that?”
“I was…” she started, then realized she didn’t know. She couldn’t remember anything before she saw Brown’s chrome dome and capering feet.
“It’s OK. It all comes back,” he said. “When you’re ready to see your life, yourself, with neutrality. Sometimes it happens instantly, sometimes it takes longer.”
“But, did I die? Who are you? What are you?”
He squeezed her hand and pulled her closer to him, then placed his arm around her shoulders.
“Are you feeling afraid?” he asked, guiding her to the street.
“No, I feel good,” she said, and realized, strangely, that it was true. “I’m buzzing a little, actually. I feel like…dancing.”
“Then let’s go,” he said, and they skipped away together under the saffron glow of the streetlights.
There’s a quote by Raymond Chandler that I remember reading: “Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.” I love this quote, not just for the nostalgia invoked by the word “typewriter,” but because it succinctly captures the importance of the two things I find most difficult about writing — not editing myself before I get the words down, and then really editing myself once they’re on the page.
Until recently, I’ve viewed revision as a loathsome process. When I’ve stopped doubting myself enough to actually get a poem or prose piece finished, it’s still far from polished. The scrubbing, shining, rearranging business that’s necessary in order for something to go from done to good is the hardest part, especially when mine are often the only set of eyes examining the writing. On any given day I can go from thinking a particular line is the best thing I’ve written, to wondering why I even bother with all the ridiculous word goop I’ve blarbed onto the page. My inner voice is a mess of contradiction, but I console myself with the knowledge that this is the case with pretty much every writer.
The struggle comes in trying to shut my mind-yabbering up long enough to actually get the revisions done. When it comes to my poems, it helps if I can put them away for awhile —weeks, sometimes even months— before trying to fix them. After a break, I can sometimes see more clearly what I’m trying to say, and ways to say it better. But this isn’t always the case, and when it doesn’t come easily, my instinct is to just ignore the poem, like a cavity. I know it won’t heal itself, but I think if I just forget about it, it won’t cause too much trouble.
Of course it will cause trouble, eventually. All those cavities will just get me a mouth full of holes, not something I want to show off or be proud of. I owe it to myself, and my poems, to do the work necessary to make them better. This is the best of many lessons I’ve learned so far as part of my apprenticeship with the Writers’ Guild of Alberta Mentorship Program. My wonderful mentor, Sue Sinclair, has shown me see that the re-writing can actually be the most rewarding part. It’s easier, now, with her experienced voice telling me “this is what’s not working and this is how to fix it.” But I’m learning to see it for myself too. I’m learning to re-vision revision. I’m approaching it with a more open mind, less fear and discouragement, and the knowledge that the hard work of editing, while still not enjoyable, is the path that leads to real rewards. I can’t just throw up all those words and leave them. If I want people to come over — and I do — it’s time to make this mess into something pretty.