Packin’ ‘er In

The time has come. I’m done with school and there is a segment of the local population saying, “What?? I thought she died.” They belong to the group that was amazed a few years ago to see that I was still ambulatory. I don’t take the decision lightly and these last years, I have done sporadic subbing except for the month in October where I taught science in an on-line/fax/phone method. It isn’t for me, and although I appreciated the experience, living breathing bodies in the same room, is the way I like it.

I’ve been in schools since blackboards morphed to green and were then replaced by smart boards. Skirts or dresses were the order of the day- no pants and men had to show up in suits or sports jackets. Computers? My husband and I ordered a calculator from Sears (now defunct) and argued about whose turn it was to use it. No LCD and no floating decimal. And it cost us an exorbitant $69.99.

The time has come. To tell the truth, I’ve got so many other things to occupy me, that I haven’t missed teaching. Other perks are sleeping later, having the weekend extend all week, and sitting around in my housecoat, if that’s what I feel like. If a friend calls (please, do), I don’t worry about work interfering with a coffee date.

I think I like it. Sweet.

WTF? Language Warning

At a recent trip to the bookstore, I was astounded by the number of titles that include the word fuck. Among the offerings were:

  1. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck
  2. What the Fuck Should I Make For Dinner?
  3. Calm the Fuck Down
  4. Go Fuck Yourself, I’m Colouring

and the classic, Go the Fuck to Sleep, from 2011.

When Walter, the Farting Dog came out, I thought it was quite daring. And having said this, I have to confess to dropping my own f-bombs. Under certain circumstances, they change nothing, but sometimes I feel better after a good old Anglo-Saxon curse.

Now in my more mellow years, I am trying to use better vocabulary, even when frustrated. I strive to swear less and it looks like once again, I’m missing the chance to be trendy.

Book titles with fuck abound. I read an article that suggested a book with the f-word in the title was sure to be a best seller. I think that’s a stretch but it’s likely tempting.

I realize it’s 2019 and hard to encourage kids to read in the old-fashioned way from physical books. The same bookstore (and it was a Cole’s; so few independents remain) featured an array of titles for toddlers, kids, and young adults. However, their section wasn’t featured in the same way AND the fuck books had prominent places in several displays. I’m not prudish but it did make me wonder what Mom or Dad would say, when in all innocence, a child asks, “Why does that book say fuck? That’s a bad word.”

I’m kind of with the kid. It is a bad word and if it totally loses its shock value, what will I do when I drop the ketchup and it splatters everywhere? Sacre bleu.

A Close Call

Ice has broken up on the Battle River

Winter’s hold on us has broken. To celebrate we took the dogs (Scruff and Taz) to the nearby river park for some off-leash fun. There’s nothing to excite a Jack Russell more than a chance to race about catching the scent of wildlife. We were expecting a brave gopher; they have been sighted elsewhere or perhaps some geese. On the way down there was even a bald eagle in full plumage.

We were partway on our usual route when Gary (my husband) yelled.

“NO, NO, NO. COME BACK.”

We had lost sight of Taz (the Jack) and then saw her on the other side of a willow clump.

Gary yelled, “There a porcupine in there. COME BACK.”

The lucky thing is although our two dogs didn’t come back, neither did they further trap the porcupine who was hiding at the base of the willow. Perhaps he had intended to climb and get out of the dogs’ way. The frightening thing is if Taz had gotten too close, he’d have defended himself and she’d have had a face full of quills. The dogs hesitated long enough for us to catch up and carry them away. The walk ended with some “chase the frisbee.”

Thank goodness for Gary’s sharp, old naturalist eyes (or maybe it’s hunter eyes). There were no quills today.

If you look closely, you might be able to see the stripped bark where the porcupine dined this winter.

A bit of nostalgia lives

Once upon a time, many years ago, a girl on the Alberta prairies went to a one-roomed country school. The students ranged from grades one to nine and the instruction was old-time, structured, and she loved it. Once she was in grade three or four, the hated “fat” pencil was discarded and she began cursive writing using, gasp, a straight pen and ink from a bottle in the inkwell of the desk. Writing was serious and practice consisted of a series of patterns used in cursive and then more practice using the patterns in letters.

I was, of course, that girl and the straight pen and ink were a challenge. My fingers were splotched in blue-black ink, the nib on the straight pen would catch on the paper and my penmanship featured ink spatter more often than not. After I achieved a certain competency, I could use a fountain pen (ballpoints weren’t invented until the sixties when it was debated whether students should be permitted the use of these new-fangled instruments.).

Blue-black ink is so un-inspiring. I remember the day, (in Morgan’s department store of our small town) that I saw the South Sea Blue ink by Waterman on the shelf with the ordinary ink. It was beautiful. A rich, turquoise green, a colour I didn’t see in nature until years later when I saw the Caribbean. My mother bought it for me. I can imagine the horror that my teacher felt when she saw the new ink. It would have been an affront to her sense of order and the way things should be done.

All these years later, I saw a bottle of the ink in an antique store. I pointed it out to my son but when we looked at it, alas, the ink had dried away.

Fast forward to Christmas morning, 2018. My gift? A fountain pen and South Sea Blue Ink- now known as Inspired Blue but it is the same beautiful turquoise. Nostalgia complete.

It seems I’m not that much of a nerd. Like many older technologies, fountain pens are enjoying an resurgence in popularity. A lot of the aficionados are my vintage but there are young people, too, who have been drawn to this writing instrument.

Fiction Friday – Dead on the Page

I wrote this last year to enter in the Alberta Retired Teachers Writing Contest. It wasn’t a winner, not even a runner up but I still like it. Rivalry can raise its nasty head without warning.

Dead on the Page

 

Ellen reads the group another long-winded piece. Beverley yawns behind a discrete hand at the story’s stream of unconsciousness and Carol thinks it’s no wonder that she couldn’t handle The Dubliners.

“What do you think?” asks Ellen. Carol tries to remember anything she can comment on. Wool-gathering, out-of-body experience, whatever she labels it, she missed the last third of the story.

“On page two…” Bruce, the token male and former high school English teacher, starts to address the errors in spelling, grammar and word usage.

“Give it a rest, Bruce.” Charlene’s grammar slips sometimes and she’s done with Bruce and his nit-picking. Half the time, he doesn’t even bring writing to the Seriously Scribes monthly meeting.

Beverley and Charlene make a few desultory comments. Carol pretends to review the story, turning a page here and there.

“This might be your best story, yet. You should submit it to Grain,” she lies.

Carol can’t wait for the others to be done. She has an announcement.

“Bruce, your turn,” says Ellen. He is on her left and once the first reader is established, they go round the table clockwise. Bruce reddens and reaches for his coffee.

“I was too busy to write anything new,” he says. “Next month, for sure.”

Charlene distributes copies of her new poetry to everyone.

Carol presses her lips against the looming yawn. Charlene’s poetry is as pedantic and fussy as the cats that appear in her nature odes. Carol imagines Wordsworth twitching in his grave.

“I like the internal rhyme in the second verse,” Bruce says. “Have you considered echoing it throughout?”

Charlene looks over the top of her reading glasses at him.

“No.”

Her voice is flat. She knows that her poems aren’t original but she writes them for herself and harbours no elaborate fantasies about becoming the next Margaret Atwood.

Carol says, “I like the imagery. That’s your forte and it comes through so well in the last verse.”

She likes Charlene and admires her work ethic. Carol knows that none of the poems come to Charlene easily; she recognizes her shortcomings but every time the Seriously Scribes meet, Charlene has new work. That, in itself, is admirable.

Carol looks at Beverley.

“How’s that fourth chapter coming?” she asks.

Beverley sighs.

“I’m not sure,” she says. “I changed the scene order and I dropped some dialogue.” She passes out copies of the chapter re-write.

Carol can’t recall how many times Beverley has re-written chapter four. If the group had any integrity, they’d tell Beverley to let it go. Some novels are dead on the page.

They suffer for twenty minutes of the new order and tightened dialogue but the chapter still doesn’t work.

Charlene says, “I like this new approach but don’t we have to know why Olivia hates Norman? Did you delete that part?”

Good for Charlene. She does pay attention and tries to help every member of the group.

Beverley’s eyes blur with unshed tears.

“You’re right,” she says. “I didn’t even notice. I tried so hard to get the wording right. I worked at this all month.” Her lower lip trembles.

“The rest is well written and moves the story along,” says Ellen.

Beverley just says, “I’ll work on it some more.”

Carol knows that the sad thing is, she will but the new version will have new problems.

Ellen turns to Carol.

“What have you got?” she asks.

Carol laughs and with a flourish pulls a sheet from her folder.

“They accepted it,” she cries.

Her triumphant announcement meets a confused silence. The coffee shop where they meet is small and just then the grinding of the latte machine precludes speaking. It goes on for several minutes while Carol sits, annoyed. She is not competing with a coffee maker when she has something so momentous to share.

When the noise quiets to the normal hum of voices, Carol begins.

Dear Carol,” she reads.

My staff has completed the review of “Dark Secrets.” I am pleased to inform you that we think your work would make a positive addition to our Donahue Publishing list of titles.

To begin the process of publishing your book with us, I have passed your file on to …

Carol continues to the end of the letter and waits for the accolades to begin. Nothing. Don’t they get it? Didn’t they hear? Donahue is going to publish her mystery.

Each Serious Scribe has a different expression; not one of them looks joyful.

“I will mention each of you by name on the acknowledgements page,” Carol continues. She considers that a great honour.

“You didn’t tell us you were writing a novel.” Beverley’s tone is accusatory. “I’ve been working so hard at mine and you didn’t even hint at a novel in the works?”

Ellen isn’t happy.

“I have worked on my short story collection for five years now,” she says. “And you’re being published?” She makes it seem shameful.

Bruce looks like a beached fish, his mouth working to say something but making no audible sound.

“Congratulations,” he croaks at last. He has expected to be the jubilant novelist at some point.

Carol can’t believe it. Why aren’t they happy for her?

She looks at Charlene, the Scribes member everyone depends on for encouragement and support.

Charlene is packing up her writing.

“What are you doing, Charlene?” Carol is shocked.

“Leaving.  Carol, this group is about trust. You destroyed that trust with your selfishness. I’m done,” she says.

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The others follow Charlene and walk with purpose to the exit. Carol drops her letter. As she sits alone, her coffee grows cold. Then she brightens. Her novel isn’t dead on the page.

 

 

A Noise Downstairs by Linwood Barclay

In his latest thriller, Linwood Barclay, has fashioned a protagonist who, until he stops to help a friend from work, has been leading a blameless ordinary life. He’s a college professor, not at Yale or Harvard; but still a responsible and good position. Then one night  on his way home he stops his car to help a colleague and it all goes south. His fellow professor, a known lady killer, has actually killed two women by slitting their throats. Our protagonist Paul Davis catches him trying to dispose of their bodies.

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His friend has already murdered twice and comes for Paul with the shovel he has to bury the women. Eight months later, where the novel really begins, Paul Davis is alive but in recovery from the blow to the head. He has suffered a possible brain injury and is dealing with the aftermath of the vicious attack. Nightmares plague him and although his therapist Anna White, is helpful, he has not been able to return to work.

Then he starts to hear a typewriter at night when he and his wife and asleep. His colleague had made his female victims write apologies on a typewriter before he murder them. His wife has given him an old Underwood as a gift, something for his “think tank” aka den. Odd events keep turning up and Paul is driven to create bizarre theories to explain them. At last he doubts his own sanity.

More than this, would give away the plot which has plenty of twists, turns, and red herrings. After all, that’s what makes a thriller, well, thrilling. A Noise Downstairs provides the great entertainment, I’ve come to expect from Linwood Barclay, a New York Times bestselling Canadian author.

Fiction Friday – Not a Good Day

I wrote this flash fiction a while ago and it appeared in The Fieldstone Review which is the University of Saskatoon publication. 

Calvin Harrison turned down the dirt road and braked.  He listened to the throb of the big diesel and sighed.   He was going to miss his new truck. It made him feel like someone else—not the friendly neighbourhood pharmacist, not the hen-pecked husband and definitely not the doting father.  Someone you saw in commercials—a little taller and straighter.  Someone with flinty blue eyes, whose tight Wranglers bulged a little bigger.

He didn’t mind the doting father image.  He and Natalie had had one of those perfect relationships where they laughed at each other’s jokes and knew what the other was thinking.  He’d spoiled her and if he had it to do again, he’d spoil her worse.  No regrets.

Pale light fingered the horizon and touched the clouds that had gathered to greet the sun with pink gold.  Mim would have a name for the colour, something from the new palette of paints at Home Depot.  Pink Desire, Reef Rose, Peach Parfait, Pink Abalone.  Mim—so tied in to things that didn’t matter.  She’d be happy choosing the new colour for the walls and happy while she squabbled with the painters.  Almost before the paint dried, she’d start getting restless again.  It was the same with her hair.  Cal had loved her shiny blonde mane.  She could have modeled for l’Oreal or Clairol.  God knows she used enough of their products over the years.  He never knew what the tint of the week would be.  Wild Irish Red, Mahogany Fire, Ebony Ice.  Then there was the chunking and streaking.  Mim said no one had a natural hair colour any more.  When Cal tried to summon up the shade her hair had been when he met her, he couldn’t.  He was living with a stranger.  Sometimes he watched her when she wasn’t looking and by narrowing his eyes and squinting tried to conjure the image of the girl he had married.  Occasionally, he thought he caught a fleeting resemblance.

The horizon burned gold fire now where the sun began its shallow ascent into the fall sky.  The clouds radiated gilt light.  The air was still.

It was as good a day as any, Calvin thought.

He would have liked to take Mollie for a last walk but it wouldn’t have been fair to the little mongrel. He couldn’t leave her in the truck even though someone would find her…just like they were going to find him.

Light raced across the hilltops, casting the hollows into shadow and outlining the dark limbs of aspen trees with tinsel trim.  Time was getting short.  His father used to say, no time like the present.  Already the siren of lethargy threatened to mire him in inaction

He lifted the shotgun from the truck seat.  Its double barrel glinted in the early light and the handle felt cold.  The acrid scent of gun oil hung in the air and there was a sharp snap as Cal broke the gun to load it.  He slid two magnum shells into place and there was a quiet snick as he closed the breech.  Magnums…he would only need the first one but he didn’t want any mistakes.

He tried not to think about Jim Craddock who botched the job and actually needed the second shell.  He must have lost his nerve at the last minute and only his jaw had been blown away. He’d staggered around his game room splattering blood and howling in outrage.   Then he finished what he had started.

Cal killed the truck’s engine.  He wasn’t about to destroy the interior.  Maybe Mim would get a decent price for it after…even with its unfortunate history.  He climbed out and closed the door quietly.  No need to slam it; the truck wasn’t yet a year old.  A breeze sprang up and carried the spicy fall air up the hill to Cal.  When he looked out across the valley, he saw a doe standing next to a stand of willows.  She had seen him and was testing the air cautiously but it was another month until hunting season opened and she was more curious than scared. He watched her for a minute.  A yearling stepped into the clearing and Cal could see it was sleek and healthy.

When he started down the slope the white-tails turned to step delicately into the bushes.  Cal headed west.  There was a small lake…the locals called it Schubert’s after an early settler—and at this time of the morning, the bright yellow leaves of the poplars would reflect perfectly from its cobalt depths.  Those same poplars protected it from errant puffs of air and it made a picture perfect enough for a calendar.

Cal stood for a couple of minutes.  Maybe if things were different between him and his wife…… but they weren’t.  Maybe if Tallie…but he couldn’t think of her; he just couldn’t.

Minutes later the shot gun blast sent the doe and yearling deeper into the bush, their white flags flashing once as they disappeared.  On the hilltop, Cal’s Dodge waited in splendor, silhouetted against a cerulean sky that promised early snow.

The silence was absolute.  Then the breeze brushed dried grass blades against each other.  Aspen leaves like gold foil coins rattled in the bushes.  A crow flew up and landed at the top of a tree, cawing raucously.

Cal emerged from the western woods.  He was a dark shadow against their colour and it was him the crow was scolding.  He held the shotgun gingerly and broke it to remove the remaining shell.

“Damn it, shut up,” he muttered.  The crow cocked its head as though listening.  “It’s just not a good day to die.”

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