Below are five scenes I wrote in response to prompts assigned by teachers in my creative writing classes at UC Davis Extension. They do not represent the genre of visionary fiction. They do, however, represent my writing style.
1. (Prompt: Write a scene incorporating sound, emotion, texture, and color.)
For the first time in his life, Anton regrets never having experimented with LSD. While an engineering student at Stanford, he’d heard repeatedly that this psychedelic drug leads to instant enlightenment, or at the very least, altered states of consciousness, leaving the user with an overwhelming appreciation for the beauty of the world surrounding him. Yet, with cowardice masked as caution, he heeded instead all the voices that warned of LSD’s dangers, how it alienated people, made them suicidal, hysterical, and psychotic. Now, as a middle-aged student in a creative writing class, with an assignment to write a scene incorporating sound, emotion, texture, and color, he finds himself at a distinct disadvantage.
As far as Anton can tell, the literary writers his teacher favors are high on something besides life, their musings spectacular, bizarre, even frightening. Take Annie Dillard for instance. She compares the aftermath of a sexual encounter to “a shipwreck on the sheets,” and writes about the skin feeling “double sided” and about lights on the wall that look like chain mail. Anton admits that sex can make one a bit crazy, but what the hell was Annie on when she wrote this stuff? If it’s true that LSD works like a microscope, magnifying inner experiences and enlarging details, he could certainly use its influence now.
Anton eyes the decanter of Cognac on the coffee table, a decorative accessory his wife spotted in House Beautiful and insisted on adding to the room’s décor. Brandy is not his stimulant of choice, but as Emerson put it, “All life is an experiment,” and until House Beautiful demonstrates a way to incorporate psychedelic drugs as part of a decorative scheme, brandy will have to do.
As Anton pours the caramel liquid into a crystal brandy snifter, twilight sparks off its faceted surface like welding spatter, and when he toasts his reflection in the gilded mirror above the fireplace, he gets a whiff of burnt raisins. “Here’s to enlightenment.”
His teacher expects something brilliant to ooze from his “elastic imagination,” which in turn, he’ll have to share with his classmates, some of whom claim never to have written before and then proceed to write as if they apprenticed under Hemingway, O’Conner, or Fitzgerald. Maybe he should jazz up his scene with a bit of dialogue, incorporating words from a romantic language such as French or Italian. But his specialty is Dutch, the guttural language of his ancestors and, unless the brandy causes him to speak in tongues, this just won’t do.
The first sip of what smacks of firewater causes his taste buds to bubble and burst and his nose to tingle as if he has taken in a mouthful of ice-cold air. Eventually Anton gets enough liquor into his system to feel a shift in perspective. Yes, he senses a streak of brilliance breaking through. Latin springs to his lips. Pater noster, qui es in coelis… It’s only the Lord’s Prayer, which he recited a hundred times in parochial school, but at least it’s a start. His head feels light. The room begins to sway. He perceives an Anne Dillard moment coming on. Good God, is that chain mail on the wall?
He nearly decapitates the snifter in his haste to put it down.
While booting his laptop, he hears a voice. “There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man…” O, shit. It’s Rod Serling. ”And it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge…”
Anton barks out a laugh and then concludes the famous prelude along with Rod. “It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.”
Move over Dillard, I see a shipwreck coming on.
2. (Prompt: A character arrives at work to find her chair missing. What happened to it?)
The Missing Chair
I’d become quite the celebrity at our school, no small feat, considering I’m administrative assistant to the principal, which means I’m often the bearer of bad news, straight from the top as it were. And you know what they say about the messenger. Anyway, I recently lost my mother, and in an attempt to manage my grief, I moved her cushy, upholstered armchair into an unused corner of my office. Call it a shrine if you will, but it did the trick.
All too well.
For those of you unfamiliar with main office routine, the administrative assistant to the principal often serves as faculty mentor (because of her so-called pull with the boss), an unpaid side-job that seems to come with the territory. In other words, the faculty—mostly composed of teachers—complains, and I listen. I’ll spare you the details; your imagination, I’m sure, will do the job just fine. As a result, the centrifugal force of all that negative energy sometimes pulls me so deep into the vortex and through such a slippery, downward spiral, that I want to scream, “Let up already.”
Anyway…in addition to Mom’s chair, I also inherited her back massager—a full back and seat affair—her foot massager, her neck warmer, and her Sound Spa clock radio, otherwise known as Body Basics’ deluxe acoustic relaxation machine. It produces six natural, calming sounds that “people respond to both physically and emotionally,” to help improve relaxation.” Very New Age. Guess that’s why Mom lived to be ninety and was able to spend the day before she died at the Red Hawk Indian Casino and plan a bridge party for eight from her hospital bed.
So I outfitted the corner of my office with the whole shebang, and whenever a faculty member came into my office to complain, I’d give him or her five minutes in the “electric chair.” I’d crank up the vibrator and the foot massager, place a micro-waved bean bag around the visitor’s neck, turn on the Sound Spa (most preferred white noise since the mountain stream, spring rain, and ocean waves just made them want to pee), and then I’d proceed to get some work done while my “patient” took the time to regroup.
The whole thing was meant as a joke, but wouldn’t you know it, the idea caught on and took off like a Santa Ana wild fire. Some faculty members went so far as to hint to my boss to give me a raise.
Let’s see now, how much do psychologists earn?
Oh, and guess what?
Dr. J. P. Randall the third didn’t go for it, and by that I mean, the chair or the raise. In fact, when I got to work this morning, I found my chair in the hallway just outside my office door and the massage equipment in a box with my name on it. I heard later (through the grape-vine, which says a lot about my pull with the boss) that the chair and its accompanying equipment had become a liability to the school. You know, insurance and all.
Mom always said that Dr. Randall had a pencil stuck up his ass, God rest her soul.
3. (Prompt: Without using dialogue, write a scene in which two people who live together have had a quarrel and are not speaking.)
The cabinet doors lay on the plastic sheeting like a spread of Tarot cards, their surfaces puckered and bubbled under a thick application of paint remover. At least three coats of paint, applied over the thirty years Maggie and Doug had lived in this home, lifted from the surface like a shedding of skin. Maggie stood at the garage door with a can of light beer cradled in her hands, trying to gauge the perfect moment to present the peace-offering to her husband.
Doug grabbed a plastic stripping tool with his gloved hand and started removing the caustic mess from one of the cabinet doors. With a sigh, Maggie set the beer on the recycle bin, then put on a pair of chemical-resistant gloves and searched through her husband’s stash of refinishing supplies for a spare stripping tool.
Doug did not acknowledge her when she knelt on the concrete floor and pressed her scraper onto the wood. The first coat of loosened paint peeled off without resistance and settled into the catching tray behind the scraper head. After each sweep, Maggie dumped the gooey mess onto one of the sheets of newspaper that Doug had spread out for that purpose. She enjoyed the inroads she was making to the cabinet’s original surface. Though she knew the paint remover was toxic and could be fatal if swallowed, she became so engrossed in expunging the old in preparation for the new, that she put it out of her mind.
The sounds of scrapping and releasing became as rhythmic as the voicing of a mantra, the repetitious movements as cleansing as Hatha yoga. Maggie moved from one door to the next until she met up with Doug. They looked up, wide eyed at the reminder of the other’s presence. Maggie smiled. Doug nodded. Time to tackle the doors’ undersides.
Exchanging stripping tools for brushes, Maggie and Doug applied paint remover to the layers of green, yellow, and white paint adhering to the wood. They watched as the paint lifted and buckled like so many sins, and soon they were scraping again. There was nothing fancy about the cabinet doors, built in the sixties when plywood was the material of choice rather than more exotic woods like pine, cherry, and oak. But the doors were strong and worth saving.
Not until Maggie’s stomach started to grumble did she realize that hours had passed and it was time for lunch. She sat on her haunches, reluctant to quit before the task was completed. Doug glanced at the clock, then at Maggie. She smiled and he nodded, the communication clear.
We’ve come this far. Let’s finish the job.
Half hour later, they scrubbed the doors with abrasive pads dipped in mineral spirits to remove the residue. Tomorrow, Doug would run the sander over the surfaces with low grit sandpaper, a final smoothing of the wood laid bare.
Maggie’s fingers, arms, and knees ached, her hair felt sticky. The front of her sweatshirt and pants looked like kindergarten artwork with the spattering of paint, paint remover, and garage-floor grime. Yet, she felt as though she’d just left the confessional.
Together, husband and wife leaned the cabinet doors against the chest freezer, folded the newspapers for disposal, put the stripping tools into a coffee can containing mineral spirits, and swept away all refuse stuck to the floor. Then they stood back and regarded the project that had demanded so much of their attention.
Liberated from years of old paint and grim, the doors still had a long way to go before they resembled the satin white beauties Maggie and Doug envisioned. But husband and wife had made good progress toward their goal and they had accomplished it together.
“What about the outdated hardware?” Maggie asked.
Doug glanced at Maggie’s hair, streaked with grey, despite her hairdresser’s creative color weaves to conceal the effect of aging. “Don’t make ’em like they used to,” he said. “Makes ’em hard to replace.”
While Maggie digested his words, he added, “Nothing that can’t be tackled with a little cleaning powder and elbow grease.”
They removed their gloves and joined sweaty hands, while the can of beer stood on the recycle bin, forgotten.
4. (Prompt: Omniscient holiday flashback in an unusual setting.)
Depression and Memories
A pall hung over the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center on Thanksgiving Day. Although the sun shone brightly, its rays could not penetrate the walls of the prison or the hearts of the people inside. Officer Matt Bruno’s jaw ached with empathic rage as he watched the inmates file past the Trustee distributing Thanksgiving dinner from a metal heating cart: turkey with all the fixings, pre-cooked and covered in plastic. Missing was the aroma of poultry and stuffing, hot out of the oven, and of candied yams and green beans with lemon zest and parsley. Butt and feet, that’s what the place smelled like, a weird oily smell that clung to the clothes, and got into the pores and the hair. But that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst was the heaviness in the air.
Having worked more holidays than he cared to remember, Matt could honestly say that the air felt different during such times. A shadowy grief pervaded the place, as inmates thought of their families back home, moving ahead without them, happy and, often, better off. Silent and sober, the prisoners advanced and retreated, each locked in their own mental cell.
Matt walked between the cold metal tables where the inmates sat down with their meals, shoulder-to-shoulder, thigh-to-thigh, divided according to race. The thugs, already acquainted with the ugly side of life and therefore inoculated with a certain capacity for denial, adapted reasonably well to this house of pain. But the naive first timers, those who’d lived normal lives until something stupid landed them here, had a particularly hard time of it. Take Johnny, for instance. Skinny, jumpy Johnny, with the dazed look of someone who’d lost his way, all showered up for the special visitor who would not come. Barring a miracle, Johnny would not survive his full sentence of twenty-five years, and this reality burned a hole in Matt’s heart.
Ignoring the sounds of slurping, belching, and farting, Matt made his way to Johnny’s table. Though sandwiched between his prison mates, the kid appeared distant, preoccupied, enclosed in a capsule of isolation. Matt felt a sudden brimming rage on the youth’s behalf. In what kind of world did the Humane Society contribute $4 million to a proposition to free chickens from their cages, while ignoring the plight of the humans caged behind prison walls? Darkness loomed so absolutely that Matt fought back an almost uncontrollable urge to quit his job as a correctional officer and never look back. Instead, he comforted Johnny in the only way he knew how, with a light touch to his arm and a greeting, “Hey there, Johnny,”
Johnny felt the officer’s hand and heard his voice, but he didn’t respond. Best not to react to anything that happened here. Stay numb and dumb; pretend you’re home with Mama. He played with the dry, tasteless food on his plate with his plastic spoon, imagining instead Mama’s creamy mashed potatoes, turkey gravy, and homemade cranberry sauce. Momma was a hell of a cook. She was also tough as nails. The looks she threw him over her glasses could lift him up or slap him down, depending on how she construed his actions.
Finally, on January 1, 2008, at exactly one minute past midnight, he had defended himself against a bully, just as his momma had urged him to do practically every day of his life. Yes, finally, he’d snapped, and he didn’t stop pummeling the guy until he was dead. But Frank Gutierrez wasn’t the only one who died that day. Johnny died, too–and his soul landed straight in hell. Unfortunately, Momma didn’t approve of hell or communing with its occupants. Instead she prayed for them.
Now bent under the weight of depression and memories, Johnny vowed not to take another day of this. Again, he would fight a bully–as fast as his fists could fly—a bully called the Penal System, even if it meant trading one hell for another. Who knew, maybe he’d run into Frank Gutierrez again, and maybe this time they could be friends.
It would be nice to have a friend.
Matt was relieved to get off duty so he could detach himself from this place of doom, attain some distance from the death in the air. But first, he’d check on Johnny, skinny, jumpy Johnny. The kid reminded him of his youngest son, Bill, and therefore occupied a special place in his heart.
5. (Prompt: Write a scene where ordinary life is disrupted by a visitor.)
She came to our front door asking for shoes.
“Do you have a pair of flats I can borrow?” she said. “They won’t let me into the jail in high heels.”
My husband, Paul, ran his fingers through his thin graying hair and smiled, as though trying to decide if this was a joke or for real. Either way, it seemed to brighten his day. “My wife has tons of shoes,” he said, without taking his eyes off the dewy-faced woman. “Don’t you, Vicki?”
I didn’t answer, just stared, mentally scanning my closet for a pair of shoes I’d be willing to part with. She was wearing a white charmeuse blouse, with black and silver stripes, black slacks, and sling-back shoes. Something didn’t compute. Chic, young woman? Jail? And what brought her to our house in particular? The Correctional Center was two miles away, with at least seven houses between. Was it the whimsical appliqué flag hanging from the pole out front–a turkey holding a banner: Be Thankful–or maybe the pink and white begonias and red Hibiscus blooming their little hearts out along the front walk?
“Visiting hours are over at one,” she said, appealing to Paul with her doe eyes, even though they were my shoes she was after. “So it’s too late to go back to the store. And I need to visit someone really badly.”
She was petite and her feet looked small.
“I wear a size nine,” I said, figuring that would be the end of it. No self-respecting woman would be caught dead in a pair of shoes at least two sizes too large.
She flung a strand of silky black hair over her shoulder. “That’s okay. I have to pass three checkpoints at the jail. They’ve already made me take off my bra because of the under wires and my belt because it was metal, and…well, you know…”
“You’d think they’d lend you a pair of socks or something,” Paul said.
If they made me take off my bra, I’d be in a heap of trouble, I thought, noticing the way her Juicy Couture bag hung over her breasts like a sling.
There were no other passengers in her car, which meant we weren’t likely to be robbed, so I left Paul in charge while I rushed to the bedroom for the silver ballet flats I’d purchased for the holidays. They were cute as hell, but too tight and scratchy for my clodhopper feet, so I’d retired them to the back of the closet unused.
“Hope these will do,” I said on my return, holding them up for her inspection. Their metallic surface shimmered in the late morning sun, and I realized with a note of pride that they complimented her outfit quite well. “And you don’t have to return them,” I added, suddenly glad they were new, their telltale soles still smooth and unscathed.
She awarded Paul a quick smile and then hurried back to her car.
“Glad to help,” I said to her back. Child woman. Sleek. Gutsy.
“Don’t forget to keep them in your trunk for next time,” Paul called out before she slammed the car door.
We watched her back out of the driveway.
“Wonder who she’s visiting,” Paul said. “Probably some loser on drugs.”
A first time offender was my guess, an older brother maybe, or a friend who’d gone astray.
“The pretty ones always go for the losers,” he said.
I glanced at the man I’d been married to for thirty-five years to see if he was kidding, but the frown on his face meant he was serious.
Hey, I wanted to say. I was pretty once, and I didn’t go for a loser. But I didn’t want Paul to look at me the way he was now looking at the empty driveway.
“Bet it’s some Hispanic gang member incarcerated for drugs and assault.” The way Paul cranked out the words you’d think he’d been personally slighted.
“She was Asian,” I said.
“Her plates said New Mexico.”
I pictured her prancing in and out of the jail in her fanciful silver flats, past all three checkpoints, head held high, and then wearing the shoes again, but for the holidays this time, or a nice evening out. “Ready for lunch?”
Paul didn’t answer, just shut and locked the door.
I headed for the kitchen to set up the counter where we eat most of our meals now that the kids are grown.
Paul sat on his stool, picked up the remote, and turned on the big screen TV embedded in the kitchen wall. CNN. Wolf Blitzer. National news.
And then all thought of the young girl receded into the back of my mind–too tight, too scratchy–much like my silver flats.