At the writers’ group we were issued a list of things to check when we’re critiquing each others’ stories, things like plot, character, setting, dialogue. We’d put a tick or a cross depending whether the requirements were met. All well and good. Yet I couldn’t help thinking of the checklist that mechanics fill out when they’re servicing your car. So I said, “A short story is not a car!”
This put a brake on proceedings. They didn’t know what I was driving at. I didn’t know what I was driving at either. I just felt it was wrong. I don’t know what a short story is like but I do know it’s not like a car.
What do you think a short story is like?
You shouldn’t have written that poem, he said.
That short one about brain tumors.
But I wrote it before her daughter …. I protested.
Doesn’t matter. She needn’t be reminded of it.
I can’t take it back. It’s out there now.
You didn’t have to give her the book the poem was in. Each time she reads it she’ll be reminded.
You could have pulled it, he said. It didn’t have to be there.
He was right. It didn’t. But it was a good poem. My editor said it had to go in. Anyway it wasn’t about Jess. It was written about a tumor I had seen in Scientific American, how beautiful it was, how like the wings of a butterfly unfurling into the hemispheres of the brain.
Are there subjects we should not write about?
when I go off the rails
I’ll eat strawberry flan and chocolate cheese cake
wear my slippers to the shopping mall
my pj’s to the mail box
play my beethoven string quartets real loud like I did
my elvis records when I was fifteen
when I go off the rails I won’t be nice to mr fydler
just because he’s a senior
nor put the tv down when my kids ask me to
nor empty the dishwasher when
I don’t eat home at night
when I go off the rails
I’ll leave my newspapers just where I’ve read them
blare my horn all morning just to let my neighbors know
I’ve got one too
say what I really get up to when I “ go for a walk “
change my pass word on the internet so my brother-in-law
can’t sneak on
and when I go off the rails
like tootle the train engine
in the meadow
I hope no one puts me
back on track
You can’t say ‘no’
to a bloke in a wheelchair with one leg and a busted right eye
so I reached into my pocket
to pull out some coins
he said he didn’t want money.
You got any grass? He said.
Weed? I answered. No.
Look at me.
You’re asking the wrong guy.
That’s the third time in two years I’ve been mistaken
for a druggie.
Perhaps it’s that flannelette shirt and the
Faraway look I’ve had
since I was a kid.
Maybe I should wear sunnies.
When I wait for her to do a spot of shopping
I wait in the car.
When she’s getting ready to go out,
I wait in the driveway, the sun
like a lamp. with my stash of magazines
between the seats:
my New Yorkers, National Geographics
and that lady in the glove box,
It is my loo, my library, my study,
My five-seated reading room,
My Chapman’s Homer.
My car really takes me places.
Stephanie was out in the garden, chasing chooks out of the vegetable patch. She was some way from us, out on the back porch, so I was surprised that she responded to something I said.
“Yes. I remember when …” and then her voice seemed to get swallowed up.
”What’s that?” I said.
But she stood there helplessly waving her hands as if signalling to us to disregard what she had to say and to carry on our conversation. We did and when my friend left, Stephanie came over and sat beside me.
“What happened out there?” I asked. “Out in the garden?”
“What I was about to say got swallowed up,” she said.
“Like in a sinkhole?” I said. They had been in the news lately.
“Like in a sinkhole.”
“It’s all right,” I said. “Tell me when you remember.”
I met him on a winding path beneath the bridge
leading to the zoo. I had lost my girl. He had lost
the plot though I did not know it then.
We talked briefly beside the banisters as a blue
Kayak passed us by. Before his accomplishments —
his CV baggy with published poems — I
was lost for words. I blubbered something
about his latest book. “Take care,” I remember him
saying. “He’s always had his head in the clouds”,
a fellow poet once said of him. Perhaps that’s why
a week later he climbed to the roof of a big city hotel
and stepped off.