Wednesday, June 16, 2010

"The Ashtray"

I can say with a bare minimum of hemming and hawing that "The Ashtray" by Anton Chekhov is, for me, the most influential piece of short fiction that has never been written. That's right: as the story goes, one Vladimir Korolenko, a fellow Russian, fellow writer, and fellow for fun, once asked Chekhov how he wrote his stories. Whereupon the writer of slightly more stature picked up an ashtray that happened to be lying about and proclaimed he would write a story about it by the next morning. To the best of my knowledge he never did.

Much pleasure can be derived merely from speculation on what this story could have been like. Chekhov was a true master who was capable of writing just about anything, from the aptly-named "Misery", to numerous humorous short stories, to love stories like "The Lady and the Little Dog". In what direction would he have taken this tale of such humble beginnings? What part would that ashtray play? (Somehow I imagine it being smashed against a wall or against a head -- then I remember the 5-pound alabaster ashtray that used to sit on our old front porch...) Would an ashtray -- I dare to say -- make any appearance at all? (Yes, definitely. The progenitor of the literary technique today known as "Chekhov's gun" would never needlessly obscure such an object.)

But also "The Ashtray" story -- or, rather the story of the story -- can serve as inspiration. Chekhov throughout his life produced hundreds of these little nuggets of fiction, these compact yet remarkably complete short stories. And, he would have us to believe, he did so hurriedly, perhaps with as much effort as was required to pick up that ashtray. Surviving manuscripts do paint a different picture -- one of a cash-strapped young man who nevertheless put great care and spit and polish and elbow grease into his work -- but I suppose the author's mere perception will do...

I assure you: though I have posted nothing on this blog for weeks, I have been endeavoring to add my own cocktail of industrious fluids to a series of short stories:

"The Acrobat" -- You've met him before, but I assure you he has changed. He is out of infancy, of course, and long past toddlerhood. Indeed, now he is in his awkward and pimply years -- if I had my druthers such people would not be allowed into polite society until (hopefully) past their affliction.

"Step on a Crack..." -- In the fine tradition of creating stories based on small aspects of folk culture, I have endeavored here to create a story about the old phrase "Step on a crack, break your mother's back". I have created a kind of idyllic 1950s town, wherein a group of three siblings will accidentally discover that the old ditty has some weight to it. Expect a trip to the hospital in a visit to dear old mother; expect a line of groaning moms, all suffering from the same mysterious affliction; expect the formation of a kind of "mothers league" who plan to combat the new plague by filling in all the cracks in the pavement of their town. I imagine it in the gentle, playful style of Roald Dahl's children's fiction.

"Foundling Father" -- Another cute-ish story, this one about a wheelchair-bound old man who is abandoned in front of an orphanage during the night while he sleeps. The orphanage takes him in and he finds a new and better life. I am not one for inspirational, but this will certainly be lighthearted...

"The Death March of Middleburg Heights" -- A semi-autobiographical piece that will detail a bizarre and furious argument I had with my sister, which spanned hours and a large chunk of our suburban neighborhood. I added "Middleburg Heights" to the title with the idea of creating a series of stories detailing the odder sides of suburbia. The name is both an in-joke -- Middleburg Heights is an actual place, near where we live -- and an appropriate moniker for a typical "Every town" of the Midwestern United States.

"Henrietta" -- This is another in the bizarre suburbia vein... detailing the fixation of one odd, reclusive old man on a certain blond-haired young girl. This one stresses the semi in semi-autobiographical -- though the truth is bizarre enough as it is...

So there you have it...

On the reading front, I am currently working through The Best American Humorous Short Stories: 43 Stories by 31 Authors. I just finished "Pigs is Pigs" by Ellis Parker Butler, a silly story about just how much it should cost to ship a pair of guinea pigs by train. Flannery, the agent at the local station, wants to charge the fee for livestock -- "pigs is pigs" after all. The owner of said pigs is pissed; so ensues a torrent of letter-writing and a lot of bureaucratic nonsense. Meanwhile, the animals do what they do best, and soon Flannery has thousands of "pigs" on his hands. An amusing story, it has elements of the playful mayhem brought on by seemingly innocuous events, found in stories like If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and Too Many Mice. Disney even made a cartoon based on the story.

I hope to read a bunch of these short story collections, to expose myself to a variety of styles moods -- especially those that are not old and/or Russian...

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Acrobat (Part 1), by Abe Kurp

Note: Below I present to you approximately a thousand words, the beginnings of a short story I've been meaning to write since April. I have written little more than what you see below and I am not sure where this tale is going, but I have a good feeling about this. I'll keep chipping at it and hopefully end with David or something... Either way, I plan to play a little game: finish "The Acrobat" then read Lolita, then rewrite my story, hopefully with a whole new view on creepy.

About an hour has passed since first I took my seat. The clowns amused me with their antics, the juggler brought me to silence with his death-defying throwing of knives, and the elephants charged the crowd to roaring. But the roaring has died; now there are only a handful of conversations, scattered about the crowd like tiny pebbles on an old gravel road. Some of the torches at the perimeter have been extinguished, the tent is subdued and dark. The three rings at the center of the crowd are empty. Children seated near the entryways are peering over the railings, hoping to be the first to catch sight of the next act. I am quiet and content. I sit, amusing myself with contemplation of the various acts, amusing myself with speculation of what is to come next. The show, the pamphlet assures me, is approximately three hours long.

"Have you seen the popcorn vendor?" the man to my left asks suddenly. "I could really go for some popcorn but the damn vendor has gone and run off, it seems." I look at him silently: a fat pig of a man, red faced and sweating profusely, squeezed into his chair and his clothes in turn. He is my brother, Rudolph. "If you see him you will let me know of course; Arnie?"

"Yes, of course." My answer brings him a kind of satisfaction. He readjusts himself in his seat and continues talking with the man to his left. I return to amusing myself. After a few, tentative “ahs” and “ums” his monologue continues:

“To fly... It is the thing that people want more than anything else – even more than money.” There is a woman in the front row, far in front of us, wearing a purple pillbox hat and a white dress with purple polka dots. “Money can buy trampolines, flying machines, and paper wings, but even a billionaire is not a bird; even he cannot flit and flutter about like the commonest of sparrows.” A little girl in orange sits next to her. She has been making a nuisance of herself during the entirety of the show. “This does not keep him from trying. The man who owns this circus, for example, must desperately yearn for the sky.” During the juggling she was evidently bored; she was running about the section, grabbing and pulling at whatever she could find. An usher was forced to crawl under some bleachers to get at her, then escort her back to her seat. “Why else are they leaping, jumping, twirling – 10, 15, 20 feet off the ground?” This same usher – shortish, youngish, plumpish – is now standing and sweating in a corner near the door.

I look over at my brother. He is working himself into it now, adding gesticulation and flourish to his words. “Those lithe little creatures, in their little black and gold costumes; they jumped, leaped, soared – up, up, up – but always they came back – down, down, down." With each "up" he pushes his right hand higher into the air; with each "down" he throws it down, closer to the head of the man in front of him. His high and strained voice, made worse by his excitement, carries its notes to the entire section, but no one makes an open protest; everyone tries to ignore him. This approach has already failed them. “Flying... It is useless, really – not even worth the effort...”

He suddenly becomes subdued. His hands fidget for a time, then flutter abruptly downward and come to rest on his gut. There is silence in our section. Rudolph has seemingly run out of things to say – he has finished his spiel in an abrupt and uncharacteristic way. Now, like a cat who is caught falling on its ass, he postures and primps in an effort to look cool, calm, collected. I can hear the gears – he's trying with all his might to pull forth a new topic for discussion. The man on his left – never much of a talker, a major draw for Rudolph – is staring downward, at the golden hair of the woman directly in front of him.

The crowd around us is quiet, like little squirrels in a big, big forest, afraid of disturbing the ogre. Some minutes pass. I can hear his breathing soften, deepen – his inner state has calmed to the state of his outer appearance. I wish I knew what he was thinking: I have a feeling it would make me laugh. He scratches his head incessantly – an itch has been bothering him for over a week, which he has never failed to mention. He bites at his already apple red lips. He favors the bottom lip; it looks several weeks riper than the top one.

A middle-aged couple – man and wife, apparently – have bravely struck up a conversation two rows in front of ours. I smile when I look at them. They are middle aged, neither more than fifty, with full heads of mostly-brown hair. They are not so old, yet it seems like they have been married forever – they even resemble each other. They amuse me, too, because they are brave. This old married couple – cute, short, and presumably kind – have accomplished what I have never had the courage to do.

Their talking opens the flood gates: soon there are two conversations in our section, then three, then six, and so on. It happens so quickly, Rudolph is bewildered and further stunned into silence. I watch him with the corner of my eye. He is bewildered – now fidgeting with his belt buckle, now looking anxiously over at the man on his left, now returning to his imaginary itch.

“Aha! The acrobats!” He practically shouts these words, excited, and anxious to halt the flow. He succeeds only in frightening a little girl in front of me, who had just begun to speak. “The acrobats were beautiful... But still, I wonder, what will come next?” The man on his left says nothing. “I wonder... when they will be ready. Isn't it getting awfully late, indeed?” He looks down at his wrist, before realizing he has misplaced his watch.

“Say, Arnie.” I am his last resort for a conversation partner. “Have you seen that vendor yet?” I open my mouth as if to speak, but he keeps talking. “Of course; you haven't.” I have. "I haven't either, and, as you know, I have these wonderful super hero eyes. Like Superman.” He laughs: “Ha. Ha.” two short, moderately loud bursts.

The sound of trumpets is blasted about the air; Rudolph's mirthless monosyllable still jingle in my ears. Everyone is brought to silence. There is some commotion at the entrance on the other end of the tent, directly across from us. Five or six employees mill about the entrance; the crowd is a buzzing blanket of whispers, punctuated here and there by a shout.