Thanks to all who kept us in their prayers and sent good thoughts our way during Hurricane Irma. We’re fortunate beyond our hopes, and grateful for so many reasons. Those we love are safe, our home is undamaged, and it appears we’re the only house in the neighborhood whose lights never went out. We’re so grateful.
Every couple of days, I pull on a pair of shoes and go out for a run. It’s prime thinking and reflecting time, and I credit it for having kept me sane through some hard moments over the years. Running was once a mandatory part of daily life as a soldier. I didn’t have to like it. I only had to do it. My father-in-law, an Army veteran, used to say, “PT might not make you live longer, but it sure makes it feel longer.”
After a couple years of military service, I made peace with the necessity of daily running. A year or later, once I reached a place in my career when responsibilities sometimes precluded exercise, I found that I missed the feeling of my feet in contact with the road or the bare ground. I missed the rhythm of breathing and heartbeat and cadence that had become the background to a cherished interval of personal time each morning. When there was no available time during the day, or when I couldn’t sleep, I sometimes ran late at night.
When I retired from service, I spent about a week doing nothing more strenuous than grilling steaks and drinking cold beer. One morning, before my eyes opened, I saw myself running. I heard the sound of my steps and felt the humidity on my face. I got out of bed. I put on my shoes. I found that the ritual of donning shoes used only for running put me in the proper mindset to push my body toward its limits. I didn’t have to run anymore. No one was ever going to subject me to an Army physical fitness test again. I just wanted to run. Now that my body is noticeably aging, I understand that it’s the mental state running induces that I crave.
Funny thing–on military installations, there is no litter. We police that stuff up every day. Mostly what soldiers see while running is the back of the soldier running in front of them. Grey cotton, damp after the first mile, stained dark by mile two. Saturated in the North Carolina heat by the time the sun rises. Soldiers are trained to notice roadside debris. Improvised explosive devices are often disguised as bags of trash, discarded auto parts, dead animals–anything boring or repulsive. Soldiers can’t run down a road without mentally sorting every object they pass. The training doesn’t allow it. Running in the “real world,” outside a litter-free military installation, becomes a tour of objects, each with its own story.
I don’t mean to imply the streets are blanketed in litter. It’s the occasional thing on the side of the road I’m talking about.
There’s a sort of hierarchy of objects. There’s the 16-oz Natural Light beer can and the tiny airport tequila bottle. I live in the suburbs for now, so I imagine these are the detritus of reckless high school kids, or their parents making one last orbit around the neighborhood before pulling into the driveway. Where have they been? What happens when they step inside the house?
There’s the single white tennis shoe. It looks fine, as though someone slipped it off a moment before, yet there it is in the median with the stray bolts, bottle caps, and broken sunglasses. I imagine someone hit by a truck hard enough to pop right out of that shoe. Maybe they’re still attached to the grill, clinging for dear life. Single flip-flops abound. I once encountered a black, patent leather man’s dress shoe with a mirror shine. Somewhere, a hapless groom limps to the altar on one shoe. I wonder why it’s always male footwear. Somebody answer me that.
The other day, I found the abandoned driver license of a young man named Baumgartner. It hadn’t expired, and I imagined a man who had changed his identity, emptying his wallet from the passenger seat of the get-away car driven by his attractive and dangerous lover. Had he abandoned a family, a job?
I stuck the license in the top of a bus stop sign in front of the YMCA. Maybe he’d pass by again, a runner like me, and find it. Or maybe a better runner than I, farther down the road, can recover a the spare house key, the mini-Polaroid of the cute dog, and make something of the former Mr. Baumgartner’s shed skin.
I read this poem today for the first time. A message from the past, just for me.
Left off the highway and
down the hill. At the
bottom, hand another left.
Keep bearing left. The road
will make a Y. Left again.
There’s a creek on the left.
Keep going. Just before
the road ends, there’ll be
another road. Take it
and no other. Otherwise,
your life will be ruined
forever. There’s a log house
with a shake roof, on the left.
It’s not that house. It’s
the next house, just over
a rise. The house
where trees are laden with
fruit. Where phlox, forsythia
and marigold grow. It’s
the house where the woman
stands in the doorway
wearing sun in her hair. The one
who’s been waiting
all the time.
The woman who loves you.
The one who can say,
“What’s kept you?”
Formerly the Tampa Bay Hotel, the University of Tampa’s Plant Hall is the city’s most distinctive landmark overlooking the Hillsborough River, near where its black waters slide into Tampa Bay. It’s a beautiful old building with a rich history, and some say unexplainable things happen in its halls late at night. It’s a building full of stories, and it’s where writers meet twice a year for the University of Tampa’s Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing program residencies. Inspired by the spooky nature of the surroundings and the inherent weirdness of writers, the program director sponsors a bi-annual contest for the best spooky story, open to writers of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry pursuing UT’s Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing.
We students have been waiting to hear who won the competition, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who wanted to read the work. So, it’s my honor to share the two winning entries to the January 2015 Plant Hall Spooky Story Contest.
First, here are a few words from our director.
Please join me in congratulating Maggie Felisberto and Carolyn Eichhorn, who are the co-winners of the Plant Hall Spooky Story contest! There were a ton of good entries this time around, including some very impressive demonstrations of writerly ambition. We had poets writing stories, fiction writers trying poems, and nonfiction writers trying a little bit of everything.
—Steve Kistulentz, Director, University of Tampa MFA in Creative Writing
Without further adieu, here’s the first of our two spooky Plant Hall stories.
by Carolyn Eichhorn
I spend a lot of time in this stairwell. The tiny one tucked at the far end of Plant Hall that no one uses. It’s quiet here and I can easily duck staff until everyone has gone home. Everyone but me. I haven’t been home for a long time. During the day, I am another young face, eager to learn, to soak up knowledge. Sociology, Composition, Art History, French. At night, I tuck into a corner unnoticed until day again brings the crowd into which I disappear.
I suppose my things are still at my apartment, though I haven’t been there for some time now. I have what I need. Mostly, that’s quiet. Time to study, to understand all that is available to me here. This week, Dr. Demopoulos has been taking his class through the Renaissance. In halting English, he shares Florentine frescoes, their beauty visibly moving him, and by extension, his rapt students. When he pauses, searching for just the right word, his graying temples tilted in thought, I have to stop myself from suggesting what he might be trying to say. I won’t dare to presume that I could anticipate his insights, but I so want to help, to assist him. I wait with the rest of the class, breathlessly, and with a self-deprecating remark, a half smile, Dr. Demopoulos woos us all into his beautiful world of art, of enlightenment, his accent making every word sound like that a lover. After an impassioned discussion of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, the female students, making up eighty percent of the class, release an audible sigh.
I can tell which of the young students is his current favorite because he is careful not to acknowledge her, not to call on her, as if by ignoring her existence in the classroom, he is saving his special attention for their time later in the privacy of his small office. Her questions will come at the end of his posted office hours, late enough that traffic in the building is minimal, though few are ever down by the tiny stairwell at the far end of Plant Hall.
On a few occasions, the desperate beauty of line or color or theme translates to a passion less academic in nature, always followed by tearful declarations of affection mixed with apology, gentle caresses, and compliments crafted and delivered in accented English complete with dramatic pauses as he searches for just the right word. As I did, they always rush to help him, their empathy desperate, wholly engaging, generous with youth and inexperience. These transgressions in professorial professionalism occur several times over the course of any given semester only to wither in time for the lengthy and difficult final exam.
I watch this over and over with a mix of contempt and regret, as I understand only too well the intoxication of special attention from Dr. Demopoulos. I am obsessed and I cannot turn away each time, observing from the small stairway by his office. The small office where he once made me feel distinctive, worthy of his attention. Before the test results came back. Before his fear and his passionate nature made him wrap those long fingers around my throat and squeeze. Before he tucked me into this place, just off the small stairway at the end of Plant Hall.
You can find more of Carolyn’s writing at http://groundsforsuspicion.blogspot.com.
Next, we have…
The Bruja’s Gift to the Cat
The first to wake was the rat at midnight. She uncurled a broken toe, twitched a half-tail, then arched her back to stretch the stiffening out of her spine. She had died that morning. Outside, the moon was new and the clouds were thick. No light eked through the slitted windows of the minaret.
The others came slowly—shrews and voles and salamanders and mice—they stitched themselves back together from their fallen and splintered pieces. A young pipistrelle pulled wings and feet and ribs from the pellet he’d become in death. Though his flesh was missing, he flapped and flew in silent glides, pinpointing each lifeless one to rise within the bell of the minaret with soundless squeaks and echoes. The dead don’t talk, but the pipistrelle didn’t notice his own silence. Two small sparrows flitted at his side. Some of the company, like the lady rat, still bore their skins and faces, but even more had been whittled down to bone.
The last to wake was the cat. She linked herself together, bone to bone to bone to bone until she was complete. Her pearl jaw opened in a silent shout, and the company paid their predator heed. With this witching night, they would meet with the other minarets’ companies—the ones led by the owl, the eagle and the opossum were waiting at the Rathskeller. Each minaret housed a small universe of the dead.
Cat and Rat and Bat pushed and swung the door together until the shrews and voles and salamanders and mice had all escaped the tower top. The sparrows sped through on silent wings, beckoning Bat to join. The pipistrelle broke from the door and followed. The lady rat slipped past next, still favoring her broken toe. The cat checked for any remnants left behind, then shut their home behind her.
The shrews and voles and salamanders and mice, the two sparrows, Bat and Rat stood silent and steady, watching Cat and waiting. It was their first witching, and only Cat could lead them. In life, cat had loved a bruja who had granted Cat seven lives, but who had forgotten seven hearts and seven pairs of lungs and seven skins. Cat had one life left, but had waited forty years as bones for this witching night, a night she could regain a heart, lungs and skin and leave the old hotel again. The bruja smelled of sweat and cigars in Cat’s memory, like the hotel once had as well. Now the hotel smelled of stress and books and old carpeting. Cat knew that it had become a school.
The owl, the eagle and the opossum were already waiting at the bar. The ghost of the bruja served them a sweet vermouth, the wine of the dead. Cat’s company of shrews and voles and salamanders and mice each drank when they were served, the cool red liquid disappearing under invisible tongues and into silent mouths. Cat drank, too—dipped one paw into the wine and licked it clean with a bristled tongue only she could feel. The lady rat and the pipistrelle flanked the old cat on either side. Each of them drank vermouth.
“You know,” the bruja’s ghost said to Rat, “This bar is called the rat’s cellar.” Rat squeaked an inaudible reply.
Once each in their companies had drunk their fill, the owl, the eagle and the opossum led their groups of bone and flesh back to their own minarets. Cat’s company was the last to leave. The bruja’s ghost scratched Cat behind the ears, fingers rubbing solid air where fur would have been. Cat loved the bruja again, but was glad she’d been a bruja of seven and not a witch of nine. Nine-lived cats never died, but after six whole lives, Cat was ready for one last life and then rest.
Cat and Rat and Bat led the shrews and voles and salamanders and mice, along with the two sparrows, back to their home minaret. Cat pushed open the door, and the small boned creatures scurried and fluttered through the door. Rat and Bat were the last to go through, each turning to Cat and beckoning her in. But Cat shook her head. The lady rat and pipistrelle passed through the door with silent sadness.
Then Cat closed the door. Outside, the sun began to rise, and Cat began to grow. Fur and skin, tooth and claw, heart and lungs and liver. Muscle and blood and tongue. The new cat turned her head and licked the fur of her haunches. In this life, she would be a tabby. When she had finished her grooming, she yawned with a loud pop of breath, arched her back in a stretch and darted through the old hotel to the main doors. Once they were open, she would live her last hurrah before returning to the minaret, her home.
Thank you, Maggie.
If you enjoyed that, click the hyperlink to pop over to Maggie’s blog and let her know.
The next Plant Hall Spooky Story Contest is in June, and I hope to post those winning stories as well.
Now go, all of you, and write something that scares the hell out of you.
I’ve been grouchy lately. I have several theories about why that is that I won’t go into here, but I’ve been thinking the past few days that I need to actively seek out joy and focus on the small things in life that make me smile. I need to laugh more. We all know that happiness is healthy. I read just this morning about a recent study that links cynicism and dementia.
So, what am I going to do about it? I decided a couple weeks ago to seek out friends more often, visit my mother and sister more than the once per month that seems to be the trend. Last week I took my Mom to a Lyle Lovett concert in Saint Petersburg, and we had a great time catching up and enjoying the music. She’s one of my favorite people, and I’ve always wanted to be more like her. As a bonus, I ran into two old friends at the Mahaffee Theater while waiting for the concert to start. So, I’d say I’m off to a good start on the road to being a more cheerful guy.
Here’s what prompted this semi-silly post. I’m training for a 15km run in February, so I’m working on increasing my weekly mileage. I ran 6 miles this morning and felt great. You can’t beat fall in Florida for perfect, cool, sunny weather in the mornings. On the way out, I passed by my youngest son’s middle school, and some of the older kids happened to be out on the field for recess or P.E. A group of three or four of them tried out their taunting skills on the old man jogging by with “run, Forrest, run,” and “work them skinny thighs!” As I continued to run, that encounter struck me as increasingly funny, and I laughed out loud as I tried to remember what being in 8th grade was like.
On the way back home, something caught my eye–the sun reflecting off a shiny surface on the sidewalk. I saw what looked like a Chinese character in red and, curiosity whetted, I turned back to look. What I found was a small, magnetic clip-on thingy, possibly intended as a bookmark, with the Chinese character for “laugh” printed on one side.
I recognize that I’m one of those people who looks for meaning in things, and I know I have to moderate that tendency with common sense, but this seemed like a benevolent message directly to me from the Universe. A sign, if you will. As soon as I got home, I went to the computer, dripping sweat on the keyboard, and looked up a pronunciation of the character in Chinese. What a fun language. Turns out it also means “smile.” I’ll be walking around the house today enjoying the taste of the word Xiào, and smiling.
Waking in the silent darkness,
a sense of mustard yellow
and light conversation
is all that remains
of last night’s dream.
I found this in a journal I wrote in Baghdad during the “Surge.”
In Mesopotamia the god is angry,
The air stinks and the dogs are mangy.
Eye-for-eye and hand-for-hand,
And the blood of the people soaks the land.
From deep inside the Green Zone’s walls,
Send Hershey bars and soccer balls
to soothe angry fathers’ hearts
while they police the body parts.
Thanks so much for visiting now and then. Happy Holidays from me and from this cute critter I rescued yesterday from the Humane Society of Tampa. He and my family became instant friends. Now, it’s time to train him to be a polite member of society, but…he is currently known as the Dog with No Name. That doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue while teaching him to sit and breaking him of his paws-on-the-chest habit. So, I wonder if anyone out there on the interwebs has a clue what we might call this new addition to our household. Send me some ideas, won’t you?
February 2014 update: We named him Dexter. It seems to fit.
Hey, it’s not every day I meet a classic rock hero. I grew up on the Eagles’ music, and Frey wrote some of the first tunes I learned to play on the guitar. They played for about four hours, and I surprised myself by knowing the words to all but a couple of the songs. You could say I’ve been influenced.