Writing

Fast Fiction: Waking Life, Living Death

{Dear erstwhile Grumpy Monkey reader —
Thank you so much for your kind indulgences during your Monkey’s recent and unfortunate sojourn into topics that have no place on a fine upstanding, highly literary blog like this one. A blog that is so respected that it sometimes hurts. We here at Monkey headquarters think you’ll find this latest tale to be much more in line with what you’d expect from a monkey with rusty old typewriter, a chip on his shoulder and limited well of creative talent to draw upon. Enjoy! –TGM}

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Waking Life, Living Death

You wake up and it is morning and you are in a nursing home.

You are old and frail and the hard mattress of the twin bed digs into your bones. You are an 86-year-old man who sleeps in a diaper and shares a room with a guy who lost both legs to diabetes.

The nurses’ aid comes hustling into the room and drops a breakfast tray on your end table. It lands with a splat.

“Good morning Mr. Johnson,” she calls out in her insincerely cheery Haitian-accented voice as she crosses to the window and draws back the shade. Sunlight spills into the room. “Time for breakfast.”

Inside your bed, you feel your thin legs rustle against the sheets. You can see the blotches and bruising on your arms, and the clear patches of tape that they have wrapped around your hands to prevent skin tears.

You wince as you think about what “breakfast” really means.

Soggy eggs and lukewarm oatmeal shoved into your mouth by someone with eight other old people to feed and no time for niceties like waiting for you to chew and swallow.

And that god-awful thickened coffee that they give you instead of real coffee because they are worried about you choking on thin liquids.

“Dysphasia” is what the nurse called it the other day. Everything gets thickened now. Water. Coffee. Desserts. All your nutritional options are slowly turning into the consistency of soft paste.

No, you wake up and you are not in a nursing home.

You are back in your third grade class, getting ready to work on a construction paper turkey that you are going to bring home for Thanksgiving.

The smell coming from the open jar of paste reminds you of early school days and crisp new folders and book covers made of paper bags.

There is a girl in the class named Amy that you like, and you brought a notepad with you to school today so you could send her a note.

In between cutting and pasting colorful feathers onto the turkey shape that you drew by tracing your open hand, you slip Amy a hastily written note. “This is kind of boring,” it reads.

You actually don’t mind doing art projects and aren’t bored at all, but it seems like the type of thing you should write.

Amy looks back at you and wrinkles her nose. “I don’t know. I kind of like art class.”

No, you wake up and it is late at night at a loud party. You are in college now, but back for the weekend visiting your home town. Amy is there, a girl you haven’t seen since high school. She’s still as cute as ever, but she has had a lot to drink and is a little unsteady.

She remembers your name and your face, and seems glad to see you, but she probably doesn’t remember that you once brought a a notepad to school with you for the sole purpose of impressing her.

You are older now and still desperate to impress women, but you are also very drunk.

Amy is more drunk than you are, and you have brought her upstairs to an open bedroom so she can lie down. You are kneeling next to the bed and you are on the horns of a dilemma.

You have always had a thing for Amy, but she always seemed so distant and so unavailable. Now she is so real, so close, and so available.

She may want to kiss you, and possibly even sleep with you, but she may also be so drunk that she doesn’t  know what she wants.

Luckily, your friends are smarter than you are. One of them bursts into the room. “Time to go,” he barks at you.

You wake up from a dead sleep in the middle of the night. Amy taps you on the shoulder and whispers, “Time to go.”

“It’s time?” you answer. “It’s time to go!” You suddenly understand that your wife is about to have the baby.

You leap out of bed and dash into your clothes, moving with practiced speed and efficiency.  You and Amy have rehearsed this trip a thousand times, and the practice has paid off.

Your suitcases are packed and you are out the door and in the car in no time at all. You say a silent prayer that the old Dodge won’t seize up on the way to the hospital, but you get there OK.

The nurses come hustling out into the ER when you arrive and take Amy away to the delivery room in her wheelchair.

You sit in the waiting room and watch the battered color TV on the wall, and you marvel at how it was that you got to be here at this time, with this girl, in this situation.

You remember how Amy had called you up several days after that college party and thanked you for “being such a gentleman.” How that had led to a first date. And a second date. And a third. And a proposal. And a marriage. And now, a baby.

You take a deep breath and pace back and forth between the rows of  plastic chairs of the waiting room. You are going to be a father. This is going to be big. You are so excited to get started with your life.

No, you wake up in a nursing home. Breakfast is being shoved into your mouth by a nurse’s aide who doesn’t like you. “This isn’t right,” you think. “I’m not in a nursing home. I am in a hospital. I am waiting for my daughter to be born.”

You wake up in a hospital.  But this is not the same hospital.

You are in an examination room this time, and Amy is sitting on the table in a johnny.

Her hair is streaked with gray and she looks frail and weak. The doctor grimly hangs a set of X-rays in the light tray on the wall and points to the places where the tumors have spread throughout her body.

You wake up and you are in a funeral home.

The place smells sickeningly like lilies and bad breath and maybe formaldehyde.

Amy is there, too, but she is lying still in the coffin and her face is heavily made up. What you see of her, when you can bear to look, is so plastic and pancaked with makeup that you don’t know who it is supposed to be.

You wait in the reception line and shake hand after hand and hand and exchange hugs and hear promises of lunch dates and get-togethers that you know will never happen.

Your daughter is there somewhere, but she is off in her own world, talking to her own friends and flitting in and out of the reception line. She doesn’t want to accept this. She is going to stay as far away as possible.

You wake up and you are in a nursing home. Breakfast is over and you are being tugged and shoved and prodded onto a padded extend-o-toilet seat so you can take care of morning business.

No, this can’t be right. You shut your eyes and pray to wake up somewhere else. Somewhere earlier. Somewhere good.

But you are fully awake now. And there is no other place to wake up.

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Writing

Not So Fast Fiction: Odd Couple, Arctic, Zoo (or at long last, The Penguin Story)

{Your humble Monkey has been struggling with this Penguin story for a long time now, and since this week is marking a fresh start for him, he thought it was time to polish it up as best he can and send it out. This was based on the prompt above but took numerous revisions and one day of brutal frustration to bring to realization. Thanks in advance for your kind indulgences. P.S. No animals were hurt during the making of this story, though one Monkey did get very stressed out.}

It was feeding time at noon on Monday, and Claude was once again being an asshole to the penguins.

“You look so stupid with your black and white tuxedos and your big floppy feet,” he sneered as he dumped the bucket full of salty fish into their holding pen.

Claude had the most ridiculously thick French Canadian accent I had ever heard. It matched perfectly with his slick black hair and pencil-thin mustache. He seemed so stereotypically French, in fact, that I sometimes wondered if the whole thing was an act. Like maybe he was a theater student from Wisconsin who had come up north to train for an acting role.

“Don’t say that kind of stuff to the penguins,” I said, watching as the birds waddled over to the pile of fish and started gobbling up their lunch. “They’re sensitive creatures.”

Claude sniffed and gestured towards the pen, where two penguins were flapping their flippers in an apparent argument over a particularly juicy mackerel. “They are not sensitive,” he said. “They are stupid. Haw!”

Claude dropped the empty bucket to the ground and it clanged against the cement. He shuffled off in the direction of the polar bear house.

I reached down and retrieved the bucket, then smiled in at the birds.

“Don’t listen to him,” I said, putting on my best faux French accent. “He is the one who is, how you say, stup-eeed.” I smiled my big smile at them, but they continued munching on their fish and did not seem too interested in me and my empty bucket.

That was OK, I thought. They probably felt safe in my presence and were happy to eat without interruption.

As anyone who has worked at the zoo, visited the zoo, or read my penguin blog on the zoo’s website could tell you, I love penguins. I love love love penguins. I care about those black and white birds like the children I never had.

I’m not sure if I could say that the penguins loved me, too.

Thus far, my attempts to move my tent into their pen and commune with them one-on-one had been met with gentle rebuffs in the form of them headbutting me in the knees and pooping in my sleeping bag.

But now that Claude was here, I reasoned, the penguins would come understand what a true friend I was to them. And they respect me and welcome me in. That was the one upside to having him around.

Getting on good terms with the birds was all part of my plan to be the world’s foremost penguin researcher, the first man to live among them and be accepted as one of their own.

I fell in love with penguins after reading a book about them as a child and had studied them all through elementary school and high school, even going as far as dressing in black and white every day during my senior year.

Went I couldn’t find a college that would let me major in penguinology, or a college that even offered penguinology as a major, I decided to join the staff of Cole’s Arctic Zoo in Winnipeg.

Sure, the pay was lousy. Sure, I lived in a small trailer with a gas-powered heater that never seemed to work quite right. And sure, the zoo might have been a few decades past its glory days.

But the zoo had penguins. Lots and lots of penguins.

I thought Claude might have been impressed, or at least charmed, by the majestic black and white birds with their graceful waddles. but he hated them from the moment he arrived.

“Hi,” I had greeted him when he first came roaring up to the gates of the zoo in his Peugeot a few months back. “You’re going to love it here. There are lots of penguins.”

The Peugeot belched a cloud of black smoke and Claude rolled his eyes. He flicked his cigarette out the open window. “I do not like birds,” he said.

“How can you not like birds?” I asked.

“Bears I like,” he said. “Polar bears. Grizzly bears. Kodiaks. Those are creatures. They have grace. They have majesty. These birds, they are nothing to me.”

“But penguins mate with each other for life,” I said. “And when they mate, the male penguin finds a pebble and presents it to the female penguin as a sign of affection. How cute is that?”

“Bah!” Claude spat. “Your penguins would make a great lunch for the bears. That is all.”

Ever since that first exchange, I had made it my habit to trail behind Claude when he did the noon feeding.

I was there to make sure the penguins got the attention they needed, and to pick up the bucket that he inevitably tossed aside after dumping their fish into the pen.

Our work styles could not have been more different, and I hoped the penguins appreciated how much care I took–and how much contempt he showed.

When it was my turn to do the noon feeding, I handed out the fish one by one, speaking to each penguin in turn and trying not to wince as their eager beaks clamped down on my fingers.

Handling salty fish with fingers that were rubbed raw by penguin teeth was not fun, but it was all part of the bonding experience between me and these transcendent birds.

Most days, the noon feeding with Claude went without incident, aside from the dropped bucket and his general indifference to the birds that were my heart and soul.

But today, something didn’t seem right.

The penguins were all eating OK, but…what was it?

I did a quick mental head count and my heart leaped into my chest. A bird was missing!

“Claude!” I shouted, hoping to get a second set of eyes to confirm my count. But he was too far away to hear me. As I stared at his disappearing figure, my alarm bells went off. There was something too quick, too eager in his step.

Sure, he liked the bears. But Claude never hustled for no one.

I broke  away from my penguin friends and sprinted after Claude, yelling his name all the while.

But he either didn’t hear me, or was trying to ignore me.

I finally caught up with him just inside the overlook to the polar bear enclosure. And I could see from the gleam in his eye that something was afoot.

The missing penguin was waddling around in the pen with the polar bears.

“You bastard!” I wheezed, still trying to catch my breath from the sprint. “You put him in there!”

“Haw!” Claude jeered as I joined him at the edge of the overlook. “I did nothing of the sort. I told you these birds were stupid. This one is going to be an easy meal for my bears.”

I watched in horror as the penguin tottered around the pen, apparently oblivious to two sleeping bears on either side of him.

I wanted to scream. I wanted to shout. I wanted to choke Claude out.

But my heart and my hands were stunned into silence. All I could do was watch.

Male penguins are beautiful, majestic and handsome birds. But they are not graceful, and they are not quiet. This bird was tottering all over the pen, making penguin sounds and generally looking lost and confused.

I looked over at Claude, saw his eager smile, and my blood ran hot.

“What are you waiting for?” I snapped. “Get the bears their lunch. Toss it in and they’ll all come walking over towards us. Then I’ll jump in and grab the penguin.”

But Claude only grinned and leered. “Watch this,” he said. Then he put his fingers up to his lips and let out a shrill whistle. I jumped. The penguin jumped.

But most importantly, the two polar bears stirred. They were a male and a female, brought in for breeding purposes. Both were massive creatures with yellow-white fur and dark stains around their mouths.

Both had become fat and lazy on the cheap zoo food, but both were still polar bears. When they stirred and saw the penguin, I feared the worst. Then the male bear got to his feet and lumbered in the direction of the bird, and I knew the worst was inevitable.

“That’s it,” I said. “I’m going in after him.” I put one foot up on the fence, and Claude grabbed me and pulled me back.

“You are not really that stupid, eh?” he said. “They will eat you instead. Watch and learn, my friend.”

In the wild, polar bears live in the Arctic and Penguins live in the Antarctic. Same type of environment, but opposite ends of the earth.

So polar bears don’t get many chances to eat penguins, though many biologists believe that they would if they got the chance.

I was panicking. “How did he get in there?” I cried. I glared over at Claude. “You must have put him there.”

“I did not,” he returned evenly. “I told you, penguins are stupid. He must have walked over on his own.”

The polar bear and the penguin made contact moments later.

I will spare you the brutal details of what happened next, but let’s just say that a penguin is no match for a polar bear.

I watched with sickened eyes and clenched teeth as the penguin went from one of my close, personal friends to a pre-lunch polar bear snack. This was too much for me to take.

I turned to Claude, and his satisfied smile made my blood boil. “You–you murderer!”

I grabbed him by the lapels of his coat and shook him. He smirked. “My friend, I assure you that I did nothing wrong.”

But behind the protestations of innocence, there was a gleam in his eye. I lost all control. “I’m not your friend! I hate your accent. And I think you’re stupid, too. Let’s see how well you do in with your precious bears!”

I pushed him towards the edge of the overlook fence.  The low rise fence had been built during a simpler time, when safety regulations were routinely ignored. It offered little in the way of resistance as I pushed Claude up and over and dropped him into the pen.

He fell to the ground with a thud and looked up at me with stunned silence. For the first time, I could see fear in his eyes. “So you do have another expression besides smug,” I said.

Both polar bears were awake now, and even though the male had just eaten, they both looked hungry. They ambled over in Claude’s direction.

Two thoughts went through my head at the same time.

The first was,”If this goes the way I think it’s going, I’m going to be a murderer.”

The second was, “Man, I wish the penguins could come and see this.”

Writing

Fast Fiction: Slaying of A Loved One, Small Town, Garden

{Another in a series of quickly written fiction pieces that are based on creative writing prompts. Thanks as always for your indulgences on behalf of your aspiring young Monkey fictionalist.Also, fictionalist may not be an actual word. Just so you know. Cheers, TGM}

Mr. Edward Jones loved to spend time in his backyard garden, and his efforts paid off.

Each spring the tulips would bloom first, big bright bursts of red and orange and yellow. In the summer it would be vegetables: tomatoes, green beans, lumpy cucumbers, mini squashes and yellow carrots. In the fall, the garden would be lined with purple mums.

Mr. Jones was a regular down at the local farm and feed store.Every few days he would pull into the lot in his old pickup truck, saunter through the greenhouse with his thumbs hitched into his suspenders, and leave with bags of fertilizer and trays of seedlings rattling around in the back of his pickup bed.

Edward had a big, gentle face, an easy smile, and stubby hands that always seemed to be covered in dirt. He seemed to dote on his wife, Dottie, who baked blueberry dog biscuits for the local craft fair each year.

Therefore, it was quite a shock to the small town of Bedford when Dottie’s decomposing corpse was found in the back row of the Jones’ garden one sun-drenched September morning.

It was even more of a shock when Mr. Jones confessed to the police that he had buried her there.

What came next was a game of “he said, he said” as Edward Jones and the local police chief presented their sides of the story to the press.

Edward said that Dottie had died of natural causes one morning, and not wanting to make a fuss, he decided to bury her in the garden without an official wake or funeral. “It was what he would have wanted,” he told the press.

The police chief told the press that investigators “considered the garden an active crime scene,” and refused to rule out Edward as a murder suspect. “We’re still looking at all the angles,” he said.

This put me in a bit of an awkward situation, as I was not only the paperboy who delivered the news to the Jones house, but also the one who had found Dottie’s body when I came around collecting one Saturday morning.

The Garden Murder had been the one and only topic during school that week. And I had become something of a celebrity for having found the body.

“What were you doing digging around in his garden?” a seventh grader named Sydney asked me during recess one day that week.

I took a deep breath. Telling the story was getting easier now that I had done it a dozen times or so by now.

“I wasn’t digging,” I said. “I was collecting for my paper route, and I usually go around to the side door. It was open, and when I knocked no one answered. So I walked out into the garden. Mr. Jones is usually in the garden and he usually pays me. I practically tripped over this big mound of dirt that had never been there before, and when I looked down in the soil I saw a finger.”

“Eeeeewwwww.” Came the collective gasp from everyone on the playground. It was the typical response when I got to the part about the finger.

I continued. “I saw the finger and I kicked a little more dirt and then I saw it was connected to a hand. And then a wrist. And then I started running.”

I had nearly peed my pants after realizing that the finger I had found was connected to a hand, and that the hand was connected to a body, but I left that part out of this schoolyard version of story. It didn’t do me or my celebrity status any favors.

I continued. “So I ran out of the garden and back home and told my mom.”

“How did you know that there was a whole body down there?” Someone asked from the back row.

I shrugged. “I don’t know. I just knew. Besides, it’s not like it would be any better if it was just a hand, right?”

“Were there bugs crawling all over it?” someone else asked.

I shrugged again. “I guess there were some bugs. But it was a garden, so there are always going to be some bugs. Nothing too weird.”

“Besides finding a dead body on your paper route,” Sydney quipped.

“Yeah,” I said. “Besides that.”