I usually read until I fall asleep each night, propping a book against the headboard and plugging along until the sentences start swirling together. I’ve been reading a mix of required and nonrequired reading lately (see right), but tonight, after a day of not being able to get anything done (stupid dissertation submission guidelines), I decided I needed short stories. You know, for a sense of accomplishment.
So I picked up my collection of John Cheever, who is my short story boyfriend. And I quickly learned that Cheever does not put me to sleep. He makes me want to write. After about 45 minutes of wide-awakeness, I eased out of bed — carefully, as Danny’s been suffering from a wicked sinus headache– and headed to my laptop to write something! Something creative! Something that doesn’t require footnotes! If the dissertation isn’t exactly submitted yet, it’s certainly finished, so I can focus on a more lighthearted literary endeavor, right?
And lighthearted it must be. This afternoon I sat in Brazo’s Bookstore and listened to my good friend Keya read a story that, although carefully crafted, seemed effortlessly funny and apt. Here in Houston, I’ve befriended quite a few fiction writers and poets from U of H, one of the best creative writing programs in the country. When I first sat down for some free-writing, I was momentarily paralyzed by my friends’ talent and my own ridiculousness. This sense of ridiculousness? Only amplified by my pajamas.
But as this blog is read, as far as I know, by kind-hearted friends and very few strangers, I thought I would, once in a while, post my new attempts at fiction. Especially because I’m comfortable in the knowledge that I am not on the fast-track to Famous Novelist and am in fact relieved to be creating something that is low-stakes. So I give you, dear readers, the first installment of my new attempt at non-academic writing: a brief untitled fragment that will be a part of something larger as of yet unwritten.
See? I’m even starting out messy. Onward!
During a brief stay in London as an undergraduate, Cal had wandered into the disorganized shop of an antique dealer who specialized in Victorian parlor knick-knacks: clocks housed in glass domes, leaves painstakingly dissected down to their skeletons, volumes of poetry with pages worn grimy at the edges. One corner of the room was dedicated to taxidermy, and before heading back to lukewarm coffee and a sad sandwich in the hostel, he had considered purchasing a pair of squirrels intent on a game of chess. One poised a thoughtful claw above his queen. The other cradled his snout in a small, pink paw.
“How much for the squirrels?”
“Five hundred pounds.”
“Five hundred. For chess-playing squirrels? Really?”
“The humorous specimens can fetch quite a price” he explained, sorting through a basket of dog-eared calling cards. “Serious collectors are certainly interested in your bird of prey or fighting mongoose, but the arranged scenes—kittens in petticoats and such—are making a comeback. I’m currently courting a particularly delicious offer on that pair over there.”
Cal followed the shopkeeper’s gesture and found a triangular glass case wedged into the corner containing two frogs, post-duel. Their royal blue coats were trimmed with braided gold epaulettes and large buttons. The triumphant contender splayed one webbed foot on a low rock and raised a freckled arm in victory, his mouth agape in what could only be imagined as a shrill croak. The defeated combatant lay spread-eagled on the ground, his bloated chest pierced by a blade the size of a large embroidery needle.
The losing frog was a puzzle to Cal, who was a little fuzzy on the mechanics of taxidermy—the systems of levers and wires and strong-smelling chemicals necessary to suggest the tension of life. But the vocation of taxidermy, it seemed, requires a commitment to reanimating the dead. This taxidermist had chosen to procure a dead frog—by chance or by murder, Cal was unsure—and to create out of the carcass another dead frog. Maybe the losing frog had procured a nobler end, at least according to tourists looking for cheeky antiques, but certainly an animal that had spent its days creekside would prefer biodegrading among the reeds to a dusty afterlife in a shop corner. The dueling frogs, to Cal, were nothing but a snide insistence on the finality of The End.