A woman in the rain (moxie)

I clamped down on the butt of the cigarette, chewing it back and forth, still not believing she was down there. No mistaking her of course, with that tight white skirt, that spectacular flourish of a hat, and the long, painful angle of her legs. Who else would be out in a downpour like this, dressed to the nines like that? Damn it.

The little dashes of reflected light from the raindrops surrounded her under that streetlamp. Across the street, five stories below me, face obscured by shadow and that had, I still knew she was looking up at my office window, and looking for me. Well here I was, I wasn’t gonna hide, so you could glare at me all damned night long if you didn’t catch your death of it out there first. Suit yourself.

Never met anybody in my life as stubborn as her, and doubted I’d be living long enough to meet anyone yet who fit the bill. Some people choose who they are and what they do, and some people are just born that way. Me, I made my share of bad choices, or to be honest some downright mean and wrong things, but I feel bad for them now. She doesn’t lack a conscience, in fact her conscience may be half and again her problem. It’s more that she’s so fired up certain about herself she never looks backwards even once. You have to do that sometimes, and she don’t get it.

I need a scotch, but my last glass is sporting the meltings of long-gone ice cubes and a few cigarette butt boats. I flung the watery goo into the waste basket, mostly getting it all in, and wiped out the inside of the glass with the corner of my jacket. Got most of the ash out allright, and the finer points of how it disrupted the nuances in the flavor of my cheap scotch really wasn’t something I was taking time to worry over. I downed a glass, filled it back up. I could still feel her out there watching my window. I could feel it like the ache in my busted ribs.

I shook my matchbox, a single match inside. I was about to be out of matches but damned well was going to need this smoke so made sure not to screw it up. My hand didn’t shake as the match shished awake, and didn’t shake as I light my smoke, but was shaking when I went back to the window and saw she was gone.

I knew hoping the milquetoast guard down there would stop her was a feeble wish. Even if he wasn’t asleep, and even if he remembered my instructions, she would barely slow down as she moved right through him. Probably better for him to be sleeping away the storm.

The wind shifted and the tac of raindrops off my window got louder. The window would be leaking around the base at this rate. Landlord never would fix it, didn’t leak that often, he claimed, but when it did it made a helluva mess. Really should get the waste basket under it, or a bucket before it gets too bad.

The door creaks open and she just stands there in the doorway, dripping all over my floor. I can see now that her skirt is torn and her jacket more than a little dirty. One of those impossible heels is cracked, maybe even broken, but I just know you wouldn’t be able to tell that by watching her walk. She just stands there, looking at me, her face still in darkness under the brim of that ridiculously wide hat.

Word Exercise: “Moxie”

It was still dark as we raced along the interstate outside Camp Verde. Some fresh snow had fallen during the night, and there were plenty of slick patches on the road—“black ice” as it is called—especially over the bridges and overpasses. We saw this as a good omen, because snow and ice are precisely what we had in mind when we were planning this trip.

“Turn that up,” shouted Cliff from the backseat.

“So, you’re wake,” answered Doug. Cliff had been sleeping since we picked him up. Cliff worked a nightshift as an orderly in the psyche ward at the state hospital in Phoenix, but he was able to get off at 4:00 a.m. so that we could get an early start.

“This song certainly fits,” I said as I turned up the cassette in Doug’s car stereo. We had been listening to a compilation of U2 songs, and next up was “New Year’s Day.”

“Do you remember this video?” asked Doug. “I hope that’s not gonna be us!” Doug was referring to the images in the video of the band riding horses through an ice-encrusted forest. The fellows are dressed in heavy fur coats, and both their faces and the horses’ snouts are engulfed in thick clouds of vapor as they breathe the chilly air.

My friends and I had two more weeks left of our winter break from college, and since we were all avid campers, we figured what could be more fun than a winter backpacking trip? So here it was, New Year’s Day, 1986, and we were driving to Flagstaff to spend two nights camping in the forests of Locket Meadow at the base of the San Francisco Peaks. We had backpacked in these forests several times before, in addition to hiking some rather grueling trails in the Superstition Mountains and the Grand Canyon. Plus, I had studied a book called Walking Softly in the Wilderness: The Sierra Club Guide to Backpacking pretty closely—especially chapter 23 on winter camping, which I had practically memorized. These factors, as well as all of us being in our early 20’s (and like most young guys, still possessing the deep-seated belief that we were somehow magically immune from harm), convinced us that this would be a really fun idea. Our plan was to arrive in Flagstaff long before dawn, grab some breakfast, and drive up to the trailhead just as the sun was rising in order to maximize the limited number of winter daylight hours.

Although most of the forest roads were buried in snow at this time of year, we knew the road to Locket Meadow would be open because it was also used by semi-trucks hauling black volcanic pumice out of a mine located on the edge of the mountain range. Since it was so early on a holiday morning, we had the road entirely to ourselves. We parked the car, unloaded our gear, and proceeded to suit up for the journey. There were our backpacks, of course, which were particularly heavy for this trip. But there were also the snowshoes we would need to walk around, as well as a plastic flying-saucer-shaped sled we brought along with even more gear loaded on it. According to chapter 23 of Walking Softly in the Wilderness, we were going to need a lot more gear than we usually brought for a summer backpacking trip, and since we didn’t have a team of sled dogs to carry our things, this orange disk would have to do.

For all of us, this was our first time wearing snowshoes. It’s one thing to try them out in a sporting goods store or in your living room, but it’s entirely different wearing them on top of a four-foot snow bank with a fifty pound pack on your back while hauling a sled. Let’s just say it took a while to finally get the hang of the darned things. You must walk with your feet far apart, otherwise you’ll step on the other shoe and go toppling into the snow. Or if you fail to lift your foot off the ground high enough, your snowshoe might get caught on a tree root or the edge of a rut or a snowdrift, which also sends you toppling into the snow. The road into Locket Meadow is only about four miles long, which makes for a nice leisurely walk in the summer. But add in the deep snow, the snowshoe-mastery learning curve, as well as the weight of all the extra equipment, and a hike that would ordinarily take a couple of hours wound up taking us all morning. So by the time we made it to the campsite, it was well past lunchtime and we were all thoroughly thrashed. We were learning fast that, given the cold and the snow, it simply takes longer to do things outdoors in winter. Chapter 23 of the backpacking book mentioned this once, but I was beginning to wonder why the author didn’t place a sterner warning about this in large bold print on every single page of that chapter.

Another factor we failed to consider in our careful preparation was how the mountains were going to affect the amount of useable daylight. Locket Meadow is situated at the bottom of bowl-shaped valley surrounded by the San Francisco Peaks. This means that by mid-afternoon, the sun will have already dropped behind the mountains, which not only limits the amount of daylight available to set up camp; it also means that once the sun falls behind the mountains, the temperature plummets about thirty degrees in thirty minutes. While we were hiking in, we were working up a good sweat, plus the temperature was in the forties. By the time the sun had set, the temperature was in the teens and we were hurrying to set up camp before we froze. Ideally, as per chapter 23, you want to dig a pit down past the snow and all the way to the dirt rather than placing your tent on top of the snow. The book didn’t really say why, but we knew we were going to find out soon enough because we didn’t have enough time to dig the pit completely. We found a low-lying area next to a fallen tree and did the best we could given the circumstances. Besides, we figured that we could always re-do things in the morning after getting a good night’s sleep.

By now it was late afternoon. We climbed into the tent and got comfortable in our sleeping bags, which were made of thick down and quite warm. The only parts of us that weren’t warm were our hands and faces, so we spent the next fifteen hours hunkered inside our sleeping bags wearing our hats and gloves. The first few hours passed easily enough. We boiled up a big can of chili and ate dinner. We played some card games and read books by the beam of a large overhead lantern. Then rather than trying to keep ourselves awake, we made the mistake of dozing off for a few hours. I say this was a mistake because when we all woke up it was only 11:00 p.m., and here in this valley, we wouldn’t be seeing any daylight again until close to 9:00 a.m. the following morning. We were also beginning to realize why the backpacking book had insisted on digging past the snow before setting up a tent. The snow we were on had melted and packed into a rock-hard sheet of ice. This wouldn’t have been so bad if the floor had frozen smooth and flat, but we were trying to sleep on top of the lumpiest and most jagged chunk of floor imaginable. The best any of us were able to do during the long, windy, bitterly cold night was try to find a semi-comfortable spot to lay and doze for a few minutes—all the while praying that none of us would have to go outside to take a leak.

The night crept slowly on. Somewhere near 5:00 a.m., Doug turned on his Walkman and listened to a radio station out of Flagstaff. The DJ reported that the temperature in town was ten degrees, which means that since we were a few thousand feet higher than this, the temperature outside our tent was probably near zero. The reality of these Siberian conditions became painfully clear when, three hours later, the sun finally peeked over the nearby ridge and we got up to dress. We soon found that nearly everything was frozen: our boots, our water, our crackers, oatmeal, Poptarts, canned goods, the gear in the sled…everything. So not only had it been a long night, it now promised to be a very long day. It was at this point that Doug spoke up.

“I’m outta here!” he said.

“Me too,” said Cliff.

“Wait! We have all day,” I said. “We can reset the tent, warm up some food. It’s not so bad…”

“The first thing you can do is burn that camping book of yours,” said Doug.

By then, Doug had already started packing up his things. He was in such a hurry to get back to his car that he didn’t even wait for Cliff and I to finish breaking camp before heading off ahead of us. The hike out of the meadow went much smoother than the previous day’s march, partly because the going was mostly downhill and partly because we had finally gotten used to walking in snowshoes. Doug was waiting inside the car for us when we arrived with the heater blowing and the music turned up. Soon we were in Flagstaff eating lunch at Jack-In-The-Box, and a few hours later we were back at Cliff’s house in Phoenix where his wife was busy making us all a warm dinner. That night, we watched the classic mountain man movie, Jeremiah Johnson, and when the scene came up where Hatchet Jack is frozen to a tree holding a Hawken rifle in his cold, stiff fingers, I couldn’t help believing that we’d all gained a bit of insight into how he must have felt.


“Ciao, Francesco,” Niccolo cried.  “Glad you could come.  Come in, sit down, have a glass of wine.”

“Thanks, Nico,” said Francesco.  He sipped at his glass, wondering how he should broach the subject.  He decided to be direct.  “I came to talk about your new book, Nico.”

“You finished it, eh?  What did you think?”

“Well, it was–“

“It’s good, right?” Niccolo was becoming animated and wine sloshed from his cup as he gesticulated.  “I know I should be more modest but I really think I nailed it with this one.  I’m back, baby!”

“Um, yeah.  You don’t think it’s a little…blunt?”

“What do you mean?”

“The title for starters.”

“It’s a book about princes.  I called it The Prince.”

“Okay, fair enough,” Francesco allowed.  “The chapter headings, though.  They’re a bit rough.”

“Rough?  ‘How the power of every principality should be measured’.  That’s not rough.”

” ‘Why the Italian princes have lost their states’.  I’m telling you this is going to get you in trouble.”

“Come on that’s just one chapter.”

“Okay how about ‘Those who come to power by crime’ ?”

“Ah,” Niccolo waved a dismissive hand, “you’re taking that out of context.”

“Out of–“

“I’m telling you Franco, this stuff is gold!  It’s my comeback.  With the Medicis back in power it’s a sure thing.”

“Well, that’s another thing,” Francesco was took anothe sip of wine.  Each sip getting bigger as the conversation went on.  “You’re sending this to Lorenzo de Medici but it seems to be more about Cesare Borgia.”

“I know.  I got the idea when I was over there.  That Borgia knows his stuff, man.  He conquered like, a bunch of provinces and you should see that guy make an alliance…or break one.  That boy’s got moxie, chutzpah.  He’s a go-getter, baby.”

“I guess it’s a little easier when your father’s the Pope,”  Francesco muttered.

“He might be the Pope’s son but you’d never know it to party with him.”

“I’m just saying it might not look good to have a how-to manual for being a ruthless bastard.  Who would admit to reading it?”

“That’s the genius part!  Everybody’s already thinking it, they just pretend not to.  If they have the book they can say they got from me,”  Niccolo replenished the wineglasses and raised his in a satisfied toast.  “Trust me Franco, this one’s gonna be a hit.” 

creative writing exercise – moxie

Finding myself on the road to Welldon, I happened upon an interesting sight. From the back of a beat up green station wagon, complete with faux wood panels, a man was selling something and, judging by the crowd that had gathered, it was not just any ordinary old something. Checking my watch, I found that I had perhaps fifteen minutes to pause and mingle and hopefully discover the nature of this gathering. As I neared the perimeter of the group, I could hear the man regaling them with his patter.

“Step right up here folks, and take a wondrous look at this magic elixir. Ponder the potent possibilities of nourishing sustenance all contained herein this very bottle, three sizes available. Would you deprive yourself and your loved ones of the very essence of life, liberty and yes, even the pursuit of happiness, as ordained by our constitution and then distilled in a secret patented process devised by men much more educated than I and brought here to you this very day? I see the incredulity on your upturned faces and yes, even I was not long ago a skeptic, quite doubtful of the dubious claims that another was spouting along a country road. But, upon imbibing my first swallow, I felt a pulsing energy move through my body and even unto the very ends of my extremities. From that glorious day forward, I have found a spring in my step, a song in my heart and, dare I say it in such company, vigor in my loins all more powerful than I had previously possessed. I cannot explain it any other way; it is as though my life were incomplete before I experienced my first taste of this sweet nectar. And it is at great personal peril that I bring it to you here today. Yes, that is true; I wish it were not.”

He paused to let his words sink in before continuing.

“I risk the humiliation of unjust incarceration and the loss of my very livelihood by even attempting to speak to you here today. For even though I am here on bona fide beneficent business, some would say that the claims I make are too great and others would say they are not verifiable by science. To those non-believers I would say: Buy just one bottle, preferably the larger, and conduct whatever tests you so desire. For the rest of you, who have heard my words and have already decided, quite wisely I might add, to set yourself on the path to improved lifestyle, I say step right up. I am required by the laws of each and every state in the union to caution you that the effects of the first taste are very powerful and should be undertaken only once you have returned to your homes. Would that I could witness the joy that you are about to express. However, I must be on my way, spreading the fervent message to yet another town, hopefully in the next county.”

He then proceeded to ply a brisk business, selling his product to, by my estimation, approximately half of the gathered. The crowd dispersed amicably, though I would hazard that many would feel less inclined to friendly countenance later in the day. I myself had partaken of the curiously named beverage on more than one occasion, not because I found it to impart such wonders as claimed, but simply that it was liquid refreshment on a hot summer day. I figured that I’d have another taste later after I concluded some quick business.

“Hello, friend,” I called out as I approached. “As the local law, I find that I could cite you for several violations. However, we can settle your debt right here for just two bottles, preferably the larger.”