A Broken Seal – “gasket”

A short writing exercise inspired by the word “gasket”.

Farolos de Valladolid  / Streetlights of Valla...

Image by ajgelado via Flickr

The tree was massive and solid, not planted in the earth like a shrub but jutting out like a column. Its leaves rustled in the enormous branches, and a patch of torn, light wood shone out from among the dark, dirty bark like a wound.

Doug touched the bare wood lightly. It wasn’t deep, a scratch for a tree this size. A thick, jagged splinter stuck out from the patch, and Doug pressed it back against the tree, smoothing it out.

He turned his back to the tree, leaned against it, closed his eyes, and sighed. Evening was coming and the air was starting to cool. Everything had a dreamlike quality except the solid tree at his back. Feeling a trifle unsteady, slid down the tree, jacket scratching loudly, until he sat in the tuft of weeds at its base.

He opened his eyes and looked at the patch of churned up earth before him. Dark and moist, bits of grass and rock poked through the big clods of dirt and deep ruts. Strangely, he thought of his mother’s garden when he was a boy, and the fresh smell of dirt when she got it ready for planting.

A sharp point stuck from the ground in front of him, and Doug reached for it.  Shaking off the loose dirt, he rubbed off a layer of oil and grease onto his pants. It was a small metal ring, a gasket. He stared at it blankly in the palm of his hand, rubbing it back and forth with his thumb.

A radio chattered nearby, and Doug looked up to see a police officer watching him quietly. The officer moved as if he might come over to Doug, but instead simply gave a brief nod. Doug watched as the officer got into his squad car and left. The tires crunched as he drove across the thick, black skidmarks in the road that led straight towards the tree. Towards Doug.

Doug was alone. The officer was the last to leave, having made sure the motorcycle was cleared away. The flatbed had left with it about five minutes ago, the twisted pile of metal barely recognizable. The car was gone ten minutes before that, much easier to tow since it did not have to be pulled from the dirt.

His brother’s body had already been taken from the scene before Doug arrived. Doug clenched his hand around the dirty gasket, the edges biting painfully into his fingers. Overhead, the streetlights began to flicker on.

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Creative Writing Exercise: ‘Gasket’

Michael straightened his tie and checked his watch. Diana spotted him and gave him a wife look. The look said ‘your tie is straight and checking your watch won’t help anything, stop fidgeting’. He gave her a husband look back that said ‘you’re right but cut me some slack’.

She was right of course he was fidgeting and there was no need to worry about time. The viewing was from seven o’clock to nine and it was barely seven now. A few folks were milling about but it would probably be half past before it got busy. Anyway, it wasn’t like Big Mike was going anywhere.

Michael still couldn’t believe his father was gone. Easy enough to believe he had died; the man’s diet was a mess, he drank cheap whiskey by the gallon and smoked unfiltered cigarettes. Who smokes unfiltered cigarettes?

No, Big Mike’s ticket was bound to be punched and it was a massive stroke that did it. But being dead and being gone had turned out to be two different concepts for Michael. How do you deal with a force of nature just being gone?

He worried about his boys; this was a first funeral for both of them. Little Mike especially for he had worshiped his granddad like a drunken god. Mike had named his firstborn Michael James Winslow III but it was Mike Sr. who started calling him Little Mike. Of course, with Big and Little taken Michael II was stuck with Junior. He would not miss that.

Little Mike stood near a table that was full of flower arrangements. He was trying to act cool or as cool as a fourteen year old can be. The boy looked bored and aloof and Michael knew it must be and act. He knew also that he couldn’t make his son deal with it if he didn’t want to. He had tried this morning to talk to Little Mike but the boy had rebuffed him. Michael sighed and scanned the room to find his youngest son, Paul.

Paul was half hiding behind a garish funeral home lamp. He was only six and Michael wasn’t sure how much of this he really understood. The boy hadn’t even lost a goldfish yet. There hadn’t really been much time to talk to him and Michael watched him now. Paul was staring at the front of the room where Big Mike was laid out. Michael crossed the room to his son but the boy’s intent study of his grandfather’s corpse didn’t waver until Michael spoke.

“Hey, buddy,” he said. “How’re you doing?” Paul just shrugged.

“Do you want to go up and take a look?” Michael said. “Say goodbye?” The small boy got a thoughtful look on his face. He often got those before speaking and Michael just waited.

“Do I have to?” Paul finally said.

“No,” Michael said, “you don’t have to. But it would be nice and I thought you’d want to do it before it got crowded in here.”

“Okay,” he said after another pause for thought.

Michael took his hand and they went to stand by the departed. Michael looked at his father’s corpse telling himself again that he was really gone. He watched Paul to gage his reaction.

The boy looked at Big Mike in his blue suit but he seemed more curious about the coffin. He ran his hand over the rails and the lining and gave a gentle knock on the lid. His small fist made a tinny ring for the coffin was aluminum as specified by Big Mike. Paul’s face took on the usual thoughtful look and he glanced up at his father.

“He’s dead right?”

“Yes, Paul,” Michael said.

“When you’re dead you can’t breathe, right?”

“No you don’t breathe anymore.”

“How’s he gonna blow it?”

“Blow what?” said Michael.

“His casket.”

“Paul what are you talking about.”

“Well,” Paul said, “when I asked Little Mike what happened to granddad, he said he just blew a casket.”

“No, he…” Michael looked from his younger son to his older, then to his dead father. “He meant to say…”

Paul’s look of intense thought stayed while Michael stammered. In fact it grew more intense and Michael finally stopped trying to explain. Instead he started to chuckle. Once he started to chuckle he couldn’t stop it and he just let the laughter come as he kneeled down to hug his son.

creative writing exercise – gasket

A 1973 photograph of the Sun from Skylab, show...

Image via Wikipedia

We sat in rapt attention as the lead scientist continued his demonstration.

“At just two millimeters in thickness, the Burgenstar gasket represents the current state of the art in the prevention of dispersed-by-air particles from being transferred across a barrier in either direction.  In short, we can’t smell them, which has a positive effect on our quality of life, and they can’t smell us, which has an extremely positive effect on life itself.”

A slender hand shot up from someone seated a few rows ahead of me and to the left, amidst the group from the New Era Examiner, my news agency’s primary rival.  After being acknowledged, the hand’s owner stood to ask her question.

“Some have argued that the specimens should just be exterminated or at the very least be placed under more secure conditions.  How would you respond to that, sir?”

Certainly one of the questions that was on everyone’s mind so it was no surprise that it was going to be asked by someone here today.  I was just glad that I didn’t have to burn my one chance with that one, given that my agency, the Changing Times was typically known for much less mainstream statements.

“Well, we of the scientific community feel that extermination is out of the question, since there is still much that can be learned by examination of the specimens.  As for moving them to a more secure facility, that is more in the realm of politicians and, of course, the commerce sector which has built up around the display of the specimens to the curious public.”

No news there, these guys were rolling out the accepted answers.

Over the next half hour we engaged in round after round of dodge and weave as questions were met with the expected, status quo answers.  I had been able to work in a question about the little known effects of solar flares which formed the basis for my current assignment.  The lead scientist took extra time in answering me, latching on to the fact that it apparently didn’t have anything to do with the specimens at all and was therefore a welcome diversion.

Hah, I guess he didn’t realize that I worked for the Changing Times.  I’m sure he cringed and took some heat when my headline ran the next day: “Increase in Burgenstar Failures – Solar Flares May Be to Blame”.  I’m sure he would have rather I stuck to questions about the Earth specimens instead.

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Saint Peter's Pearly Gates
Image by skylarprimm via Flickr

The gates swung shut with a sonorous clang and St. Peter turned to the line.

“Next.” A man stepped forth from the head of the milling throng and approached.

“Wow,” the man said gazing at the tall gates, “I’m finally here. It’s a long wait on line.”

“Name?” said St. Peter.

“Those gates sure are pearly,” the man said. “I expected bars so you could see through. Like in the movies I guess. But these are pretty. Imposing but tasteful, you know?”

“What is your name?”

“Oh, sorry,” the man said. “You know I kind of expected you to have wings.”

“I’m not an angel,” Peter said. “I’m a saint and I need your name.”

“Right a saint. Saint Peter,” the man said, nodding. “No wings but that’s a nice halo. Beatific.” The man and the saint stared at each other for a few moments.

“Your name?”

“Oh, right,” the man said, nodding again. “Hamilton. Michael Alexander Hamilton.”

St. Peter ran his finger down the page of the book in front of him. The book was huge, a vast tome. It was bound in gold chased leather with parchment leaves crawling with calligraphy and illuminations. St. Peter turned a few pages looking for the man’s entry.

“Paper records, huh?” the man said. “I’d think you guys would move to a computer system. That’s quite a line to process.”

“Yeah, well when we started it was all on papyrus scrolls,” said Peter. “So this is actually an improvement. Here you are.” Peter’s finger moved up and down the page and he muttered as he read.

“No murder, no rape, not much blasphemy…stole a candy bar when you were seven.”

“Yeah, sorry about that.”

“Church going man…” Peter’s finger stopped and he looked up. “A little more lust than we care for.”

“Yeah you got me there,” the man said, “but I never cheated on my wife. Not in thirty-five years of marriage.”

“It says here you were married for thirty-six years.”

“Uh, yeah…I’m counting the engagement.”

“Everything looks alright here,” Peter said. “Michael Alexander Hamilton, you may pass.” The pearly gates opened and the man walked through into a golden light filled with harp music. The gates swung to with a sonorous clang and St. Peter turned to the line.

“Next.” A man stepped forth from the head of the milling throng and approached.

“Name?” said St. Peter.

“Hamilton,” the man said. “Michael Alexander Hamilton.”

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Active Rest

Active rest is a fitness term.  When most people work out they do a set of exercises then rest before doing another set.  For a good number of people that means more time is spent standing around resting than exercising.  When one of these people starts to work with a good trainer they are often distraught when the trainer cuts their rest time drastically or even gives them no rest at all.  Maybe lunges for a minute followed immediately by push-ups for a minute then a set of fifteen barbell curls.  In this example the curls would be active rest; you’re working at a lighter intensity than the main routine and so your ‘rest’ periods are actually getting some work done.

So what?  I’d been working on a long project (a novel) and progress, which had been pretty steady, was slowing down.  It’s not writer’s block it’s more like fatigue.  Word counts went down, harder to really get that ‘flow’ of a good session, and just general malaise. 

A fellow writer suggested that maybe it was just time to take a break, put it in the drawer.  Good advice probably but advice I didn’t really want to take because the end just felt so close.  Another few slog sessions made it pretty obvious a rest was needed but you don’t want to just abandon it.  You want to keep up the writing habit and that’s where active rest comes in.  There’s plenty of stuff you can do to stay in the writing mindset without necessarily doing the heavy lifting.

Writing exercises.  These exercises are rarely fully formed stories but they have value.  Especially if you work on something specific.  If you have problems with dialog work on that.  Write a piece that’s nothing but dialog.  Two people talking with no dialog attribution at all.  Try to create the characters and tell the story with nothing but those lines of dialog.

Back-story.  I play Dungeons & Dragons.  I know, awesome, right?  Our DM just had us write back-stories for our characters and, you know, it was pretty fun.  You should probably already have back-stories for your main characters but what about smaller characters?  A little work on back-story might make ’em pop a little and keep you engaged in the work while easing off the hard stuff.

Old business.  If you have some pieces laying around, say a first draft of a short story or one of those word exercises you did and then forgot about; pull ’em out and take a look.  Some of it will suck, no doubt, but there might be some gems.  Maybe something that needs just a little attention.  I put a quick polish on an old short story and submitted it to a contest.  I didn’t win but sometimes just freakin finishing something feels good.

The main thing is you’re still writing.  Keep up the habits and you can cut yourself a little slack for ignoring the ‘big work’.  Just don’t let ‘active rest’ turn into a year of two-page vignettes.  In fitness they say “growth happens outside the gym” but that’s assuming you were in the gym at some point.  Eventually you’re gonna have to get back to work.