A Poem A Story A Prompt, Issue 34

Bad Things / Good People

Like probably a lot of precocious readers, I dove into the work of Stephen King at a too-young age (having graduated from R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike), and had some memorable learning experiences about the inner lives of adults as a result. (One scene that sticks with me is from his novel Needful Things—about a demonic salesman who brings the deepest desires of a town of provincial Mainers horribly to life—and involves a middle-aged woman’s bizarre sexual fantasies about Elvis.)

Another King work that sticks with me, for different reasons, is the ending to an especially schlocky short story called “The Moving Finger” (not to be confused with the Agatha Christie novel). The story unfolds over one day in the apartment of a Queens man named Howard, who discovers that, for no discernible reason, a disembodied finger has appeared in his bathroom, snaking out from the toilet, then the sink, and so on. He does battle with the digit, growing increasingly unhinged as it becomes clear that he will not prevail and no one is coming to help him; by the end his apartment and his sanity are destroyed.

As I said, schlocky, and I thought so even as a pre-teen. But there’s a bit near the end that struck me as operating on a deeper level. A cop is summoned to Howard’s apartment, and when asked to explain what has happened, Howard says:

“It was like Jeopardy… In fact, it was like Final Jeopardy. The category is The Inexplicable. The Final Jeopardy answer is ‘Because they can.’ Do you know what the Final Jeopardy question is, Officer? …The Final Jeopardy question is: ‘Why do terrible things sometimes happen to the nicest people?’ That’s the Final Jeopardy question. It’s all going to take a lot of thought. But I have plenty of time…”

Then and now, I appreciate the story’s blackly humorous acknowledgement of disorder, of our lack of control. It turns out to be the tale of a man forced to reckon in a comically visceral way with the just-world fallacy. It’s a lot funnier than today’s poem and story, both of which also depict horrors (far realer and more serious ones) befalling innocent people for no reason at all.

An image from the short film adaption of “The Moving Finger,” which apparently exists

Poem

The Colonel

WHAT YOU HAVE HEARD is true. I was in his house. His wife carried
a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went   
out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the
cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over
the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English.
Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to
scoop the kneecaps from a man's legs or cut his hands to lace. On
the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We had
dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for
calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of
bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief
commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was
some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot
said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed
himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say
nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries
home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like
dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one
of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water
glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. As
for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck them-
selves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last
of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some
of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the
ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.

—Carolyn Forché

Who is this lady?

Born in Detroit in 1950, Carolyn Forché is known for her “poetry of witness.” Her collection The Country Between Us, which includes “The Colonel,” takes inspiration from her experiences as a Guggenheim Fellow in El Salvador during its Civil War. Forché has published a number of other collections, and also works as a translator and teacher. Joyce Carol Oates writes that in her poetry, Forché “addresses herself unflinchingly to the exterior, historical world.”

Story

These Bad Things (Excerpt)

There were five parts to this story, but one of them got lost. It was difficult to keep each strand in her mind, even as it was happening, and then later—no. 

To begin with, they were camping. This whole story happens at night. It’s the first night of their first camping trip of the season. It’s only mid-March but hot as June, so they booked a site at a campground in the Ozarks. Actually, she booked the site, picking this park because it boasted three promising trails they could choose from in the morning: one that took them past the remains of old mining operations for barite, one with dolomite bluffs, and one that wound through a field with Mississippian petroglyphs. “The location of mysterious prehistoric rituals,” she read aloud from the website. But they couldn’t leave until after their son’s swim practice on Friday, itself after school, so they didn’t get to the campsite until basically dinnertime. The sky was a dull gray. Her husband wrestled the tent and she was unpacking the cooler when the custodian of the campground drove up in a golf cart. “Hunting mushrooms?” he asked, nodding toward their son, who was just then disappearing into the woods behind the site. “I think he’s gathering kindling,” she said, though she didn’t know, just wandering off, probably looking for rocks. “Can’t do that,” said the man. “Not supposed to burn the wood around here. I can sell you some. Six dollars a bag.” “Sure,” her husband said, stepping in to pay the man, who handed over an orange plastic net heavy with logs. Then he listed the park’s amenities and rules. Recycling cans, white-nose syndrome. “Stay out of the caves,” he said. He wore a red cap with embroidered block letters that spelled Make America Great Again. She hadn’t ever stood in front of someone wearing that hat. “I read about those petroglyphs,” she said when he was done. “Do you know anything about the rituals connected to the site?” The man shrugged. “Official word is the rocks give directions for a game, something like Indian baseball.” “Indian baseball?” she said. “Then again,” he added, “some folks will tell you those marks are a sort of a curse.” She smiled at him. “You’re joking, right?” His phone rang. He drove away. The cloud cover had cracked. Fat white clouds were racing east, and the sun was out, though low. The boy was not yet back. The sun was so low, in fact, that the woods—she saw bluebells poking up through a crust of last autumn’s leaves—were glowing a greenish-gold. “He’s probably looking for rocks,” she said, and popped a grape in her mouth. Her husband didn’t reply, clearing the fire pit of spiders. It had been hot like this for weeks, so she was pleased to see the bluebells still more or less on schedule. Bluebells, cockle-shells, eevy, ivy, over. My mother said, I never should, play with the gypsies in the wood. “It’s pretty here,” she said, but it was also quiet. No humming RVs. No barking dogs. No kids screaming with glee. Other than her husband, who appeared beside her at the picnic table snapping a can of beer—“Did you notice that asshole’s hat?” he said—she couldn’t see or hear anyone at all. 

After dinner, her husband and son went together to brush their teeth. When she’d looked at the map online, she hadn’t realized she was booking the site closest to the bathrooms. “It’ll be nice!” she said when they pulled up. “If we need to pee in the middle of the night we can just pop over.” But it wasn’t nice, and she knew it, and knew what her husband thought. Plus the lights in the bathrooms didn’t turn off, so their site wasn’t completely dark even after sundown. “Light is pollution,” the boy had informed them while eating his campfire nachos. There was a laundry room too, with someone’s shoes tumbling loudly in a dryer—so somebody else was there—and the sweet stink of dryer-sheet flowers blowing on the air. Alone, she looked up to the trees. The sky was a blacker black than they ever saw at home. “The night has a thousand eyes,” she remembered, “and the day but one.” This night had more like a trillion eyes, a zillion. No doubt she should be stirred. No doubt she should be having some sort of epiphanic dawning. Instead, on a log, swatting at something biting her arm, she pulled up a clip on YouTube about the blackest black paint in the world. “It’s as if you could literally disappear into it,” spoke a disembodied British voice. A man was painting a circle on an empty concrete floor. “So light-absorbing it bends your brain.” Then there it was, absorbing all light, a black hole in the palm of her hand. The real reason they’d come camping was to try to cheer her up. A student of hers had been killed that week. Eighteen years old, over from China, just trying to cross a street. She couldn’t sleep for thoughts of his parents, still thousands of miles away. One night before dawn she’d awakened her husband to whisper, “He is never studying abroad.” Now her brain bent as the woods rang with the sound of a drop of water. “Was that a bird?” she called. Two backlit figures were walking down the path. 

—Danielle Dutton (Read the rest here)

Who is this lady?

Born and raised in California’s San Joaquin Valley, Danielle Dutton is the author of the experimental novels SPRAWL and Margaret the First and the story collection Attempts at a Life. She is also founder of the feminist press Dorothy, which publishes two new books a year. She teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.

Prompt

Is it possible to write a piece in which something momentous, maybe terrible, happens for no reason? That is, it’s not about a character getting their comeuppance, there’s no cause and effect, no deeper meaning? Without that meaning, what is the piece left with? Let’s find out.


Alanna Schubach is a fiction writer, freelance journalist, and teacher. Follow her on Twitter @AlannaSchubach and read her work at alannaschubach.com. Send questions, recommendations for future newsletters, and the results of writing prompts (if you’re so inclined) to info@alannaschubach.com