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Exquisite Jive

Our annual writing contest

Big fun! This year, we invited you to play an odd type of Exquisite Corpse game with us. We provided the introductory sentence, larded with sly nuggets that we hoped you'd groove on, and you provided the ensuing 500 words to flesh out the story. This succeeded beyond our wildest dreams, the editorial team sniping over beers as we hashed out the five we felt shone brightest from the 40 or so excellent submissions received.

Not included below but well worth mentioning are Wulf Rehder's dolphin-faced goodness, Jenne Kaivo's hilarious recounting of the oh-so-many brief tragedies our dyslexic couple endured--including selling their souls to "a Stan"--Tessie Share's delightful difficulties, the straightforward humanity of Kay Ramsbottom's sting and Ric Escalante's "monetary messages."

Thanks for playing. We think you'll enjoy these as much as we did. And the enjoyment isn't over. We host our annual Jive party on Wednesday, Oct. 27. It's free, but you must reserve a spot by calling 707.527.1200, ext. 215.

Until next year, when we cook up another batch of tomfoolery!

Gretchen Giles



Chico

When, on the fifth day of their honeymoon, Gianna and Harry swerved to miss a porcupine, jolted upside down onto the road's hot, sandy shoulder and smashed the funerary jar entirely, there were those who said they deserved it. . . .

Harry's previous wives, for instance, felt this sort of animosity toward the newlyweds. Gianna was number four. At one of their recent dinner parties, while stuffing in slices of low-carb pizza, the ex-wives didn't hold back.

"You know they're implants."

"She's a real fixer-upper."

"Dumb as a post."

To Harry, divorce came naturally. As the owner of a chain of car dealerships, he saw a lot of trade-ins. After a few years with the same car, or wife, most men that Harry knew were ready for a new model--it's just that most of them couldn't afford the upgrade.

"I can't believe this shit." After the airbag deflated, Harry discovered the Jeep's door was bent shut, and wriggled his sweaty body out the window onto the baking sand.

"What did you expect me to do?" Gianna demanded over her limp sack. "Run it over?"

Harry knew better than to argue with her. Gianna's response to bickering was to withhold sex. Naturally, she had taken the porcupine's side. Her obsession with animals wore on Harry. Why had he agreed to bring that damn urn along on their honeymoon in the first place?

Earlier that day, they'd been driving around the desert, looking for the right place to sprinkle the ashes. "He says we're getting close." Gianna's eyes squeezed shut in concentration. She clutched the urn to her breasts with one hand. A five-carat diamond ring sparkled below her pink nails. Harry winced. The ring had set him back more than the boob job, and she was turning out to be a real piece of work.

Gianna's door opened easily, and Harry grabbed her elbow, guiding her out into the furnacelike heat. "Just relax a minute, everything's gonna be all right." He punched the AAA numbers into his cell phone, explaining through a curtain of static that they were about 15 minutes outside of Alamogordo.

The connection died quickly and Harry found Gianna sitting cross-legged in the shade of the overturned Jeep, sobbing. She cupped a piece of the broken urn in her palm.

"I loved him so much," a thin line of snot ran down over her lips. "I really did."

"I know, baby," Harry sat down beside her. He hoped the tow truck would find them soon--he could use a Corona.

"Chico was only 12." Gianna's blonde head dropped disconsolately.

"At least he found a resting place in the desert," Harry said.

Gianna brightened. "That's true!" She gave him a brave smile, which Harry hoped meant they would have sex tonight. "Maybe it was meant to be this way."

Christ, that Chico had been so annoying, always yipping and trembling with those bulgy eyes. Even after his death, he still managed to make Harry's life hellish.

"Goodbye, Chico!" Gianna stood and threw the shard of urn into the desert.

"Goodbye," said Harry, checking his watch. That damned Chihuahua.

Dawn Thomas


Oedipus Wrecks

When, on the fifth day of their honeymoon, Gianna and Harry swerved to miss a porcupine, jolted upside down onto the road's hot, sandy shoulder and smashed the funerary jar entirely, there were those who said they deserved it . . .

. . . the very first being the startled porcupine. Swearing angrily, it waddled indignantly off into the surrounding forest.

Harry came to first, suspended upside-down in his seatbelt. Groggily turning to Gianna, likewise suspended by hers, he muttered, "Sweetheart, what did we say about suddenly bracing yourself against the dash, jamming your feet into the foot well and screaming, 'Look out!' while we're driving?" There was no response from Gianna.

Looking about the topsy-turvy vehicle, Harry's eyes fixed on the shattered remains of the ornate funerary urn that had contained his deceased mother's ashes, which were now mixed with the detritus of prior road trips below him.

"Mother! No!" he cried in anguish. "And when we were so close!"

Reaching with difficulty to his left ankle, Harry pulled up his pants leg, unsheathing the ritual dagger he'd prepared from melted-down coffin nails and a piece of the ulna of an executed murderer, and, in a moment, cut himself free. Kneeling, he took up a handful of ashes, sobbing, "Oh, Mother, it's not fair!

"Just another few miles to the Ring of the Old Ones and I'd have brought you back from the dead with the blood of a freshly despoiled virgin!" Harry looked over toward the still-unconscious Gianna. "So close!"

Harry forlornly scraped up what he could of his mother's ashes and, taking up an empty plastic water bottle from the debris, funneled them into it. He then kicked out the driver's side window and, with the capped neck of the bottle grasped between his teeth, crawled out the overturned vehicle, bloodying himself in the process as bits of safety glass tore at his palms and kneecaps.

Close by lay one of Harry's suitcases, sprung open. And there among five days' worth of soiled clothing, lay the thrice-cursed Book of N'hrweltet. No doubt due to Harry's having studied that particular section for several months, it had fallen open to the page with the incantation for resurrection of the dead. As Harry unthinkingly laid his bloody hands upon it, there was a loud, thunderlike clap, and out of a fiery hole that suddenly appeared in the middle of the road, a huge hand lunged out and grasped the terrified Harry.

"Whelp," rumbled a disembodied voice from within the flaming hole. "Not the best-looking recently despoiled virgin I've ever seen, but, eh, you'll do." With another thunderous explosion, the hand and a now madly gibbering Harry disappeared, leaving a sulfurous stench behind them.

And there in the road, sitting uncomfortably upon the melted fragments of a burst and flattened plastic water bottle, was Harry's wrinkled, old crone of a mother, stark naked and about two-thirds lifesize, as Harry had not managed to get all her scattered ashes collected. "Harry?" she rasped weakly.

Inside the overturned vehicle, Gianna suddenly came to and shrieked, "Look out for that porcupine!"

Rich Jones


Fire in the Belly

When, on the fifth day of their honeymoon, Gianna and Harry swerved to miss a porcupine, jolted upside down onto the road's hot, sandy shoulder and smashed the funerary jar entirely, there were those who said they deserved it . . .

. . . for stealing the Town Car in the first place. They would say, "What sort of heartless, evil losers would steal a hearse from a funeral parlor during the middle of a funeral?"

But Harry never did care what "they" said or what "they" thought, and lived according to what he called keeping "the fire in the belly" burning. Sometimes that meant getting drunk on hairspray and rocketing his cousin's IROC down I-5 at midnight and flicking off the headlights. But since Aug. 11, 1985, his belly had been burning thermonuclear hot.

On that day, he'd gone to the Evergreen Mall to buy the new Iron Maiden album. Stopping by the Hot Dog on a Stick to get an order of cheese fries, he first laid eyes on Gianna, squeezing lemonade. It was magic: Gianna's hair so carefully tucked under the hat of her Hot Dog on a Stick uniform and coming steadily unfurled with every pump of the lemonade squeezer, the beads of perspiration collecting on her barely revealed clavicle and flickering like prisms under the fluorescent lighting of the mall's food court and the smell of hot pork in the air mystically transformed another anonymous lead-colored Tuesday in Kent, Wash., into something Harry would describe to his cousin two days later from a pay phone in Crescent City, Calif., as "Totally radical, dude."

Gianna looked up at Harry and did not need to ask what he wanted to eat; his eyes were locked on her like those of all the other prepubescent mall rats, lunch-hour Radio Shack salesmen and geriatric pederasts stopping by after their circuit of mall power-walking. But unlike the rest of them, Harry reeked heavily of a freshly burned doobie and sported a Cheshire Cat grin that she could not resist. She wanted to get out of the mall. She wanted to get out of Kent. She wanted to rock on. She wanted to get high. And Harry was already there.

And so, three days, two Greyhound bus tickets to Reno and a quarter of Mexican brown later, Gianna had become Mrs. Harold Jack Dupree. Seeing the idling Lincoln parked outside the drive-up wedding/funeral chapel, Harry said to Gianna, "Hey babe, let's steal the dead man's car and drive it down to Colorado. He ain't using it no more." Gianna agreed and five days later she and Harry were being pulled out of the overturned Town Car by the jaws of life, kept alive only by well-trained Denver EMTs and the benevolent power emanating from the crushed funerary jar--the soul of a cursed shaman trapped in the cremated incarnation of a middle-aged stockbroker dead of his third cardiac arrest.

Now freed from his broken vessel, the shaman was able to roam the world again as Porcupine, spirit of the pines, whom the Paiute Indians pray to as "the one who gnaws through winter to reveal spring"--freed by the only things that keep the spirit world spinning on its axis: passion, youth and rock 'n' roll.

Steven Waldron


Ibuprofen

When, on the fifth day of their honeymoon, Gianna and Harry swerved to miss a porcupine, jolted upside down onto the road's hot, sandy shoulder and smashed the funerary jar entirely, there were those who said they deserved it. . . .

The former inhabitant of the ashes that lay scattered among the shards of the urn would certainly have expressed that opinion had he been in any condition to do so. It was a sentiment he'd voiced often in life--"Damn fools! Only themselves to blame"--whenever misfortune befell anyone of his acquaintance, and he would not have hesitated to express it now, regardless of any resulting hurt feelings. Other people's hurt feelings never bothered him, least of all his son Harry's.

Harry blamed himself. He'd been brought up that way; by now it was second nature.

Gianna tended to blame the porcupine--weren't they supposed to be nocturnal? So what was this one doing waddling across the road in the middle of the afternoon, for God's sake? Gianna loathed nature, although she was willing to put up with a certain amount of it for Harry's sake.

Just like she'd been willing to put up with Harry's dad, a foul-mouthed reprobate with a bad toupee, who made a point of mispronouncing her name. "Gee-ann-uh," he'd say, watching her face for signs of annoyance. He loved to annoy people, and being monstrously rich, he generally got away with it. Of course, she never referred to him as a foul-mouthed reprobate in conversations with Harry. "A real character," she called him, although she suspected Harry knew how she felt.

Honestly, she thought, Harry's dad was the one who was mostly to blame. If he hadn't had that coronary while drunkenly flapping and clapping his way through the "Chicken Dance" during the reception, and if his will hadn't specified, as a condition of inheritance, that his ashes be scattered amid the scree at Devil's Postpile National Monument within a week of his demise, none of this would have happened.

Now here they were, and there the car was, and there were those damned ashes. Gina noticed Harry kneeling among them, scrabbling around. "What are you doing?" she demanded.

"Uh, do you have a little bottle or anything?"

"A bottle?"

"It doesn't have to be a bottle. Any little container would be fine." He looked up at her sheepishly. "It's just . . . we've come this far, and if we could get even a few of the ashes . . . it's such a lot of money . . . Wouldn't that count?"

Gianna choked back the furious tirade rising in her throat. He looked so pathetic kneeling there, though he had a point about the money. She dug in her purse till she found the ibuprofen bottle, emptied the remaining tablets into her hand and gave the bottle to Harry. Then she carefully stashed the tablets in a clean pocket. She would need them before the day was over.

Chris Garland


Marsha

When, on the fifth day of their honeymoon, Gianna and Harry swerved to miss a porcupine, jolted upside down onto the road's hot, sandy shoulder and smashed the funerary jar entirely, there were those who said they deserved it. . . .

Gianna and Harry were curious, interesting people who had curious and interesting friends. The type of friends who would quite naturally be drawn to something like the funerary jar. Such a handsome jar, made of ceramic that was pit-fired black and carved with some sort of Native American-looking design. Very Native American. Very attractive. They would pick up the jar and turn it around. Then, while Gianna or Harry were busy in the kitchen putting the last touches on dinner, something sort of ethnic, something with some complexity, they would lift the lid and look inside, just to see what was making the jar so much heavier than expected.

Human ashes, to the naive innocent, look very much like some sort of gray, gravelly potpourri, and so it wasn't uncommon for Gianna and Harry's visitors to lower their nose a bit closer for a sniff, just to nail down the substance. "What's this?" they would say, after failing to identify it.

Then they would have to endure the shame, the mortification, of Gianna or Harry, who would be reentering the living room at this point, usually brandishing a glass or two of wine, saying, "That's Marsha."

To be caught sniffing Harry's mother's ashes was a tough place, even for Harry and Gianna's type of friend, and though this awkward moment never actually interrupted a budding friendship, Marsha did become a point of angst for many of their compatriots. "Those damn ashes," they would say. Because Harry brought them everywhere. To beach parties. To pot lucks. Out to dinner.

"Mom never liked to be left behind," Harry said, and his friends would smile a bit wanly because a smile was expected of them, but, truth be told, Marsha gave them the fucking creeps.

Marsha had a front seat at the wedding. On the plane, she traveled wrapped in bubble wrap, tucked into a duffel bag in the overhead compartment. In the honeymoon suite, she was set in the bathroom on the back of the toilet because, though Gianna was all for being supportive of Harry's Marsha thing, she didn't like the idea of Marsha being in the same room with them when they made love. Even Gianna had her limits.

When the porcupine waddled in front of their rented jeep, Harry swerved. The tires skidded out on the sand. Marsha, the only one not belted in, flew from the car, her jar smashed to bits against the trunk of a tree. Harry and Gianna dangled there for a moment, upside down in their honeymoon jeep, both of them stunned. Gianna was the first to speak. "I've never seen a porcupine before," she said.

"Me either," Harry said. "It was bigger than I would have expected."

Gianna de Persiis Vona


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From the October 20-26, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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