Tag Archives: stories from my memory-shelf

Rest Stop

Rest StopTwitter

It was hot; Texas-hot, hot like she’d never known. It relieved her to gush forth from the car, to leave the non-air-conditioned enclosure for the open heat, heat that seemed more natural, less oppressive and confining somehow. She looked ruefully down at her body: tank top soaked with great splashes of sweat, denim cutoffs sticking rudely to her skinny thighs. Embarrassing.

Her windshield stood splattered, smashed with insects, unfamiliar enough in their unwrecked form and unrecognizable at all now, their gooey guts of green and yellow speckled and crushed all over everything, everywhere. Resisting the full force of her forearm and the gas-station window-washer, they clung tight to the tempered glass, insistent stowaways for the remainder of her journey.

“Where you headed?” a voice called out.

She glanced up and saw him, an affable-looking man in his late thirties, perhaps early forties, bearing a bit of an accent but no cowboy hat; maybe a local, and maybe not one. There were only two of them there; he had to be speaking to her. She supposed there was no harm in answering.

“California,” she said, bending her elbow again to the window.

“That’s a long way off,” he replied, whistling softly.

“Yes, it is,” she agreed.

He approached her, thumbs tucked into the pockets of his own full-length dungarees, evidently immune to the heat.

“Say, that’s an expensive trip,” he observed. “You, uh — you got enough money to get there?”

Instantly she was on her guard. She circled casually around to the other side of the car, in the direction of the shop and its sleepy attendant. Was he going to rob her? Find out if she had any cash and then knock her down and take it? Instinctively she felt for it with the muscles of her behind, the wallet tucked tightly into her back pocket, crammed into a space too small for its contents, and plastered there now with sweat and fear.

“I think I’ve got enough,” she equivocated, ears burning with the lie.

“You sure?” he prodded encouragingly, penetrating her with moist periwinkle-blue eyes. “Because I, uh, know where you could make some — you know — some extra money. If you needed it.”

So he wasn’t going to rob her; he was offering her a job. The windshield was nearly clean now but she continued scrubbing, pondering the proposal. She wondered what kind of work it would be. Day labor, no doubt. But didn’t people usually want young men for that kind of thing?

He stood smiling kindly, warmly down at her, almost fatherly in aspect. She really could use the money. It had already been two days since she’d eaten. Was saving the rest of it for fuel.

“Thanks,” she said finally, deciding. “But I’m in a hurry; better get going.”

“You’re sure you won’t change your mind?” he replied, a hint of pleading in his voice.

“No,” she asserted. “But thank you for the offer.”

What a nice fellow, she thought as she headed back towards the highway. People sure were friendly down here in Texas. They sure were friendly.

* * *

“Rest Stop” is the true story of something that happened to me when I was seventeen. I had run away from my home in Massachusetts shortly after graduation, and now found myself baking in the scorching heat of July in rural Texas. I was supposed to start school at U.C. Berkeley that fall, but since I was still underage and therefore subject to recall if caught, I was understandably anxious about conserving the little money I had, as I wasn’t sure how easy it would be for a kid with no parents, no home, and no local references to find a job. Being mathematically minded, I quite naturally spent the long miles driving in calculating a fairly precise budget, which, once I’d paid for necessities like gas and oil, had little room in it for luxuries like food. And then I stopped at this gas station and here was this wonderful man asking me earnestly if I had enough money to get where I was going or whether I wanted to earn a little extra to tide me over until I arrived safely at my intended destination.

I’m embarrassed to admit now that I was just as naive as the girl in the story. I spent a lot of time traveling alone in the years that followed, and was propositioned numerous times by other equally friendly fellows seeking the company of a young woman for an afternoon or an hour. But this was the first such occasion, and I was so utterly confounded by this man’s incomprehensible behavior that I spent many miles pondering it in my head. Why had this stranger been so inexplicably nice? Who offers money to a girl he doesn’t even know, in exchange for services he isn’t sure she’s qualified to perform? I’d probably driven a good half hour before comprehension finally came roaring into my addled teenaged brain and I understood that I’d come unbelievably close to becoming an unwitting body for hire. At length amusement over the incident replaced my horror, and at least the next time it happened, I was prepared with a polite, “No, thank you, sir.”

* * *

“Rest Stop” is one of the stories featured in my autobiographical short story and essay collection Stories from My Memory-Shelf: Fiction and Essays from My Past. You can learn more about it by visiting the book’s webpage or by clicking the image below to be taken to the Amazon details page:

Past and Present

“It was lucky I forgot my keys,” her mother was saying, rubbing the raised scar between her daughter’s thumb and forefinger. “I came back and found you lying in a pool of blood.”

“I don’t remember that,” Gloria answered, astonished that such a noteworthy event had slipped from her mental grasp.

“Well, it was several years ago. You were only five then.”

“How did it happen?” the child inquired curiously, still struggling to picture herself prone in that gruesome pool.

“I don’t know exactly. I think you were playing with scissors. They were those rounded ones they let you use in kindergarten, but somehow you got them in there good.”

An image burst into her mind. The scissors in her right fist, attempting a difficult cut, snapping suddenly towards the web in the crook of her left hand. And then darkness.

“I found them afterwards on the floor. Your sister, of course, was nowhere to be found,” her mother continued bitterly.

Of course not. Her sister, eight years older, was often stuck babysitting her while their mom was at work, and was never very enthusiastic about the job. Gloria had numerous scars from lacerations that had probably needed stitches that her sister had merely slapped a band-aid over.

“An artery runs through there,” her mom was explaining. “That’s why it bled so much.”

She remembered now, what she had been doing. It was the homemade wrapping-paper. She’d taken some of her white lined school paper and drawn pictures on it. Pictures of what? She thought hard. What had the present been for?

Seasonal pictures, that was it. Pictures of Christmas, of fat gift-boxes and skinny stick-figure Santas and reindeer with glowing noses and Christmas trees rife with ornaments that glowed even brighter, crayon yellow and red and orange. Sloppily drawn but carefully colored, and then cut to fit, cut to fit the present itself.

“What was the present?” she asked abruptly.

“What present?” her mom replied, bewildered.

“I was making wrapping-paper. For a present. I think it was for you. I remember now.”

Her mother shook her head. “I don’t know, dear. I don’t remember seeing a package anywhere.”

What had the present been? Something childish, no doubt. A ceramic ashtray, maybe a milk carton with dirt and a single flower growing in it. Funny how she remembered the wrapping-paper but not the present. As if the paper were the more impressive part of the gift. Perhaps it had been.

What had happened to it? There must have been blood all over it. After she’d worked so hard to make it pretty, to make it nice, for it to get all bloody and then disappear without a trace. It was a darned shame.

“I really wish I knew what happened to it,” she said aloud.

“You nearly died, Gloria,” her mother said emphatically, as if her daughter was missing the point of the story.

“But I didn’t,” Gloria answered, equally certain that her mother was missing the point as well.

***

This story is based almost word for word on one of my own childhood memories. I discovered a strange scar between my thumb and forefinger when I was about eight and my mom told me how I had severed an artery with a pair of kindergarten scissors and nearly died. And at that point I realized that I did sort of remember that — that is, I remembered up until the moment of the cut. I was handmaking wrapping paper for a Christmas present — drawings on lined school paper — and somehow sliced my hand open. My mom had already left for work, but she’d forgotten something and came back upstairs to find me “lying in a pool of blood.” That mental image has really stuck with me all these years.

I tried in this piece to put a more positive spin on the memory. As an adult, I understand now that all a parent would see was the blood; the sight of your daughter dying in the kitchen. To the child, however, it was all about the present.

***

“Past and Present” originally appeared in The Avalon Literary Review in August 2013 as the 3rd place winner of their quarterly contest. It is one of the stories featured in my autobiographical short story and essay collection Stories from My Memory-Shelf: Fiction and Essays from My Past, now available in eBook ($2.99) and paperback ($6.99) at retailers worldwide. For more information, please visit the book’s webpage or subscribe to my newsletter.

Heads of the Line: Flash Fiction in Word Riot

My short-short “Heads of the Line” has been published in Word Riot. My commentary follows.

http://www.wordriot.org/archives/7084 (print version)

http://hwcdn.libsyn.com/p/a/b/1/ab110a9430fb41a6/20140715-schafer.mp3?c_id=7388729&expiration=1405960069&hwt=c671a6151875883dbc45283362dbfd2d (Podcast with my commentary)

As it turned out, I was unable to attend college my first fall after high school. My status as an unemancipated minor made me ineligible for the financial aid I’d been expecting, which necessitated a quick – by which I mean long, arduous, and painful – change of plans. I did eventually land a minimum-wage job at a bakery, and being now a veritable miser with money, by the following spring I had three hundred dollars saved. I decided to invest this massive sum in a trip to Alaska, where I had been assured by all manner of people who had never been there that you could earn colossal columns of cash working in the canneries. “Big money!” and “Signing bonus!” and “Free room and board!” the newspaper ads all promised. What they didn’t tell you, of course, was that the people who earned the “signing bonuses” and “free room and board” were those who went to work on the boats themselves – and that the reason they made “big money” was because the living conditions were horrible, the job was tough and scary as hell, and they worked twenty hours a day whenever there was a catch. I opted for the more palatable version, which was not actually a cannery, but a fish packing plant –several notches further down on the dirty jobs scale.

It wasn’t a bad job, all things considered. Yes, you worked fourteen hour days whenever there was a delivery, but since that was when you made your overtime pay, nobody complained too much about that. And yes, your feet and hands were constantly cold and cramped – it was months before I could comfortably hold a hairbrush again, and it took more than a year for all of the feeling to finally come back into my fingertips. On the plus side, you got to camp for free on site, and my particular facility even had an indoor bathroom and hot showers – a true rarity in those parts. To help pass the time, they cranked up the radio on the plant’s loudspeakers and let us listen to it all day – the unfortunate part being that the only station that came in clearly only played Top 40. Can you even begin to guess how many times a day a Top 40 radio station plays the same songs? So many that eventually you adapt and learn to enjoy it. You have to. Otherwise you go crazy!

I never got my big money – in fact, shortly before I was due to come home, my station wagon died, and I ended up having to spend what seemed like an eternity of days riding a bus all the way back to California. I wound up with forty bucks in my pocket and the satisfaction of knowing that even if I never travelled again, at least I’d been to Alaska, which is so unbelievably worth seeing that I’m not even going to begin to talk about it now. And a good thing, too, because here we are, twenty years later, and I’ve yet to have the chance to go again. It’s the one place I want to make sure I revisit while I can still travel, which is why I’m making it the primary destination for my road trip this summer, during which I’ll be drafting my second memoir, The Long Road Home.

I don’t think I’m going to go searching for employment, though. Somehow I think I may be past the age for factory work, particularly when it involves fourteen-hour days, Top 40 radio, and thousands of pounds of bloody, frozen fish. But who knows – perhaps when I get up there I’ll be inspired to try it, for old time’s sake.

Just don’t put me on the header.

***

“Heads of the Line” is one of the stories featured in my autobiographical short story and essay collection Stories from My Memory-Shelf: Fiction and Essays from My Past (only $2.99 Kindle, $6.99 paperback). To learn more about it, please visit the book’s webpage or subscribe to my newsletter.

Fish

 

“Fog Line” Or How I Became a Victim of Vehicular Profiling

My short-short “Fog Line” has been published on Every Writer’s Resource:

http://www.everywritersresource.com/shortstories/fog-line-lori-schafer/

“Fog Line” is one of my odder travel stories. I was actually somewhat surprised that I was able to get it published it as an individual piece, because the concept of vehicular profiling seemed to go straight over a lot of reader’s heads. In fact, the first editorial team that reviewed it responded with some rather biting criticism, including the comment “All that and he didn’t even ask for a date?? Where’s the story?!”

I loved that Dodge Van, I truly did, but, ancient and unusual as it was, it was a veritable magnet for attention from law enforcement. In my freshman year of college, I worked graveyard loading trucks for a shipping company, which meant driving home at four o’clock in the morning five days a week. I once got pulled over three nights in a row, with a new excuse from a different police officer every time. At least that sheriff in North Dakota was nice – and honest – about it. But then, he seemed to be motivated more by curiosity than suspicion.

Maybe it didn’t make for the most relatable story, but if nothing else, at least I learned what a fog line was.

***

“Fog Line” is one of the stories featured in my autobiographical short story and essay collection Stories from My Memory-Shelf: Fiction and Essays from My Past (only $2.99 Kindle, $6.99 paperback). To learn more about it, please visit the book’s webpage or subscribe to my newsletter.

Fog

 

Two Fathers: A Portrait from My Youth

He is holding up a clean and empty jelly-glass; bright, colorful cartoon characters chasing merrily around its rim, my long-anticipated reward earned with weeks of peanut-butter sandwiches.

He is hiding behind his dense, secretive mustache, handing me a can of cheap warmish beer, laughing loudly at me tentatively tasting it; spitting it vehemently out.

He is clasping my hand and leading me down the street to the local bar; propping me up on a barstool so all his friends can see, can joke with me and about me while I twirl about on the red vinyl, tall and proud to be out with Daddy.

He is standing at the wire fence, watching me playing in the dirt of our yard, asking, “Is your mother home?” Perhaps not realizing that I don’t recognize him anymore; will have to ask Mom later who that man was, the mysterious stranger who visited her that afternoon and called me by name. Perhaps not knowing that all of my memories of him have already been boiled down to these simple four.

And then he is gone.

***

He sits by himself in the green-painted barn, back of their house, listening to the Italian radio station, smoking his pipe and reading a newspaper, its foreign words and syllables impenetrable runes, like his shadowy face in the dark and tobacco-filled haze.

He defies approach, inspires timidity; despises interruption and declines conversation. They shake to address him; quiver in apprehension, dare only when driven by direst need.

“Bubba? Bubba, can I have five dollars?” the youngest son inquires, cowering, backing slowly away even as he speaks.

Harsh mumbling ensues; the status of the request indeterminable to those waiting anxiously outside.

“To go to the movies? Please, Bubba?”

The mumble metamorphoses into a shout; sends the child scurrying away from the barn, out underneath the clutching, hanging vines of the wine-grape trellis, back into the house where his mother waits, her lips pursed, her head shaking sadly.

“Mangia,” she commands kindly, pointing to the table laid with salad and bread and pasta while she fixes a plate for her husband, who will eat, by himself, in the green-painted barn at the back of their house.

***

Originally published in Vine Leaves Literary Journal, April 2013.
© Lori Schafer 2013

“Two Fathers” is one of the pieces featured in my autobiographical short story and essay collection Stories from My Memory-Shelf: Fiction and Essays from My Past (only $2.99 Kindle, $6.99 paperback). To learn more about it, please visit the book’s webpage or subscribe to my newsletter.

***

I originally wrote this story in an effort to create an ultra-short of one hundred and fifty words or less for a contest. I don’t recall what prompted it, but somehow I got to thinking of my biological father and the very few memories I have of him, which, interestingly enough, taken all together, came out to about a hundred and fifty words!

The second segment is about the father of the best friend I had from the time I was four or five until I was about twelve. In the hundreds of times I visited my friend’s house – which, except for the year we spent living in Connecticut, was just across the street from ours – I don’t believe I actually saw the man more than a dozen times, and never once in all those years did he speak to me. Of course, most of the time he was busy working to support their five children, and there was no doubt that he loved his family very much. But as a kid I was only cognizant of the fear.

I also wrote a third segment of this piece about my “main” stepfather – that’s the one I had the longest – but I didn’t really care for the way it turned out so I omitted it. I’m still not sure if I should have included it after all. It certainly would have put a different spin on the piece as a whole, because it was a fairly flattering portrayal of a man who, without being anyone’s biological father, was nonetheless the best father I ever had. Except that in the end, when the marriage dissolves, the stepdad moves away and is never heard from again, and my intent was to make the story evocative rather than melancholy. And at bottom, I think it makes for a better “vignette” without coming to such a resounding conclusion, and that’s what Vine Leaves does best.

Father and Daughter

How Many Times Do I Have to Rewrite This %$^&# Thing?! The “Yellow Wagon” Saga

My flash fiction story “Yellow Wagon” has been published in Every Day Fiction:

http://www.everydayfiction.com/yellow-wagon-by-lori-schafer/

What a journey this story has taken! The final published version of this piece at the link above ended up being twice the length of the original (reproduced following this essay). The editors at Every Day Fiction were possibly interested in publishing it, except that they didn’t like the idea of “misleading” the reader about the wagon, which is precisely what the original version did. In fact, that was the essence of the story. In addition, they thought the premise itself was unbelievable because I had made Debra a first-grader and the argument was that no parent would permit a child that young to walk to school by herself.

Naturally, this threw me for a loop, because, of course, the child in the story was me, and I was not a first-grader but a kindergartner when it happened. Where I grew up in small-town New England, lots of kids walked to school by themselves. There was no such thing as blue-collar flex time so you could drive your kids to school – and many parents took the bus to work because they didn’t have a car, anyway. However, I was certainly willing to grant that we live in a different time, and that perhaps the premise would seem implausible to modern readers, so I re-wrote it to include details that would make it obvious that the story took place in an earlier era.

They still didn’t like it. The issue remained of Debra not appearing to recognize the wagon, which naturally made little sense in their interpretation of the story. I frankly had no idea what to do about this, because my intention for the piece was entirely at odds with their reading of it. I had been attempting to convey the thoughts and emotions of a little girl who has been given a great new responsibility and is trying very hard to behave herself as her mother would wish. It’s not that she doesn’t recognize the wagon – she merely pretends not to because she doesn’t want her mother to think she’s only being careful because she knows she’s being watched. The whole story development – where she keeps looking anxiously over her shoulder to see if the wagon is still following, how she exaggerates her caution in crossing the street, even her final sprint at the end when the pressure becomes too much for her – centers around this concept. What I thought was clever about it was not the fact that it draws the reader down a false path, but that if you reach the end and look back on it, it turns out that the story details were true and accurate all along. The tension was real – except its source was not the wagon, but the feelings of the little girl.

Anyway, they asked for another rewrite, and suggested that I make the story more about Debra and her mother. I’ll admit that this caused me considerable consternation. On the one hand, it was a challenge, and I’m certainly not one to run from a battle. On the other hand, I had no particular interest in writing the story that way. It just didn’t feel like me. It took me longer to transform this simple vignette into heartwarming family fiction than the original story took to write! I’m not disappointed in the way it turned out, although it is a bit on the sentimental side. But I do still believe the original version has its charms – although I’m willing to concede that I may be the only one who thinks so!

It was, however, an interesting lesson. First, because sometimes it’s easy to forget that what I think is obvious as a writer doesn’t necessarily come across to a reader the way I intended it. Editors are usually right, and if these ones weren’t getting it, chances are pretty good lots of other people would have misread my original story, too. And second, because it was my first real experience writing to someone else’s specifications. I mean, sure, I’ve had to write papers on topics that haven’t particularly interested me – but no one has ever told me how to write them. And ultimately, I feel that this is something I should be able to do, even if I don’t enjoy it very much. As wonderful as it is to exercise total control over my fiction, a writer who knows their craft should have the capacity to create work that someone else defines. So I suppose you might say that I, too, took a journey of transformation – and it’s to be hoped that I came out a better writer at the end of it.

YELLOW WAGON (Original Version)

“Right on Orange, left on Revere,” Debra repeated to herself for the dozenth time, kicking away the crisp dead leaves that snapped at her feet like so many untrained puppies. First grade wasn’t like kindergarten; the teachers got mad if you were late. Her mom would be mad, too, if she got lost along the way.

She reached the end of her street and hung a hard right, ignoring the noise of the engine she heard revving behind her. It was only a block more to the light, and when she reached it she stopped dead, waiting cautiously for the green, both feet planted firmly on the sidewalk, not even touching the curb. When her turn came she looked both ways, repeating and exaggerating the motion, and catching in consequence a glimpse of a yellow station wagon with wood paneling that had drawn to a seemingly casual halt on the side of the road behind her.

She crossed hurriedly, shifting the schoolbag in her left hand while gripping the lunchbox more tightly in her right, swinging both in steady rhythm as she walked. Halfway down the block she knelt suddenly and fiddled with her shoelaces. Peeking over her shoulder as she bent forward, she spotted it again, the yellow wagon, which had rounded the corner after her and was still following at a respectful distance.

With grim determination she pressed on, on towards the schoolyard, now only a few blocks away. She could hear the cries of the kids on the playground, see the bright orange sash of the crossing-guard directing traffic, smell the exhaust of the ancient school buses that brought the children who lived on the far side of town. And then suddenly she was on the last block and she was running, running towards the final intersection, the one guarded by the gentle white-haired man with the threatening crimson sign, and then she had flown across it and was vanishing safely into the thick crowd of students and teachers. She turned, breathless, and witnessed the yellow wagon retreating cautiously down the street, crawling silently away as if at last losing interest in the subject of its persistent pursuit.

She remained alert that afternoon; negotiated the crosswalks with care and kept watch for the stealthy wagon, but discerned no sign of it. She sighed with relief as she at last climbed the steps of the porch on which her mother stood happily waving her home.

“How was your day, sweetheart?” she inquired cheerfully. “Were you scared walking to school by yourself?”

“Nope,” Debra replied without hesitation.

“Did you remember to look both ways and cross with the light?”

“Yes, Mom,” she said, smiling, confident that her mother already knew the answer to that question.

“So you’ll be all right walking, then, if I take the car to my new job tomorrow?”

“Of course,” Debra answered. She glanced appreciatively at it, the familiar yellow station wagon with the wood paneling, parked, as always, comfortably in front of their house.

* * *

“Yellow Wagon” is one of the stories featured in my autobiographical short story and essay collection Stories from My Memory-Shelf: Fiction and Essays from My Past. To learn more about it, please visit the book’s webpage or subscribe to my newsletter.

Autumn Leaves on Sidewalk

“Goat” on Every Day Fiction

My flash fiction piece “Goat” has been published on Every Day Fiction:

http://www.everydayfiction.com/goat-by-lori-schafer/

Yep, “Goat” is a true story all right. That was me, the shy, nerdy middle-schooler who couldn’t stomach being the center of attention, yet who suddenly found herself in a bright and unwelcome spotlight thanks to a careless remark by a well-meaning teacher. That was me getting my ponytail yanked by the boy who sat behind me, and suffering the embarrassment of inadvertently drawing a wiener on the blackboard. That was even me once again changing school districts and having to overcome my natural introversion with a whole new crowd of people. How I wished I was still “Goat” then – at least I would have had something to talk about!

What I really enjoy about “Goat” is the way it allowed me to take a humiliating situation and craft it into something positive, and this was true both in the fictional version and in the real-life story. Although I never actually carried that nickname to high school (thank goodness!), oddly enough, the “goat” incident and aftermath proved to be a real turning point for me in terms of my ability to relate to other students, maybe because even at the tender age of thirteen, I was able to have a sense of humor about it. Oh, I would pretend to fume and glare when the other kids made fun, but I never really minded it much. I rarely got the impression that the teasing was mean-spirited. And in any case, it was still way less embarrassing than the time I won that classroom limbo contest. I jumped up and down in celebration for a good minute before another girl came over and whispered in my ear that I’d ripped the seat of my pants making the winning walk under that final stick. And I’d thought that all that cheering was in honor of my victory!

Sigh. Embarrassing moments. We’ve all had our share of incidents we’ll never forget, but wish we could. I know, I know, we should be grateful that we’ve had those experiences, because they’re what’s made us who we are today. But let’s not lose sight of the real value of our lifetimes of humiliation in front of our peers. Inspiration for fiction!

***

“Goat” is one of the stories featured in my autobiographical short story and essay collection Stories from My Memory-Shelf: Fiction and Essays from My Past (only $0.99 Kindle, $5.99 paperback). To learn more about it, please visit the book’s webpage or subscribe to my newsletter.

Goat with Tongue Out