1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

416zq07etol-_sy344_bo1204203200_I can’t tell you how many times I picked up this book, read a few (or twenty or fifty) pages, put it back down and then didn’t pick it up again for another month (or two or four).  The good news is: the narrative was so compelling that I never had to go back and re-read to remember what was happening in the story.  The bad news is: the story is so dense and complex, it was challenging to read more than a few chapters at a time (at least until the last two or three hundred pages, when I couldn’t put it down).  The over 1,100 pages in the novel and my distracted approach to reading it meant it took me somewhere between one to three years to get to the end.  This, however, should not be an indication of the level of amazingness that is Murakami’s latest epic work.  Not by a long stretch.

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The Prospect of Magic by M.O. Walsh

M.O. Walsh’s collection of linked stories, The Prospect of Magic, takes place in Fluker, Louisiana and revolves around the members of the Ploofop Carnival. When the ringmaster dies, the orphaned carnies have nowhere to go, and the citizens of Fluker warmly welcome them to their town. What results is a year of giraffes and elephants wandering the streets, destroying the trees and local soccer field, until Stanley Winston – a man conflicted in his enormous success – builds a zoo for the animals that leads to the building of a ZooCarnival for the carnies.

Yes, you read that right: a ZooCarnival.

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Sara’s Day

Here’s the first installment of my own NaNoWriMo; although, I’m changing it to GaBloWriMo (Gabriel’s Blog Writing Month).  I can’t help feeling that this is really rough (as it should be since I just wrote it today) and a bit sentimental….or something.  The end, most definitely, sucks.  But hey, fiction’s not my thing.  At least, it never was.  And yet, that seems to be what comes out lately.  Go figure.  Have no fear, I have no intention of writing a short story every day.  It just so happens that I woke up to the not-so-happy news that my propane tank was empty and I will, therefore, be very cold for the next couple of days.  How that little event sparked this story, I’ll leave you to figure out.

Sara had never been in charge of the propane before.  So, it came as a surprise when she woke up to find the thermostat sitting at a cool 54 degrees.  What the hell, she thought.  She poked the little arrowed button to see what it was set at.  71.  She poked it a few more times to bring it up to 73 – nothing.  The frost had settled in the middle of the night and Sara looked out her bedroom window at the sparkling whiteness covering the crab apple trees.  She reached for a sweater, threw on an old pair of men’s work boots and walked outside to the propane tank.

The frozen grass crunched under her heels and Sara shivered.  The propane tank was a hundred feet behind the house and, beyond that, the pond lay rippling gently in the frigid breeze.  There were several knobs and a metal line running to the top of the tank.  On the very top and in the center was a hinged dome.  Sara lifted it and found the gauge.  The tank was empty.  Shit.  She made a mental note of the phone number on the side of the tank and hurried back inside.  The woman on the other end of the line didn’t seem amused with Sara’s request to have the tank filled today.


Unless you’ve already placed an order,” she said, her voice rough and scratchy with too many years of smoking non-filtered Camels, “you’re gonna have to wait.”

“How long?”

“A day, maybe two.  And since you let the tank empty out, there’s an additional charge for a leak test.”

“I don’t care, I just need heat out here.”

“Alright,” the woman sighed.  “We’ll call you when we can get out there.  It’s gonna be six hundred and forty two bucks.”

Sara winced as she hung up the phone.  She didn’t know where she was going to find six hundred and forty two dollars.  And the Colonel had a vet appointment in an hour.  That would cost her at least a hundred.  Sara stood silent, the phone still in her hand, looking off into space.  Things had been hard lately, and they were getting harder.  Mr. Hays at the factory had nearly cried when he told her that things were bad.  The economy had hit them hard.  People just weren’t buying prefabricated shelves.  Sara had worked on the line at Eastern Assembly for three years.  Six days a week she stood on her feet for ten hours a day, sliding little plastic bags filled with screws and bolts and nuts – twelve screws, four bolts, four nuts – under the press.  She pulled a metal lever sometimes eight or nine hundred times a day, sealing the bags and moving them down the line to be packaged with the pressboard shelves.  She learned after a couple of months to wear ear plugs, the hum and clank of the machines, the air compressors sounding off in two minute intervals, was deafening.  In three years, she hadn’t made one friend at Eastern Assembly.  The noise in the factory was too loud for even casual conversation.  And you had to keep a close eye on what you were doing.  The pieces had to be counted, the bag had to be properly sealed, the line had to keep moving.

Sara had been out of work for six months.  The unemployment checks were barely enough to cover the mortgage and she had borrowed about as much money as she could stand.  Those calls to her mother were hard.  Sara knew her mother didn’t have the money she gave her every month.  She wondered where it came from.  And now, the propane.  The Colonel nudged Sara’s hand to let her know he needed to go outside.  She opened the door, letting more cold air into the already cold house and then headed to the bathroom to take a shower.  Sara turned the knobs on the faucet to let the water heat up and turned around to look in the mirror.  The years had been good to her, despite the heartache and tragedy that seemed to follow her around like an imprinting baby duck.  Her family had been cursed, it had seemed, during most of 1990s with a string of tragic deaths.  First her mother’s brother died suddenly and unexpectedly from causes unknown.  He’d been a bit of a shady character and, when the coroner came to collect the body and the officials began trying to figure out who he was, the fact that he had seven different aliases tied up getting his body shipped across the country so he could be buried in the family plot.  Sara’s mother had had to travel to California and had discovered eighteen shaving kit bags filled with cash in the rafters of his garage.  A year later, Sara’s aunt died of breast cancer, another year later and her grandfather died.  And then there was the accident.

Sara placed her hand under the tap and felt the cutting sting of the ice cold water slice through her hand.  Shit.  She’d forgotten that the water heater also ran on propane.  She cursed under her breath while she jerked the knobs closed, stomped into the bedroom and braced herself against the cold while she stripped out of her sweatpants and nightshirt and quickly threw on jeans and a sweater.  The Colonel’s appointment was in thirty minutes.

The Colonel was a Bloodhound Labrador mix Sara had found wandering on the side of the highway five years ago.  He was matted and starving, his ribcage and hipbones protruding unnaturally from his long, lanky body.  But even then he was commanding.  She had pulled over on impulse, not because she was especially fond of animals or even wanted a dog, but because the Colonel was standing there, regal.  His long nose was pointed into the air, his shoulders were broad and firm.  He couldn’t have demanded more that she stop if he had been a squadron of Marines in full battle gear blocking the road.  When she got out, he came to her immediately, sniffed her over and then hopped past the car’s open door and into the back seat.  What choice did she have?  She had tried to find a home for him, but no one wanted a starving, full-grown, 140 pound beast.  Besides, the Colonel had clearly found his home and didn’t appear to be leaving any time soon.

Sara went outside to start the truck.  It was an ’84 GMC pickup on its very last legs and would need a good ten minutes of idle time before it would even consider moving.  The Colonel sauntered up and waited patiently for Sara to let the tail gate down.  She knew he wouldn’t let her rest until he was in the bed, so she dropped the gate and then hopped into the driver’s seat, praying the truck would start.  Sara gave the gas three good pumps before turning the key.  The engine sputtered.  Sara held the key firmly in place and continued pumping the gas.  Slowly, and with extreme trepidation, the engine roared to life.  Thank you, Jesus!, Sara shouted at no one in particular.  She left the Colonel and the truck idling while she went back inside to finish getting ready.

As Sara packed her purse with her wallet and sunglasses, scrounging around in the bottom of the bag for a pack of cigarettes that wasn’t empty, she glanced over at her desk and noticed the date on the calendar. She stood stock still for just a moment, her gaze fixed on the calendar, not breathing.  She had forgotten. Then, just as suddenly as she had been shocked into stillness, Sara startled back, grabbing her purse and a scarf, and lumbering through the door into the cold where the Colonel was waiting for her.

The truck was warm, though sputtering.  Sara sat there for a moment, her hands on the wheel.  Then she put the truck in reverse and backed out of the driveway.  The pine trees lined the road, shimmering in the morning light.  Sara stopped where her road met the highway and then crept slowly into the first two lanes.  No one was coming.  This is where everything happens, she thought.  Sara closed her eyes and put the truck in park, straddling two lanes of the highway.  She knew the Colonel would understand.  Her whole life had been leading up to this moment.  She could feel the wide expanse of concrete underneath her, spreading out on both sides like a hard, dark ocean.  The wind whipped through Sara’s cracked window.  Sara held her arms out, lifted her face to the sun streaming through the windshield and imagined a father building a snowman with his son.  The little boy laughs and runs from his father who chases him with a snowball.  The little boy laughs and runs into the open and waiting arms of his mother.

The Animals Inside

I had dinner last night with a guy who told me a hilarious story about his daughter and one fateful Easter Sunday morning.  I woke this morning with that story rumbling around in my head, here’s what came out.  

***

Mike could barely contain his joy while he strategically placed chocolate coins and rabbits wrapped in shiny blue, pink and yellow foil in a line leading from Marysol’s bedroom to the huge Easter basket stashed away behind the couch.  He never would have dreamed seven years ago when his daughter was born and he began making up these little traditions that they would become, in themselves, religious ritual.  Toby padded along next to Mike, sniffing each chocolate and then backing away, obediently, each time his master gently said “No, Toby.  Those aren’t for you.”

When he’d finished, Mike stepped back to inspect his work.  It looked good.  Marysol would be able to find the Easter basket, but not too easily.  Toby took one longing look at the chocolates on the floor and then moved to the back door where he’d found something of greater interest.  He gave his butt a little wiggle and let out a whine to let Mike know that he wanted to go outside.  By the time his master made it to the door, Toby’s excitement was thundering.  Without waiting for the door to swing wide, Toby jammed his body into the opening and went racing through the yard.

“Jesus, Toby!” Mike said a little louder than he’d wanted.  He didn’t want to wake up Marysol before he was ready.  He closed the door against the frigid morning and turned to watch his wife, Isa, enter the room.  Isa hated Easter Sunday.  She headed straight for the coffee pot and then stopped to look around, listening suspiciously.

“Where’s Toby?” she asked, her thick Puerto Rican accent making everything sound like an accusation.

“He’s outside.”

“I hope you made a loud noise first.”

Mike looked at her.  Isa was always making statements filled with riddle and foreboding.  “Why on earth would I make a loud noise?” Mike asked, a bit grumpy that Isa was upsetting his Easter morning planning.

“Because of the animals outside!” Isa said.

Mike opened his mouth to make some sarcastic remark about how, oh yeah, everyone in this little subdivision on Long Island knew about “the animals” lurking out there in the dark, waiting to pounce on Mike’s hundred and ten pound pitbull.  Right.  But before he could formulate just the right jabs, Marysol’s high pitched scream broke his concentration.

“Help me!  HELP!!”  The child was screaming blue bloody murder.  Mike was out of his seat and up the stairs in seconds, scattering and smashing shiny pink footballs under his feet.  For a second, just a split second, Mike stopped outside his daughter’s door, preparing himself for what he was about to see.  He opened the door and within moments gave his daughter’s body a full inspection.  No blood.  No limbs trapped in some contorted position.  The child looked perfectly fine.

She was standing on her bed, her back facing her bedroom door and her father’s flushed and frantic look.  Marysol’s tiny hands were flattened, pressed hard, against the glass of her bedroom window.  She turned her head when her father entered the room, tears flowing freely down her young face, “Toby’s killing the Easter Bunny, papa!  You have to SAVE him!!”

Mike ran to the window.  Sure enough, Toby had a furry mass in his jaws.  He watched, horrified, as Toby snapped his head up and tossed it, twitching and flailing, into the air.  Marysol began screaming again.

***

Mike was halfway into the back yard before he realized he was only wearing a pair of jockey shorts.  Screw it, he thought.  No way this dog kills the freaking Easter bunny while my little girl watches.  Not today, Toby!  Mike stomped over to the dog who was now lying on the ground, his meaty paws encircling the furry lump.  “Hand him over,” Mike said and then took a startled, stumbling step backward.  The dog turned his head at the sound of Mike’s approach.  His teeth were bared, a low, menacing growl was rising from deep in the dog’s throat.  Mike noticed a single drop of blood fall from the dog’s jowls, staining the snow.

“Shit!” Mike turned and looked up, hoping Isa had grabbed the girl and prevented her from witnessing the crime below.  She hadn’t.  Marysol stood where Mike had left her, palms pressed against the glass, her little body rigid with fear, her eyes wide and aging.   “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!” Mike cursed under his breath.  He turned his back on the dog and raced back inside the house.

Isa was still sitting at the kitchen table, a cup of coffee in one hand, a cigarette in the other.  “I told you, you should have made a loud noise,” she said.  Mike brushed past her and headed straight for the refrigerator.  Meat, he thought.  I need meat.  He rummaged around for a moment finally putting his hand on two pounds of all beef hot dogs.  Mike gripped the packages and moved toward the door.  “What are you going to do with those hot dogs?” Isa demanded.  Mike brushed past her again, silent, grabbing the shovel before disappearing back into the snow.

Mike moved slowly toward the dog who was eyeing him suspiciously, the low rumble in his throat a steady warning.  He tore open the first package of hot dogs and started tossing them, one by one, into a pile two or three inches from the dog’s nose.  C’mon, you little bastard, he thought.  Don’t make me use this shovel.  The dog bared its teeth and made a slight lunging motion in Mike’s direction.  Suddenly, a thousand years of instinct flooded Mike’s body.  His muscles tensed, he crouched slightly down, not noticing the burning sensation in his feet and ankles from the icy snow on his bare skin.  Mike’s knuckles grew white around the shovel handle.  From the second story window, Marysol screamed.

***
Something was wrong with Toby’s master.  Toby’s nostrils were filled with the scent of his prey.  He’d gutted the rabbit and eaten the still warm entrails.  He wanted to bury the remains, to save them in a secret spot for later, but his master had interrupted the ritual.  He’d been in trouble for digging in the yard before.  But this was different.  The hot dogs were just outside of Toby’s reach.  He’d have to risk losing his kill to get to them.  Still, there was something in his master’s eyes that made Toby nervous.  He tucked his tail in submission and inched on his belly, slowly, away from the rabbit and toward the hot dogs.
In seconds, Toby had forgotten all about the rabbit.  He was standing now, tail still tucked, body still tensed to flee, gobbling down one hot dog after another.  Toby watched his master, out of the corner of his eye, lift the bloody carcass with the shovel and toss it over the fence.  It was a shame to lose such a good kill, but Toby’s master was clearly pleased with him again.  Toby wagged his tail and looked up smiling.
“Good dog,” Mike said.  It was barely audible, almost a sigh.  He leaned the shovel against the house, reminding himself to wash it off before Marysol came outside, and looked at Toby who was finishing off the last of the hot dogs.  Man’s best friend, he thought.  Mike let his eyes trail off behind Toby to the bloody stain in the snow where the rabbit had been sacrificed.  He shivered for the first time as the realization of what he was prepared to do, almost did, washed over him.  Toby sniffed the ground to ensure he hadn’t missed any last scraps of hot dog, trotted to the scrubby pine and lifted his leg to relieve himself.  Mike stood locked in the image of his own fists hacking his dog to bits with the blunt end of a shovel.  Toby came to stand near his master, pushing his head against Mike’s hand.  “Let’s go inside, boy,” Mike said quietly.  As they approached the door, Mike turned and looked out into the yard and let out a loud, guttural yelp.  Isa was wrong.  There were no animals out there lurking in wait.  All the animals were inside.