The Bazaar of Bad Dreams
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Batman and Robin Have an Altercation
Bad Little Kid
The Bone Church
Herman Wouk Is Still Alive
Under the Weather
The Little Green God of Agony
That Bus Is Another World
Some of these stories have been previously published, but that doesn't mean they were done then, or even that they're done now. Until a writer either retires or dies, the work is not finished; it can always use another polish and a few more revisions. There's also a bunch of new ones. Something else I want you to know: how glad I am, Constant Reader, that we're both still here. Cool, isn't it?
I shoot from the hip and keep a stiff upper lip.
I've made some things for you, Constant Reader; you see them laid out before you in the moonlight. But before you look at the little handcrafted treasures I have for sale, let's talk about them for a bit, shall we? It won't take long. Here, sit down beside me. And do come a little closer. I don't bite.
Except . . . we've known each other for a very long time, and I suspect you know that's not entirely true.
You'd be surprised--at least, I think you would be--at how many people ask me why I still write short stories. The reason is pretty simple: writing them makes me happy, because I was built to entertain. I can't play the guitar very well, and I can't tap-dance at all, but I can do this. So I do.
I'm a novelist by nature, I will grant you that, and I have a particular liking for the long ones that create an immersive experience for writer and reader, where the fiction has a chance to become a world that's almost real. When a long book succeeds, the writer and reader are not just having an affair; they are married. When I get a letter from a reader who says he or she was sorry when The Stand or 11/22/63 came to an end, I feel that book has been a success.
But there's something to be said for a shorter, more intense experience. It can be invigorating, sometimes even shocking, like a waltz with a stranger you will never see again, or a kiss in the dark, or a beautiful curio for sale laid out on a cheap blanket at a street bazaar. And, yes, when my stories are collected, I always feel like a street vendor, one who sells only at midnight. I spread my assortment out, inviting the reader--that's you--to come and take your pick. But I always add the proper caveat: be careful, my dear, because some of these items are dangerous. They are the ones with bad dreams hidden inside, the ones you can't stop thinking about when sleep is slow to come and you wonder why the closet door is open, when you know perfectly well that you shut it.
If I said I always enjoyed the strict discipline shorter works of fiction impose, I'd be lying. Short stories require a kind of acrobatic skill that takes a lot of tiresome practice. Easy reading is the product of hard writing, some teachers say, and it's true. Miscues that can be overlooked in a novel become glaringly obvious in a short story. Strict discipline is necessary. The writer has to rein in his impulse to follow certain entrancing side paths and stick to the main route.
I never feel the limitations of my talent so keenly as I do when writing short fiction. I have struggled with feelings of inadequacy, a soul-deep fear that I will be unable to bridge the gap between a great idea and the realization of that idea's potential. What that comes down to, in plain English, is that the finished product never seems quite as good as the splendid idea that rose from the subconscious one day, along with the excited thought, Ah man! I gotta write this right away!
Sometimes the result is pretty good, though. And every once in awhile, the result is even better than the original concept. I love it when that happens. The real challenge is getting into the damned thing, and I believe that's why so many would-be writers with great ideas never actually pick up the pen or start tapping away at the keys. All too often, it's like trying to start a car on a cold day. At first the motor doesn't even crank, it only groans. But if you keep at it (and if the battery doesn't die), the engine starts . . . runs rough . . . and then smooths out.
There are stories here that came in a flash of inspiration ("Summer Thunder" was one of those), and had to be written at once, even if it meant interrupting work on a novel. There are others, like "Mile 81," that have waited their turn patiently for decades. Yet the strict focus needed to create a good short story is always the same. Writing novels is a little like playing baseball, where the game goes on for as long as it needs to, even if that means twenty innings. Writing short stories is more like playing basketball or football: you're competing against the clock as well as the other team.
When it comes to writing fiction, long or short, the learning curve never ends. I may be a Professional Writer to the IRS when I file my tax return, but in creative terms, I'm still an amateur, still learning my craft. We all are. Every day spent writing is a learning experience, and a battle to do something new. Phoning it in is not allowed. One cannot increase one's talent--that comes with the package--but it is possible to keep talent from shrinking. At least, I like to think so.
And hey! I still love it.
So here are the goods, my dear Constant Reader. Tonight I'm selling a bit of everything--a monster that looks like a car (shades of Christine), a man who can kill you by writing your obituary, an e-reader that accesses parallel worlds, and that all-time favorite, the end of the human race. I like to sell this stuff when the rest of the vendors have long since gone home, when the streets are deserted and a cold rind of moon floats over the canyons of the city. That's when I like to spread my blanket and lay out my goods.
That's enough talk. Perhaps you'd like to buy something, now, yes? Everything you see is handcrafted, and while I love each and every item, I'm happy to sell them, because I made them especially for you. Feel free to examine them, but please be careful.
The best of them have teeth.
August 6, 2014
When I was nineteen years old and attending the University of Maine, I'd drive from Orono to the little town of Durham, which is usually represented as Harlow in my books. I made this trip every three weekends or so, to see my girlfriend . . . and, coincidentally, my mother. I drove a '61 Ford station wagon: six in a row for more go and three on the tree (if you don't know, ask your dad). The car was a hand-me-down from my brother David.
I-95 was less traveled in those days, and nearly deserted for long stretches once Labor Day passed and the summer people went back to their workaday lives. No cell phones, either, of course. If you broke down, your choices were two: fix it yourself or wait for some good Samaritan to stop and give you a lift to the nearest garage.
During those 150-mile drives, I conceived a special horror of Mile 85, which was in the absolute nowhere between Gardiner and Lewiston. I became convinced that if my old wagon did shit the bed, it would do so there. I could visualize it hunkered in the breakdown
But, I thought, suppose my old station wagon was an imposter? A monstrous trap for the unwary? I thought that would make a good story, and it did. I called it "Mile 85." It was never rewritten, let alone published, because I lost it. Back then I was dropping acid regularly, and I lost all sorts of stuff. Including, for short periods, my mind.
Fast-forward nearly forty years. Although Maine's long stretch of I-95 is more heavily traveled in the twenty-first century, traffic is still light after Labor Day and budget cuts have forced the state to close many of the rest areas. The combined gas station and Burger King (where I consumed many Whoppers) near the Lewiston exit was one of those shut down. It stood abandoned, growing sadder and seedier behind the DO NOT ENTER barriers marking its entrance and exit ramps. Hard winters had buckled the parking lot, and weeds had sprouted through the cracks.
One day as I passed it, I recalled my old lost story and decided to write it again. Because the abandoned rest area was a little farther south than the dreaded Mile 85, I had to change the title. Everything else is pretty much the same, I think. That turnpike oasis may be gone--as are the old Ford wagon, my old girlfriend, and many of my old bad habits--but the story remains. It's one of my favorites.
1. PETE SIMMONS ('07 Huffy)
"You can't come," his older brother said.
George spoke in a low voice, even though the rest of his friends--a neighborhood group of twelve-and thirteen-year-olds who styled themselves the Rip-Ass Raiders--were up at the end of the block, waiting for him. Not very patiently. "It's too dangerous."
Pete said, "I'm not afraid." He spoke stoutly enough, although he was afraid, a little. George and his friends were headed up to the sandpit behind the bowling alley. There they'd play a game Normie Therriault had invented. Normie was the leader of the Rip-Ass Raiders, and the game was called Paratroops from Hell. There was a rutted track leading up to the edge of the gravel pit, and the game was to ride your bike along it at full speed, yelling "Raiders rule!" at the top of your lungs and bailing from the seat of your bike as you went over. The usual drop was ten feet or so, and the approved landing area was soft, but sooner or later someone would land on gravel instead of sand and probably break an arm or an ankle. Even Pete knew that (although he sort of understood why it added to the attraction). Then the parents would find out and that would be the end of Paratroops from Hell. For now, however, the game--played without helmets, of course--continued.
George knew better than to allow his brother to play, however; he was supposed to be taking care of Pete while their parents were at work. If Pete wrecked his Huffy at the gravel pit, George would likely be grounded for a week. If his little brother broke an arm, it would be for a month. And if--God forbid!--it was his neck, George guessed he might be whiling away the hours in his bedroom until he went to college.
Besides, he loved the little cock-knocker.
"Just hang out here," George said. "We'll be back in a couple of hours."
"Hang out with who?" Pete asked. It was spring vacation, and all of his friends, the ones his mother would have called "age appropriate," seemed to be somewhere else. A couple of them had gone to Disney World in Orlando, and when Pete thought of this, his heart filled with envy and jealousy--a vile brew, but strangely tasty.
"Just hang out," George said. "Go to the store, or something." He scrounged in his pocket and came out with a pair of crumpled Washingtons. "Here's some dough."
Pete looked at them. "Jeez, I'll buy a Corvette. Maybe two."
"Hurry up, Simmons, or we'll go withoutcha!" Normie yelled.
"Coming!" George shouted back. Then, low, to Pete: "Take the money and don't be a boogersnot."
Pete took the money. "I even brought my magnifying glass," he said. "I was gonna show em--"
"They've all seen that baby trick a thousand times," George said, but when he saw the corners of Pete's mouth tuck down, he tried to soften the blow. "Besides, look at the sky, numbo. You can't start fires with a magnifying glass on a cloudy day. Hang out. We'll play computer Battleship or something when I come back."
"Okay, chickenshit!" Normie yelled. "Seeya later, masturbator!"
"I gotta go," George said. "Do me a favor and don't get in trouble. Stay in the neighborhood."
"You'll probably break your spine and be fuckin paralyzed for life," Pete said . . . then hastily spat between his forked fingers to take the curse off. "Good luck!" he shouted after his brother. "Jump the farthest!"
George waved one hand in acknowledgment, but didn't look back. He stood on the pedals of his own bike, a big old Schwinn that Pete admired but couldn't ride (he'd tried once and wiped out halfway down the driveway). Pete watched him put on speed as he raced up this block of suburban houses in Auburn, catching up with his homies.
Then Pete was alone.
He took his magnifying glass out of his saddlebag and held it over his forearm, but there was no spot of light and no heat. He looked glumly up at the low-hanging clouds and put the glass back. It was a good one, a Richforth. He'd gotten it last Christmas, to help with his ant farm science project.
"It'll wind up in the garage, gathering dust," his father had said, but although the ant farm project had concluded in February (Pete and his partner, Tammy Witham, had gotten an A), Pete hadn't tired of the magnifying glass yet. He particularly enjoyed charring holes in pieces of paper in the backyard.
But not today. Today, the afternoon stretched ahead like a desert. He could go home and watch TV, but his father had put a block on all the interesting channels when he discovered George had been DVR-ing Boardwalk Empire, which was full of old-time gangstas and bare titties. There was a similar block on Pete's computer, and he hadn't figured a workaround yet, although he would; it was only a matter of time.
"So what," he said in a low voice, and began to pedal slowly toward the end of Murphy Street. "So . . . fuckin . . . what."
Too little to play Paratroops from Hell, because it was too dangerous. How sucky. He wished he could think of something that would show George and Normie and all of the Raiders that even little kids could face dan--
The idea came to him then, just like that. He could explore the abandoned rest area. Pete didn't think the big kids knew about it, because it was a kid Pete's own age, Craig Gagnon, who'd told him about it. He said he'd been up there with a couple of other kids, ten-year-olds, last fall. Of course the whole thing might have been a lie, but Pete didn't think so. Craig had given too many details, and he wasn't the kind of kid who was good at making things up. Sort of a dimbulb, actually.
With a destination in mind, Pete began to pedal faster. At the end of Murphy Street he banked left onto Hyacinth. There was no one on the sidewalk, and no cars. He heard the whine of a vacuum cleaner from the Rossignols', but otherwise everyone might have been sleeping or dead. Pete supposed they were actually at work, like his own parents.
He swept right onto Rosewood Terrace, passing the yellow sign reading DEAD END. There were only a dozen or so houses on Rosewood. At the end of the street was a chainlink fence. Beyond it was a thick tangle of shrubbery and scraggly second-growth trees. As Pete drew closer to the chainlink (and the totally unnecessary sign mounted on it reading NOT A THROUGH STREET), he stopped pedaling and coasted.
He understood--vaguely--that although he thought of George and his Raider pals as Big Kids (and certainly that was how the Raiders thought of themselves), they weren't really Big Kids. The true Big Kids were badass teenagers who had driver's licenses and girlfriends. True Big Kids went to high school. They liked to drink, smoke pot, listen to heavy metal or hip-hop, and suck major face with their girlfriends.
Hence, the abandoned rest
Pete got off his Huffy and looked around to see if he was being observed. There was nobody. Even the annoying Crosskill twins, who liked to jump rope (in tandem) all over the neighborhood when there was no school, were not in evidence. A miracle, in Pete's opinion.
Not too far away, Pete could hear the steady whoosh-whoosh-whoosh of cars on I-95, headed south to Portland or north to Augusta.
Even if Craig was telling the truth, they probably fixed the fence, Pete thought. That's the way today's going.
But when he bent close, he could see that although the fence looked whole, it really wasn't. Someone (probably a Big Kid who had long since joined the boring ranks of Young Adults) had clipped the links in a straight line from top to bottom. Pete took another look around, then laced his hands in the metal diamonds and pushed. He expected resistance, but there was none. The cut piece of chainlink swung open like a farmyard gate. The Really Big Kids had been using it, all right. Booya.
It stood to reason, when you thought about it. Maybe they had drivers' licenses, but the entrance and exit to the Mile 81 rest area were now blocked off by those big orange barrels the highway crews used. Grass was growing up through the crumbling pavement in the deserted parking lot. Pete had seen this for himself thousands of times, because the schoolbus used I-95 to go the three exits from Laurelwood, where he got picked up, to Sabattus Street, home to Auburn Elementary School No. 3, also known as Alcatraz.
He could remember when the rest area had still been open. There had been a gas station, a Burger King, a TCBY, and a Sbarro's. Then it got closed down. Pete's dad said there were too many of those rest areas on the turnpike, and the state couldn't afford to keep them all open.
Pete rolled his bike through the gap in the chainlink, then carefully pushed the makeshift gate back until the diamond shapes matched up and the fence looked whole again. He walked toward the wall of bushes, being careful not to run the Huffy's tires over any broken glass (there was a lot on this side of the fence). He began looking for what he knew must be here; the cut fence said it had to be.