Tuesday, October 27, 2009


Okay, that story I was writing when I almost burned down the house didn't even make the online postings in the Trib ghost story competition. I carefully followed the rules--under 700 words, and set in the Chicago area. I'm pissed, because frankly I thought it was pretty good. So I'm posting it here. Since I'm now in that major funk all writers experience when their efforts are so cavalierly treated by the world, I'd really appreciate comments--even (especially) if you think it sucks. Maybe I'll learn something.

Happy Halloween.


I know now that it is true: in the late autumn when the leaves are burnt gold and the skies deepen, when sunlight slants acutely in the afternoon and fades to the obsidian evening, the veil, that amorphous distance between two worlds, grows thin. For me to accept this had not been easy.
As a toxicologist for Abbott Laboratories, I was not by nature or habit given to flights of fancy. Research and rational thought, preferably expressed in scientific terms dictated reality for me. My wife, Marissa, was far more imaginative. Indeed, it was her effervescent personality that enchanted me when we first met, and her cheerful attitude was often just the tonic I needed when work or the word in general depressed me.
Two years ago, we decided to move from the large house where we had raised our children to something smaller. We chose a charming little Victorian in Lake Bluff. The realtor had shown us through the octogenarian house on a bright Saturday morning in September. Her nervous little admission that the previous owners believed the place was haunted amused my wife, but carried absolutely no weight with me. The house, recently remodeled, suited our needs perfectly. It meant a much shorter commute to my North Chicago office. There was a fenced-in yard for our two dogs, and Marissa was delighted by the third-floor view of Lake Michigan. We moved in on October 19th.
It was the dogs who knew first. Watson and Crick--two pleasant, well-behaved golden retrievers--had been part of our family for nine years. Even before our children grew up and moved away from home, the dogs had been slightly spoiled. They ate their home-cooked dog meals when we ate our dinner and slept at the foot of our bed every night.
The first night in the new house, both dogs whined about climbing the stairs. I was all for leaving them in the kitchen, but Marissa wouldn't hear of it. I carried Crick up the stairs. Reluctantly, Watson followed behind. But the night didn't go well. Twice, they woke us barking their fool heads off. At three in the morning, Watson began frantically scratching the bedroom door, destroying paint and woodwork, while Crick set about howling in a way that made my blood run cold. They bolted down the stairs the minute I opened the bedroom door. Later, I noticed that one of them had, uncharacteristically, urinated on the carpet. They spent the rest of the night outside. Fro days, rain or shine, they refused to set foot in the house so that we had to take them to stay indefinitely with our daughter.
With the dogs gone, Marissa changed. My sweet wife, who had disliked reading newspapers because she thought they were too depressing, became obsessed with morbid stories. Every day, she walked to the Village Market to buy a paper. She studied accident reports, murders, and death notices. At dinner, instead of her usual cheery conversations about Garden Club or a new recipe, she would recite the grim statistics of the dead. In less than a week, she lost weight, her hair hung in dull wisps, and her face took on an unhealthy pallor. I began to avoid her company.
Work kept me occupied, but the commute became a problem: I dreaded time at home. The logical escape was household chores, so late on Halloween afternoon, I decided to clean the gutters. Never acrophobic, scaling a ladder to the roof-line of a three-story house did not distress me. I clambered up the rungs with the energy of a man half my age, and began the messy but necessary task of clearing dead leaves and debris. Leaning far out to my left as I reached around a dormer window, I was concentrating on my work, so I did not see, until too late, the waxen face grinning viciously at the window.
Now I, too, await the autumn twilight when we souls, no longer within our corporeal selves, try to find our way home.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Writing Can Be Dangerous

Last Wednesday was, without doubt, the quintessential autumn day. The misty rains of early morning stopped in time for me and Woki to walk to the Lake where the sun was just burning through the clouds enough to make the trees glow in all their brilliant splendor. The streets truly were paved with gold. No sooner had we returned home than I set out again, this time for a run along other roads where the ravines looked like Aladdin's cave of treasure. An hour later, back home again, I dutifully sat down to write. Immersed in a new short story ("Returning"), I took breaks only to refill the tea mug and make a few quick preparations for dinner. At 2:30, when I still had enough time before my first student of the day, I impulsively decided to squeeze in another walk--I'd been working hard.
Ah, it was so lovely! As Woki and I walked along, I congratulated myself on my efficiency. I had done my household chores, written steadily for several hours, and could continue to ponder my story as I enjoyed the lovely weather. Was the tone right? Had I created convincing characters? Did the end come too abruptly?
Twenty-five minutes later, walking up the driveway, I heard a funny sound. It got louder on the deck, and louder still as I came in the back porch. Frantically, I fumbled with the key when I simultaneously realized that the buzzing noise was our smoke detector and I had walked off and left Woki's chicken livers boiling on the stove.
Burnt chicken liver smells really, really bad. Angry gray smoke was wafting through the entire house. I grabbed the pan off the stove and carried the noxious mess to the backyard. Since I gave no more thought to grabbing that pan handle than I had to leaving the house without checking the stove, I was very lucky that the pan had been top quality. Past tense. The thing was absolutely black. Any lesser piece of equipment would likely have started a nasty fire. I repeat--I was very lucky.
I learned some valuable lessons: First,if I am caught up in Fictionland, I should never multi-task with anything involving fire or water. Second, things can go terribly wrong on a beautiful day, which creates a certain tension that is much more pleasant to read about than to experience in real life. Third, all life experiences are fodder for stories. I may use some of this at some point, but relax, Julie Powell, I won't be attempting a blog on cooking.

P.S. Ironically, that morning I had seen a news story advising people to check their smoke detectors. I know mine work. Please check yours.