Stories & Etcetera


Photo by David Mark

Yesterday, I used a random word generator from Writing Exercises, and got the following combination: court, immense, scrawny, soothe, hypnotize, fish, athlete, cockroach. The challenge was to include all eight words in a story.


He was supposed to be in court, but he was late, and neither fact was Adam’s fault.

The trial was a joke. The charges against him were ridiculous. Shoplifting a pygmy hedgehog? The judge would fall down laughing.  

Adam’s mother said the scandal broke her heart, but he thought the whole mess could have been avoided if she hadn’t had so many kids. He had seven siblings. Who could possibly keep track of all their half birthdays, pet adoptions, anniversaries and sobriety dates? Adam missed his scrawny younger brother’s eight-grade graduation. Who even celebrated that? His mother, that’s who. And if Adam wanted more than Sunday dinner leftovers, he had to make amends.

So he drove to MegaPet. Everyone loved MegaPet. The store was immense and Adam got lost right off the bat, wandering down the aisles of glass tanks full of fish. Some of them were creepy, with long barbed tails or bulbous eyes, but some of them were cute. Other fish, colorful and flagrant, nearly hypnotized him. He lost track of time and then he had to rush, sprinting to the far end of the store like a demented athlete, looking for a pygmy hedgehog for his “graduating” brother. Was it Adam’s fault that the little rodents were so pricey? Was it his fault that the cages weren’t locked? And how was he supposed to know about the cameras on the ceiling?

What really baffled him was why the store owners got so mad about the cockroaches in his other pocket. The hedgehog had to eat. Did they want the thing to starve?

At least his mugshot wasn’t bad. Better than his driver’s license. The story got a lot of laughs down at the corner bar. That’s where Adam was two months later, on his court date, wearing his best suit. He’d popped in for a shot of whiskey. To soothe his nerves, you know? He didn’t realize that his watch had stopped until his lawyer called. Of course, the watch had been a present from his mother. It was hard to love someone who disappointed you so often, but Adam would forgive her. He was a good son, after all.

Does anyone else enjoy a wacky writing prompt? A silly story stretcher? I’d love to hear about your favorites.

How to Bake a Girl

Image by Andrea Paterson from Pixabay
Image by Andrea Paterson from Pixabay

Baking a girl, a daughter even, is an easy at-home project, not much harder than whipping up the perfect sugar cookie. To make her crumble-proof is as simple as old alchemy. A strong daughter requires little more than your last nerve, your worst scars, and the buried fears you hid in shadows. The trick is regulating heat: too little or too much and she’ll forget to hold her keys between her knuckles in the parking lot at night.


2 cups ferocity

1 cup food and shelter [you cannot bake a hungry girl; first, she must be fed and housed.]

½ cup opportunity

½ cup self-regard

A generous spoonful of dreams

A heap of stories, preferably with beasts—both human and inhuman

5 teaspoons of persistence

A pinch of bravery [the brand is up to you, but it’s best to use the kind distilled from survivors]

1. Gather your ingredients in a room without smartphones, cameras or mirrors. Remove airbrushed fashion photos, advertisements for unblemished skin, and prescriptions for fad diets. Keep your work space clean.

2. Preheat the oven. The temperature is mostly guesswork. Hot enough to melt a filtered selfie, but not so hot that she will burn with mania, depression, anxiety, addiction, anorexia, bulimia, self-harm or suicide. This is, of course, the tricky part. Test the heat with your own skin. Adjust at intervals determined by your faith, luck, and experience.

3. Girls are best baked in deep pans with room for secrets.

4. Blend the ingredients in any order you see fit. They will not be light and fluffy. Take your time. Stir well.

5. Pour the girl into the pan, using a spatula to scrape the bowl down to its bones.

6. Bake the girl for ten to twenty years, rotating the pan at frequent intervals, while singing songs of rebellion and telling stories where the heroines are warriors, artists, writers, inventors, dragon-slayers or executives.

7. The girl is finished when a wish inserted in her center comes out clean.

8. Place her on a rack to cool. Give her space. She might have wings. Or talons. She might erupt or quietly unfold like reverse origami into the shape she’s chosen. Let her stand. Or fly.

9. When she’s gone, clean your oven thoroughly, but leave the splatter in your heart.


Photo by Brenda Gottsabend

My daddy was the Keeper first. I inherited this place from him. Not much to
it—half a wall that used to fit someplace, on the back edge of our property.
Somehow that window never broke. Don’t ask me.

My daddy called it a “way station.” He used to be a trucker, so I misheard
at first and thought he meant “weigh station.” A place to take your measure. I
suppose that’s true enough. The dead folks who get stuck here? They’re all
taking stock.  

But man, oh man, they bring a shit ton of hard questions. I mean, they never
ask about the weather last Tuesday. They want a clean accounting, right and
wrong like flip sides of a shiny penny.

I did try. I told myself, “Sis, these ghosts deserve their peace, even if
they smell like cordite and dust spiked with magnolia.” I looked for answers on
the wall, words scratched into brick. Strings of letters, numbers. Lovey-dovey
phrases. Could be nothing more than folks’ initials. But maybe there was
something else. A moral calculus. A righteous etymology.

Don’t look so surprised—I went to college; I read books. People think if you
say ain’t that you aren’t going anywhere. At least the dead know better
than all that.

They do get mightily impatient. You’d reckon ghosts would learn to wait, but
they’re a testy lot. They throw bitterness at me—clumps of gauzy, weightless
shit that smells like long-dead fish. Daddy didn’t warn me about that, which
got me to thinking there must be another way, something I missed.  

Then this boy came along while I was picking wrath out of my hair. Little guy,
alone, but he came right up close. Brown corduroys and a T-shirt with a faded orange
logo. One shoe missing. Dirty fingers, caked with mud as if he’d clawed his way
from death. He stared at that old window, nothing on the other side but barren,
vacant light.

Well, Daddy didn’t give me any firm instructions, ‘cepting for the one word:
Stay. The window wasn’t latched. I opened it. And that kid floated
through, smiling fit to beat the band. Last I saw of him was one rubber-tipped
high-top and one bare set of toes. Last I heard, he laughed.

The rest of the dead followed. More come every day. Before they disappear, they drop stale questions at my feet. I sweep them up, make a pile, light a match. I burn the detritus of knowing. Eyes closed, I think about my daddy, out here on his own. I feel the pull of that lone window’s light, its tender provocations. I want to say, “I understand now, daddy. I get it, what you left me. This odd job. I might be the Keeper, but there ain’t nothing to hold onto. All I gotta do is stay.”

There’s a way and weight to that, to bearing witness. Staying. You ain’t got to know it all.