Reel Fun – A Memory Snippet

It was a Montgomery Ward Airline. A heavy box, with sections of simulated wood grain veneer next to areas of highly polished chrome. An odd mix of comforting old material and newfangled tech in one package. Meant to bridge the gap between generations nearly ruined by a misuse of recordings.

It was new enough that it hadn’t yet made a habit of eating cassette tapes. I remember the sudden panic that erupted, fingers scrabbling to stop the machine and carefully ejecting the tape to see how bad it was; how much tape had been ingested. You never knew until it was too late. The music or talking would suddenly stop and you would hear the faintest crinkle. Then the trick was to extract the tape carefully, without stretching the plastic film. If you could get the cassette and its rumpled entrails out, you had a good chance, at least, to spin the tape back onto the reels, using a pencil in the gear wheel hole. Monkeys with basic tools, adjusting high tech components.

Of course, after that, the tape was always more susceptible to being eaten again. The crumpled tape would still play; slightly muffled as the damaged pieces flowed over the playing head. But, those sections were always easier for a hungry cassette player to grab.

I was welcome in Gary’s room for the recording sessions. We were both content to spend hours with a transistor radio, some talk shows or commercials, and the cassette player that was actually Dad’s for work. Gary and I made stories then, not initially with our own words. We’d record random sentences across radio stations, never knowing how they would come out. It was Mad Libs for an emerging electronics era. I’m not sure we ever made anything truly engaging with those recordings. Occasionally, we’d hit a few sentences whose non sequitur put us into fits of laughter.

Soon after, we tried our own stories. Most were loosely based on the radio mystery stories we’d listen to late at night. I was welcome then, too. Those stories were broadcast every few days, always past our bedtime. So, it was doubly enticing for me. I was sneaking out of my room at ten to go to Gary’s room to listen to scary tales, in the dark. The broadcast would start with a deep and sinister chord, an iron door creaking open, and the the low voice of E.G. Marshall beckoning: “Come in….”

His closet also held the door to the attic, at the back behind the clothes. In the attic, the former inhabitant of our house, Mrs. Bailey, still walked around. That’s why the timbers creaked and there was a constant draft coming from the attic door. It was a safe and delicious fear. Even though Gary wasn’t happy to have the room leading to Mrs. Bailey, he was brave enough to hold onto if I was afraid.

Those radio mysteries were tales of murder, betrayal, ghosts, and stories based on historical events such as the French Revolution. All of that was fodder for our own stories, acted out between us as the cassette tape spun. I wish just one of those tapes had survived. It wasn’t great acting or story making by any means. The main story and events were agreed upon before we started, but the details were ad libbed entirely. The fun was in the making. The product was a mash of bad dialog, cliche, and crude sound effects.

Our best story was loosely based on Frankenstein. As the youngest, I played the smaller bit parts. So, I was Igor to his Dr. Frankenstein. I learned to render a decent, “Yes, master,” when called upon. We both became stuck in a dead end, however, when, with all the bravado of age and scientific wisdom behind his voice and persona, Gary channeled his best Dr. Frankenstein and commanded: “Hand me that shovel, and start digging.”

I stared at him, wondering how someone could do that. We couldn’t continue. I sputtered some laughter and ruined the mood. He felt a little foolish, I think. But, in the end, we could tape over it and try again. The rewind button was our friend. It wasn’t the story we told or how well, or badly, we told them. While we were making those, we didn’t fight.

Now, all either of us has to do is look at the other with a slight smile and say: “Hand me that shovel, and start digging.” In drops the cassette in our mind and we play that part of our life story again. No fears now. It’s all good.

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Excerpt: The Greener Side

This novel draft is a huge work in progress at the moment. In fact, everything about this is in progress. However, the following is an excerpt from the current opening.

The Greener Side

Ida stepped barefooted down the dusty road peering intently into the sand and rocks. She glided with an odd frozen hitch in her hips and knees, bent at the waist with her hands clasped behind her back. She stopped, and suddenly bending with a fluid motion only possible for the young, reached out for a small stone among the sand. She wiped dust from the stone and then placed it in her mouth. She swished the stone in her spit and grabbed it from her lips with her fingers. Turning to the side, she spit into the bushes a few times, clearing the sand from her mouth. However, no matter how much she spit, there was always some grit remaining. It tasted almost metallic, reminding her of the time one of her uncles dared her to bite down on some tinfoil over a sore tooth. She bit down now and heard the crunch of sand. She sucked hard a few more times with her mouth closed to generate some more spit and then spat again into the weeds. She’d just eat the rest of the grit. Peering into her hand at the cleaned and shiny wet stone, it looked completely different without the dust. While interesting, it wasn’t the type of stone she was looking for, though. She tossed it back into the dust and resumed her stiff and stilted posture and the slow walk down the road.

A few yards later, she bent down again and cleaned off another small stone. She smiled when she saw it. The agate was like a tiny football in her hand, no larger than a pea. She could clearly see the small, white, eye-like markings through the pitted rind of the stone. These ones with eyes were rare on their road. This one even more special. Instead of the usual overall maroon color, this one was blue-gray. She put her hand into her right dress pocket and drew out today’s haul. With her latest find, she had six of the small stones with eyes. Most were the size of peas but another, like the gray, was a little larger. She always wished she could find a big one, but these kind with the eyes only seemed to occur in a small size. Carefully closing her hand around the stones, she shoved her hand deep into her pocket and released them. She glanced into her pocket to make sure none of them were stuck to her hand.

She dusted off her hands and turned to resume her hunt, but noticed that her shadow was getting longer and would soon start to fall across her hunting path.  It was no use trying to find them through her shadow.  She’d never distinguish the agates she wanted from the other reddish rocks. She stood up again and stretched. She could always look another day. The county wasn’t due to bring the grater trucks for weeks. So she had time to hunt this road for a while longer before it was stirred up again. Off in the distance, cow bells wafted on the breeze, as did the tang of manure. Grandpa would be bringing the cows in for the evening milking. Grandma would want help in the kitchen. Even with four uncles, Ida was always Grandma’s first choice for kitchen chores, even though she wasn’t as strong. “Practice makes perfect,” her Grandma would say. Practice makes boring, was Ida’s opinion. She’d much rather work in the barn or the pasture with the animals, or in the fields of corn. But, those were her uncles’ domain and, unfortunately, hers was the kitchen, pump house, clothesline, chickens, and the vegetable patch. She had tried to argue with Grandma once, just after she had first arrived. She didn’t get very far, though. After Grandma stated that the chores were divided the way they were for a reason, it was all Ida could get. After asking why a second time, perhaps with a touch too much whining in her request, all she received for her trouble was a swat on the butt. Sighing and turning a sharp left, she crossed the road, hopped the ditch, and ducked under the wire fence to the side field. She strode through the tall grass, lifting her legs high before plunging her next step. The coolness felt good on her hot, dusty feet and legs.

Bad Muse

“Write, write, write!” he screamed, each word punctuated with a tone that made her eyes water. The cadence was like some satanic version of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” She giggled with the thought and, only too late, realized how his counter-reaction would quite literally strike her.

Marla’s head slammed to the left and then right as punishment and the command came again. She tried to recover, but she was losing ground. Frozen with pain, she stared blankly at the page, groping desperately to find a cogent thought. She barely reacted to the next tortured scream: “Write, write, write!”

The wave of anger that answered surprised her, but she quickly gave in to it without thinking of consequences. Marla tilted her head to the side and shook hard. She felt something slide and hoped sincerely it wasn’t her brains. She needed those. For more force, she stood up and hopped on one leg as she tilted her head. The sickening feeling of something sliding was joined by an odd scrabbling in her ear. With one more shake, the tiny muse dropped on her desk and immediately continued to berate her.  Marla couldn’t tell if it was for the continued lack of progress in her work or for the indignity her muse had suffered in being ousted so unceremoniously. She opened her notebook and pointed to a hand-written passage of notes for her latest short story. As the muse jumped on the page to examine the text, Marla slammed the notebook shut and pressed down until she felt something give. She’d let that story sit for a while and come back to it later. Maybe. She started a new search for a muse for her next story.

[Updated: October 4, 2015; Original: October 3, 2015; Opening paragraph idea: March 31, 2015]