Category Archives: Fiction

Short stories, serials, etc.

Story published on Squalorly

I just had a story published on Squalorly.  You can read it by following this link: http://www.squalorly.com/fiction/my-beam-light-karl-stevens.

Stories from Ovid – Battus and Ocyrhoe

The bus stopped at a gas station in the middle of yellow fields and William got out and looked at the sky.  It was a huge sky, a sky that went on and on.  An old woman had come down the bus’s stairs behind him and was stretching, leaning back with her hands in the center of her back, as if offering her breasts to the sky.  “It makes you think, doesn’t it,” she said.  When she saw that William didn’t know what she meant, she said, “A sky like that has got to change the way your brain works.  I doubt the indian tribes had the same kinds of brains as us.”

“Why?” William asked.  He had been aware of this woman all night.  As the bus rumbled across Wyoming, she had talked and talked to whoever was sitting beside her.  He had heard her voice as he drifted in and out of sleep, and it had sounded like part of the bus itself, as constant as the dull mechanical hum of the air conditioner and the wheels sighing against the road.

“Well, it’s got to effect you, doesn’t it, staring at that sky all the time?  I’m not saying that their brains were smaller or anything.  That would be racist.  Just that different synapses had to fire, you know what I mean?  That sky would stimulate neurons differently.”

William looked away from her and shrugged.  He went into the gas station and looked at the cowboy and indian stuff hanging on wire carousels at the front of the candy aisles.  He fingered a dream catcher, ruffling a feather that ran down in front of a woven circle.  He tried on a straw cowboy hat.  Most of the people from the bus were inside the gas station now.  They were forming a long line by the register, yawning and rumpled, moving their shoulders as if they could shake the night off of them.  The old woman had followed him inside, and she was talking to a girl with a lot of brown hair.  The girl was wearing heavy make-up, and there was something wrong with the way she’d done her eyes, as if, standing in the bus’s small bathroom, she had outlined them too heavily to compensate for the weakness of the overhead light, and now they looked startled, even though her lids were half closed and sleepy.

“They found a lot of dinosaur bones in this part of the country,” the old woman was saying.  “Lots of them, and at first they thought they were monsters.  Dragons, that sort of thing.  Because they thought the earth was only ten thousand years old.  And even when people suspected the truth, others resisted.  Think of that.  They’d rather believe in dragons than evolution.”  The girl wasn’t listening.  William wondered if she was the old woman’s granddaughter.

He let the crowd push him into a corner and turned to face away from it.  He found himself looking through the glass door of a cooler full of coffee drinks.  He opened it and cold air flowed softly against him, and he glanced back to see if the kid at the register would notice if he left it open for a few minutes.  The kid was wearing a blue baseball cap and gazing into space with the perpetually bored expression of someone who spends too much time watching other people make change.  He didn’t seem to notice William, and William turned his face back to the cold air and put both hands inside the cooler and gripped cold glass bottles.  He closed his eyes and listened to the shuffling morning sounds of the other bus passengers, and to the old woman’s voice cutting across them.

“Now Nebraska,” she was saying, “was all under water.  Not many dinosaur bones there.  But other bones, bones from large mammals.  Isn’t it lovely to think that we just drove across an inland sea!”

William turned his head to look at her and found the dark haired girl watching him.  He took his hands off of the bottles and selected one, as if he had been intending to buy it.  The cooler door slid shut behind him.  There was a long line at the register still, and he didn’t want to wait in it.  He glanced at the clerk’s face, saw that he was occupied with teasing open a plastic bag, and carried the coffee drink outside.  He sat on the curb right outside the gas station’s glass windows and sipped at it.  When everyone cleared out, he would go inside and pay for it.

He watched the other passengers make their way in little knotted groups back to the bus.  The butts of their pants sagged with wrinkles.  The driver had gone somewhere, and they reboarded and sat disconsolately in their seats.  He could see their faces through the tint of the brown windows.  He squinted up into the bright, clear morning sunlight and sniffed at the gasoline in the air, and wondered what it would have been like, to be an indian, and set up your tipi right here, in this place two hundred years ago, and feel the sweep of that wide open sky right inside of your own brain.

Everyone was back on the bus except the driver.  William stayed where he was, waiting for him, refusing to feel anxious.  The gas station door slid open and the clerk came out and stood in the morning sunlight.  The bill of his baseball cap shaded his face as he looked down at William.  William’s hand went to his pocket, to where his wallet was, and the clerk’s eyes watched him.  There was amusement in them.

“Can I have a sip of your drink?” the clerk asked him.

William’s hand paused and he looked up into the boy’s blue eyes.  Then he held the bottle up so the clerk could take it.  The boy took a long drink, tilting his head back and moving his adam’s apple up and down.  The skin of his forehead was burnished by the dark brown shadow from his baseball cap, so it looked like an indian’s skin.  William watched the  sweet, cold coffee disappear from the bottle.  When he was done drinking, the clerk sighed and smiled and handed the bottle back to him, nearly empty.

“Thanks,” he said.  Then he reached into his pocket and took out two quarters and handed them to William.  “For the drink,” he said.

“I wasn’t stealing it,” William told him.  “I was going to come back inside and pay you for it.”  The clerk shook his head, silencing him.  There was deep, long-standing amusement in those shaded blue eyes.

They could both hear the sound of a toilet flushing, and then the bus driver came around the side of the building, buckling his pants.  William stood up.  The quarters were still in his hand.  He reached out and took the clerks hand and put the coins in his palm.  “By yourself another one,” he said, and the boy’s shadowed face crinkled with laughter.

William followed the driver back across the asphalt and got onto the bus.  Faces lifted and looked at him as he went down the aisle, as if the passengers were surprised that one of their number had still been missing.  His seat was at the back, and the dark-haired girl was sitting in it.  The seat beside her was empty.  He paused and she met his gaze, and her eyes looked less startled in the dull tinted light of the bus.  As if her make-up had been meant for this place, and only this place, because it was where she belonged.  He didn’t tell her that she was in his seat, but sat beside her, quietly, and waited for something, although he didn’t know what.  The bus creaked on its springs and started up.  The gas station turned out of view outside the brown windows.  There there was nothing but plains, and the big sky stretching out beside them.  He looked past the girl to see out the window, and she looked at him.  He thought her expression was accusatory and said, “I didn’t steal that drink.  That kid was playing some kind of game.”

“What drink?” she asked him.  Her voice was very deep and full sounding.  He had never heard another voice like it.

“The iced coffee,” he said.  “I didn’t steal it.”

“You didn’t steal it,” she said, agreeing with him, and her voice was so powerfully full that it seemed to make it real, the fact that he hadn’t stolen but been involved in some kind of accident.

“Is that your grandmother,” he asked, “the woman who was talking to you?”

“Not my grandmother,” she said, and it was like she was defining reality.  It seemed impossible that he had ever thought the old woman could be related to her, with her weird facts that ran on and on.

“I’m going out to Seattle,” William told her.  “I don’t know why.”

“What’s in Seattle?” she asked.

“What is in Seattle?” he said, and it was a genuine question, because suddenly he didn’t know, he didn’t know why he had picked Seattle of all the places on the map.  He didn’t know what he expected to find there, what he hoped for.  “I’m married,” he told her.  “I’ve only been married two weeks.  I’m running away.”

“Why only two weeks?” she asked, and he glanced around, thinking that everyone on the bus must be able to hear her, that the sound of her voice must be sonorous within the bones of their bodies, as it was for him.

“I found out that she cheated on me,” he told her, almost whispering, “and she was trying to cheat on my again.”

“Why would she cheat on you?”

“That’s the thing.  I don’t know why.  All I wanted to do was take care of her.”

“I find it to be at truth that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close to hand,” she said.

“What’s that?” he asked, sensing that she was quoting.

“The Bible.”

“But that’s just it,” he said.  “I wanted to be like the Bible.  Good like the Bible.  But she wouldn’t let me.”

The girl closed her eyes and opened them again.  The effect was powerful.  It drew his face closer to hers.  “Why wouldn’t she let you?”

“I don’t know.  I guess she didn’t want to be taken care of.”

“She didn’t want to be taken care of,” the girl repeated, and William felt something sigh deep within him, some coiled tension find release.  It was like she had told him the truth.

He wanted to keep telling her things, and he did, as the bus trundled on throughout the day.  His face leaned closer to her in the semi-darkness, and he wanted to kiss her, through all that heavy make-up, but he felt that it would be like reaching back through the years, through all the centuries, and breaking the film of time, so that if his lips were to touch hers he would find that she wasn’t really there at all, but only a wave of some dark primordial sea, rolling slowly back and forth inside the bus.  He wanted her to tell him something about his future, because he thought that if she said it, it would certainly come true.  But he had no plans for the future, that became clear to him as he talked.  Only the past, which, as he said things and she repeated them, became more and more real to him but also, at the same time, mysterious and humorous and irrevocably lost.

Stories from Ovid – Clymene

The entire show will be about the mothers of famous criminals.  Cameras will follow us around for five weeks, and the film crews will be permanently in our houses.  I’ve already sent in a packet of photos of Peyton from when he was a boy.  Peyton’s crime wasn’t as spectacular as some of the other mothers’ sons, but it’s really the best story because it’s so inexplicable.  My house, the house he grew up in, is very nice and comfortable, and he looks so happy in the photos I sent them, especially in that photo from his first day of school, when he’s wearing that little plaid suit and a bow tie.  Denny, the producer, called me up and said they wanted to use that photo in the show’s opening credits.  I think they’re going to play that old Clapton song, Born Under a Bad Sign over a photo montage.  I told Denny that they should also use a picture of Jimi Hendrix with his guitar on fire, since I told Peyton that his dad was a member of the Experience.  That was back in 1988, when Peyton was fifteen and pestering me about it.  I guess that’s what started the whole thing.  Peyton got a big poster of Jimi with the guitar on fire, even though I told him that his dad wasn’t Jimi, which should have been obvious, since he isn’t black.  For awhile Peyton had an afro that was just like Noel Redding, the bassist’s, big and bushy.

I owe my appearance on the show to that German man who set all those cars on fire in L.A.  He did it for his mother, you see.  They tried to get her for the show first, but of course she’s being extradited.  Denny said, very casually while we were on the phone, “Well, you know she was stealing rent checks.  And got a boob job she wouldn’t pay for.”  I could hear the regret in his voice.

“I have seven daughters,” I said.  “And only two of them have the same father.”  I didn’t want him to think I was second best.  “I have pictures from my wild days,” I told him.  “I was a groupie.  I slept with Gene Simmons.”

“Is he the father of one of your daughters?”

“It’s never been proven,” I told him.

My daughters are jealous, of course, even the ones who pretend not to be.  My second oldest is a periodontist, and she pretends to be above all of the excitement.  She likes to wear her white lab coat when she comes over, just to remind the rest of us that she’s important.  But she was as worked up as any of us after Peyton got arrested.  She camped at the house with everyone else during the week of the trial.  And I bet she’ll be dropping by a lot while the TV crew is shooting.  She’s already done her pre-interview with Denny.  All of my daughters have.

“He just always wanted to be famous,” my youngest tells Denny over the phone.  She’s been living with me since she dropped out of grad school.  She sleeps on the day bed in the sun room, and I can already see the shot they’ll get of her, rising and stretching in the morning sunlight.  “Mom was always talking about all these famous guys she knew, and he just wanted to be worthy of her love, you know?  He tried playing the guitar in this band, but he’s really not a rock n’ roll type.  More Apollo than Dionysus, if you know what I mean.”  She pauses, nodding her head, and says, “Well, he liked books.  And he was always really careful about things.  And he wore these wire rim glasses.  He looked like an engineer, even in high school.  But you know what?  He told me once that he wanted to be a writer.  And I said, ‘What will you write about.’  And he said, ‘I’ll write an autobiography.’  So I guess he knew that he had to get famous, somehow.”

They’re going to interview him in prison, of course.  I go to see him and we sit at a table in the visiting room and I ask him, “What are you going to say to them?”

“I don’t know,” he says.  “Just that I was very angry, I guess.  My counselor says that most arson is committed by young men who are angry.”

“You’re still angry, right?”

“No.”

“Not even a little bit?”

He looks around at the cinderblock walls of the big room and sighs.  “I guess I grew up in here.”

“I heard that Jeffrey Dahmer’s mom is going to be on the show.”

He shakes his head.  “She’s dead.  Besides, I hear she was a great mother.”

“How do you know that?”

“I asked Denny during the pre-interview.”

“You asked him who the other moms would be?”

He looks at me and light flashes off his glasses.  “Yes.  Didn’t you?”

“He said he didn’t know yet.  I guess that was awhile ago.  So who are they?”

He shrugs.  “No one big.  Just other small fry, like us.”

I stare at him, then I catch his hands and grip them hard.  “Peyton, we are not small fry.”  But I leave thinking about the other women who could have been on the show, wondering if TedKaczynski’s mom is still alive, or Amy Fisher’s.  I get into the car and have a moment of doubt when I’m starting the engine, thinking of all of those cars that Peyton burned, and how one of them had a small dog in it, sleeping in the back when he set it on fire, and how I felt when I first saw it on the evening news, before I knew that the arsonist was Peyton.  The dog had barked and barked inside the burning car, and a man had stood outside of it, desperately trying to spray out the fire with a garden hose.

Stories from Ovid – Inachus

They have a special way of talking about it, key phrases that they repeat with admiration, as if there is anything admirable about divorce.  “They did their best not to allow it to effect the kids,” they say, usually after some bitter story about custody battles and renegotiated child support payments.  Of anyone, he has the most right to be divorced.  It would have been understandable in his case.  “It’s hard for a marriage to survive the loss of a child.”  That’s a key phrase, too, a piece of conventional wisdom that he and Mary have decided to block.  But they are like divorced parents, anyway.  They’ve both hidden their grief away, out of love for their other children.  It often seems to him that every interaction is just a pretense.  Now I will smile and make small talk, now I will compliment the science fair project, now I will cheer at the track meet.  He stands among jostling, shouting, smiling bodies in the bleachers, and the memory of Bea, and those terrible years after they lost her, comes shuddering back into him, and he looks around at his indifferent neighbors, hiding his disgust, but it isn’t hidden from Mary, because he meets her eye and sees that she feels it, too.

If Bea had died, there might have been some possibility of peace.  But she is simply gone.  She went out jogging one day during her freshman year of high school, and she never came back.  He still pauses whenever the phone rings, and his heart flickers with the tiniest hope.  At the grocery store, at the airport, on the sidewalk outside of his office building, he still expects to catch a glimpse of her, and she is always the way she was when she disappeared, still running, her jogging shirt and shorts slack against her frail young body.  But he is a master dissembler.  He smiles and nods, jokes about politics, comments on internet memes, talks about his golf game.  He still says nice things about the world to his remaining children, protecting them from his hatred of it.

Now it is his youngest daughter’s high school graduation.  The gym is small and the parents sit on the bleachers.  The stage and podium are set-up under the basketball hoop.  He remembers his own graduation, and how the gym seemed large because the world seemed large, and he didn’t yet think in terms of arrangements and practicalities, didn’t look for the cord coming from the microphone to follow its length across the gym floor, seeing where it had been slipped under a thin plastic mat so that no one would trip on it.  He had graduated in a different gym, in a different city, but they are all the same.  This is a constant thought, that everything in the world is the same.  It seems to hold out some hope for Bea.  Maybe it wasn’t some exceptional evil that took her.  Maybe she found her way to a different family, in a different place, one that is entirely comfortable in its sameness.

This is supposed to be Callie’s day.  She sits in the second row of plastic chairs, her blue graduation gown draped across her slim shoulders.  She is a popular child, and she seems so confident sitting there.  Her hair is an autumnal red.  “How would I recognize her,” he wonders, “if she were to disappear?”  It’s a ridiculous question on the surface.  But he often wonders it, even about himself.  “If I were to disappear, how would they know it was me, if I came back to them?”  He has a scar on his left hand, where a wart was removed when he was a child.  And one on his upper lip, a thin line that appeared after he popped a zit when he was fourteen.  He points these out to his wife sometimes, so that she’ll know to look for them if he disappears and comes back.  “Do you think you’ll be replaced by an impostor?” she asks.  Maybe, he thinks.  He no longer knows for sure what can happen in the world.  Didn’t Elizabeth Smart wander around Salt Lake City in disguise?  And wasn’t there a moment, or maybe he’s just imagined it, when her parents passed her on the street without noticing her?

He has invested Bea with all of his love.  His wife and his children don’t know this, because his love for his vanished daughter has been a kind of training.  He loves her and loves her, and it is unrequited, because there is no Bea left to know about it.  Only the vision of Bea, his idealized daughter, who seems to smile at him from somewhere within the gym.  He studies the children’s heads, there on the gym floor below him, and expects to see one turn and look at him with Bea’s smile and Bea’s eyes.  And if that happened, if she was suddenly and miraculously there, wearing her tasseled cap and blue gown, he would climb over the other parents to take her hand when she offered it to him.  He is sure that Mary and Callie and his two other children would understand, that they would know, as she led him towards the gym doors, that whatever love he’s shown them in the past seven years has been the refined essence of what he gives to Beatrice, that loving his vanished girl has taught him how to really love, selflessly and hopelessly and with abandon.

Stories from Ovid – Daphne

[I’ve been writing very short stories inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphosis.  Here’s one of the first that I wrote.]

He is a disappointed man, and he has let his disappointment infect his children.  When they were in college he told them, “Don’t worry about picking a sensible major or anything like that.  I always wanted to be an artist, but my parents told me there was no stability in art, so I became a teacher.  And now I’m laid off and there are all these graphic arts jobs and web design jobs, so I might as well have just done what I wanted to do.  Because we have no idea what the future will be like, what kinds of things people will actually want.”  His two eldest picked sensible majors anyway, and now have sensible jobs, one an insurance agent and one a nurse.  But Daphne, his youngest, says she wants to be a maiden aunt.

She says it just like that, tilting her face up as if she’s looking towards an aspirational horizon and saying, “I want to be a maiden aunt,” in her calm, thoughtful voice, even though she knows it horrifies her mother.

“Talk to her,” his wife told him.  “Tell her that she can’t be a maiden aunt.”

“She’s probably gay,” he said.  “In my experience, when people seem to have no interest whatsoever in sex, it means that they’re gay.”

“Your experience,” his wife snorted.

“Well, why don’t you talk to her, if you think that I’m so unfit?”

“You don’t think I’ve tried?”

Daphne has been living at home since the end of college.  She sits in the bay window and reads field guides, studying the deciduous trees of the midwest and the reptiles and amphibians of Florida.  She seems completely content in this occupation, and when he looks at her, he feels content, too.

“Let’s have a talk,” he says to her.

“A talk?”

“Do you have time?”

She stretches.  “How about a hike?” she asks.  “Like when I was a kid.”  And he smiles at the thought of this, because he always brought an old propane stove along on his hikes with his children, and cooked minute rice with water from their canteens, and when he thinks of the woods, he thinks of the smell of the spice packet mingling with the odor of dirt and pine.  It reminds him that he once brought provender to his family.

They leave the house.  It’s mid-morning on a Monday.  The warm September sun is splintered by the trees and the sky is a very light blue.  He talks as he drives, salting his conversation with what his eldest daughter calls his ‘thesaurus words’.  “Your mother and I hiked in the woods on our penultimate date, right before we were married.”

“What was the ultimate date?” Daphne asks.

“What?”

“You said it was the penultimate date, the second to last.  What was the last date, the last one you had before you got married?”

He smiles, remembering.  “That’s private,” he says.  He hopes that he sounds jocular.  He also hops that this will entice her into some small thought of sex, knowing, of course, that it is inappropriate for him to be trying to convince his daughter of the merits of sex.  “Daphne,” he says, “I understand you not wanting to look for a job, but what is this whole maiden aunt thing?”

She shrugs.  “Mom says I’m just afraid of investing in my future.  Any future.  Like that’s a thing we can invest in.  Why does it matter so much?”

“Because we want to make sure you’re properly settled,” he says, and laughs.  “That sounds Victorian, doesn’t it?  ‘Properly settled.’”

She turns her head and looks at him.  “Why?”

“So that you’ll be happy.  So you’ll have a happy life.”

She turns back to the window.  “Here’s the turn-off,” she says, nodding at a break in the trees ahead of them.

There’s a little gravel parking lot, and a fenced-in dog park where a Great Dane is loping beside a woman.  They pass the fence and step onto a bare path that leads into the forest.  He likes moving through the woods with her, feeling his muscles loosen and his stride become long and jaunty.  They cross a little wooden bridge over a creak and pause on a ridge that looks down into a meadow.  Sunlight strikes them.  “Daphne,” he says, “you can do whatever you want.  You know you can do whatever you want, that it’s okay with me.  But please stop talking about the maiden aunt thing.  It distresses your mother.”

She has stopped on the path ahead of him and raised a hand to shade her eyes.  She is wearing brown corduroys, and he realizes that they are the exact shade of the dirt on the path.  He feels his usual self-congratulatory impulse when he notices things like that – he sees them because he has an artist’s eye.  She turns and smiles at him, and he’s struck by how pretty she is, how the sunlight makes her cheeks look like the skin of a ripe peach.  He wants to say more, to say, ‘You can’t waste this, who you are, by hiding it away.’  But she’s already turned her face back to the sunlight, and is looking away, across the meadow to a distant line of trees.  He follows her gaze and thinks that he sees what she is seeing.  Not the trees, which are beginning to turn, their tips slipping into a quiet, declining red, but at something beyond them, the indistinct outline of a future that no one can know, and that renders all choices valid.