Creative Writing 1
This is a piece of short fiction that I very much enjoyed writing. I wrote it for a specific audience with a specific intention. Though it would not succeed in an audience outside of the one for which it was intended, it was received well by that audience.
What’s In a Name?
My name is Thurber Mott, and I find that very nearly unforgivable. My father was Away on Business the day I was born, and it fell to my mother to name me. Mother is not an insignificant woman in physique, intellect, or character, but I have to believe that spending twelve hours pulling like a draught horse in the service of presenting one’s absent husband with a collection of spindly appendages wrapped in a soiled diaper has to do something to the Feminine Soul. She insists that it is not so, but I think that my unusual moniker smacks of revenge. I am told that, up to the exact moment we met, it had been Mother’s somewhat pedestrian but altogether inoffensive intention to name me after Father, Albert Vivian Willingham. A Junior. A name as utterly respectable as it is innocuous.
I am sure that if I had known her better then, we had only just met, you know, I would have recognized the twinkle in her eye. Not that I could have done anything about it, being somewhat preoccupied with the aforementioned dirty diaper and the exceedingly complicated process of opening one’s own eyes in the overwhelming brightness of a modern maternity ward. Now that I am older and wiser, if considerably less limber, I never hesitate to duck behind the furniture when that portentous twinkle appears.
Mother is an Educator, and as such she LIVES for the Teachable Moment, or as she calls it, “The TM.” On the evening I made my celebrated entrance, she must have felt divinely inspired to enlighten the poor, oppressed night nurse with a dissertation on America’s preeminent humorist. Where she found the energy after Twelve Hours of the Most Grueling Labor and Delivery, I cannot fathom. She is indefatigable in her pursuit of literary domination. Or dissemination. I rather think it’s the former.
Mother, you see, adores James Thurber with a literary passion that borders on the unseemly. So, when presented with a son to name and an exhausted woman at the end of her shift, presumably dying for a smoke and ready to commit murder for a cup of coffee and piece of red meat, Mother struck the TM.
“His name is Thurber. Thurber… Mott. Thurber Mott Willingham.”
“Very good, ma’am. And how do you spell that?”
“T.H.U.R.B.E.R. Mott. With two Ts. Willingham as it sounds. Two Ls and a ham.”
“And do you know who James Thurber is, my dear?”
From there, my inexhaustible Mother would have launched into a gushing paean of James Grover Thurber, probably including extended recitations from “The Night the Bed Fell” and “The Dog that Bit People” and possibly even “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” before being distracted by the kind offer of a strong sedative. I only wish they’d offered it earlier.
Thus ended Mother’s Teachable Moment and began my Teachable Lifetime.
From my earliest days as a miniature orator, Mother taught me to parrot when asked about my name, “James Thurber is the greatest of American Humorists.” which, of course, started out sounding more like this, “Dames Toober is de gweatest ob Amewican Humowists.”
It often made people chuckle, though on one notable occasion when I was five, I found myself face to face with a particularly impassioned and not untipsy Professor of Literature at one of Mother’s Literary Dinner and Salons. A red-faced man with a considerable mane of unruly white curls, he was known to take a drink or three before dining. He was on his knees lobbying in favor of Dorothy Parker and S. J. Perelman when Mother rescued me. She said he had no sense of humor. He said she had no taste. I said I was glad my name wasn’t Dorothy. She offered him a black eye or the front door. He was never asked back.
When I was in first grade, my illustrious name earned me the rather derogatory handle of “Tubby” among the other boys. Mother was quick to point out that that was a sort of low irony, as I have always been of a rather tall and slender build. I tried to share her insight with my peers the next day, but having got as far as “low irony, ” I found myself sprinting across the PE field with three or four of my beefier classmates in Hot Pursuit. If Mother’s choice of names had not stood in my favor, at least Father’s long legs did. I ran until my classmates dropped.
Later that afternoon, having been given a rousing seat-warmer by the Principal for bringing on a class mate’s asthma, I sat, rather gingerly, waiting for Mother while they conferred in The Office. Beneath the closed glass-paneled door, I heard the familiar refrain,
“James Thurber is the greatest of…”
He cut her off. He cut her off! The Humanity! No one ever interrupts Mother’s TM. Ever. I heard the nasal whine of the Principal’s voice begin his customary singsong screed on the benefits of “fitting in” and “not causing trouble” and the Deplorable Lack of “I in T.E.A.M.” before it petered out, overwhelmed by a deep rumble. There was a brief roar of literary invective followed closely by the shattering slam of the opening office door. Mother sailed through the outer offices like a leviathan, her enormous bust preceding her like a white silk sail in a Balenciaga blazer. Pausing only slightly to take me by the hand, she flared her aquiline nostrils and flung the word “Philistine!” over her hounds-tooth shoulder through the still-trembling door. The Principal stood at his desk, necktie askew, gaping like a landed trout. We knocked the dust of PS 21 from our heels, and I went forthwith to Private Schooling.
I have since fielded many a polite, if incredulous, inquiry about my name. Was I named after a carpet, a baby food manufacturer, a lady playwright from the Midwest? No, no, and no. That would be Berber, Gerber, and Ferber, respectively. “James Thurber is the greatest of…” and so it begins again. Another in a long series of Teachable Moments. Mother steams quietly across the vast foreground of my life, chuckling to herself.
In her defense, I must say that Mother is probably right. Mr. Thurber is a very fine writer. And my extensive, encyclopedic knowledge of American Humorists has served me very well. I have a satisfying position at which I dispense Teachable Moments at will, I never lack for conversation at parties, and even my wife says she married me for pity because she thought I had a speech impediment.
So, thank you, Mother. Well done. I don’t suppose I would have amounted to half as much if you had settled for naming me Albert. That said, what will become of my twin sisters, Orwell and Wollstonecraft, I still haven’t a clue. I am only frightfully glad that you didn’t opt for laughing gas when I was born.
Though I am assured that he was At Home for the conception.
 When Father is In the City, she has been known to take “My Life and Hard Times” to bed with her and to laugh into the wee hours.
The assignment here was to re-examine an event from our past, give it an audience, and write it as a story. This is an example of communication skills.
Momma told us not to go, but it was the first break in the rain for days, and something good was sure to have washed up. In the small kitchen, hand on one hip, restless toddler on the other, bellyful of baby sister sticking out in front of her, she tried to make lunch. We harangued her, harrying her like young dogs yipping to be set free.
“Fine,” she said at last, rolling her deep-set eyes, tired of our bullshit and begging, knowing exactly where we’d go. “Just stay out of the water!” she hollered after us, “And don’t you take my bicycle!”
I took her bicycle. It wasn’t new or nice, but it was blue and white and bigger than my baby bike, and the chain didn’t fall off every time I got up to speed. It had a brown plastic wicker basket on the front and a molded kid seat on the back for whoever was youngest. Our only car was an aging yellow and chrome Buick station wagon that Daddy drove to work every day, leaving us to our bicycles every day but Saturday. But this was Thursday, and our name was danger. We sneaked out the back gate, Momma watching us, silent, from the kitchen window.
The high-water line of strange flotsam stood well up the yards, piles of unidentified plastic gnomery, swollen plywood yard art, and the odd headless, naked Barbie doll buried in the thick berm of leaf wrack. The gutters were still flooding-full and slack, receding slowly, only seeming to move at the storm drain that sucked and chugged slowly, as though it were trying to drag a warm milkshake through a straw.
We pedaled warily, eagerly, like young creatures newly sprung from a den, sniffing the hot, heavy air. It was thick with petrichor, the steam of saturated lawns and summer decay. Manhole covers floated askew, and heavy laurel oak limbs diverted less nimble traffic. Nothing moved in the neighborhood but us and the water. We were faster.
With one mind, we worked our way down the garbage strewn street toward the park. When the Bay crawled out of her bed, she often left strange gifts behind. Last summer, a rusting metal shipping container mystified us for days. We knew ourselves on the verge of breaking the lock and claiming the contents when it disappeared overnight, leaving only deep skid marks in the sand. The loss still stung. Dead dogs and other strange fish sometimes ended up in the middle of the sidewalk after a storm. Maybe the hepatitis warning sign had washed away, and we’d stomp with impunity, barefoot, into the flowing effluent by the drainage pipe. We pedaled faster still, sliding on wet-slick brick streets, skidding sideways to stop signs, throwing rooster tails up into yards still sloshing.
It was better than we’d hoped, though bereft of major salvage. Tea-colored water surmounted the seawall and stood six inches over the sidewalks. The Bay spread like a dirty mirror under skies the color of tin. In the far distance stood the red striped stacks of Big Bend, a smoke-belching mirage. We waved to our grandfather, many years a hardhat at the coal-burning plant across the water.
We rode the submerged sidewalk all the way down to Coffeepot Bayou, where the water deepened quickly and began to flow with an invisible current. It dragged at our tires, flapping the backs of our flip-flops against our heels under the warm, dark water. We turned away, riding the neighborhood for higher ground and a better view of the bayou. Half a shattered sycamore lay across the wet, black street near Ms. Agnes’ house. We’d never met Ms. Agnes, but Momma often told us florid stories about her adventures in Egypt as we walked by her beautiful, columned home. I respected the unknown Agnes. I could never eat a sparrow with its feet still on, even if it was battered and fried.
We met the flood water again at Locust Street. It extended across 22nd Avenue and out into the narrow strait around Bird Island and across to Snell Isle. It crept up the legs of the white concrete bridge, drawing small wakes onto the outgoing tide. Walking bikes, we shuffled in. The water stank in a nose-wrinkling miasma of runoff and raw sewage and floated an ephemeral, spreading rainbow sheen. The smell bit the tongue. Still better than the reek of low tide. Up to our knees, we couldn’t see our feet beneath the fine silt of topsoil washing out of perfectly manicured, freshly drowned lawns. Our shorts were wet, but we sloped onward. It didn’t matter. Momma already knew. Momma always knew.
A familiar sound bruised the air. The deafening thud of the Channel 10 News traffic copter beat the water into waves and twisted the stunted pin oaks by the road. The orange and white banded belly hovered above, closer than we’d ever seen. We leaned back as far as we could, waving our arms over our heads and pushing our whipping hair back from our summer brown faces. We strained our necks and our crooked grins to the thupping sky until it was gone.
After that, the afternoon seemed deflated. Even the black waters washing into the living rooms of enormous houses on Snell Isle had no pull. We pushed our bikes to the top of the short bridge and watched plastic bleach bottles twirling and floating out into the Bay before turning home without debate. It was almost evening, and our damp skin grew clammy and cool.
Momma made us bathe. Momma was always making someone bathe, usually one of us. Hot water and soap to wash away your sins and hopefully avoid a nasty case of ringworm or worse. Dinner was the familiar familial riot, but no one threw peas, and nobody had to leave the table. Later, we cleared away the dishes with the usual smattering of unappreciated backchat and sat on the floor in the living room to read. The baby complained in his bed, and Momma and Daddy settled into the butt-sprung couch to watch the 8 o’clock news. Cue theme music.
On the small screen, vast stretches of Gulf Beaches sparkled in the sun, a montage of bathing beauties waved at the camera, palm trees fluttered, dolphins jumped, and two dirty kids with bicycles waved, hip deep in the floodwaters of Coffeepot Boulevard.
Shit. Dimed out by the evening news.
“So, how was that bike ride this afternoon?” Daddy asked casually, eyes never leaving the screen.
“Uh, fine. That’s not us.”
“What? Those kids? No, that couldn’t be you. You’re not allowed to take your Mom’s bike, much less ride in crappy water like that. That would be gross.”
Daddy’s lip twitched. The phone rang. Momma waddled off to answer it in the kitchen, leaving us with our twitching father. It was Grandma, wanting to know if Momma and Daddy were watching the news, and didn’t those children look just like us? Yes, they were, and they certainly did.
Silence begged for confession. The desire for fame rode roughshod over common sense. That, and the hope that belated honesty would save us from impending righteous retribution.
“THAT WAS US! On the news! That was us! The chopper stopped and filmed us and it was so cool and we waved and it made WAVES and then it flew away!”
We stopped, stared, awaiting the ax. The baby murmured a sleepy tune, and quiet rang like so many silver bells. Momma sat down next to Daddy, a dark eyebrow cocked over one fierce, brown eye. They glared at us in tandem. A giggle escaped her stern lips. Daddy snorted and leaned, helpless, against her shoulder as their laughter exploded, pealing from the ceiling. The baby woke, the windows shuddered, and we two crumpled into relieved hysteria on the living room floor. The little house shook.
Outside it began to rain.
In Spring of 2020, I undertook a self-guided study under the aegis of Heather Jones. This poem, a pantoum, is a sample of the work I created for that class. Sadly, like much of 2020, our studies were interrupted by Covid-19, and the planned chapbook is incomplete. It will, I am sure, come to fruition soon. My poetry demonstrates a familiarity with disciplinary conventions, practices, terms, and theories. It also shows an understanding of purpose, audience, medium, and processes of revision.
Every young girl needs a friend she can trust
Reliable for when the heart is sore
And Mother is red as a river in dust
Her face shows fear like bloodstains favor rust
In panties on a cool terrazzo floor
Every young girl needs a friend she can trust
Forced into a bra, breasts twisted and trussed
Bent to breaking by Mother’s loving scorn
And Mother is red as a river in dust
Grinning through her teeth at every quick thrust
Drawing blood to even up the score
Every young girl needs a pen-knife that cuts
Mother’s face, placid, twitches with disgust
Her belts all hang behind the bedroom door
For when Mother is red as a river in dust
Cotton sleeves snatch at a pink beaded crust
Mommy doesn’t know she’s keeping score
Every young girl needs scars she can trust
When Mother is a red as a river in dust.
ht 1/22/2020 d4