[ Hi readers, all the best for 2017. This is my first post for the new year. It features a story I wrote for a competition. One of those competitions where you entered because you felt bad that you hadn’t submitted anything lately. I am yet to enter a competition because I really wanted to: I do it because I feel I should do something/ anything to earn from my writing.
There is one challenge that I enjoy in the way of competition: The #shortstorychallenge2017, The NYC Midnight Madness Short Story Challenge. You are challenged, you are treated as creative under pressure, and you get feedback. I was terrified in 2015, but this year, 2017, I was excited. Where else can you hear a lot of what’s wrong with your writing in one go, and get the chance to improve. Another bonus: you get to test the accuracy of your gut feeling about the quality of your story, and that is invaluable for a writer. I finished my first round in the challenge on Wednesday : subject : blackmail; character : a parking attendant; genre: comedy. It was like a good stretch after a long nap to create something outside my own inclination. I’ll hear if I’ve progressed to the next round towards the end of February. Regardless of all that, I will have my feedback from reputable editors, and respected peers.
The silence is what I think can drive writers crazy so I avoid it. I have my trusty friends, my writing groups, my detractors, my “get a real job” acquaintances, and the ones that will workshop a story every couple of years to help me with a fresh perspective. I love them all; they are all provide grist to the mill. Iron sharpens iron you know. Never give up. Kudos to all the persevering writers and discerning readers out there.
I do apologise to anyone who has noticed my tendency to put punctuation outside the dialogue/quotation marks. It’s something I tend to do when in creative rather than analytical mode.
I hope you enjoy Albert’s Phenomenal Pitch (nothing to do with bowling ).]
Albert’s Phenomenal Pitch
Albert’s mother had told him the night before to be sure he wore his boots and long pants when walking in the vegetable gardens, as snakes were apt to cross it toward the river.
“Yes Albert,” intoned Mr New, his stepfather, “it is that time of year.”
His mother sighed and decided she would say more prayers to the Virgin, a habit she had learned from her Italian ancestors. Her prayers would ask for more wisdom for Mr New and herself, and less contrariness for Albert. Albert walked down toward the river with dark soil crumbling between his bare toes, adorned with only his favourite pair of board shorts which hung loosely from his waist, and a pair of binoculars dangling from his neck. He had a stick with him, and was whacking the upright sprinkler heads as he went along, watching the black poly tubes bounce back and forth. No one had mentioned whacking sprinklers; he was doing it to amuse himself.
Albert Petrolli was thin enough to be called Beanpole by his classmates. Beanpole was appropriate since his stepfather was a market gardener who owned the rectangle of black soil in which he walked, stretching down to the brown river that curved around three sides of Lilyborough. Albert strolled down to the vegetable garden each morning. He savoured the organic odour of warm Broccoli heads, and trellised French beans. He was starting high school soon and he thought about the advantages and disadvantages of school ceasing for the Summer holidays. Albert was strong but not athletic, fond of academic excellence, and relished educating his peers even when they didn’t ask for help. His parents might have warned about snakes, but they did not say they wished he’d return to piano lessons, and writing essays, for which he’d shown a talent in his upper primary school years. They feared he would demand they pay for his education in Astrophysics, to both assert his interest in a visit to NASA, and to prove the ineffectiveness of prayers about his contrariness.
Albert stopped to watch a hawk gliding on the far side of the river. Its slow glide became a plunge toward what Albert presumed was a scampering mouse. Watching through the binoculars that hung on a black leather strap from his long neck, Albert was enthralled by its plunge towards the ground. He flung away the stick that was in his hand, and heard a distinct hissing that made the nape of his neck prickle. A glance to his left, and he gaped at a black snake coiled with its head raised. Albert could see the white vulnerability of his legs next to the darting fangs. Saliva wet his lips, his heart raced and a screech agitated his vocal cords. Rippling light encircled Albert, the snake was flung away like a black streamer snatched by the wind, and he heard a smashing sound. Stunned, he stared toward the sound, and saw that a whole section of the nearby greenhouse was ripped away, and the transparent fiberglass was in splinters all over the truss tomatoes. It looked like a giant foot had stomped on the southern end of the greenhouse. Albert lifted his binoculars and inspected the damage. He did a 360-degree inspection of the sky; nothing on the horizon. Apart from the carolling of Magpies, there was silence. The atmosphere was still, and the sun was low over the river. It promised to be a perfect day.
Heart pounding, sweaty faced, Albert arrived back at the house. He saw Mr New halfway down the block on his way to the greenhouses. Albert got straight in the shower and was dressed for school when his mother appeared.
“I’m surprised to see you all dressed, and ready to go. Didn’t you go walking this morning?”
“No,” snapped Albert while avoiding his mother’s eyes.
His mother frowned. It wasn’t like Albert to dissemble. He’s usually painfully forthright, she thought. “Would you like some eggs?” she said, and Albert nodded.
He finished getting ready for school without a word. This resulted in him getting his least favourite sandwiches: peanut butter. He didn’t even ask for money for the canteen.
Albert didn’t answer one question during his science lesson, which meant that no one could possibly ignore him. His one friend at school, Tony, was bemused by his silence. “Cat got your tongue?” he inquired. Albert grunted and turned toward Mr Nagle. At recess time Mr Nagle asked him to stay behind.
“What’s wrong, Albert?” Albert looked down and scratched the bridge of his nose. He shifted from foot to foot. Mr Nagle leaned back against his chair arms, as he gripped the edge of the desk.
“Is it possible to have a random lightning strike out of a clear sky? One powerful enough to smash a building?”
Albert raised his head and looked his teacher in the face.
” It’s possible Albert, the available statistics globally show that lightning strikes the ground in excess of 40 million times a year, and due to lightning’s ability to travel, in what you call a tunnel, ahead of a storm front, lightning can strike up to 91 kilometres ahead of that storm front. Even in places where the sky is clear, you can get a bolt out of the blue.” He gave a wry grin, and patted the desk before getting up from his chair.
I don’t think that explains the snake, or the smashing of half a building, thought Albert. The rest of the day at school passed slowly for Albert.
After struggling to converse with his parents at tea, and concentrate during the evening current affairs show, Albert excused himself and went upstairs early. His mother was murmuring near her statues and candles as he wearily climbed the stairs. After brushing his teeth and changing into a pair of blue pyjama pants, Albert stretched out on his bed, and worried about the day’s events. Falling into a restless sleep, he dreamt vividly.
He was out in the vegetable acres but he was flying about five feet off the ground, and hovering over the spot he had stood in that morning. Three hawks flew over his head, and a bright purple cloud appeared from which bolts of lightning in a rainbow of colours struck the ground as the cloud raced toward him. Then three black sheep appeared. Finally, he saw Uncle Nolan in the blue suit he had worn to Grandma Petrolli’s funeral. Albert jerked awake, “Oh no!”
The last time he had seen Uncle Nolan was at the funeral when he was six years old. He had seen Unci No, as he called him then, every year until that time. The last time he saw him was memorably unique. It was unique because Albert had asked, “Unci No, can I have something special?” Unci No had stood up, knocking over his chair, “You’ve done it now Albert. I told you never to ask me for something special. You coulda asked your mother. She’d woulda prayed to the Virgin. You coulda asked your Aunt Amy who loves eBay Auctions and the National Geographic Online Store. But you hadda ask me, me of all people.” He rolled his eyes and lifted his hands to the ceiling. Slamming the front door, and sliding into the driver’s seat of his old blue Chevrolet, he drove away in a cloud of dust.
Albert had not seen his Uncle Nolan from that day until tonight in his dream. The last time he had heard from him was on his tenth birthday when a small parcel had arrived. Inside was a black box with a green ribbon around it. When Albert opened it he found a stiff cream card with the word “Pitch” on it in gold letters. There was another card with it on which Uncle Nolan had written the message: Phenomenal pitch is something special. When you are in your twelfth year you will know what I mean. Be careful with its use. I wish you all the help you can get. Love Unci No.
His mother read the card, and Albert noticed that her hand trembled, and she looked sad for a moment. Albert had asked if Uncle Nolan, as he called him now that he was no longer a baby, would be coming to visit for his birthday. Both his mother and stepfather shook their heads.His mother added, “but Aunty Amy is going to drop in.”
Albert was sad for a moment but then three boys from the history club turned up to eat cake with him, and he threw the box into the back of the wardrobe. Later that day Aunty Amy had turned up with the binoculars he still used, and Albert had forgotten to be sad. His tenth birthday had been the best so far.
Albert got out of bed, and went to his desk. Thoughts of the dream, the last time he saw Uncle Nolan, his tenth birthday memories, and the little black box filled his head. He went to the wardrobe and under a pile of dusty National Geographic Magazines, wedged against the back wall he found the dusty black box with its wrinkled green ribbon. He opened it, and the letters spelling Pitch floated out in a green glow. Albert screamed, and the front wall of his room crumbled. Waves of sound wrapped around him, and he flew out of the top floor, up into the air and crash landed causing a hole in his mother’s Oleander bush. He wriggled his legs, but received only scratches for his trouble, he remembered that Oleander was poisonous when ingested. He began to spit to dislodge the leaves, and hope the scratches didn’t let poison in.
Mr and Mrs New stumbled onto the front verandah. Holding each other in a daze, they looked around at the fragments of house scattered all over the front yard, and lying along the edge of the road that fronted the property. As they side-stepped their way up the drive avoiding nails and jagged wedges of brick, they spotted Albert in the Oleander bush.
“Good grief,” Albert mother’s cried, “look at you spreadeagled like a stranded turtle.”
She was distressed about the fact that Albert had Oleander leaves in his mouth. “They’re poisonous, you know.”
She tut-tutted, as Mr New got the ladder, then extracted Albert in an awkward fashion from the depression he had caused in the bush. This forced Albert to climb a branch at the edge of the bush and shimmy sideways onto the ladder. At one point all their weight was resting on the top of the ladder. Mr New leapt to the ground to stop the ladder falling sideways, onto a bed of broken bricks.
Albert’s mother led him into the cracked, dusty but still safe kitchen and contacted the poisons information centre. Mr New sat at the table and sighed every 30 seconds in between going in and out of the room, and looking at the pile of plaster fragments and door splinters that littered the stairs and living room. Albert took his treatment with strange meekness, though he protested that he hadn’t actually chewed the leaves. His mother made salami sandwiches and they sat at the kitchen table, bowed with shock, staring at the plate of sandwiches in front of them.
Mr New sighed again, “So I guess I should presume that the damage to the southern end of the tomato hothouse is the result of Uncle Nolan’s something special.”
Albert nodded, and sweat appeared on his brow.
“I guess this means you’re going to have to do what you’re told from now on, and keep your mouth shut.” Mr New reached for a sandwich, “It’s amazing how a midnight feast takes the sting out of strange events.”
Albert’s mother got up to put the kettle on
“I don’t think a midnight feast is going to deal with all the problems in Albert’s future, dear.” Albert’s mother banged the cups on the bench, and got out the hot chocolate.
There was silence until the kettle whistled. They heard the distant rumble of a V8 Chevrolet engine.
“I guess we’ll need a fourth cup now,” said Mrs New “that’s Nolan if I’m not mistaken.”
“I blame the Virgin,” said Mr New, with a smirk on his face.
“I’m not sure even the Virgin’s got the whole answer to this problem,” said Albert’s mother ignoring Mr New, and reaching for the matches to light another candle.
She turned to Albert. “Mind you, your little something special could be handy if you ever got trapped in a car, or a mine,” her eyes lit up.
Mr New looked thoughtful, “Perhaps some lucrative demolition contracts are in your future.”
“I don’t plan on any of that,” muttered Albert, resting his head on his folded arms.