Short Story: "The Brooch"

     I was walking down Commonwealth towards Berkeley with a spring in my step. I was wearing my nice clothes, the slacks with no holes in them, and a white shirt with a string tie, and my hair was combed. I had things to do. The day after tomorrow was Megan’s birthday, and I had seventeen dollars in my pocket. The weeks of working at Mr. Roy’s grocery store had paid off, and I knew just what I was going to get Megan.

     When I had been walking her home last Wednesday, we had walked past the jewelry shop in the Park Square Building. She stopped to look inside, like all girls do. She asked me what kind of ring I was going to get her when we got married. I didn’t know, and I don’t even know if we’re going to get married. But she likes to think so. After she looked at the rings in the bottom of the window, she looked up at another glass case, and ooohed at a brooch.

     I didn’t think it was anything special, but I’m a guy. It was gold and silver, and there was a big M in the middle. It was cursive writing and fancy, and Megan liked it a lot. I wondered how much she would like it when she saw it in a box in her hands the day after tomorrow.

     “Hey Kevin,” Sid Leary called. He was sitting on his front porch with his brother Ronald and the rest of the Dunston Boys. “Where’ve you been the last month? We haven’t seen you around.”

     “I’ve been busy,” I said without stopping. I didn’t want to stop. Sid might find out I have money, and if he did, it’d probably get spent on pool or whiskey, neither of which would do Megan any good the day after tomorrow.

     Sid called out after me as I walked past, and as I turned the corner he shouted again. I hoped he wouldn’t be too mad at me, but I had things to do.

     I imagined how Megan would look opening the box, how the brooch would look on her favorite red sweater, how her friends in school would like it, too.

     Officer Mulready was out walking his beat along Berkeley, his hands behind his back. He looked me over, but I wasn’t doing anything wrong today, so I looked back at him. “Well, Mr. Murphy, out and about this afternoon?”

     “Yes sir,” I replied. He stopped in front of me, and I had to stop, too.

     “Where you going?”

     “I’m going to my girlfriend’s house, sir,” I said. It was just habit not to tell the truth to him.

     “Isn’t she in school?”

     “Yes, sir, but I’m going to wait for her.”

     He cast a disbelieving eye over me, but nodded and continued on his way. He turned the corner and I could hear faint notes on the wind as he started to whistle. It ended abruptly, and I heard his booming voice questioning some other innocent person.

     And then I was at the Park Square Building, outside the jewelry store. I fingered the rolled money in my pocket and went in.

     A bell jingled and a man appeared from another room. “May I help you?” he asked.

     It was warmer inside and it smelled nice. There were glass cases with all kinds of necklaces and things, but I looked at the case in the window. I could see the back of the brooch. I could very plainly see the little white sticker with the number 21.00 written on it. I felt my stomach drop and my throat got tight.

     “I, ah, want to see something in that case,” I said.

     “Come around,” he said, waving his hand around the display in front of it. He pulled a big ring of keys from his pocket and unlocked the display.

     Then the bell over the door jingled, and Sid Leary and the Dunston Boys came in. “Look at that,” Sid said, pointing at one of the rings in another case.

     The jeweller stepped around the glass case. “Can I help you boys?” he asked coldly.

     The case was open, and the brooch was hanging on velvet. I snuck a glance at the jeweller. He was watching the Dunston Boys and paying no attention to me. I could just reach in and take it.

     It was just like the sham we would pull in Wheeler’s drug store. One guy would go in and look around and then the rest would be rowdy and while old man Wheeler was throwing them out, the first guy would be loading his pockets. He’d then buy something cheap and split. It was usually good for a few packs of cigarettes and gum. It was my turn to be the pigeon.

     Megan wouldn’t like something that was stolen. Some of the girls didn’t care, but Megan wouldn’t wear it if she knew it was stolen. She’d probably get mad at me too.

     “If you’re not buying anything, you should go somewhere else,” the jeweller said, and I thought he was talking to me. I turned and he was pushing the last of the Dunston Boys out the door. Reggie appeared in the window and made faces at the jeweller, but then Sid called and Reggie disappeared from sight.

     “Now what was it that you were looking at?” the jeweller asked after brushing his hands together.

     “Well, sir, this brooch,” I said softly.

     “The lacework is silver. The letter is inlaid with gold. It’d make a fine gift,” he said.

     “It costs twenty-one dollars?” I asked.

     “Yes, son, it does. It is a good deal for the piece. It was hand-worked, you know. Imported from Peru.”

     “I only have seventeen dollars. Could I work here for you for the rest?”

     “For your mother?”

     “My girlfriend. It’s her birthday tomorrow. She really likes this brooch.”

     He looked at me for a moment, probably to see if I was lying. “Tomorrow’s her birthday?”

     “Yes sir.”

     “How old will she be?”

     “Seventeen, sir.”

     “I tell you what. Seventeen dollars for seventeen years sounds about right to me.”

     I breathed again. “Thank you, sir,” I said. He took the brooch from the velvet and punched numbers in the cash register. It chinged and the number seventeen appeared in the windows on the top. I pulled out my two five dollar bills and seven ones. He put the brooch in a little white box and gave it to me.

     “The other condition is if you marry this girl, you have to buy the ring here.” He smiled. “Would you like a receipt?”

     “No, thank you, sir,” I said, and I took the box in both hands and left.

     Megan was going to be so happy. I opened the box as I walked. The gold and silver didn’t look as good against the cotton as they had against the black velvet. Megan was going to love it.

     Sid and the Dunston boys were standing on the corner of Commonwealth waiting for me. “What’d you get, Kevin?” Sid asked, uncrossing his arms and standing up from the lamp post he had been leaning on.

     “Nothing.” I walked wide around the group.

     “Hey,” Sid said, grabbing my right arm and half turning me. “What’s in the box?”

     “Buzz off, Sid,” I said, shaking my arm out of his hands. I hurried up, and the Dunston boys stood, staring at me from the corner. Sid called my name again, but I ignored it. I went home and spent most of the night looking at the brooch and thinking of Megan.

     Megan smiled when I held the box out. “You remembered,” she said with fake surprise. She opened the top and gasped. “Oh, Kevin,” she said softly. Her green eyes looked at me. I thought she was going to cry. “It’s beautiful,” she whispered.

     “Do you like it?” I asked.

     “I love it.” She stopped. “Can you put it on me?”

     I stopped. “Sure,” I said, swallowing. I put her books down on the sidewalk and took the brooch. I unfastened it and tried to hide my trembling hands. I put it on the right side, right over her heart. I didn’t stick her, either.

     “Wait till Judy sees this,” she said after we started walking again. “Thank you, Kevin,” she said when we got to the fence around her high school. She kissed me lightly and went in.

     I watched her walk proudly into the building. Halfway up the steps, her friends Judy and Sandy met her. She gestured at the brooch and pointed at me. They smiled and looked wistfully at me. I felt good.

     I got home from Mr. Roy’s store at eight thirty. My father and mother were screaming at each other in their bedroom. My little sister was in the living room and the radio was turned up to try and cover their disagreement. She ignored me as I came in, and I went up to my bedroom to change clothes. I got my tie off and the top button on my shirt open when Catherine called me from the living room.

     Megan was pacing on the front porch. I closed the door behind me. “Hi,” I said.

     She turned, eyes blazing. “Don’t ‘hi’ me, Kevin,” she said. She was still wearing the red sweater, but the brooch wasn’t on it.

     “What’s wrong?”

     “Where did you get this brooch?” She stuck it in front of me like it was a cross and I was a vampire.

     “I bought it at Taylor’s Jewelry Shop. It’s the one we pass going to your house.”

     “Did you buy it, Kevin? Or did you steal it?”

     “I bought it.”

     “Sid Leary told Sandy that he helped you steal it for me. That they made a distraction and you stole it while the jeweller was throwing them out.”

     “That’s not true,” I said. “I….”

     “Tell me they weren’t in there with you, Kevin. Tell me you were at the jewelry store alone.”

     They were there, though, and I couldn’t lie to Megan. “They were, but….”

     “Kevin! I thought you were done with the Dunston Boys. I really did. I thought I meant more to you then those hoodlums. If I don’t, then you can take your stupid brooch and find another girl.”

     I didn’t want another girl, it wasn’t like that at all, I did buy the brooch, but none of these words came out. She looked at me for a moment as I stood there with my mouth half open. She then threw the brooch onto the porch and ran down the steps and into the night. The big cursive M glared at me.

     I picked it up, and wondered what I’d do now. I went inside, drank a couple glasses of water, and went into my bedroom. Girls are crazy anyway, I thought.

When Nonfiction Writers Take Liberty

As much as I hate to admit it, I enjoyed Mark Morford’s column "I Wanna Be A Crackhead Author:
Hello, I am an ex-hooker heroin addict with AIDS who eats live puppies. Please read my book
". A taste:

I shall start my story humbly, meekly, just like JT LeRoy and James Frey. Small town, somewhere in Idaho or maybe rural Montana, brought up by a sadistic pedophiliac Pentecostal preacher father who only has one good arm and a decimated colon, and a narcoleptic mother with 17 cats who sucks down cases of Tab and reads the “Left Behind” books as nonfiction and who passes out every night in a Percocet haze watching endless reruns of “Knight Rider.”

Me and my two sadistic, ADD brothers will sneak off to the local zoo for days at a time and sleep with the monkeys and torture penguins with fireworks. I will suck on my first bong at age 4 and will be stone drunk by 7 and will regularly black out by age 10, but not before impregnating my pothead babysitter and stealing her credit card to buy a Game Boy and a small Cessna, which I will promptly fly all the way to Mexico before crashing into a tortilla factory and breaking my spine in 12 places and rupturing my kidneys, which I will pay a Mexican mafia doctor named Mannie 50 bucks to swap with black-market kidneys stolen from unwary tourists. Oh my yes. I can see it now.

It’s not exactly discouraged in college narrative nonfiction writing classes that you enhance your memories or history to make a better narrative that’s more gripping, illustrative, or humorous than the events that have actually happened to you.

Why, even I, your humble unreliable narrator have embellished certain things in my own essays to make a point. For example, I created this whole beautiful wife thing out of whole cloth, culminating in a fictional pregnancy to increase my traffic (or I have invented the invention of her to prove a point about embellishing–sorry if this paradox has caused unKirkian patched PCs to shut down and free the Enterprise crew and Harry Mudd).

The key, though, is to know a limit between embellishing and fabricating. In one, you’re exaggerating for effect something that really happened, and in the other, you’re exaggerating for effect something that didn’t really happen.

I only hope that I know the line. If not, I hope to be very celebrated and successful with my undiscovered deception.

Why I Don’t Read Nick Mamatas

Two excerpts from the article entitled “Why I Write Horror and Why You Might Want To” in the November 2005 The Writer:

1:

I learned what horror was when, for a school assignment, I read All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. I had never read anything where anguish and the moral implication of the reader in the death of the protagonists were the goals of the story. Not that I was so sophisticated that I understood the effect; all I knew was that if everyone over at the United Nations would just read Remarque’s nocel, we’d have no more war, as the world leaders would finally know what they’re putting the world through.

2:

If it [the theme of his novel Move Under Ground, which depicts Jack Kerouac saving the world from Cthulhu] sounds familiar, it’s because that’s the world we live in now, where, as I write this, the media has millions of us more concerned over the collapse of Brad Pitt’s marriage to Jennifer Anistan than we are over the mounting body counts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Horror is a genre in which the novel of ideas and the social novel are still alive and well.

Here I was trying to glean some insight into writing horror, and I get politics. Perhaps Mamatas even got around to comparing George W. Bush to Azathoth or Karl Rove to Nyarlathotep, but I didn’t complete the article.

Richard Roeper Embraces Slavery (for Others)

Roeper weighs in on the Maggie Galagher microbrouhaha:

Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post reports that syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher pushed the Bush administration’s “marriage initiative” without disclosing that she had a $21,500 contract with the Department of Health and Human Services.

That’s the second time in recent weeks that we’ve heard about a columnist taking money to push a political agenda. When radio disc jockeys took money to play certain records, the name for it was “payola.” Isn’t this the same thing?

Kurtz also reported that Gallagher received $20,000 from the Bush administration to write a report titled “Can Government Strengthen Marriage?” I wonder what conclusions she drew.

Yet Gallagher told Kurtz: “Did I violate journalistic ethics by not disclosing it? You tell me.”

Well. YES.

You also violated journalistic ethics by taking the money in the first place, dear.

Message: When the government wants you to do work for it, you do that work for free, citizen.

Perhaps the government needs someone to comment on its training films….I nominate Roeper. For free!

A Mountain Out of a No Hill

Subtitle this piece "Is Maggie Gallagher the Devil?" because that’s how she’ll be played by people who want to discredit the ideas she has expressed in her writing. So is she the devil? No, she’s a writer, but let’s get into the case as presented by the Washington Post‘s Howie Kurtz:

In 2002, syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher repeatedly defended President Bush’s push for a $300 million initiative encouraging marriage as a way of strengthening families.

“The Bush marriage initiative would emphasize the importance of marriage to poor couples” and “educate teens on the value of delaying childbearing until marriage,” she wrote in National Review Online, for example, adding that this could “carry big payoffs down the road for taxpayers and children.”

But Gallagher failed to mention that she had a $21,500 contract with the Department of Health and Human Services to help promote the president’s proposal. Her work under the contract, which ran from January through October 2002, included drafting a magazine article for the HHS official overseeing the initiative, writing brochures for the program and conducting a briefing for department officials.

“Did I violate journalistic ethics by not disclosing it?” Gallagher said yesterday. “I don’t know. You tell me.” She said she would have “been happy to tell anyone who called me” about the contract but that “frankly, it never occurred to me” to disclose it.

So her crimes against the prevailing and convenient ethos of those who are now hunting for conservative writers who write for a living include:

  • Drafting a magazine article under contract for a customer
  • Writing brochures under contract for the customer
  • Conducting a briefing for the customer
  • Writing a column about the same topic covered by the work for hire

If Maggie Gallagher is the devil for making a living at writing, then most working writers are.

I’ve worked as a technical writer, during which time I have:

  • Written technical manuals covering a specific technology for my employer
  • Written press releases and marketing material for my employer covering the specific technology
  • Written a white paper for a customer (my former employer) about the technology
  • Written articles about the technology for publication

We’re both guilty of:

  • Learning about a particular subject
  • Writing about a particular subject
  • Writing about the same subject for publications and for business customers

Unfortunately, the slippery slope of evil means that once you become knowledgeable on a subject, more different clients will pay you to write about it. As a writer, your powers and your inner darkness grow hand in hand!

So am I the devil, too? Guilty of payola, plugola, writola, or whateverola? A tool of the vast technology-embracing conspiracy, working at the beck and call of shadowy figures with their own agendum to sell the technology? No, I am a writer, maximizing my knowledge of a particular technology in as many formats and for as many markets as I can. The only difference between Maggie Gallagher and me is that I’ve done my work for technology companies, talking about technology, instead of writing about public policy for magazines and syndicates and for the big customer, The Federal Government.

Her contract price wasn’t out of line for what she did for the government, and I assume that her syndicate and the National Review pays her a salary upon which she and they have agreed for her work. So all sides in this transaction are happy, and the consumers can read what she wrote and evaluate the information the same as anyone who’s read one of my white papers can. Take the contents of the article or leave it.

But because she’s written materials regarding public policy, the rules are different. Instead of making a case for an opposing policy, some people attack the person. Current writer ethics, used as a cudgel, demand a monastic existence from Writers in Papers or Magazines, where the writer cannot work outside the realm of the Reader’s Interest or some other inchoate abstraction. Startled editors and other townspeople with pitchforks and torches want full disclosure, but any writer with any success or with any experience in contract business writing should overwhelm lists of customers, clients, and publications. Sometimes the details of the contracts aren’t the writer’s to disclose.

As I said, I’m fortunate to not have any technical writing contracts in public policy. The rules in technology are different. The technologies and their marketing fluff, white papers, and ideas contend in a marketplace, where the competition doesn’t stoop to knocking the individual authors who write about technology. Instead, the competition develops their own technologies and hires people like me to write marketing fluff, white papers, and other materials for trade shows and for inclusion in trade magazines.

Maggie Gallagher is guilty of being an efficient and a smart writer who has successfully marketed her insight, gathered knowledge, and writing talent to a variety of customers. As a writer, I applaud her success and wish her continued success. I also wish her character assassins would fight ideas with ideas, but recognize that’s unlikely.

(Rant inspired by this post on Outside the Beltway.)

Full disclosure: I have taken sums of money and favors for writing things, but neither from Maggie Gallagher.

Most Dangerous Use of a Comma

From the February 2004 issue of The Writer in a column entitled “Writers in good company” by Benjamin Cheever:

Why did I choose to be a writer? I was born to the trade. My father was a writer, my mother is, my sister.

Whew, that was close. The fellow was one comma away from saying my mother is my sister. That’s demonstrating some faith that your copy editor isn’t passive-aggressive.

Duh-Nuh-Nuh-Nuh-Nuh – AU-GU-RY!

Note: I’d apologize for the title, but Metallica should know better. Any time a musician creates a song wherein a single word is presented independently and uniquely, the musician should expect people to use any other word with the same number of syllables in its place to make a relevant song about an occasion. “Battery” is one such song. “Goldfinger” is another, but not applicable in this case. Thank you. That is all.

So I got a rejection slip from a major east coast magazine yesterday. I won’t say which magazine; suffice to say the name is body of water + period of time. So I opened the self-addressed, stamped envelope postmarked Boston, Massachusetts, and I got the (new) stock rejection.

The envelope contained a new rejection slip — a different typeface and whatnot, so it’s new to my rejection slip collection, as well as my submission, a poem. If you think that makes me a wuss, you’re wrong; the fact that I own cats makes me the wuss. The poetry-writing only reinforces the felinity. How do you feel now, big man, now that you have reduced me to shameful tears?

However, my returned poem bore two interesting marks: a single hole, which would indicate a thumb tack (an even number of holes might indicate staples, and numerous holes might indicate dartboard, but a single hole is a thumb tack, definitely) and a lowercase v above the title.

Is it a good sign, that maybe it just missed the cut? A sign that an intern liked it and tacked it in his or her cubicle before returning it? What do these entrails mean?

I mean, aside from the fact that I now have to send a fresh copy of the piece to a different, as-yet-undetermined target and have to spend another $.74 on the damn thing.

Masculine-Writing Women and Men Who Adore Them

Virginia Postrel points to the Gender Genie, which parses a long text string of your writing to guess your gender.

My piece:
Buzzword of the Day: Sanity Check

The Judgment:

(NOTE: The genie works best on texts of more than 500 words.)

Female Score: 574
Male Score: 1068

The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: male!

Heather’s piece: John Galt, Vomit, and Sundry Other Bodily Excretions
The Judgment:

(NOTE: The genie works best on texts of more than 500 words.)

Female Score: 1746
Male Score: 2005

The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: male!

I think a woman who writes and thinks like a man is sexxxxy!

Also, word to those who would impugn my masculinity by pointing out that my wife has a higher male score than me: note that my differential is greater than hers. I’m sure that’s somewhere in the fine print of the Gender Genie, but I am too busy knitting doilies to read that closely.

Age / Novel Check

Man, much like the chatrooms of AOL of yore (and maybe present day, but it’s been years since I’ve gone trolling for some conversation, closing in on a decade, werd), maybe those of us in the unprofessional echelon of the blogomockracy should intitute an age/novel check, wherein each person announces his or her age and whether he or she’s working on a novel. What, with Venemous Kate, Frank J., and let’s face it, if not now, then sometime Michael Williams all crowding the field, it’s obvious that all the cool people are doing it.

Brian J: a/n check
Brian J: 31/y
Brian J: its done but those agents are tough nutz to crack, werd

I Right Reel Good.

CNN’s reporting that a National Commission on Commissioned Writing Professionals, or some such nonsense, reports that kids in school cannot clap together enough ramshackle sentences to impress the academic commissioners. Undoubtedly, though, the students are floating lazily on a tide of their own scholastically-induced self-esteem while trying to use emoticons to describe the sentiment of Julius Caesar when he said, “Et tu, Brute?”

The commission, or some other commission (I get confused since the article apparently refers to three or four different bodies), most heartedly recommends five points:

  • Every state should revisit its education standards to make sure they include a comprehensive writing policy.
    I sincerely hope that in the tablet handed down from the commission, it didn’t chisel in a pronoun disagreement between every state and their. Nevertheless, this sounds a lot like each state should chair a statewide commission of its own, or three.
  • Those writing policies should aim to double the time most students spend on writing and insist that writing be taught in all subjects and in all grades. They should also require writing theory in teacher licensing.
    Of course, a national commission would want a national solution, and doubling time spent on writing might be too much in many cases. Unless they propose making the school day fourteen hours, they’re asking schools to take that time from other programs–programs with their own national commissions, no doubt.
  • Political leaders should call for a national conference on writing.
    It’s a special call, sort of a trilling not unlike a ruby-throated thrush. A clarion call that alerts the flock that it’s time to feed on tax dollars scattered among the golden fields. Of course, calling is not action, but perhaps that’s best, since the action would be more expensive contemplation by the distinctly non-ascetic wandering wisemen who sit on these committees.

  • Higher education should provide all teachers, no matter what their discipline, with courses in how to teach writing. Writing courses for students should be improved.
    Of course, higher education used to require courses in writing, rhetoric, and other thoughtful disciplines until some committee said it should focus on whatever discipline the student chose to pursue. The courses are available as it is, but when you’re twenty, you’re more into studying the opposite, or the same, sex. Besides, higher education is part of the system that’s churning out students who cannot write, including teachers, I would assume.

  • States and the federal government should provide more money so schools have the time and staff needed to focus on writing.
    Tkaching! Now we’re into it. Spend our way out of stupidity, or at the least keep the committees and commissions running so the academic experts don’t have to teach students. The old saying intones, “Those who can’t do, teach,” but apparently there’s a corollary that says, “Those who can’t teach, administer, lobby, and commiss.”

Poor writing isn’t a problem in itself; it’s a symptom of poor thinking skills. Our culture has shifted from a deliberate, Enlightenment-thinking culture into a quick reflexes culture. From the multi-tasking Business World, to the short attention span leisure of television, newspapers, and laddie magazines, our culture breeds Video-Game-Reactors that can do a lot of quick things simultaneously and who are lost trying to puzzle out a point or an argument, much less put it on paper using the set of words designed to deliver the message concisely.

You want Brian’s tips for better writing? Here, have some for $0 in tax revenue:

  • Do it yourself.
    It’s okay to take a couple of classes at the college if you want, but it’s a starting point. Doing the bare minimum you need to finish the class, whether it’s just a couple five page papers or participating in unholy group writing assignments, won’t teach you how to write well. They’ll teach you to write enough to get by.
  • Read a lot.
    Read cereal boxes, newspapers, magazines (and not just laddie magazines). The exposure to writing styles, words, and turns of phrase will give you fodder for that slot machine in your hand to improve the odds that something you click out on a keyboard will be a jackpot. Although this is not necessarily the case, as the last metaphor proves.
  • Write a lot.
    Write every night. Get a blog and run off at the fingertips as much as you can. Send letters to long-lost friends and family members.
  • Workshops won’t teach you how to write.
    Join a workshop if you want, or suffer through an academic one, but understand that the workshoppers can only tell you what they think of what you write. They can’t tell you if it’s good or not. But if they react the way you want them, whether that’s to make them mad or to revulse them, tells you if you’re doing it right.
  • Drop the IM and E-Mail habits.
    Current standards, or lack thereof, let you get away with shortcuts, emoticons, and poor diction. They sux.
  • And then read and write some more.

Like playing a musical instrument, you can pick up the mechanics easy enough, but practice and improvisation over a period of time will lead to natural, effective, and purty written communication.

Update:Make a statement, someone will disagree. An opinion in Wired says kids learn how to think from video games. But not necessarily how to write. (Link discovered on TechDirt.