Stories of Weird Mystery

Month: April 2020

Ice Breaking for Writers

You’d think after twenty years of various kinds of teaching, I’d have inured myself to ice-breaking activities at the starts of classes and meetings, but no, I still don’t like them.

There is a slug-like creature deep inside me who would rather lurk at the edges of a gathering and judge the people there instead of participating. That creature, too, curls and twitches when exposed to all of the ordinary ways that people get to know each other.

For me, an icebreaker would be, “Who here has ever experienced something science can’t explain?” THAT is how you get to know people, going straight to their crack-pottery.

Yet I know that they’re a necessary evil, and the true reason I don’t like them is the same reason that the slug would rather ooze: entropy is easier.

So it is with returning to writing day after day, another endeavor that requires icebreaking. For me, there’s a huge mental or emotional barrier before getting back into creative work, but knowing that doesn’t make it easier to get through.

What’s nice – though not required – from a writing session for me is absorption: getting back inside the thing so that I can look back out through its eyes again, able to intuit what feels right to do next. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it flow, but George Saunders has a metaphor that makes better sense to me: an eye doctor flipping through the lenses to feel which is better for the total vision.

Getting to that state is difficult, but I’ve come up with a few tricks:

  • Open a file, read a little of what I wrote before, and tinker with a few things that don’t look or sound right to me.
  • Ask myself a question in writing about the work in progress (sometimes as simple as “What the fuck is going on?”) and then answering also in writing.
  • Open a new document and paste in the parts of the work in progress that I am certain I want to keep, leaving the iffy ones in the old version.
  • Write a photograph I don’t have, describing a place or a person or a feeling from my past that hasn’t been otherwise recorded.
  • Write a Postcard Story based on some image I find (though I seldom have energy to write the original thing once I finish one).
  • Type out a passage from a work I admire in a similar voice or point of view (first person, third person) to get a feel again for how prose flows. Sometimes I’ll type in a passage from my own work.

All of these are on-ramps to getting back into my work, and there are countless passages in my journals where I leave them half-finished to go back into the story that has suddenly returned to me.

This is where I’m supposed to say that writing isn’t always fun or easy, but I’d guess that even plodding ahead is a kind of icebreaking, albeit slow and painful. And with so few pleasures to be had from the publishing of writing, why shouldn’t you make creating it as enjoyable as possible?

My best work has come from “tinkering,” the word that best describes the low-pressure experimentation that’s required for me to create.

I build stories the same way that Roy Neary built his model of Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, one smudge of mashed potatoes at a time.

Postcard Story: My Friend Hoppsapop

Image courtesy of

Around the third day, Hoppsapop stopped caring about his make-up. Which, I have to say, is about 48 hours later than I expected him to. We figured he’d come in, pose for a couple of pictures, shake Walter’s hand, and then bolt back to his favorite bar back in the city.

We would have been fine with that.

But the name of the essay contest was, “Why I Want to Spend a Week with Hoppsapop,” and Walter won it fair and square, and some lawyer at the clown show must have worried that we’d sue if he didn’t spend an even seven days streaking our guest bed sheets with makeup and leaving kinky strands of bright red hair in our sink and toilet.

If he’d stayed even sixty seconds longer, though, that’s when I would have sued.

I’m Walter Neussman, and I live in a boring town called Junction Falls full of boring people who think that John Birch is a hero and anybody who isn’t a Baptist is going to hell. It’s the kind of place where the librarian with the skin and whiskers of a potato will call your mom if you try to check out The Lord of the Rings.

This town’s made it pretty clear already that they don’t need or want me (or people “like” my whole family back to the Stone Age), but there is one thing I’m sure they can use: something that doesn’t quite fit into their brains. That could be a Russian invasion or an alien landing, but I figure a big sweaty clown like Hoppsapop flopping his shoes up and down Main Street would do the trick, too.

What did they do all day? Well, Hoppsapop woke up each morning with a groan I could hear through his bedroom wall, staggered into the bathroom for a long sonorous piss, and then dabbed on his makeup.

On the two days it rained, they played checkers and built model airplanes and made a puppet theater from old lumber in the garage. When it was sunny, they went fishing at the pond with old stick poles or on bike rides with Walter perched on the handlebars and Hoppsapop pedaling away. I think they built a fort in the woods, too.  

It wasn’t until later when I saw the muddy footprints that I realized they were sneaking out at night.

I’m not even that different on the outside, not like a clown would be. I have no idea why guys like Peter Riggins won’t let me play any of the pick-up games in the lot. My old man says that’s just what people do, find the outsider no matter how tight their group is. If everybody was born a clone of everybody else, they’d still hang the one who parted his hair the other way. Maybe Dad’s right, I don’t know.

Maybe what this town needs is someone REALLY different to come along, different on the inside AND the outside.

No, Walter didn’t know any of the missing boys, except from school. He didn’t play with them and, if I’m being honest, a few of them weren’t very welcoming or kind. He’s an independent kind of kid, though, off exploring the woods or reading in the park by himself. I was a little surprised he even wanted Hoppsapop to stay with him.

So that’s why I want a clown to come to town. He doesn’t have to do much, maybe freak people out a little, stare in a couple of windows, leave his nose under some pillows, honk a few kids awake in the middle of the night, laugh insanely from inside a closet, that sort of thing.

I’m open to suggestions if he’s got any.

Anyway, thanks for your consideration. I’m looking forward to spending a week with Hoppsapop.

What do you mean, Walter didn’t win the contest?

Postcard Story: Nannah’s Cats

[From time to time, I write a short story based on a strange image and share them. Sometimes, I’ll post a classic one from long ago, too.]

As the Alzheimer’s disease took hold, Nannah’s art got stranger and stranger. Not that it was ever normal — she was what her instructors in the extension classes liked to call an “enthusiastic” artist.

She had a curious way of making ordinary artistic mistakes that somehow turned out creepy. Her stained glass frieze of the Last Supper looked like a pack of tyrannosaurs besetting their feeble young. Her lopsided bowls seemed ergonomically designed for pounding brains with a pestle. Her portrait of Grandpa in oils had slightly crossed eyes that always seemed to focus right over your shoulder, as though to warn you something was sneaking up on you.

But she was sweet and well-meaning, and it was always a frantic race to hang and position her work when she came to visit because, as my father put it, “Who wants a hunchbacked clown cookie jar leering at you every night when you go for a brew?” They all were gifts made with love if not care and we didn’t want to hurt her feelings.

Though, as her mental capacity dwindled, that got harder and harder to do. It wasn’t so much that the artwork got worse but that it got…more cheerful? Sentimental? No, no: cloying. Like you’d imagine the smell of roses in a coffin, or the taste of your fifteenth white chocolate cupcake in a row.

What was scary was that she got better at drawing and painting and sculpting as her mind pulled away from her body, and that the things she produced were utterly alien in their innocence. The less creepy they were, the more creepy they were — because she made them. They grew more childlike, regressing, reverting, curling backward in the womb.

Her last work was what we’ve come to call “The Cat Painting,” and it was a gift for my sister Melanie with whom she’d always shared a love for cats. Nannah had come to visit for what we all knew would be our last Thanksgiving together — the talk had gotten more serious about places that could better care for her — and we were all forcing ourselves to be as cheerful as her scary paintings.

When Melanie peeled away the paper wrapping of the frame, though, she screamed. Poor Nannah only closed her eyes and nodded, soaking in what she thought was approbation, and my dad had to catch the painting before it hit the floor and shattered.

Nobody quite knew what Melanie had seen. It was a painting of a cat clutching a branch in a tree or bush, examining a butterfly with a certain scientific disinterest. It could be an illustration in a children’s book, or something stitched onto a baby blanket, or maybe even a little girl’s stationery. Weird like Nannah’s other recent work, yes, but nothing startling.

Except to Melanie. “It was like I saw two paintings at once,” she told me years later. “One right, one wrong.”

She recovered then as best she could, choking out a thank you to Nannah and taking the painting with the very tips of her fingers.

“Where should we hang it?” Nannah asked. “Oh, I know the perfect place!” She clasped her hands together and padded off to my sister’s room.

We all followed like condemned men because this time we were stuck. When Nannah only visited for the day, we could stow her work in a closet or the attic after she left. But as her health had gotten worse, Grandpa worried what he’d do if something happened to her on the highway, and this one night, this last night, they decided to stay over.

So there was nothing to do but hang the painting with Nannah’s swaying help, right across from the window above her bed.

“What am I going to do?” he muttered to Mom. “She’s here for one night. We hang it, we take it down, everything’s fine. She’s dying, for Christ’s sake.”

Which is how Melanie found herself awake all night, staring at that cat bathed in the moonlight.

When I got up the next morning, the door to the bathroom was locked and she was crying on the other side. I bent down and peered underneath to see her clutching her knees with the nightgown pulled over her entire body like a shield.

“What’s the matter?” I whispered.

She wouldn’t tell me at first, but I pressed my ear against the door for when she did.

“There’s a second cat,” she finally said.

When Melanie had gotten back from the center that time, Mom and Dad made me swear to tell them if she ever did anything weird or scary again. Being a bigger sister, everything she did was weird and scary, but this time, I knew it was important. So I pressed even closer to the linoleum floor and whispered under the door, “I’ll be right back.”

But of course I wasn’t. When I ran downstairs, my parents were already awake, already upset, Mom crying into tissues while my father held her close. Nannah lay still in the guest bed, peaceful and utterly quiet. I watched a long time and she didn’t move. Mom pulled me against her nightgown and I told her through the fabric that Melanie was in trouble, that something was wrong, but nobody could hear me. They only found her an hour later, still crying in the bathroom, knowing already that Nannah was gone.

Melanie went back to the center for a few months after that, and she comes and goes even today. Opinion in our family is strongly divided between whether there were one or two cats in Nannah’s painting when she first brought it; my parents say two while Melanie and I say one. I’m less sure than she is, but I figure somebody ought to agree with her.

Melanie’s an artist now, and she keeps Nannah’s painting above her bed. She’s had boyfriends leave in the middle of the night, saying they heard it whispering to them, saying that the cats switched places, saying that the butterfly touched down upon my sister in her sleep. I think it’s a kind of Rorschach test she puts them through, and I don’t think anyone has ever passed.

She paints things like that herself now, and she says she understands. She tells me that an artist gives away a little of herself in every work if she’s any good, and all that happened with Nannah’s painting is that she gave away the last.

Once, drunk at a long distant Thanksgiving, she said, “When there’s three cats, you can have it.”

Postcard Story: A Stern Talking-To

Photo courtesy of

Boy, you know what kids with grades like these end up doing?

Cleaning sex robots.

Middle school is Waterloo-time, kiddo. Your whole world gets decided here, not just by your permanent school record but by your heart. And as I’m looking over this report card, I’m seeing one thing.

You’ve got the heart of a sex robot cleaner.

You’ll ride to work every day in an old filthy bus with people going to jobs just like yours, but a tiny bit better. You won’t be in a jacket and tie but a jumpsuit, and you’ll carry your paper bag lunch into a building with no markings on the outside. Then you’ll take your station beside a stainless-steel table with a hundred other sex robot cleaners like a giant morgue.

Day after day, hour after hour, they’ll wheel in wooden crates that look like coffins, and you’ll have exactly 17 minutes per cleaning to keep up your quota. Some will take less. Some will take much, much more.

And we’re talking about a thorough cleaning. Thorough.

That doesn’t mean a once-over with a sponge before you roll her back in the crate. It means a tray covered in picks and swabs like at the dentist’s office. It means hoses of pressurized water and air to get stuff out of crevices. It means a drain underneath. It means a black light on a swivel arm so you can see every glowing spot.

You’ll snap gloves onto your wrinkled fingers and get to work on the first one, trying not to think about the much wealthier man who sent it in for you to clean. He got A’s in school, that’s why he’s rich enough to own one. That’s why he’s rich enough to pay guys like you to pick it clean.

They’ll probably smell, the robots. If you’re lucky, it’ll be cheap lavender spray. If you’re not, it’ll be the reek of sweat and feet and the things rich men pay others to smell.

Sometimes — maybe most of the time — they’ll be damaged, and you’ll wonder how it happened. You’ll disconnect a speaker that’s still softly moaning, and you’ll wonder how the skull got cracked or why there are twenty circular burns on the inner thighs. You’ll find a broken blade or some frayed rope in the bottom of the box. You’ll swab something out of the ear or the nose and ask yourself how it could have gotten there. You’ll check the feet and see they’re filthy, but that’s impossible because these robots don’t walk. They just sit and lie around and sometimes kneel.

You’ll wonder why almost all the robots are female.

That bus will take you home to an empty apartment. You won’t be living with someone, that’s for sure — years of seeing what men do to woman-shaped things will either scare you at your own potential or thrill you. Either way, you won’t love human beings. You may love some plastic parts you’ve stolen from work and keep under your bed. You won’t be able to look women in the eye.

When Thanksgiving and Christmas come, there will be nowhere to go. Your mom and I will be dead by then, and I’ll be damned if I’m leaving you the farm. Maybe you’ll treat yourself to a milkshake at the mall food court or a gray steak at a diner. You’ll probably read a book or something because you’ll still like that.

Eventually, you’ll die. If you’re fortunate, you’ll simply go limp one day and ooze from the top of your last half-finished cleaning to the floor. More likely, some nut desensitized to a decade of working there will come in after a rape and murder spree, and he’ll mow all of you down with an assault rifle laughing and crying at the same time.

That nut may even be you.

Either way, bleeding out into the drain or gasping your last breath, you’ll think, “I really wish I’d listened to my dad and done better in Social Studies.”

Your mom and I just want the best for you, buddy. So let’s shape up, okay?

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