Monthly Archives: October 2017

427. A Grave Story

The paragraph below comes from Symphony in a Minor Key. Neil McCrae has read a ghost story at Halloween, timing it to end just as the bell rings in his sixth grade class.

Half the students leaped to their feet screaming, then broke into laughter, and went out for their break repeating juicy bits of the story to one another. Neil sat back with a feeling of satisfaction, mixed with amusement at his own self-indulgence.  There was a lot of theater in Neil McCrae, but he kept it on a tight leash. Once in a while, though! Just once in a while it felt good to cut loose.

Since the novel is based on my teaching career, it will surprise no one that Neil and I share a few characteristics. Keeping theatricality on a tight leash is one of them. Telling ghost stories on Halloween is another. This is one of those stories, based loosely on a joke I read in Boy’s Life back in the fifties.

Of course it’s a true story. I wouldn’t lie to you.

=======================

I had two brothers as students. I had one in my class one year, and his younger brother the next. They were always hanging out together. Some brothers get along; come don’t. These two were great friends.

They were outdoors types. The liked to fish and hunt. Their dad would take them canoeing, and sometimes the three of them would camp out together.

The year I’m thinking about, the last year I knew them, their dad had been really busy all fall, so they were on their own. They decided to go off together in the canoe, and go camping along the river.

I didn’t mention, did I, that the Tuolumne River runs along about a mile from the school where I taught? Or that the regional cemetery is right along the river? Of course, the students I told this story to, already knew that.

Since it’s a true story, I have to keep the details straight.

This particular fall had been rainy, and both brothers were involved in soccer, so they kept putting off their canoeing and camping trip. September came and went, and then October, and by the time November was just around the corner, they were getting pretty desperate to go. That’s probably why they decided to go on the last Friday night in October.

I probably wouldn’t have gone, myself, because it was Halloween, but these two had a habit of daring each other, and that often got them into trouble. So they went. They put in the river at Fox Grove and intended to sleep somewhere about five miles west, then paddle on down to Legion Park the next morning. Their mom was going to pick them up there. Too bad she never got the chance.

Everything went along fine for the first hour. They got a late start, but that didn’t matter since they could camp anywhere. It’s pretty wild down along the river. They got past the rapids under the bridge. They were pretty tame rapids. Things went well for the first few miles, but then fog began to form. That was fun at first.

Did I mention it was Halloween?

The fog hung in the old trees along the river bank, but they could still slip along below it. At first. Then it got dark, all the sooner because the fog was cutting off the moonlight.

Did I mention there was a full moon? That was part of the reason they went that night, because they thought they would be able to see by it’s light. They hadn’t figured on the fog. Pretty soon they couldn’t see anything. They got on down the river for a while by instinct. If you’ve been on the water enough, you get a feel for currents, and anyway, you can’t get lost on a river. It only goes one direction.

Still, it started to get dangerous, not to mention creepy, so they pulled up on a mud bank to think things over. They also had been drinking two liter Pepsi’s, if you know what I mean. They had to take care of that little chore, and they did, but while they were looking for a bush apiece, they got separated. They could hear each other clearly, but the river banks threw back such echoes that they couldn’t find each other. And then they couldn’t find the canoe. Finally, Joe – that was the younger brother – found a path up and shouted to Tom – that was the older brother – that they should climb out of the river bottom and meet on the flat land up topside. Tom shouted back to go ahead, so Joe went up.

That might not have been the best idea they ever had. They had made it further down the river than either one realized, and when Joe got to the top, he found himself in the cemetery.

Now Joe wasn’t particularly spooky. Camp fire stories of ghosts just bored him. But this was a real cemetery, and the fog in the trees looked like Spanish moss hanging down – you know, like in the stories of the bayous. He didn’t like it. He hollered for Tom, but got no answer. Then the fog thickened and the moon, which had been mostly obscured, disappeared completely. He found that he couldn’t see anything, so he put his hands out to feel, and found himself moving along, guiding himself by the tops of tombstones. He didn’t like that much either, but what are you going to do?

Tom, meanwhile, thought he had found a trail up, but it only led him into a bramble of raspberry bushes. It took him ten minutes to work his way through them and by the time he made it up to the top, his clothes were in tatters and he had blood all over his hands from fighting the thorns. He staggered out on top, panting with the effort, and found himself in the cemetery, too.

I know all this because I was one of the ones who went looking for them then next day, after someone had found their abandoned canoe. It was easy enough to track them, first by river mud footprints, then prints in the soft soil. We knew which was which because Tom’s shoes were much bigger, and besides, there were all those drops of blood.

What neither boy knew was that there was a funeral scheduled for that Saturday. The groundskeepers had dug the grave, and it was standing open. Tom found it first.

Of course, it was pitch dark, so he found it by falling in. The groundskeepers had done a good job. It was seven feet deep, with straight-up sides, three feet wide and seven feet long and completely impossible for Tom to get out of. And did he try! He leaped. He scrambled. You could see the next day where he had dug his fingers into the sides of the grave, with no success. I’m sure he shouted, but no one could hear him. I wouldn’t be surprised if he cussed a little.

Eventually, he exhausted himself and sank to the ground, curled up in a ball, and decided to wait for morning. He was half asleep when Joe found the grave the same way Tom had.

Joe fell in, and the sound of a body falling into the grave with him sent Tom to his feet. He slammed himself back against the side of the grave, wanting to scream, but no sound came out. It never occurred to him that it might be Joe, but every other monster from every movie he had ever watched went running through his head. He squeezed back into a corner of the grave in abject fear, while Joe picked himself up, turned, and began leaping and scrabbling at the wall of the grave.

About that time, just enough moonlight came down into the grave that Tom could recognize his brother. Joe slid back to the bottom of the grave for the third or fourth time as Tom reached out his bloody hand, with tattered sleeves hanging down, and touched his brother’s shoulder. His voice was hoarse from fright as he said, “You’ll never make it out of this grave.”

But Joe did. He screamed and gave such a leap that he outdid himself, caught his fingertips on the lip of the grave, scrambled like a madman, and was gone.

Tom was still there when we found him the next morning. I won’t say he was all right. I don’t think he was ever all right again. But he was there.

Joe was never found. They dragged the river. Friends, neighbors, and strangers turned out in the search, but it was useless.

Tom and his family moved away soon after, but I get Christmas cards from his mother every year. She tells me what Tom has been doing, but she never mentions Joe.

Me either. Except every year about this time I feel the need to tell his story. Just a cautionary tale, you understand. Nothing to do with me, whatsoever.

I wouldn’t lie to you.

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Symphony 29

Neil’s eyes were blazing and both boys drew back. He knew how this kind of wrong-headedness could destroy the good feelings in a whole class, and he felt helpless to stop it. Helplessness always made him angry.

Neil sent Sean to sit against the building a hundred feet away, but in full view, then talked with Duarte for five minutes. Then he sent Duarte away and talked with Sean. It did not take long for him to find the pattern behind their actions. It had exactly the same significance as two bull elk vying for dominance in a herd. It had nothing to do with Anglo and Mexican, but both boys were seeing it in those terms. That made it dangerous.

Neil called Duarte back and tried to get the two of them to talk. He got nowhere; at eleven years old they were simply to self-involved to understand what Neil was trying to do. Finally, as the class bell rang at the end of noon recess, he warned them both strenuously and sent them on to their next class.

# # #

Rumor travels fast. When the last student had gotten on the bus that night, everyone in the teacher’s lounge knew what had happened. Fiona came to Neil and said, “I hear my son Sean gave you some trouble today.”

“Not much.”

“That isn’t the way I heard it,” Fiona said. “I saw him in science five minutes after you finished chewing him out. He was steamed. So was Duarte. There is no love lost between those two.”

“Tell me about it!” Neil laughed.

“They have been going at it off and on for at least three years. What you saw today was nothing new, and no surprise to the rest of us. Did you write them up?”

“No.”

“Well, thanks for that, anyway.”

The remark irritated him. “Fiona,” he said, “I’m half-way insulted. The fact is, I was so angry that I completely forgot he was your son. Personal loyalty had nothing to do with it. The fact that he was your son wouldn’t have mattered if I had thought he needed to be written up.”

A flash of protective anger crossed her face, but she was a rational person and a professional. Her good sense rode down her mother’s instincts, and she said, “Of course not. And I didn’t mean to insult you.”

Fiona moved away and Carmen took her place. She asked him to tell her what happened and he did.

Carmen shook her head when he had finished and said, “I had those two in a self-contained classroom in the third grade, before we were reorganized. They were separated at my request when they went to fourth grade, but apparently somebody forgot and put them together again. I should have caught that when I looked at your class lists before school started.”

“Do you mean this school bases its class lists on who can and can’t get along?”

“Of course not, but we do try to separate poison combinations. It makes life easier.”

“Does it make life better?”

“I don’t follow.”

“They have to learn how to get along with their enemies someday. Life won’t put them in compartments where they don’t have to rub up against people they don’t like. When are they going to learn to deal with that?”

Carmen snapped, “Soon enough!  They’ll learn about life soon enough.” 

She slammed her chair back as she got up, and everyone in the room turned to look. That embarrassed her. Momentary vulnerability came into her expression and transformed her. Then she spun and stalked out of the room. more tomorrow

426. The Five Plots of Time

It is a dubious tradition to produce articles like The Three Basic Plots of Fiction, or The Four Kinds of Traditional Hero. I’ll add my bit, even though I’m dubious myself.

The Five Master Plots of Time Travel Stories

This grouping came out as I was thinking about The Map of Time. Time travel has a long and tortured history as a set of concepts hung uncomfortably between science fiction and fantasy. None of it makes much scientific sense, although I do read a lot of actual (?) scientific theory which demonstrates that even scientists can waste their lives reading too much SF. It would make more sense to simply call all time travel stories fantasy, but they always requires a time machine, so they must be science fiction — more or less.

Then again, Einstein would hate FTL stories. They violate relativity, but that doesn’t keep me from reading and writing them.

Let’s just tackle this mess in the spirit of fun.

Master plot #1.     A man tries to change history and fails. He is doomed to failure, no matter what, because the past can’t be changed. The entertainment in this kind of story is in making the reader think the hero will succeed, and fouling him up at the last minute in some clever way.

Master plot #2.     A man tries to change the past in some logically forbidden way. The classic form would be that our hero goes back to kill his father before our hero is born. The stars go out; the universe ends.

I am not fond of this form. It’s too much too simple. Perhaps a good writer could make it work if we know that the victim-to-be is the hero’s father, but the hero does not. (Shades of Oedipus!) Then we would anticipate that this is a type one story, and be taken by surprise when the hero succeeds and the stars go out. That might work, but I doubt it.

Master plot #3.     This is a variation on 2 and 3. A man tries to fix a tragedy by going back in time, but instead makes things worse. This is just a variation on the notion that, “You can’t make the world better, and you shouldn’t try. Just accept your fate.” Literature is filled with this Christianity based defeatism, epitomized by The Monkey’s Fist.

The Greeks called it hubris. I don’t buy it. For me, a man without hubris isn’t much of a man.

Master plot #4.     A man is in a world different from ours. He tries to change the past, succeeds, and his world morphs into the “real” world, i. e. ours. If the reader accepts that he is reading an alternate timeline story, and is taken by surprise by the ending, it can work. Brunner used this bit in Times Without Number, but that novel had enough quality to succeed even with a different ending. Zelazny did a beautiful variation in the short story The Game of Blood and Dust.

Master plot #5.     A man tries to change history, but instead creates a new timeline, or crosses over into an existing alternate timeline. This isn’t a trope; it’s a genre. Alternate timelines can be wonderful, but they are often cheap knock-offs, based on the notion that you don’t have to create anything, you just rearrange what already exists.

They aren’t even time travel stories, unless someone moves from one timeline to another. Pavane is an alternate timeline novel, but not a time travel story, since every actor in the novel remains tied to his own timeline throughout, and is never even aware of the existence of any other.

Okay, I will admit that any bright twelve year old could invent more plots, or could knock holes in these. I present them merely as a mental exercise — a fourth dimensional Rubik’s cube — for your amusement.

Have fun arguing.

Symphony 28

The physical and emotionally difference between the sixth graders and the older children was strikingly apparent to students and teachers alike, and the sixth graders segregated themselves. They shared a common playground with the older ones, but they staked out those areas that the older kids did not use.

As Neil watched, a baseball game was getting under way. Duarte and Sean were the captains; they called the rest of the class one by one to make up sides. To Neil’s dismay, Duarte was choosing only Chicanos and Sean was taking only Anglos.

Neil moved closer, thinking he was getting a sad insight into racial tension at Kiernan school. Instead he heard Tim Galloway hanging on Sean’s arm whispering urgently, “Choose Rafael!” When Sean chose Bob Thorkelson instead, Tim gasped in dismay, “He can’t even hit the ball!”

Sabrina Palmer jerked at Sean’s other arm and said, “What’s the matter with you? Choose the good ball players. It doesn’t matter if they are Mexican.” To her it was not a weighty matter of prejudice; she just wanted to win the ball game.

On the other team, Oscar Teixeira threw his glove down and snapped at Duarte, “Why didn’t you get Greg? He’s the best pitcher.”

Before the teams had even been chosen, some of the players on each side had begun to wander off in disgust. Neil heard, “That’s a lousy way to choose a team,” and “What’s the matter with Duarte anyway?” and “That was cheap!”

Neil whistled and waved the kids over to him. They came reluctantly; they didn’t know him well yet and being called in from the playground usually meant that someone was mad at them.

Neil asked them, “Do you want to play baseball?”

“We did,” Sabrina said, “until Sean and Duarte screwed it up.”

“Let’s try again,” Neil said. He pointed to two of the most athletic looking boys and said, “Ramon and Carlos, you choose teams this time. And make it fair. Duarte and Sean, you two stay with me.”

Neil had chosen two Hispanics as captains — he could as well have chosen two Anglos — so this time the children were chosen by ability and there was a fair racial mixture.

Neil led Sean and Duarte away from the ball diamond and asked them, “What are you two doing, trying to start a race riot?”

Duarte shot him a black look and said, “I don’t know what you are talking about.”

“Oh, you don’t? Well, you must be the only kid in sixth grade who doesn’t know. Your teammates knew; they were complaining and walking off before I ever got there. What’s up?”

“Well, Sean started it.”

“I did not! I was choosing fair yesterday when you took all Mexicans.”

“That’s ’cause Mexicans are better,” Duarte muttered.

“Duarte!” Neil snapped, putting boundaries on the confrontation. He continued in a softer voice, “Duarte, do you really think Mexicans are better than Anglos?”

“No. But Sean thinks Mexicans are no good.”

“I do not!” Sean replied, then muttered under his breath, “I just think you are no good.”

Duarte lunged for Sean and Sean’s reaction was only a heartbeat behind. Neil caught them each by the back of his shirt and jerked them apart, none too gently. “Stop it!” Neil’s shout echoed across the playground, and the ball players all looked up. “That will be enough out of both of you. I pulled you aside to talk to you — to help you solve your problems. If you want to fight, that’s a whole different story.” more tomorrow

 

Symphony 27

September 1988

Neil’s relationship with his fellow teachers was strained for the first couple of weeks. He was naturally friendly and under normal circumstances he would have quickly fitted in, but there was one question each teacher had to ask him, for which he had no answer.

It was clear that he was not used to teaching sixth graders, and if he had any particular aptitude for the younger children, it did not show during those first weeks. So why was he here?

Neil said that he had wanted to try his hand at teaching younger children. That was not entirely a lie, since he used to think about it in that dreamy state of considering unlikely alternatives. But he would never have done anything about it, so he had a hard time putting conviction into his voice when he replied.

That answer only led to the next logical question. Why didn’t he get a job in his home town? Why move away and leave all his friends behind to make the experiment? There was really no way to answer that question.

By the second week, the other teachers knew that Neil would not talk about his reasons for being at Kiernan and his reluctance to share such basic personal information made them all pull back from him. They were unfailingly polite, but that initial friendliness had faded.

That was the situation when circumstances threw him in with Fiona Kelly.

# # #

In any school, some of the students are the sons and daughters of the teachers. Teaching some other teacher’s child can be a little unsettling; under the best of conditions there is a flavor of conflict of interest.

The children of teachers are angels or hellions or something in between, just like the children of bums and businessmen. Sean Kelly was something in between. He was not quite a top student, but close.  He made mostly As and Bs. He loved baseball and he was good at the game. He was open and friendly, and if anyone had accused him of unkindness to any of his fellow students he would have been shocked and angry at the accusation. Yet, he had a weakness; a nemesis; his own personal Dr. Moriarity.

He could not stand Duarte Zavala.

Duarte Zavala was one of the Chicano children who broke the stereotype. Duarte was not quite a top student, but close. He made mostly As and Bs. He loved baseball and he was good at the game. He was open and friendly to anyone, as long as that person observed certain conventions. If someone disliked Hispanics because they were Hispanics, then that person became Duarte’s mortal enemy.

Duarte conceived the idea that Sean didn’t like Hispanics and began a campaign against him.

Sean Kelly liked Sean Kelly a great deal, and generally thought of others as adjuncts to himself. In this, he was almost identical to Duarte but, at eleven years old, neither could see the similarity. Sean’s self-infatuation made him condescending to the other children around him, male or female, Anglo or Hispanic. Duarte saw only that Sean condescended to his Hispanic friends; he could not see that it was an equal-opportunity egotism. Nor did Duarte realize that he also condescended to the same Hispanic children that Sean did.

Eleven year olds are not particularly good at self-analysis.

A prelude to the final confrontation came during the second week of school. Neil was on noon playground duty, wandering about to see to it that none of the larger children took unfair advantage of the new sixth graders. more Monday

425. Goodreads as Textbook

I bought The Key of Time several years ago from E. R. Hamilton’s, my favorite purveyor of remaindered books. It looked and sounded good, but so did the half dozen others that came in the same order. I put Key aside and it stayed in my to-read pile until I became immersed in Steampunk. It seemed to ooze Steampunk, so I dove in.

I planned to review it in this blog. You saw the results on Monday in post 423. 85 Pages: a review, so named because I couldn’t get past page 85.

That got me thinking about Goodreads. I’ve only been involved with Goodreads for about a year and a half, but I am impressed by the intelligence of most of the reviews. Since I discovered it, I have treated Goodreads almost like a textbook on what intelligent readers want.

Here are Goodreads’ stats on The Key of Time by Felix J. Palma, translated by Nick Caisto:

10289 ratings                2127 reviews                rating 3.37 out of  5

That’s a lot of ratings and reviews. Many Goodreads books have almost none. The 3.37 rating is fairly normal. It’s hard to find a book on Goodreads that doesn’t garner mixed reactions.

I decided to pick a few Goodreads reviewers who agreed and disagreed with my take. Here are some examples — or rather excerpts, for the sake of space and so I don’t step on anybody’s copyright.

Traci said, It was amazing.

. . . Do you enjoy magic tricks even though it’s all sleight of hand? . . . I loved every moment I spent with this new and talented author.  . . . one of my favorites, of the year. Beautifully written.

Did Palma get his act together after page 86? Were the last 524 pages better than what I read?Did I miss something?

Frances seemed to think so, with some reservations.

Frances said, (I) really liked it.

. . . I was beginning to wonder if I wanted to continue. At times I groaned (but it). . . . soon became compelling enough to finish. When I finally read the last page . . . I (was) . . .  pleased to have read such a creative and unique book.

I have to admit that I also felt compelled to continue as well, despite the insipid “hero” and glacial pace. It reminded me of all the times I’ve tried to read Dickens’ longer books. But this isn’t Dickens. It’s more like pretend-Dickens. For me it was finally more irritating than intriguing.

Velma said, (I) did not like it. and recommended the book for “someone willing to edit it, heavily.”

Time travel! Jack the Ripper! Automatons! What’s not to love?!? Well, as it turns out, almost everything. . . . it took every ounce of stick-to-it-iveness I could muster to get through this convoluted, interminable literary maze. WHERE, I ask you, was the EDITOR in this hot mess? . . . (Palma is) a decent, if grandiose, storyteller and he mimics to perfection the florid style of the period he set this novel in . . . But come on, Félix, enough with the meandering, the inconsistencies, the convenient last-minute reprieves . . . I was all set to love this book, what with it being about the re-writing of the history of the earliest science fiction and all, but it wasn’t to be . . .

Velma pretty much sums up my reaction. If you look at her whole review on Goodreads, she is even angrier than this excerpt shows.

What is the takeaway? About Goodreads, that is. I’ve had my say on Palma.

Goodreads won’t tell you if a book is good. It will tell you all the different things readers think about it. And that is its value — many looks from many directions. I will continue to check it out, after I read something. Whether I love a book or hate it, I always learn something from Goodreads reviews, even it is is just public taste.

Symphony 26

Finally, he circled back. The sun was hanging low above the mountains when he came back into town, but the heat had not relented. He stopped at a mini-mart, bought a liter of Seven-Up and a pint of Seagrams, and returned to his apartment.

Still, he would not face the source of his feelings. He mixed a stiff drink and turned the air conditioning on high. He wandered into his bedroom to the rickety bookcase and made a selection, went to his casette collection and made another. While Eric Clapton sang and played on the stereo, Neil drank and lay back on his couch.  He opened the book and read:

Napoleon I., whose career had the quality of a duel against the whole of Europe, disliked duelling between the officers of his army. The great military emperor was not a swashbuckler, and had little respect for tradition.

Two songs later his drink was empty, so he laid the book aside and made another. Last year he had introduced The Duel into his class for the first time. What would a sixth grader make of Joseph Conrad? Nothing! From Conrad to the insipidity of a sixth grade reader. The thought was bitter gall in his mind.

His drink was empty again and he smiled at that, almost as if he were cherishing his weakness. He had not gotten drunk one time since the whole affair began. He would feel wretched in the morning. Good enough; he was in the mood to feel wretched.

In the months since this all began, he had not allowed himself the luxury of self-pity, but he was ready for it now.

The tempo of the music had changed. Clapton was singing softly about his shy, sweet lady, and how she looked “Wonderful Tonight”. The song brought Carmen to mind. He remembered the liveliness in her face when she was with her students, and the dead stillness when she was with him. He wondered again what Campbell had told her.

Back beyond Carmen’s image was another face, and that face was the source of all his melancholy. For it was not Alice Hamilton who had betrayed him the most. She was just a foolish young woman who had owed him nothing.

But there had been betrayal. When the accusations had come, there had been one he should have been able to turn to. Lynn; a tall girl with wild hair and soulful brown eyes, who had shared his dreams, shared his bed, and who had planned to share his life.

She would share those things, but she would not share his troubles. She was a teacher, too, and she could not afford to be associated with someone accused of sexual misconduct. That was what she said, but it was a thin excuse. Now that alcohol had loosened the iron fist of his self-control, he remembered once again the look in her eyes when he had told her about Alice Hamilton. She had hesitated. She had doubted.

How could she have doubted? Was it some fault in her that prevented belief. Or was there some secret weakness in him that only she had seen.

How could he be the man he wanted to be — the man he had thought he was — if his lover could look at him in the moment of his accusation and have such doubts? more tomorrow