This was really supposed to be a short video, but I couldn’t get a camera operator and an actor together on a cold day.
Fifteen degrees below freezing and sweat soaks the two layers that you, stupid man, wore under your winter jacket. The sun threatens to rise above the roofline of the house across the street as you straighten up, try to stretch the muscles in your lower back, relieve the tingling in your toes that has nothing to do with the cold.
CHONK! The shovel slices through the unnatural mound of ice and snow, the leftovers of yesterday’s plow, its operator allegedly freeing the street of its wintry malediction. Instead, a frozen fortification blocks the driveway, a bastion behind which you would be content to shelter until spring but for the surety that this is not the siege a garrison can win. It is sortie or die.
CHUNTH! There are perhaps a hundred shovels full to cut, carry, and throw, each weighing ten or twelve pounds. Not that you bother considering loads, calories. It is only exercise to them that don’t have to do it and the prize for the stupid man who finishes quickly is a heart attack.
CHOCK! Neighbours are not out. They worked in the dark, before the plummeting temperatures froze their mounds quite so solid, while you, stupid man, were content to wait for morning, the light of day.
Footfalls muffled by the snow, you hear only short, sharp and irregular expulsions of breath. Launching the quick-frozen projectile in your shovel, you turn to see him. A sub-arctic harlequin, a ski mask over skin-tight high-tech stretchiness, slowly jogging, frequently pausing to plant his feet and shadow box.
You draw your fingers back and clench your fists inside your gloves, your heart having forgotten to send the warmth of your torso to your hands. The harlequin stops not ten feet away, his back to you, and punches in combination. Left, right, and left again.
A quick calculation. Your shovel is five feet long, your arm maybe another three. A couple of steps would do it. Lots of room on the street for a wide upward swing, the shovel its own airfoil, reaching a peak height and velocity a pleasing six feet off the ground.
Fingers returning to their work stations, you step toward him. He can’t see you climb over the icy battlement, doesn’t sense you pull back the shovel, bend your needs, and ready your strike, relishing the sound it will make.
And he jogs off.
Ode to the Sump Pump
Oh, pump that is the sumpiest
Your pumposity so true.
Hear the rattle of the pipe
‘Twixt pump and sump
A gush of water anew.
How many sumps
Would a sump pump pump
If a sump pump could pump sumps …
The Second Story Man
This was a thought experiment, one which proved that I am hard of thinking.
What? That was YOURS!
How could this … be?
It wasn’t supposed to be serious, it was one of those jokes you put on the website just to be writing something. No one looks at the “In Development” page. What does anyone care about what you might be thinking about writing but haven’t bothered getting to yet?
So how did this happen?
Given the torrent of disinterest in anything you’ve actually finished, you never expected anyone to even glance at this. What do people remark? You haven’t found your audience yet? Actually, if anyone bothers to respond, it’s only to say that your project is not a good fit right now. Projects have to fit, they have to be comfy like loafers, or stylish like pumps. But any response is a good response, any response is better than the silence of the unanswered query.
That’s what the website is for – if you’re going to shout into the digital snowstorm, the white noise of the static void, it’s better to do it on your own terms. Like when you talk to yourself or ask the dog questions, knowing that there will be no feedback, no reply. It’s the unwritten contract with the fog of anonymity that is the web. It’s not social media. Silence is expected. Larceny is not.
You thought the only risk lay in people discovering too much about who you really are. It’s not new – who you are has always mattered more than what you have to say. In the bad old days, though, who YOU are didn’t close as many doors as it does today. You are unpublishable. You are not young. You are not from an emerging community, you are not a voice from an underrepresented minority, you can’t say #MeToo, you are uncomfortably straight, and if some bits of your childhood were shitty, well, whose weren’t?
No one cares, and why should they?
So you write some ideas up there, just to show yourself that you can, that even if you are you something interesting might spill out against all expectation.
But this … creature, this grubby troll with his plodding prose and his web thesaurus has stolen your idea. And it’s so much worse than that.
He’s been published – online, which is how you can see that people actually like his story and they leave comments and little emojis that show how inarticulate they are.
The body blow comes in the author’s bio – he’s LESS publishable than you, he’s older, Anglo-Saxon to his core, attended a no-name university in a city notable for its tone-deaf conservatism.
Where are the haters when you need them?
Where is the outcry, the finger-pointing woke types?
That’s right, they don’t know he’s a second story man. They just read his little piece in which he pretended to have posted a story idea on his website that someone else stole and got published and was paid for. No one knows that he STOLE that story, that YOU are the real victim and that you could write it way better than this yellow-toenailed hack.
So you’ll TELL them. Shout it to the universe using … what?
You could fit all of your Twitter followers on a mid-sized bus.
Facebook is not a swamp you’ve ever cared to traverse, and Instagram is owned by Facebook, so why feed the monster by another mouth?
Or so you’ve always thought and if you’ve missed an opportunity or two along the way because you couldn’t or just didn’t engage with the Dark Side you thought maybe the website would help.
And look where it got you.
But he’s a thief! A dirty, stinking plagiarizing highwayman! But that doesn’t go far enough. He who steals your money steals trash, but he who steals your words, your THOUGHTS?
There’s no name for it.
Even though there’s nothing you can do, you do it anyway. You complain to the magazine first, of course. They know you there, maybe they’ll listen. But they don’t reply.
Maybe the problem is you, that they know you too well, have rejected you too many times to think of you as anything but a crank. You couldn’t have come up with a good idea, much less written your way to the end of it. And so what, ideas are ideas, and you don’t own an idea.
So you write to Himself, the perpetrator of the fraud, the entitled pasty-faced wrinkle farm with his male-pattern baldness and his three-bedroom bungalow. You don’t ask questions, don’t waste time on pleasantries or politeness. You get to the truth. And you spell it out for him, the outrage, the personal affront and the sad truth that he could not come up with his own story idea to save his sad, lonely life. You let him know how you’ve pictured him bent over his little keyboard banging out line after line, free web tools correcting his hyphenation, each word soaked in self-loathing born of their bastardy origin.
He replies. Calls YOU a fraud. Sour grapes, he says. You’re just jealous. And if it were all true, if it happened as you say, you could never, ever prove it.
It’s your fault, you did it, you came up with the stolen idea story. Looking at it that way, you see there is only one way to achieve any kind of satisfaction.
Write the story.
Deliver the idea from the misbegotten tedium it has been trapped within. Bring to light the vision, the original art that life has imitated. It’s easy. You’re writing what you know.
You begin with the original idea, the purloined prompt.
An interesting but unpublishable fiction writer leaves his idea for the development of a new short story on his web site. An even less publishable writer steals his concept and produces a truly horrible, but successful work. When the facts become known to the original author, the consequences are predictable.
Words are exchanged.
And it doesn’t end well.