Treehouse

online magazine for short, good writing

5 Things on Encounters

by a contributor

from Sean Pravica, author of A PSA About Love:

Everyone has had them: sudden encounters with memorable strangers. Here are five of my own personal favorites. A supporting character in my novel, Stumbling out the Stable, is based on one of these people.

  1. Blonde hair, blue eyes, spoke with a wistfulness that made every word froth over with existential longing. He worked for the Forest Service in Big Sur, a place heralded for its austere and largely unadulterated beauty. He stood in a wooden kiosk at a trailhead, slowly leafing through a National Geographic, surveying pictures of the world’s beauty.

  2. He wore a patchy red and blue jumpsuit. I saw him when I was a child. The first time was from my mother’s car as he stood at a stoplight holding what looked like a child wrapped in a blue blanket. The next day in the next town over, out to breakfast with my mother, I looked up and saw him again, his face nearly messianic in its calm. Now I saw the blue bundle he cradled in his arms was empty.

  3. Some forgettable backlot in downtown Los Angeles. A kind man ambled carefully to my car, in one hand a bucket and in the other a rag, which he held outstretched like a flag designating peace to an unpredictable alien. Two dollars to wash the windshield. I accepted and received some backstory per my request. Unemployed, used to be in construction, built Staples Center, its purple glow peeking over squat buildings behind us.

  4. She was not filling up her car but parked oddly in front of a pump. She was smoking a cigarette and had the window rolled down, so passing by her on the way to the register I asked her to put her cigarette out. She took offense, called my laptop case a purse, and we exchanged words. I paid for gas, and as I came back, she invited me to get in her car and sit with her. So I did. We talked about vague things, and she was friendly but aloof. She had some kind of alcohol in a water bottle that she offered me, telling me I could use it since I was being uptight. I declined. She was looking over a paper throwaway magazine that lists the latest local arrests, complete with mugshots. She called them “knuckleheads,” and betrayed a strange connection to them as she shook her head, a familiarity unspeakable but palpable. I asked her what she did and said she was an entrepreneur, but would not elaborate. I left, and we ended our conversation in peace, and that was much more than I could say for how things started.

  5. I lived in Big Sur for a little while myself. But I did not work in a kiosk, though my job booking room reservations was tremendously unsatisfying. I feeling guilty about the prospect of leaving only a few months after being hired when I happened to meet an older woman at a concert after-party. She was a psychotherapist and we talked about goals and ambition, things owed to others versus things owned to oneself. She had a generous laugh that signaled a deep satisfaction in her own life.

A PSA About Love

by a contributor

Sean Pravica

I metamorphosed into a bat and life has become difficult. My wife doesn’t love me anymore, but I can’t see her anyway so perhaps it’s just as well. All the other bats are loud and loveless. They remind me of my in-laws. You could say though that while I’m getting the hang of it, I would give anything to be a man again.

If I were you I would kiss my wife like I was Al Gore, before he and Tipper separated, of course. You may wake up one day and suddenly everything has changed.


Sean Pravica is a writer and entrepreneur living in Southern California. He has been nominated for writing awards including Sundress Press’ Best of the Net as well as storySouth Million Writer’s Award. His first novel, “Stumbling out the Stable,” is due for release by Pelekinesis Press in November 2015.

See Sean’s list of 5 Things in our ongoing contributors’ series later this week.

5 Six Word Stories

by a contributor

from Erik Doughty, author of  Moon Men:

  1. Missed bus.  Her too.  We walk.
  2. After prom, his corsage still boxed.
  3. Insurance claim: shoebox under bed.  Denied.
  4. “Love U2.”  “I love you!”  “Um.”
  5. We grew up, old, apart, overnight.

Moon Men

by a contributor

Erik Doughty

Hi, Ms. Paley. This is Jimmy Chang, calling on behalf of my son, Kevin. It seems he never received Julie’s RSVP for his birthday. The party just ended, but what if I told you he planned his whole kickball-themed day around Julie being here, yet he is terrible at all things requiring foot-eye coordination—even walking? What if none of the other booger-snacking overbiters in attendance even mattered, because only your daughter gives his heart a brain freeze?

Kevin’s been courting Julie since third grade, keeping track of how many teeth she’s lost and her favorite crayon color, which is somewhere between Pumpkin and Snazzy Sunburst. From what I understand, he said “hi” to her once by accident.

Sure, Kevin is not the ideal fourth grade boyfriend. He doesn’t know the secret handshake or not to share his chicken nuggets with the class pet iguana. But that’s on me: me failing him, not the other way around. See, he has this “eject” button on his belt loop that he presses whenever he gets stuck inside someone else’s joke. It was cute at first, but knowing what I know now, it’s like who can I ask about this? What words do good parents keep in their pockets?

Sometimes, I take him out on the roof with a telescope and a cookie dough bucket; we talk about buying a condo on the moon after we sell our lucky stars. I tell him, “I don’t know how much those go for on craigslist.” He chews with understanding.

Then, we talk superpowers: telekinesis or teleportation, the pros and cons of secret identities. Kevin would change one of his arms into a bazooka that shoots pterodactyls made of fire into the sky where they breathe rainbows and poop clouds. I thought that was weird but totally badass.

This is how I know the kickball thing is about Julie, because with the right genetic mutation, Kevin would use mind control on her friends so they’d always pick her for their team; that way, her face would never get rainy underneath the playground slide. When he asks about my powers, I claim superhuman strength and an unbreakable heart.

Ms. Paley, our kids are at the best age right now—before middle school, which just plain sucks because everyone outgrows you and your corduroys overnight. In high school, they’ll never be appreciated in their own time, learning too young to text their prayers and autocorrect their love. One or the other’s marriage will end in divorce. And it nukes my gut to think I might not be around to tell him not to fight if his wife leaves the light on in empty rooms, skyrocketing the electricity bill. Because it’s worth it—all that light in your life.

For now though, they still scamper to us when we pick them up from school. It’s the tail end of the scampering era. And the way they look at us, as if we became everything we once saw in ourselves: that’s the closest we’ll come to stadium lights.

Now, I know it’s late, Ms. Paley, and Sunday nights are school nights too. But if you and Julie would consider stopping by, we still have a decorate-your-own-cupcake station. We have videogames and pizza bagels and Kevin is saving the good controller for her. And while they play, maybe we can talk about superpowers too: about TiVo’ing real life and living without commercial interruption—about turning any water fountain into a tap with your favorite beer. What if we could save up time like it was money, and blow it all on those rare perfect moments, stretching them out for decades? Like when a spring day gets lost in January and you’re driving with the windows down, your kid and his dog in the backseat with their heads out the window—ice cream on both their noses.


Erik Doughty is an Asian American writer living in Boston, whose work has been published in The Drum, Corium Magazine, and Annalemma, among others. He is almost a lawyer and carries a notebook, air guitar, and inhaler with him wherever he goes. More of his stories can be found at erikdoughty.wordpress.com.

See Erik’s list of 5 Things later this week in our ongoing contributors’ series.

5 Episodes of the Twilight Zone You Need to Watch Right Now

by a contributor

from Alex Sobel, author of Home:

The Twilight Zone is my favorite television show. Created by Rod Serling, who not only gave the show its poetic narration, but also wrote 99 of the 156 episodes, The Twilight Zone was an anthology show that often mixed sci-fi or supernatural elements with well-developed characters, emotional depth, and biting social commentary. It’s a show that when I first saw it when I was little, immediately made me want to be a writer (somewhere I have notebooks with knock-off episodes that 10-year-old me wrote just in case they brought the show back to television). It’s a show that when I see it now, I feel my chest tighten with how much I love every second of it. It’s a show that when I find someone who hasn’t seen it, I immediately insist that they watch it. So with that, here are the episodes that I always start people off with. A list of some of my favorites that showcase the wide range of styles and themes the show was capable of, and will hopefully get those who are Twilight Zone-deficient hooked.

  1. “Walking Distance”
    Two things that people associate with The Twilight Zone are science fiction monsters and twist endings, but “Walking Distance” (in my opinion, the single greatest episode of the series) has neither of those. Just an interesting character who, in less than 30 minutes, is better developed than most shows are capable of in several full seasons of episodes. Martin is a worn out businessman who, when his car breaks down, decides to visit the town that he grew up in. When he gets there, he finds that he’s actually traveled back in time, his parents are still alive, and the town is exactly as it was when he was little. What follows is a reflection on the dangers of nostalgia, the pain that comes from a life of irreversible losses, and the emptiness that is adulthood: and how despite all that, life is still worth living.

  2. “The Obsolete Man”
    I once read that Rod Serling’s stories often showed how much love he had for people and for humanity as a whole. In no episode is this more present than in “The Obsolete Man.” Burgess Meredith, in one of his four appearances on the show (one of which is arguably the series’ most famous episode, “Time Enough at Last,” which aside from the gut-punch of a twist ending, isn’t really a standout) plays Romney Wordsworth, a librarian (how could he not be with that name?) who, in a totalitarian future, is put on trial for being an obsolete human, the sentence for which is death. The episode consists mostly of dialogue between Wordsworth and Fritz Weaver’s calculated Chancellor, and their verbal sparing reveals the depth of man’s search for meaning, for relevance, for purpose, and what it really means to be obsolete.

  3. “Nick of Time”
    Most people would lean toward William Shatner’s other Twilight Zone appearance, “Terror at 20,000” (another great episode that could have easily been on this list), but for me, “Nick of Time” is better. Shatner’s Don Carter is a superstitious man whose car breaks down (this show loves having broken down cars) on his honeymoon. When he and his new wife stop in a diner, Carter begins to get sucked into the power of the “mystic seer,” a small fortuneteller box that for a penny gives you a slip that appears to predict Carter’s future. The beauty of this episode comes from the ambiguity of whether or not the mystic seer is really revealing the future, or it’s all in Carter’s superstitious head. It forces him to ask the question: if we were able to know our future, would we really want to know?

  4. “Eye of the Beholder”
    It’s a bit of a standard choice, but I couldn’t leave this one out. As I mentioned above, The Twilight Zone is really well known for it’s twist ending, and “Eye of the Beholder” has one hell of a twist. Janet Tyler is a woman living in a totalitarian society (the show also loves its totalitarian societies) who has a face so hideous that, if this final operation doesn’t work, has to be shipped of to a special camp of “people just like her.” If you’re one of the few people who don’t know the ending, I won’t ruin it here, but I’d recommend watching it for yourself.

  5. “It’s a Good Life”
    Because The Twilight Zone is an anthology show, the appeal changes from episode-to-episode. Some have social commentary, some are great character studies, some are fun sci-fi romps, and others, like “It’s a Good Life,” are creepy as hell. Bill Mumy (who in the same year also starred in the episode “Bang! You’re Dead” of another great anthology show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents) plays Anthony Fremont, a young boy who has psychic abilities and uses them to terrorize the adults of his town. The episode is a great comment on how power shouldn’t be given to the irresponsible, but again, it’s really enjoyable because the kid is so damn creepy, turning people and animals into horrific creations or “sending them into the cornfield,” his term for killing them. This episode is also darkly funny, as the adults are forced to be uneasy around the child out of fear. There’s no real closure or twist ending in this one. Just a great episode of my favorite show of all time.


Home

by a contributor

Alex Sobel

“I was okay,” I said, trying to keep my hand off of my nose, draw attention to it. “I didn’t have the arm for it, for throwing to second base. I couldn’t catch people trying to steal. I was always a better hitter.”

“You were? Best average?” I could hear the surprise in his voice, looking over me, scrawny, not the physique of a power hitter, not what people expect. But I never said I hit homeruns. I just got on base. Third in the batting order, looking for an RBI. It’s all a coordination thing. My eyes, my hands, they knew what each other was thinking. Looking back, I don’t even know how I did it, how anyone does it. To see the pitch, decide if it’s worth swinging at, and then making contact, all within a fraction of a second. It doesn’t seem possible.

“I went three straight seasons without a strike out,” I said, without any pride, because I didn’t feel any.

“Well, darn,” the doctor said, slapping his knee, his castrated language feeling more natural coming out of the mouth of a grown man than it should. “That’s good. Do you still play? Like, on an adult league or something?” Somehow, I’m young enough to be called kid, but old enough to play in an adult baseball league.

“No,” I said, “I quit a few years back.”

“Why is that?” he said.

“My knees,” I said, grabbing them, one in each hand, making a circular rubbing motion as if that made them feel better. “Arthritis. My mom has it, everyone on her side. I couldn’t crouch, couldn’t slide. Had to give it up.”

All of this was true, but I didn’t tell him how I hated baseball. I didn’t say how alone it made me feel. For a sport like basketball, when you lose, you lose as a team. No single basket matters, no foul completely fatal. Basketball games are a sum of parts, of an entire match’s actions. But baseball’s not like that. A strike out, a ground ball between your knees means everything. Remember Bill Buckner? The Red Sox lose Game Six of the 1986 World Series after a ball rolls through his legs. Nobody cares about the rest of the game, just that one missed ball, and it’s all his fault. He’ll never live that down. I mean, hell, baseball actually counts and tallies errors. What other sport counts mistakes that way? It’s inhuman. To place that much weight on individual failure, but then put it in the context of a team. Make you responsible for other’s success.

“That’s too bad,” the doctor said. “There are a few leagues around here that could use a hitter like yourself.” I nodded, smiled. Oh well. Too bad. How funny life is sometimes. “The good news,” the doctor continued, shifting his chair toward the desk next to me, “is that you don’t need any blood work. A few questions and you can go.”

But my mind was already gone, the last time I would ever be up at bat, to ever be alone like that on a baseball diamond. Top of the ninth inning, we’d already won the game, but didn’t have enough season wins to play in the tournament. The burden was gone. It was just gravy, meaningless, the whole thing. The ball off my bat, circling the bases, the third base coach yelling, keep going, like a kind of mercy. Sliding into home, my last chance to go out with a home run. As the dust cleared around me I saw the catcher’s glove on the ground, the umpire lifting his thumb, You’re out, ending my baseball career forever.

As if I needed him to tell me I was out. As if I wasn’t home already.


Alex Sobel is a freelance journalist living in Toledo, OH. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as The Saturday Evening Post Online; Foundling Review; Ink, Sweat, and Tears; and theNewerYork.

See Alex’s list of 5 Things on Wednesday.

Notes on home, notes on reticence

by a contributor

Steven Ray Miller

I won’t bother with the sky
It is indeed grand as the slogan
maestros claim. 

A New Yorker in the Midwest was horrified when I told her I crave the smell of forest fire.  One day last summer there was a big wild fire in Minnesota.  Its lovely, choking smoke had blown east and Milwaukee’s sky was hazy and hot.  She, having heard the dangers to those with respiratory problems, was rightly taken aback at my comment.  I struggled to explain how the smell evokes the best memories of home, certain concrete things, but mostly wispy images of my favorite qualities in the myths of the West. She had no idea what I was talking about.  I’m not sure I did either.

Don’t be fooled:
the silence of the rancher,
and of the rancher’s son,
is like a butcher’s bleached apron.

Nevermind good fortune.  Nevermind tacit schooling alongside mom, dad, brother, sister, neighbors, friends.  Nevermind their instructive stories, their quilt work of comedy and intrigue, their invitations to stitch yourself to their warmth.  A man only needs himself, for hardship tells its own stories.¹ When the land says No, there is knowledge.  When the land says Yes, there is dialogue.  When the land says Yes or No predictably, there is discourse.  Learning.  A way to make it through the world.

These hard men (and women) will occasionally remark on the vista. For some, when they say pretty things about the valley or the mountain, the gesture is perfunctory, a vexing inheritance from foolish Romantic forebears.  For others, the gesture is sincere, albeit extremely impoverished.  These hard types have a very difficult time with the idea of the lyric.  When a metaphor takes root, it is stunted.  When a musical phrase is a spark in their minds, it dims at once. It seems a lack of social experience limits their capacity for expressing beauty, which they, unlike others among them, at least appreciate.  In company, they might want to talk beyond small talk, to relate with a flourish something of absolutely no consequence.  They just don’t know where to begin.

The former wants to be a hero for enduring self-imposed loneliness, for eschewing all frivolity, for saying not a word—even on beauty.

The latter holds no hero fantasy.  The latter enjoys his solitude, and perceives beauty as solitude itself, but he recognizes an appreciation of beauty depends very much on its expression. When the forest smoke floats his way, it appeals to him, but he can’t give it a name.

                                                                                                                                           
¹ Maybe I learned it wrong but that’s what I learned from so many stillborn utterances that don’t need explaining.  A newcomer, a new idea . . . Pff.

 



Steven Ray Miller is from Colorado. A long time ago, he earned an MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He and his super smart wife live in Milwaukee with their two dogs, Otis T. Pooch and Edgar Von HuffNPuff. Steve’s garden is small and sometimes successful.

 

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