Thursday, July 26, 2012

Flash Fiction Fifteen (for Friday): U Garden

This next post is inspired by real events this past week. It's written in the first person, which most of my fiction is not. 

Emptiness always had a strange grip on me. One of the things I used to love about North Dakota, when I lived there in the pre-oil boom days, was going into an empty town, driving to the closed gas station late on a summer evening, and feeling the sense that alone-ness does not inherently mean abandonment. Sometimes, the big-wide-open with empty space means peace.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I drive along University Avenue in Minneapolis heading east into Saint Paul. I just got done writing at my studio at the Loft. Got four pages whipped out in the evening session. It was pretty quiet at the studio and I felt like I was productive.

I actually started driving on the interstate, the way I normally do when I go home, but I wanted to see the Witch's Hat off Huron Boulevard. Besides, I never had taken that exit before. I like to get to know new areas of the Twin Cities. (I've actually started to brag to my Mom that I know St. Paul better than she does, and she grew up here. We'll see, she said.) The Witch's Hat is a tower that looks like a witch's hat. (Clever, eh?) It's on the Register of National Historical Place, which is getting to be less and less of a big deal living in the city, since the house across the street from us in on the Register, too.

Anyway, I wanted to see the Hat. It's a tower. There's a park there. Cool. Now what?

I headed north on Huron to University. Then, I turned east, back to S-T-P, as my friend Andrew calls it. Andrew was the guy who first showed me Saint Paul when I first moved here. He grew up here. I'll never forget how our conversation went when we were driving around:

Me: "Saint Paul is a nice town."
Andrew: "S-T-P is a great town. Minneapolis sucks."
Me: "Why?"
Andrew: "Dude, if you're gonna be a Saint Paul guy, just don't go there. Spend your $ in S-T-P."

I'm hungry. I'm still in Minneapolis. The hell with Andrew. I can eat there. Chinese sounds good.

Uh huh. Yeah. Where's my fork?
I turn into the parking lot of the U Garden, a Chinese restaurant just 1/2 mile south of Dinkytown. The parking lot is totally abandoned, except for one car. It has red dingle balls around the inside of every window. An early 80s Cutlass, I believe. Black. Chrome tires. Uh, what kind of place is this?

I take my nylon, black laptop bag from the comfort of the passenger seat and I toss it into the trunk. Might be paranoia, but I don't want it getting ripped off. I think like that now. Now, that I live here - in the city. My thoughts go back ten years to North Dakota, where I never locked the front door of my house. I didn't even know where the key to the front door was...

The U Garden is a box building with a cheap sign on the front. When I mean cheap, I mean the lettering is painted on a white background on a plywood sign. The glass door to the entryway gives me chills. I don't think it's been cleaned for a couple days. Do I really want to eat here? I push onward. Dan the Brave, Clan Sutherland, willing to enter into the foreign land - no fear and a belly fond of exotic fare - to forge new bonds in this alien land.

I get inside. I. Am. The. Only. One.

Just me. And two waitresses (oh, sorry, servers). The owner's behind a red, laminate counter with a cheap cash register from China. (At least they're authentic here, I giggle to myself.)

The female server comes over. The restaurant has to be as big as half a football field. Well, maybe a third of one. But it's big. And it's filled with fifty or sixty identical tables. They all seat exactly four people. None of them are pushed together to make a table of eight; or twelve; or even two. I can hear the owner's voice in a sickeningly stereotypical (and racist) dialogue in my head: Four people per table. Sixty table total. That equal two-hundred forty customer. I rike very much!

Forgive me, God. I deserve hellfire and wrath for my sick humor.

I sit alone, at a table of four chairs in the chair nearest the wall by a window. The server kindly asks if I would like a menu or would I prefer to eat at the Chinese buffet. I select the menu. Too many damn people get the stupid buffet. The menu is huge. Six or seven pages long. And it has a thick, heavy, textured burgundy cover which reminds me of the outside cover of some foreign passport.

I feel like shrimp. I get some shrimp dish. Number Seventeen, I think.

The owner comes over. He wants to chat. I'm still in my stupid mid-brain with dumb accents.

"Hi, I'm Tim," he says in a perfectly Minnesotan Midwest American accent.

Chagrined, I reciprocate: "I'm Dan."

We talk about why the restaurant is empty. He tells me it's Monday. And the Light Rail construction. He hopes it gets done to schedule. "Thanks, by the way, for stopping by. I hope you enjoy your meal."

God I love urban Minnesota.

I get my shrimp. It only took four minutes. Maybe five. There's a ton of food: shrimp, cashews, peanuts, celery, onion, sauce, mushrooms, those little corn-thingies-they-only-have-in-Chinese-food. All over rice. Yum. I notice the musak so kindly piped-in, to enhance my dining experience. I wonder if the musak has been produced in China, too, on some endless Chinese musak loop. But before I figure out this philosophical Möbius strip, I realize I have finished all my food. Holy shit. That was a lot. I must have been hungry. Here, eating my meal in the U Garden, I have experienced Kairos time - a taste of Nirvana.

I just notice something else. There's a cop seated on the other side of the restaurant. What's he doing here?

Well, dumbshit, cops eat, too.

I finish my meal and I walk past the cop. He's got a cop mustache and a cop - belly? Oh, he's a transit cop. I see his patch. He's reading on his Nook or his Kindle, chowing down on Sum Gud Food. As I pass by, to pay my bill, I look at him and say, "Kinda surreal, ain't it?"

"What's that?"

"I said, it's kinda surreal here, ain't it? With just us in this big restaurant."

He never looks up from his reading. Is he multitasking? That's impressive, if he is. "Um, yeah. It's Monday. It's never busy on Monday. Plus, it's summer. No school. And the Light Rail."

"Yeah. Well, seeya."

He lifts his head, still reading.

I pay my bill to Tim and he gives me a fortune cookie.

I unwrap it and crack the buff-colored, fake-chinese confection open...


I exit the restaurant. I think that car - the 80s Cutlass with the dingle balls - is Tim the owner's. Cool. The sun is setting. The evening is warm and muggy. It's just me in the parking lot. Even University Avenue, usually full of traffic, is empty.

I'm enjoying it. Yeah.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Flash Fiction Friday Fourteen: Lame Similes

The Huffington Post recently published an article titled The Fifteen Funniest Metaphors and Similes Created by Teen Writers. I got such a kick out of them (like Morton Anderson kicking the extra point at a pro bowl game) that I decided to create a story around them. Since most of them deal with a boy and a girl, the story came easily. Enjoy! It's a short one.

He got to know her in art class. He was no good at art. To her, it came naturally. Her artistic sense was exquisitely refined, like someone who can tell butter from I Can't Believe It's Not Butter.

It wasn't just that. She was sexy. Her pants fit her like a glove, well, maybe more like a mitten, actually.

He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a garbage truck backing up. Since he was so shy, though, he had a hard time bringing himself to share his feelings with her. After class, he waited for the opportunity to say something to brighten her day or make a connection. But every time she stepped into view, he was speechless. He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck, either, but a real duck that was actually lame. Maybe from stepping on a land mine or something.

The days and months and years passed. The boy did nothing but yearn and wait. He graduated from High School and went to college, growing into a man. And when I say grow, he shot up like a 6'3'' Christmas tree you see in grocery store parking lots.

The young man never married. He eventually went to a therapist to seek advice how he could overcome his fear and finally try to speak with the woman of his dreams.

The therapist gave him great advice. He spoke with the wisdom that can only come from experience, like a guy who went blind because he looked at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it and now goes around the country speaking at high schools about the dangers of looking at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it.

He told him that he needed visualization to calm himself. That whenever he thought of the woman, he should think of a rowboat gently crossing a peaceful pond. The man closed his eyes and he saw the boat. The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn't. And the man felt at peace.

Meanwhile, the woman didn't like being single. She was unhappy. She was as unhappy as when someone puts your cake out in the rain, and all the sweet green icing flows down and then you lose the recipe, and on top of that you can't sing worth a damn. Wondering what she should do, she looked at her high school yearbook. She saw the class picture of her junior year art class and the young man who would often smile at her, but who would never speak. She wondered where he was.

Eventually, the star-crossed lovers sought each other out. They agreed to meet in a city park with a large field. They finally spied each other at high noon in the park. Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.

After a brief courtship, the two were married and grew close. She grew on him like she was a colony of E. coli and he was room-temperature Canadian beef.


You can find the original article at The Huffinton Post right here.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Flash Fiction #13: Le Chien qui Aboyait

The man always went to the same restaurant on the thirteenth of July. Every year, he would make the journey. It was no easy feat for a man of eighty-nine years.

It was called Le Chien qui Aboyait and it was located along the Rue de la Harpe, just four blocks from the Notre Dame cathedral. The little restaurant was nothing spectacular. It was the typical block apartment, street-level room carved into a building. Unlike American restaurants, it was not spacious. The kitchen was too near the dining tables and the ceiling a little too low. Outside, had not the building wall been emblazoned with large, black letters and a wooden placard with a little white dog barking, you might miss that it was a business.

Their food was "folk Parisian", if there existed such a thing. The first time he came there, he had a noodle dish similar to spaghetti with meatballs. Somehow, it wasn't Italian, though. The chef at Le Chien qui Aboyait had taken a multigrain spaghetti and mixed in Provençal flavors of thyme and bay, adding a thyme and caramelized onions ground into a type of sausage meatball. The whole thing was then topped with Niçoise olives. Neither Parisian nor folk, the man thought the dish strange but tasty.

 But the quality of the venue wasn't what was important to the man. Nor was the strange dish he ate there.

It was the restaurant where he first proposed to his wife, sixty-years prior.

Colette was his love. They met in the spring of 1952. The man was in the US Army and was stationed in southwest Germany. He was nineteen. From the Midwest, it was his first foray into Europe, and, quite honestly, it was his first time out of his little town of two-hundred people in Wisconsin for any length of time.

That spring in '52, he got a leave and chose to go see Paris. A young, eighteen-year old woman sold flowers on the Ile de la Cité square in front of the Cathedral. The young woman could speak a little English. The man chatted with her and asked her name, she told him Colette. Her hair was dark brunette, but not black. And her eyes had a depth to them; they were kind and playful and deep. He told Colette that she had oceans in her eyes - his attempt at the poetic romantic. She giggled and told him, "But zey are not bleu, how can zey be oceans?" The young man went red.

Oceans in her eyes
After a period of wooing and daily letters, the man decided that Colette was the one.

At Le Chien qui Aboyait he proposed to her. She said yes.

They had a wonderful life together. Every year, the man, still the hopeless romantic, would purchase two tickets for Paris on the ninth of July (enough time to adjust, see some sights, visit family); then they would make their way down the linden-lined Rue de la Harpe, to dine once again at their restaurant.

In 2001, Colette died. But the man still came.

The owner, of course, knew the man. He was sad to see him come by himself in '02.

"J'ai sauvegardé votre table pour vous, une fois de plus, Monsieur."

"Merci, Rémy."

This year, the man ate what he always did - the strange spaghetti with the sausage meatballs. Once again, he ordered a meal for Colette. He told the owner that he could eat it after he left.

And he looked out the window into the French evening, not feeling quite so alone, because, after all, he was here at Le Chien qui Aboyait. Somehow, he knew Colette was, too.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Theology Thursday #13: Bang!

Every once in a while when I get doubtful about the point of spirituality or religion I happen to see something like this in an article or Facebook post:
"As far as I see it there are only two basic laws of physics: 1) Nothing comes from nothing, and 2) Something had to. Before there was any mass, energy, time or space, there was no NO-THING. The moment before the moment there was no moment. (Figure that one out). In our limited human intelligence, that means there was a singularity that stands OUTSIDE mass, energy, time and space that put it all in motion. The beginning of science (the big bang) is also the end of science, because science can go no further than the moment before the moment. Without anything to measure, there is no science. 
When David Letterman interviewed a string theorist a few years back and he told him there was no mass, energy, time or space, David responded, "Then what, for the love of God, banged?" 

I believe the love of God banged."
The previous quote is from my Facebook friend Rich Melheim, creator of Faith Inkubators, a creative confirmation curricula I once purchased when I was a pastor. I like the quote above, because when I get in an intellectual mood and I'm bored, I get mean and cynical about the church. Going back to the very moment of creation, I find that yes, there is the unknown and there was - at one time - nothing. Creatio ex Nihilo, or creation "from nothing" is an ancient tenet of the Christian church and one worth keeping since it jibes quite well with our current understanding of physics.

Out a nuttin'...
I have a friend (a very, very good friend who has a great blog, by the way, here) who has encouraged me to sever all my ties with the church. I think he delights that I'm not a pastor anymore (even more than I do). His upbringing was fraught with what I would label as spiritual abuse. He sees the Church (capital 'C' intentional) as an agent for mostly negative influences on our society. Whatever non-negative influence the Church currently has, I think he would designate as simply irrelevant or wishful thinking. More often than not, I think I agree with him. History makes a fairly convincing argument, which isn't exactly a raving review of religion. Science clearly places much of believers views as childish and unscientific. And looking at the current state of liberal, ecumenical, so-called "Mainstream" Christianity, one wonders how an organization can be, frankly, so impotent in their actions when its words seem to be so strong.

But I still go to worship.


I think it has something to do with the need I have for mystery and community. When I stand in line in the sanctuary and hear the words "This is my body" and "This is my blood", I feel that there is something worthwhile, still, in gathering together and being sent out.

Every rational brain cell in my head screams out that there really is nothing, that meaning is something that we, as human beings, attribute to the void, because the void by itself is so terrifying. Rationally, I can understand why people invented God, because without God, life is scary. Rationally, I can understand why people commit violence in the name of God; it is because they feel threatened. I think that some of my best friends are agnostic, atheist, or "just" spiritual. Sometimes, I want to throw the whole thing away and I feel hopeless and cynical. But then, I am reminded of the nothing that once was; time that once wasn't - but is now - and I find hope.

And, honestly, the story of Jesus of Nazareth is the most appealing to me, because I believe that a human in our midst who struggled within our human condition - and who still managed to live infinite compassion - appeals to me. I want to follow him.

The Church sucks. But it's kind of like the United States of America: it's not perfect, but it's the best we have. I know this comment will tick off a lot of people from both sides of the aisle. I hope that instead, it might elicit more honest dialogue. What do you think? I love reading your comments.

Oh. And I'll see you in church.