Short-short stories with Phil

Many years ago my brother Phil and I wrote stories together. It was a game. I’d write an introductory sentence, and he’d follow it with something. The art was to try to throw the other guy a curve while still maintaining a sense of direction in the “plot.” I found these two stories in my archives. My parts are in standard face, Phil’s are in italics. You should try this sometime.

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Recent Novel, Chapter One


Day One, 1963

The September of my seventeenth year, devastated by separation from Anna Rose and the events that had tied us together, I found myself morose, looking smack into the face of another year in the asylum we called high school, daring anything or anyone to offer me peace of mind. All these people had spent the summer diddling around their back yards smoking cigarettes. I don’t know how I made it through the first day.

Looking ahead to nine months of purgatory, which they’d probably make me read about, I stumbled into history class where I tried to make conversation with the boy next to me. A book slammed into the side of my head. Mr. Nobson stood over me, glaring. “If you talk, it will be about history, and it will be to me! Understood?”

“Sir, yes sir,” I said. “There’s no need for violence.”

That was my ticket to the Principal’s office. Mr. Nobson believed in cracking down real hard on the first day, so everyone would know he was a miserable asshole, and would respect him as such.

The Principal, Mr. Binelli, scratched his head. “Boy, that didn’t take long, did it?”

“No, sir,” I said. “I guess I was out of line when I pleaded for mercy. But look, my glasses cut my ear. That book hurt.”

“What kind of thorn have you got in your butt? Help me out.”

“I don’t know. I just hate school really bad.”

“The people? Or the institution?”


“I’ll have to call your mom. Any time someone comes in here within twenty minutes on the first day, I call home. Sometimes we can get an attitude adjustment.”

“It’ll take more than that. I think I need brain surgery,” I said. “I hate everything.”

“No you don’t. You just have to identify a few dreams to live for. I’m here to help you, if you will let me. You can get through this.”

“No, I can’t. I’m hopeless.”

“How’d you spend the summer? It’s not about a broken heart, is it?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Well, you’ll have to talk to someone. Looks like you’re driving with the brake on here.”

“Not really. I’m pretty much parked.” It was a bad start.

When Binelli released me, after history, I went to Spanish Four class, which was a mix of kids of different ages, depending on their experience and language ability. A couple of dumb senior classmates, who should have been in Spanish Two, sat in the back, where I had to sit also because all the other chairs were taken. But the back seemed like the appropriate place for me. Continue reading “Recent Novel, Chapter One”

The Evangelist in the Bathtub

In 1972, when I was twenty-seven years old, Young Life, Inc. fired me for heresy. I’d made the mistake of putting Buddha and Jesus in the same sentence, and while I tried to remind them that I was a folk singer, not a preacher, they insisted that my “message” had become “confusing” as I tried to navigate the troubled confluence of a historic religion with real life experience. “Confusing” was an understatement. Tragically, I had come up with a sense of “Christ” as being an ineffable presence, not so much tied to a historic event as to the immediate spiritual aspect of emotional life, and this seemed to me similar to the Buddhists’ seeking of a state of Nirvana. Silly me. The salvation story starts and ends with the cross, with Jesus’ sacrifice two thousand years ago, and only intersects with your current condition through his holy name. It’s not a state of enlightenment or seeking enlightenment. You are a sinner, straight up. It’s all and only about accepting the story line as fact. I thought I could accept the story line and still try to find some nameless spiritual essence hovering around me, and this seemed similar to some Eastern religious practices. So I threw in a Buddha, and that slammed the door behind me. Continue reading “The Evangelist in the Bathtub”

The Price of Indiscretion


Mark Eggleston—Egghead, to his students—kept scorpions in a terrarium in the back of his lab to illustrate predator-prey relationships and to instill in his young charges a sense of respect for animals smaller than themselves. “Everyone,” he said, “respects lions and tigers. But arthropods just don’t get their due. We’ll see about that.”

Students, assigned alphabetically to feed the scorpions from the moths that gathered in huge numbers below the arc lamp outside his lab, found this detail a dangerous imposition, as each was required to lift the cage lid, which, all by itself, could cause heart failure. Every one of them, big linebackers included, complained loudly, both at school and at home. “Won’t they spring out and bite me?”

To this recurring question, Eggleston always answered, “Their bite is insignificant. The sting is what you must avoid.”

To which the students usually said, “Won’t they spring out and sting me?”

“I removed their spring-bones,” he answered. “But not their stingers. So give them plenty of space.” None of this gave students any sense of safety, and that suited Eggleston’s need to engender terror among the “sheltered, nature-illiterate little rascals” that he had to teach.

In response to numerous administrative warnings, mainly from Jim Davenport, the Principal, about student safety and lack of insurance coverage, Eggleston agreed to dispose of his rattlesnake and his small coral snake, but he found it unreasonable to discard the scorpions, in part because it was so difficult to replace the Asian specimens. He admitted that they were the most likely to be lethal, but who was planning a trip to Thailand to get new ones? He cautioned the students to keep their protestations quieter. “Don’t spoil it for the arachnids,” he said. “They’re living decent lives. Better than some of you.” Continue reading “The Price of Indiscretion”

Waking Up at the May Museum

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Dedicated to the May family.

When I was eight years old, I suffered a short career in Cub Scouts, less than a year, weathering one bit of idiocy after another. The camping trip, washed out by a downpour, the picnic in the park spoiled by the nutcase who forgot to bring the drinks, the hike up the canyon ruined by falling on sharp rocks that cut my shins and made them bleed–everything conspired to destroy my faith in scouting.

The last straw, my final and most deflating experience with the organization, but also the most wondrous event in my life, was the field trip to the May Museum of Natural History. There, my patience stretched to—and beyond—the breaking point. Continue reading “Waking Up at the May Museum”