Wednesday, February 29, 2012

how not to....

I really need to stop entering writing contests.

My son is involved with a program called Future Problem Solvers. In this program students are teamed together to address fictional contemporary issues with possible solutions. The culmination of the day's work is an oral presentation regarding their solution which parents are allowed to attend. A few years back at my son's first competition, I was drafted by his teacher to judge the orals along with two other parents. I savored the experience as I thought of being able to share in my son's efforts.

Soon I wished I hadn't. By the time the other two judges and I had reached a synergistic position with each other, five teams had already presented. I feel bad for those first five as they may have been great but as judges we weren't ready to score them properly. Let me apologize retroactively for the kids who might have made it downstate but didn't because I was distracted by one of the other judges who kept making hand gestures to her daughter.

Now I have to say I am not completely against writing contests. My YA novel called Vanity just made it into the second round of judging in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Author contest. That feeling will give a writer quite a high. However, not winning any of the handful of short story contests I have entered tends to disproportionately erase what should be a much more imposing good feeling. WTF?

Today I got an email from Writer's Digest informing me once again that my short story did not win, and I am spiraling downward emotionally. I am guessing the other losers (I can call them that since I am one too) did exactly what I did and read the three winners. Likewise I am guessing they reached the same conclusion I did, the winners works were no better than their own work. Whatever.... To the Judges I say thanks for working with us. Your job is a tough one.

I am proud of my work and feel like sharing it with the world. So, without further adieu, here is my short story called, Advice.

John did all he could to not think about the scarcity of money or the run down conditions in which he now lived. He was sure with the arrival of spring he would be able to find work doing construction, allowing him to stop taking money from his mother to make ends meet. “All I need is a good woman,” he would say in the shower while masturbating, “and I'll forget that bitch Natalie.”

John indulged in the emotions of his poverty and position, all stemming from two sources, his ex-wife Natalie and Steve, her lover. Their association was revealed to John the day he came home unexpectedly and found Natalie lying on her back on the kitchen table, legs wrapped around Steve just above his naked buttocks. All John had going for him now was a job on the township
volunteer rescue squad. While passing the day he often held the cigarette-box sized pager in his hand, hoping for an emergency call.

John had just finished his first cup of coffee when the phone rang. He put down the rescue squad pager and picked up the receiver. Holding it to his face he said, “Yea, what.” The voice on the other end said, “John? It's Natalie.”

“Oh Christ, what do you want?”

“John, I need some advice about the ice on the lake.”

“I... I don't understand. You need advice, about the ice?

“Yes John, how strong is it? I mean I need to know if it's strong enough to walk on. Do you know? I'm guessing you still go ice fishing so I thought you would know.”

“Ice fishing season's over Natalie.”

“I don't want to go ice fishing John, okay? It's just... we're out here in the Mathewson preserve and we see something out on the ice and.... the surface of the ice is very wet. We didn't know if it would be strong enough to walk on or not.”

“We, Natalie? You mean you and Steve? Go to hell, bitch.”

“Stop it, John, it's... I think it's an owl, a pretty big one too. It looks like it's stuck or hurt. It's only about a hundred feet from the shore and it's laying flat on the ice. Once in a while it flaps its wings.... I'm worried about it being hurt John and I don't want to see it suffer.”

“So you're gonna walk on out there and pick it up?”

“That's the idea.... if it's safe to do.”

“Um... yea... sure... sure... it's safe. Probably the most dangerous thing is that owl's talons. Throw a jacket over it so it doesn't scratch your eyes out.”

“Good idea.”

“And make sure Steve stays on shore.”


“If a ranger comes by he can flag 'em down, but keep me on the phone with you out there. I want to make sure you're okay.”

“That's sweet John. Okay, here I go.”

“What's it feel like? The ice I mean.”

“The water on top is deeper than I thought and very slushy.”

“That's fine, you'll make it. You have a coat on, right? A nice heavy coat?”

“Yes, and I have a blanket from the car to cover the bird.”

“Good. Are you getting close?”

“About forty feet away now... Wait... John, I just heard something in the ice... it was like a twig snapping!”

“Don't worry about that, it's gonna happen when you get out over deeper water. How's the bird look?”

“It's really beautiful. You should see it. Definitely an owl.... John, you're sure these noises in the ice are okay?”

“Natalie, concentrate on the owl, it needs you.”

“Okay John... wait... it's moving now, flapping its wings to move away from me... it's got something... there's a fish in its claws... John, the ice is snapping a lot now...”

“Natalie, calm down.... here's what happened. that owl, it was fishing, okay? It found a weak spot in the ice, probably caused by a spring in the lake bed. The ice was weak right there, it opened up and the owl was able to catch a fish.”

“John.... the owl just flew away.... What do I do now?”

“Well, if I were you, I would start wishing you had wings.”

“John... that's not funny!”

“It wasn't meant to be. One more thing, you might want to wave goodbye to Steve. He doesn't strike me as the type to dive into freezing water to save someone.”

A scream of, “John!” was the last thing he heard before the line went dead. He hung up the phone, pulled out a pair of sweatpants, and slipped them on. Then he put on his snow boots so he would be ready to go when the call came in over his pager for an ice-rescue. He had a strong feeling this one wasn't going to turn out so well.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

years ago

My mother and father married in 1955. After the wedding they sat at a table outside of a cafe in Vienna and watched Russian convoys leaving their occupied sector of the city in preparation for the end of the ten year occupation mandated by the end of world war two. My father was a corporal in the US Army and my mother the daughter of an Austrian wine maker. Needless to say, not many of us have such dramatic recollections of our wedding day. As intriguing as that story may be, there is a better one for them and it occurred a year earlier, on Valentine's Day. Here is the long and short of it.

My father was born in Chicago but emigrated as a child with his mother back to a town in Austria along the Hungarian border called Schandorf. This is where he grew up, witnessed the reunification of Austria with Germany during the Anschluss, and saw his application to join the Hitler Youth with the rest of his friends denied because he was an American Citizen. After the war, at age 17 he returned to America with his family and began life anew. In 1952 while attending Northwestern University, he was drafted initially to go to Korea. His German language skills and college experience instead placed him in the Black Forest with the Signal Corps.

My mother lived in a town in Austria called Eisenberg, approximately five miles from Schandorf. She and her sister lived with her mother, a home maker, and father, an avid sportsman, wine maker, and restauranteur. He taught my mother how to hunt among other things. He would find himself in the German Army for nine years, leaving his family in the care of relatives. My mother tells me every morning her mother would put on an apron, load a revolver, and place it inside of one of the apron pockets. At night when she took off the apron she would unload the pistol and put it away. It was war time. It is what was done. When the war was over and her father returned, he set back to the practice of wine making and tending to his vineyard.

Dad was familiar with the area and would visit his relatives whenever he could, always making sure to bring wine back to his barracks. On one such visit, a relative introduced him to my mother while they were purchasing a few bottles. And that, as they say, is that. He was smitten and their courtship began.

Being only a corporal, he could only get away when he was allowed. As a romantic gesture, for Valentine's Day in 1954, he thought of my mother and decided to send her a telegram asking if she would be his valentine. Locally, the telegram and telephone service was handled by the post master, Postler in German, whose name was Franz. When he received a telegram it was his responsibility to make sure it got delivered. He also transcribed the message as it came across the wires. On that particular February 14, in 1954, Franz found himself in a quandary as he scratched down the words being tapped out in front of him. This was Franz's first valentine ever.

Sending a valentine was, by my mother's recollection, unheard of in Austria at the time. She described her father as something of an entrepreneur and the local villagers never knew what he would be up to next. It then made perfect sense that Franz the Postler would say sarcastically upon looking over the valentine message from my father, "What are those people on the hill starting again?"

To answer Franz's question, here is what was started. It was my mom and my dad and the family and the experience of children and grandchildren and bills and diapers and banks and vacations and cars and jobs and houses and photographs and memories. Who knew that just a few words would have that kind of power, even when delivered by a cranky Postler in Austria 58 years ago.

Friday, February 3, 2012

follow the rules

Chuck Wendig posted a writing challenge on Twitter that was a very useful interpretation of the seven-point method of plot development.

His challenge was to use the seven points not to write a novel, but to write a 1000 word flash fiction piece.

I did one better. I used his challenge to write an incredibly short seven act flash fiction piece.

Presented now for your consideration, annotated with Mr. Wendig's act titles is, boom, by Ed Varga


Act 1 Intro
“I'm so worried about you being gone for a week, dear. There have been all these break-ins lately and I feel so much safer when you're around.”

Act 2 Problem or Attack
“You shot me! Motherfucker, you shot me!”

Act 3 Initial Struggle
“I didn't mean to! This is all your fault. Showing me how to use your gun was your idea!”

Act 4 Complications
“Wait, what?! I was showing you how to use my gun, not how to shoot your husband! If I have any fault in this situation it was in presuming you knew that bullets came out of that hole at high speed and in the direction the gun is pointed when the trigger is pulled! Didn't you ever watch a Bugs Bunny cartoon?”

Act 5 Failed Attempts
“Argh! You are such a drama queen. Sit still, I'll get the Neosporin.”

Act 6 Major Crisis
“Drama queen?! Listen up Annie Oakley, I'm no doctor but I'm pretty sure the fact that I can't stand up and I'm bleeding into my shoes means you struck an artery! Forget first aid and call 911!”

Act 7 Climax and Resolution
"I should call? I think the brainiac who put the gun in my hand in the first place should have to call. And tell them to hurry. Your flight leaves in two hours!"


Living in one of the more rural hamlets in northeast Illinois is not without certain benefits. We have four acres of open space for the boys to play, property taxes are somewhat low, the neighbors are far enough away to not be noticed, our house is of a substantial size, and the ownership of an antique tractor is justified. We are one hour from Chicago and all it has to offer without all of the less pleasurable factors of living in or close to the city. One more thing, I have had a front row seat to some rather spectacular accidents.

The property we live on now is situated on a state highway, adjacent to an intersection with a smaller road leading north into Wisconsin. The highway configuration was established over one hundred years ago as a surveyor's boundary line. Accordingly, it is arrow straight from Zion at Lake Michigan to Rockford along the Rock River. When I took driver's education, they warned us about such highways and their straight alignments which cause a phenomena known as Highway Hypnosis. Similar to the effect of looking at an oncoming train while standing on the tracks, the object moving very quickly takes on the appearance of almost standing still. This can lead to a number of rear-end accidents as a vehicle fails to react in time to a change in speed of the car in front of them.

And sometimes a drunk pulls out in front of you.On one particular night, just before thanksgiving in 2002, just such a thing happened.

It was a little after midnight when I was jarred awake by the sound of the vehicles impacting outside of my house. I dialed 911 while rubbing the sleep out of my eyes and described what I could see from my bedroom to the sheriff's office dispatcher. I went downstairs to check on my son. At the time I was a divorced single dad and my son, who was four, slept through the incident. Seeing he was asleep, I strained to see what I could from his bedroom. It was a head on collision. By this time another vehicle had stopped. The driver just stood to the side, not making any attempt to assist passengers of the vehicles.

Richmond's Rescue Squad and two County Sheriff's deputies were the first on the scene. The sound of the sirens woke my son. He and I stood in his bedroom which was now alive with the motion of flashing red and green lights as I explained what had occurred to him. We prayed for the victims of the crash who after a half hour were still not being removed from the vehicles. Spring Grove's fire engine arrived and extended a light-boom into the sky. When illuminated it made my yard look like a sports arena.

My son and I moved into the living room and turned on the TV. I thought it best to distract him from the sound of saws and diesel engines in our front yard. As luck would have it, Nickelodeon had a Sponge Bob episode on. While he watched the happenings in Bikini Bottom, I stayed at the window thinking of the predicament of the occupants of the vehicles. A figure walked across my lawn close to the house. It was a man with a camera on his shoulder. I poked my head out and asked who he was. "I'm freelance," was his response. Then he said, "Can I get a comment from you later?" I told him sure and went back inside. Then I heard my son say, "Dad, what's that noise?"

Above our roof came rhythmic thumping. From our sunroom I looked up to the sky and saw the red strobe lights of two helicopters hovering above. My son and I bundled up in our coats and went outside. By now it was one o'clock and we had become used to the bright lights and activity going on around our house. The Spring Grove fire chief walked by and I asked him what was happening. He didn't stop and just asked us to stay out of the way. He walked through my yard and into the alfalfa field next door. I heard an engine rev and looked to see an ambulance pulling up my driveway, then driving across my lawn, following the path of the fire chief.

Once situated, the chief struck a flare and placed it on the ground. One of the helicopters descended and landed in the field twenty or so feet from the brilliant red glow. As its rotors slowed, the helicopter's occupants in blue full body flight suits and white helmets, exited. One walked to the ambulance while the other two opened the rear body of the of the helicopter. Inside it resembled an ambulance. With the help of the rescue squad, a stretcher was carried from the ambulance to the helicopter and slid into the back. I thought about the victim and the dangerous jobs of the helicopter crew as I looked at the tail rotor spinning just behind them.

The helicopter doors closed, the rescue squad stepped back, and the main rotor accelerated. When barely off the ground it made an abrupt turn to the north and flew off toward Milwaukee. This process was repeated three more times with the rest of the helicopters flying southeast toward Chicago. As the last one cleared, I heard the familiar voice of Jay Marshal, a member of Richmond's rescue squad. "How's it going Ed?" he asked. I looked at his face, smiling like always, his cheeks peppered with freckles and replied, "You know, same old, same old."

I asked him what happened. He explained that one of the vehicles, a mini van, had four people in it. One of the victims from the back seat said they were from the Waukegan area and were driving toward Galena for a fishing tournament that was going to start at five in the morning. As they approached the intersection by my house they saw a car turn onto the highway in front of them from the road that led into Wisconsin. The driver of the other vehicle, drunk as Jay described him, completed his turn but kept turning in a circle which placed his vehicle in the path of the van. The last thing the backseat victim remembered the van driver saying was, "He sees us, right?"

Too late to stop in time and likely driving above the posted 55 mile per hour speed limit, the van's driver swerved to the right to try to avoid the collision. The oncoming car and its sole occupant kept turning at low speed, matching the position of the van at the point of impact. Five victims, four helicopters. I looked at the van. I saw hair over the top of the driver's seat headrest. "What about him Jay?" I asked. "Oh," he said calmly, "we had one fatality." A week before thanksgiving, a man died in my front yard.

I got my son back into the house and told him to stay there for a few minutes. I instructed him to watch me from the sunroom and that I would be watching him so he should stay right where I could see him in the window. He agreed and I walked back to the accident site with Jay. In the front seat of the van was the victim. He had a mustache. His lap was covered with the deflated remnants of the airbag which deployed from the steering wheel. He looked to be in the same condition, pale and deflated. I looked at his skin, the wrinkles, the hair, and I guessed his age to be about the same as my father's. "Poor guy," I said to Jay, "he looks to be about my Dad's age. Jay knew my father as well and knew he was in is seventies. "Ed," Jay responded, "This guy is 45."The television camera may add fifteen pounds but death adds thirty years.

I heard doors and compartments on the two fire trucks start to close. It was a sound that indicated the emergency personnel were done trying to save anyone else. They were cleaning up. The body stayed upright in the van. Tow trucks were waiting on the shoulder to remove the vehicles. A sheriff's deputy tapped me on the shoulder. "Sir," he said in an official tone, "is this your residence?" He motioned at my house with a flashlight. I was expecting to have to give a statement of some sort so I answered, "Yes, I live here." The deputy leaned in toward me and said, "May I use the bathroom? I would just go behind a tree but this guy has a camera..." I nodded and said, "No problem. Follow me." My son was very excited to talk to a sheriff's deputy in our living room. Jim and I sat down and watched the end of an episode of Sponge Bob as the deputy finished in the bathroom.

When I walked the deputy to the door, I saw the van was being loaded onto one of the tow trucks. I didn't see the body any more. I presumed he was taken away in one of the ambulances. I was wrong. As the van slid onto the flat bed of the tow truck, it revealed a dark shape on the highway. I think that was what is commonly called a body bag. Tow truck drivers, deputies, and firemen walked by as if there were not a deceased human lying at their feet. The bright overhead light was turned off and the black bag remained. The firetrucks drove off and still the body laid on the cold hard pavement inside of a black vinyl shroud. Two deputies remained on the highway blocking traffic until the coroner's vehicle arrived to finally take away the dead body in front of my house.No warning, no family by his side, thinking about fishing, a nameless man passed from these earthly bounds and I bore witness to it.

A year later his family came by and to place flowers where the accident occurred. I went out to speak to them and using fence posts on my property along the road as a bench mark, showed them exactly where he passed. I wonder now, ten years later, if a thanksgiving goes by where they don't think of the nameless man.

Now that I have turned 45, and I consider my family and the possibility they may one day need to go on without me, the loss of a man I never knew became infinitely real.