Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Feuilleton

Like any aspiring writer, I am always looking for ways to expand my vocabulary. I subscribe to Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day, where you get a new vocab word delivered to your email inbox every morning.

While a few exceptionally useful words have stuck with me (like schadenfreude), my overall retention rate for these words is probably less than 1%. Reading a vocab word for a few seconds in an email is simply not an effective way to learn. Like anything else, you have to do something with it to learn it.
So, let’s play a game. I’m going to attempt to write a short story using every M-W Word from the entire month of June, in order.

I had a lot of fun with this. You should try it. It adds to the fun if you have no idea where the story’s going to go when you start. Here goes:

Henry couldn't have known it when he woke up, but his alarm clock signaled the beginning of the end, the postlude of his life. He was still hors de combat from the seven martinis he'd downed the night before, and a malaise shrouded him like a spider web. As he stood up, head spinning, he had an overwhelming urge to leave his tawdry apartment as soon as possible. He picked up some pages of a short story he'd been working on. He read the first few lines, then he crumpled the paper and slam-dunked it into the trash. He remembered calling his story a feuilleton when his friends had asked him about it. He cursed himself for his pretentiousness. Who says that? What a prig I am, he thought.

He burst out of his apartment into the San Francisco morning. It was August, so it was characteristically gray and gelid. He turned his collar up against the cold as the N-train arrived, staunch and robotic like some giant cockroach coming out of the mist. He searched his pockets for train fare, but found only a nimiety of ATM receipts and umpteen pieces of lint. He boarded anyway; he just had to hope that in the morass of morning passengers, no one would be checking tickets.

As the train pulled away, he was beginning to feel better. He bird-dogged a tall woman in a business suit, but she just rolled her eyes and buried her face in a newspaper.
Henry searched the faces around him, wondering if any the passengers was an undercover ticket agent. He remembered his bank account balance printed on the ATM slips in his pocket. If he got fined for dodging the fare, he hoped the city accepted corvee. He pictured himself working on the side of the freeway in an orange vest. It didn't seem so bad -- at least he could get away from his computer for a while.
The train came to an abrupt stop, jolting the passengers forward. Henry looked out the window. The street was filled with bicyclists: a churning mass of riders in bright costumes. They were swerving in and out of the cars, chanting and ringing bells. They'd tied up the street with some sort of protest against cars.
San Francisco sure is an exclave of America, he thought.

The train was impuissant against the wall of idling cars, so Henry got off, dodging the horde of angry bicyclists and honking cars like a character in the video game, Frogger.
He considered pointing out to the protesters the irony in that they were holding up the public transportation, too, but he didn't have the fortitude to get into a debate with them. He wasn’t about to jeopardize his physical well-being by speaking up.
So he gave a small solute, an obeisance to the liberal gods of the city, and began threading his way through the cars. But his unflappable mansuetude was meant to be put to the test today. As he neared the sidewalk, a throng of bikers circled around him and tried to deter him from getting off the road. He realized that they were corralling the pedestrians to form a massive car-train-person dam in the middle of downtown. Not usually prone to litotes – he preferred extremes like “atrocious” and “amazing” -- Henry looked up at one of his captors, gestured at the mess around him, and said, "not bad."

But the cyclists had turned their attention elsewhere. Henry heard a deep rumbling noise, and he turned to see the city’s symbol of everything sacrilegious: a raised yellow Hummer was inching up onto the sidewalk to get around the stagnant mass of traffic. As the Hummer lurched onto the sidewalk, an intrepid restaurateur stepped into its path, but then must have thought better of it -- he ducked back through his cafĂ© door before the big truck passed. While the Hummer's driver was conscientious about not hitting other cars, it seemed that the bicyclists were fair game.
If the bike-protesters considered themselves a salve for the environment, the guy in the Hummer was the nocebo, and he was dolling out his bad medicine on a procrustean regimen. Henry watched in horror as the Hummer mowed down an atoll of bikers who’d splayed across the sidewalk in an effort to stop him. All kinds of bicycles, from lowly cruisers to bespoke racing machines, flew into the air around Henry, forming a whirlwind of gnarled steel.

Henry was torn between watching the surreal scene unfold, and getting himself to safety. As he considered this, the Hummer made an abrupt turn and accelerated straight toward him. Henry stood transfixed as the growling yellow machine bore down on him.
He held up his hands and yelled, “Wait, I'm not on either side! I took the train. I like both bikes and cars. I'm neutral, see. I ... took... the…train…”
He tried to think of something profound to say that would stop this man -- a euphuism, maybe; something about a flower stopping a tank -- but his voice trailed off, and suddenly he was calm and sentient, and the scene around him took on a crystalline clarity. Maybe this was the answer to the jog trot of life, he thought. To die for a cause: to make a stand for peace, for neutrality. Maybe this, he thought, just before the huge wheels decimated him, is what I've been waiting for.


  1. Great story. I had to look up quite a few of those words (which you made easy by providing hyperlinks...thanks for that!). My complaint is regarding the ending of the story. I think you should leave it ambiguous what happens to the character. Like a cliff-hanger of sorts. Another suggestion. Maybe you could try the same exercise using words from another month in a dialogue situation.

  2. Brian:

    If you had ever worked on crosswords; you would have already known most of those definitions.
    By the way, I object to your use of the word "atoll" I was on lots of those in Tahiti; and none of them looked like a pile of bikers.
    But otherwise, good job!


    Joanjolie Crawaudacious

    PS: How about Cross Covington as your main character?