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Exercise #12: Fear of Water

Tomorrow the god will show his face in the shadow of the big temple. Then the priests will feed us a meal of corn and beans and give us a drink from a gold cup, wash us, paint our faces with the signs of Kukulkan in red and blue, and dress us in gold and feathers. And then they will lead us to the cenote.

I want to believe I will have the courage walk on my own legs and that they will not have to …more

50/50 Fall 2008, Exercise #9: Reaching

The boy saw his youngest sister reaching for the handle. The pot of soup was threatening to boil over on the front burner of the stove. His mother had told him a thousand times, “You must always turn the handle away from the edge, because otherwise your little sisters will try to grab them, and then they’ll spill hot stuff all over themselves. So it is very important for you to turn the handle the right way.” It was only decades later that he thought about how much responsibility that was to place on the shoulders of an 11-year-old boy, even if he was tall enough to use the stove, and responsible enough to be trusted with cooking for the family, and handy enough in the kitchen not just to open up and prepare canned soups, but also to cook some simple recipes. So he was always very careful to keep the pot handles parallel to the edge of the stove when he stood cooking in front of it, and to turn them another forty-five degrees away from the edge if he ever had to step away from the stove—but never for more than a moment.

But the babysitter was not as careful, even though she was 17 and should have known better, so sometimes he had to be careful for her, turning the handles to a safe position when she stepped away to answer the phone and to have long, giggling conversations with her boyfriend or one of her girlfriends from school about boys and songs on the radio and hair and makeup and teachers. But this time he was not watching, he was in the family room in front of the television, and he wasn’t supposed to have to take care of his sisters, that’s what the babysitter was for, but even though he was mostly paying attention to an episode of Star Trek that he’d seen seven or eight times already, in the back of his mind he knew that something wasn’t right, and he could smell the canned beef stew cooking, and he could hear it bubbling on the stove, and then in a moment he was seized by the vision of his youngest sister, the one who had recently become very curious about the universe of things above her head, and he could see her standing in front of the stove and looking up at the rattling pot and wondering what to make of the bubbles of stew starting to splash over the edge of the pot, and he could see her reaching for the handle, and he could see her pulling the boiling liquid over, spilling it on her face and neck and arms and screaming with pain and fear while the babysitter stood transfixed in shock or panic or disbelief, so he jumped up from the carpeted floor and ran into the kitchen and turned the handle on the pot away from the edge, and then he stormed into the hall, grabbed the phone out of the hand of the surprised babysitter, slammed it down on the receiver, and stood rooted to the floor in front of her, his face red with rage, angry tears streaming down his face.

Note: The prompt for this exercise was to write a text that “starts with someone reaching for something.” I had a lot of trouble with this one, maybe because it was the next one up when Hurricane Ike came along, so I tried several false starts at moments when focus was somewhat lacking. I finally cranked out this mostly stream-of-consciousness piece to get past the roadblock.

© 2008 Edward F. Gumnick

50/50 Fall 2008, Exercise #7: Lineage story

I don’t know a whole lot about my lineage. It seems safe to say that my family didn’t come over on the Mayflower, or I would probably have heard about it, right? From the little information we have, it’s more likely that most of my ancestors came to the New World much more recently, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. On an encouraging note, that means my family is probably off the hook for ever having owned any African slaves. I’m told that my niece and nephew, however, are related by way of my brother-in-law’s family to Jefferson Davis. But that’s their karmic burden to work out. As for us Gumnicks, it’s more probable that our ancestors were somebody else’s slaves—or “serfs,” as they were called back when European white people owned …more

50/50 Fall 2008, Exercise #3: Like a Brother

The Fisherman’s Brother

One Christmas season I drew my
big brother’s name out of the pot.
He was a fisherman; he decorated
his half of the room we shared
in eclectic Field & Stream motif.
Naturally, I shopped a sporting goods
store in search of the perfect gift.

My knowledge of fish and my interest
in fishing began and ended with threading
half of a squirming earthworm onto
a rusty hook and dangling it in the water
weighed down by a soft clump of lead
under a red and white plastic bobber.
(I thought of myself as a purist.)

I knew in the abstract that one could
angle for largemouth bass or smallmouth
bass or brook trout or rainbow trout or
any desired species in creek or lake
or stream, but I had no patience for the art
and science of attracting and catching
anything without a taste for worms.

So I selected a jar of fluorescent
orange roe. I imagined the plump,
squishy balls looked delicious to fish.
I also picked a gorgeous lure, an oval
of convex stainless steel painted in faux
fishy stripes and spots of red enamel,
a beauty to win a fish’s heart.

Note: The prompt for today was to describe someone who was “as close as a blood relative,” though not related. I decided to go in another direction.

© 2008 Edward F. Gumnick

50/50 Fall 2008, Exercise #2: “I’m sorry you are so afraid…”

“I’m sorry you are so afraid, honey, but everything is going to be okay.” My mother kneaded the back of my neck with her right hand. The knuckles of the left one looked white compared to the tan vinyl that covered the steering wheel. We must have been sitting in Dad’s old Plymouth. It was my first day of kindergarten. I remember it like it was yesterday.

I should ask Dad about that old car. What was the model? How long did he drive it? I think he sold it for scrap when I was about eight.

I almost couldn’t believe it, but Dad said that …more

50/50 Fall 2008, Exercise #1: Storm Story

Water, Water Everywhere

My family was baptized into life in Houston on June 15, 1976—the only time in history that a game at the Astrodome was ever rained out. In the early afternoon, a storm dropped almost 13 inches of water on the city in about three hours. Flooding and traffic were so bad that the players couldn’t make it to the legendary domed stadium, much less the fans. We didn’t know that factoid until much later. The news the next day focused, of course, on the eight lives lost and on the damage to the Texas Medical Center and several of the city’s art museums.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. My story starts earlier in the day, on the last leg of a four-day trip from our previous home in the suburbs of Philadelphia. We’d spent a night each …more

Whitewash and Boredom

Sheldon Avenue in Baltimore was where my maternal grandparents lived, the home where my mother grew up, the place my brother and sisters and I dreaded visiting. Or at least I dreaded visiting. It was an orderly street of row houses and sycamore trees, with long concrete staircases at the lower end, shorter staircases at the top end where the street intersected with Belair Road. Belair Road was the limit they’d placed on our wanderings; we were not to cross the six busy lanes of asphalt under any circumstances.

Their house was the fourth from the bottom of the row—fourth on the right as you climbed the street in the front, fourth from the left as you climbed …more