In the June 2014 edition of Prompts we asked our readers to respond to: “Something on my desk.” We writers spend quite a bit of time at our desks, sometimes writing, sometimes thinking, sometimes staring at an object that brings back memories… (Submit for this next month, here.)
It’s my second week at my new job, and several of my coworkers have admired my uniquely decorated cubicle. They’ve commented on my moon cactus, my framed photograph of my adorable niece, Abigail, and even on my colorful peacock container full of candies. But nobody has inquired about the photograph of the black and white flag featuring a skull and cross bones. I have debated about whether or not I could display this photograph. It’s not like it has anything to do with pirates. But then again, it does have to do with a cult. And I suppose cult-related activities (although participated in outside of working hours) are frowned upon in the workplace.
But this isn’t a “bad” cult. This flag represents my writer’s cult. There are ten of us, and we all met in grad school earning our master’s degrees in creative writing. These like-minded students have become my best friends, and although I am very proud to have earned my degree, I am even more proud to be acquainted with this group of creative individuals. So, I am overly eager for someone to ask, “By the way, I’m wondering what that photograph of the flag is all about…” just so I can allow my colleagues a mere glimpse into my life, to show them that I’m not just the girl who stuffs envelopes and answers the phone. I’m a woman who has bravely battled seasickness on a house boat with her Captain and crew (that would be Captain Suppa and my shipmates), danced along with my Rocky Horror characters, and even celebrated Christmas in April and participated in a dirty Easter egg hunt in August.
Maybe someday, some brave soul will inquire about the flag photo.
–Angela Eckhart, Blue Mountain, PA
The photographs are beautiful. Their subjects stirring and transformative; the colors are vivid, the lighting perfected. Last month it was a glacier in Patagonia.This month, a desert canyon in the American southwest. As photographs go, they can’t be faulted. As a functioning object, it’s ridiculously irrelevant.
These days, people have a calendar on their laptop, tablet, phone, watch, television and optical head-mounted wearable technology gizmo. And nobody seems to miss the pretty pictures.
The numbers showing the dates on ‘Awesome Places 2014’ in green Century Gothic are barely legible, their size minimized in order to allow more space for the awesome photos. By the time I’ve leaned forward, squinted and tried to find out what the date will be next Tuesday, I could have simply clicked on the clock at the bottom-right corner of my monitor where I’d also be reminded what I’m supposed to be doing next Tuesday (… for the record, not much).
When I was a kid, my mother bought me one of those little chrome-cased desk calendars with knobs that you can give a daily turn to; one for the date, one for the day, one for the month. I rarely kept it updated. It gathered dust, tarnished and yellowed, but remained there until I sold the desk and moved out.
This year’s version was sent to me by a local insurance company, complete with logo and phone number, even though I haven’t purchased insurance from them. It also collects dust, but I look up from my work and suddenly I’m swimming through a rocky gorge in Thailand. Next month I’ll be hiking in Yosemite.
So it remains on my desk. Perhaps that’s where it belongs. But maybe next time they could just send me a book of awesome photos instead.
-Jon Magidsohn, London/Bangalore
Where Have You Been All My Life?
On my desk is a hazy black-and-white photograph of a smiling stranger seated in a striped canvas beach chair. The picture is so over-exposed the tones bleed into one another—the man’s white shirtsleeves indistinguishable from the blazing sand, his hair a dark beacon against a bleached sky. He is dressed—incongruously—in suit trousers, shirt, and tie, his sleeves folded carefully and equally to just beyond his elbows in his one concession to the heat. His collar remains buttoned, his tie—I imagine it brown—still tight. Beside him a child’s enamel pail lists against an identical canvas chair, this one empty, a tiny shovel beneath it. On his crossed knees sits a hatless baby, the man’s vast hands wrapped around its torso, one above the other, containing the child from heart to hip. In the background, fading to grey, are the shimmering silhouettes of families clustered on the beach.
The baby is not me. But I engage with the scene as though this man’s barefaced happiness was something of my making. One summer later and it might have been: I was there the day my mother took the picture. You don’t see me, and nor could they, hidden as I was in the folds of her womb, suspended in the warmth of August and ignorance.
He will leave when I am three, my father, never to be seen again, and I’ll remember nothing of him. But right before I marry, when at last I’m ready to seek him out, I’ll find him. Or the record of his early death at least.
We meet through this 50-year-old photograph my mother all those years kept hidden, or forgot she had.
We speak to one another without words. Hello stranger, we say. Where have you been all my life?
–Mary Collins, Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Rock of Ages
I found it at the top of the pine-covered bluff behind my house. It was a rounded stone lying among angular stones. I immediately realized what it was. And now it sits on my desk.
It is smooth, oblong stone and just a little bigger than my fist, and I have big hands. It isn’t just a stone. It has a name, and a purpose. The name we know it by is “mano,” which is Spanish for “hand.” To me, it seems strange that the name of its companion stone, the “metate” is a word derived not from Spanish at all, but from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. “Metatl” they called it. (So many Aztec words end in the two consonants “tl.”) But that just goes to show how ancient was the purpose of these two tools: grinding grain into flour. Perhaps the greatest grain in all the earth was developed and cultivated by these peoples who lived long ago, and that grain was corn, which originated in Mesoamerica. When all the history of the world becomes finally condensed to a few paragraphs, maybe corn will be remembered as the greatest contribution of the Americas to world civilization. And nobody in the modern world had anything to do with that.
The bottom surface is flat, and even now, the grinding is obvious. The top surface has a little divot in the center of it, and I knew what usage that divot proclaimed as well. The divot was made by using the stone to press down on a stick spun by a bow in the bow-drill method of fire starting.
So how many years had passed since the last time human hands had touched my mano, and I touched it with my own? And could those years be counted in the hundreds or thousands? Was the stone Ute, or was it Comanche? I honestly don’t know. But I hold it in my hand, and I think of my 64 years of living, and then I think about five thousand years.
–John Redmond, Silver Cliff, Colo.
I reach down and check my cell phone as it lies silently next to my keyboard. No calls, no texts. The anxiety in my chest makes it hard to breathe. He hasn’t responded since last night. Why is he mad at me this time? Oh yeah, I didn’t go to see him after having dinner with my girlfriends yesterday. Why hadn’t I just driven out there to say goodnight? I should have. I was tired but that’s no excuse. A good girlfriend would have given up sleep. Is my phone even working? I grab it off my desk and check again. Full bars, no calls, no texts. Why isn’t he calling?
It’s past my lunch hour and he usually calls during my lunch break. He must be really angry. Why am I always screwing things up like this? Just this weekend I tried to be funny and made a joke to his friends about how meticulous he was about how he folds his clothes. Why did I make fun of him in front of his friends? I embarrassed him. I didn’t mean to. He’ll forgive me. He usually apologizes after he cools down. Still full bars, still no calls, still no texts.
I feel sick to my stomach. My palms are slick from nervous anticipation of the conversation I know is looming. What if he breaks up with me again? God, I should have never made that joke and I should have just gone over to visit even if I was tired. I should think about him more and what he needs. He’s right. I’m such a fucking idiot.
Buzz, buzz. Buzz, buzz.
It’s him. My heart leaps and my stomach sinks as I step away from my desk to answer the call.
–Sarah Nystrom, Seattle, Wash.
Blade of Glory
“That’s a helluva letter opener,” my brother said when he first saw it. That’s what most people say, because it’s true. The slim, 11-inch blade is still razor sharp after 75 years, slicing through paper with ease. But I don’t usually use it for that. It sits inert on my desk, an artifact. Every so often, though, I unsheathe it. The bamboo handle fits my palm perfectly, and I spy my reflection in the blade and think of the first time I held it.
That night the folded steel glinted in the fluorescent light of my uncle’s garage and a strange sensation shivered through me, a gut feeling I felt only once an autumn, when I put my finger to the trigger of my rifle to sight it in for deer season. This is a weapon, I thought instantly. This is no ordinary knife. This is meant to kill. Then my aunt told me.
“Art Green was a marine in The War,” she said, in a tone that left no doubt which war she meant. “He lived across the street, and when your great-grandparents had this house, they took care of him after he came back, made him one of the family. Never, ever sell it,” she said. “Hang it on your wall and someday give it to your kids, and tell them where it came from.”
I don’t know why she was so emphatic. Of course I’d never sell it. I’m a student of archaeology; I know the importance of objects from the past. That’s why, every so often, I hold this part of Art Green’s war and wonder how he got it, and what he saw and did on those barren Pacific atolls. Besides, it’s a helluva letter opener.
–Alex Barbolish, Nicholson, Pa.
Something on my desk moved just as I came through the door. The day has been hard, and more than anything I had hoped to find solace in my Macbook, story creation, reflection, but now I stood watching afraid. It was a Ringu moment in my mind, tunnel vision that ended with the strangely instantaneous approach of some dark, greasy-looking snip of heartache and revenge.
Unable to step forward and unwilling to retreat, I watched for more than a couple of minutes, but when no other motion had occurred in that time, I headed to my seat, dropped my laptop case to the floor, and began shuffling through papers that had been neglected for the last week.
I’m getting divorced. Whatever else I write in this moment, please remember that. The idea permeates everything. My husband says I have brought this on myself, but every time I consider all the facts one thing seems indisputably true: every act he has committed, from sweet love to vile vitriol, has been designed as if by symphony to make no other choice possible.
I’m innocent in this, right?
We have two kids together, and my desk has my maternal requirement: pictures of my boys in happy times. One of those was taken yesterday, printed from my phone at the kiosk at CVS and slapped to a piece of black foam for easy presentation.
The movement happened to the right of this photo on my desk. Window just behind it opened, perhaps the something moving reacts only to a breeze blowing on yet another unseasonably cool Alabama day. It seems the whole world is colder, but there is some comfort in that for me. Just in front of the picture sit papers to sign. Moved, moving, changing, the process makes promises, and I act.
–Treasure Ingels-Thompson Montevallo, Ala.
On my desk there are three figurines representing the three wise men of Chinese legend – Fuk, the god of harmony; Luk, the god of power and wealth; and Sau, the god of longevity. They are small and made of plastic, the kind of trinket you can find in any souvenir shop around San Francisco. I found them abandoned in the airport where I work and put them on my desk. After a couple of days I decided they looked tacky, and I put them away. The next day when I counted our shop’s receipts, I was shocked to see how low the previous day’s sales had been. “It’s because you took down the three little guys,” one of my co-workers said. The three little guys went back on display, and sales have been up ever since.
Cup of Joe — the story that inspired the Prompt
“Stillwater’s Jumpin’ Little Juke Joint.” That’s what the back of the t-shirt said. A smiling Eskimo and his furry friend peeked through a circle on the front.
My same-age-aunt and I (everyone called us cousins though) noticed that, every day, at least one of our new classmates at Nimitiz Middle School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, wearing an Eskimo Joe’s t-shirt. We were new to the Sooner State, my mom’s mom and her siblings each making the trek west, from Pennsylvania, a few months ahead of each other. Once most of us were living in Tulsa, one of them decided we should take a road trip to Stillwater, for the adults had seen the shirts in their travels too. Theresa and I couldn’t contain our excitement; we had since seen a character in “Can’t Buy Me Love” wearing a Joe’s tee. It was a famous place. Would they have good hamburgers?
It was cold, even for Pennsylvanians, on the dark night we crammed into my mom’s car. She and future step-dad up front, and Theresa, me, my aunt Michelle and her boyfriend Dan squashed in the back. I was uncomfortable because I had no room and scared because….
“I had a premonition. We’re all going to die!” I said, an announcement that was received with much laughter and ridicule. Even to this day.
Today, a plastic, glow-in-the-dark Eskimo Joe cup holds my pens, pencils, Sharpies, scissors, pencils and one lobster-shaped lollipop (or suckers as people in Oklahoma say). I did not get a t-shirt or any souvenir on the day my fiery car crash nightmare didn’t come true–only a hamburger and jabs. But a few years later, when I was 15, a stranger gave me this cup when I asked, if by any chance he could get me a glass of water because it was sweltering hot, while selling him a newspaper subscription. He returned with the cup and told me I could keep it. When I got home and showed my mom, she smiled, laughed and said, in a friendly mocking tone, “I had a premonition.”
–Donna Talarico, Lancaster, Pa.