Fiction, Tales of Adventure

Tales of Adventure, Episode 1: Screwhammer Finds Love

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Now, lemme tell you: Regus Screwhammer is a dwarf. And I don’t mean he’s some squat hairy guy with an excessive love of stonemasonry. No. He is, for sure, but I mean he is dwarf with a capital D-W-A-R-F. Drinks that vile, soured goat’s milk concoction of theirs like wine. The kinda guy you don’t take home to mama unless your mama is four feet tall and can out-wressle a bear.

Screwhammer is my partner. We find things for people. Information. Individuals. Objects of interest. Not always glamorous as it sounds, and sometimes—well, sometimes it gets downright dangerous, and that’s when a guy like me wants a guy like Regus Screwhammer at his back. He’s brutal in a scrap, loyal to his friends, and he loses nunna his capacity when drunk or dosed up.

But Screwhammer ent what anyone would call a romantic. (He’ll say otherwise, but that’s just to get in your britches. Of course, he’s never dishonest about his intentions. He might just mislead a little.) Which is why this is wunna my favorite stories about him.

Screwhammer drinks at almost any place he likes in Amity, because his coin is solid—and because when it isn’t, he’s got that kinda rep. But mostly he drinks at the Horse Trough, a rowdy but friendly little joint center of the lower city. I don’t go there anymore, myself. Bitter memories.

Once, though, we was there together, soaking up the ambiance. Cider, stout, absynthe, whatever we could find, us and a handful of tagalongs. Now, the Horse Trough being a pretty low place, rough and all that, it gets your regular, expected degenerates for such a joint. We was near the back as usual, filling up our tanks, enjoyin the rowdy music, when we hear a hush that starts near the fronta the room and ripples toward the back. We look over as everyone stills for just a moment: the double doors swing shut behind what has to be the most elegant elf I ever seen, stepping delicately through the crowd. Think of it: a watering hole full of drab brown folk and suddenly a rainbow lances through. I ent much for poetry, but if I were, I’d say that were it.

Then someone lets out a monumental belch, and the place spins up again. The man who’d been about to punch that other man—he had stopped to watch the elf, put down his fist, and now he sits back on his stool confused.

Conversation strikes up. Malvar sez: “D’you git a look at em?” by which he means the elf. “‘igh class ‘z wot. Ent ortta be in ‘ere.” “Ha!” said Screwhammer. “You donno holler.” Laramy makes to argue: “That elf, he gonna bring ‘is frenz, and they all gon’ bring theirn, and pretty soon the Trough is gonna be the Silver Goblet or sumthin’ posh wut won’t let us in, and won’t none of us have a place to drink.” Several of the others grumbled agreement. But Screwhammer just says “If I kin drink at the Brass Envelope, then the elf kin drink here.” Everyone knew how select the Envelope were, how it were talls only and really just rich talls only and never let the shorter humankin in, save strangely enough for Screwhammer. And no one wanted the Trough to become as closed-off as that place. So we just left it at that.

We went back to talking for a bit, something non-subjectal y’know like any other evening at the watering hole. But after awhile it became apparent something were happening over at the bar. Raine looked over, then looked back at the resta us and said “ Somethin happenin ov’at the bar.” Sure enuff, some small scrub was talking to the elf, all awkward like. He had two drinks in his hand; he offered the elf one, a fancy-looking goblet. The elf held up a hand stop-like. The scrub gestured the goblet forward, but eir hand didn’t budge. Scrub stepped back, looked to either side, ruddier than before. Shrank back into the crowd.

Now this were nothing abnormal, someone getting rejected, but with the high-class elegant blue-and-green, the scarves and the flowing outfit, the perfumed hair, the elf definitely were. Abnormal, I mean. And so anything to do with em, became so too.

We and just about the whole common room figured the small scrub had gone and made the wrong assumption, for why he was waved off. But pretty soon, another suitor came knocking, and the elf let him go with the same gentle wave. And then another, and another, fellas, ladies, etc.

By this point, news was making its way around the bar. Every now and then, someone’d get up the gumption and go get rejected. We was watching for a while, appreciating the comedy. Then someone—Raine, I think—started in at betting, at first on rejection or success. But when it were clear enough the elf wouldn’t say yes to no one, we started betting on who would give a go when, and sometimes too at what point of the night the elf would say get fed up and leave, or whether eventually anyone would be able to give em a drink.

After a while, no one else were going up, and the Regular Crew were getting bored. Finally Raine said “Malv, you go give em a try.” But Malvar replied, “Naa, ‘m right comfy ‘ere. You go on yerself.” Raine said back, “Ha! Don’ need me no elf prince or princess.” And then Callum the Ponce said “You only say that because you know you don’t have a chance,” which got Raine all ruddy and brung up laughter from the rest of the Crew. Raine muttered something about Callum not knowing enough about the subject to do any better, but the sorcerer just cocked his head and raised an eyebrow: “Why don’t you stick to purchasing your companionship, Raine. Witticism is like fencing: you shouldn’t come unarmed.” Callum always was better with his words than with his spells.

This banter goes on for a while, with eventually money thrown on the table for whoever wants to be brave, but no one actually wants to give it a try, they all just want something to bicker over. So it remains moot, until at last Screwhammer, who had been silent all the while, says “Fukkit. I need another drink,” and gets up. And we all stare as he heads to the bar with the whole stasha for-the-elf drink money jutting out between his thick fingers. Here’s how it went, according to him:

I steps up next to the elf and says to the bartender, “Two Dragon Fin Stouts, aye.” The bartender slides ‘em over, I picks ‘em up and hands one sidelong to the elf, sayin’ “Here.”

“I don’t drink that”, elf says.

“Ye do now,” says I.

“Excuse me, little man?”

(Here I gets a mite surprised like. I known Regus Screwhammer ten-odd years and he ent never let no’ne talk downa him.)

“Ye been sippin’ that dainty amber nectar, the same cup, all evenin’. Expensive stuff, I wager. An’ yiur dressed nice, too. So ye don’t come down to places like this often. Which means yiur here fer the color, the novelty.”

“And if I am?” the elf replies.

“Well, ye shedn’t be drinkin’ the same stuff yiu gets in yiur fancy upscale bars. Ye should try what the regulars drink. And this,” I raises me mug, “is the best o’ that ye can get here.”

There’s a beat in which the elf stares at me, one eyebrow lifted. Then twitches a smile, raises the second mug, an’ downs the whole thing.

So I cheers: “Aye! There’s a good elf!” An’ I claps the elf hard on the back. Ey looks over at the bartender an’ says “Another, please.” The bartender gives it up an’ now it’s my turn to be impressed. The elf knocks back the drink, looks me in the eye, an’ says real loud an’ real slow an’ real clear, “What’s next, small one?” as if I shed be impressed an’ leave well off.

Well, the room just about went silent there and then. Like I said, Screwhammer never once let anyone call him small or talk down to him, and every regular in the place knows it. So they’s just waiting to see what he do. But I can see—he’s too intrigued by the elf, so he lets it slide, doesn’t even notice like. He just quirks one eyebrow to match the elf’s and says “Aye.”

Then he gives the bartender a little nod, and the bartender takes out two small glasses and reaches up high for a dusty bottle. He wipes it clean with his rag and sets it on the counter with a bang. The jolt jars something inside the container, and little orange-yellow sparks swirl up through the murky liquid, leaving curls like feathered clouds or licks a flame. I got no idea what the drink is myself, but the elf sure knows, and eir eyes light up. Screwhammer looks at eir, an intense stare, not quite a challenge.

Ey cocks eir head yes. The bartender pours. Screwhammer grasps the two glasses, hands em one. Then he turns his attention to the business at hand. Ey, about to do the same, stops, watches. Screwhammer takes the glass, holds it up between his fingers, lets the lamplight filter through the liquid. The twitch of something behind his mustache. Then he closes his eyes, brings the rimma the glass to his nose, inhales long and slow. A smile creeps out into the open. And he puts the glass to his lips, draws a slow, gurgling sip. I can hear him taking in air to mix with the liquid in his mouth. Who woulda thought he were a connoisseur?

The elf, for er part, makes a little moue of approval, and does the same with eir own drink. Whatever it is, ey holds it in eir mouth a while, eyes closed, inhaling deeply before ey swallows.

Then ey looks over at Screwhammer and says, simply but not without appreciation, “You’ll do.” Screwhammer looks back at em, almost sidelong, eyes unreadable, and bursts into laughter. And from that point on, the two are inseparable. They down drink after drink, some quickly, some slowly. After a while I give up even watching.

Then, eventually, Screwhammer comes up to me. “Aye, Jerem!”

“Aye,” I say back, measuring. “We’re missing you over here, Regus.”

“Sorry, lad. This one’s too fun!”

“Aye, I get you. But me and the boys, we about to tear into some card. You in?” I say this, but the Regular Crew done give up elf-watching a half hour before. They’re already in at the card.

Screwhammer chuckles. “Aye no but I’m no’ done with the elf yet. We’re drinkin’ buddies now.” He grins.

Ah, well. Guess I’m out my usual partner. “No worry, mate” I say. “Why don’t you bring em over and join?”

Screwhammer’s smile disappears. “Not tonight, Jerem, mate. Lissen, we’re goin’ inty town a bit, find The Appleplum.”

“Oh?” I say. The Appleplum is an Upscale Establishment. Very posh. Screwhammer has never been let in before. It’s a sore point with him.

“Aye. Elf says ey can get me in. Worth a shot, I say.” He’s grinning wicked big now. Like the ripe world about to fall off the tree into his hand. “Yiu could come if ye like, ey won’t mind. Jest yiu, though. No’ the rest.” He nods in the directiona the Regular Crew.

“Right, cheers. Regus, I think I’ll stay here,” I say. “Callum ready to try me again at Gambit, an’ the boys is curious whether he learnt any useful since his last drubbing.” Shit hell, another night and I would’ve gone with him and spared the Ponce his embarrassment. Just not feeling up for the hoity-toity I guess. And mayb I want to let him have his fun.

“Aye, mate. I get you.” And he claps me on the shoulder and turns to head back to his new companion. Then he half turns back and adds, “Don’t wait up! I’ll see yiu at the office tomorr’.”

I nod and turn back to the card before the duo are even into the street.

***

“So?” I ask when Screwhammer kicks open the office door in the morning, looking fresh as last Wainsday’s ale. “You get in?”

Regus Screwhammer shakes his head. I’m about to press him over it, when he gives me the biggest shit-eating grin: “Ah, no. No, we den’t. But Lordy it was good!”

“Tell, tell,” I adds. Screwhammer’s bender stories is always delish.

“Well,” he says:

We left the Horse Trough when ye saw, and we stuck on down to the Mission District, ey an’ me. I’m anxious as never—yiu know me, I den’t get anxious. Ey says “Little man, if you are nervous, you can go back to your little dingy joint. It will not bother me.”

So I quirks an eye at em and grins shark-like an’ sez “Noo, I’ll be comin’ with yiu I thinks. Yiu’ve got an air about ye.”

“Do I?” ey looks bored and astonished.

“Aye. Yiu look all hoity but ye know how to find fun. I can tell that.”

At that, the elf snorts the most dainty snort I ever ‘eard. Which makes me give em a sly sidelong look which ey matches and then we starts laughing, rocking on our feet as we moves down the street.

Which is why we don’t quite see the Pickies move out from where they was leanin’ on a wall, least until they circled us up.

“Screwhammer,” the Boldest sez. “We doon’ wan’ yoo. Jess step ooway froom the eelf an’ we’ll leeve yeh be.” E’s got a nervous edge to ‘im.

I laughs at that. “Oh, I den’t think so, gents—“

“—Hey!” one of them interjects.

“—an’ ladies. Laddies an’ ladies. Heh. See, the elf ‘ere is me Drinking Buddy. An’ I den’t quit me Drinking Buddies, sure, not in a scrape.”

“Oh, you are adorable, Little Man,” the elf says, a wry smile on eir lips.

“Shut it, Elf,” I sez back. “It’s the rules. Safety first, ye know.” At which ey laughs out loud.

But the Bold Pickie ent happy: “Screwhammer, Ahm serioos. Ditch the eelf an’ yoo’l ‘ave noo haarm.” I ken see ‘im shifting ‘is grip on ‘is cudgel like ‘e worried.

“An’ if I don’t?” I sez.

“Weell, if so, I aant responsible.” And ‘e grins sharkteeth, but there’s a fierce fear behind it. E’s about to step up, and there’s a dainty hand on me shoulder, and the elf whispers “It’s okay, Little Man. Let them. They’ll learn a little lesson.”

I looks at em and I sees ey’s sincere. So I sighs and frowns, but I steps back a bit. ‘Course, as the Pickies swarm in, I can’t resist sticking out a foot and tripping one. Does me liver good to see ‘im tumble face down in the dirt!

Well, now the Pickies close in on the elf, wary but predatorial, and I’m casual but ready to spring in. We’re all about for a surprise.

When the Bold Pickie raises his cudgel to strike, the elf becomes a whirlygig of motion, eir scarves and skirts and cloths streaming about em as ey dances and flits amongst eir foes. Pickie after Pickie takes a swing and connects with air only, their target no longer there. Jerem, yiu shoulda seen it! A thing of glorious beauty, was it. Ey moved almost slowly like, and not a one could touch em. Weaving amongst the Pickies, and eir blows were like gentle touches, but the Pickies, they crumble anyway, till finally, eir dance done, the elf lowers eir arms. All about em is the prone bodies of the gang. Not a one moving. Not a one awake.

So I walks over, nodding approval. The elf looks unperturbed. For good measure, I gives the stiff I tripped a good kick in the eggs, and when the elf quirks an eyebrow I shrugs: “E were about to get up an’ go at ye again, that one were. I saved ye.”

At which ey laughs, high and sparkling, and I ent no poet, but it’s like the greatest mead I ever had, that sound.

“So,” I ask Screwhammer, “You went to the Appleplum after that?”

“Oh, nae. We jest went back to the elf’s lodging and screwd like little rats,” he says, and starts laughing. 

It was the oddest sight to behold. Screwhammer has this expression on him that is like nothing I ever seen him do. It ent until he adjusts his britches with a happy sigh and says “I’m seein’ em again tonight. Maybe we’ll try an’ get in there this time,” that I realized what it is: he’s in love.

“You’ll tell the Regular Crew, won’t you,” he adds. Then he picks up the Job-Finding Bodkin, hefts it between his fingers, and eyes the Client Wheel. “All right, Jerem. Give ‘er a spin. Time for a new customer.”

 


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Nonfiction, Poetry

Persona Poems

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It’s a funny thing—I really enjoy writing persona poems—they’re a bit like acting—but I’m not tremendously excited about reading them. Or at least, I’m not any more excited about reading them than I am any other poem. Maybe even a little less, if I know in advance what it is. Does this have something to do with preconceived notions of pretentiousness? Fears of heavy-handedness? I don’t know. Pound wrote a whole book of ’em, and Pound, though intellectually brilliant, often fails to move me. (For one thing, I don’t like being obliged to do intense research to understand a poem. I feel a poem should work on me through language, not through arcane reference; and that if there is arcane reference, it should add to the experience but not be essential to it.)

Thus when I do write them, I try to make them poems first and persona poems second. The point of adopting a persona, for me, is to explore the experience of another character, to imagine what a given moment might have been like for him, her, or whatever. To that end, the poem should contain within its language everything absolutely necessary to present the experience to the reader, to move them. If I do it right, you should be able to read the poem and experience it, be moved, without needing to go looking for information outside of the text; but if you do, that should only deepen your encounter.

I’ve been thinking about this because the other day, I was browsing through poems from when I was at Sarah Lawrence and came across a handful of persona poems and demi-persona poems. I’ve got one from the POV of Joe in Angels in America, which imagines him confessing his internal struggles to his wife; one exploring what Hektor might have thought and felt in his last days at Troy; one about Odysseus beginning the journey home; one that is an apology from Prince Harry to Falstaff on how he treats his friend on becoming King Henry V; and more. I’ll post one or two soon so you can see.

Fiction

A Link to the Office

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From blackness, a voice:

“Help me… Please help me… prisoner… dungeon of the castle.… name is…“

The voice drifts away into dream and haze, then returns.

“…wizard has done something…“

The voice (thin, high) fades out and in again.

“…other missing girls. Now only I—”

KRAKABOOM!

I startle awake in my chair, looking around. My cubicle. (A cubicle? Since when?) My tea-stained mug (who gave that to me?), my keyboard and its crumbs. My secondhand office chair, lumpy and torn. (Did the office actually give me this?) I struggle to recall what company I work for. A—bookstore, was it? No, that sounds… not quite—

SSSSSHRAKOOM!

Lightning and simultaneous thunder shake the office floor. A second flash, and then the lights go out. Pure dark.

I start to stand, slam my knee into some hard edge under the desk. Swear words come to mind, but all that tumbles out is a growl of random syllables. I’m clutching my knee and trying to balance on one leg, so I jerk and nearly fall over when a man’s voice addresses me.

“Hey, Link—“

Link?

“—I’m going downstairs for a bit. No need to worry, I’ll be back before long.”

I limp an about face and wince into a flashlight beam, raise my hand to shield my eyes. The light lowers and I see a mustached, balding man with a doting grin.

“Sorry,” he says. “I’ll be right back, just gonna see if someone’s still down in maintenance. You stay here, if the power comes back on you can keep working on the report without me. Or, y’know, go back to napping.”

He winks, fatherly, and walks away down the carpeted hall, disappears around a corner. I sit back down in the dark, massaging my knee. Who was he? Should I know him? He spoke like he knew me. Jerry, my mind says. Everyone calls him “Uncle Jerry”. It’s because of the mustache. Weird.

Wait. I can’t stay here in the dark. I pull open my desk drawers one by one, use the periodic lightning flashes to see their contents. Second try, I find a flashlight. Perfect. I get up, I stick my head over the top of my cubicle, and look around. The other workspaces are all empty. Great. Well, maybe I can find the vending machine and take all the Snickers.

Stupid! I realize when I get to them. The power’s out. Of course they don’t work!

All right, all right. I clutch my flashlight and head past the elevators toward the stairs. Damned if I’m gonna stay up here waiting for Jerry. I’ll just catch up with him downstairs, tell him I’m done for the night, gonna go home. He’ll understand. Heck, he’ll probably head out, too.

I push open the door to the stairwell, hear the noise echo down the lightless concrete shaft. Something about it makes me shiver. Whatever. It’s just the dark, the lack of electricity and people. I shine the flashlight ahead of me and pick my way down the stairs. I can hear the slow drip of water, and pointing my beam out into the empty space between flights, I glimpse something glinting as it falls. A roof leak, I bet. Continue on.

Seven flights down, I reach bottom. The floor is slick with water and my footsteps slap, splash and echo. The flashlight plays off of wet surfaces. Only one way to go—but wasn’t the corridor shorter last time I came through?

Something moans in the darkness, and I freeze, then inch forward, sweeping ahead with my light. There, in a heap against the wall: someone!

Carefully, I inch up. It’s Jerry, slumped where the floor meets the wall. He’s holding something tight to him—looks like a piece of office shelving. His other hand rests on a crowbar that’s lying on the wet floor.

“Jerry?”

“Wh-who? That voice…Link?” Jerry coughs out a laugh. “Thought I said to stay upstairs.”

“I got, I dunno, scared. Bored.”

“Ah, well…Guess you can’t…escape who you are.” He coughs again, and I notice the blood coloring his shirt. “Link…take the…the crowbar. And my shield…do what I couldn’t…rescue…her.”

Jerry’s head lolls as he goes unconscious. I check his pulse: faint but there. I don’t know anything about wounds, so I just make sure he’s comfortable and not bleeding too much.

Then I look down at the “shield” and crowbar. What the hell was Jerry talking about? Sigh. I pick up his “gifts” and stand, flashlight seeking the exit to the lobby. It’s not there. Instead, down the hall, a strange, old-looking wooden door, like you might see in a fantasy video game. I ready the crowbar and shelf-shield, and step slowly down the hall.

Comments: I feel like I posted this one already, but I can’t seem to find it in the archives. At any rate, I’ve revised it slightly, correcting a few words here and there. I still can’t find a good title, so what’s up there now is provisional. (If you have any ideas, by all means, suggest them!)

The idea originally came to me as a fun tribute roleplaying campaign, though Lord knows which system I’d have used. (Seems a number of my story ideas show up that way.) I held onto it for a long time, then was inspired by a writing prompt on Reddit to type it up as a story.

Fiction, Poetry

The Scaffold

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He had, in the end, made his choice. There were those things he loved—the gun parts, their machine oil tang, the powder going in and the acrid smoke after firing, the camaraderie of war brothers, the clacking, hungry jaws of the hounds—and there were those that were scarred into him—the wails of the stricken, the rolling rumble of enemy engines, artillery fire approaching like some terrible countdown. The contortions of the dead, the irrevocably wounded. The stink of trench disease. The putrid water, the chemical food, the rampant shits. In the end, it was these that weighed the most, and these that he had hoped somehow to set aside.

His niece had always loved the plank swing under the elm in his yard. He had pushed her on it, many a time. Her shrill giggles. He had hoped, laying down arms, deserting—he had hoped that he would at last win himself time to do more of that. To swing with her, even.

Well, now he was swinging.

 

Author’s Note: This one one of two pieces published in TL;DR: A Redditwriters Mixtape, Volume 1, available on Amazon from TL;DR Press.

Also, if you back me on Patreon, you can see videos of me reading this work and many others, as well as plenty of other goodies!