Saturday, May 18, 2013

As promised, here's the opener to The Fish and the Stone. To read the rest, trot on over to and peruse the recent blog posts on this subject.

The Fish and the Stone: A Fable for Gem Connoisseurs

It happened in 1979, and I remember it as if it was yesterday. I was on my little boat, overlooking the deep and liquid expanse of Fenton Lake, near Los Alamos, New Mexico. I had just been trolling by lantern-light, trying to attract the fish that had eluded me all day. The sounds of the night -- the crickets and singing bugs -- had started up. After at least an hour of waiting patiently, there was a tug on my line, and I pulled in a wriggling yellow perch. I raised my knife to cut its head off, to end its misery of drowning in air, and did so -- quickly. The head fell off into my little plastic bucket, but at the same time, something shiny tumbled out. I couldn't believe my eyes. I didn't know much about gemstones, but that's what it appeared to be. Rough cut, but with sparkling lights coming from its depths, like an opal! I rowed back to the shore, excited. My wife Roberta was already in the tent, having eaten a can of beans for dinner in case my bad luck continued.

"Roberta, look!" I said, pushing back the canvas flap and holding the stone out for her to see, my lantern casting yellow light on the darkness around us.

"What is it?" she asked.

"I don't know, exactly, but I think it's an opal. I found it inside a fish I caught."

Roberta took it in her small hand and turned it this way and that in the light. "I can't believe it. It was inside the fish?"

"Yes, in its mouth, or maybe its head. It fell out when I started to clean it."

"It looks valuable," she said. "Let's put it someplace safe for now."

So we did. We wrapped it in a paper towel and then put it in a collapsible plastic cup we had with the dishes, and took it home. Being the very busy people we were at that time, we promptly forgot about it. We moved into a different apartment, then after seven long years of saving our money, a humble little house.

One day, Roberta found the stone in a dusty box she had been unpacking. I decided I wanted to put it in a ring for Roberta. We went to a dealer of precious metals and gemstones. The owner of the shop seemed too busy to pay much attention to us, but eventually he looked our way. When he saw the stone, he became very interested indeed.

To be continued...
Hi to all my writing friends out there! Here are drafts of three poems I have to get ready for Sunday's Live Poets Society meeting. All volunteers welcome, as I need all reviews, critiques, edits, and any general and/or specific reactions I can get.

While you're here at the blog, check out my other recent posts -- Valentine Train short short story, a note on friend Terry Wilson's great achievement with the publishing of Confessions of a Failed Saint, and more. And sign up to follow this blog if you're interested and if you haven't already. In the meantime, happy writing - hope you enjoy this little sojourn through my head --


Fast Car

 Tracy Chapman didn’t know it

or maybe she did

In dreams the driver controls your destiny

if you’re not in the driver’s seat,

You’ve relinquished control

You are at their mercy

What do you do if they crash the car?

Will the thrill of the ride be worth it all?

Maybe she did know

Maybe she took the wheel in her own fine hands

when she said a decision must be made

I hope so.

Maybe she didn’t even know how to drive

what with all she’d been through in that young life

Still, I hope she took the wheel, gripped it, and steered

Stepped on the gas and left THAT DAY

Drove straight into the West

maybe stopping in Montana for a coke and a cowboy hat.


                                             Sheila Ortego McLaughlin



Waiting for Death

It seems so odd when nature’s law turns on you

That stubborn muscle beating incessantly

Your gratitude for it, and love

And yet you wish it would just STOP

You’re old, and tired

Life has driven you over with a Mac truck fifty times over

the black tire tracks ground into your face

The sight of a beautiful sunset can’t undo it

Besides, you’re blind and can’t see the color

And there’s no-one there to describe it to you

You’re infirm, feeble

never knowing when gravity will take you down

Now you meditate to the drum of that beating heart:

               please STOP   please STOP   please STOP   please STOP

but it goes on, like a bongo player on Meth

the thing that keeps you alive against the odds

a Casino crap shoot no-one ever wins

The gamble goes on so long

all in excruciating slow motion

All the lights in Vegas must shut down

before the bongo player will agree to stop

and the final breath you’ve waited for, prayed for,

Will fill your lungs and push out, indifferent to its leaving

unaware of the eons you will have waited,

of how long it overstayed its welcome.

                                                            Sheila Ortego McLaughlin, 5/18/13


The Catcher

Mother’s spirit was sleeping when I was born

Groggy, it woke to hold me, just for a time

But its hands were weak and it dropped me

When I fell, my father was there,

catching me in his own clumsy way

not knowing why nature’s law had turned on him

but willing to serve, and more—

He found the catching was not just once

but over and over

as Mother tried, robotically, to learn

The infant fell, the child, and growing girl

A brief taste of safety, every time

and then the startle, as all the stays dissolved

the sensation of gravity unleashed

shoving me roughly through space

to uncertain death, and pain

Then the catch as it always came

As if he wore a fat leather glove in a baseball park

A heroic leap, meticulous timing

body memory in his practiced arm

There’d be a clap at the very moment

And our entire audience – me, Mother, and him

Stunned to silence with the beauty of that singular action

Father, my soul safely in the palm of his hand


               Sheila Ortego McLaughlin, 5/18/13


Sunday, March 24, 2013

All, read my rave review of Terry Wilson's new memoir, Confessions of a Failed Saint.  Great read -- lots of fun, lots of laughter.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Valentine Train

Just finished my new short-short story, Valentine Train.  Just in time for Halloween, right?  I guess I'm holiday-challenged & running just a few months behind.  Here's the story -- enjoy!


By Sheila Ortego McLauglin


“Who’s in there?” says the lady in the blue shoes. 

“Some girl, the one on the train with that skinny guy in the green shorts—you know the one?”

The wind outside is howling, rattling the pebble-glass window above where I sit.  It’s true, I’m hiding in the bathroom of the Lamy train station, my feet drawn up to the toilet rim, my arms wrapped around my knees.  I’m trying to breathe quiet so no-one can hear me.

“Yeah, that really tall guy.”

“Uh huh, that one.  And he looked like he was about to pop the question,  when some bimbo…”

There’s an abrupt pause, like they rethought the fact that they’re in this tiny, two-staller bathroom with me and a bunch of other ladies, and that the bimbo might be in here too.  I crane my neck to see under the door.  Oh thank God.  She’s not here.  I can tell from the shoes. 

Then whoever it is goes on, this time in a stage whisper that everyone else and I can still hear.  …some bimbo in platform heels barged in on them and starts talking non-stop – it looked like she made him forget what he was doing.”

“Are you sure she’s still in there?” says an elderly-sounding lady.

“Oh yeah.  She’s in there.  She’s got her feet pulled up.  I saw her through the crack in the door.”

“Did she say anything?”

“Nope.  She’s really upset.  The guy tried to follow her, but she didn’t answer when he called.  He’s in the parking lot now, checking to see if she’s out there.”

They’re out there standing single file for the only other toilet in this old building.  That wind outside is whipping the grit out of the old red-brick walls, and there’s the sound of water running through the fancy white radiator pipes next to the sink.  Like the tears that keep dripping off my chin.  I’m just waiting for the Santa Fe Southern Railway to pull its big old black train out of here, with Jacob on it, so I can escape. 

“Young lady,” says the elderly-sounding one.  “There are fifteen of us and we only have ten minutes before the train boards.  Can’t you come out?”

I still don’t answer.  Pretty soon this crowd will clear out.  I draw my knees closer to my chin and read the stuff scratched into the walls.  “Love you, Max!  TRUE LOVE FOREVER!”  Yeah, sure.  Maybe for you.

“Proposing on a Valentine’s Day train was a good idea,”  says elderly lady.  Pretty romantic if you ask me.” 

“Bullshit,” says somebody who sounds like she might be more comfortable in the men’s bathroom.  “A bunch of red heart balloons and chocolate doesn’t cut it if he can’t even tell the bimbo to get lost.”

“Shhh!  The bimbo might be in the line outside.”

“I don’t give a shit if she hears me,” says man-bathroom lady.  “Dyed red hair.  Low cut blouse with fake boobs.”

The door slams again and somebody pees like a horse, flushes, slams out, and runs the water in the sink.  Somebody peers at me through the crack in the door; must be elderly lady, ‘cause her skin’s all wrinkled around the eyeball.

“Honey, do you want to talk about it?”

“Oh God, I really have to GO!” says somebody, loud. 

I can’t apologize, since I don’t want to admit I’m in here.  I know it’s pathetic, but I wanted my engagement to be perfect.  And how do I know what’s up with the bimbo?  He was late picking me up that one night, and he always liked redheads.  Besides, he’s supposed to make the whole thing romantic.  And now it’s ruined.  For one thing, he started the proposal TWICE and chickened out both times.  The first time, he was fumbling with a box that I knew must have a ring in it.  Then a red-heart balloon floated by, and the string slapped him in the middle of the forehead!  And even though he’d been about to pop the question, he took his hand off mine to get that string out from between his eyes…

The toilet’s flushing again.

“She’s waiting for him to get on the train and leave when it takes off again, I bet.”

“Oh Dear,” says elderly lady.  She makes that grunty noise ladies make when their bladder is full.  “I don’t think I can wait that long.”

“Suck it up,” says man-bathroom lady, and elderly lady sniffs loud enough for me to hear.

I feel bad for the ladies, but why wouldn’t I be waiting for Jacob to leave?  He stuffed that box back in his pocket, like he’d never pulled it out!  That gave me the clue he didn’t want to go through with it.  Why should it be so hard?  He knows I love him.  Maybe he doesn’t love me as much as I love him.  I was just wondering about that when the train people stopped by to say the champagne and chocolates were being served, and we should go up to the rooftop so we could get a better view. I thought it was going to be nice, but it was just a view of a bunch of dirt and cactus.  I notice another scribble on the wall:  “Eighty percent of married men cheat in America.  The rest cheat in Europe.”  I sob, loud, then slap my hand to my mouth.

“I think she’s crying,” elderly lady says.

Why wouldn’t I be?  I’d gotten my faith in Jacob back enough to follow him to the top of the train.  It had been very loud, with the grinding and creaking and the whistle blasting.  We sat down again on those nice wooden seats on the upper deck, and the wind whipped our hair around so it was hard to talk.  But I was glad because he got the box out again.

“Jee-sus,” says man-bathroom lady.

“Well, you don’t have to be taking the Lord’s name in vain!” says elderly lady.

“Lady, I’m god-awful sorry, but I really need to take a piss.”

I wish they’d just be patient.  Like me.  I’d been sooo patient, and I’d thought it was paying off!  He said “Open it,” so I did.  That’s when the next thing went wrong.  Turns out it wasn’t a ring box after all, just the kind of gift box you’d get from a cheap souvenir store, with a folded paper inside.  I started to look at it, but then he grabbed my hand.  “Amy?” “Yes, Jacob?” I said.  And that’s when SHE came into the picture.  The bimbo.    

Now somebody’s run out of toilet paper. 

“Ladies, can you hand me some TP?”

“Are paper towels okay?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

There’s the sound of a pile of paper towels being rolled out and I see a hand pass under the door of the stall next to me.  “Thank you,” says my stall neighbor, and then there’s more door slamming.  But it’s quiet behind the door, like when you’re too self-conscious to pee.  I can smell Midnight in Paris perfume.  It must be elderly lady, and she seems to be taking her time on purpose.

“Jee-sus Christ,” says man-bathroom lady.

Now there’s a man’s voice just outside the bathroom. 

“Is she in there?” 

Oh crap, it’s Jacob. 

“Oh, she’s in there all right.” 

They must be holding the door open or I wouldn’t hear him so clearly. 

“Amy, come out!  I need to talk to you.”

Thanks a lot, ladies.


Dammit, his voice is really close now.  Did they let him all the way in?  I can’t believe he would actually come into a ladies’ bathroom! 

“I wanted to ask you to marry me, but it got all screwed up.”

“What’s going on?” says some new lady.  Somebody with clacking shoes.  The bimbo.

“Oh HI THERE,” she says, I presume to Jacob, all honey-voice. 

“I’d clear out if I was you,” man-bathroom lady says.  So did Jacob follow the bimbo in here?

“Lady, I’m sorry,” Jacob says.  “I just don’t remember you.  Now if you’ll excuse me –“

“I was prom queen the year I met you!” the bimbo’s protesting. 

“Amy!  I don’t even remember her – she’s nobody.  I’m sorry!”

Now he ignores her.  Not like in the middle of our engagement, for Pete’s sake.  More shoe-clacking. 

“What do you mean, nobody?” bimbo says.

“Get lost Bitch,” says man-bathroom lady.  Then there’s some shuffling, like man-bathroom lady is tossing her out on her heels.

“You were the head trombonist!” bimbo yells, from somewhere beyond the outer door.  Who knows if he heard her – he just keeps calling out to me.

“I know I shouldn’t have given you just a picture of the ring in that box– it’s just that I ordered it on E-Bay and it hasn’t come in yet!”

Wow.  He’s still here.  He didn’t follow her.  Still, I’m not coming out. 

“E-Bay?” somebody asks.  “Really?” 

The stall door opens and shuts again.  Man-bathroom lady must be having her turn, and it’s like an elephant peeing, it’s so long and loud.

When Jacob calls me again, he sounds really sad.

“Amy, please come out.”

“Amy, come on out,” the Greek chorus of remaining ladies echo. 

I’m still not answering.  I check out one more thing scratched into the stall:  “Love is what you make it.”  That makes me cry all over again. 

“I guess she doesn’t want to, young man,” says elderly lady. 

I hear the outer door close, and then there’s dead silence, except for that god-awful wind.  The train whistle blasts and the grinding wheels start up, and I know it’s finally leaving.  A few more minutes go by and then the noises aren’t so loud, just some chugging as the train pulls out.  Even the water has stopped running through the radiator pipes.  I lower my feet – cautiously.  I guess he’s really gone.  Probably back on that darn old Valentine Train by now.  I click the latch open and start out, horrified by the reflection of my puffy, self-pitying, tear-stained face in the mirror.  I splash water in my eyes and blow my nose, then peek out the door.  It’s safe.  I make my way out of the station house and onto the tracks. 

I smell the gritty exhaust and think of all the times my life has been like a train station, with all its comings and goings, every time ending with somebody leaving me.  The red caboose, all cheerful with its shiny windows, winks at me one last time before I lose sight of it.  I see an escaped red-heart balloon rising into the sky, and feel all the more sad for it. 

It’s fast, when it happens.  There’s a tugging at my waist from something or someone behind me.  Then I smell his smell, like starch and new blue jeans.  He spins me around and I can see, this is the Jacob I know, or should know.  The one who would never lie to me.  He’s not like the others, after all.  He grabs my shoulders, as if he’s not going to let me get away again, and looks me right in the eye.

“Amy, will you marry me?”

This time he’s not distracted at all.  His voice is strong and sure, and he’s looking at me with so much love, despite how ugly I must look, puffy face and all.  The tears well up again, and I can’t even bring myself to speak.  So I just nod.