Storyglossia Issue 33, April 2009.

Ball of Fire in the Smurf Blue Sky

by Elizabeth Severn
& the Intro to Creative Writing Students: Spring '08


"What's that supposed to mean?" I ask.

He holds his poles tight and jams them into the snow. "You know what it's supposed to mean."

"I do not," I say.

"I think you do." He readjusts his sunglasses. "I'll ski ahead. Wait for you to catch up."

He pulls this crap all the time, dragging me along then disappearing, like the intro to creative writing class he talked me into taking. It'll fill a writing intensive requirement, come on, he insisted, crossing out the practical writing class I was going to take.

In class, he always put his head against the wall, his feet up on a chair. Once the professor said, that's not a LaZBoy. Put your feet on the floor. He was ticked, but I thought it was funny. For five weeks he got off being a dick in class—ike texting even though the syllabus said no cell phone use in class. One time he laughed after a girl read a poem about her dead ferret. The professor asked him to develop some empathy. Then he dropped the class.The professor seems happier and to tell you the truth, I am too. He used to say the writing exercises were lame, that he had bigger things to write than that. I'd agree with him, even though I didn't mean it.

Writers are supposed to open up their senses, the textbook says. Turn off the iPod and cell phone and television. Break the computer games addiction. Go explore. Your senses bring pleasure and connection. So this morning when David said, "Hey Milley, let's go open up your senses and ski," he was making fun of me. I was re-working a poem the small group really liked about how everything man-made has caution printed on it. It's about manufactured fear in our country. Anyway, I only agreed to go because our assignment over the weekend was to go outside, explore and record it as raw material. It's due tomorrow and we'll craft it to story.

Maybe I'll start my story with a girl asking her boyfriend, "What is that supposed to mean?" That's beginning in the middle of things. There's immediate tension. Story wants tension.

So I'm skiing along and trying not to care that he wouldn't tell me what he meant by what he said. I should've told him to be specific,but he was totally stuck in the cliché boat. Keep in mind, there's more power in being specific.

I'm maybe not dressed warm enough in wool and jeans. The air is chilling my hands and face, but they don't sting yet. I readjust my scarf and look up at the sky. It's really blue. Kind of Smurf Blue.

There's hoarfrost—the white stuff that sticks to bushes and trees—all around. A kind of winter wonderland. When my grandma told me it was called that, I thought she meant the word w-h-o-r-e. She said, no it's spelled differently. I guess that's why the professor says we should have dictionaries if we want to know the world we live in. The frost sticks to pine trees, but it flakes off, too, and floats down from tall trees. You know not pine trees but the kind that loose their leaves in the fall. I know the word for it, but can't think of it right now. Anyway hoarfrost clings to the top of the trees and I think, hey that looks like someone dunked the treetops into marshmallow cream. Cool to notice something like that. The whole world must excite writers, one great big love fest going on in their world of details. But then, some details can make someone sad,too, like the time the professor said she saw a man accidentally step on a baby bird. It was a sad story, two baby birds that got knocked out of their nest, one crushed by a man's foot rushing by. Clueless for sure.

I look around and think, If the trees were all gone, it would be sad.

I'm distracted by a plastic bag caught on a branch and flapping in the wind. The snow has a distinct smell. I imagine that snow is without any smell. But is it? After all, it's water, but it's also all the stuff in the air. So whatever I smell, it's just something cold. Maybe you can't really smell anything when it's cold. Not the meat-packing plant, not the dump and not the flowers. Well not them because they're dead, deader even than the grass. I am surprised to smell smoke. I then see a man sitting on a bench along the trail. The sun hits him as he smokes a cigarette. It looks like a personal fireplace for his face.

So I'm skiing and I hear a train whistle, soon to be silenced because of the quiet zone ordinance my mother was talking about, said people living by the tracks hate the noise, but I like it. The whistles sound kind of sad, like Britney Spears must feel when her craziness fog lifts and she's not drunk and she thinks of how she can't even see her kids whenever she wants to. That's what the sound of a train whistle must be to her. I ski and pretend to move fast like a train along the river. I am a train on track. Is that a simile or a metaphor? I think you have to use the word like to make it a simile. So if I say I am a train on a track, then it's a metaphor because I am.

I stop for a moment when the cold makes my eyes blur. I close them then open them and the blur is gone. Then I see a stout man is skiing toward me on the opposite trail. He smiles and waves as he passes. I think to myself. What a nice guy. Most people in my neighborhood wouldn't do that.

Bits of frost float down and make shadows, like bugs in summer. They stick to my jeans and fall on the snow and make it look like that seven-minute frosting my grandma made for my birthday cakes. Sometimes she'd cook it too long and it would get gritty with crystals. We'd still spread it on the cake and lick the beaters and the bowl. But now, my grandma's dead, and I wish the hoarfrost wouldn't have made me think of her.

Last week, the professor had us do this exercise where we'd go into some house that was important to us but that we couldn't go to anymore. Open up your senses, go into the house, describe the details, be exact and write it all down. Stay in the house. Don't let your mind outside that house. I made the huge mistake remembering my grandma's house even though the professor advised us to not go to places that are too emotionally raw right now. I didn't listen and went to Grandma's house and wrote for ten minutes. After the professor said, take one minute to finish writing, a tear dropped on my paper. Oh crap, I thought, what a nerd I am to cry in class. I wiped my eyes and nose with my sleeve, which is gross but so what? When the professor did the go around and asked everyone to read one sentence, I lied and said I wrote, "I walk into Aunt Mavis's house and the mice all scatter." The professor said okay good. Keep working on that; there's intrigue in that description. I wanted to say Aunt Mavis is a drunk and she was driving when Grandma was killed. Aunt Mavis walked away with nothing more than bruises and a broken wrist. After class, in private, the professor asked me if I was okay. I nodded.

I keep skiing and hear a bird sing. What kind of bird? The professor would want to know. Geez lady. Okay, I'll try to see it. There on the branch. It's black and white. It has like a black cap on its head. It's little. I guess kind of cute, if you can say that about a bird. What does it sound like? Geez Lady. Do you ever take a break? Okay. I'll listen. It goes something like this: Chickadeedeedee. Over and over. Good, write that down. I used to think all the birds flew away and went south in the winter until I started paying attention.

Someone has lost a red mitten. Bummer. I then notice that cold air embraces in a way that warm air never can. I can feel it around me and it worms through my coat and clothes, into my skin and my bones. I wish I wore snow pants.

At least the sun is shining like it's ready to take winter on and kick its ass. That's a sentence the professor might like. I ski and memorize that sentence: The sun feels like it's ready to take winter on and kick its ass. Or maybe I could write, the sun is hotter than my boyfriend David who thinks he's hotter than the sun. No, that doesn't make sense. How about the sun is so hot it wants to melt David's ass. The sun is a hot planet, no that's not right, the sun isn't a planet. It's a hot ball of fire that wants to melt David's ass.

I hear a dog barking. It comes from the tall dead grasses poking up through the snowy river bank. What kind of dog? What kind of grasses? Be specific. Okay Professor. It's a golden retriever. I don't know what kind of grasses. Get yourself a book and research grasses that grow along the Red River, then you can tell me. You're the teacher. Anyway, so suddenly . . . oh wait, she'd say try not to use suddenly. I'd say yes, but that's how things happen, suddenly. Yes, she'd agree then add, but if you use it too often, the piece becomes melodramatic. Just let the dog come into the scene and don't use started to run either, just let the thing run. Okay already.

So the golden retriever runs from the tall, dead grass onto the frozen river. I hear a man call, "Here boy," then whistle. The dog, she'd ask, what's its name? To name something is to respect it. Okay, Lady. It's Marty. So Marty doesn't listen and keeps running. I watch it and wonder if I could ski on the icy river without breaking through. I'm not about to try. No way.

Then a snowmobile zooms on the river. It buzzes and makes the air stink of gas. Sometimes the professor tells us to ask "what if," about our stories as a way to make complications and trouble for characters. Okay. What if . . . David is on the snowmobile and it breaks through? What if I stare at the jagged and scary hole in the ice and get so into staring at the hole and the way the water bubbles that I forget to call for help?

What if . . . ?

Getting close to the end of the trail, my only company is the shadow cast by the glow of the fireball in the Smurf Blue sky. I see frozen footprints walk around a tree surrounded by slightly melted then refrozen, crispy white snow. I need to stop thinking about all this, get the professor's voice out of my head and so I put in my iPod. Justin Timberlake sings "Sexy Back" as I ski.

The cold is starting to affect the way I feel as I spot David sitting on a bench alongside the trail. The sun shines on him. He's removed his hat and tilts his face toward the melting rays of the hot ball of fire in the Smurf blue sky. I hear the professor ask me to describe him. Let the reader see him?

He's 5 feet 8 inches tall, one inch taller than me. I should wear high heels, learn to walk in them smooth and nice and be taller than him, look down on him like he looks down on me. I have beautiful black hair. Long and thick. He's got tan/brown hair like the lockers in my old high school. He's wearing it all cool, like he thinks he is, over to the side so his bangs fall into his right eye. His nose stud is silver, and flaking skin collects around it. He has a bad habit of picking at his skin, which is blotchy, especially in the cold air. My skin is pale smooth and the winter air colors my cheeks pretty. His favorite movie is Super Bad. He laughs at it each time he watches it as if he's never seen it ten times before.

Does his laugh turn me on? No. His smile? No.

Does looking at him make me happy? No.

Is he what the professor would say attentive to the details of my life? Hell no.

Would I die if he left me? Which the professor would say is a bit melodramatic but a therapist might be interested in the answer. No, I would not die if he left me.

I don't know what it feels like to have frostbite, but I think if I stay any longer, I will know for sure. The cold will become a part of me.

"About time you got here." He laughs at me.

I think to myself, the world seems to become empty and as frosted over and as cold as I feel.

"You have teeth like a rude rabbit," I say.

"What the hell does that mean?" he asks.

"I think you know what it means." I ski past him, and suddenly, I feel free.

Copyright©2009 Elizabeth Severn

Elizabeth Severn is a native of Maryland who has also lived in Minnesota and North Dakota. She is Assistant Professor at Minnesota State University Moorhead. She is also Assistant Editor at New Rivers Press where she manages the fiction manuscripts screening process for the New Voices Competition. This is her second story published in STORYGLOSSIA: the first, "Dumpster Digging for Daddy," appeared in the 2006 Fiction Prize Issue. Her short fiction also appears in American Fiction '97, Carve Magazine and has received honorable mention in The New Millennium. She has completed work on a memoir for which she was a recipient of a Barbara Deming/Money for Women grant: creative non-fiction. She has completed a novel manuscript and is at work on a short story collection.

Regarding the creation/collaboration of this story:
The idea of "Ball of Fire in the Smurf Blue Sky" offered me chance to invite students from the English 288 Intro to Creative Writing class, Spring '08 to participate in the creation of it. They provided some of the sensory details from their own out-of-class-writing experiences and raw materials as I created a POV character in first person who is a student taking a creative writing class and becoming aware of her surroundings, her voice and, thus, her self identity.