This Show Case features six pieces submitted in response to our sixth Writing Prompt: Failure. We hope they stimulate your mind, spirit, and urge to write. Maybe they will motivate you to submit a piece for our next prompt, which you can find on the Show Case home page.
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The Last Diner
by GD Deckard
Bob braked the rail car to a stop where the tracks passed the rear of the diner. On its roof, a sign as big as the building said, “EAT!” In front, a two-lane road wound through open fields covered in weeds towards an Interstate a mile away.
Old Spice, the visiting alien, noted, “I’ve been on planets where I’d never put that sign on my building.”
Piper breathed in the morning air. “I’m famished. I hope this place is open.” It wasn’t and it was. The sign on the door said “CLOSED,” but as Piper peered through the front window around the name, “Tiny’s Diner,” a buzzer sounded, and the door opened. “Come in, come in,” yelled a squeaky voice. “Don’t bother wearing a mask. The world is ending anyway.”
There were no tables or booths, just a sparkling clean counter. On the wall behind the counter were two handwritten signs. One, tacked only along its bottom and leaning down said, “Welcome! State your order.” Below that, another sign with an arrow pointing down to the floor read, “Don’t Stare!” They sat at the counter and pointedly did not stare down at the bald head behind the counter.
“I’m Tiny,” announced the bald head. “Breakfast is bread with the moldy parts torn off, cheese with some mold but that’s normal for cheese, you can bite around it. And coffee. Gotta have coffee, so ignore the smoke coming from the kitchen. I had to burn the menus to heat the coffee. It’s safe. I built the fire in the sink and the sprinklers never did work. I’ll be right back with your coffee.” The head scooted through an opening in the wall behind the counter.
“Nice place,” Piper said, deliberately looking around. Bob followed her gaze. Pastel earth colors with splashes of brighter greens and yellows on the walls from the height of the two signs and down, hinted at a warm and cheery feel. Above the signs, the walls and ceiling were unpainted and dusty.
“We each have our view,” came the voice from the kitchen.
“Been here long?” Piper asked conversationally.
“Since I retired from the ventriloquist dummy factory,” came the answer. “I always wanted my own restaurant.” He returned with a tray bearing three cups of coffee. “Lizbeth and I saved up our money so we could convert our home into this diner. Lizbeth is English and a real sweetheart. She supports me in everything.”
“That’s wonderful, Tiny.” Piper smiled at the hand handing her coffee.
“Where did you say you worked?” Bob asked.
“Bergen Manufacturing. We made the best ventriloquist dummies. And I know because I tested every single one before it shipped.” He shook his head. “It wasn’t easy, not being a ventriloquist myself, but someone had to do it.”
“What do you mean,” Spice wondered. “How did you test a ventriloquist dummy?”
“Well, you could see my mouth move, I know that. But every dummy had to say the test phrase, ‘The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog,’ just to be sure they could, and I made sure they did.”
Spice looked baffled.
“Did you run out of food?” Bob raised his voice to follow Tiny into the kitchen.
“Out of food, out of gas, out of hope. I’m going to shoot myself after you leave.”
His matter of fact tone startled Piper. “No!” She said to the kitchen opening as the bald head, flanked by two serving trays, came back out.
Hairy arms stretched up to place the trays on the counter. “Be right back with the alien’s order.”
“Alien?” Spice puzzled. “How did you know?”
“I’ve developed a keen sense of smell. Saves on neck strain. You don’t smell like any human I’ve known. You must be one of those aliens. I thought you all left. What are you still doing here?” He slid a tray under Spice’s nose.
“It’s a long story. I came to study you people, but my mission is a failure because your civilization has failed. That, and this food, makes me want to stay and shoot myself with you.”
The alien smiled at Piper. “Tiny, will you be OKAY, dying here today?”
“Stop that!” she told them. “There is no reason for that kind of talk!”
“Did you hear what the man said?” Spice told her quietly. “There is no food. There is no gas. There is no hope of food being delivered.”
“He’s right,” said the head. “All those people with no gas up there on the Interstate, they’re getting out of their cars this morning. Most will walk up and down the highway, because that’s the directions they’re used to going, but some will wander in all directions. Some are bound to see my sign. I don’t want to be stuck here watching families starve to death.”
“Bob?” Piper implored.
Bob stood, pocketing his bread and cheese. “Stop eating.” He told her. “Save what food you have left. You’ll need it before we find more.”
“I’m afraid they’re right, Piper. The size of your population was sustained by cheap and plentiful oil that is no longer plentiful or cheap. That, and the disruption caused by the pandemic, is causing your civilization to collapse. Fast.”
“This is so horrible!”
The alien clasped her hands reassuringly, “Brace yourself. How you feel now is nothing compared to how you will feel about the experience. The worst is yet to come.”
With a distressed smile, Bob said, “Goodbye Tiny. Make it quick.”
“Got it covered,” Tiny replied over the jarring sound of a handgun slide being racked back and released.
At the door, Spice turned to ask, “Would you have any extra food at all that you won’t be needing now?”
For the first time, anguish crept into Tiny’s voice. “Yes. But one favor please. Will you take Lizbeth with you?”
“Of course!” Piper answered quickly. “Where is she, Tiny?”
A set of keys sailed over the counter to land on the floor at their feet. “She’s tending the pantry. The delivery door is outside. Help yourself.”
Lizbeth was there, a thirty-inch-tall ventriloquist dummy in full regal dress on a shelf with canned beans, soups and condiments. She had the face of a young Queen Elizabeth, as seen on British coins. They took her and everything edible from the pantry. Quickly, because there was not much and no one spoke of it, but no one wanted to be around to hear the gunshot.
Failure: Father’s Lecture
by Carl E. Reed
Failure is not an option.
Of course it is. Everywhere and always.
Translated, what we mean to say by such a statement is: “In this matter, failure will constitute a devastating and nigh-unbearable concomitant series of life-altering consequences that I shudder to even contemplate.”
Historical note: The condom broke. And thus you spawned.
Here endeth the mournful and melancholy lesson.
Now cease your puling whimper-babble and clean your room, you ungrateful little senescent zygote.
by Mimi Speike
How did two losers, who’d shipped together for years, come to bond? They’d become tight only in recent months.
Hernando del Gado was no officer. He was a common seaman who saw to the captain’s comfort, ran his errands, fetched his meals, cleaned his cabin, did up his laundry, and kept an eye on things in his absence. He was at the captain’s beck and call, and was an informal liaison to the crew. Fore and aft, the weasel had run of the ship. He could turn up anywhere and not give cause for comment.
The captain of a vessel is lord paramount, accountable to no one. He stands no watch, comes and goes as he pleases, and must be obeyed in everything, no exceptions. The superintending officer is the first mate. He is first lieutenant, boatswain, sailing-master, and quartermaster. He keeps the log-book, which a captain is required to maintain, and he has charge of the stowage and delivery of cargo.
The second mate is neither officer nor common seaman. He is obliged to reef and furl and slush with the men, and to attend to their requirements, to furnish the materials they need in the course of their work, and at the same time to maintain his dignity, no easy assignment, for he’s summoned as a waiter might be, by busy men. “Spun-yarn here! Quick!” He eats and sleeps in the cabin, the knife and fork and monogramed china dominion, but he chows at the second table, making a meal of what the captain and chief mate leave.
The steward, in this case, Hernando del Gado, is the captain’s personal servant. This is his only duty. To attend the captain with alacrity is his function. Long at his post, del Gado anticipated wants and rushed to satisfy them before the man opened his mouth. A wonderful talker, he smoothed ruffled feathers and sweetened sour moods. He presented himself as a straight-forward fellow, ‘not the most crafty man in the world’ is how he put it, though many thought otherwise.
Under a pleasant veneer, he had a meanness to him, and a black rebellion born of sordid conditions and brutal incidents and nursed by envy. His spite fed on itself, growing ranker every year. He had an immense, but quiet, insolence but he hid it well, a smile on his lips denoting a superficial readiness to be agreeable. He made a show of amiable compliance to every demand. Behind his back he was called El Gato, the cat, for he walked on cat feet, soundlessly, apt to slink up behind you at any time.
He ate with the crew and heard things that an officer did not. He prevented trouble, settling petty quarrels, and reporting major misbehaviors, but always in such a way that the leak could not be traced to him. He was careful to denounce the captain as a devil of a taskmaster and wish him to hell ten times a day. Was he a snitch? The way he saw it, he was the ballast that kept the ship on an even keel, protecting the interests of his employers.
He could not match his captain’s gloss of breeding, but he aspired to it. He wore clothes well, and he could patter pleasantly, sufficient to pass as a gentleman when it suited him to do so. He looked to the future, to the end of a sea-going career, delivered from the hardship, monotony and danger which are a seaman’s lot. He envisioned a prosperous retirement as a minor official, respected in his community, rendering judgements with befitting earnestness and dignity, and consulting with local nobs in a fine black suit.
Just outside Valdovino he had a wife. He might settle there. Or in Saint-Xandre, in France, where he should escape the brutally hot summers of the Iberian Peninsula, and enjoy the charming landscapes. Say what you will of a Frenchman – the climate, the country, and the women, who does not worship them? He’d acquired a wife there also. He hoped to be able to present himself as a former junior officer, well-heeled after a lucrative stint afloat.
His soft step uneased many, but no one could pin a treason on him. He was convivial; he mingled easily and entered with enjoyment into common forms of dissipation, but always kept his head. He was judged one fair and flexible, and a fixer, covering up minor infractions, negotiating misunderstandings of words or looks, repairing any lapse of the good will vital to a crowded cohabitation.
And he was clever. Why not, when you have a new boot made up, have one heel built with a hollow compartment? You might lay hands on something small you had best sock away. Not that he contemplated larceny. Certainly not. He was only being prudent.
If there’s anything Gato values, it’s loyalty. Life on the street is tough. You need your back-up. The man, though he’d have sworn up and down he’d abandoned his sticky-fingered ways, had moments of weakness. (Before he was recruited for the Santa Clara he’d been a street thug.)
He and Feo were not bosom buddies, that relationship had not yet blossomed. But he looked after the cat. He saw that the animal was supplied with water and nibbles. Feo awarded the man dead rats, and that simple act of friendship seemed to be appreciated. Scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours, they’d lived like that for a good while.
Gato’s shipmates were willing to believe the worst of him. When a gold ring went missing, he in the vicinity, he was suspected. It had been set down on a table while the cook, up to his elbows in a sticky mess, mixed dough. Six men were in the galley, nursing their rum. The ring rolled off the table as the ship pitched. Where had it gone?
Gato had palmed the trinket. He’d done so automatically; it was a reflex. He’d meant to round the corner and slip it in his heel but he’d not been allowed to duck away. He pretended to stumble, reached into his pants, withdrew the item, and let it drop.
Feo, under the table, praying for a treat to slide over the edge as often happened, especially in rough water, caught it in his mouth and ran. He immediately spat it out, howling disappointment. One of the seamen turned to see him bat the thing into the corner in disgust. “Here’s your thief!” he yelled.
Everyone laughed, Gato, louder and longer than any of them. He had a confederate such as he’d had on the mean streets of London-town. The animal had saved him from a screw-up. He wouldn’t forget it.
“I’ll be as good a friend to you,” he promised the cat, “as you’ve been to me.”
by Scott D. Vander Ploeg
I just spent sixteen dollars for a creative non-fiction writing contest, submitting an essay that I’ve been shopping around for the last dozen months or so. I have not succeeded in getting anyone to publish it, and yet I submitted it for a contest. What was I thinking?
Am I a glutton for punishment, or is there any good reason for blowing that sixteen buckaroos? I’m curious what the Writer’s Co-operatives think on this sort of activity. Many contests charge a greater fee as a way to fund the prizes, in my case a purse of five hundred dollars.
Ok, I can afford the entry price. I won’t miss a meal or have to sell the yacht (no I don’t have one). In the past I tended to avoid the contests in case others are depending on the money for survival. I’ve been counseled to not be so magnanimous and just ‘go for it.’
Why submit for contest if there is a good chance of not winning? I don’t especially urgently need the money, but I would love the bragging rights. I could have saved thirteen of that entry fee by simply submitting the same essay for consideration, which only costs three dollars. I would not be able to claim victory in the contest, but could possibly get the essay published. Also for consideration, if it wins the contest it automatically gets published. So, which way should I have gone here?
I know of people who have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, but don’t know anyone who has won the award. Getting nominated is prize enough, perhaps. I am a veteran non-competitor, and I think that is the other reason I have not been a contest maniac. It doesn’t seem right that writing should be viewed with one as the winner and all others as losers. What if the losing essays are really great, too?
One of the things we tacitly agreed to not do in the professorial world was to claim that this or that author is the greatest, as though it would have been a king-of-the-hill dynamic. Some may imply that a writer like Shakespeare is tops, but mostly the tweed-and-pipe scholars see this kind of chest-thumping as fairly meaningless.
I am pleased that I have had roughly twenty-one items accepted for publication since I began this creative writing madness in September of 2021, which averages to more than one-per-month. Having said that, and to immediately undermine any sense of ego here, submittable tallies up around seventy times that my works have been “declined”—the softer term for rejection. The one I just sent off for the contest is one I’ve sent out at least four times.
I am inclined to think that one learns from such rejections. I have gone back into that essay several times and revised on previous revisions. Isn’t that what we are supposed to do as writers? I don’t think I can quite equate this to what scientists do in their experiments—learning as much from what does not work as when there is the surprise discovery that is repeatable.
I believe that as a writer, I must embrace such failure and be on good terms with it, like a neighbor whose weeds want to take over my lawn. The next time he goes off to the movies, I’ll sneak over and use Scott’s Spot Weed Killer on his dandelion infested swamp land.
A Close Shave
by Curtis Bausse
Was Flop! a flop? Or was it the greatest TV show ever aired? One thing is sure – today it features in media courses throughout the country as a perfect case study of what – or what not – to do. Opinions being divided here on The Writers’ Coop site, we prefer to let you, the reader, decide. But first (if you’ve spent the last five years in a hermit’s cave) a reminder of the facts.
December 18th 2016. We’re into the last ten minutes of the final episode of Flop!, with presenters Ant and Dec about to announce the winners of the Most Spectacular Failure contest that’s gripped the nation for six weeks now, the final three whittled down from a field of over 80 candidates. Over to Ant:
‘In third place, with 3,984,205 votes, one of the most spectacular bungles since the first human to dip a toe in the water, a perfect storm of arrogance, stubbornness and stupidity, the bronze medal goes not to a single person but to the whole cast of fools -’
‘- dolts -’
‘- nincompoops -’
‘- criminals, Ant, let’s not shy away from the word -’
‘- who owned, designed, commanded, steered -’
‘- and ultimately sank -’
‘- the Titanic!’
Accepting the prize on behalf of the winners, James Cameron dedicated it to the 1517 victims, and pointed out, in a very moving speech, that they hadn’t died in vain because out of massive failure can come equally massive success, namely his own. There followed that clip of DiCaprio and Winslet on the prow of the vessel, while in the audience eyes were abundantly wiped and hankies raised conspicuously to noses. A truly poignant audio-visual moment.
‘Is it a coincidence, Dec, that in second place we have a titanic failure that occurred a mere fortnight before the Titanic itself?’
‘I think not, Ant. That was the spirit of the time. The best of British fortitude and ingenuity -’
‘- daredevilry, ambition – ’
‘- and the most stupendous stupidity!’
‘From the Battle of Hastings to Brexit, we Brits love nothing more than heroic failures and avoidable fiascos. No surprise then, that 5,219,668 votes reward the obstinacy, imbecility and absolute lunacy of one of the most courageous idiots of all time…’
Being dead, Scott couldn’t make a live appearance, but up in heaven, he was jubilant. At least, we assume it was heaven, because he was sitting in front of a warm fire with the expedition’s doctor Edward Wilson, the pair of them toasting crumpets. It was certainly what they were dreaming of when they died, but since they’d been doing it now for over a century, the pleasure was wearing thin. Wilson in particular was disgruntled. ‘A failure, Captain. An absolute tits up pig’s ear, if you’ll excuse the anatomical inaccuracy. Haven’t you got that into your head yet?’ Wilson’s gripe had been going on for as long as the crumpets. ‘I keep telling you, if we’d only taken dogs instead of horses. You can say what you like about Amundsen, at least he had the -’
‘Don’t mention that name to me! If you say that name again, I’ll have you court-martialled!’
‘Give me that crumpet, you fuckwit, it’s burning. And I’ll say it as often as I like. Amundsen, Amundsen, Amundsen…’
But there we must leave the fractious couple because Ant is announcing the winner:
‘…first prize goes to a man whose company won the hearts and minds of billions all over the planet, a man who launched the most successful brand in history…’
‘But a brand so far removed from the vision of its founder that if he came back today, he’d be horrified.’
‘Was he naïve?’
‘How did it all go so horribly wrong?’
‘What brought about the most spectacular cock-up of all time?’
‘Way out in front with 9,772, 434 votes, we have the unique -’
‘- magnificent -’
‘- spectacular -’
‘- tragic -’
‘- heart-breaking failure -’
‘- Jesus Christ!’
It remains unclear exactly what happened next, but after sixteen months of investigation, the official enquiry chaired by Sir Anthony Sprackett reached the following conclusions.
Unlike Scott and Wilson, Christ was perfectly capable of coming down to earth to pick up his prize, and would have done so if his father hadn’t gone irredeemably apeshit. Ant and Dec just had time to leap from the stage before it was blown to smithereens. ‘Dad!’ pleaded Christ. ‘Give me another chance! Please! I’ll get it right this time, I promise!’
‘Another chance? Why, you blithering bonehead!’
‘It wasn’t my fault! I thought they’d get the message. I trusted them.’
‘Well, you thought wrong, didn’t you? You screwed up! First prize? Oh, the shame! The shame!’
All over the world volcanoes spewed, tsunamis surged, earthquakes rumbled and roared. After poring over the evidence, experts now agree that the apocalypse was imminent, the final, vast explosion mere seconds away, when into the celestial chamber burst Edward Wilson, pursued by a furious Captain Scott brandishing a toasting fork. Screaming for help, Wilson hid behind Jesus just as Scott lunged, stabbing the holy abdomen in the very spot the Roman soldier had pierced it with his lance.
‘Oh, Jesus Christ! Son, are you all right?’ Forgetting to destroy the planet, the old man rushed to his help, while Captain Scott skedaddled as fast as his legs could carry him, expecting any moment to be struck down by lightning.
But he wasn’t. And today he and Wilson toast their crumpets amicably, chuckling at how they may have been beaten to the Pole but they went one better than Amundsen in the end. They saved the world.
Was Flop! a flop? The debate goes on.
Who Is Failure?
by S.T. Ranscht
“She’s four years old. Why doesn’t she talk yet? Is she deaf?” Fast and hard, the girl’s father smacked his hands together.
The girl’s mother jammed the blade into another potato, guillotining it against the cutting board. “She’s not deaf.”
“Then what’s wrong with her?” he asked yet again, peering into eyes that saw but didn’t comprehend. He turned his back and left the kitchen.
Wrong with her. The girl smacked her hands together. Again. And again. Again and again. And again and again.
The knife clattered on the counter and the girl’s mother stooped to hold the girl’s hands apart. “Stop,” she said, begging, “Don’t you understand me?”
The girl’s arms yanked away. Her legs lurched her unsteadily out of the kitchen, her hands flapping beside her shoulders like wounded birds. Stop. Stop. Stop.
“Of course the school can’t handle her,” the girl’s father grunted from behind his cereal box. “She doesn’t talk and she can’t understand any better than a wild animal. Look at her.”
Look, look, look. Undeniably no longer a girl, the young woman stood in the doorway, one foot stamping, stamping, stamping, driven by the hammering thrust of her head-banging bounce. Body wild. Inside see me. See. See. Face swiveling toward him, eyes locking on his for one sticky instant, arms outstretched, her hands smacked together.
He looked away.
The young woman’s mother smoothed the school’s letter on the table. “It says there’s a school over in Columbus could take her. Says it’s expensive, but they could help her.”
“You know I can’t pay for some expensive school.”
“Or they can send someone to show us how to help her.”
“How much is that?”
“ ‘No cost to you.’ “
“Do that one. They can show you how to help.”
The young woman smacked her hands together. Help. Help. Help.
The young woman’s arms flung semaphoric gibberish above teetering steps defying direction.
Her mother hung back while the home care worker followed close. “When she can’t stop herself,” the worker instructed, “she needs someone to help her.” From behind the young woman, the home care worker’s embrace clasped her arms against her sides and compelled her feet to stand.
Eyes wide, the young woman alerted. Solid. Body silent listening. I am real. Can they see me?
Days and weeks repeated until the home care worker’s help moved on.
“So she’s gone. She gave up,” the father accused.
The mother wrung her hands. “She said we don’t need her anymore.”
“Right,” he triumphed, “a total waste of time. The girl still doesn’t talk. She still can’t understand anything that’s going on. She’ll never be anything.” He shook his head watching her lie on the ground.
Still. Sunshine feels my face and fills me. My heart is bird song. Sky holds my arms and legs lying on leafy bed. My body smiles.
They fail seeing I am not failure. I am real.
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