This Show Case features four pieces submitted in response to our eleventh Writing Prompt: Kicking Off. You can see responses to each prompt in the drop down menu for this page. Try an item. They are all delicious. 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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Kicking Off Kurtz
by Scott Vander Ploeg
“Kicking himself loose from the Earth” is a comment that Marlow makes about Kurtz toward the end of Heart of Darkness. I had stumbled at that when I first read the story. It seemed to me to be very apt and also very dual. Kurtz had found a life that dispensed with all of the false morality of the Victorian era, having gone native in jungle of deepest Africa. When Marlow finds him, he had stopped communicating with the outer world of businessmen and clerks and capitalists who sent him there on a mission to make profit off of the ivory trade while under a pretense of bringing civilization and presumably Christianity to the natives. Instead, Kurtz becomes a kind of deity to them and they worship him in spite of the terror he creates to keep them doing his bidding.
I’ll add that a good deal of his story involves his attempt to make himself a suitable marriage prospect for a woman whom is referred to as “The Intended.” Kurtz goes to Africa to make profit. When he dies, his last words are “the horror, the horror,” though Marlow leaves open the possibility that he really said, “the whore, the whore.” When Marlow visits The Intended to inform her of Kurtz’s death, he tells her his last words were about her. It looks like he has taken up with at least one African woman as a further rejection of The Intended.
The Apocalypse Now adaptation makes a similar choice. When briefed about his mission to find Kurtz, the Martin Sheen version of Marlow is told by a military intelligence functionary, played by a thin and angular Harrison Ford, that the General had quit his command and given up his military connections, and had stopped writing to his family back home. At the end of the briefing, Marlow is told to end Kurtz’s command “with extreme prejudice.” The military can’t abide a rogue, and is like the Victorian society that the book-version presents—unwilling to accept the man who has kicked loose from convention, from restraint, from propriety.
On the surface it would seem that Kurtz has learned the truth and is freeing himself, and that would seem good. In the prose version, Kurtz is ill and dies under Marlow’s watch. The movie has Marlow using a machete to hack away at a darkly lit Marlon Brando version of Kurtz. In the former version Marlow doesn’t kill Kurtz, but in the latter he fulfills his mission and kills the loose-kicked Kurtz. In either case, it doesn’t go well for Kurtz. Being kicked loose has its dangers.
I’m struck by William Shatner’s reaction to having dipped his toe in true outer space. He saw the vast dark of space and realized that it was like staring at death. It seemed like such a fun idea to be an actor who played at being a spaceman, until he confronted the reality of what cold, empty space portended. He decidedly did not enjoy being kicked loose from the Earth.
In Tai Chi, one of the more important concepts is in having a solid stance, being grounded, unwavering, connected to the Earth. The chi-energy is imagined as emanating out of the ground, cycling up through the individual. On World Tai Chi Day, the 4th Saturday of April, we all do our various energy routines and offer the chi to the universe, pulling it from the Earth and letting it course through our bodies.
In Greek myth, the giant Antaeus gains strength from touching the ground, as it is his mother, Gaea, the goddess of the Earth. This makes him undefeatable, until Heracles holds him aloft, his feet kicked off from the ground, and crushes him.
I can appreciate Kurtz’ desire to be done with the false heresy of repressed social constraint, or the disgust at the military industrial complex and the willingness to stand in opposition to its abuses, but I’m not thinking I want to kick loose from the Earth to gain these benefits.
The Father of Dance meets the Kiddo from Kansas
by Mimi Speike
“Did you ever,” said Maisie, “meet someone and feel an immediate connection? That’s the way it was with Ted and me. I was drawn to him from the get-go. And not because he was our big-shot director, already a dance legend.
“I sensed a spirituality in him. I am a spiritual being.” She glared at me. “Don’t laugh, I mean it. Raised on the open prairie, at the mercy of the seasons, you have a respect for the challenge of existence, a sympathy for all living things.”
“You’re a philosopher too,” I said, suppressing a smile.
“I’ve always felt I had to hide it,” said Maisie. “A philosophical mouse doesn’t cut it with too many folks. With Ted, I felt I had permission to be myself. He never said so outright, but that was what he communicated to me in innumerable ways.
“I set out to seduce him. I saw him as a stepping stone. He inspired me artistically in ways no one else had. He lectured us, his adoring disciples. He was big on communicating his philosophy of dance. He was already a big deal in the dance world, plus someone had named him The Most Beautiful Man in the World. He was magnetic. I fell for him hard.
“I took his every pronouncement to heart. I can recite many of them still. ‘The dance communicates man’s deepest, highest and most spiritual emotions better than words, spoken or written’ – ‘To be a dancer requires an originality of mind’– He invited us to join him in ‘a life of greater dimension’ – ‘Dancers are insiders to one another, speaking a language all understand.’ I say Amen to all that.
“He was fascinated with the American Indian. I took note of that immediately. His belief in the validity of all dance forms and, by extension, all dancers, led me to hope he might accept me as a serious student of dance. I don’t know if he ever got to that point, but he did, thank God, see me as an asset to his bottom line. He was an eminently practical man.
“Hmmm . . . what else did he have to say? ‘Let us be brave enough to seek out the new, from different mindsets, foreign cultures, and ancient masters.’ Oh, I ate it up. I absolutely ate it up. I’m a foreign culture: the corn-worshipping rodents of the western prairie, one of the native Americans he regarded so highly. I took to greeting him ‘howa,’ a salutation of the Osage people.” Maisie grinned. “Shawn took the American Indian as the model for the future of serious dance. There was my in, right there.
“At Miss Florinda, we’d studied tribal dances. I begged Polly, ‘Here’s my big chance. You’ll be going home to Wichita, no way around it. I’m in New York. I’m gonna stay in New York, one way or another. Help me wow Ted. He’s working up a new act. I’ve crouched in a corner, watching the moves. I practice them at night after you’re asleep. Dress me up Osage. I’ve pinched the fixings from the costume shop, snuck them home.
“Polly was amused. ‘So that was what was in those paper bags you had me stuff into my tote.’ I told her, ‘I want to prance into Ted’s rehearsal in full feather and knock his socks off. I’ve got to convince him he’d be a fool to let me slip through his fingers. I want to be a member of the troupe, not a summer visitor shelling out for the privilege of rubbing shoulders with the great and possibly-someday-great.
“Polly was dubious. ‘You, a Denishawn Dancer? You’re outta your ever-loving mind.’ I, naturally, threw that back at her. ‘I wouldn’t be so sure, Miss-knows-better-than-me-Benedict. I feel, I strongly feel, that I have good reason to hope.’ ”
Maisie did indeed have reason to hope: Shawn aimed to demonstrate that modern dance could be a serious art, while encouraging the interest of mass audiences through spectacle. He paired exotic movement with colorful costumes.
His dances were a bit sensational. Understandable, given his and his wife’s backgrounds. St. Denis began her career performing in vaudeville and dime museums as a skirt dancer named ‘The Only Ruth.’ Shawn started in the business as a ballroom dancer, putting on exhibitions of the latest dance crazes. From time to time he staged comedic numbers. He planned to make good use of the talented Maisie Mulot. By the way, he was the one slapped the moniker on her. He refused to have a Maybelle Snodgrass in his troupe. Shades of Natacha Rambova! Born Winifred Shaughnessy, Rambova was also renamed by a mentor: Theodore Kosloff, in his Imperial Russian Ballet Company.
In 1914 Martha Graham had auditioned to join St. Denis’ dance school in L.A. Ruth rejected Graham as being ‘untalented.’ Shawn, not yet a partner, but obviously a major presence at the school, stepped in, reversed the decision, and admitted the young applicant, in her early teens.
Maisie sensed that Shawn was on her side. She would not fail to fulfill her dream of being one of the celebrated Denishawn Dancers.
You must be wondering: what on earth does all this have to do with Kicking Off?
I had three books planned for my series Maisie in Hollywood. This article kicks off my thinking for a book four, dealing with Maisie’s time as a Denishawn Dancer. I’ve created many a showgirl-style ensemble. Now I’ll tackle the flip side of that coin, the serious artist under the direction of, as he came to be known, ‘The Father of Dance.’
by Curtis Bausse
I sat on the sofa listening to the voices from the kitchen. I couldn’t hear what was being said but Ray was getting a rocket bigger than anything Elon Musk could dream of. Eventually he came back in, slamming the door behind him, and placed a six-pack on the table.
‘Happens every time,’ he said. ‘And the more important it is, the worse she gets.’
‘Shit, Ray, I’m sorry. Maybe I should leave.’
‘Not your fault. It’s the way she is.’ He stared moodily at the screen, then added, ‘I think this time it might be final.’
‘She’s had enough. I’ve used up all my chances.’
A moment later, another door slammed, and Jackie got into the car and drove off like a bat out of hell.
‘Look, I’ll leave,’ I said. ‘You need to go after her. Bring her round. It’s your marriage on the line here.’
For a while he seemed undecided. Then he opened a can, slid it over to me and took one for himself. ‘For Christ’s sake,’ he said, ‘it doesn’t get more important than this. The final. They’re kicking off in ten minutes.’
All You Have To Do
by S.T. Ranscht
It began as a joke, a harmless prank. Isn’t that what big brothers are for?
“It’s true, I promise you,” I told her, “but only special people can do it.” She was six and I was eleven — she had to believe me.
She took one of the rocks from her left hand and threw it at a sapling ten feet away. It bounced off the center of the skinny trunk.
I didn’t let on I was impressed. “Honest,” I said. “Do you want to learn how?”
She pulled back one corner of her mouth and looked at me sideways. “I asked Mommy, and she said no one can fly except in an airplane or a rocket.”
“She said that because she never even flew in her dreams. Sorry, kid, but our mom just isn’t quite special enough to soar like a Condor. Of course, you can spend your life on the ground if you want, and never even try, but then you won’t be any more special than Mom.”
As soon as I said it, I knew it was the wrong thing to say. She launched another rock and it hit exactly where the first one did. Then she turned on me.
“Mommy is too special. She’s the most special mommy in the whole world.”
I knelt in front of her. “You’re right, Sadie. She is. She probably just wants to keep you safe. Flying can be dangerous. It’s tricky to master and easy to get hurt doing it.”
“How? How can you get hurt?”
“You might get caught in an updraft and not be able to escape until it drops you someplace like the North Pole. Or China.”
She looked at me from beneath her scrunched eyebrows. “What’s an updraft?”
“It’s like riptide at the beach,” I said, knowing how much Dad’s warnings about that had scared her, “but it’s in the air and it sucks you up instead of down.”
Shrugging, she threw her last rock at the same spot. Bullseye. “And besides, if I went to China, I could call Mommy and Daddy and they would come and get me. I know their phone numbers, dummy.”
“Well, peabrain, you wouldn’t be able to call if you got caught in the top of a Giant Sequoia or sucked into a jet engine, would you?”
Her shoulders slumped. “No.”
“Okay.” I held her shoulders so we were face to face. “If you want to learn how to fly, I can teach you.”
“There’s lots of ways,” I said, ticking them off on my fingers. “Some people just wiggle their toes and they rise up off the ground,” I could see her toes wiggling inside her sneakers. “Or maybe you’ll need to run downhill, spread your arms, and catch the wind.”
Sadie looked around. “We don’t have many hills around here.”
“My friend Doug says if you stand at the edge of something tall like a cliff or a skyscraper and throw yourself at the ground, all you have to do is miss.” I figured what was the harm? Sadie wouldn’t read Hitchhiker’s Guide for at least five more years.
Wrinkling her nose and shaking her head, Sadie said, “I don’t think that would work for me. I’m really good at throwing. I never miss.”
She got quiet. I could tell she was thinking. I stood up.
She looked up at me and narrowed her eyes. “Show me how you fly.”
I was ready for this. “I can’t show you yet because only flyers are allowed to see other people fly. If they let non-flyers see them, they can never fly again.”
“Then how am I s’posta—“
I held up one finger. “I can tell you, and once you learn how, we can fly anywhere, anytime you want.”
She made an exasperated little noise and said, “Okay. Tell me how you fly.”
“It’s easy. I stand with my knees bent just a little, and my arms ready to reach for the sky. Like this.” I posed like I was gonna take a free throw in basketball. “Then I pick up one foot — not too high — and KICK it down, hard, to the ground. Then I take off.”
Sadie stood like I was standing, except her little butt was sticking out. I had to work really hard not to laugh. “Okay, lift one foot…”
“Which one?” she asked.
“It doesn’t matter. Whichever one you want.”
“Now, KICK it down. Hard!”
She looked at me. “It didn’t work.”
“It’s okay. Nobody gets it the first time. Show me how you stand again.” Real serious like, I walked around her, looking her up and down. “I think I see your problem. Straighten you back a little, your butt is sticking out too far.”
She did just what I told her to do.
“Now lift your foot…”
She used the same foot as before.
“Now KICK down!”
She did, and of course, she was still standing on the ground. She immediately went into her pose again. Gotta give the kid points for determination.
“I’m gonna try the other foot this time.” She picked it up before I could say to.
“Good idea. Now KICK!”
She closed her eyes and KICKED.
“Gosh, Sadie, I’m really sorry. I thought this would work. I thought you were ready. Tough luck, kid.” I started back for the house.
“Wait! I almost had it, I know I did, but I think I wasn’t standing straight enough. Watch me, okay? One more time. Just one more. Pleeeease?”
How could I say no?
She took her stance. “How do I look? Is my butt sticking out?”
“No,” I said, “you look good. Go ahead, lift a foot.” She chose her second choice again. “Now…”
She kicked down. Hard.
And she shot into the air like she had springs on her feet and wings on her arms!
“Sadie!” I shrieked, “You’re flying!” This was impossible, but there she was, wheeling and tumbling like one of those crazy pigeons.
She bounced a little when she came down way over by a bunch of oak trees, but she landed on her feet. Then it looked like she was picking something up.
When she kicked off again, she rose as high as the tops of the trees before she turned and flew straight toward me.
Flying in a circle above me she yelled, “Now show me how you take off.”
I took my stance, lifted a foot, kicked down hard, and took off — running!
Sadie was right behind me, pelting me with acorns, and calling, “You liar. You can’t fly!”
I shouted back over my shoulder, “Nobody can fly, Sadie. Not even you.”
What can I say? I was eleven, she was six. She had to believe me.
She dropped out of the air, right on top of me. Lying on the ground, we were both all right, but she jumped up, angry.
“You tricked me,” she said. “You’re a non-flyer and you made me fly in front of you and now I’ll never be able to fly again.” And she ran off to the house, crying, “Mommyyyyy!”
It began as a joke. A harmless prank. But as far as I know, Sadie never flew again.
Even I was beginning to believe me.
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