17 May 2010

A Very Long, Involved Post In Which I Politely Ask For Your Opinion

In order to do the core endorsement that will, in theory, make me one iota more employable in this wretched economy, I am required to take five English classes. I'm in my last one right now, Creative Writing, which is fun and I wish I had less other stuff to do so I could concentrate for on it. But, the end project is a portfolio in which we have to have one short story and five poems. Since I don't really have time for a lengthy revision process AND I am so stressed my decision-making skills have disappeared (seriously, it took 20 minutes this morning to decide if I needed to wash my hair. Not good.) I am asking you, dear readers, to give me your opinion on the three different stories I wrote during our short story workshop. These are all first drafts and I have some fairly extensive notes from my workshop group, so I'm mostly looking for what you think would be the best story to spend time improving. If you want to leave comments, fantastic. If you just want to vote in the poll, great. The stories are after the jump.


The Upside of the Late Shift

Truth, Officer Morris thought, is what people make of it. Perception is most people’s reality. He was about to express this idea to his partner, Officer Hardin, but thought better of it. Like so many of his ideas, Officer Morris was unsure if it was original. So instead, he broke the silence with:

“Quiet night.”

“Ungh,” grunted Hardin in reply.

Officer Morris shifted in his seat uncomfortably. They had been on patrol for nearly seven hours and Officer Hardin was not making this easy. Not that Officer Morris expected him to make it easy. Officer Hardin had earned a reputation for living up to his name. Officially, Officer Morris’s partner Officer Clark was taking a personal day. However, everyone knew that when you pulled Officer Hardin as a substitute partner, you were getting evaluated. It was one of the Chief’s ways of unofficially keeping tabs on all the officers. Especially those officers who acted outside what the Chief considered to be normal parameters. Officer Morris was unsure exactly what he had done to warrant the attention. He rarely attracted attention to himself, for good or ill, and liked it that way. His only peculiarity on the force was his contentment working the night shift. Unlike most of the other officers, Morris was happy patrolling the streets from 1800 hours to 0600 hours. Sure most of the crazier stuff went down during those hours, but it was also paradoxically quieter. There was something about driving around the dark and mostly empty streets of Downtown Spokane that appealed to Morris’s philosophical leanings. Of course he had other reasons for volunteering for the night shift.

“Do you always drive the streets in this order?” barked Officer Hardin, interrupting Officer Morris’s reverie.

“No. Every day I pick a different starting point on the grid and work my way around the neighborhoods. The map in the glove compartment has post-it notes marking the starting points for the last 5 days.” Officer Morris responded curtly. He barely caught himself before adding ‘Sir’ to his reply. He tried, with some difficulty, to keep his military years in the past.

“Mmmph,” responded Officer Hardin as he began perusing the map. Officer Morris thought he caught a quick, slight nod out of the corner of his eye as Officer Hardin returned the map to the glove compartment. Morris almost strained his neck trying to keep from doing a double take. Approbation was the last thing he expected. The radio crackled.

“Car 687, what’s your 20?” inquired the disembodied voice of the dispatcher.

“Our 20 is 2nd and Jefferson,” Officer Morris responded.

“Response requested at 650 Cedar Street for a domestic disturbance. Neighbor called it in complaining about the noise – screams to be exact. No priors,” returned the dispatcher.

“In route,” answered Officer Morris as he accelerated south along Jefferson.

Officer Hardin heaved a sigh. “So much for a quiet night,” he muttered in a way that seemed to imply he held Officer Morris responsible. Not that Morris blamed him. Domestic disturbance calls were the worst – you never knew what you were going to get, especially when a neighbor called it in. The lights stayed green along Jefferson and 5th and Officer Morris eased the car up to the curb faster than he had anticipated. The house was quiet and dark except for one open basement window. Officer Morris and Officer Hardin got out of the car and advanced toward the door. As they reached the stoop they could hear a man’s voice, increasing in volume but still indistinguishable, coming from the basement. Officer Morris rang the doorbell at the precise moment a shriek pierced the sleepy silence of the neighborhood.

“Spokane Police Department! Please open the door!” barked Officer Morris. There was the sound of running and Officer Hardin automatically moved to intercept someone coming from the back. The door flew open, revealing a young man in pajama pants and bare feet, followed closely behind by a young woman in an old, too-small Ramones t-shirt and boxer shorts. They were both wide-eyed and clutching matching sheaves of paper.

“Can we help you, Officers?” asked the young man timidly.

“We received a noise complaint about a domestic disturbance. Is everything alright here?” Officer Morris asked, aiming for the most non-accusatory tone he could muster. The pair at the door looked at each other with even wider eyes.

“Everything’s fine.” they answered in unison.

“Can we come in?” demanded Officer Hardin. The pair backed away from the door to allow the officers inside. The young woman turned on a lamp. The living room was orderly, filled with cheap furniture – cast offs and Craigslist finds – but showed a unifying taste and a lived-in sense of order.

“Are you the only people here?” Officer Hardin’s questions were hardly questions. The cowed duo sunk onto a battered, oversized recliner and nodded.

“What are your names?” Officer Morris tried a gentler approach, hoping to elicit some sort of response.

“Ryan”

“Mia”

The answers came quickly, again in unison, and it took Officer Morris’s brain a second to sort the sounds into coherent words.

“All right, Ryan, why don’t you show Officer Hardin the kitchen while I talk to Mia for a moment, okay?” said Officer Morris. Ryan mutely led Officer Hardin back while Mia scooted back further into the recliner and pulled her knees up to her chin.

“Mia, are you okay? That was a pretty intense scream I heard,” began Officer Morris. Inexplicably Mia smiled.

“Really? You, like, thought it was real?” she asked. “I’ve been practicing for, like, forever.”

“Practicing?”

“Yeah – we open in, like, a week.”

“Open?”

“Yeah, Ryan’s play – its his senior thesis.” She thrust the pages she had been clutching at Officer Morris. He flipped to the front page and read “Peril” by Ryan Patrick Barry. He flipped back where the script had been open –the second act ended with the direction ‘Sybil shrieks as the lights go down.’

“So, you’re Sybil?” Officer Morris asked Mia as he returned her script.

“Yeah – Ryan wrote the part for me. I’m, like, his Muse.”

“Totally!” echoed Ryan, as he and Office Hardin re-entered the room. Officer Morris couldn’t tell if Officer Hardin was grimacing or stifling a laugh.

“Well, you might want to choose a different place to rehearse so you don’t disturb your neighbors,” suggested Officer Morris.

“But we found ways to soundproof the basement on the Internet!” protested Ryan.

“You left the basement window open,” snapped Officer Hardin.

“OMG” breathed Mia.

“Maybe give it a rest for tonight, its after 3 in the morning,” Officer Morris recommended.

“Yeah, totally! Man, we’re sorry. We got caught up in it, you know?” Ryan offered apologetically.

Officer Morris and Officer Hardin moved toward the door.

“Do you guys, like, work, like, all night long?” asked Mia.

It was the officers’ turn to nod in unison.

“You must be starving! Here,” she shoved a candy dish at them. It had full sized Caramellos in it.

“No, I’m fine. Thanks,” said Officer Morris. Officer Hardin just shook his head.

“I know they’re candy bars, but they, like, have 100 less calories than Pop Tarts. Which totally makes you think, what other stuff is worse than candy bars, right?” She kept proffering the candy bars as the officers backed toward the door.

Officer Hardin turned on his heels on the stoop and stalked down the walk to the car while Office Morris mumbled another ‘No, thanks,’ and followed him. Officer Hardin slammed the door and muttered, “Dumb kids.” Officer Morris sank into his seat and started the car. He exhaled slowly and loudly, just as Officer Hardin sighed. Morris could feel the remnants of adrenaline and tension run through him. Officer Hardin kept tensing and releasing his hands, forming fists in quick succession. The radio crackled again.

“Car 687, what’s your 20?”

“Our 20 is 600 and Cedar Street – the domestic disturbance was a false alarm.”

“Got another noise complaint – couple of people heard a single loud shout on Walnut, south of 5th.”

“On our way,” Officer Morris turned left onto 7th and travelled the block to Walnut. Turning right onto Walnut, Officer Morris saw house lights on a couple of blocks ahead. He was so focused on scanning the lights in the distance; he nearly missed the long-haired man walking towards them down the street. The man waved, a popsicle stick in one hand. Officer Morris raised his hand in reply as he drove past before realizing that was probably the shouter. He glanced at Officer Hardin, whose hand was just descending from his own reflexive wave. Officer Hardin caught Morris’s eye and shrugged, with a “Huh” that sounded almost humorous. The popsicle man continued his leisurely pace, shrinking in the rearview mirror. Officer Morris just kept driving north.

A few hours later, Officer Morris and Officer Hardin made their way back to the precinct. There was little paper work, another benefit of the quiet night, and Officer Morris was leaving the precinct by 5:30. He passed Officer Hardin on his way out, said good-bye and was startled to receive a hardy pat on the shoulder and a “Nice job, kid,” in return. Pondering this turn of events, he drove automatically, following his post-shift ritual. He entered the diner with the rising sun.

“Hey, Cal. The usual?” asked the woman behind the counter, her smile as bright and welcome as the morning light.

“Yeah. Thanks, Luce.” Morris lowered himself onto his usual bar stool.

“Long night?” came Lucy’s voice from the back.

“No, actually pretty quiet.” Morris answered, his reply audibly descending as Lucy returned. “But have I got a story for you.”

“You know how I like your stories,” said Lucy, pouring two cups of coffee and settling onto the stool she kept behind the bar for these sorts of slow times.


The Letter

12 September 1926

My Dearest Betsy,

I know it has only been a week since you and your family got on the train back to Boston, but Ottawa is quiet and lonely without you all. I enjoyed our summer together and wish I were not separated from my darling grandchildren by quite so many miles. Christmas will come soon though and we shall be reunited. What an adventure it will be for you and your brothers to show me all the wonders of Boston.

As I am now residing in a quiet and empty house, I have many hours to think and to remember. Our times together over the summer brought back many memories of my own childhood. I was not so very lucky as you, Dear One, for you have a Mama and a Papa who love you so, and brothers to look after you. I was alone in the world and did not have the happiness or the comfort you enjoy. I often wished it were otherwise when I was young, about your age and feeling very abandoned by mankind, but now I think it has given me the ability to appreciate all the gifts of my adult life and my beautiful family.
Betsy, you are young and have been blessed with everything one could wish for as a young girl. I am glad you have not had to suffer with loneliness or heartache or want, but I am worried that you have not yet learned to appreciate all the many favors God has bestowed on you. You are a good girl, but at times this summer seemed so intent on what you wanted, regardless of the possible cost, that I feel I must say something. So, if you will be patient and indulge your old grandmother, I will tell you a story of my girlhood.

I was very young when I was sent to the Sisters of Mercy Home for Orphans, my parents and older siblings having succumbed to the cholera that was spreading through the area. I have no memory of my home before the orphanage – it was all I knew. I was generally happy, not knowing anything to compare the orphanage to, but there were times when something whispered around the edges of my memory and I would ache for what I could not remember.

I was a very quiet child, which pleased the sisters or, at the very least, did not aggravate them. I became rather studious, finding companionships in books that I failed to find in my life at the orphanage. I did well in my lessons and by the age of nine had decided to become a schoolteacher – I knew even then that the life of religious service was not for me. My life continued on much has it always done until the fall I turned eleven. We were joined by a new orphan, a girl who altered the entire routine of the orphanage.
Louisa arrived at the door of the Sisters of Mercy in September. She was twelve, nearly a year older than me. She lorded her happy and prosperous childhood over the rest of us. She came with a trunk of clothes and toys that the Sisters had deigned to let her keep. She, and her gold curls, charmed them. For them she was a tragic figure, not the product or bearer of parental sins. Sister Mary Seraphina, who believed all of us children were the spawn of Hell, chose not to correct her when her sums were wrong or she forgot her catechism. Sister Clotilde, the postulant, doted on her and even Sister Mary Heloise, who guarded the library like a lioness, only mildly censured her when she left a book out in the rain.

I did my best to avoid Louisa. She thought, because she was the oldest, that she was the natural leader of our small band of girls. I had become accustomed to being looked to as the leader, having been at the orphanage far longer than any other girl there. Usually children as young as I was when I arrived at the orphanage were adopted by kindly couples. They would come to the Sisters and meet with us, as we stood in a line in our best frocks. I was never chosen, perhaps because the fear of cholera was still so strong, perhaps I, with my quiet, serious way, did not appeal to them. For whatever reason, I was the longest-lasting resident of the orphanage, but one. There was a boy, John, who stayed and helped the sisters in keeping up the buildings and the grounds and in taking the extra vegetables we grew in the summers to the market. Most of the young men, when they reached ten or eleven, were taken in by farmers as extra hands.

But back to my story, dear child. It starts a few months after Louisa arrived, in the depths of December. We had had our first great winter storm and the ground was covered with fresh snow. The pond had a frozen over, stilled by the freezing temperatures. That day in December I was standing, staring out of a window on the second floor across the grounds and the neighboring fields at the glistening landscape. I wish I could paint you a picture, how the view was at once so familiar and so foreign. I was engrossed in my own thoughts and didn’t hear anyone approach and was startled when I was interrupted.

“I want to go ice skating.” I turned to see Louisa looking over my shoulder at the pond below. I stood still, staring out the window, hoping she would move on in search of more satisfying attention-givers. She didn’t leave.

“No one here has ice skates,” I replied.

“I do,” she stated, as if I should have known. The depths of her one trunk hid many treasures.

“The pond only froze last night; the ice isn’t thick enough for skating yet. The sisters won’t let us out on the pond until the middle of January.” This was true – it was often a mid-January treat for us to be able to play on the frozen pond, doing our best in our thick-soled boots to approximate the grace of skating on blades of steel.

“Don’t be silly! I will talk to the sisters, it will be my present to all the girls.” With that declaration, Louisa turned with a flounce of her curls and walked off in search of one of the sisters, full of confidence that she would soon be on the ice. The sisters, however, knew the ways of water and ice better than even I did and absolutely refused to consider Louisa’s request. She petitioned, pleaded, petted, and pouted but to no avail. There would be no talk of going on the ice until January.

I had thought that would be the end of it, but I discovered, walking into the girls dormitory to get a book I had promised Sister Mary Heloise I would return, Louisa was holding court in the farthest
corner of the room. They did not notice me at first, so I was able to move close enough to hear.

“After dinner,” directed Louisa, “when the sisters are discussing the day, we can sneak down, one or two at a time. Everyone will get a turn – we can stuff the skates with socks and rags. It will be ever so much fun.”

“You aren’t planning on skating?” I demanded. I was shocked that she would disobey the sisters in such a dangerous enterprise. I had often disobeyed the sisters in small matters, but this was different.

“Oh, Agnes!” she laughed, “You sound like an old nun already.”

“But it isn’t safe!” I looked at the small group girls she had gathered. There were the twins, Hope and Mercy, Frances, Constance, Edith, and little Ruth. Ruth was seven and small for her age. She was John’s little sister and part of the reason John had been allowed to stay and help the sisters, rather than be sent out as a farm hand. I looked after Ruth and kept her safe from some of the crueler girls. She looked at me with wide eyes and then back at Louisa.

“What a spoil sport!” cried Louisa. “We are all so small and light, what danger is there?”

“You can NOT go skating! The ice is too thin and if you fall in you could freeze to death.” I did not look at Louisa, but made sure all the other girls met my eyes. I looked at Ruth last. “Please don’t go skating. Please.” The other girls nodded and walked away. I looked at Louisa, who simply smiled and walked away, curls bouncing with each step. I knew she wouldn’t give up, but I thought that I had at least convinced the other girls.

After dinner I made my way up to my second-floor window. To my shock and horror I saw in the twilight a small group of figures huddled on the edge of the pond. I turned from the window and ran down the stairs and out the door, shouting ‘NO!’ at the top of my lungs. I left my coat behind and ran as fast as I could but by the time I reached the group they were scattered and yelling – the ice had started to crack under the small girl in the skates. She was in the middle of the pond, where ice is the weakest. I got down on my hands and knees, creeping along the ice, trying to spread my weight out over the ice, hoping to make it to her before it was too late. I could hear the sisters behind me yelling, but I don’t remember what they were saying. I only remember the sound of the creaking ice and the whimpers of the little girl.

I had to move slowly and deliberately and was able to make out the identity of the girl on the ice. My heart nearly stopped when I realized it was Ruth. I tried to move as fast as I could, but the ice underneath her gave way before I could reach her. I grabbed into the water frantically, putting my whole head and shoulders into the freezing water. It took my breath away, but I would not give up. After so many agonizing minutes, I found her hand and pulled her to the edge. I could barely move, but I managed to drag both of us close to the edge. At some point I stopped being able to move – it was so very, very cold! The ice continued to crack, loudly, around me. My eyelashes were frozen together and I couldn’t see. I didn’t know how far I was from the edge or how I could save either of us.

The cracking of the ice got louder and I thought we were both lost, when someone picked both of us up. I didn’t know who could have been strong enough to carry us both. I don’t remember anything after that, only waking up in the infirmary, cold and weak. I stayed there for weeks, first with hypothermia and then with influenza. It wasn’t like the influenza that caused so much panic when you were little, but I was sick for days. Ruth was in the infirmary too. She was so much weaker than I was. John was our constant companion. He was the one who had rescued us, crashing through the ice, wading up to his waist to drag us out. He was lucky enough not to catch the influenza.

I was on the way to recovering by the middle of February, but Ruth was not so lucky. She only got worse. After the sisters allowed me out of the infirmary, I visited her everyday and willed her to get better, but by the end of March I realized she was fading. I think John knew too. The sisters knew and let John out of work and me out of my studies to spend our days with Ruth. She passed away in April, a week after her eighth birthday.

I never saw Louisa after that day in December. She never visited us, even after the sisters lifted the quarantine. I heard that she was taken away; an uncle who had been living in India came for her. I often wonder how she felt about that day in December.

I don’t write this, Betsy, to make you sad. I write because I want you to know that sometimes getting what we want is not worth the costs. We can’t always know the consequences of our actions or imagine how our decisions will affect others. Sometimes not getting or doing what we want is better than getting our way. Often, it is the best thing for us.

Lastly, my dear, I want you to know that out of hard things can come good. Your mother was named after little Ruth, your grandfather John’s sister. Our family and all its current happiness grew out of the sorrow of losing Ruth.

Be happy and give your family my love. I wish the months would fly so that I can see you all again, but I will be patient and happy looking forward to our Christmas holidays. Study well and do your best in all you attempt.

With all my love,
Grandmother Agnes

Somewhere In Middle America

Matilda released a heavy sigh as she sunk back into the padded seat. Despite not being able to afford a sleeping berth, she remembered little of what had passed since the train pulled out of Indianapolis. The exhaustion that had accumulated over the past six months, when coupled with the rhythm of the wheels and the gentle hum of the diesel engine, was far more powerful than the small inconvenience of sitting in the passenger car. Again Matilda exhaled deeply and looked out the window at the passing landscape.

The flat, dusty scene informed her the train was traveling somewhere between Lincoln, Nebraska and Denver, Colorado, It had been nearly twenty hours since she hugged her father for the last time and boarded the train. Her valiant effort to conquer the lump in her throat and the welling tears had nearly been successful, only getting the better of her on the stairs into the car. She had managed to hide them by the time she found her seat and waved to him from the train. He looked so small and lonely on the platform, not like the father she remembered. Just thinking of him, standing so forlornly, made the tears well again. Thankfully, there was no one in the seat next to her so no one noticed the few she allowed to escape. She brushed them away, arguing to herself that Amelia and George would take care of him, make sure he ate and slept, and ensure he didn’t spend too much time alone.

Matilda fidgeted with her wedding ring and thought of John. He should have come for the funeral. Money was tight; it had been tight since they married. Their marriage had coincided with the Crash, but they had always managed, somehow. They had managed to scrape enough together to return to Indiana last Christmas to visit their families. He had agreed that Matilda had needed to stay with her family these past months, in fact he had insisted when they were confronted with the reality of her mother’s illness. Matilda continued to worry her ring, using her thumb to spin it in repetitive circles as she stared at the passing countryside, the flat former fields of Nebraska slowly giving way to the foothills of Colorado. She didn’t see any of it.

Matilda’s mind moved over the events of the last six months, starting with the startling sight of her emaciated and haggard mother. She had confronted her father about it in the library.

“She didn’t want to worry you,” her father said, fatigue filling his voice. “She wants this Christmas to be special. It’s been years since we were all together.”

“I know, I’m sorry about that. But, Dad, what is going on? I have a right to know!”

“This summer she started feeling tired, but just thought it was her age. She lost her appetite and then the pain started in the fall. She saw a specialist in Indianapolis in October and he diagnosed it as cancer.” Her father had closed his eyes during this recitation and was now rubbing the bridge of his nose while he spoke, as if he could somehow rub out the events themselves.

“Did he recommend anything? Has anything been done?” Matilda’s mind raced, consumed with accommodating this new information.

“There’s nothing to be done. A surgery in November only delayed things. Right now all your mother wants is to enjoy the time she has left.”

Matilda sat silently, staring at the floor, adjusting under the weight of this new burden. She looked at her father; he looked tired and strained.

“How long?” she asked.
“Six months. Nine if we are lucky.”

All she could do was nod. There was a knock on the library door.

“Dinner,” announced John, as his head appeared around the door.

Matilda had tried to be bright and cheerful during dinner, but John had noticed something was wrong. As she told John about her conversation with her father, John wrapped her in his comforting hug and said, simply,

“You have to stay.”

So she had.

John, of course, had to return to California. He had a steady job, a rarity in 1938, and they had rent to pay. Matilda was so wrapped up in caring for her mother and father; she barely noticed the widening gap between John’s letters or the tinges of anger or bitterness that showed in them when they finally arrived. In March she got a letter saying he had been laid off. Not an unusual occurrence in their nearly nine years of marriage, but John reacted differently. He kept reference someone named Henderson, a radical it seemed, A month ago, in May, Matilda received a letter announcing John’s intention to leave ‘the sunburnt wasteland of California’ to join the workers of Seattle. Henderson had already left for Seattle.

So, the new address in Seattle was where Matilda sent the telegram two weeks ago informing John of her mother’s death. Seattle was where the long distance call came from when John explained that because of the move he had no money to come for the funeral. And Seattle was what awaited Matilda at the end of her three-day odyssey. Beyond that, nothing was certain.

9 comments:

Christy Lou said...

Since you asked SO politely, I will give you my opinion. I like the first one best :) Perhaps because it is the lightest of the three, along with today being Monday, and the part where I am tired. I actually like them all, and would be interested to see where they all could go, but I think the first story is one that you could have some fun with as a short story. The third felt more like the introduction to a longer story, but that was my second favorite. Good luck! And yay for almost being done with the last of your English classes :)

The Ringmaster said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Ringmaster said...

Okay, so I just realized that I had a typo in my last comment, so I deleted it. Let's try again . . . .
You are an incredibly gifted writer! I loved all three stories, but think the first one would be the best short story. As for the other two, I believe that you should turn them into novels as soon as you possibly can!

Science Teacher Mommy said...

Maybe I'm dense? Where do I access the stories?

And how long did it take you to wash your hair, once you decided?

panini said...

Nice work!! It's so hard not to give workshopping ideas, but I shall comply! ;)

My favorites are definitely the last two, where there's more tension/more at stake and an accompanying sense of realism. Of the two, I lean toward the 3rd story, for reasons of dialog and characterization.

Thanks for sharing these! It's really fun to read your work!!

Scully said...

STM, there should be a link that says 'Read More' that will take you to the rest of the post with the stories. I just thought all three stories might be a bit long to pop up on the front page. And washing my hair takes 2 minutes, it was just the deciding whether it needed it or not that was the problem.

hawgryder1 said...

For a short story, the first one definitely. For a novel, the third. A movie script, the second.

Jenny said...

I always knew you were a great writer but I don't think I've ever read a fictional story you've written. Those were great! My favorite was the second followed very closely by the first. I do think that the first might make a better short story though. Good luck!

lathorpe62 said...

I like the second one. You are a fantastic author. I concur with everyone that you should continue these.