First Story Done

First story of 2013 done! Working title: “First Time”

I’m working on a series about the inhabitants of a resort town when a freak windstorm sweeps through on a Friday night. In this first story, two young lovers have planned to lose their virginity to one another in a sleeping bag. The romance is perfect in that high school way: an empty rental cabin, the dark tree-covered driveway, a patch of grass overlooking the valley, a bottle of wine. Then the clouds roll in and the wind picks up and the romance is spoiled.

In an effort to work toward capturing more exposition with fewer words, I’ve added a few details here that I think tell us a little about who these two are:

It was a rare Friday night that Winkie didn’t have to sit through one of Logan’s boring-ass basketball games. She’d told Mama she was going out with the girls but when Hannah parked her VW Bug at the quick mart, Winkie jumped into Tommy’s light blue GTO.

Once they arrive at the overlook:

Standing at the trunk, Winkie felt herself fit against Tommy, heard her heartbeat and felt a throb between her legs. She pulled him tighter but then he laughed off her hungry kiss.

“Relax, Winks,” he said, “We’ve got time.”

And, later:

“Your brother says some good wines have screw tops these days,” Tommy said.

The moment is here:

He rolled on top of her and held her face in his hands, his forearms on either side of her, the length of his body fitting neatly over the length of hers.

“You know I love you,” he said, a huskiness in his voice she hadn’t heard before.

“I know,” Winkie said. The wind took her voice, slipped between his kisses on her lips, her jaw, her neck.

Tommy took a deep breath. It was their first time. When he shoved himself inside of her she gasped.

Something broke. A loud crack, the splintering of something, a giving-in to the wind, then a branch ripped out of the giant tree behind them. It crashed onto the car a few feet away. The noise deafened them both.

Winkie squeezed her eyes shut. She felt him inside of her, felt him go soft. She opened her eyes. His face was lifted, his chin above her mouth. He stared at the GTO. Winkie was pinned. She couldn’t see what he saw, could only see the horror on his face. She twisted underneath him, arched her back, rolled her eyes up to her brow, and looked. She got an upside-down view of the GTO, bent and tortured under the branch.

Crushed.

Later, he stumbles out of the sleeping bag, naked, and approaches the car like a zombie. An unrelated memory comes to Winkie and she starts laughing. Her laughter, understandably, annoys Tommy. The exchange between them becomes distant until finally, he tells her he’s called her brother to come get them.

I’d like to add some details. I debated whether or not to explain why Winkie is called “Winkie” but haven’t figured out whether I want to do that here or not. We don’t know much about Tommy except he loves his car (but why?) and he looks up to Winkie’s brother (again, why?) and I’ve been asking whether the answers to those questions are important or not.

It’s a work in progress, but I’m pleased with it. I’ve put it aside as story #1 and am now moving on to #2.

Leave me your thoughts: Have you taken on the 13 Short Stories in 2013 Challenge? How’s it coming?

Lesson 1: Exposition

In the original challenge post I said I had three things to work in a self-diagnosis of my own short story woes. Those things were:

  1. choose the right moment for the story,
  2. embed enough information without killing the story with exposition, and
  3. come to a satisfying conclusion.

As part of my study, I picked up some work by my old fiction teacher, Brock Clarke. He probably doesn’t remember me and has no idea he has a fan (stalker) in Columbia and on Facebook and Life on Clemson Road and NAIWE and Wordsmith Studio and Columbia Writer’s Alliance. Oh well.

Anyway, his short story collection What We Won’t Do was available in the RCPL so I picked it up.

I the first two stories I learned a couple of good short cuts on the exposition problem.

For example, Clarke uses the main character’s profession as a florist to tell us a number of things about her. First, she is empathetic with other living creatures. To care for plants, one must be, yes? Her identity is “florist” and she describes it this way:

“Among florists there is no honor, no lack of honor either, nor a fondness for community, rivalry, or the what-alls of advertising. There is no consensus in sexual preference. There is no celebration of sexual difference. There is no sex.” (p.6)

This passage juxtaposes our florist with the people she’s spending time with, the cripples at the Veterans’ hospital who grouse and complain and compete over everything. She pretends to not understand their tendency towards these behaviors.

Clarke never tells us how she became a florist, he doesn’t even tell us her name. She says, “I am a florist accused of moral contamination,” and we learn she is at the VA to serve community service after a drunk driving wreck.

She tells her husband, “The judge said I needed to learn something about hurt. He also said I was developing into a bad woman.” To which her husband, who woke up the day after his thirtieth birthday and became self-righteously sober, responds, “well…that’s true.” (p.6)

We learn that after his redemption, he started killing her plants.

It’s a four page story. It’s intricate and complex. It’s the single few slivers of the woman, her husband, the plants, and the VA. It’s enough to describe a crucial intersection in life: where we decide to stay or decide to change. She says,

“I keep buying houseplants and leaving them unattended. Bobby Candace keeps killing them. I keep buying more plants. He used to not kill them. I keep hoping he’ll remember why.” (p.7)

It’s not an epic, life changing, all engrossing, love story. It’s a sad beginning-of-the-end incident told in four pages. It’s succinct and rich and beautiful. (I’m going to write about juxtaposition using this story later. Stay tuned.)

I need to learn to get the necessary history in without killing the reader with exposition. I need a few clever lines. In Run or Bleed, I have a woman who wants to be pregnant but isn’t. Her husband seems indifferent to the condition. I had written:

Michael’s responsiveness had been limited to Amy’s stress and disappointment. For a long time the two of them had divided tasks among them. He took out the trash and mowed the lawn. She emptied the dishwasher and did the grocery shopping. Expanding their family had become hers to manage. He participated willingly but frequently responded to discussions about it with mild disinterest.

Once when they’d lost their cat Amy had papered the neighborhood with fliers and worried desperately about how to retrieve the animal. Michael had said, “good riddance.”

Admittedly, Anna Belle’s future did not seem bleak without a sibling. Two of them working and providing a life for Anna Belle meant lavish vacations and horseback riding lessons and rooms filled with toys.

“Hell,” Michael would say when his mother or sisters asked him about Anna Belle being an only child, “she’ll have way more if she doesn’t have to share.”

Amy would smile and agree. Amy imagined Anna Belle old enough to run with her, half marathon training, cross country meets and finish line photos. They would be each other’s playmate.

“Don’t all kids with siblings wish they were onlies?” Michael would say.

“And don’t all only children wish they had siblings?” Amy would say. Then they wouldn’t say anything else and she would go on managing the family expansion chore and he would file the conversation away with the lost cat.

Following Brock Clarke’s lead, minimal discussion, just the telling pieces, I edited it to this:

Working on pregnancy was Amy’s chore. Michael took out the trash and mowed the lawn. She emptied the dishwasher and did the grocery shopping. Once when they’d lost their cat Amy had papered the neighborhood with fliers. Michael had said, “good riddance.”

When his mother or sisters asked him about Anna Belle being an only child, Michael would say, “she’ll have way more if she doesn’t have to share. Don’t all kids with siblings wish they were onlies?”

Then he would file the conversation away with the lost cat.

The only problem I see is Michael seems like kind of a dick. But I think, to tell the story, I may have to let him be that way. If she loves him, he must have something redeeming. As with Clarke’s nurse and her newly-sober husband, his redemption is the thing that changed him. For my Amy, though, she can’t get Michael to care about pregnancy any more than he cared about the cat. That may be a pretty important detail.

I’m working on paring down exposition for the next little bit as I try to edit my two finished (submitted) stories into print.

What are you working on in this month’s effort for the 2013 Short Story Challenge?

Working Title: Run or Bleed

Revised and added to ….

___________________________________________________________________

When her period started that morning Amy finally let the tears fall. She sat on the commode staring at the sticky crimson blotch on the pink cotton stretched between her knees. Her vision blurred and then the tears dripped, slowly, one after the next, over her lashes and down her cheeks. She didn’t bother to wipe them away. She just cussed at the evidence of her body’s betrayal, spitting the word out as her nostrils filled and she choked. A tide of tears spilled out. Elbows on her knees, face in her hands, she let the tears pour and the strangled gasps shake her frame.

Amy could count the number of times she had cried in the last three years. The anniversary of her grandmother’s death fell on Mother’s Day last year and she’d taken flowers to Nana’s grave. Another time she clicked on a must-see link in an email and watched a soldier return from war to surprise her daughter at school in a YouTube clip.

She had once spanked Anna Belle for running away from her in a parking lot then stood beside the car crying afterward. Some unexpected strength took up residence inside her the day Anna Belle was born. Amy became Mommy and crying only distracted from her primary job of caring for, comforting, and encouraging Anna Belle. Amy had quickly swallowed the parking lot tears and hadn’t spanked AB since.

Now here she was. The fourth time she had cried in three years. Sobbing over a smear in her panties. The toilet shifted a little, tilting slightly under her weight. Damn thing had been wobbly since they bought the house five years ago. She cussed again and sobbed harder, her throat thickening with grief. Now she had to keep running. Now she had to keep dieting. Now she had to keep trying to lose weight. She took a deep breath, trying to force the sobs to cease. Amy thought, “I’d just like to have one goddamned donut,” and let a small laugh escape.

Tuesdays are not the days for such complaints. Too many things queued up between her and where she needed to be to really feel sorry for herself. A run, then the morning rush to get Anna Belle ready for daycare and herself ready for work. Then a long commute to the other side of town, a hug goodbye, if she was lucky, then Anna Belle would run off to play and she would trudge back to the car and ride the quarter mile to her office. A cube, some coworkers chatting about reality TV, fluorescent lights that would wash out her complexion, pithy phrases on motivational posters hanging framed on the walls. Amy wanted to cry a little while longer just thinking about another joyless day.

Yesterday her running partner, Jamie, had announced she and Rick were expecting their second. “I’m sorry, Amy,” she’d said, rising up out of a hamstring stretch.

“What for?” Amy had forced a laugh, “babies are good things.”

“I have to quit running,” Jamie said.

“Oh.”

“I know we’d planned to run Paris Mountain,” Jamie said.

“It’s okay,” Amy said quickly, “I can still do the half. I’m happy for you, really.”

Today the conversation came back to her in the stillness of the predawn darkness and Amy snorted. Why had Jamie apologized for being pregnant? Oh, right, Amy thought, because I’m not. That had the desired effect: a new stream of tears coursed down her cheeks.

Amy cried until she felt silly and then she stretched some toilet paper across her lap, tore it from the roll, folded it and blew her nose.  Every month was like this one: the defeat repeatedly evidenced in her panties. Bad timing. Missed connections. Interrupted intentions. Failure.

Wadding up the tissue, she dropped it into the trashcan at her side. Then she cleaned herself up, stood, and left the bathroom. The mantra was already playing: It wasn’t that they couldn’t get pregnant. She knew that. Anna Belle was proof they could. It wasn’t that they wouldn’t get pregnant. They just hadn’t.

She dressed. Snug purple sports bra, slim black spandex pants, Lycra-cotton blend socks, running shoes, a sweat-wicking top she’d purchased with a race entry, her baseball cap.

Michael slept heavily, snuggled deep in the blankets of their bed. The shape of his body beneath the blankets had grown bigger in the last year. She hadn’t minded his extra weight. Hadn’t said anything to him about his portion sizes. Hadn’t asked him to stop drinking or try exercising once or twice a week.

She pulled her reflective vest off the doorknob and slipped out of the bedroom. Amy closed the door behind her and gently released the doorknob into the latch.

In the kitchen, she removed and trashed the old coffee filter, replaced it, poured a pot of water into the tank, and set the timer to begin brewing about the same time Michael would get out of the shower. Darkness held on a little longer in the mornings this time of year and when she extinguished the kitchen light the entire house was black.

Her running shoes emitted prickled squeaks, leather shifting against itself and straining against the laces. Amy tip-toed down the hall, flipped the bright light on, and crept into Anna Belle’s room.

The little girl’s face turned from the light and relaxed in a deep state of unconsciousness. Her cheeks shone, oily from sleep and sweat. Some of her soft hair glued to her forehead where she’d pushed it from her eyes. Long, soft curls streamed out around her head. Tiny lips hung open, puffy and dry.

Amy leaned over the toddler bed to get a better look, replaced a stuffed bear Anna Belle had tossed aside, gently tucked the soft blankets a little closer to Anna Belle’s chin. Amy let her breath out slowly, pursing her lips to blow gently at Anna Belle. The girl’s face twitched in response, she turned her head away, squeezed her eyes tighter and licked her lips. Then she snuggled deeper into her pillow, and Amy smiled and snuck out of the room. She flipped the hallway light off as she left.

When Anna Belle was born, Amy had entertained fantasies of staying home. They could go to the zoo and have mommy and me playdates with homeschool moms. They could snuggle and read books and listen to classical music. They could take walks in the neighborhood and swim in the community pool while everyone else attended school and work.

It just couldn’t happen, Michael told her. They had agreed to certain financial goals and they were on pace to meet them. Their family required her income. Think of the things Anna Belle would have, her friends told her, because you work.

Amy remembered the phrases she’d used, “someone else raising my kid,” and “missing out on so much of her life,” as she begged Michael to help her find a way to make it work. He’d refused. There was no way, he said.

How had her position so dramatically changed?

Their home matched the others on the street, a carefully planned subdivision of single story patio homes mostly suited for the very old or the very young. She would normally wait for Jamie, or find Jamie standing at the end of her driveway. But not today.

Amy pressed play on her iPod and go on her GPS watch. She set out at a light jog toward the top of the neighborhood where she would follow a long route toward town. Before the McDonald’s she would double back, winding her way past the car dealerships and grocery store, before re-entering her small subdivision, running past her home, deep into the neighborhood, and finally back into her own driveway. Seven miles total. A good hour-and-a-quarter run before the sun really stretched its light over the sky. Week two of official half marathon training. Solo.

Amy had worked hard for her PR in the ½ marathon at Phoenix. She had painstakingly mapped out routes, added mileage, soaked herself in ice baths and rubbed her thighs with E-Z glide. She had counted the days, hours, minutes to race day. She had run tempo runs, hill sprints, and easy jogs to condition herself. She had devoured every issue of Runner’s World magazine. Two summers earlier she’d barely opened What to Expect When You’re Expecting.

The pace felt good and within a few minutes Amy was thinking about earlier with embarrassment. How silly she was to cry over her period. It had been coming for twenty five years without fail. Except for that brief eight months when she’d been pregnant with Anna Belle, she had never missed a month. She should be used to it. And anyway, pregnancy right now would mean a summer of being fat and uncomfortable. Better to wait for the fall.

The sadness ebbed while she ran, talking herself through the moment with each step. Yesterday, day 29, she’d felt her breasts were full and sore. She’d had trouble concentrating and took too long on silly tasks like plucking her eyebrows and re-ordering her key ring so all the barcode tags faced the same direction. She knew when she got intent on something like that and lost track of time she was PMSing. The symptoms were there.

Not like last month. Last month she had been a week late. Dizzy, nauseous, swollen breasts tender to the touch, sensitive to the smell of the morning coffee. She’d gagged when she set the pot one morning. Last month she was convinced. And then. Then the crimson in her panties.

They’d had trouble getting pregnant with Anna Belle, too. So she had not been worried after two years. But this was stretching into three years and Amy was older now and she was starting to think something might be wrong.

Michael’s concern had been limited to Amy’s stress and disappointment. For a long time the two of them had divided tasks among them. He took out the trash and mowed the lawn. She emptied the dishwasher and did the grocery shopping. Expanding their family had become hers to manage. He participated willingly but frequently responded to discussions about it with mild disinterest.

Once when they’d lost their cat Amy had papered the neighborhood with fliers and worried desperately about how to retrieve the animal. Michael had said, “good riddance.”

Anna Belle couldn’t participate in the worry, either. She had friends with sisters and dolls with sisters but it never occurred to her to ask if she might ever have a sister, too. Amy sometimes thought Anna Belle better suited to only-child status. And despite the heartbreak of having to lose her parents eventually, which Amy assumed could be softened by her life mate whomever that turned out to be, Anna Belle’s future did not seem bleak without a sibling.

“Hell,” Michael would say when his mother or sisters asked him about Anna Belle being an only child, “she’ll have way more if she doesn’t have to share.”

Amy would smile and agree. Two of them working and providing a life for Anna Belle meant lavish vacations and horseback riding lessons and rooms filled with toys. Amy imagined Anna Belle old enough to run with her, half marathon training, cross country meets and finish line photos. They would be each other’s playmate.

“Don’t all kids with siblings wish they were onlies?” Michael would say.

“And don’t all only children wish they had siblings?” Amy would say. Then they wouldn’t say anything else and she would go on managing the family expansion chore and he would file the conversation away with the lost cat.

_______________________________________________________________

So what do you think? Do you care about Amy? Is it boring?